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In the church, how does someone lead without exercising authority?

Posted by on Aug 31, 2011 in discipleship, elders, office | 24 comments

In the church, how does someone lead without exercising authority?

This is the third post in my series on “Authority among the church.” In the “Introduction” post, I simply laid out the series of questions and issues that I plan to cover in this series. In the second post, I pointed out that Jesus responded negatively when asked about “positions of authority under his own authority.”

But, in the world today, it is assumed that leaders will be placed in positions of authority. We read about leaders among the church in Scripture (Luke 22:26, 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 1 Timothy 5:17, Hebrews 13:7, Hebrews 13:17), so how are they supposed to lead without being in positions of authority?

(Some of the information in the post is taken from The Authority of Church Elders in the New Testament by Matthew McDill, available online at that link.)

In the New Testament, “leaders” are never given positional authority over others in the church. The verbal forms of “authority” are used several times in relation to the church in the New Testament, but the verbs are always used in the negative: i.e., do not exercise authority. (For example, see Matthew 20:25-26, Mark 10:42-43, Luke 22:25-26, 1 Peter 5:3.) They are never given “government or control, in the sense of the authority to make decisions for the church.”

So, how are these people supposed to “lead”? They are to lead by the influence that they possess among the other people who are part of the church. This influence is “based on respect that is earned in accordance with the character, skill, and knowledge.”

Two passages in particular highlight this kind of leading by influence because of their spiritual maturity. First, consider Hebrews 13:7:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7 ESV)

Notice what is important about “remembering” these leaders (who are describing as having spoke to them regarding the word of God): 1) the result of their manner of life, and 2) their faith. These are the things that are to be imitated. Thus, the recipients of this letter are being encouraged to follow the example of life set by these leaders.

Next, consider 1 Peter 5:3 (in which Peter directly addresses “elders”):

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering [exercising authority] over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3 ESV) – verse 3 is highlighted

Notice the 3 contrasting descriptions of who Peter expects these people to “shepherd the flock of God… exercising oversight”: 1) Not under compulsion, but willingly, 2) not for financial gain, but eagerly, and 3) not by exercising authority, but by being examples.

Now, some have suggested that the term translated “domineering” is stronger than “exercising authority.” Even if it is, Peter does not say, “Not by domineering, but by exercising authority properly.” Instead, he says, “Not by domineering, but by being examples.” This is an important contrast that tells us how Peter expected elders to act among others. They are supposed to lead by the influence of their life as examples among others in the church.

This type of leading (by influence/example instead of by authority) explains why others are exhorted to “submit themselves” to those leaders. (For example, see Hebrews 13:17.) This kind of submission is offered to those who live in a manner that is worthy of submission. This is not subservience that is given because a person holds a position of authority.

So, in Scripture, leaders among the church do not lead by exercising authority or by making decision for the church. Instead, they lead through the influence of their life, which must be a good example to the church – an example of serving others, loving others, being concerned for others, teaching, humbling themselves, considering others as more important, proclaiming the gospel, living in harmony with others, sharing their possessions with others, and trusting God (among other things).


“Authority Among the Church” Series

  1. Authority among the church? Starting a new series.
  2. What did Jesus say about positions of authority under his own authority?
  3. In the church, how does someone lead without exercising authority?
  4. Does the existence and recognition of elders indicate that they have positional authority?
  5. Does shepherding and overseeing suggest exercising authority?

Addendum: The most pervasive argument against positional authority among the church


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 8-31-2011


    How would you relate to the family?

  2. 8-31-2011

    I also like the family metaphor … that a parent’s authority increases or decreases based on the maturity of the developing child, until the child is fully in control of their lives. There are times in a Christian’s life … hopefully rare and of short duration … that can be helpful to have clear direction from another human being. But the goal of health would be for this to be minimal as God desires not infants who need total care but mature sons and daughters.

    I’m thinking through what you said with regard to the concept of equipping … I believe this word really communicates how a teacher, coach or mentor leads. There is authority, but the goal is for it never to be needed to be used. The greater or more frequent the discipline problem that would seem to require a “boss” response, the greater the failure of the teacher to teach.

