This post will be a bit more technical as I attempt to work out the Greek meanings of various words in the NT. Admittedly, I am a novice in Greek, so I encourage you (as with anything I write) to study it for yourself to determine the validity of my interpretation.
A handful of passages in the New Testament would lead one to believe that the elder has official authority over the church. Many hold the view that an elder’s authority is granted on the basis of his office. The argument I will lay out here is that the pastor does not have official authority over the church and that no person in a church has authority over another in an official sense.
Let’s start by looking at Jesus’ words concerning leadership in his Kingdom. This is always the place to begin when thinking of the role of leaders in the church.
Mt 20:25-26 “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant’”
Lk 22:25-26 “And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.’”
The word here translated “authority” is exousia in the Greek. It refers to ones right and ability to command others. Here, Jesus denies church leadership any such authority. In fact, the authority which a leader of the church has is equal to the slave or the youngest child. The elder’s status is equal to those who have the least authority in society. We should not view this as a negative idea. Jesus is explaining the nature of his Kingdom. It is gloriously and beautifully upside down.
Let’s also consider the evidence of Paul’s epistles. All of the letters are written to “The Church at______.” The only exception is Philippians, where he addresses it to the church, and then mentions the elders and deacons in passing. This is enormously important in understanding authority. Think of all of the instructions Paul gives. He does not tell the elders to deal with the issues, but the whole church, together. Think of the overwhelming issues in Corinth and Galatia! If the elders had such great authority as some would suggest, it would seem that Paul would expect them to take care of false teachings and immorality. But, instead he instructs the church to deal with it for themselves.
Now, we turn to the tricky part: the verses which imply authority for the elder. It should be noted, again, that any understanding we have of church leadership should be understood in light of Jesus’ statement about it. If we neglect to do so, we will be forced to say that the New Testament contradicts itself.
1 Tm 5:17 “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.”
1 Thes 5:12-13 “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.”
The word translated “have charge” and “rule” is proistemi. It is a compound word literally rendered, “stand before.” At times it can be translated as authority; however, it can also be translated as “care for” or “lead.” Context must guide how we translate. Both of these passages are exhortations for the church to recognize and respect the elders because it is a noble and difficult work to live righteously as an example and to care for the church. In the context of the New Testament as a whole, we can see that Jesus condemns any exousia type authority in the church. So, it is only reasonable to understand proistemi here in terms of “caring for” or “leading by example.”
Heb 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”
You can’t get clearer than this, right? Unfortunately, this is a clear muddling of the Greek. The word here translated “obey,” is peithesthe. Its root word, peitho, means “persuade.” It is in the middle voice, which means that the action is happening to the subject rather than the direct object. For example, in the sentence: “I kicked Johnny,” the action (kicked) is happening to the direct object: Johnny. In the sentence, “I kicked myself,” the action is happening to the subject: I (myself). Unlike English, Greek words are formed differently if they are used differently in the sentence. It is immensely important to know that the middle voice is used here. The literal translation is, “Be persuaded by…” The subject (you) performs the action (be persuaded) on itself. Thus, this is not a call to obey the elder’s commands, but to allow them to persuade us.
The elder is worthy of double honor. Their words should be held with more weight because they have proved themselves to be wise and upright citizens of the kingdom. Why wouldn’t you heed their words?
The next word in Heb 13:17 which catches a lot of attention is “submit.” The Greek word hupeiko can mean, “accept someone’s authority,” or “yield to.” Once again, context must determine how we interpret. Jesus condemns exousia authority and we are told to allow ourselves to be persuaded by the elders (as opposed to “obey” them). So, we do not submit ourselves in the sense of obeying their commands, but as they have shown themselves to be upright and wise people, there really wouldn’t be much of a reason to counter what they say. Because of their experience and relationship with God they have great discernment into to the direction and doctrine of the church. So, as we weigh their teachings to consider the validity, and as we consider their suggestions for church decisions we should yield ourselves to their wisdom—even when we disagree or go in a different direction than they suggest.
1 Peter 5 is one of the only times when we find a substantive direct address to elders (this shows how central they actually are to the functioning of the church). In v. 2 Peter tells elders to shepherd the flock and to provide oversight. What is “oversight?” Well, Peter’s words are exactly in line with Jesus’. He says that oversight is not like a lord over his servants (for, as Jesus says, the pastor is the servant). Rather, oversight is caring for and watching over the church. It is to live as an example that they would be wise to follow. The elder is given no authority to tell a person that they must live a certain way—the elder can only live that way and encourage them to do the same.
The Greek word translated “church” is, ekklesia. The meaning of this word is, for me, some of the most substantial proofs for what I’ve argued thus far. Ekklesia does not simply mean “assembly.” It is a specific kind of assembly—namely, a parliamentary assembly. According to the BAGD lexicon, the ekklesia is an “assembly of a regularly summoned political body.” In such an assembly each person has an equal say in the decisions and direction made therein. We find, then, that authority is not given to one—or a few—it is given to all members of the local body, because each person’s voice is equally important and necessary in following the Spirit of God. The church has authority to deal with issues of heresy, immorality, etc. (c.f. Paul’s letters, esp. 1 & 2 Corinthians and Galatians), and to enact church restoration (Matthew 18).
In the typical Southern Baptist church (in which I have grown up), the members pride themselves on having authority over the pastor. This, many argue, keeps him accountable. I would argue—having been in a ministerial role, and having grown up closely with pastors—this does more to stifle their voices and keep them more worried about pleasing people than Jesus. It keeps them from teaching things which may be different from what the church has traditionally thought. The attitude of, “You better play by our rules; we pay you!” is entirely foreign to Scripture. Elders should have the freedom to share what they truly believe and not fear their members.
I believe that Scripture clearly shows us that no person has authority over another in the Body. Only Christ is the head and authority of his people. We are to gather in mutual submission to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21). When Christ speaks through a person—as each teaches, sings, prays, reads Scripture, prophesies, etc. in turn—we must submit ourselves to them. Hierarchy is absent in the NT church. In this way the headship of Christ is made known and his authority and leading is central to our gathering.
Do you see evidence for pastoral authority? Do you see evidence for church authority over the pastor? Do you think there is too much emphasis on humanly authority in the modern church?