A Pastor Has No Authority Over His Congregation
By: Deji Yesufu
The blessing of a developed theological system is that time makes things clearer. I’ll use a very unlikely but useful example here to make my point. For many years in the 20th century, the best chess players played at 2600 elo rating . Then came the 1960/70s when a certain man began to play at 2700. This man’s name was Bobby Fischer (I have an article on Fischer in my forthcoming book, HUMANITY). At the time Fischer stopped playing professional chess, he was rated 2770. It took close to 20 years for any chess player to reach his elo rating. Today, there are 45 chess players rated 2700 and above, and there is just one person playing consistently at 2800 – Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian. My point is this: later generations of chess player will increase in elo because they will build on what their forbear have learnt and played. Theology is similar.
Developmental theology is a science of essentially learning what our fathers in the faith have known of Christ and building on that. This is why a healthy church must be confessional. We take it for granted that denominationalism is something that cannot be separated from the church – men will forever possess differing manner of seeing issues, and we want to build a local church around a historical grasp of the Bible. This brings me to the subject I wish to discuss today: how much authority does a pastor have over a congregation? In a video I shared online, John MacArthur, Pastor of Grace Community Church, L.A., says a pastor has no authority over his congregation. He said a pastor’s authority can not go beyond what is written in the Bible. Robert Pearce disagrees with MacArthur. He wrote this on Facebook as a response to the video I shared:
“Sorry, but MacArthur always seems to want to abdicate his responsibilities, and we saw this come out during Covid. A verse that God put on my heart when He gave me the calling to be a Pastor is Heb. 13:17: ‘Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.’ Pastors have a God-given authority over the flock in their care because we are called to be under-shepherds to the Great Shepherd. With Christ, we are to tend to their spiritual needs, mend their wounds, encourage them in difficult times, correct them when they go astray, watch over them and lead them, and in doing all this, we are accountable for the souls He puts in our care! We will face Christ and give an account! Where there is accountability, there is authority to be exercised and responsibility to be diligent and proper in what we’re doing!”
Two things can be drawn from Pearce’s reply: first, his inability to discern MacArthur’s spirit. Second, the fact that Pearce and MacArthur may be saying the same thing but using different thrusts. Let me try to resolve this tension a bit.
Historically, the position that most people take is that a pastor has absolute authority over his congregation. A pastor, in a sense, is seen as God’s representation in the local church. He is expected to be above board in all things. He’s expected to be a man of wisdom, etc. And from this moral standpoint, he is to be able to breath down orders to those under him. The history of the Christian Church is laced with such high handed pastorate – something Joshua Abutu, Pastor Trinity Baptist Church, Abuja, calls heavy shepherding. At some point, the Pope was determining who the ruler of nations will be in Europe. Only the 16th century Reformation cut down the powers of the papacy to what it is today. Yet, in every sphere of the Christian religion, the threat of heavy shepherding rears its ugly head. The only way to curtail this menace is to remember the words of our Saviour, that the leader, the pastor, must be a servant. When this is understood in a practical sense, we begin to realize why a pastor has no authority beyond what is written.
When people bring their souls under your oversight as a pastor, they have naturally and biblically subjugated themselves to you. It will require a narcissistic person to further subdue such people, and rebellion brews when thinking individuals sense this and questions a pastor’s authority along those lines. As the minister brings the word of God to his congregation each Sunday, he is bringing them under the authority of scripture. Every minister realizes quickly how inadequate he is at handling the lofty standards of God’s word, and this should brew humility in him. The minister sees that the only difference between himself and the congregation is that he has a mic – he is just as sinful as the congregation he is talking to. Such a humbled minister realizes that scripture holds sway over himself and his congregation.
So, when an issue arise, the minister does not seek out his own opinion; rather, he turns to the word of God for solution. In being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath, he could pick up counsel from a congregant that are way below him spiritually. The minister who submits himself to the authority of scripture, is the one who alone can use biblical authority over his congregation. The downside of this is that the congregation may regard the minister as weak but in my experience, I realize that people soon discover a true minister with time. Those who leave a congregation where the minister exercises godly and biblical authority, will soon find themselves in churches with high handed pastors. If they survive it, they will return to their former church, and hopefully if the parting was amicable, they are received back with charity.
When the Bible commands Christians to obey those over them, the Bible was not saying we should live like zombies in church. The Bible is saying obey your leaders because the Bible takes it for granted that true churches will not command people beyond what is written. In the church, there are spheres of authority and even the extent of authority. Men lead their homes. A pastor will lead the church by leading his men. Yet, a pastor does not have any authority over anyone beyond what is written. If a pastor learns that a man has been exercising bad authority at home, he must counsel such a man to love his wife and care for his children.
If a woman has been disobedient to the husband, he must counsel the husband to love his wife and be patient with her. Except to counsel the woman in charity, no pastor has any authority over another man’s wife. If any member is flagrantly sinful in church, the pastor leads a disciplinary committee that seeks to restore the erring member in love – not to punish or disgrace such a person out of church. The church is the ground and the pillar of truth. Godly wisdom must ooze out of the church, such that the world will see it and be attracted to it. Servant leadership calls a minister to essentially remind his congregation of God’s commands; not to breathe down his own biases in the name of pastoral authority.
For too many years, churches have been led wrongly. Pastors have become tyrants. Even churches that claim to be biblical have become cages. People can not leave a church without having their names and reputation damaged because pastors will trade all kinds of stories to protect themselves and to keep others under their subjugation. These men’s judgement lingers not. The lesson we can glean from history, like chess, is that we can do better than our forbears. We can love the sheep even when they rebel against us. We can trust Christ to protect our reputation even when it is clear that many spend all their time damaging it. We can stay within what is written to direct the people of God.
A sufficient scripture means that God has given enough directions in holy writ for every situation of life. If the minister does not know how to deal with a situation, he can pray, and God will send wisdom based on his word. True biblical authority is one that a pastor exercises as he stays within what is written. Anything besides this, the minister must admit that he does not know it all, or his limits of authority do not extend to such. If he is invited to it, he must be wise enough to either decline, or give a once-and-for-all counsel -staying within the limits of his office and calling. When an 85-year old minister tells his congregation that a pastor has no authority over his church, rather than debate him, I think we should listen to him. Many things are learnt through time and this is the reason why a lot of us are very blessed to still have John MacArthur pastoring today.