    I also believe that the attempt to “lead” others as some form of control infantilizes them and keeps them immature. It’s a paradox to me that we need leadership now to get us out of the problem that overcontrolling leadership has caused … because of lack of leadership also leaves people stuck in that immature state.

  3. 8-31-2011


    It depends on who I’m relating to… and if you asked me that question last year, even about my children, the answer would be different than it is today. By the way, I also often submit to my children. :)


    You said, “I also believe that the attempt to ‘lead’ others as some form of control infantilizes them and keeps them immature.” I agree, and I think we see the results of this in the church today.


  4. 8-31-2011

    Love it alan

    Love you bro

    That’s all I got

  5. 8-31-2011

    Many Christians today expect to be led by someone in authority. Someone who has become qualified through extensive, specialized education, much like a lawyer or a doctor would be educated for their roles. They grant this person the authority of position. This means someone growing up in New York and going to school in Texas, is now qualified to be a pastor in Illinois (or any other state).

    If the average church is 85 people with 1 pastor, then our problem isn’t that 1/85, or 1.2% of Christians, are “usurping authority under false premises.” It is more importantly true that 98.8% of Christians are “abdicating authority (and thus responsibility) under false premises.”

    Partly this is a matter of ignorance for both parties. And when it isn’t ignorance, it is expediency, or some other justification. That justification may be based on good motives that simply recognize, “you can’t fight city hall,” or “this is how the church works today” or “how could it be otherwise today–our jobs take up all of our time and nothing would get done.”

    For some, this is a matter of ugly self-interest. Frankly, I fear for many this is the motivation, and if so, then this ignorance is as much about not wanting to know as not knowing. I’ve seen this in business. When moving to team based models in the 80’s and 90’s, the most common complaint from the newly empowered workers was that they didn’t want the responsibility. They preferred being told what to do, and not being responsible for others, for processes, for outcomes–not even just to one another.

    Which brings me to solutions. It isn’t simply a matter of information, of removing ignorance as a factor. In my youth I used to think, “if only people knew, this distortion in the saints would evaporate.” More than just correcting the disinformation of “common knowledge” where we all think we know how church works based on what we grew up with (rather than what scripture describes).

    Even in the midst of what passes for church, for leadership in the church, and for being an everyday Christian, God’s solution is still what is needed, whether we can understand the dynamics of why it works or not. What is needed?

    Examples. Examples stir our hearts more than words ever can.

    You. Me. Bowing our knee to God (daily, hourly, moment by moment). Becoming an example others can follow. A nobody with faith in a magnificent, powerful, God who loves us, and seeking each day to obey Him, learning as we go how often we fail, and how large His grace towards us. Loving others without anticipating a return, and without thinking that makes us better than other believers or more precious in His sight. Seeking to make Him known more deeply and more extensively without seeking or allowing a corresponding name and following for ourselves.

  6. 8-31-2011

    Excellent analysis Art. I find the same true of folks around me. People know in their spirit “something isn’t right about this”, but very few that lose their ignorance are willing to strike the root, they just want to change the fruit on the same tree.

  7. 8-31-2011

    Alan – Though this might add to the discussion.

    Someone in the organic movement sent me these addresses just the other day.

    IMO – Two interseting posts from Ross Rohde on “Leadership.”

    I think they’re interesting because they agree with me. At least for today… ;-)

    1 – When Words Get Ruined – April 18, 2011

    “I no longer use the word leadership. I just tell the people I’m discipling, **don’t lead,** love and serve others. We’re all the same in God’s eyes. Once I use the word leadership with them, we’ll spend the rest of the day trying to figure out what’s good leadership and bad leadership. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as good leadership. Jesus told us to serve. I’ll stick with that. Leadership is non-Christian activity.”

    2 – Leadership??? – Jan 26, 2011

    “Servanthood isn’t a different way of being a leader; **it is not being a leader at all.** He is saying “don’t do this; do this instead.” He wasn’t saying something similar to I’ll give you a new way of being a leader; he was saying **don’t be a leader.**”

    That’s pretty close to what I’m seeing today – only said much better. ;-)

    Don’t be a leader – be a servant… YYYYEEEESSSSS…

    “Disciples of Christ” are to be “Servants of Christ.”

