Thus Sayeth the Pastor: the Nature and Limits of Pastoral Authority

There are 20 Comments

TOvermiller's picture

I really appreciate this article. Thanks for sharing it. Last year I shared some similar thoughts here, especially regarding the "limited by Scripture" aspect.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

Fred Moritz's picture

Interesting article.  And Brother Overmiller's is good also.  It is interesting that the article comes from the MacArthur ministry, and does a rather good job of outlining pastoral authority and limitations.  And yet our friends in that same ministry ignore what the New Testament teaches us about congregational government in the local church!

Steve Davis's picture

Fred Moritz wrote:

Interesting article.  And Brother Overmiller's is good also.  It is interesting that the article comes from the MacArthur ministry, and does a rather good job of outlining pastoral authority and limitations.  And yet our friends in that same ministry ignore what the New Testament teaches us about congregational government in the local church!

I question that they are really ignoring what the NT says about congregational government. There clearly is a plurality of elders for NT churches. The role of members actually governing is less clear. Affirming might be a better descriptor. In my experience elders are better placed to hold the lead pastor and each other accountable. That doesn't mean they always do. On the other hand I've seen case after case of single pastors who can manipulate enough of the flock or keep them in ignorance to prevent a majority vote to dismiss. I don't see the biblical wisdom or pattern of giving a vote to all members equally on church matters, doctrinal matters, call or dismissal of pastor, etc. from the mature, theologically grounded saint to the newly minted, fresh from the baptismal saint who has no biblical foundation or experience in the faith. Congregational government as often practiced in churches reflects principles of modern democracy more than scriptural principles IMO.  

Ron Bean's picture

It seems that this boils down to one's application of Hebrews 13:17.

Does "rule" apply to just spiritual matters?

Can an elder or elders overrule or ignore a congregation?

Can an elder or elders overrule or ignore the advice of wise and godly advisors (i.e. a financial or building committee)?

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Fred Moritz's picture

Surely you've read enough of MacArthur to know he advocates elder rule. And you say: "The role of members actually governing is less clear."

We demonstrate from Scripture that local church congregations (1) elected their own officers (Acts 6:1-6); (2) commissioned their own missionaries (Acts 13:1-3); (3) disciplined their own members (Mt 18:15-17); (4) were instructed to maintain their own doctrinal integrity (Rom. 16:17, 18; Titus 3:10); (5) were  responsible to determine their relationship with other churches (Acts 15); and (6) governed their own financial affairs (2 Cor 8:18, 19, 23). In the Acts 15 passage we read that the church at Antioch sought the counsel and advice of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:3), and further, the "whole church" acted in the decision they sent back to Antioch (Acts 15:22). There was no control of Antioch by Jerusalem. "Absolute local church autonomy was modified only by advice, not command" (R. V. Clearwaters, 37).  Scripture represents the relationship between local churches as strictly voluntary.  In each of the above cited instances, the  congregations took the respective actions.

It seems to me that "the role of members actually governing" is quite clear in these instances. 

On the other side, I'm not minimizing the place of pastoral leadership in local church ministry.  Nor am I minimizing the role of the apostles in the local churches in the New Testament era.

 

Jim's picture

R. V. Clearwaters:

  • Congregational government (at least that's the way the constitution was at his time)
  • Plurality of elders? Not really: More of a hierarchy with a singular "Pastor" and hired staff (called pastors)
  • Knowing something of how "Camp Clearwaters" came to be ... was mostly an autocratic decision made by "Doc" (funded by ??) with a rubber stamp of the congregation

John MacArthur:

  • I don't know much about the government of Grace church 
  • But if congregation votes on the budget and votes on elders ... not really much different than 4th was then
  • With exception that Doc's assistants were really not constituted as a plurality of elders
Don Johnson's picture

you know your "compare/contrast" breaks down seriously when you start one side of the equation with "I don't know much about..." 

If you don't know, how can you compare?

If you don't know, how can you conclude? (as you do)

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Jim's picture

Don Johnson wrote:

you know your "compare/contrast" breaks down seriously when you start one side of the equation with "I don't know much about..." 

