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