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Does shepherding and overseeing suggest exercising authority?

Posted by on Sep 2, 2011 in discipleship, elders, office, scripture | 9 comments

Does shepherding and overseeing suggest exercising authority?

This is the fifth 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.” In the third post, I answered the question, “How does someone lead without exercising authority,” by stating that among the church people lead from the influence of the life as an example to others, not by positional authority. In the fourth post, I ask the question, “Does the existence and recognition of elders indicate that they have positional authority?

To begin with, elders are instruct to shepherd (“pastor”) and oversee. We see this in Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5:

[To the elders from Ephesus] Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28 ESV)

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… (1 Peter 5:1-2 ESV)

“Shepherding” and “overseeing” including watching and caring, but these are not the functions that typically bring out the big authority guns. Instead, as is often pointed out, “shepherding” and “overseeing” also include the ideas of correcting, admonishing, and rebuking. The idea is that if someone can point out that someone else is wrong and then correct that person, then authority is exercised.

But, there is a basic problem with this idea: as we’ve seen many times, ALL believers are instructed to correct, rebuke, and admonish others. These types of functions are not limited to elders or other leaders.

I’ve already pointed out 1 Thessalonians 5:12, so I’m not going to list it here again (mouse over the reference to see the verse). But, there are other similar instruction given to all believers:

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct [admonish] one another. (Romans 15:14 ESV)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom… (Colossians 3:16 ESV)

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct [admonish] one another. (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 ESV)

The Book of Hebrews is filled with exhortations for all believers to look deeply into each others lives and to help and correct where needed. Here are a few examples:

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:13 ESV)

And let us consider [one another] how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV)

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it [this is actually the verb “oversee”] that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy… (Hebrews 12:12-16 ESV)

Remember that the Book of Hebrews includes two passages that are usually presented as indicative of the authority of leaders: Hebrews 13:7 and Hebrews 13:17. But these passages MUST be interpret within the context of what the author has already said to the whole church.

In fact, this is the point of this whole post. While elders/leaders are told to admonish others, all believers are told to admonish others. While elders/leaders are instructed to look into the lives of others, all believers are instructed to look into the lives of others. While elders/leaders are urged to correct sinning believers, all believers are urged to correct sinning believers.

Thus, the functions of admonishing, correcting, and rebuking (as part of shepherding and overseeing) cannot give special authority to elders/leaders, since ALL believers are supposed to carry out these same functions.

(As an addendum, Hebrews 13:17 says that leaders will give an account for the way they care for others. Of course, this is true for ALL believers as well. In other words, the answer to God’s question to Cain in Genesis 4:9 is, “Yes! You are your brothers’ and sisters’ keeper!” All believers, including leaders, will give an account to God for how we care for our brothers and sisters, which includes teaching, correcting, rebuking, and admonishing.)

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“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


9 Comments

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

  1. 9-2-2011

    Alan,

    I understand the call for all believers to oversee, shepherd, rebuke, correct and exhort one another and I know that since this is a universal responsibility it does not give special authority to any particular person or persons due to an office that they hold. I loved the response I received on the other post referring to the “wounds from a friend” and it got me thinking more.

    when a believer, whether a recognized leader or not, rebukes or corrects another, aren’t they in a sense exercising authority? Sure they are simply speaking forth the authority that the Word of God has but even in that it is their understanding and interpretation of the word that they are speaking.

    in short, I guess what I’d like to know is: doesn’t the universal call to exhort, admonish, oversee, shepherd, correct and rebuke imply a universal call to exercise authority as the Spirit leads coupled with a universal call to submit to one another in the Spirit?

  2. 9-2-2011

    Bobby,

    That’s a great question. In the context of this series, in which I’m talking about “positions of authority,” I would answer, “No. The universal call to exhort, admonish, oversee, shepherd, correct, and rebuke does not imply a universal call to exercise positional authority.”

    On the other hand, you are correct when it comes to our mutual relationships and discipleship. We should submit to one another when it comes to exhortations, admonishments, overseeing, shepherding, correction, and rebukes… both giving and receiving. Thus, if you approach me with a concern based on your “understanding and interpretation of the word that [you] are speaking,” then I should be willing to submit to that word as we continue to seek the truth together through mutual discipleship. If I refuse to consider your interests and concerns (perhaps even beginning with a desire for me not to put a stumbling block in front of you), then there are bigger problems at hand that should be addressed before that particular issue.

    By the way, to me this is where it becomes very important for the church to recognize/appoint those who are more mature as elders. It is not because they will tell us what to do or because they have all the answers, but because they are mature and bring with them a wisdom that comes from walking with and listening to the Holy Spirit. Thus, they can help in these kinds of issues.

    I hope this makes sense, and I hope it answers your questions.

    -Alan

  3. 9-2-2011

    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.

    After all this I do have a couple of passages for Alan to take a stab at. Paul said to the Corinthians “I have the authority to build you up and not tear you down” and to Timothy “I don’t permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.” Both seem to imply there is some kind of authority at work.

  4. 9-2-2011

    Leighton,

    Couldn’t you toss me a slow ball to hit out of the park? Seriously, those are tough texts, and I’m not 100% sure how they fit in with the rest of Scripture. However, I do think they fit in with what I’ve shared here. I think we’d have a harder time making all the other passages fit in with an understanding of positional authority, even if that makes those 2 passages more easily understood.

