Who has authority in the church?

Last night, I stood in to run one of our other homegroups for one of our elders. He is currently *grits teeth* in a sunny part of Europe whilst we were digging ourselves out of snow drifts to get to church. I’m not at all jealous as I’m sure you can tell. But we had an excellent time pressing into some of the points we looked at in the sermon on Sunday (at least, those of us able to dig ourselves out of our roads).

The sermon on Sunday focused on Joshua’s setting aside for leadership in Numbers 27. As a group, we looked at the concept of authority, particularly authority within the church, from various angles. We noted the change in authority from Moses to Joshua. Moses had direct communication with God; Joshua would have mediated communication through the priest. Moses delivered God’s law to the people; Joshua was simply to lead the people to obedience of the law. This is summed up in 27:20, ‘invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey’.

We had already noted the fact that the church has one head and it is Christ. We looked at the borrowed authority of elders who, like Joshua, are to lead the people to obedience of Christ whose Word has already been delivered. But there were several paradoxes that were noted in the concept of Christian leadership and authority within the church.

For example, Christian leaders lead by example and teaching, not orders and diktats. Similarly, authority is given only inasmuch as it corresponds to the Word of God. Christ is the chief shepherd and our authority is borrowed entirely from him. What we say only has authority inasmuch as it is what he says.

Most strikingly, we noted how eldership authority is both borrowed from Christ and acknowledged by the church. Who, for example, elects church officers? In the congregational model that we believe in, it is the church members. They are the ones who elect and deselect their elders. On what basis do they do so? On the grounds of the scriptural criteria. What are the scriptural criteria for eldership? Essentially, being a godly bloke who is able to teach; all things we expect of other church members or at least want to lead them toward.

So who has authority in the church? The elders are to lead well but they do so with reference to scripture. They lead as those recognised by the church as good examples to follow whose teaching accords with scripture. The church may deselect elders when it is judged they have disqualified themselves from office (usually a significant proportion of the church must adjudge it the same way). Authority is relationally determined. The church recognises certain men to be qualified and gives them the authority to lead on the grounds that their teaching and behaviour accords with scripture.

Sitting in a Bible study, it seemed worth asking the question, ‘who has authority here?’ Is it the pastor because he’s taking the study? Is it co-equally shared between whichever elders are in the room? No. Authority is both borrowed and relationally determined. The one with the greatest authority is the one who is speaking in line with scripture. It is the Word of God that has the authority and it vests its authority in whoever happens to be speaking its truth at any given time.

It was interesting to note that everybody in the church is called to lead somewhere and yet everyone is called to submit. The elders, as undershepherds, have borrowed authority from the Chief Shepherd. The church recognises the authority of the undershepherds only so far as they accord with the Word of the Chief Shepherd. Both the elders and the members have borrowed authority. The church submits to the borrowed authority of the elders while the elders submit to commissioning authority of the church; both have authority only as they submit to the final authority of the Lord Jesus made known through his Word.