Mailbag #57: Pastors’ Limited Authority; Nominating Elders Who Will Move Soon
Thank you for running the Mailbag section of the 9Marks website. I’ve read all 52 Mailbags and have found your answers very helpful—even the ones with which I disagree. Perhaps the most helpful article connected to the Mailbags is the one that you and Mark Dever wrote entitled, “Don’t Be a 9Marxist!” I’ve read it from top to bottom at least three times and find myself convicted every time.
My question is this, am I correct in seeing in your writings and Dever’s writings a view of pastoral authority that is essentially one of enumerated or limited powers for the pastor? It would seem that the first point of “Don’t Be a 9Marxist!” (i.e., Don’t require what Scripture doesn’t require.) is the essence of limited powers for a pastor. However, I happen to serve in a Baptist church under a senior pastor who points to the “obey” passages (e.g., Hebrews 13:7, 17) as proof for his view of expansive pastoral authority as one of implied or inherent powers.
Please don’t get hung up on all the American constitutional nuances of enumerated, implied, and inherent powers. We could just throw those terms out and ask the question a different way: do the Scriptures obligate believers to obey or follow their pastor so long as what he commands is not contravened by Scripture? Or, are believers obligated to obey/follow their pastor only when what he commands has direct Scriptural warrant?
—Anonymous Assistant Pastor
Dear Anonymous Assistant,
Your question might strike some readers as overly technical, but I think it’s important, both for empowering pastors to do what Scripture calls them to do, but also for the sake of limiting the abuses of overweening pastors.
Is a pastor’s authority limited to places of explicit scriptural warrant? Or does a pastor also possess implied authority in places left unspecified by Scripture, or at least the right to use whatever means are necessary to accomplish the duties of his office?
In one sense, yes, you’re right to intuit that I (and Mark, I assume) would be closer to the “enumerated authority” side of things. You might say we share the basic instincts of the strict constitutional constructionists rather than loose constitutional constructionists. In Don’t Fire Your Church Members, I argue that the first rule of an institutional hermeneutic is this: “Ask who is authorized to do what.” Most people today assume they’re free to do whatever they want until someone puts up a fence and says “No.” When it comes to asking what institutions Scripture establishes, however, I say the opposite. We don’t have authority to do anything until God authorizes it. We don’t even have the authority to take an apple off a tree and eat it until God says we do. (Gratefully, he does in Gen. 1:29). Lumps of clay have no inherent rights.
Listen to Jeremiah’s indictment of Israel’s leaders: “A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophet’s prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority” (5:30–31). We don’t want pastors who do that.
But here’s where things get tricky in a church: 98.4 percent of the decisions pastors and church staff have to make are unspecified by Scripture. Do we buy a church van? Do we give $10,000 to this missionary? Do we let the local crisis pregnancy center use our building for Bible studies with young moms, even if we have no control over what they teach? Do we build our pastoral ministry on small groups? Do we partner with a Campus Crusade chapter at a nearby university? Do we guide members on the use of in vitro fertilization? Do we sign a church covenant?
What kind of authority should pastors exercise in such decisions?
Here are four principles I’d offer which loosely derive from Matthew 18:15–20, Acts 6:1–7, and other passages, and which I unpack further in chapter 5 of Don’t Fire Your Church Members:
- The more a matter pertains to the teaching ministry of the church, the more a congregation should heed its elders’ authority, since an elder’s authority specifically depends on teaching. So who should plan the preaching schedule? What books of the Bible should be included in the next three months? How many membership classes does a church require? Do we have a Sunday School program? If you don’t let pastors make programmatic decisions about a church’s teaching ministry, you effectively undermine their authority to teach. And that, as I understand it, is the criteria of a strict constructionist: giving an office holder the ability to do those things, apart from which, he could not do what he’s required and authorized to do.
- The more a matter does not pertain to a church’s teaching ministry, the more pastors should delegate such decision-making to godly people so that they can give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). Designs for a new nursery? Coordinating any hospitality ministry? Those types of things should be delegated elsewhere.
- The more a matter impinges on the gospel integrity of a church (what it believes, who its members are, who the leaders are, the unity of the body, etc.) the more the entire church should be involved in the decision.
- Pastors don’t have any direct authority over the lives of church members and their personal decisions. If a member adopts an unrepentant lifestyle, the pastor can certainly privately warn the member, and he can appeal to the congregation to take more decisive action. But the authority to excommunicate finally belongs to the whole church.
