The Authority of Elders

The Jewish religious leaders once asked the Lord Jesus to disclose the authority by which He was working (Matt. 21:23). He had already answered that question repeatedly, e.g., “the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father do….” (John 5:19 NKJV), but the religious officials were envious of One who obviously spoke with authority but was not part of their system. Elders in assemblies seeking to follow the New Testament pattern for church leadership often face the same question. If they had titles like “Reverend” or were identified with some large, well-known denomination, their authority to act would be assumed. But “laymen” who hold regular jobs and refer to one another as “brother”-  how can such have “legitimate” authority?

The simple answer is, they cannot— that is, not in this world’s system. Nor have they any desire for it, because He Who sent them said clearly, “My kingdom is not of this world.”(John 18:36). The authority by which church elders serve is not of this world, and in fact, they weaken their God-given authority when they become entangled in this world’s power-politics. Yet because of the temptations of the flesh, we must clearly identify dangers and necessary safeguards in exercising true spiritual authority. Let’s consider some of these.


It is a serious mistake for elders to think lightly of spiritual authority in the day to day workings of the church, as if they were powerless to act because they have no civil authority, and therefore their influence is limited merely to being good examples for the flock. Setting a godly example, to be sure, is certainly important, as Peter wrote to elders (I Pet. 5:3). We might call this the passive side of leadership. But there are also many active responsibilities of elders described in the New Testament which require the exercise of God-given authority. So maintaining a good balance between the active and passive aspects of leading is critical to a healthy church [For more on this, see “Elders: Active or Passive?” ESN 10:6]

The opposite danger is for elders to suppose there is no other authority out- side of their own. It is true that in their own local work, they must have the final word in the teachings and practice of the church. But they must not lose sight of the church at large –  the “universal” aspect of which all local churches are  a small part. The fact that local believers receive instruction from many sources beyond their own particular fellowship raises the important question of the nature of spiritual authority.

There is a spiritual authority that comes with time and experience in which God authenticates His servants in the body of Christ as trustworthy. Paul reminded Timothy that his heritage included truth doctrines and also the responsibility of “knowing from whom you have learned them” (II Tim. 3:14). Of course this does not mean the convictions of outsiders may be imposed upon the local church, but only that wise elders will be sensitive to the fact that spiritual authority is not isolated from, but consistent with, the truth of the one body (Eph. 4:4- 6). They must remember that God has given instructions to all believer-priests, and has given them the authority to obey His word as they see it in matters of personal conduct, family issues and non- essential (“grey areas”) of the faith.

One other danger is for elders to suppose that having a plural leadership guarantees godly authority. Some brethren have scorned “clergy systems,” but don’t realize that they themselves may have become a “plural clergy” within their own assembly. The Biblical pattern is unquestionably plurality, and spiritual authority comes from obedience to all of Scripture, not just the truths concerning any particular form of church government.


Much has been written about the importance of elders working among the believers (Acts 20:28; I Pet. 5:1,2) as well as being over them (I Thess 5:12) as servant leaders. The Lord admonished His apostles to refrain from taking religious titles, and to serve together as brethren under the one Master (Matt. 23:8-10). So we have expressions like “leading men among the brethren” (Acts 15:22). “And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me….” (Gal. 2:9), and “recognize those who labor among you…” (I Thes. 5:12). These all reflect the process of earned Page 2 respect and consequent approval rather than conferred ecclesiastical positions in the church.

As 2 Corinthians 10:18 states, “For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends.” It is God’s work to validate His servants and He will do this in His own time and way (see also 1Cor.11:19).   So the church and elders must be very careful in identifying those whom God has raised up and validated. There are practical implications concerning this, to which we now turn.

Practical Suggestions for Elders Today 

There are many ways in which church elders can imitate the spirit and manner of the apostles in their work today. Here are a few suggestions:

– Avoid defensive or protective attitudes and actions in the work.  When Joshua seemed to resent the apparent com- petition to Moses’ leadership by two men in the congregation of Israel, Moses humbly replied, “Are you zealous for my sake? Oh that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29). Moses’ approach was more on the meek side.

When God forewarned the church of a coming famine, He spoke through a man named Agabus (Acts 11:28). Who was Agabus when the well-known Paul and Barnabas were available? God is sovereign in His work through His people, and can use men other than the recognized leaders.

– Confront problems rather than ignore them. Over many years of listening to the concerns of people in struggling assemblies, no problem has been mentioned more often than the need for good, strong leadership that does not avoid problems. The Lord has provided men to shepherd His people, and He has given them the authority to feed, to lead, to protect and to oversee. Elders, as men of faith, must rely on the authority given to them by the Word of God and the Spirit of God to face every situation devised by the adversary.

– Watch your terminology.  There is something refreshing about great servants of the Lord who are content to be known simply as brother or sister. Even the Savior seemed to prefer the more humble expression “Son of Man,” to “Son of God.” Remember that Scripture never uses spiritual gifts as religious titles. In the same vein, “pastor” is one of many valuable gifts in the church, but we have no authority for using it as a religious title.

Likewise, it is fitting to speak of “the Lord’s people” rather than “my people.” Some will probably see this as hair- splitting, but using words carefully can help us battle the natural inclination of the flesh to control others.

– Check your decision-making process.  Has the elders’ meeting become a closed-door session –  something exclusive where all assembly decisions are made and later communicated to the waiting flock? Or are church decisions made having listened to the people, and so far as is possible, involving them in the decision making process? This is an important part of discipleship, and wise elders know that men’s meetings and even congregational meetings can instill a sense of ownership in the work among the Christians. It’s a good sign when elders take advantage of any available godly wisdom for input and counsel.

– Equip the younger.  When elders take along young men on visitations to the saints, when they help a young brother prepare a message and ask the believers to support and encourage him by giving careful attention to his ministry, when those who have served well as deacons or in other capacities are invited to sit in on elders meetings, it is a healthy sign for the church.

When dealing with thorny problems, don’t reinvent the wheel.  Vast treasures of wisdom and experience are available through all sorts of literature, conferences, gifted speakers and servants who have already worked through the same issues you may be facing. We must not so emphasize the autonomy of the church that we destroy the equally important inter-dependence which marks the “one body” of Christ. We need not agree with other Christians in every detail to learn from them! It is no mark of weakness to be teachable.

There are many other creative and practical ways in which elders can resist the temptation to become spiritual power- brokers. But more than any method, this matter is first of all a question of the heart. We cannot do better than to desire that the mind of Christ be formed in us. He “being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation taking the form of a bondservant….” (Phil. 2:6,7).

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