    It is not being a leader at all.

  8. 8-31-2011


    Obviously there is a big difference between exercising authority and overseeing. My question is: How does a person rebuke or exhort another without exercising authority? Surely only a person who is “overseeing” another would do this so how does rebuke and exhortation apply in an attitude of service?

  9. 8-31-2011


    Thanks, and I love you too, bro.


    What if I step aside and let you write these posts? Seriously, your comments are better than my posts.


    It’s tough to step into something that is unfamiliar, even when you know something is not right with what you’re doing.

    A. Amos Love,

    You said, “Don’t be a leader – be a servant.” I agree. Our goal should be to serve others because we love God and we love them. According to Jesus, when people serve others in that way, they are leading people by their example.


    That’s a good question. I touch on that briefly in my next post (to be published tomorrow). I think a good place to see that “leaders” are not the only ones who are supposed to rebuke and exhort is 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14. If the “brothers and sisters” (1 Thessalonians 5:14) are supposed to admonish and exhort and not just the “leaders” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13), then admonishing and exhorting must not be related to exercising authority or overseeing. (I hope that makes sense.)


  10. 8-31-2011


    Now that would ruin a perfectly good community that gathers here!


    I love this line: “very few that lose their ignorance are willing to strike the root, they just want to change the fruit on the same tree.” That thought unnerves me, knowing I often do just this without realizing it. Definitely calls me to some honest reflection before Him.


    One of my favorite OT verses, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Prov 27:5-7

  11. 8-31-2011

    Good comment Art,
    I’ve thought this for a while now, but you have such a knack at putting it in words!

    And Alan your nailing some verbal home runs yourself lately so I think this blog will be able to handle both of you. :)

  12. 9-1-2011

    Hi Alan,

    This series has got me thinking. Thank you.

    Yet the parts currently published seem to deal with the attitudes and actions of the leaders. I’d also be interested in exploring how we (those who do not hold any leadership position) should respond to those who are in a leadership position. If leaders are to be servants not masters (and I agree they should), how should we respond to leaders that do exercise authority without being arrogant or rebellious ourselves?

  13. 9-1-2011

    If someone expects to be recognized as a positional authoritarian and is acting in a way that is contrary to how the Master our LORD Jesus Christ defined leadership/greatness in His Kingdom by lording over the people and such people usually do, then we simply understand that they are not leaders (we do not follow their example or instructions)and gently and lovingly correct them. Otherwise, they may continue in their error of seeing themselves as a leader in Christ’s Kingdom. :)

  14. 9-1-2011


    As long as you keep commenting… Seriously, I appreciate you brother.


    As of now, I do not plan to publish anything dealing with the questions that you’ve raised. I will say that most of the people that I know who see themselves in positions of authority over the church are well-meaning and are seeking the best for the church. We simply disagree about what is means to lead the church. I think Hutch offers some good advice for moving forward. But, I do recognize the difficulty.


    Like I told Mark (above), I think that’s good advice. I would add that the kind of correction that you suggest must be done within the context of a real relationship, not just an acquaintance from meeting together in a “worship service”.


  15. 9-1-2011

    Mark, Hutch, Alan,

    Given that 98% or so of the saints would face the question Mark raises were their eyes opened on biblical serving vs leadership per the rulers of this world, I’m totally intrigued by these tidbits:

    “I’d also be interested in exploring how we (those who do not hold any leadership position) should respond to those who are in a leadership position… without being arrogant or rebellious ourselves?”

    “…gently and lovingly correct them.”

    “…must be done within the context of a real relationship”

    Alan, I get it that you are focusing on a certain direction, and this fork in the road would presently side track the conversations. So, I’d just like to ask you to put a post-it note somewhere to get back to this point when you feel the time is right. You are very good at being fair to the good intents on both sides of the clergy/laity divide as well as helping us think through a helpful balance in addressing the errors on both sides.

  16. 9-2-2011


    I will think seriously about your suggestion. The problem is that almost every situation will be different. But, perhaps I can put together a few general principles.

    Do you (or anyone else) think that it would be important for me to cover certain specific scenarios? If so, which ones?


