by RUDY RAY
“Authority” is a vital subject for churches today, and one that has become controversial among Bible believers. A proper understanding and practice of authority is absolutely vital for the Lord’s testimony. Many churches have been torn apart over this issue. Many more are spiritually weak because of misunderstanding, and many are in grave danger of losing the testimony of the Lord because of taking a wrong position on this matter.
The subject of authority is vast. In this article we will seek to deal with authority as it relates to the local assembly. I will make fourteen basic statements concerning authority in the local assembly and comment on some of them. Please do not jump to conclusions as you read these, for each one aids in the understanding of the others.
- #1 — This first point is really the most crucial. If we go astray from this point, nothing else can be right. All church structure (including the structure of authority) must come forth spontaneously from “life.” The river (life) makes its own riverbed (structure). We cannot make the riverbed (structure) and then invite the river (life) to come through our construction. Rather, the river moves and as it does it makes its own riverbed to flow through. So the life of the Spirit in the assembly will form its own structure. Thus all New Testament structure is flexible (moves with the life) and not rigid (Matt.9:14-17).
However, the basic structure of the church is set forth in the Scriptures and should be studied and restudied closely so as to check the structure being formed. The Spirit does not bring structures that are in opposition to the Word. It is all too easy for the flesh to sneak in, and even for lying spirits to work. We must test the “spirits” by the Word. God would have it that if the “life” leaves, the structure collapses. The Lord greatly detests “forms” without power (2 Tim. 3:5). No one can build a N.T. church by just putting into practice N.T. principles or structure. A New Testament church is built by the Holy Spirit – period! No amount of proper structure, principles, etc., can build a church if the Spirit is not in complete control. If the Spirit is manifest in an assembly, He will structure the church according to the N.T. guidelines .
The following points are concerned with what we believe to be N.T. principles concerning church structure.
- #2 — There is room for only ONE true authority in the local church, and that authority is the Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Christ Himself is the absolute Head (authority) of every local church. If any other authority besides Christ’s comes into the church, then the church is ruined as long as it gives ground to other “authorities.” This is a basic and vital point (Col. 1:18; Eph.4:5,15).
- #3 — Our Head has given us the authoritative Word – the Scriptures – in particular, the N.T. documents. The Scriptures are our sole source of exercised authority. Those who exercise Christ’s authority in the assembly truly do so only as they hold forth the Word of God.
- #4 — The Lord Jesus must be Head in a living, practical way (Co1.2:9). Just about all churches would say that Christ is the Head of their assembly. But His Headship is rarely displayed concretely by what churches do in their practice.
- #5 — All believers are responsible directly to the Head (Jesus), and also are responsible to one another (Rom.14:4; Rev.l:5-6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Eph.5:21).
- #6 — All believers are priests and all are gifted. Therefore all must take their place in the assembly in a living way. All can pray, worship, witness and minister in and to the church according to their gift and experience in the Lord (Rev.l:5-6; Eph.4:7,16; Rom.12:3-8; 1 Cor.12-14)
- #7 — There are certain brothers (and perhaps sisters) who not only are gifted (as are all brethren) but also themselves gifts to the church. These have the ministry of the Word (Eph.4:11-12).
- #8 — There is no ”office” as such in the local assembly. Most people have the idea that “office” is an official position. Most believe that if a person is “officially” placed in the position of elder, pastor, bishop, etc., then because of that “office” they have “authority.” It is in this sense that there is no such thing as an “office” in the N.T. But there are functions (Rom.12:4; cf. Vine’s N.T. Dictionary). A function is the action, duty or work that a particular person should perform. Example: an elder should oversee.
We have constructed a lot of notions about “office” that rest on human tradition, and are not found in the N.T. The King James has “office” in Rom. ll:13, 12:4 and 1 Tim.3:l. In Rom. 11:13 the Greek word is diakonia or “service.” In Rom.12:4 the Greek word is praxis, or “action/function.” In 1 Tim. 3:l, “office” is not in the text. The verse simply says, “if any one aspires to oversight’ (episkope).
- #9 — Christ ‘s authority is manifested in the assembly through the gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit. Since the Spirit is the only true authority of Christ in the church (cf. 2 Cor.3:17-18), then we need to know how He brings forth His authority. One way He does this is through His gifts and ministries.
