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

Posted by on Sep 6, 2011 in discipleship, elders, office, scripture | 15 comments

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

Last week I published a five-part series on authority among the church. (Read the “Introduction” post here, and links to the other posts can be found at the bottom of each post in the series.)

In the series, I began my discussion with Jesus’ statements to his apostles concerning positional authority. Then, I showed that leaders in Scripture were not told to lead by authority but to lead by the example of their lives. Next, I said that the appointment of elders was not to a position of authority, but as recognition of their maturity in their walk with Christ. Finally, I argued that shepherding and overseeing do not indicate positional authority because the “troubling” parts of admonishing, correcting, rebuking, etc. are actually the responsibility of all believers.

Now, I think the scriptural evidence that I presented in that series is pretty strong. However, believe it or not, I do not think that is the strongest evidence against positional authority in Scripture. In fact, I believe there is another type of evidence that is even stronger against positional authority and is pervasive, being found throughout the New Testament.

However, you cannot find this evidence by quoting chapter and verse. Instead, you must look at the New Testament books as a whole. When you examine each book, you find the evidence against positional authority.

What evidence am I talking about? Well, to begin with, almost all of the books are addressed to all the believers in a city or region (church or churches). Even those books that are addressed to individuals appear to be written with a group (church) in view.

For example, when Paul wrote to the church in Thessaloniki, he addressed several different problems in his two letters. But, he did not address the leaders in the church, although there were certainly leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). He addressed the whole church. He did not expect the leaders to exercise their authority in order to correct the problems. He expected the whole church (including the leaders) to work together to address the problems.

When Paul wrote to the churches in the region Galatia, he wrote about very severe problems. In fact, he had very strong words for these believers because they were walking away from the true gospel. Paul knew that there were both those who were “spiritual” (Galatians 6:1) and those who “taught” (Galatians 6:6) among the churches in Galatia. But, he did not appeal to them to exercise their authority to correct the problems. He expected all of the believers to work together to deal with these issues.

Paul had many great things to say about the church in Philippi. But, he was also concerned about some issues, including discord between two women who were part of the church. Once again, Paul did not appeal to the leaders, even though he knew there were both “overseers and deacons” among the church (Philippians 1:1). Instead, his letter appealed to the whole church to work together for gospel and for the unity of the church, including bringing together Euodia and Syntyche.

I could have started with the church in Corinth. There were so many problems among the believers in Corinth that it’s a wonder that Paul didn’t give up on them. But, once again, he did not appeal to their leaders to exercise their authority to correct very dangerous issues. Instead, he constantly appealed to all the believer to work together to correct the issues.

Even a personal letter like the one Paul wrote to Philemon was actually addressed to all the believers he met with (Philemon 1:1-2). Even 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus seem to be intended for the church, not just for the individual addressed. (Consider Titus 2, for example.) The same arguments above could also be presented for James’, Peter’s, John’s, and Jude’s letters.

Perhaps the letter with the strongest argument against leaders exercising authority is the one in which we find a verse that seems (at the surface) to support the idea of positional authority: the Book of Hebrews. Hebrews 13:17 is often presented as the standard for leaders with authority over the church. However, this sentence is presented within the context of a letter in which all believers (not just the leaders) are instructed to “encourage one another daily” against the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13), to “stir up love and good works” by encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:24-25), and strengthening one another by looking into one another lives for evidences of bitterness or immorality (Hebrews 12:12-17). Again, these exhortations/commands are given to the whole church, not to the leaders.

When the authors of Scripture wrote letters to address problems, they did not appeal to the leaders among those churches to use their authority to correct the problems. They addressed the entire church and expected the entire church to work together. Were there leaders among these churches? Yes. In some cases, it’s obvious that there were leaders, while in other cases it can be assumed.

But, in all cases, the authors did not expect these leaders to have any type of positional authority among the churches. To me, this is the most pervasive and strongest argument against leaders exercising authority among the church.

(Actually, there is one case in which an author of Scripture knew of a leader who was exercising positional authority. His name was Diotrephes, and John wrote about him in 3 John 1:9-11.)


“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. 9-6-2011

    flash and blood did not reveal that to you

  2. 9-6-2011

    Alan – Thank you for reminding us of this all-important fact. There was no hierarchy in the New Testament Church among the members of the Body. We read our experience into the scriptures too often. Your work here in this series is pure gold, my friend. Thanks for the hard work of mining it out for us all.

