Leighton left a great comment on my post “Does shepherding and overseeing suggest exercising authority?”
The comment demonstrates the connection between the gathering of the church and positional authority.
Here is the main part of Leighton’s comment:
When we start discussing authority most people operate under the assumption that all these passages from the epistles were written to people who were part of churches just like ours. Looking at a conventional church from a purely pragmatic perspective it would be hard to see how the church could operate without someone in the charge.
Many people say “we need authority in the church!” In their mind they are thinking: If we don’t have someone in charge who can set the agenda for the congregational meeting? Who gets speak from the pulpit and who gets to discern the proper guest speakers? Who gets to decide what do with the money in the church bank account? How will we decide to fund our programs? Which person or group decides what programs we should continue and which ones we should end?
Very rarely do people think the pastor has the authority to tell people exactly what do in their lives. Pastors can advise, admonish, exhort and teach but it is up to the individual to respond. In only grave cases of blatant sin does church authority exercise any kind of corrective discipline. This usually involves rescinding someone’s formal membership and removing them from ministry roles in the church.
If we look at all these different kinds of roles for church authority in the context of a New Testament church not a lot of them apply.
1) No one is the primary speaker to church as all are encouraged to participate
2) The church was not a separate legal entity holding assets. No salaries were paid to local church leaders so there is no need for anyone to be in charge of the money. According to earliest descriptions most church money went straight to the poor.
3) There are no programs, as ministry happened largely from peer to peer in the context of relationships in the local church.
4) It was everyone’s job to exhort, admonish, and encourage one another. Elders had more of a specific role in teaching though, but even at that there would have been room for others to teach.
5) The church gathered together to remove an unrepentant sinner from their group (Corinth). Even though Paul advised them to do it, he told them to do it together. It probably looked more like a contemporary intervention than what we see today.
As a member of an intentionally simple church with no staff, assets or programs there really isn’t a whole lot to be authoritative over. As a leader in this context I feel my role is care for others, teach, serve and be an example. I don’t need the weight of “authority” because there is very little to exercise authority over.
I could I suppose exercise authority over people, but then you run in to that problematic passage Alan brought up a few posts ago and that strategy just doesn’t produce any real fruit. Authority as it relates to people is giving someone power to enforce punitive or corrective discipline in order to keep them behaving correctly. I am a father and I discipline my children when they do something they shouldn’t in the hopes that they would learn a batter way of doing things. Discipline in this sense isn’t about vengeance but about teaching. However adults are adults and giving them a timeout because they told a lie is a bit ridiculous. There are far better ways to minister. Using authority over people just gets people to act a certain way out of fear. It doesn’t lead people to faith in Christ where their heart and mind can be transformed.
I totally agree with Alan that one can be an elder or overseer and can fulfill their role without positional authority. It is completely unnecessary as everyone in a house church knows who to go to for advice or teaching. Even a title is unnecessary.
Even as the church evolved in the decades after the apostles church authority was more about preserving doctrine than anything. It is easy to see why they went that way with all the false teaching around. It wasn’t like people could photocopy the gospels to double check is something was on the level or not. They need “go to” people that understood the faith.
Today it seems like the more authorities we have the more heresy spreads. If you put a dozen believers with no Christian higher education in a living room with a couple bibles they probably are going to come out in good shape. Now a days with all the high profile church authorities, some with vested interests in their own status, influence, prestige, wealth and power, we see false teaching blossoming like weeds on an neglected lawn.