One last wrinkle to mention since you’re asking the question as an assistant pastor. If a church’s constitution makes the senior pastor the supervisor of all other staff, then your work relationship as a staff member is governed not just by the pastor-member passages, but by employer-employee types of passages (e.g. Eph. 6:5–9; Col. 3:22–4:1; 1 Tim. 6:2; etc.). So, just as a person’s boss might ask you to do any number of things to get the job done (write a memo, call that vendor, organize a meeting, etc), so your staff supervisor should be able to do the same.
At the end of the day, honestly, it can be difficult to draw a clear line between the enumerated authority of a strict constructionist (possessing the ability to do only those things, apart from which, a pastor cannot do his job) and the implied authority of a loose constructionist (possessing the ability to adopt any means for accomplishing the job’s ends). This is why lawyers and judges have been debating the matter for two centuries as it pertains to the U. S. Congress. I mean, a pastor can do his job without planning a Sunday School curriculum. But does that mean we want to deny him the authority to do so?
Let me therefore urge pastors toward only exercising authority in matters enumerated by Scripture, but let me also urge a posture of humility in all of our exercises of authority, whether enumerated or implied. The final criteria of judgment, of course, belongs to God. And we should always use our authority in light of that day.
I’m a pastor in a local church in a community with a dense military population. In our church we have about 20 military families out of about 90 total member households. As such, we receive as members some men, who are here for a 3-year season in a military staff position where they don’t deploy, and are eager to serve the church. Some are gifted to teach and provide pastoral care, and they meet the qualifications for elders. Though we know they will likely leave us when the three years are up, should we still give consideration for them serving as elders in our church for the short season they are with us? I’m sure you experience this same situation from time to time being in D.C.
My church does experience something similar, but I also think principles are at stake here which affect churches beyond yours and mine. Specifically, how long should a man be in a church before nominating him as an elder? After all, Paul warns against being hasty in the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 5:22). Also, should we nominate someone as an elder who will be leaving the church soon?
Some writers notice that Paul tells Timothy to not appoint “recent converts” (1 Tim. 3:6), but he doesn’t mention this to Titus, perhaps because Titus only had brand new converts and church plants to deal with. I don’t follow that line of reasoning. Nonetheless, I do think our context impinges on how quickly we might appoint a man.
Here’s the key for deciding “how long” you need to know a man before you recommend him as an elder: a congregation needs to be able to trust a man’s life and doctrine so that they can receive the ministry of the Word from him. It’s the Word that gives people new creation life, after all. Sure, it’s different, say, with conference speakers. There’s no expectation of being able to witness a person’s life. A pastor or elder, however, is set within a community. And for me to really believe that what he says is true, that his biblical words can be trusted, and that he trusts it, then I need to know him well enough to trust him. Or at least, I need to be able to trust the people who assure me that I can trust him.
It’s true that Paul is grateful even when pastors preach for bad reasons (Phil. 1:18). But in the ordinary course of ministry, church members learn to trust and apply God’s Word to their life as they watch a pastor trust and apply God’s Word. If his trust and application of God’s Word are deep and profound, theirs is more likely to be deep and profound. If his trust and application are shallow or misguided, theirs is more likely to be shallow or misguided. After all, we as pastors give meaning to our words by the way we live.
All this means: the pastor-member relationship depends upon trust. Will he teach and live consistently? Rightly? With integrity? Even in the dark? Don’t give your trust to a man if you have no reason to be confident the answer to those questions is “yes.” Souls are literally at stake!
It’s true, churches often hire new pastors from the outside. And God does good through that. But I think it’s good to aspire to raise up men from within your body, or at least to draw from other churches which you trust implicitly. As for nominating more elders, I think it’s generally healthy to wait at least a year or two before nominating a man. More is nice, but hardly mandatory.
If we know a man is going to leave in six months, our church would probably not ask him to serve as an elder. Certainly he can do much of the work an elder does—counseling, teaching, shepherding, etc.—but the trust you spend by actually going through the whole process of giving him a title may not be worth it. If a man is going to be there for at least a year or two? Maybe. I’d be more open to it. It’s a judgment call, to be sure.
That said, I wouldn’t want an elder board to be characterized by men who are all only there for a year or two. I’d rather have four semi- to long-term guys with one or two short-termers sprinkled in. I would not want me plus six short-termers. That would undermine the church’s trust in the entire elder board because the congregation would begin to feel like they know the church and are committed to the church more than the elders. If you just add one or two to a majority of long-termers, however, the couple of short-termers can borrow the capital of the majority of the long-termers, whom the church trusts.
I pray this is useful, and I pray God would convince some of those military brothers to leave the military and commit to your church long term! Or maybe come back after they retire. We’ve had a number of men do that.