Two words with similar meanings in the New Testament are power and authority. Power is the strength or ability to act; authority is the right to act. When applied to God, the words are nearly synonymous, since God is both the ultimate power and the final authority in the universe. However, when used of men, it is different. One can have power to act, but no authority, or one can have the right or authority to do something, but lack the power. In general, bad men dislike authority but crave power.
These two words are important in the Scriptures. Examples of well known verses using them can be seen in the following literal translations: Matthew 28:18 spoken by the Lord Jesus after His resurrection: “All authority has been given unto me in heaven and on earth….”; John 1:12 in reference to His followers: “To as many as received Him, to them He gave authority to become the children of God…”; and as a promise to His disciples in Acts 1:8 “But ye shall receive power after the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
With all of the different “authorities” in the world, it is an important question as to what authority should govern the Christian and the Christian church. According to Romans 13, God is the supreme authority; all human authority is derived from Him, and is therefore delegated authority. Human government, society, commerce and the family all depend on the right use of authority. It is no different in the church. To provide leadership and preserve order, God has established an authority structure for the church. This is a broad subject, and for this article, we want to inquire specifically about the authority of the leaders i.e., the elders of the church. What kind is it? How does it work out in practical living? How can it affect the peace and harmony of the fellowship?
Jesus and Authority
First, we should remind ourselves of how the Lord Jesus related to the authorities of His day and in His life. Luke 2:51 tells us that as a child, He was subject to His parents. During His years of ministry, He spoke and acted as a Son under the authority of His Father (John 14:10 KJV). The common people realized that He taught them as one having authority (Matt. 7:29). On trial before kings and rulers, He made it clear that His kingdom was not competing against theirs in this world (John 18:36), and that they could have no authority against Him unless it was given to them by His Father (John 19:11). His followers were to live in submission to earthly governments so far as possible (Luke 20:25; I Peter 2:13), yet carry on His work with the conviction that He is the true King of kings and Lord of lords, and His word is the believer’s final authority.
Those who take leadership, however, should work by a very different principle than followed in the world. The Lord said, “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your servant…” (Matthew 20:25-26). And so, for example, the Master washed the feet of His own disciples before He died (John 13).
Elders of the Church
Such thoughts provide a fitting background for church leaders today. Elders, as God’s authorities in spiritual things have no civil power in the church. They are not placed in their position by the popular vote of the people, but by the sovereign act of the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). As they serve, the people of the congregation are admonished to know (or recognize) them because of the work they are doing (I Thessalonians 5:12) and submit to them (Hebrews 13:17). This voluntary submission of believers will be blessed by God as He upholds the authority of those He has given to the churches. Many verses exhort believers to submit to those in authority just as they would to the Lord In the world, submission is sometimes viewed as a bad word; in the church, it is a mark of devotion to Christ.
Elders, then, will always be working to maintain a godly balance in their dealings in the church. They must not be over bearing (lording it over God’s heritage, I Peter 5:3), nor too weak, standing by while evil men or false teachers harm the church.
The Practical Outworking
How will all of this work out in relationships within the church? A Spirit-filled elder will live and serve with the conviction that the Lord will uphold him at all times. He needs no intervention from civil authorities to shepherd the church. In fact, the Lord provided no court of appeals in spiritual matters beyond the local church (Matt. 18:15-17). The elder cannot be timid or fearful. For him gentleness and boldness are not opposites. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the Lord Jesus often spoke strong words to groups, but was tender with individuals. Sometimes we do things in reverse. Our Lord stood up in anger when His Father’s interest was compromised, but turned the other cheek when attacked personally. Again, we sometimes do the opposite.
All of this becomes clearer when we understand one of the fruits of the Spirit: meekness (Galatians 5:23), which some have mistakenly viewed as a synonym for weakness. It actually refers to great moral strength held in control. This principle is brought out in two important verses: II Corinthians 10:8 and 13:10. Paul states that the authority God had given him was for the edification (building up) of the believers, not for their destruction or for his own benefit. By so much, it is acknowledged that a misuse of authority can harm the church.
Domineering elders can do great damage. People are controlled by fear. In severe cases, the result is a cult. As a safe guard, church eldership is always a plurality, a team effort. It took time and team work for the apostles and elders to write to the young churches concerning a difficult matter: “It seemed good to us, having come to one accord….”, and then: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…(Acts 15:25, 28).
In the primary passage on the qualifications of elders (I Tim. 3:1-7), words like “temperate,” “sober-minded,” and “not violent” describe them as mature men of the congregation, not exalted above, but laboring among the people.
There is something refreshing about a local church that becomes known for the grace and kindness of its leaders. Order is maintained, necessary disciplines are carried out, yet the whole spirit of the work is one of life and growth. Young believers need “space” to learn the lessons of life, and they need to do it in the environment of a caring family. Where elders are true servants, they will have no need to bark out orders and issue commands; the flock will love and respect them, and want to follow their lead. And in those occasional times when their authority is spurned or rejected, having given careful attention to those Scriptures which apply (e.g. Rom.. 16:17-18, Titus 3:10-11…), they will find satisfaction as they trust the Chief Shepherd to vindicate them in the time and manner of His own choosing. But He will do it, just as He promised.