    In the 2 Corinthians 10:8 and 2 Corinthians 13:10 passages (as well as similar passages), the term translated “authority” can also be translated “right.” Paul uses the term in the sense of “right” several times (Romans 9:21, 1 Corinthians 8:9, 1 Corinthians 9:4, etc.). Is this what Paul means here? Maybe… I don’t know.

    In the 1 Timothy 2:12 passage, if it does mean that a woman/wife is not to exercise authority over a man/husband, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the opposite (man/husband exercising authority over a woman/wife) is allowed. For example, consider the prohibition in Romans 14:3. I don’t think Paul would allow for the opposite of that prohibition.

    (I know these are not great answers to your questions, but it’s a start.)

    -Alan

  5. 9-3-2011

    I’ve always thought that any teacher or theologian worth listening too knows all the passages that work well with their position and all the ones that don’t. You obviously do. It is usually the passages that are missing from a persons work that reveal its quality.

    It is also the passage that people start with that often reveals where they end up. It is kind of like we pick out pivot passage than then branch out try to connect all the rest to it.

    In this debate one side will generally start with Mat 20:25 and the other will go to Heb 13:17. In the gender debate one side starts with Gal 2:20 and the other 1Tim 2:12.

    I think starting with Mat 20:25 and its sister passages is good. I feel safer starting with Jesus, I feel safer starting with a point that is made by Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Mark Jesus makes the point of being a servant twice (9:45 & 10:43).

    The Timothy passage bugs me because the last few verses of that chapter are really difficult to understand.

    1Ti 2:11-15 NET. A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. (12) But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. (13) For Adam was formed first and then Eve. (14) And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression. (15) But she will be delivered through childbearing, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control.

    The subject bounces around from passage to passage.

    In 11 it is “a woman” in 12 “a woman” in 13 “eve” in 14 “the woman” and 15 ” she” who will be delivered through child bearing. It presents the thorny issue for evangelicals that a woman might be “delivered” through “childbearing.” I personally think there is a connection here between this chapter than the widows mentioned in chapter 5.

    Good theology always stakes its strongest claims on passages that clear and well supported.

  6. 9-10-2011

    Alan,

    I have found this series most eye-opening, and it so fits in with the discussion we (and others) held on the authoritarian and non-Biblical principle of “covering”.

    Yet I do feel led to give warning: we must be extremely careful when rejecting or correcting doctrines that are established in the Church. Of course, that does not mean we shouldn’t challenge such doctrines (the false doctrines of Rome would still hold sway if believers hadn’t challenged, and given martyrdom for opposing, the non-Biblical practices), but it means we must tread carefully as many heresies are brought about by the concept of some “new doctrine” dressed as an old-but-forgotten one.

    I know from your posts that you are strongly encouraging discourse and checks and balances to your teaching, and that is good and I want to encourage you in this.

    I think this is a vital teaching for the Church today, and I will continue to prayerfully consider, yet the Scriptural points you make are, by and large, sound.

    One area in which I am unsure is the question of what the point was of specific commissioning processes in recognising elders and deacons? The elders would be appointed by men such as Timothy, and we see also in Timothy that Paul commissioned him by the “laying on of hands”. So my question is not necessarily challenging what you have said, but rather why it was deemed so important to have recognised elders if they held no additional authority?

    God bless.

  7. 9-10-2011

    Mark,

    I appreciate this comment very much. I think it is important for a church to recognize elders (“older, more mature believers”) and deacons (“servants”) because of the influence of leaders. In other words, who are we allowing to influence us? Are they people that have been recognized by the church as good examples of people living for Jesus Christ? There are many reasons that people follow others. However, often those reasons are more in line with the ways of the world instead of the ways of Christ.

    -Alan

  8. 9-10-2011

    Alan,

    Thank you for that. Yes, that would further my understanding: the principle of leading through example and the recognition of that example.
    I would also say that this would provide for the very necessary precautions against false teachers and false prophets. Recognition from a church body and the fellow elders/deacons gives a legitimacy to one’s teachings, based on the meeting of Biblical principles. (Indeed, many false teachers and false prophets set up their own organisations to bestow such “titles” upon themselves to lend an air of legitimacy.)

    This would, in a sense, mean that an “authority” is held, yet being an authority coming from a Godly life and therefore trustworthy in instruction and guidance, not from a positional right or ability to give commands to the “underlings”.
    This would also mean that Paul was correct in his referring to his own authority, not because he was “lording it”, but because through his life and ministry and the commissioning he had received from Jesus he had demonstrated himself to be trustworthy in his teachings.

    I am finding myself being challenged here in a way I hadn’t expected. Part of my deeply questioning this series of yours, Alan, is that my natural tendency is towards the rebellious. I have been led to start certain things, some including teaching and prophecy, yet have struggled with the position that I have no recognition from my church and certain lifestyle issues (sin issues) are a problem. Being wary of a teaching that would have freed me from those concerns (yet not directly addressed them), I have, instead, found that “double honour” must be given to the church leadership to which I would be wise to listen.

    (I hope you didn’t mind my commenting of the great need to be careful to what doctrines we receive – I was in no way suggesting that this series of posts was in any way in error.)

  9. 9-10-2011

    Mark,

    It’s exciting to hear about times when my posts intersect the work that God is doing in the lives of brothers and sisters.

    -Alan