If you don't know, how can you compare?

If you don't know, how can you conclude? (as you do)

I said "I don't know much about GCC government ... but if "

I know a lot about 1 side of the equation b/c I am a member of 4th and have been for years. There's an institutional oral history there for the members who inquire and listen

I doubt that (aside from size and celebrity) the government of today's 4th is any different than GCC

What is different [and 4th is a very good church - I love it and am blessed by it] is we have a single pastor (Sr Pastor) model with a hierarchy of assistant pastors.

 

Bert Perry's picture

Keep in mind that pretty much all of the epistles are really instructions from outside to local churches and pastors.  I would agree 100% that Scripture does not set up bishops in the modern sense, and hence we are left with either congregational or presbyterian church government. 

To the main point, it strikes me that Scripture does not seem to give much comfort to the autocrat, as the article says.  Paul spends a LOT of time (e.g. Galatians, Colossians) rebuking those who would impose non-Biblical limitations on Christians.  Paul rebuked the Corinthian church for refusing to reinstate the repentant incestuous man into membership and rebuked Peter for refusing fellowship with Gentiles.  John rebukes Diotrephes for refusing hospitality.  Great portions of the New Testament were written by non-apostles--Mark, Luke, James, Jude, and the author of Hebrews.  

It strikes me that this has a lot to do with the fact that Jesus described God's "kingdom", not "kingdoms", and if we would listen, it suggests that God is doing a lot not just through local churches, but through the universal church, and through that universal church flow a lot of the corrections for local churches.  For example, Luther was a monk, not a priest, and Calvin was a lawyer by training.  God uses outsiders to refine His Church a LOT.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

One reason why leaders sometimes degenerate into petty dictators is because they haven't earned the trust of their people. They assume a mere title invests them with power and authority, and they forget (or don't care) that a title is meaningless unless you can lead and move your people along with you. This is true in secular bureaucracies, and it's also true in local churches. Alvah Hovey, in his systematic (pg. 310), wrote, "Probably, ministers do not have as much control over their people as the New Testament authorizes them to have; but it is because they are not sufficiently wise and godly to win it."

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Ron Bean's picture

The way I see it is that church polity is, as someone called it, a "healthy tension" between elders/pastor(s), deacons, and members. Any polity seems to work if the everyone is godly and has the best interest of the church at heart but no polity will work well if that's not the case.

I've seen pastors orchestrate business meetings, appoint sycophants as supporting boards, take advantage of apathetic church members who just don't want to get involved in the business of the church and/or ignore or eliminate opposing views and my heart still hurts at the damage they've caused.

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

T Howard's picture

TOvermiller wrote:

I really appreciate this article. Thanks for sharing it. Last year I shared some similar thoughts here, especially regarding the "limited by Scripture" aspect.

 

From your article wrote:
The word obey in Hebrews 13:17 means “to be persuaded.” This means that you should obey your pastor whenever he persuades you that what he is saying is biblical.

I agree with your article except on this one point. The word you're referencing in Hebrews 13:17 is πείθω. In the active voice, it means to persuade. In the passive voice, and in the context of this passage, is means to obey / follow (BDAG, 3.b). If one's obedience to Scripture is based on how persuasive I am as a pastor, that is problematic. Instead of persuasiveness as the key, it should be my distance from Scripture. Am I as your pastor telling you something that is a clear command of Scripture or is an abstract application from Scripture? If the former, you need to obey. If the latter, you may not need to obey.

TOvermiller's picture

T Howard wrote:

Am I as your pastor telling you something that is a clear command of Scripture or is an abstract application from Scripture? If the former, you need to obey. If the latter, you may not need to obey.

I don't think we disagree. Your conclusion, which I've quoted, expresses my thoughts exactly. I agree with you.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

Steve Davis's picture

Fred Moritz wrote:

Surely you've read enough of MacArthur to know he advocates elder rule. And you say: "The role of members actually governing is less clear."

