Ministerial Authority

Jason Dulle

Peter exhorted elders not be "lords over God's heritage," but "examples to the flock" (I Peter 5:1-3). By this simple statement Peter demonstrated that there are limits to ministerial authority. What kind of authority has God given the ministry? Where does a minister's authority begin and end? There is a point when a minister passes the bounds of legitimate authority and leadership and begins to exercise ungodly control over God's people. What is that point? How do we determine it? How do we recognize it?

That the ministry has been given authority from God, and our need to submit to that authority is not disputed. The following verses demonstrate this truth clearly:

Hebrews 13:7 Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.

Hebrews 13:17 Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.

I Thessalonians 5:12-13 And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. And be at peace among yourselves.

I Corinthians 16:15-16 I beseech you, brethren, (ye know the house of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints,) That ye submit yourselves unto such, and to every one that helpeth with us, and laboureth.

II Corinthians 2:9 For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things.

II Corinthians 7:15 And his inward affection is more abundant toward you, whilst he remembereth the obedience of you all, how with fear and trembling ye received him.

To explore the basis and extent of ministerial authority, then, is not tantamount to an undermining of ministerial authority. It is merely a pursuit to determine what kind of authority the Word of God has delegated to those who shepherd God's flock. What follows is not an attempt to demarcate a specific line, but to give some principles whereby we can decipher when a minister or leader has stepped beyond the legitimate use of his God-given authority, and stepped over into the realm of self-proclaimed power and control.

To understand the authority of the ministry we must first understand the purpose of the ministry. This is most clearly defined in Ephesians 4:7-16:

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore He says: "When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men." (Now this, "He ascended"; what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) vs. 11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, vs. 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, vs. 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head; Christ; from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (NKJV)

The purpose of the ministry is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry, and to edify the body of Christ. The ministry is ordained by God until the body of Christ comes to believe one doctrine, have an intimate knowledge of the Son of God, and be complete in Christ, measured by the stature of His fullness. This will never be fully accomplished here on earth. The purpose will be ultimately fulfilled when we are glorified together with Christ; therefore, we can be assured that the ministry will continue until that time. The ultimate goal of the ministry is to establish the saints in truth by teaching them the Word of God. Then the saints of God will not be tossed back and forth by every false doctrine that is traveling about the circles of men.

In addition to describing the purpose/function of the ministry, Paul gives some insight concerning how the body of Christ is to function. Both the ministry and the laity are part of the same body, working together for the same purpose (see Romans 12:3-8; I Corinthians 12:4-30). Each member is to do his own part according to the Spirit's enablement, producing growth in the body. The ministryís job is to train the saints to do the work of the ministry. It can be said that the ministry is to reproduce their own selves. Even Paul admonished others to follow him as he followed Christ (I Corinthians 11:1).

Sometimes the ministry is viewed as "those in charge." The five-fold ministry does have spiritual authority invested in them over the rest of the church, but what is the purpose of this authority? In II Corinthians 10:8 Paul wrote, "For though I should boast somewhat of our authority, which the Lord hath given us for edification, and not for your destruction...." Authority is given for edification, not destruction. This does not exclude the use of rebuke and correction when needed, but it does exclude the idea of being mere disciplinarians (II Corinthians 10:9-15; 13:10; II Timothy 3:16). The true purpose of the ministry is to serve as good examples to the rest of the body so that they may follow. Note the numerous references to this principle in the epistles:

I Corinthians 4:16 Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.

I Corinthians 11:1 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.

Philippians 3:17 Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.

I Thessalonians 1:6 And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost:

I Thessalonians 5:12-13 And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. And be at peace among yourselves.

II Thessalonians 3:7 For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you;

II Thessalonians 3:9 Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us.

Hebrews 13:7 Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.

I Peter 5:3 Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock.