  17. 9-2-2011

    Here is a typical scenario most Christians face in most denominational/traditional church settings, even if they have some substantial understanding of what biblical leadership isn’t and what biblical serving is:

    1. They themselves are not ordained, have no Greek or Hebrew to impress/add credibility in discussion, no bible or seminary education to add legitimacy to efforts/input, no history as an elder serving saints.

    2. A pastoral leadership–how ever good hearted and well intended–that believes they are in a position above other saints and must protect/control the saints who do not do things their way (including denominational and personal preferences). They believe they are the primary to sole preacher and that the saints have nothing substantial/significant to say to the Body gathered.

    3. A body of believers that believes the same about their own highly limited role and responsibilities, as well as the role of the pastor, even extending the pastor’s primacy to all things touching spiritual matters. If the pastor doesn’t say it or agree with it, it is suspect or wrong or rebellious, etc.

    In THAT setting and circumstances, there exists:

    1. a number of problems in the understanding and behaviors of the pastor

    2. a number of problems in the understanding and behaviors of the saints

    3. a denomination (or a “non-denomination” movement/community/denomination) that reinforces both of their errors, resists change, and looks alarmingly at the exposure of “their” sheep to “other sheep/sheepfolds.”

    Speak to the issues, paths forward, and pitfalls for the vast majority of the saints in this typical framework. This is where and how most saints experience one another, even outside the formal church times and events.

    To some extent, this environment also exists for those “outside” the traditional church, since most Christians we will come in contact with in our neighborhoods, marketplaces, workplaces and in recreation see this clergy/laity/church framework as right and proper.

  18. 9-2-2011


    Yes, that’s a difficult scenario. Do you want to write a guest post dealing with that?


  19. 9-3-2011

    *sigh* Be careful when you dig a hole not to fall in.

    I will be glad to if it doesn’t preclude us hearing from you at some point on handling this all-too typical scenario for the saints. I’ve some idea of what I would say, but none on your point of view, which promises surprises and new ways of thinking and acting in these circumstances.

  20. 9-3-2011

    It won’t be easy to answer. There won’t be a cookie-cutter one because we are all different (and changing), but the principles will be there. There will be different reactions to the same action depending on the hearers, but God’s Word will accomplish that which He pleases.

  21. 9-5-2011


    I think I’m going to try to answer your question. I’m going to take some time to think about it though. Not sure how much time…


    Yes, I agree. There will be principles, but the reactions and interactions will be different based on the relationships and practices involved.


  22. 9-7-2011

    Just catching up on this series of posts. I think what’s addressed here is critical and draws a line in the sand. One of the things I’m learning is how many assumptions are made – how often we read scripture through a certain lens of church understanding. When we start with certain assumptions, these verses comfortably back up positional authority. When we take away our cultural church assumptions, though, things change.

    After the 1 Peter passage, you talked about 3 contrasts, which I think are clear and helpful. On the second point you made about financial gain, some translations mention financial gain, some just say selfish or shameful gain. I think finances are definitely an element of it, but I think there are some other enticing elements of “leadership”, particularly control and identity. There is so much about “leadership” that appeals to our flesh. What’s scary is that it’s pretty well-disguised as service and sacrifice.

    Appreciate the way you’re moving through this very sensitive subject. Good work.

  23. 9-7-2011

    Indeed Clay, this is an important topic for those of us who would consider taking on a “leadership” role. I am slowly starting a ministry (or rather a group of ministries) and I know full well I don’t, as yet, exhibit the characteristics required for an elder or deacon.
    Yet this series is showing me a new side to leadership, and in my Christian walk I can apply these and so learn to avoid the traps of superiority and authoritarian leadership.

    Paul warns (I think in 1 Tim) that he should “lay hands on no man suddenly”. This is usually taken to mean the commissioning into the service of eldership, and it is said in order to prevent the “elder” falling into sinful pride.

    Many a man could be ruined by being blessed too much too soon! And perhaps a wrong choosing and/or timing of appointments to leadership has enabled the controlling/authoritarian trend to become embedded.

  24. 9-7-2011

    I’m glad you two are continuing this discussion. It is indeed a big issue among the church today.