Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 16, 2010

The New Testament on Authority (Part 5: The Church)

We’ve taken the last few installments to look at authority in the New Testament.  We discovered that the apostles reserved the exercise of authority for when heresy was in view, and that they expected believers to mature to the point that they no longer needed the perpetual protection of pastors.  (Recall that the New Testament writers used the terms “elder” and “pastor” interchangeably.)  When we think of pastors in the context of their relationship with other members of the household of faith, the New Testament directs us towards influence and away from authority; this influence is inherent in the example pastors provide, to the extent that their lives are worthy of emulating (1 Cor 4:16, e.g.).  They are not conferred with power by ordination or position.  Today we’ll turn our attention to some of the functions we typically assign to pastors and see what the New Testament has to say about them.  We’ll discover that God has delegated considerable responsibility directly to the body as a whole, not via hierarchical channels of church leadership.

1 Tim 5:17 would seem to endorse the practice of most of today’s churches:  “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.”  In other words, one man or small group does all the teaching, preaching, and decision-making.  But as we saw in Hebrews, the translation is far more authoritarian than the original text, particularly when taken in the context of the whole counsel of Scripture.   We will see that there were no individuals conferred with the authority to tell others what to do or think, or to “direct the affairs of the church.”  This phrase, rendered in some translations, “who rule,” is the Greek word proestotes. It does not mean to direct anyone’s affairs.  This word means to “stand before.”  We see it in its noun form in Rom 16:1 to describe Phoebe, a “servant” of the church in Cenchrea.  (I think it’s interesting that when a woman is being described, “rule” is jettisoned in favor of “servant.”  But I digress…)  Proestotes are people who are recognized for their worthy example.  Peter, James, Paul, John, and the writer of Hebrews all stress the importance of finding and imitating, and ultimately becoming someone whose life is worthy of emulation (1 Cor 4:16 & 11:1, Phil 3:17, 2 Thess 3:7, 1 Tim 4:12, Titus 2:7, Heb 6:12 & 13:7, 1 Pet 5:3, 3 Jn 1:11, e.g.).  While most English translations leave us with the impression that the Apostles chose and ordained these people in a top-down, chain-of-command fashion, Acts 14:23 describes the churches as having voted on whom to recognize as elders for themselves.  The Greek text says xeirotonaysantes: they “elected” elders.

Perhaps one of the most important responsibilities we confer upon pastors today is evaluating doctrinal matters.  Not only do pastors typically do most, if not all the teaching, but all the evaluating, as well.  As a result, few Christians today feel competent to critique a biblical teaching.  They can barely feed themselves.  They’re like people reclining in a chaise lounge while the pastor peels grapes and drops them into their mouths.  This is not only exhausting for the pastor, but it also removes the checks and balances that God intended as an intrinsic component of our life together.  We’ve seen previously that there is no biblical warrant for assuming that pastors have a corner on the truth.  Nonetheless, those who hold a divergent viewpoint from the pastor are usually silenced, if not driven out altogether.  In many churches, maturity has devolved into toeing the line on even the most inconsequential doctrinal matters.  This represents a subtle but significant and destructive shift from knowing Christ to knowing about Christ.

This differs considerably from the pattern we observe in the New Testament.  In Acts 15, Paul himself does not decide how to deal with the Judaizers in his own authority.  He is sent by the local congregation (verse 2) to consult with others.  The apostles and elders then act “with the consent of the whole church” (verse 22).  In Acts 17 the Bereans are commended for their careful examination of the Scriptures “to see if what Paul said was true.”  Paul writes to the entire congregation at Rome, “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another” (15:14).   1 Cor 14:26-33 describes all the members not only actively contributing to the meeting, but also evaluating what has been said.  Similarly, in 1 Thess 5:21 Paul urges the entire congregation, not just the elders, to “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”  There is no biblical precedent for a gathering of believers in which a single authority figure does all the talking while the rest listen quietly and do as they’re told.  The admonition, “Perhaps you’d be happier worshipping elsewhere” would have been incomprehensible to the first-century church.  There was no “elsewhere;” there was only one local church, and if you were a believer, you were a part of it.

Dealing with sin and conflict is another function we relegate to clergy, perhaps because dealing with these kinds of personal issues is so uncomfortable.  But again, this is not the pattern of the New Testament church.  In 1 Thess 5:14 Paul urges the entire congregation, not just the pastors, to “admonish the unruly.”  Paul and James consistently put responsibility for judging and dealing with an immoral member on the entire body, not just the elders (1 Cor 5:1-8, 2 Cor 2:6, Gal 6:1, and James 5:19-20).  Jesus taught that if reconciliation cannot be achieved privately, the matter should be brought before the body, not escalated up a chain of authority (Matt 18:15-20).  Paul likewise explains that all the saints, not just pastors, should be involved in settling disputes among themselves (1 Cor 6:1-7).  Even pastors, while being accorded the benefit of the doubt, are nonetheless accountable to the body (1 Tim 5:19).  In fact, the bulk of the New Testament is written to entire groups, not just leaders.

So who is responsible to “direct the affairs of the church?”  The consistent pattern in the New Testament is that this responsibility falls upon the entire body.  I like to refer to this principle as non-hierarchical or consensus leadership.  Many folks I’ve talked with express the fear that without an individual or small group of leaders at the helm, the church would deteriorate into anarchy and heresy.  My reply is that we are not without leadership; but it flows in all directions instead of just from the top down.  We should all be participants in every aspect of body life.


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