“The ministry God appoints is authority …. The fact that someone has the supply constitutes his authority …. Whoever is gifted has a ministry and whoever has a ministry has authority” (W. Nee).
In one sense the entire body shares in authority (Eph.5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5). This means that we recognize one another’s gifts, knowledge, or experience in the Lord and we submit to the Holy Spirit in each member. Even sisters share in the authority according to their gifts and experience in the Lord. However, they are not to exercise authority in the church as overseers.
- #10 — Christ’s authority is manifested in the assembly through the more mature brothers (elders). The Holy Spirit (the authority) manifests His authority by speaking to the church through the church. The older (spiritually) a brother is, the more experienced he should be in hearing God’s voice and knowing His voice. An older brother should have more discernment (Heb. 5:14). This is the bottom line of eldership.
- #11 — Elders are simply the more mature brothers who function as overseers, whether they are “officially” set aside or not (I am not saying that they should not be set aside). Elder, Overseer, (Bishop) and Pastor all refer to the same persons. “Elder” refers to their spiritual maturity, and overseer/pastor refers to their functions. The church should submit to its elders in view of their experience and gifts which make them accountable (Heb.13:17; 1 Pet.5:5). Submission will come into proper focus if they are properly recognized.
- #12 — How are elders appointed? By the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). How does the Holy Spirit appoint elders? He does it by manifesting the elders’ maturity, gifts and character. There is no place in the New Testament where churches choose their own elders. Rather than appointing elders, the churches recognized elders. The objective criteria that is used in recognizing elders can be found in 1 Tim.3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.
If elders emerge in a church by political maneuvering, an opportunistic coup, or by being forced upon a people, then nothing can go right. But if people know the men who labor among them, see their manner of life, and then recognize such men – then submission by the people is put into proper perspective.
- #13 — There is no such thing as an “office of the pastor” in the local church. In fact, men do not become elders by being placed in the position of overseers/pastors. Rather, men function as overseers because they are elders, gifted as shepherds (pastors). This is a critical point. If we do not see this we have opened the door wide for authority in the church other than Christ’s through the Holy Spirit.
The N.T. knows nothing of a church with “a” pastor. The N.T. always speaks of oversight in terms of plurality, not singularity. We must give heed to this.
The idea of a sustained period of time in a local church with one pastor is unknown in the N.T. Most churches in our day have a man in the church they call “the pastor.” But this is a long-standing tradition, not a Biblical teaching. The practice of a one-man elder, pastor or bishop only facilitates the danger of imposing on Christ’s headship.
Those who refer to the single “angel” of the seven churches in Revelation as a basis for a one-man pastor system are basing an important, vital doctrine on a flimsy analogy (we know that the Ephesian church had a plurality of elders, not one ”angel”/pastor; Acts 20:17). Handling texts in this way only shows the lengths to which men must go to sustain a doctrine which has no N.T. support.
One brother stated that every church must have one man who has the final authority and decision making power in the church, or else chaos would reign. But the truth is that Christ is the one Man who has authority over all the churches, and He gives pastors to equip the flock.
It may often be the case that one brother will have more spiritual influence in the assembly. Peter often “spoke” for the twelve, but even he designates himself as a “fellow-elder” (sumpresbuterous, 1 Pet.5:l). There is no doctrine in the N.T. of “the pastor,” or “chief elder.” If one brother happens to have more spiritual influence because of his gifts and experience, then let it be so. Plurality does not mean that all elders are to be equal in their spiritual influence. This is absurd and impossible. The one with more spiritual influence should be the servant of all, NOT the head-honcho.
- #14 — If Gods people are truly to be a true expression of the church in a given locality, they must show a proper expression of the Body and the Head. We must learn to function practically as members of one body with one Head. We confess Jesus as our Head; do our actions show it? The rule for all church meetings and affairs is the Headship of Christ, the priesthood of all believers, and each member contributing to the body’s edification. These things cannot be held in theory; they must become our living practice.
May the Lord have mercy on us all that we might truly hold to the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus (Rev.l:9) in these difficult yet glorious days.