What is the Nature of Pastoral Authority? — Perspectives from a Methodist, a Presbyterian, and a Baptist


Editor’s note: We asked three pastors from three different traditions to answer the question: What is the nature of a pastor’s authority? Below are their responses.

—A Methodist Perspective, by Matt O’Reilly
—A Presbyterian Perspective, by Kevin DeYoung
—A Baptist Perspective, by Benjamin Merkle

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A Methodist Perspective

By Matt O’Reilly

A snapshot of pastoral authority in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition is best framed in terms of its source and goal. The source of the pastor’s authority is Scripture; the goal of the pastor’s authority is holiness. Let’s take those one at a time.

Methodist founder John Wesley considered himself “a man of one book,” and that book was the Bible. Wesley believed that essential doctrines must be grounded in scripture. His attitude toward pastoral ministry was no different. This is clear in Wesley’s sermon, “On Obedience to Pastors,” in which he exposits Hebrews 13:17. He introduces the sermon insisting that the nature of pastoral authority can be understood if we “simply attend to the oracles of God” and “carefully examine the words of the Apostle.” Later in the sermon he rejects views on pastoral authority that cannot be proved from Scripture, and he refuses to “appeal to human institutions,” insisting again on what “we find in the oracles of God.” Wesley also believed Scripture puts limits on the pastor’s authority. He didn’t expect members of a congregation to obey the pastor if that pastor instructed them to disobey Scripture. And when pastors shepherd the flock in a way that accords with scripture, Wesley says, “we do not properly obey them, but our common Father” (italics original). The point should be clear: faithful Methodists locate the source of a pastor’s authority in scripture.

Wesley’s sermon, “On Obedience to Pastors,” also highlights the congregation’s growth in holiness as the goal of a pastor’s authority. Based on his reading of Scripture, Wesley believed the power of God’s grace in Christ and through the Spirit is far greater than the power of sin. This means a Christian’s life should be decreasingly characterized by sin and increasingly characterized by holiness. When this sort of transformation happens, God is glorified because progress in sanctification is a work of his grace. Pastors are responsible for nurturing those under their care so they grow in holiness. Pastors do this by explaining and applying Scripture to the lives of individual believers and the community as a whole. This includes nourishing the congregation; they teach doctrine, warning people not to turn from the faith and correcting those who have strayed. Pastors also nurture holiness by earnestly watching over the flock with patience and diligence ensuring they are equipped to grow in grace. For Wesley, it’s serious business to be entrusted with shepherding those for whom Christ died, and pastors are accountable to God for exercising their authority in a way that cultivates holiness in their lives.

In order to make progress toward the goal of holiness, both pastor and congregation must be committed to self-giving love. Wesley insisted that embracing the pastoral vocation meant giving one’s whole self to promoting the “present and eternal salvation” of those under their care, while resisting the temptation to seek one’s own honor. For the congregation, submitting to pastoral authority means obeying Jesus’ command to take up the cross and practice self-denial. When both pastor and congregation honor Christ by taking this attitude toward one another, they’re in the best position to increasingly embody Christ-like holiness that magnifies the glory of God.

That’s the heart of pastoral ministry in the Wesleyan tradition.

Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at the University of Gloucestershire, and Adjunct Instructor of New Testament Greek at Asbury Theological Seminary. Connect at mattoreilly.net or follow @mporeilly.

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A Presbyterian Perspective

By Kevin DeYoung

Since the word count is limited, and I was asked to give a “perspective” not a “polemic,” I’m going to focus on the nuts and bolts of pastoral authority as we practice it, rather than giving a biblical, historical, and theological rationale for the Presbyterian system. If you want the skinny on Presbyterian polity check out Guy Waters’ fine book How Jesus Runs the Church; and if you want the fat pick up James Bannerman’s classic The Church of Christ. But I’m going to forgo the why questions and get right to the what.

The pastor’s authority in Presbyterian polity is an authority shared with all the elders and exercised jointly through the Session and the other courts of the church.

Whether a church has elders and pastors as two different offices (like most Reformed churches), or teaching elders (i.e. pastors) and ruling elders as different designations within one office (as in most Presbyterian churches), the net result is more or less the same. At the local level, the authority to receive members into the congregation, exercise discipline, and establish rules for the government, worship, and theological integrity of the church rests with the board of elders (usually called the Session, or in Reformed polity, the Consistory).

In the Presbyterian Church in America, there are three “courts” in which this authority is exercised: the Session (the pastors and elders in the local church), the Presbytery (the pastors and churches—represented by the ruling elders—in a geographic area), and the General Assembly (all the churches in the denomination). The nature of the pastor’s formal authority is simply this: he has a voice and a vote in each of these courts. The Presbyterian pastor is not a bishop, nor the de facto ruler in his own little fiefdom. He is a teaching elder, whose vote counts no more and no less than the other installed teaching and ruling elders—whether that vote is for a member to be excommunicated, to plant a church, or to pass a licentiate’s ordination exam.

This means the pastor’s authority may look big or small depending on your church experience. Pastoral authority in Presbyterianism can look big because almost every formal decision resides with the Session (rather than the whole congregation). Apart from calling a pastor and voting on church officers, most congregational votes in Presbyterianism are only advisory. So, the pastor, as a key member of the Session, can wield tremendous influence. On the other hand, the pastor’s authority may be less than you think. He doesn’t always get his way. He can (and does!) get outvoted. He has no more formal authority than any of the other elders. Furthermore, he must submit himself to the Presbytery for spiritual care and accountability, and above that to the General Assembly.

