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
- 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?