Paul urged the saints to pattern their lives after his own. Even today we strive to pattern our lives after Paul and other men renown for their living faith in Christ. They lived exemplary lives and inspire us to be more like Jesus. That is what a true minister will do: inspire others to be wholly dedicated to the Lord. Paul recognized his divine authority, but did not use that authority for fleshly purposes. Rather, he made himself an example to the believers. He did not demand followership, but gained followership because he led a life, that when witnessed by others, produced a desire in them to pattern their own lives after his.

Paul made it clear that a godly minister will be recognized both by the Word of God he preaches/teaches, and by the way he lives his life. He instructed the saints to imitate the faithfulness of these men, taking into consideration the outcome of the lives they led. Leaders can only lead if people are genuinely following them. As a wise man once said, "If you think youíre a leader, but have no one following you, youíre simply taking a walk." The purpose of the ministry is not to act as a dictator over Godís heritage, but to be an example to His flock.

Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse Resulting from a Misuse of Authority

Several years ago I came across a book on spiritual abuse by Ronald M. Enroth, a professional on cults. Enroth described the common traits exemplified in spiritually abusive churches. I will not mention or expound on all of the traits outlined in Enroth's book, but I will relay some of the more pertinent traits found among churches that abuse.

The most common trait exemplified in abusive churchs is an authoritarian leader. This trait is not limited to our own day. Peter wrote about these kind of leaders in his first epistle: "To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers-- not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (I Peter 5:1-3 NIV). In John's third epistle we read of one named Diotrephes "who loveth to have the preeminence among them [church]...." John told Gaius, "Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church" (III John 9-10).

Things have not changed much from Peter and Johnís time to now. There are still some ministerss who lord it over the flock. Enroth wrote, "Leaders who practice spiritual abuse exceed the bounds of legitimate authority and 'lord it over the flock,' often intruding into the personal lives of the members. God's will is something that they determine for you rather than something you individually seek to know. Abusive leaders are self-centered and adversial rather than reconciling and restorative."1

Jesus spoke directly to the minster's attitude toward authority:

Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28). (emphasis mine)

Many leaders in the church have ignored Jesus' words for the past 2,000 years. Instead of acting like servants, many church leaders have acted like religious despots. The words of Jesus indicate that the church operates from an entirely different governmental system and philosophy than that of the world. The source of authority for the church, and the way that authority is to be expressed are entirely different than that of the world. "The worldís view of authority places men over one another, as in a military command structure, a business executive hierarchy, or a governmental system. ... But as Jesus carefully stated, Ď shall not be so among you.í "2 Some churches, however, have ignored Jesus' command as they copy the worldís authority system in the church. Commenting on this Ray Stedman said:

Probably with the best of intentions, it [the church] has nevertheless repeatedly borrowed in to the authority structures of the world, changed the names of executives from kings, general, captains, presidents, governors, secretaries, heads, and chiefs to popes, patriarchs, bishops, stewards, deacons, pastors, and elders, and gone merrily on its way, lording it over the brethren and thus destroying the model of servanthood which our Lord intended.3

Ministers are to have the heart of a servant, not the heart of a dictator. The leaders of the church are not to be like the leaders of nations. Leaders of the church are to pattern their ministries after Jesus', a humble servant; however, this is probably the least noticed, and least acquired trait among the ministry. How does a servant influence others to follow him? It is certainly not by demanding or ordering them around. It is by persuasion on his part, and voluntary consent on others' part. The ministry was given to the church by God to guide the saints. As a shepherd loves, protects, and guides his flock of sheep, a minister is to love, protect, and guide the saints of God. He is to lead them to Jesus, their Lord and Savior. He is not to punish them and treat them as lesser saints.

Misinterpreted Texts

Some have tried to use the Scripture to claim illegetimate authority over the flock of God. First Thessalonians 5:12-13 is often used for this purpose. Paul told the church at Thessalonica to "know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake." The phrase "over you in the Lord," however does not indicate the ruling over of others. The Greek word prohistamenous (translated "over") means "standing before."4 Leaders stand before others, leading the way. Leaders can only lead those whom they persuade to follow them, and according to Jesus they should approach leadership as a servant, not a master.