We demonstrate from Scripture that local church congregations (1) elected their own officers (Acts 6:1-6); (2) commissioned their own missionaries (Acts 13:1-3); (3) disciplined their own members (Mt 18:15-17); (4) were instructed to maintain their own doctrinal integrity (Rom. 16:17, 18; Titus 3:10); (5) were  responsible to determine their relationship with other churches (Acts 15); and (6) governed their own financial affairs (2 Cor 8:18, 19, 23). In the Acts 15 passage we read that the church at Antioch sought the counsel and advice of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:3), and further, the "whole church" acted in the decision they sent back to Antioch (Acts 15:22). There was no control of Antioch by Jerusalem. "Absolute local church autonomy was modified only by advice, not command" (R. V. Clearwaters, 37).  Scripture represents the relationship between local churches as strictly voluntary.  In each of the above cited instances, the  congregations took the respective actions.

It seems to me that "the role of members actually governing" is quite clear in these instances. 

On the other side, I'm not minimizing the place of pastoral leadership in local church ministry.  Nor am I minimizing the role of the apostles in the local churches in the New Testament era.

Thanks for your comments Fred. I'll return to my original point about "our friends in that same ministry [who] ignore what the New Testament teaches us about congregational government in the local church!" I'm not convinced they are ignoring anything about congregational government. I do think they are not finding what you find. I don't have the time or interest to examine all the proof texts for congregational government. But I don't find government in the few I've looked at.

Acts. 6:1-6 - the church was told to look for men to present as deacons fo the apostles to appoint. No government there. It was a recommendation to the apostles.

Acts 13:1-3  - the prophets and teachers were gathered (whether "they were worshiping" in v.2 & "they laid their hands on them and sent them away" in v.3 refers to the whole church or to the prophets and teachers is not immediately clear to me. I'd need to look at that more closely). Either way, the Holy Spirit set certain ones apart and they were sent out by the church. No government there. It was participation in what the Holy Spirit had done. 

Acts 15:3 "sent by the church." No government there. 

I see affirmation, participation, cooperation under the authority of the apostles and other leaders. Is that government? You may have a broader definition of what constitutes government. As for elders they are specifically told to "rule" or receive honor if they "rule well." In addition, we need to ask how much of the book of Acts is normative since the apostles had authority we don't today. 

In the end, there's not a tidy description of church polity. The prescriptive epistles provide more clarity than historical narrative. We know there are two offices, pastor/elder/bishop and deacons. We know that elders are told to rule and shepherd under the authority of Scripture and Christ. Some churches function as a democracy, one vote per person, whether they show evidence of conversion, wisdom, biblical understanding, as long they are on the membership list, attend often enough to not be removed from the list. Other churches function with leaders who govern according to Scripture but not without congregation input, affirmation, or participation. Others combine some of this in how they operate. In any event, "congregational government" has scanty support.

Don Johnson's picture

Jim wrote:

 

Don Johnson wrote:

 

you know your "compare/contrast" breaks down seriously when you start one side of the equation with "I don't know much about..." 

If you don't know, how can you compare?

If you don't know, how can you conclude? (as you do)

 

 

I said "I don't know much about GCC government ... but if "

I know a lot about 1 side of the equation b/c I am a member of 4th and have been for years. There's an institutional oral history there for the members who inquire and listen

I doubt that (aside from size and celebrity) the government of today's 4th is any different than GCC

What is different [and 4th is a very good church - I love it and am blessed by it] is we have a single pastor (Sr Pastor) model with a hierarchy of assistant pastors.

You should know since what MacArthur's polity is, he has made no secret of it. It is described here, where it says, among other things:

The consistent pattern throughout the New Testament is that each local body of believers is shepherded by a plurality of God-ordained elders. Simply stated, this is the only pattern for church leadership given in the New Testament. Nowhere in Scripture does one find a local assembly ruled by majority opinion or by a single pastor.

...

