Is There Such a Thing as Church Authority?
In our day and age, it’s at least mildly controversial to say the local church isn’t just a voluntary association of Christians, or a resource center for your Christian life, or a means of fellowship that you’re free to take advantage of if you want. It’s probably equally controversial to say that, in fact, the local church plays a unique and vital role in God’s work of redemption because it is the embassy of the kingdom of heaven in this dark and fallen world.
In other words, the local church was created by King Jesus himself, commissioned to do a particular thing in the world, and chartered with authority to speak in His name. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “I’m giving you the keys of the kingdom.” So, you—that is, believers who have mutually affirmed the soundness and genuineness of each other’s allegiance to the King, and have recognized one another as members of one body—you together, as a church, now have authority to speak for me regarding the what and the who of the gospel, both what the gospel is, and who is rightly confessing it. That’s the keys.
But how does this all work out practically? How does an individual local church go about using these keys and exercising this authority Jesus has given? Some say the Bible doesn’t speak to the question, and so we’re left to pragmatism (what works); others say it does speak. Then there are those who argue for all kinds of different structures of church government—episcopacy (bishops with a pope at top), presbytery (set of interlocking courts), modified Presbyterianism where there’s no hierarchy but the church is still ruled by its elders, and then congregationalism.
But even among congregationalists, some say a church is led by pastor and deacons as a Board of Directors; or a pure democracy; or even that a church can be spread out in several locations over an entire city or even state or nation or all over the world and led by a centralized person or group of people.
So how do we make sense of it all?
First, I want to make the case that the Bible does speak on this topic—and it actually says quite a lot. King Jesus hasn’t left his embassy without instructions on how it’s to organize itself and operate. In fact, the instructions he gives hold out a form of government we might best call elder-led congregationalism, where the assembled church as a whole holds and exercises the authority of the keys of the kingdom, but is led and taught in that use of authority by its elders.
Put simply, King Jesus has given all local churches two things—the keys of the kingdom, and elders to lead and teach how to use them.
I hope what follows will be helpful to you in understanding better why the church is so important, not just to you as an individual Christian, though that’s true, but in the working out of God’s purpose in the world to create a new holy nation centered on his Son.
To that end, here are seven points regarding the keys of the kingdom, and how local churches exercise authority through their use.
1. Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom to actual assemblies of believers—groups of them who regularly gather together.
If you were to attend the church I pastor, among the first things you’d hear is our service leader say, “Welcome this gathering of Third Avenue Baptist Church.” The language there is important. Why? Because our assembling together—our gathering—is not incidental to our identity as a church. In fact, it’s essential to it, and there are several reasons biblically speaking to think so. Briefly, here are three.
1. It’s just what the word translated “church” means.
“Church” itself is actually a terrible word—it’s an Old English word taken from the Greek word kyrikon, which means the Lord’s house, which means, literally, “the building a lord lived in.” This is an awful usage, and I wish we’d stop using it. After all, that word kyrikon is never used in the Bible; what’s used in the Bible is the word ekklesia, which means “assembly or gathering.” That’s the word Jesus chose to describe us—a group of believers who come together to do certain things.
2. The images the Bible uses to describe the church point to this togetherness.
A building made out of living stones, a body with its members, a flock of sheep. All those point to something that is literally together, that has a literal physical geographic location.
3. The responsibilities Jesus gives to the church assume this togetherness.
If we’re to affirm, protect, and disciple one another as Jesus says, and do that with any real knowledge of each other at all, that presumes that we’ll regularly be together in order to build the kind of relational knowledge that allows all that to happen.
So, all that is why Third Avenue Baptist Church will never be what’s come to be called recently a multi-site “church.” In fact, it’s why—to be sharply accurate about it—there’s really no such thing as a multi-site church, any more than there can be a multi-site building or a multi-site body.
Here’s the point: A church isn’t defined just by a shared name or leadership or budget or offices. It’s a group of Christians who regularly—the Bible would say weekly, on the Lord’s Day—gather together to carry out the functions of an embassy of King Jesus. That’s exactly what the first church in Jerusalem did—all 10,000 of them met in Solomon’s Colonnade right up until persecution forced them to scatter, and then they didn’t become franchises or arms or campuses of a centralized “Colonnade Jerusalem”; they became new, fully-functioning embassies or churches of their own.
So Jesus gives keys to actual assemblies of believers.
2. Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom to the gathered congregation, not to anyone else.
This is a pretty simple point, but crucial one, and if you get it, it’ll answer a thousand questions all at once regarding how the church is supposed to be organized and operate. Jesus gives authority to the assembled congregation, not to a group of elders or presbytery or bishop or pope.
Look at Matthew 18:15–17. The last step Jesus mentions is to “tell it to the church,” not “tell it to elders” or appeal to the college of cardinals or to the pope. What the church says goes. You can also see it in Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. They’ve been taught by false teachers, but Paul doesn’t hold those teachers ultimately accountable; he holds the churches accountable for accepting the teaching! He even says they have the right to reject him or an angel from heaven if he’s teaching something contrary to the gospel. They—not he, not the teachers, not the angels—hold the keys and the right to speak in Jesus’ name.