One of the reasons God-given authority is abused so often is due to a failure to distinguish between God-given authority, and self-appointed, self-achieved power. Concerning this subject, Cheryl Forbes writes:

Power means insistence on what we want for no other reason than that we want it; it means making other people follow us despite their own wishes. Power is assumed, insensitive, dehumanizing, and ultimately destructive. Authority, on the other hand, is positive, and usually involves a conferred right within strictly controlled bounds.
The exercise of power always implies coercion and violence because the purpose of power is to reproduce itself. Whatever tries to prevent this reproduction must be disposed of. An exercise of authority, however, should have nothing to do with coercion, violence, or manipulation. Yet in our zeal for God's work we decide that if someone won't recognize our authority, we will force him with our power.5

"The spiritual autocrat, the religious dictator, attempts to compel sub-ordination; the true Christian leader can legitimately only elicit followership."6 The Apostle Paul said it this way:

"Moreover I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth. Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand. But I determined this with myself, that I would not come again to you in heaviness. For if I make you sorry, who is he then that maketh me glad, but the same which is made sorry by me? And I wrote this same unto you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy is the joy of you all" (II Corinthians 1:23-2:3, emphasis mine)

Abusive leaders focus on themes of authority, submission, and spiritual headship. Obedience to God is achieved through obedience to the man of God, it is said. This is how they are able to win and secure the obedience of the people. "Spiritually abusive groups routinely use guilt, fear, and intimidation as effective means for controlling their members. ...[L]eaders consciously foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and interpersonally, by focusing on themes of submission, loyalty, and obedience to those in authority."7 Ministerial authority is Biblical and so is submission to that authority, but if a minister's focus is on this authority his whole ministry will be out of perspective.

Another Scripture used to justify unlimited authority is Hebrews 13:17. The author tells us that we are to submit to the authority of our leadership because they exercise their authority for our benefit and the Lordís sake. Why, then, do we often find it difficult to submit to the authority of some leaders? Is it rebellion, or something else? To answer this question, letís examine the Biblical relationship between a husband and wife.

In Ephesians chapter five Paul instructed the Ephesian wives to submit to their authority saying, "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing" (Ephesians 5:23-24).

To the husbands Paul said:

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.... So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth it and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church.... Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband (Ephesians 5:25, 28-29, 33).

The wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. Before all the men say "amen," let us look at the flip-side of the coin. The husband is instructed to love his wife as he loves himself, and even as Christ loved the church. If a husband loves his wife like he is supposed to, she will have no problem submitting to him as she is supposed to. When both elements of love and submission are present in a relationship there will be perfect working order. When proper love is not present, however, submission becomes rather difficult and is viewed negatively rather than positively.

What does the husband and wife relationship have to do with submission to the ministryy? Much in every way! The reason most people find it hard to submit to authority is because they do not feel that the authority has a genuine love and concern for their well-being. It boils down to a love problem. The ministry is either not loving the saints like they should, or else the saints are not perceiving their genuine love. We as humans find it very hard to submit to someone who does not genuinely care about us; however, if we are persuaded of their love submission will come rather naturally. It is easy to submit to someone even if we do not agree with them if we know they have our best interests in mind, and not their own.

Questioning vs. Challenging Authority

There is a difference between questioning and challenging authority. When one challenges God-given authority, they are fighting against God and are in rebellion. When one questions authority, however, they are merely seeking understanding to his/her decisions and teachings. Too many precious saints have been branded as rebels because they question the authority over them. I do not believe we have rebels on our hands, but rather individuals who desire to understand the reasoning behind teachings and decisions made by those in authority that affect their lives. Cults begin when no one is allowed to question authority. A leader is then able to control instead of lead.