The primary responsibility of an elder is to serve as a manager and caretaker of the church (1 Tim. 3:5). That involves a number of specific duties. As spiritual overseers of the flock, elders are to determine church policy (Acts 15:22); oversee the church (Acts 20:28); ordain others (1 Tim. 4:4); rule, teach, and preach (1 Tim. 5:17; cf. 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:2); exhort and refute (Titus 1:9); and act as shepherds, setting an example for all (1 Pet. 5:1-3). Those responsibilities put elders at the core of the New Testament church’s work.

Because of its heritage of democratic values and its long history of congregational church government, modern American evangelicalism often views the concept of elder rule with suspicion. The clear teaching of Scripture, however, demonstrates that the biblical norm for church leadership is a plurality of God-ordained elders, and only by following this biblical pattern will the church maximize its fruitfulness to the glory of God.

Commenting on this polity, Peter Lumpkins describes the policy this way:

MacArthur’s church is purely an elder-ruled church, and it is not of the Southern Baptist persuasion. The only thing that the congregation votes on is who the next pastor will be when MacArthur is no longer there. In a pamphlet he published in 1984, MacArthur stated that he believed that scripture implies that everyone in the church except the ruling elders is at a lower level of leadership in the decision-making process and should be under the authority of the elders. By this definition the congregation, deacons, and others, are at a level of leadership whereby whatever they do must be approved by the elders before anything they do is accomplished in the church. There is no higher court of appeal in MacArthur’s Grace Community Church than that of the ruling elders.

I think Lumpkins isn't well thought of here, but what he describes is what I understand of MacArthur's polity. His article further says:

Mayhue and others at The Master’s Seminary do not see a congregational form of church polity, or government, or leadership in the New Testament. He downplays the spiritual maturity of new believers to the point that he views the ruling elders as being more spiritually mature and more religiously capable of making decisions that affect the affairs of the church because they are more biblically-centered in their thinking. 

Andy Naselli doesn't refer to MacArthur directly in this article, he is commenting on Dever's polity as taught in this case by Jonathan Leeman. I find Dever's polity more biblical, although I don't believe multiple elders are required. They are an option, not a requirement. Naselli's comment, with which I agree with the caveat that there is no requirement for multiple elders:

While godly, mature Christians disagree on which model is most biblical, I think the most biblical polity is elder-led and congregation-ruled. 

That sums it up. You ought to know be aware of what the policy actually is if you want to make legitimate comparisons.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

T Howard's picture

TOvermiller wrote:

 

T Howard wrote:

 

Am I as your pastor telling you something that is a clear command of Scripture or is an abstract application from Scripture? If the former, you need to obey. If the latter, you may not need to obey.

 

 

I don't think we disagree. Your conclusion, which I've quoted, expresses my thoughts exactly. I agree with you.

My point is that the Greek to which you're appealing doesn't support the argument you're making in this one point. Thus, most English translations (ESV, NASB, NET, KJV, HCSB, RSV; NIV inexplicably translates this as "have confidence in") use the word "obey" not "be persuaded." Therefore, whether a pastor is persuasive enough is not a criteria we should use to gauge whether we obey and submit to what he is saying.

So, while we agree on the major premise of your article, this particular argument needs to be revisited.

TOvermiller's picture

T Howard wrote:

My point is that the Greek to which you're appealing doesn't support the argument you're making in this one point. So, while we agree on the major premise of your article, this particular argument needs to be revisited.

T Howard, thanks for interacting on this detail. The following lexicon entries may be helpful in understanding the sense of this word to which I am appealing, including the passive voice form:

  • "To submit to authority or reason by obeying—‘to obey.’" (Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains [New York: United Bible Societies, 1996], 466.)
  • Peíthomai: "This word has such senses as 'to trust,' 'to be convinced,' 'to believe,' 'to follow,' and even 'to obey.' (Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985], 818.)

The idea is not that a church member has no obligation to obey Scripture unless the pastor can persuade him. Any member is responsible to obey Scripture no matter what his or her pastor says or does. But Scripture governs the parameters of a pastor's authority. As he preaches, teaches, and leads the church, he should be able to demonstrate that he is doing so in accordance with Scripture.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

Steve Davis's picture

Don Johnson wrote:

..........

