Pastors and ‘Authority’

John Dickson speaking at The Global Leadership Summit

Pastors exercise a unique type of leadership, for the simple reason that ‘structural authority’ hardly features in the biblical teaching about what it means to shepherd God’s people.

Generally, leadership employs four tools: (1) ability, the natural flair that got the leader to a position of leadership; (2) authority, the structural power the organisation gives the leader; (3) character, the leader’s manner of life that either compels or repels; and (4) persuasion, the capacity to help people believe in the goal of the organisation.

Obviously, pastors exercise their abilities (and gifts of the Spirit), godly character and biblical persuasion. But it seems to me we are given very little by way of structural authority. As I look through the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy and Titus), the only section of Scripture written specifically for church leaders, it seems to me that ministers have very limited powers. They have responsibility for preaching God’s word and for appointing (and presumably removing) others to (and from) various ministries. Beyond that, I’m not sure the New Testament gives ministers any ‘structural authority’ over the church.

This is completely unlike leadership in sport, politics, business or academia, where the ‘boss’ can issue directives which people must follow or suffer consequences. This has no analogy in Christian leadership, so far as I can tell.

This isn’t to say that congregations don’t have a Christian duty to submit to their ministers’ biblical counsel. They do. We find such an obligation in 1 Peter 5:5 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12. But, even here, the instruction is not directed to the leaders, urging them to make their people submit. It is directed to the congregations themselves, asking them to submit. Churches have a responsibility to listen to their leaders in godly humility but pastors don’t make their congregations do anything. We advise, we admonish, we warn, but we don’t direct in the way a coach might order a player around or a CEO might change a job description or a professor might overrule a student. Pastors don’t even excommunicate anyone. According to the New Testament, church discipline is a congregational function not a minister’s role (1 Cor 5:4-5, 13; Matt 18:16-17).

In the end, Christian leadership is characterized by serving not directing. Peter puts it particularly, and uncomfortably, well:

    To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).

Christian leadership relies on three of the four tools of leadership: ability, persuasion and, crucially, character or example (all empowered by the Spirit and grounded in prayer).

Any ‘authority’ I have as a Senior Pastor is granted to me by the congregation, in as much as they recognize God’s call on me to serve in his name. It is an authority people can ignore without structural consequences. People might fall under divine discipline or even judgment for disobeying our teaching of the Scriptures, but they don’t suffer organizational penalties for refusing our counsel.

Christian leadership doesn’t ‘lord it over’ anyone. Instead, it takes off the robe of dignity, kneels down and washes feet—through friendship, through teaching, through example, and through prayer. In other words, Christian leadership is about humility. It is risky and exciting all at the same time.

By: Rev Dr John Dickson (@johnpauldickson)
Senior Minister, St Andrew’s Anglican Church
Director, Centre for Public Christianity

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