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The Authority of the Pastor

2 Timothy 2:15-16

15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

16 But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness.


As I travel about the country to talk with pastors and church leaders, the problem I find them struggling with most is the question of authority and leadership in the church. This is, I believe, the single most pressing issue facing our churches today. Our churches are either trying to resolve the question of who is the leader or they are trying to deal with the problems and mistakes of leadership. One reason why this is such a crucial issue is that no church can grow to its highest potential unless there is a good relationship between the pastor and his people. And basic to a good relationship is the right understanding of the role and authority of the pastor in the church.

One of the key passages of scripture that speaks to us on this subject is found in the book of Hebrews. It says, “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation,” and “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:7, 17).

At first reading these verses seem to suggest that the pastor has absolute authority in the church—that he is in control and the people are to obey him and submit to him. There are three words in particular in these two verses that seem to suggest this: They are the word rule (used twice), the word obey, and the word submit. However, a careful examination of these verses in the original language gives quite a different picture.

Let’s look at them for a moment. The Greek word translated rule employed here means “to lead.” Hershel Hobbs says of this word, “It is best translated ‘the one who is in front of you.’” The Criswell Study Bible points out that this is not the word that is generally used to mean “to reign” as king or governor. There is such a word for that in the Greek language, but the Holy Spirit did not choose to use that word here. The word obey is most often translated “to persuade, to convince.” It is the same word that was used by King Agrippa when he said to the apostle Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28). The word submit means “to yield.” These two words together mean that we are to remain persuadable and pliable to the teachings and leadership of those whom God has called to look after our spiritual welfare. We are to keep a responsive heart, an open mind, and a teachable spirit toward God’s ministers. We are not to be “stiff necked” as Israel was of old.

So the best interpretation of this passage is not that the pastor is not a dictator, but that he is one who leads by persuasion. He does not command the church; he rather attempts to convince the church. And the church should be open and receptive to God’s truth as he presents it. The church should be willing to be persuadable and to yield to it when the truth is presented.

If you have any doubts about this, read Peter’s advice to pastors. He said they should go about their sacred duties “neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Remember that scriptures always harmonize. They are never contradictory. The pastor is not to be a petty tyrant or a tinhorn dictator. He is to lead by example, by influence, by persuasion. He is to persuade his people by the life he lives, the example he sets and the truth he preaches.

I want you to note several things from this Hebrews passage.

First, notice the realm of pastoral leadership. The writer is talking here about spiritual leadership, not church administration. He is not talking about the pastor leading the church to buy property or to construct a building for the early church had neither of these. He is talking about the pastor’s preaching and teaching. It is their instruction and their spiritual guidance that should be followed. We should be open and responsive to them as they preach God’s word to us for they are men who care for our souls.

Second, notice the responsibility of leadership. The leader is one who “must give account.” I heard a pastor recently give an unusual interpretation of this statement. He said that long after most Christians are enjoying heaven, their pastor will still be standing outside the pearly gates. “Having given an account for himself, he is then going to have to give an account for every one of us” (i.e., all his members). When I heard him say that, my first thought was, if that’s true I’m going to get out of this job right now. It will be hard enough to give an account for myself. I’m not about to try to answer for everyone in my congregation. But that, of course, is not what the writer of Hebrews meant at all. He was saying that pastors must give an account for the way they have taught, what they have preached, and the way they have led their people. They are responsible to God not only for their own life but also for the leadership that they give to the Lord’s church. They will answer to him for that on Judgment Day. And that in itself is an awesome responsibility.

Third, notice the response that we should make to leadership. We should yield to our pastor’s leading so that it will not be “unprofitable” for us. If we turn a deaf ear to the ministry of God’s servants then the Lord cannot fulfill his intended purposes for us. Paul said in Ephesians that the Lord has given gifted leaders to the church to equip us for service and to build us up spiritually (Ephesians 4:11-12). If we do not honor and respect our Christian leaders, if we are not open and responsive to the truth, if we turn a deaf ear to them, the Lord will not be able to accomplish what he intended to accomplish through them.

