Earning pastoral authority

By Mark Hallock

The Lord has called replanting pastors to lead with a heart like his. Just as our Lord is the ultimate Shepherd of the flock, so declining and dying congregations are in desperate need of shepherd-pastors who capture and flesh out this same vision of shepherd leadership. This is critical if we are to properly understand biblical pastoral authority in a congregation, specifically within a replanting context. Let’s consider, then, what exactly it means and looks like to earn and exercise this kind of authority.

Earning Pastoral Authority: What does it mean for a pastor to have authority?

Throughout the Scriptures, God calls on leaders, and specifically pastors, to care for and shepherd God’s people who are under their care. God’s people, his sheep, are in desperate need of shepherd-pastors who will know them, lead them, feed them, and protect them. Pastoral authority is earned over time as a pastor faithfully carries out these pastoral functions in care and service of a congregation. However, it is important to first understand that pastors are first and foremost under-shepherds who lead the sheep under the authority of the Good Shepherd, God himself. Under-shepherds must allow the Good Shepherd to lead as they lead others. Any authority a pastor has is derived from the Lord Himself. This must be understood, embraced, and joyfully lived out.

As Tim Witmer writes, “Human authority is to be respected for the very reason that, ultimately, the authority is from the Lord.[1]” He goes on, “All authority is the Lord’s; only God’s authority is un-derived. Any and every human authority is delegated from the Lord above.”[2] This is the Good Shepherd’s work to be done under His authority. He is the Chief Shepherd and the call is for the pastor to follow him first and lead others only under his authority (1 Pet. 5:4). John Murray rightly notes, “It is the Holy Spirit who has made (pastors) overseers, and they are delegated by the head of the church. It is the obligation of the people and the elders[3] (pastors) to recognize that the rule exercised by the latter is by delegation from Christ and to him they are responsible.”[4]

As a result, the ministry of the shepherd-pastor is one to approach humbly, carried out with holy fear and trembling before the Lord. This is not an office designed for men who desire to rule and reign over the flock, but rather for those who desire to serve and sacrifice their very lives for the sheep Christ died to save. Jesus, Himself speaks to this type of selfless leadership in Matthew 20:25-28 when he says,

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Pastoral authority then, while biblical and necessary, is to be earned and exercised through humble, faithful, consistent, biblical, loving leadership. Alexander Strauch comments on the sacrificial, servant posture of pastors noting how “based on Paul’s example and the evidence of Scripture, we see that true elders do not dictate, but direct. They do not command the consciences of their brethren, but appeal to their brethren to faithfully follow God’s Word. They suffer and bear the brunt of difficult people and problems so the lambs are not bruised.”[5] Indeed, biblical pastors bear “the misunderstandings and sins of others so the assembly may live in peace.”[6] Biblical pastors “lose sleep so others may rest. They depend upon God in prayer for wisdom and help, not upon their own power and cleverness. They guard the community’s liberty and freedom in Christ so the saints are encouraged to develop their gifts, mature, and serve one another.”[7] In order for pastors to faithfully carry out this high calling and charge of selflessly, yet authoritatively, leading God’s people, it is critical that they seek to lead with Christ-like character as laid out clearly in the New Testament, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Watch for Part 2–Exercising Pastoral Authority

[1] Tim Witmer, “Pastoral Authority in an Anti-Authoritarian Age,” Tim Witmer, accessed January 4, 2016, https://faculty.wts.edu/posts/pastoral-authority-in-an-anti-authoritarian-age/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Throughout the New Testament, the words used for pastor, elder, and overseer are interchangeable terms for the same office.

[4] Witmer, “Pastoral Authority in an Anti-Authoritarian Age.”

[5] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 2003), 26.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Published January 10, 2017

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Mark Hallock

Mark Hallock serves as the lead pastor of Calvary Church in Englewood, Colorado. He also serves as president of the Calvary Family of Churches, a group committed to planting and replanting churches for the glory of God (thecalvary.org). His great desire is to see the gospel transform lives and neighborhoods through the planting of new congregations, along with the revitalization of declining congregations, throughout the city of Denver and beyond. Mark’s favorite hobby is hanging out with his wife, Jenna, and their two kids, Zoe and Eli.