Biblical Authority: Shepherding the Flock

Some words are difficult to like.  Do you know what I mean?  Maybe I am not being clear. There are various reasons why we may not like this word or that.  Some may be on unfriendly terms with a word because it is difficult to spell (think handkerchief - good thing for auto spell!).  A few may avoid a word because it is out of their word class or normal vocabulary (think hypostatic union!).  A handful may be feuding with a word because they remember it but nothing else about it (how about inchoate?). And many may dislike words simply because they have been snatched by an opposing ideological group (How about "gay" or "meditation" for starters?).

I think that the word "authority" fits the difficult category. Not because it is difficult to spell or to remember, no, it is difficult because our culture has taught us that it is a bad word.  For instance, a shoe commercial can cajole us to challenge everything - everything obviously includes authority. And why not?  Authority looks angry.  How often have you been driving along and looked up at the Billboard to see a policeman, - ahem, a figure of authority - pointing down and reminding you of the speed limit?  When authority is angry it is not hard to want it gone!  It is no wonder our culture has trouble with the word.  The problem is that the church's view of authority, even Biblical authority, is not much better.

Now, what does the authority of the church mean?  For different people this means different things.  For some in Christendom, authority resides in a single hierarchical figure. For others, a "me and my Bible" attitude reigns.  And between those two poles we find a host of other views. So, maybe I ought to sharpen my question.  What ought Biblical authority in the church to look like?  Let me give several responses.

First, authority ought to arise from an authoritative source. There is a logical fallacy called the argumentum ad verecundiam or argument from authority.  A debater may employ this fallacy to call foul on an opponent who appeals to an authority who has no expertise in the field under discussion.  Therefore, on the basis of Christ's infallible authority we believe the Bible to be God's infallible authority for the church. The church must begin where the author of the church begins. For the church to start anywhere else would be foolhardy.

Second, the visible exercise of Biblical authority has been committed to elders in Christ's absence. Clearly, this is the reason for Paul's encouragement to appoint elders who have been raised up by the Spirit in every church. Furthermore, the author of Hebrews says of these elders, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account."[i] In other words, the elder's exercise of authority must be accord with Biblical authority.

Third, the character of Biblical authority is best described as ministerial rather than magisterial. In other words, the elder in Christ's church is not a judge in a court of law. Yes, there are similarities between an elder and a judge. Both derive their authority from another source.  In other words, neither the judge nor the elder is the author of the law.  However, there is an important difference.  The judge uses force whereas the elder uses persuasion to bring about  good or godly behavior.  The elder has no power to lock a person in the pokey.  He does not rule as the gentiles.  This raises another difference.  Biblical authority must train the elder so that others can see its effect on him.  An elder unaffected by Biblical authority is not going to be very persuasive! 

Brothers and sisters, this sort of godly authority is neither bad nor unappealing. It is good and I might add that we need this type of authority because even though sin's power has been broken in us, sin's presence remains.  Let me tell you how this works out practically.  A person caught in sin almost invariably believes that he knows best.  He typically thinks that the elders don't understand and therefore cannot give him good counsel.  Sin clouds the eyes.  Unrepentant sin leads us to think that we are the authority.  So, the next time that you are tempted to challenge godly elders who are exercising Biblical authority, remember to "let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you."[ii]

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R Publishing) and Managing Editor for Place for Truth.

[i] Hebrews 13:17a.

[ii] Hebrews 13:17b.


Jeffrey Stivason