Every minister needs to be checked and balanced by other authorities. Our constitution has survived for so long because it was set up with the system of checks and balances. Each branch of our government checks the other to make sure that no one branch gains too much power. Are the leaders of our government more open to questioning from others than some ministers are from the saints?

Among the many jobs of a minister his main job is to perfect the saints, bringing them to maturity in Christ. The ultimate end is for the saints to have an established faith and walk with God, growing up in the Head which is Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:14-15). The job of the minister is to unite the hand of God and the hand of man, then step back once the union is complete. His role becomes one of guidance. The minister does not act as a mediator between God and man. The priesthood is over. We are all individual priests before God (I Peter 2:9).

When a minister operates as a dictator, treating his saints as his "subjects" instead of his brethren, he produces a codependency upon himself from the saints. This is very unhealthy and dangerous spiritually. It is not the minister's job to declare the will of God for an individual in every area of their life. His job is to teach them how to find the will of God for themselves so that they can walk with God without depending on another human being. It is like a baby learning to walk. The parents help them walk when they are first learning by holding their hands. The intent, however, is not to make that baby depend on them for walking the rest of his/her life, but to train him/her how to do it on his/her own. It is the same spiritually speaking. The minister helps people learn to walk with God by holding their hand. This should only continue for a short while until the saints learn to walk with God on their own. This does not mean the minister's role becomes irrelevant, but emphasizes his role as a helper to one's faith and relationship with God, and not the mediator of such relationship.

If a minister does not teach his saints how to walk with, and hear from God on their own, but has them codependent upon himself for their walk with God, what will happen to those saints when that minister is no longer with them? The saints will be lost! Why? Because they have not been taught how, or been allowed to grow up in the Head of the body (Jesus Christ) functioning as one of its members, but rather have grown up in one of the bodyís members (a man). The ministerís job is that of a shepherd. He leads the flock that is following him, not making a flock follow him by dictating every step they take. As one saint asked, "Why did God give me the Holy Ghost if Iím never allowed to listen to Him?" Some ministers seem to believe that there "are believers, and then there are Ďcapital Bí believers."8

Some ministers make all the spiritual decisions for their saints. This takes the responsibility of working out one's own salvation before God with fear and trembling and gives it to the ministers. This is not Scriptural. Look at what Paul said concerning this in the book of Philippians:

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Do all things without murmurings and disputings (Philippians 2:12-14).

We (individuals) are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling before God. How can this be done? It is done through God's grace working in us individually, giving us both the desire and the ability to do of His good pleasure. Does this mean we can decide what part of the Word of God we want to obey? No. The Word of God is forever settled in heaven. What this means is that our ultimate destiny depends on our response to God's grace. We have the sole responsibility of working out our relationship and salvation with God. God assists us in accomplishing this by working in us that which pleases Him. In other words, God helps guide us into this relationship with Him that has to do with our salvation.

A minister should not have to make spiritual decisions for the saints. They should be learning how to make them themselves as they grow in God. This is part of their responsibility in working out their own salvation. Many times what ends up happening is that people are forced into working out their salvation the same way in which the minister works out his.

If we desire for the body of Christ to grow as it should, the ministry needs be the example that it has been called to be, helping in the saints' faith, and not being lords over Godís heritage. Once we are healed of spiritual abuse and the misuse of authority we will no longer fear to submit, but rather will do it joyfully and willingly because we are assured that it is for our benefit and protection, coming from those whom we love, and those who love and care for our well-being.


1. Ronald M. Enroth, Churches That Abuse (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1992), p.217. <back>
2. Ray C. Stedman, A Pastor's Authority (Palo Alto, CA: Discovery Publishing, 1995), p. 1, taken from the Microsoft Internet Explorer. <back>
3. Ibid. <back>
4. Ibid., 3. <back>
5. Cheryl Forbes in Ronald M. Enroth, Churches That Abuse (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1992), pg. unknown. <back>
6. Enroth, p. unknown <back>
7. Ibid., 103. <back>
8. Quote from Reverend Jeff Arnold <back>

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