So that’s what I mean when I say churches are to be “congregational.” It means, under the King himself, the final earthly court of appeal in matters regarding the who and what of the gospel is the assembled congregation. Not elders, not a presbytery or pope or deacon board, and not you as an individual, but the entire congregation.
So each member at my church currently holds 1/423 of responsibility for making sure the gospel is faithfully preached. And not just for the time they’re here, but for centuries to come. Hundreds of saints did that for 130+ years, and if Jesus doesn’t come back, they must make sure this embassy of the King is here for 130 more.
3. The power of the keys is the authority to protect the church and its witness, and to extend the reach of Jesus’s kingdom.
Protect and extend. Where does that come from?
You can see it in particular places in the New Testament, but first I want you to see this authority to protect and extend isn’t just built from a few proof-texts. It’s actually the culmination of a history that’s been unfolding since the Garden of Eden.
To get right to it, God gave Adam a certain job in Eden, a certain office that he was to carry out. This office had two parts to it: he was to be a priest and a king in Eden. As king, he was to have dominion, to multiply and expand and ultimately subdue the earth under him and ultimately under God. As priest, just like later priests in the Temple, he was to guard the Garden, protecting it from impurity and evil. But of course he fails completely. Instead of protecting the Garden, from Satan, he joins Satan’s rebellion.
The whole story of the Bible is the story of how God would restore those two offices by sending someone who would act as king and as priest in all the ways Adam failed. And through ups and downs, hopes and despairs, that promise finally comes to rest on shoulders of Jesus. He’s the king Adam should have been who subdues the world; he’s the priest Adam should have been who destroys Satan.
But here’s the kicker—when you recognize your sin, trust in Jesus, bow your knee to him, and are united to him by faith, the Bible says you take on those two offices, too. You take on the responsibilities of kingship and priesthood, of protecting the place of God’s dwelling and extending the reach of his kingdom. But you don’t get to just stand there and assert that for yourself; somebody’s got to affirm you really do hold those offices, you really are united to Jesus.
That’s what baptism and membership do. It’s the church saying to the world, “Yes! From all we can see, you are a Christian. So now, join us in exercising this authority and responsibility to protect and extend the kingdom.”
Church members have the job to protect its witness and extend the reach of God’s kingdom. Let’s look at each individually.
4. The church exercises its kingly authority to extend the knowledge of and recognition of Jesus’s kingdom through evangelism.
In other words, the Great Commission most particularly defines that authority. This isn’t terribly controversial, but notice I called evangelism an authority, not just a responsibility. It is a responsibility, but it’s also an authority, a right given to us by King Jesus. I mean, think about the wording: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore . . . go!”
This is why no national border or program of persecution and suppression will ever stop the church in its work of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. Because it’s a work backed by the authority of the King of the universe.
5. The church exercises its priestly authority to protect the integrity of Jesus’s kingdom through church membership and church discipline.
When a church brings someone into membership, they are saying, “Yes, you seem to understand the gospel and really believe it; you seem to be submitted and united to Jesus.” This is a kind of offensive protection, marking out boundaries on the front end.
But there’s also another kind of protection, a defensive one. This happens when a church has to say to one of its members, “Now, your life doesn’t look like a Christian’s, and if you’re going to hang on to your sin and forsake Christ, we can’t let you go on living like that while calling yourself a Christian.” In other words, the church invalidates or disaffirms that individual’s claim of being a Christian. Historically, that action has been called church discipline.
Jesus talks about this in Matthew 18, where he’s to be treated as an outsider. Paul talks about it in 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul says to remove the sinful man, judge him, cleanse him out, even purge him—amputate him from the body like a gangrenous limb.
So what does that mean? What’s really happening? This is not at all the Roman Catholic idea of excommunication, where it’s argued that through excommunication the church is actually consigning someone to hell. Only King Jesus has that authority. But it is to say, “We’re not going to continue to affirm your profession of faith because your life is not lining up with what it means to be a Christian.” So we don’t affirm your baptism; we no longer welcome you to the Lord’s Supper. This is no small thing, and even if local churches don’t have the authority to send the unrepentant to hell, when it hands down that kind of considered judgment, it ought to make a person fear King Jesus himself will one day say, “I never knew you.”
Notice, too, local churches don’t take this action for just anything. All Christians sin, and churches should not pursue excommunication just because a member had a greedy thought or said something too sharply. No, churches exercise this authority for sins that are serious, outward, and unrepentant.
Serious sins are those that are uncommon to Christians, those which, either by nature or repeated pattern, cause you to question whether a person really is a Christian who is at war against the flesh.
A church shouldn’t exercise discipline for things like pride, but only outward, visible sins.
In every act of discipline, the goal is repentance, so a church should never excommunicate a professing Christian who professes repentance for a particular sin. Of course, repentance doesn’t mean just saying sorry. I can imagine situations where simple verbal professions of repentance aren’t immediately believable, which leads the church to take time to determine if repentance is genuine (for example, after a season of habitual lying or a sin that’s particularly scandalous).
