Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock…
1 Peter 5.1-3
Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe…pay attention to yourself and to your teaching; preserve in these things, for as you do this you will ensure your salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.
1 Timothy 4.12-16
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.
In Sunday school, the topic of the authority of pastors and the common abuse of that office came up. It is sadly common enough for pastors to become abusive in their authority, or, at the least, those who do it are often highly visible. Moreover, those who have been removed from the pastorate can tinge our perspective of any other pastor we come across. If we have had a pastor who has abused his authority, it is very easy to be fearful that it will happen again. We can avoid the necessity of being in a local church context just so we don’t have to experience this again. But in living in this kind of fear, we can become legalistic ourselves and impose undue burdens on others just like the Pharisees (consider Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23). No one is good enough for me, no church or pastor is good enough for me. We develop the habit of neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some. Perhaps this was part of your past, or perhaps this is where someone you know is at.
Within the context of the Bible, we ought to seek to have a right understanding of the pastor’s authority. We can identify two different audiences that the Bible commands: the pastors/elders and the church members. The first two passages above are directed to the pastors/elders. For them they have a particular responsibility. Ami has mentioned to me how authority is much more than someone having control. It actually implies responsibility. The pastor/elder is responsible for many things and from his perspective he should lead not domineering like a slave-master but gently. He is to be an example first and foremost. Paul tells Timothy that he should seek to be an example in every public and private area of his life: in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. Pay attention to yourself and your teaching.
Why is a pastor-elder supposed to lead this way? I think we could find many explanations for this, but I would suggest that it is because he is simply an under shepherd. The pastor is not the one who makes things happen. He is not the one who builds the church. Instead, like Paul says in 1 Corinthians, one person waters, one person plants the seed. We are providing the circumstances (i.e. we are being faithful to our calling), and it is God who will give the growth. Think of my apple or cherry trees. I planted them, I watered them and I’ll prune them this winter, but there is no guarantee I’ll have a harvest of fruit. It is God who will provide me with apples and cherries. The work of the pastor is a humble work that entrusts itself to God.
The other perspective is that of the church member. For the church member, the Bible is clear in encouraging each individual to submit to their leaders, the ones who are teaching them the very word of God. Now if the pastors/elders are domineering it would be a great challenge, but in a healthy church the pastors ought to consider carefully what demands they place on the consciences of the congregation. A wise pastor goes only as far as laid out in Scripture. So in a healthy church the congregation is ultimately submitting to God’s word as taught and proclaimed in scripture, and in following the direction of the pastor/elder, the congregation benefits! The Hebrews passage above says that it is profitable to follow so that the pastors may lead with joy in seeing you grow spiritually.
The difficulty is that there is no perfect human being either as the pastor or the church members. Each person has his or her own blind spots because of the spread of death and sin in the world. So we also acknowledge that even though the picture described above is ideal, we live in an imperfect situation where we are struggling towards the ideal by the power of the Holy Spirit through the wok of Son of God to the praise of the Father. May we seek to be faithful in these things.