Exercising pastoral authority

By Mark Hallock

Exercising Pastoral Authority: What does pastoral authority look like practically in replanting?

When considering what the practical outworking or practice of pastoral authority looks like, there are four essential ingredients: a foundation, a duty, a charge, and a responsibility. Each of these pertains to the calling and function of a shepherd-pastor.

The Foundation of Pastoral Authority: KNOWING the Flock

The most basic function and responsibility of the pastor-shepherd is to know his sheep. In the words of Dr. Tim Witmer, “Before a shepherd can provide proper care he must know the identification of the sheep for whom he is responsible. Jesus not only identifies himself as the good shepherd, but also says, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:14).[1] In like manner, shepherd-leaders must know and identify their sheep. David Dickson captures the heart of knowing the sheep as he describes the relationship that should exist between shepherd-leaders and their flock:

“He must be acquainted with them all, old and young, their history, their occupations, their habits, their ways of thinking. They and their children should be their personal friends, so that they naturally turn to him as to one on whom they can depend as a kind and sympathizing friend and a faithful counselor.[2]

As pastors, it our responsibility to get to know our flock, one sheep at a time. We must pursue the sheep, engaging our people on a regular basis. Moreover, a good shepherd keeps his eyes and ears open as to what is happening in the lives of the sheep. Shepherds are attentive to the sheep, knowing their spiritual, emotional, and physical condition that they might be served, cared for, and ministered to in a healthy, biblical manner. Without this kind of intentional, foundational love and care for a congregation, pastoral authority cannot and will not be exercised or received in a proper manner.

The Duty of Pastoral Authority: LEADING the Flock
One of the primary responsibilities of a shepherd, as it is with a pastor, is to rightly lead the sheep. Sheep need to be led and God’s will is that His flock would be led by pastor-shepherds who have a heart like His. In Jeremiah 3:15 God says, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” Here, God promises the people of Israel that he will send shepherd leaders who will guide them with a tender, loving, yet firm, heart like his.

One of the primary reasons leadership is a key function of the pastor-shepherd, is because without shepherd-leadership, sheep will wander. In Zechariah 10:2, the prophet writes, “ The idols speak deceit, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd.” Here we see what can happen when there is a lack of shepherd-leaders. Sheep need a shepherd or they will wander. God’s people need leaders. They need shepherds to guide them and lead them in the ways of Jesus and God’s Holy Word, or they will wander. They will wander away from the pasture of God’s truth and into dangerous pastures of deceit and darkness, which lead to death. This kind of leadership involves the proper exercise of pastoral authority; Pastoral authority built on deep trust; Pastoral authority that does not coerce but empowers and enables the joyful and willing submission of God’s people, His sheep.

The Charge of Pastoral Authority: FEEDING the Flock

Sheep rely on the shepherd for healthy food. Jesus speaks with Peter in John 21:15, “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’” Pastor-shepherds must understand that sheep cannot find pastures on their own. Sheep have a very difficult time discerning the difference between healthy food and poisonous weeds. Therefore, sheep need a shepherd to help them find healthy food to nourish them. In this way, God’s people need pastors who will teach them rightly, feeding them and helping them find nourishment for their souls from God’s word.

Why is it so vital for pastor-shepherds to teach God’s word to their flock?

Because those we lead need knowledge and understanding of God’s Word. Again, in Jeremiah 3:15 the Lord declares, “…I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” As shepherds of God’s flock, our own knowledge and understanding of God’s authoritative word must be taught to those we are charged to lead. When those we lead are without knowledge and understanding of God’s word, their spiritual lives will suffer great harm. In Hosea 4:5-6 we read,

“You stumble day and night, and the prophets stumble with you. So I will destroy your mother— my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.” 

When the priests did not teach the Law of God to the people of Israel, the people were “destroyed.” This is a judgment against the priests and prophets. We must teach our people. We must feed them the authoritative truth of God’s Word for their salvation and sanctification. The reality is that if those we lead are not living obediently to God’s Word, they will obey something or someone else. “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3). Therefore, as pastors we must continually teach the truth! The sole authority of our teaching is the truth of God’s perfect, sufficient Word. May we never forget or compromise this. Sound teaching is the diet that will keep God’s people spiritually healthy, growing in holiness, purity and love.

The Responsibility of Pastoral Authority: PROTECTING the Flock

Sheep are in constant need of protection. In Acts 20:28-30, we read these important words for pastor-shepherds:

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseer. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”

Sheep cannot protect themselves, they won’t work together like other herd animals to protect each other. They will allow the wolf to come and take and kill. Wolves are cunning and can cause tremendous damage to the flock. People who cause division, teach false doctrine, or foster sin, are wolves who work to destroy the flock of God.[3]

Shepherds are to protect the sheep not only from outside dangers, but from potentially dangerous influences that arise from other sheep. As Tim Witmer notes, “Faithful shepherds protect their flocks not only from harmful outside influences but from the self-serving among the sheep.” He goes on,

“Many congregations have experienced the intimidation of ‘bullies’ within their midst when leaders fail to take responsibility to shepherd the flock. It is often the strong-willed, outspoken, highly-opinionated folk who fill the void. The point is that there will always be leaders. The issue is whether they are those called and gifted by God to shepherd his flock or those who push themselves forward so that they can push others around.[4]

Shepherds are responsible for protecting their sheep from dangers both outside and inside the fold. This is why one of the most important ways a shepherd can exercise protection of the flock is by fighting those outside the fold that seek to bring harm to the flock and correcting those inside the fold that are potentially harmful and destructive to the sheep. While many shepherds are quick to defend the sheep from outside evils, many times these same shepherds are very slow to bring loving, yet firm, discipline to sheep inside of the fold that are need of correction. In regard to pastoral authority, pastor-shepherds must remember that this kind of discipline is an act of love for their good.

Therefore, it must be approached with great gentleness and with the end goal of helping that particular sheep grow and mature in Christ. Otherwise we are at risk of abusing our pastoral authority, causing great harm rather than help to the people of God.

Pastoring God’s people is a high and sacred calling. It must be approached with great humility, reverence, and love. While pastoral authority is part of the role and responsibility of a pastor in the local church, it must be understood that it is derived ultimately from Jesus and the authority of God’s Word, not by the pastor himself. When this is rightly understood it will lead to a humble practice and exercise of authority that helps to aid God’s people in spiritual growth and maturity. For true pastoral authority is not a power to be abused, but a grace to steward with Christ-like wisdom and care.

[1] Tim Witmer, Like Sheep Without A Shepherd, 103.

[2] David Dickson, The Elder and His Work (repr., Dallas, Texas: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1990), 15.

[3] Freng, Shepherd Leadership, 10.

[4] Witmer, Sheep, 21.

Published January 12, 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.