When Peter the Great, the eighteenth-century czar of Russia, came to power he determined to modernize Russia and bring it out of the dark ages. So he traveled incognito throughout Europe learning as much as he could from other countries. When he returned to Russia he said to his people, “I will drag you, kicking and screaming, into the modern world.” When a pastor has to drag his people forward kicking and screaming, the ministry becomes grievous to him and unprofitable to them. So these verses teach us that pastors are to lead by persuasion, by example, by influence. And if their people will be open and responsive to what the Lord says to us through them, he will be able to accomplish his intended purpose in us.

What, then, is the authority of the pastor? There is none! Except that which is given to him by the church or the power of his influence. There is no authority inherent in the office, and there is none invested in it by a religious hierarchy. When it comes to authority in my church I feel like the man who was approached by a committee that said, “We are looking for someone with a little authority.” He responded, “Here I am. I have about as little authority as anyone I know.” Nowhere in the New Testament is the pastor presented as a ruler. His role is leadership and inspiration. He is to lead in planning, to inspire cooperation and to guide the people. He is to be a counselor, an overseer, an administrator, and a shepherd. I don’t run my church. I don’t even want to. I lead it. I tell my people where to go, and sometimes they tell me. I never issue ecclesiastical edicts or executive memos. I lead by persuasion, by influence, and by example.

I was speaking on the subject of pastoral leadership in a conference recently and I said, “It’s the pastor’s responsibility to lead and to feed his people.” And one of the pastors in attendance spoke up and said, “Yes, and it’s the people’s responsibility to follow and to swallow.” That sounds good, but it is not what the scriptures teach. The Biblical pattern was set out by the apostle Paul when he said of the people at Berea, “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Dictators, whether political or ecclesiastical, are the most insecure people on earth. They cannot tolerate opposition or diverse opinions. So they depose, imprison, or assassinate their opposition. Only the strong, the secure, and the confident can allow opposition without suppressing it. Though the apostles in the early church were given special authority by the Lord, they seldom used it. They choose most often rather to lead by persuasion. This is the pattern we see again and again in the New Testament.

Look at several instances that indicate this. In Acts 6 a problem arose in the Jerusalem church over aid to widows. The Grecians felt neglected and began to complain. The apostles had been handling this matter but it was taking them away from their spiritual ministries. Others could handle this ministry more effectively. So the apostles proposed a solution: “Look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” (Acts 6:3). Then there follows this significant statement: “And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose ...” (Acts 6:5).

Do you see the pattern? A problem emerges. The apostles propose a solution and persuade the church they are right. Then “the whole church” acts, and the work of God goes forward with a new surge. The same pattern emerges at the Jerusalem conference. The church was in a dispute over the doctrine of salvation. There were those who said, “Except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

The opposing view was that salvation came by grace through faith in Christ alone. There followed what the Bible called “no small dissension and disputation.” That means there was a big row. There was much discussion. Everyone spoke his mind. Finally, under the leadership of Paul and Barnabas along with the other apostles the issue was settled. It was salvation by grace through faith. There follows this telling comment concerning the whole matter: “Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church ...” (Acts 15:22). 

In 1 Corinthians 5 the church had to deal with a brother living in immorality. Paul wrote that they should dismiss the man from the fellowship. It was to be done, “When ye are gathered together.” That statement is in a passive voice. The church was called together, probably by the pastor, and acted in the name and in the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. Once again, the pattern is the same. A problem emerges. The leaders suggested a solution. The church acted, and the work of God prospered. In 1 Corinthians 16:2-4, Paul urges, not orders, the church to gather the offering for the relief of the Jerusalem saints. Then when he came to Corinth, “whomsoever you shall approve by your letters [of recommendation], them will I send to bring your liberality [offering] to Jerusalem.” Paul did not choose these men; the church did.

The letters of Philemon are a classic example. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away from Colossae to Rome where Paul led him to Christ. With this letter to Philemon he sent Onesimus back home. He asked Philemon to receive him, not as a slave, but as a Christian brother. As an apostle Paul could have commanded that Philemon do this. Instead he wrote one of the most diplomatic appeals on record. He wanted the decision to be Philemon’s, not his. Ever and always that is the pattern in the New Testament. There is no ordering, no edicts, no ecclesiastical decrees—there is only the leadership of persuasion, of influence, of example.