Of course, formal authority is only one part of the equation. The teaching elder who preaches week after week to the same people will inevitably set the doctrinal, doxological, and evangelistic direction for the church. In most Presbyterian churches, the pastor knows the people best and speaks to them most. If the congregational dynamics are healthy, most people will follow the pastor’s leadership (in a host of areas) and consider him the “buck stops here” voice on whether dozens of little projects move forward or not. Moreover, as the moderator of the Session (as stipulated by the Book of Church Order), the pastor will normally set the literal agenda for the elders and preside over all meetings. In larger churches, the senior pastor is typically at the head of organizational chart, with staff members ultimately reporting to him even as he gives account to the Session and the Presbytery. Under the Session, the senior pastor usually has the final determination in what takes place in the weekly worship service.

In short, the nature of pastoral authority in Presbyterianism is both informal (in dozens of areas, from preaching, to casting vision, to having a broad understanding of the issues in the church, to making lots of daily decisions), formal (as a member and moderator of the Session), and shared (as only one voice and one vote when it comes to making the most important decisions facing the courts of the church).

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University.

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A Baptist Perspective

By Benjamin Merkle

First, it’s clear in Scripture pastors have authority. Believers are expected to “respect,” “honor,” “obey,” “submit,” and “be subject to” those who “labor,” “are over,” “admonish,” “rule,” “preach,” “teach,” “care for,” keep watch,” or “devote” themselves to the work of the gospel ministry as those who will “give an account” for the tasks entrusted to them (1 Cor. 16:15–16; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:4–5; 5:17; Heb. 13:17; 1 Peter 5:5).

The primary duties of pastors also communicate the fact of their authority. As teachers, they’re charged with the task of proclaiming God’s Word authoritatively. They’re not merely offering suggestions or voicing their own opinions but are declaring, “Thus says the Lord.” Consequently, the congregation has the duty to obey not merely the words of the pastor, but the words of God, insofar as the pastor accurately and faithfully conveys the gospel message. As shepherds, pastors are given the task of leading and caring for God’s people (Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11; 1 Peter 5:2). If some are leading as shepherds, the assumption is others are following their leadership. Finally, as representatives, they speak and act on behalf of the entire congregation (Acts 11:30; 20:17).

Second, the authority of pastors is derived: it comes from God (not the congregation). Although the congregation affirms their calling and authority, it’s an authority with divine origin. Paul tells the Ephesians elders the Holy Spirit made them overseers (Acts 20:28) and later indicates leaders are gifts given by Jesus to the church (Eph. 4:11).

Third, the authority of pastors is limited in at least three ways.

(1) It’s limited by the Scriptures. Pastors do not have absolute authority because they stand under the authority of God and his Word. Therefore, when they stray from the Word, they abandon their God-given authority. Furthermore, the authority pastors possess is found not only in their office, but also in the duties they perform. On one hand, pastors should be obeyed because they have been appointed by God for that particular office (Acts 20:28). Their authority is given by God and is not inherent in themselves. When a person obeys or submits to a pastor, it could be said that he is obeying or submitting to God. But, on the other hand, pastors should be obeyed because they have the responsibility of shepherding and teaching the congregation. And when their shepherding and teaching stray from Scripture, their authority as shepherds and teachers is compromised and may no longer be binding on the congregation.

(2) It’s limited by the nature of shared leadership. The biblical example of church government is not to set up an aristocracy or an oligarchy, but each local congregation should have a plurality of pastors/elders. There’s no example in the New Testament where one pastor (elder) leads a congregation as the sole or primary leader. There were a plurality of elders at the churches in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30), Antioch of Pisidia, Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe (Acts 14:23), Ephesus (Acts 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17), Philippi (Phil. 1:1), the cities of Crete (Titus 1:5), the churches in the dispersion to which James wrote (James 1:1), the Roman provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1), and possibly the church(es) to which Hebrews was written (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). Thus, a pastor has accountability to the other leaders.

(3) It’s limited to their congregation. That is, the authority of a pastor does not exceed beyond the local church. There’s no evidence in the New Testament that pastors exercised authority outside their congregation similar to that of the apostles. As shepherds, they ministered to their flock, but once they ventured outside their community to another congregation, they no longer functioned authoritatively.

(4) It’s limited by the congregation. Congregations were involved in choosing new leaders (Acts 6:2–3), commissioning missionaries (Acts 13:3), making important theological decisions (Acts 15:22), and disciplining unrepentant church members (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:2; 2 Cor. 2:6). In addition, Paul always addressed the entire congregation rather than the leaders of the church (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:2; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1) and the New Testament undeniably affirms the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).

Therefore, key decisions—such as the addition of new leaders, the approval of the budget, and a change to the statement of faith, constitution, by-laws, or official church documents—shouldn’t be made only by the pastors. Instead, such changes should be brought before the entire congregation for approval. Because the church is a body (and not merely a head or feet), all in the church are important and should be allowed to be a part of major decisions. Because of this, pastors are not only accountable to the Lord Jesus Christ, but also to each other and the entire congregation.

Consequently, pastors must be those who are filled with the Holy Spirit and exhibit a spirit of humility in their relations with others. As Jesus declared, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43–44).

Benjamin Merkle is a professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

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