Church discipline too often confuses people. They think it’s mean, or its purpose is to humiliate and embarrass. But that’s not true at all; the Bible actually holds out several purposes for church discipline and far from being an act of meanness or hatred, it’s actually a profound act of love.
- Love for the individual, because the goal is always repentance. In Matthew 18, Jesus talks about “winning your brother.” In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul encourages the church to discipline “so he might repent and be saved,” which he perhaps does (2 Cor. 2:6–7). Discipline is the church saying to a man or woman, “If you persist, it’s dangerous!”
- Love for the church, because it warns and protects the remaining members, telling them as well, “Don’t do this!”
- Love for the watching world, because it lets the church speak clearly about what Christianity looks like.
- Love for Jesus, because we take his honor and reputation seriously.
At this point, though, comes a question: Can’t the church get it wrong? Can’t they wrongly discipline? Yes, of course. And there are at least two remedies to that. The first is that King Jesus will set everything right at the end. The other is local churches are free to disagree and act to take a previously disciplined person into membership.
Though church discipline is always a heavy and sad action, it’s an action ultimately born of love and aimed at the good of the person being disciplined. It’s not to say “we hate you,” but “we love you, and we want you to repent and be restored.”
6. The church is led in its exercise of the keys by elders.
Where you have a church in the Bible, you have elders. And those elders have a specific role—to lead the church in its exercise of the authority Jesus has given. Notice, elders don’t hold the keys; the church does. But elders lead the church as it uses them. This is not just an advisory role either. There’s some real authority in that leadership.
It’s why you have places in Bible like Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” Or, Acts 20:28 where Paul calls them “overseers.” Or 1 Peter 5 where Peter says to “be subject” to elders.
This kind of language scares people, because authority in general and submitting to authority often has a bad name—and rightly so in many cases. But throughout the Bible, authority is held out to us as something good and life-giving when it is used well.
This is true of the authority elders hold in a church. But it’s also a certain kind of authority elders hold—not so much an authority of command, but an authority of counsel. States and parents hold authority of command; they speak, and then they have immediate authority to enforce through sword or rod.
But some, even most, authorities aren’t given the means to enforce; they instead rely on the account that’s to be given to Jesus at the end. That’s the kind of authority elders hold—an authority of counsel. They can recommend and explain, but they can’t enforce. That’s why the Bible makes such a big deal about elders needing to be able to teach because that’s how elders exercise authority, by teaching the Word and persuading.
Some might hear that and think, “Oh, well, good. That’s not real authority.” But it is because it’s an authority backed by Jesus. If elders counsel and you decline, it’s not over; you’ll give account for that at the end. Maybe you’re right, maybe not—but it’s wise to be careful.
Practically, this works out in the mechanism of elders recommending and the church voting. The church always has the right and authority to reject elders’ recommendations, and even to remove and replace the elders. But again, the need to be ready to give account, which leads to my last point.
7. The relationship between a church and its elders should be one of trust, not skepticism.
Sometimes people think the best posture for a church is to act as a check to the elders, to hold their feet to the fire. There can even be some theology behind that—they’re fallen and sinful, and so, like the US government, we need checks and balances to keep them from going off the rails.
But the church isn’t intended to operate like the US government. In fact, the US government was designed to operate on mutual skepticism—branches of government looking out for their own power and being in tension. It’s designed for checks and balances precisely because the Founders knew the nation was made up of selfish people.
But the church is fundamentally different, and we must start with assumption that yes we’re fallen, but we’re also regenerate. Therefore, relationships ultimately ought to be marked by trust, not checks and balances and skepticism.
Practically speaking, this means it’s actually good when a church has a run of unanimous votes. It may be frustrating to some, because they’ll think it’s a failure of the kind of robust congregationalism they want. If votes are unanimous, they chalk it up to apathy in the congregation or, worse, intimidation by the elders.
While it could be those things, I’d argue it could also point to a congregation that’s trusting its elders in just the way Jesus intended. In fact, if a church has too many divided votes, it probably needs to get new elders it can trust!
But what about voting no? Essentially, if you’re going to vote no, you need to do it with full integrity. What I mean is you must really desire for the motion you’re voting against to fail. The worst kind of no vote is the kind where a person doesn’t really want it to fail—because consequences would be too big or whatever—but votes no anyway to make a statement and just relies on the rest of the church to pass it.
If you elect to vote no, do so with integrity—because you really think this is a bad use of the keys, one worth acting against recommendation of elders and one you’re willing to give account to Jesus for one day.
Jesus intends the relationship between elders and local churches not to be one fraught with tension and conflict, but a beautiful one of trust and love. After all, the Bible says elders are gifts to the church, given by the King from the throne of heaven. It also says elders are to do their work always remembering Jesus obtained these people for himself with his own blood, that he identifies with them, and to abuse them is to abuse him.
Editor’s note: This article has been compiled from sermon notes and a transcript. For more on these subjects, consider Jonathan Leeman’s Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, and Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus.
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 For a detailed treatment of “keys of the kingdom,” see the fourth chapter of Jonathan Leeman’s Don’t Fire Your Church Members.