None of this is intended to downgrade the office of the pastor, but to try to put it in the proper prospective. A wise pastor will follow the New Testament pattern and involve his people in formulating a program. And he will work harder than anyone else in the performance of it. He should say, “This is what I think we should do. Come on, folks, let’s go!” To lead by persuasion has to be one of the most difficult jobs in the world. It takes the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, and the strength of Samson to do it well. That’s partly because you have to work primarily with volunteers, none of whom you can command. And many of whom, when you make a mistake, are eager to let you know. If you take a firm stand you will always alienate some people. If you don’t, people will run over you. So for forever and a day you are walking a tightrope and there is someone, somewhere mad at you.

I was considering a move to another church recently and word leaked out about it. And I received this anonymous note from one of our members. It read:

“This note is frank. Everyone knows about the offer you are considering—why don’t you take it and leave Green Acres! We need a change ... we need a new pastor who can put us at the top and out front as a community leader. We love you, but we don’t need you anymore. A concerned but loving member.”

That will bless you, won’t it? With friends like that, who needs enemies? Those kinds of letters come to every leader sooner or later.

When I received that letter Green Acres was twice as big as any other church in East Texas and the sixth-largest church in all of Texas. During my years as pastor we had grown from an average attendance of 700 in Sunday school to an average of 2,500 per Sunday and still growing. We were $30,000 ahead of our budget in the midst of the worst recession Texas had experienced since the Great Depression. We were sponsoring five local missions and had averaged building a mission church in a foreign country every year for 11 years. We were all but debt free and averaging 10 new members per Sunday as we had for 16 years. And my friend wanted strong leadership to put Green Acres “at the top and out front.” You soon learn you just can’t please everybody.

As a leader you will fail and you will make mistakes in your personal judgment. You will trust some people and it won’t work out. You will bring people into places of leadership that will be a mistake. You will tell somebody to do something, and it will be the wrong thing to do. People won’t carry through. People will let you down. And sometimes you will be too authoritative. Sometimes you will overstep your bounds. And sometimes you will be defensive because you will feel the need to explain something that you did. In the ministry, there are always enough successes to keep you on your feet and enough failures to keep you on your knees. With this understanding of the difficulties involved, what does it take to lead by persuasion as a pastor should? What are the marks of a Christian leader?

1. Be a servant.

First, he is trusted by his people. This is primary. It is amazing what people will do for you if they trust you and really believe in you. And they will trust you if they believe that you have their best interest at heart, if they believe that you will not do anything that will result in their being hurt. So if you are going to lead by persuasion, you are really going to have to lead from the vantage point of being a servant.

As soon as people begin to believe that you have your own interest at heart they will cease to trust you. They will feel that they are being used by you to accomplish your own goals—and they will probably be right.

In the Hebrews passage the leaders are described as men who “care for your souls.” When people really believe that you care for their soul they will most likely follow you.

2. Take the initiative.

Second, he always takes the initiative. Leaders don’t sit around waiting for someone else to think of what to do. They take the initiative and get things done. That’s the way you can always spot a leader. Even though he may be in a place of subordination, he takes the lead.

There are five principles for taking the initiative:

• Identify the need. You must first crystallize the problem in your own mind.

• Come up with a solution. Develop a plan for solving the problem.

• Convince others that you are right and enlist them to support your plan.

• Delegate responsibility. You can’t do everything yourself. You must inspire others to join you in the effort.

• Work alongside your people in achieving the goal.

Nehemiah is a good example of what I am talking about. In the project of rebuilding the walls of ancient Jerusalem he didn’t run around buying land and building his own bank account. He saw what needed to be done, figured out how to do it, and then convinced others to join him in accomplishing the task. He then organized the workers, assigning each group a specific project. Then, taking his trowel and his sword, he worked alongside the people.

That’s leadership at its best.

