Pastoral authority?

2019-12-16-pastoral-authority
2019-12-16-pastoral-authority
As scandals of abuse and abuses of power are brought to light, the question comes to mind "Do pastors really have authority over their congregations?" Is "pastoral authority" a legit thing?

If you are not aware of the recent denominational scandal over clergy sexual abuse or the recent kerfuffle over the role of women in ministry, you have to either have your head in the sand or be living totally off the grid. If the latter, then you’re not reading this blog, that’s for sure. I certainly don’t want to cause unnecessary controversy, but I have noticed in both of these conversations something that I find particularly troubling and—if I am honest—dangerous.

As we became increasingly aware of the sexual abuse present in our churches, I noticed that everywhere such acts were referenced as “abuses of power” or “abuses of authority.” In some discussions related to how broad our complementarianism can be—specifically related to whether women can preach—I have seen some speak of the pastor or preacher’s authority. As I have read these arguments in articles, blogs, and tweets, I can’t help but think, “What authority?” Pastors of churches may have a perceived authority by their church members, but in reality they have no real positional authority.

I am reminded of the chapter “The Ministry” in J. L. Dagg’s Manual of Church Order, in which Dagg begins by unfolding an argument on what sort of ministers are called to the church. He begins with the following paragraph:

The ministers of Christ are, like ordinary Christians, separate from the world. They are partakers of the heavenly calling, by which men are brought out of the world, and made servants of Christ. In all his epistles to the churches, Paul claims to be a fellow-saint with them, a member of the same spiritual family, and an heir of the same heavenly inheritance. Throughout the Scriptures, the ministers of Christ are spoken of as persons who love Christ, and are from the heart devoting themselves to his service. They must therefore be of the number who are “called to be saints.”[1]

Dagg will admit to a special call to ministry, that ministers of the church are called by God to serve the church. However, they are called from the church. Like the rest of the saints, ministers, pastors, and preachers are separated from the world, but they are not separated from the church. Even in their calling and their service as ministers, they remain within the church. Dagg goes on to say:

The separation of the ministry from the mass of ordinary Christians, is not like the separation of Christians from the world. In the latter case, they cease to be of the world, and become strangers and pilgrims in the earth. But men who enter the ministry, do not cease to be saints. Saul and Barnabas were separated unto the work to which the Holy Ghost had called them; but this separation did not take from them a place among the saints and faithful in Christ Jesus.[2]

Even if ministers are separate in the sense that they are “distinguished” by their gifts or qualifications to ministry,[1]they do not cease to be members of the church. Their gifts may be different, their calling may be different, their place of service may be more prominent, yet they remain churchmen. All members of the church take part in the priesthood of the believers. When Peter wrote, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet 2:9a ESV), he was addressing the whole church. Yes, the ministers, pastors, and preachers of the church may have a distinguishing duty among the church, but that duty does not propel them into some upper echelon of the saints or invest them with an authority that belongs distinctly to themselves. Dagg continues:

The ministers of Christ are not a separate class of men in such a sense as to constitute them an organized society. They are fellow-laborers in the Lord’s service, but have no power over one another; and have no authority from Christ to combine themselves into an ecclesiastical judicatory to exercise power in any manner. They are all on a level as brethren; are the servants of Christ, and the servants of the churches.[4]

Dagg focuses here on the relationship of one minister to another, but the overall tone of the passage is that ministers cannot dictate their whims onto the churches under their care. In fact, they are the servants of the churches. How does a servant exert power or authority over the one he serves? Somehow over the years, we have invested in pastors and preachers an authority they were never given. Perhaps their position grants them the perception of having authority. Perhaps having—as my college preaching professor once put it—the audacity to stand up and speak for God casts him in a certain light. But the pastor is a servant. He has no real authority or power to abuse or wield, which means his sins while in his position are that much more heinous.

Pastors, we are servants and shepherds, guiding people and teaching them a more excellent way. We may lead, but that leading takes place as a guide showing well-worn paths and not as one who blazes new trails. We suggest, advise, and teach; we do not manipulate, dictate, or demand. Jesus remains the head of the church, not us. He has all authority; we do not. We have the task of teaching his word and passing on his truth, and this requires us to be resolute and committed to that word and to that truth. But it does not give us any authority or power. We too are sheep.


[1] John L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2012), 241.

[2] Dagg, Manual, 242.

[3] Dagg, Manual, 242.

[4] Dagg, Manual, 243.

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