  3. 9-6-2011


    Amen to Keith’s words.

    The new generations need these things clearly taught. Very few of my vintage, and even younger, are prepared to face these Biblical truths.

    Many younger ones have caught a negative glimpse of the worldly orientation and reality of much of church leadership today and leave the church and support of their brethren because they have no knowledge of the truth of which you are writing.

    I know from my own erroneous walk as a pastor, how pride robs us of any desire to examine what others are saying. It took a good, God organized, swift kick to wake me up. I pray, if that is what it takes for others to open their eyes, that there will be a swift kick awakening amongst many pastors.

  4. 9-6-2011


    I don’t do flash, so I’m hoping you meant “flesh.” 🙂


    Thank you very much for the kind words and the encouragement!

    Aussie John,

    I may be part of the “new generation,” but I’ve taught otherwise when it comes to authority also.


  5. 9-6-2011

    because there were no leaders, only Christ was their leader, He directed, guided, served, protected, taught through whomever whenever. just saying

  6. 9-6-2011


    What were Paul and Barnabas doing in Acts 14:23? Also, who was the author referring to in Acts 13:17? I agree that Christ led, directed, guided, served, protected, and taught his family through any of his brothers and sisters. I also think that the Scriptures show that the church recognized that there were mature believers among them who could be an example for them in following Christ. These are called by several different names, but they do seem to be present in many of the letters of the NT.


  7. 9-7-2011


    Nothing “new” about you. Heck! You’re over the hill 🙂

    Their are a few younger out there who are bowing to “spiritual superiors” who are so only because of traditions in which they have found themselves.

  8. 9-7-2011

    Aussie John,

    Well, some of those younger than me have been called “rebellious” too many times for questioning their “spiritual superiors.” I’ve learned so much from listening to those who question me.


  9. 10-7-2011

    Is there any way to enlarge the font on these posts…too small for me to read comfortably.

  10. 2-10-2012

    What about the fact that Paul was exercising authority over each of the churches and individuals he wrote to?

  11. 2-11-2012


    I think that Paul was doing what he expected (and told) all followers of Jesus Christ to do: exhort, teach, correct, and admonish one another. He was not doing this from a position of authority over the churches, but from his position as their brother in Christ.


  12. 5-7-2012

    Alan, thank you for your series on church leaders. You made some excellent points. Your last post, I thought, summed the matter up nicely. I agree that there is no living, earthly, positional authority in Christianity that is set forth by the scriptures. However, the apostles did have delegated authority by Christ given to them. The big mistaken notion moderns have in assuming positional authority are the passages referring to the apostles in Hebrews chapter thirteen. The apostles were those selected and appointed and sent to accomplish a work. They were given the necessary authority and tools to do what they were commanded to do, The word sent (Romans 10:15) derives from the apostolos and implies authority to preach. In reference to the apostles who preached, they were the depositories of heaven’s message; that is, they were the ones inspired to receive the full communication of the gospel system of faith and reveal that to mankind. As apostles; as prophets (spokesmen for Christ); as ambassadors; and as judges over Israel (spiritual Israel), Matthew 19:28, they could visit any congregation of believers, either in meekness, or with a rod, whichever he case demanded, 1 Corinthians 4:21. But they could not do this without he authority of heaven “sending” them with that authority. Yes, the rod was the last resort because they were directed by God’s Holy Spirit, and their inspiration prevented errors of teaching. Teaching, admonition, and exhortation were the first steps. I grew up spiritually in the tradition of authoritative elders and it took years of study and making hard choices to drop that assumption. When you are lost in a forest, it is difficult to see the trees. And one who has never been there can not recognize the price one pays for chopping down a tree or two. Again, thank you.

  13. 5-7-2012


    Thanks for the kind words about my series. I’m not sure that we can connect the verb “apostello” with “The Twelve” (i.e., those first apostles). The verb is use for “sending” many different people for many different reasons. I agree that the concept and exercise of human authority among the church has caused many problems.


  14. 8-8-2012

    Only one can act in the role of priest, pastor, or shepherd. This is not only relegated to just one,it is expressly given to one person, Jesus the Christ.

  15. 9-25-2012

    Thanks a lot for these well-considered articles, Alan.

    I think we really do look at the New Testament either ‘through’ the Old Testament hierarchies or through the post-Scripture generation which led to clergy / laity / Rome.