3. Don’t gamble.

Third, he uses good judgment. A leader is usually not a gambler in the essential things. He may take a calculated risk, but he doesn’t trust luck. He doesn’t go at a task and hope for the best. He doesn’t do stupid things. His greatest fear is that he will do something foolish and the people will say, “I’ll never again follow that man.”

That, by the way, is the most common reason why men fail in the ministry—not because of their preaching, not because of their morals, not because of their lack of visitation, but because they don’t use good judgment. They run off too fast in certain things without really counting the cost. As a leader you are not allowed too many mistakes without a breakdown of confidence. You must use good judgment.

In the old Amos ’n' Andy show on radio, Amos once asked the Kingfish why he had such good judgment. “Well,” said the Kingfish, “good judgment comes from experience.”

“Then, where does experience come from?” asked Amos.

“From bad judgment.” 

Good leaders learn from their own mistakes and from the mistakes of others.

4. Speak with authority.

Fourth, he speaks with authority. He has confidence without cockiness, boldness without brashness. To speak with authority you must know your subject and mean what you say. The pastor must be authoritative in the pulpit or people will not believe him. And he must lead with authority or people will not follow him.

The people said of Jesus, “He speaks as one who has authority.” He knew his subject and he meant what he said. And people sensing it followed him. In every sphere of life, the expert bears an air of authority. A musician tells how when Toscanini mounted the rostrum, authority flowed from him and the orchestra felt it. In the same way people are looking for authority today. And when you know what you are talking about, they will sense it and they will follow you.

5. Get excited.

Fifth, he is enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is not a just a rah-rah spirit that goes around saying, “Praise the Lord” and “Hallelujah.” It is a combination of energy, excitement, and expectation. Many Christians lack all three of these qualities. They are not only like salt that has lost its savor, they are also like pepper that’s lost its pep.

Every Christian should be enthusiastic. In fact, the word enthusiasm comes from two words, “in” and “theos,” meaning, “God in us.” When God is in us, we are enthusiastic. Without enthusiasm we are not only the blind leading the blind, we are the bland leading the bland.

Somebody asked Mark Twain the secret to his success. He replied, “I was born excited.” I wasn’t born excited, but I was born again excited 40 years ago, and I haven’t gotten over it yet.

6. Look for the opportunities.

Sixth, he is optimistic. There is an old saying, “A pessimist sees a difficulty in every opportunity, and an optimist sees an opportunity in every difficulty.” Good leaders focus on objectives, not obstacles. They are like a good hurdler. The hurdler doesn’t focus on the hurdle, he just sees the finish line. He looks at the destination, not at the obstacles to prevent his getting there.

A leader cannot be easily discouraged or diverted. Somebody has said, “Where there is a will, there is a won’t.” You must face opposition and still keep an optimistic spirit.

7. Be an example.

Seventh, he leads by example. He sets the pace and the pattern for others to follow. The apostle Paul challenged his readers to be followers of him as he was a follower of Christ. He told Timothy to be an example of the believer. Peter said to the elders that they should be examples to the flock.

Older women should be models to younger women, according to Titus 2:3-5. And the writer of Hebrews tells believers to “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7, ESV).

8. Get the people going.

Eighth, he activates others. He gets other people involved and working. He delegates to others to help them grow and increase his productivity. Moses had to learn how to do this from his father-in-law (Exodus 18:1-27). You may have to learn it also. It is essential to success.

It is most interesting that having challenged us to follow our leaders, the writer of the book of Hebrews then writes, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

Why would he say that? Because it is in the nature of things that all earthly leaders must come and go. They have their day, they lead in their generation, and then they must pass from the scene. They have their part in the drama of life, and then the curtain comes down. But Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. His preeminence is permanent; his leadership is forever. And therein lies the secret of earthly leadership. The real leader is the man who is led himself by Jesus Christ. The men who have made the church great and the men who have led others on the upward way, are the men who in every age and every generation have themselves been led by the eternal and unchanging Christ. He who walked the way of Galilee is still as powerful as ever.

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Paul W. Powell - www.PaulPowellLibrary.com

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