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

Austin T. Duncan | May 8, 2018

If Jesus, the sinless and perfect son of God, limited Himself to speaking nothing during his incarnation except the truth He received from His father, how much more should those who have been called into His ministry speak only on the authority of divine Scripture? – John MacArthur

Heavy-handed, cult-like leaders abound in churches today. They are in both small and large churches. Micromanagers of the flock and power tripping elder boards are not confined to slick, corporate mega-churches. Pastoral authority has been abused and has overreached its God-given boundaries. The top-down leadership, CEO mentality, bullying, and intimidating are not Jesus’ style of leadership. I believe much of it comes down to a misunderstanding of the nature and limits of pastoral authority.

Pastors and elders need a functional understanding of spiritual authority. A lack of clarity will make both leading and following more difficult in the church. Authority is a precious gift from God Among the followers of Jesus, leadership is not a synonym for lordship. intended for our stability and direction. God’s authority is ultimate. The pastor’s authority is delegated and limited by the Word of God. The pastor who understands his authority is a blessing to God’s people because he operates within the boundaries of God’s written word, he increases their confidence in the Scripture, and he honors the conscience and competence of spirit-filled people.

So, what are the nature and limits of pastoral authority? There’s not a single verse that explains everything, but by compilation and consolidation of the Bible’s teaching on authority, we can derive nine principles that will help us define this balance.

Pastoral authority is:

A Delegated Authority

1 Peter 5:2 refers to the church as “the flock of God.” Jesus is called the head of the church (Eph 5:23) and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). The church belongs to Christ. She is His unique possession and that alone reminds the pastor that he does not bear authority in the church because Christ, and Christ alone, demands that right.

Often the pastor is thought to hold an office parallel with that of a steward. Tracing back to ancient times, a steward was responsible for managing the estate of his lord, specifically when the lord was absent. The steward would delegate tasks to the other servants in the household, keep track of the lord’s financial accounts, and oversee the success of the lord’s estate.

That kind of authority is also the authority of the pastor. There is a delegated authority, a delegated leadership. While the Lord readies to return, the pastor is commissioned to faithfully steward the house of God that it might be found ready at His coming.

Limited by Scripture

It is important to understand that no pastor has authority outside God’s Word. We can keep biblical, pastoral authority in check through the sound teaching and parameters set forth in the Word of God.

The preacher is called to interpret and proclaim Scripture with sympathy, compassion, and humility. But he also has the divine charge to present biblical truth with strong authority, commanding God’s people to hear, believe, and obey God’s Word. The pastor must always be aware that what he proclaims is confined to the Word of God and not some dictatorial, preference-laced, selfish agenda.

Christ-like in its Demeanor

Jesus said in the Great Commission, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18). John 3:36 tells us that under His authority, the one who believes the Son has eternal life. In Matthew 8:27 we see that “even the winds and sea obey him.” Undeniably, these verses testify to the unparalleled authority of Christ.

Yet what is so beautiful about Christ is that His matchless authority and His immeasurable compassion always go together. And with our limited, delegated, biblically defined authority, how much more do we need the compassion of our master? Our Lord possessed all authority and He came to serve and to lay His life down as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28). That kind of sacrifice reminds us that we are not CEOs. Pastors are servants —servants and slaves like the Lord who went before us.

Luke 12:37 humbles me each time I read it: “Blessed are those slaves whom their master finds alert when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve and have them take their place at the table, and will come and wait on them.” Jesus is not posturing here, He embodies servitude. Biblical authority is not just marked by correctness but by Christ-likeness.

A Plurality

Eldership in the New Testament is always found in a plural form (1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5). Even looking back at the writings of Solomon in the Proverbs demonstrates the wisdom of leading in a plural system: “Where there is no guidance the people fall, but in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Prov 11:14).

Elders are accountable to one another in church polity. This kind of plurality is wisdom from God and acts as a guard against dangerous overstepping of authority by any one man in the church. Where one man can go wrong, three men might correct him.

Honoring to the Freedom of the Christian

Baptists in the old days called this the “soul competency” or the “freedom of conscience.” The idea here is to trust the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to illuminate, convict, and transform His people. John 17 says that “God will sanctify his people.” We can have confidence that God is at work in the people that He regenerates. That does not excuse human responsibility, but it should empower you to not micromanage people’s sanctification. If leaders are bossy, opinionated, and heavyhanded, their people will be like them. If you keep your preferences in their appropriate containers, your people will learn to do that as well.

Honoring to the Priesthood of all Believers

The pastor is not the mediator between God and man. Because of their position, sometimes pastors think that they are in a place that is different than the people to whom they minister. That is not a biblical conception of our standing before Christ. There is only one head of the church, Jesus Christ. Pastor, you are a church member before you are a pastor. The true picture in the New Testament is not that of a congregation under the authority of the preacher, but of both preacher and congregation under the authority of God’s written Word.

Consistently Exemplary

1 Peter 5 and 1 Timothy 3 remind us that there are requirements to meet before you can be in leadership. Authoritarianism does not fit with a man who is to be gentle, blameless, and concerned for others. The pastor who leads as Christ has mandated models a consistent illustration of a life under the subjugation of the Word of God.

Concerned with Obedience to God, Not the Pastor

Don’t be easily offended when someone doesn’t take your advice, you’re not a medieval monarch. John Owen said, “The authority of the pastor is in respect to their office only. If those who suppose themselves in office do teach and enjoin things that belong not onto their office, there is no obedience due unto them by virtue of this command.”

Owen is communicating here that the pastor’s authority is ministerial, it is not in every area of life. When the pastor departs from Scripture there is neither obedience nor submission due unto them.

Guarding Against Abuses

How you handle the times you overstep defines your progress in managing your pastoral authority in a way that honors God. Pastors, you can apologize, you can admit you are wrong.

Pastoral authority is not an intrinsic authority, it is an authority that is granted by God to those who are called to steward His possession, namely, the church. Leaders have power, but power is safe only in the hands of those who humble themselves to serve. The Holy Spirit calls and enables the minister. That is why He reminds us in 1 Peter 5:3 that we are not to be domineering. This is an important word in this discussion; it means to assert one’s will with arrogance, to be dictatorial, overbearing, or even to bully.

Among the followers of Jesus, leadership is not a synonym for lordship. Our calling is to be servants, not bosses; slaves, not masters. Proper pastoral authority is shown not in power but love, not force but example, not coercion but reason. Leaders have power, but power is safe only in the hands of those who humble themselves to serve.


Austin T. Duncan avatar
Austin T. Duncan serves as the college pastor at Grace Community Church. He is also the Professor of Pastoral Ministry and the Director of D.Min. Studies at The Master's Seminary.

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