When Has Authority Gone Too Far?

By Jon Zens

Jesus Christ rules His assemblies by the Spirit through His Word. Congregations have authority to carry out kingdom affairs in line with Christ’s Word. The common notion that authority belongs only to a segment of the church (the “pastor,” “the session,” the “board,” etc.), and not to the assembly as a whole cannot be sustained by the New Testament.

It is from this misconception that wrong ideas of authority flow freely.  Several propositions will follow that seek to summarize crucial matters regarding authority in the church.

1.  Any assembly of believers has authority to act on Christ’s Word (Matthew 18:15-18; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 6:1-8).

If reconciliation does not take place at the lowest levels, offenses must be brought “to the assembly.” The elders are certainly a part of that process, but they are not the process itself. The idea that “take it to the assembly” means “take it to the elders,” as Jay Adams suggests, is not based in the New Testament. [1]  In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul does not chide the elders for not taking action, but instead confronts the whole assembly.  In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul assumes that the brethren have the ability to work out their internal problems.

2.  Elders recognized by the people are responsible to equip the flock for ministry, to lead them into maturity, to teach and apply the Word.  Elders are accountable to God for their oversight, and are to exercise their care of the flock in line with the servant-pattern of Christ (Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:17; Ephesians 4:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Peter 5:1-3).

3.  A mammoth problem exists because traditionally the “office of pastor” has been separated from the “elders,” and given an authority unknown in the New Testament.

“The Minister” concept has no denominational barriers — it is everywhere assumed. “The pastor” doctrine presupposes and perpetuates the clergy/laity distinction. In 1904, I.M. Haldeman asserted that “Bishop and Elders do not exist today . . . The Pastor is a Gift to the Church.” [2]

The Puritans believed that “a minister’s authority derives from his office . . . None can preach with authority but ‘who is in office.’” [3] This “office” is totally different from just being an “elder.” [4] It has a “call” that other elders apparently do not receive. It has training (seminary, Bible school) not required of elders. Men sometimes leave their families for such training. [5] When they “enter the ministry,” they become “the leading officer of a congregation.” [6]

As long as we assume that “the pastor” fits the job description given by David McKenna, problems of authority are inevitable. “(The pastor is) like the cerebellum, the center for communicating messages, coordinating functions, and conducting responses between the head and body . . . The pastor is not only the authoritative communicator of the truth from the Head of the Body, but he is also the accurate communicator of the needs of the Body to the Head . . . . he edifies the Body.” [7]

These words suggest that the pastor is a mediator between the Lord and His people. Christ nowhere assigns such tasks to one person. The fact that we think He does is the source of many problems.

4.  Perverted authority is often subtle, but Christ’s sheep are able to sense its insidious intrusion. If a church atmosphere causes people to walk around with a dark cloud hovering over their heads (no joy, Galatians 4:15), to feel like they are being “watched” and “kept track of,” and to feel like they can’t act without “checking in” with the leadership, there is probably an authority problem.

5.  Some marks of perverted authority include:

  1.  the claim of direct authority from God which bypasses the need to test all things;
  2. the command to “submit to me” replaces “I will serve you”;
  3. the method of leadership is to “order” people around instead of appealing to them to do the right things;
  4. there is a dominating, “pushy” spirit instead of a dependence on the Lord to direct;
  5. there is a sense of control instead of a sense of support;
  6. a gift is exploited so that others are made to feel dependent on it;
  7. there is an inflexibility — “don’t question me” — “don’t touch the Lord’s anointed”;
  8. there is unapproachability and intimidation — the “aura” around the leader keeps people in awe;
  9. an organization emerges built upon a person and his peculiar emphases instead of around Christ and His Word;
  10. there will be cyclical challenges to the authority figure (which are immediately and forcefully purged);
  11. there is more concern for maintaining the authoritarian structure than there is for caring about the people. [8]

As you reflect on your own experience, it is apparent that what we call “cults” do not have a monopoly on these tragic attributes. They too often permeate the structures of “Christian” groups and churches.



 1.  Ready to Restore, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1981, pp. 3-4.

2.  How to Study the Bible, Revell, 1904. pp. 395-396.

3.  “The Puritan View of the Ministry,” Banner of Truth, August, 1957, pp. 29-30.

4.  “Elders,” Charles Whitworth, Reformation Today, March-April, 1983, p. 13.

5.  “When Rev. ____ left his home [in Africa] to attend _____ Seminary, his wife was expecting their tenth child. The child was born four months after he left, but died a few days later. The loss brought great sorrow to _____, but did not lessen his determination to make the sacrifices necessary to gain a strong training in biblical theology” (from a seminary bulletin).

6.  Covenanter Witness, August 30, 1972, p. 6.

7.  “The Ministry’s Gordian Knot,” Leadership, Winter, 1980, pp.50-51.

8.  I am indebted to Mark Sequeira for this excellent summary.


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