Mayhue and others at The Master’s Seminary do not see a congregational form of church polity, or government, or leadership in the New Testament. He downplays the spiritual maturity of new believers to the point that he views the ruling elders as being more spiritually mature and more religiously capable of making decisions that affect the affairs of the church because they are more biblically-centered in their thinking. 

Andy Naselli doesn't refer to MacArthur directly in this article, he is commenting on Dever's polity as taught in this case by Jonathan Leeman. I find Dever's polity more biblical, although I don't believe multiple elders are required. They are an option, not a requirement. Naselli's comment, with which I agree with the caveat that there is no requirement for multiple elders:

While godly, mature Christians disagree on which model is most biblical, I think the most biblical polity is elder-led and congregation-ruled. 

That sums it up. You ought to know be aware of what the policy actually is if you want to make legitimate comparisons.

I'll let you and Jim duke it out on his double-downed ignorance and sit back and watch. However, your one quote helps crystallize the issue. Congregational government modeled on democratic principles of equality (think Jean-Jacques Rousseau) gives one vote to each member regardless of spiritual maturity, faithful church attendance, financial support of the church, etc. 

Per Lumpkin, I'm not sure how one can downplay the spiritual maturity of new believers.Galatians 6:1, for one, does speak of those who are spiritual in a church who restore others in a spirit of meekness. Spiritual immaturity describes new believers simply because they are new in the faith and it takes time to mature. That's why pastors shouldn't be novices and why many churches do not allow new believers or even new members to serve in leadership until there is evidence of spiritual maturity. Elders are elders precisely because they are (or should be) "more spiritually mature and more religiously capable of making decisions that affect the affairs of the church because they are more biblically-centered in their thinking."  

Per Naslli, I think he has it partly right, except the congregational-ruled. I think there's a better way to express that since ruling is associated with elders in the NT. Elders lead but can only do it with congregation support and affirmation. So may elder-led, congregation-affirmed.

Don Johnson's picture

Steve Davis wrote:

Per Lumpkin, I'm not sure how one can downplay the spiritual maturity of new believers.Galatians 6:1, for one, does speak of those who are spiritual in a church who restore others in a spirit of meekness. Spiritual immaturity describes new believers simply because they are new in the faith and it takes time to mature.

No argument that the people are at varying levels of maturity. No doubt about it. Good leaders will take into account the relative maturity of their congregation and learn how to guide them. They will also trust the Holy Spirit to use the congregation to guide him as well. I've seen men try to force their will on a congregation and it ends badly. I've also seen good leaders take the time to lead a congregation to a needed decision and the church prospers. I've tried to follow the good models I observed in my formative years, with advice from seasoned pastoral friends and consultation with our people. Praise the Lord we make progress and have never had any serious disagreements among our people. And they aren't all spiritual giants either. We're working on that.

Steve Davis wrote:

Per Naslli, I think he has it partly right, except the congregational-ruled. I think there's a better way to express that since ruling is associated with elders in the NT. Elders lead but can only do it with congregation support and affirmation. So may elder-led, congregation-affirmed.

well, I don't mind your rewording of that, but I can't accept MacArthur's approach. Totally unbiblical in my opinion.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that even episcopal and presbyterian churches have a congregational vote every Sunday; whose rear ends show up in pews.  No?  I can go, to a large degree, with "elder-led,congregation affirmed", as Steve notes, but with the caveat that I've learned in life that a lot of "my" best ideas actually come from other people.  Sometimes it's conversations in the hallway, sometimes it's taking my coffee break with the smokers, but the end result is that isolation in leadership, no matter what the structure, is dangerous.

It really parallels Hayek's writing (and that of others) on the "economic calculation problem" vis-a-vis leaders.  No leader, no matter how intelligent and Godly, can know everything known by those under his authority.  Hence economic decisions are (paradoxically) made better by people of lesser ability who experience the consequences of their own decisions personally.  I would dare suggest we could make a spiritual analogy to this, too. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.