Monday, October 5, 2015

Understanding how God's authority functions in the local church

Matthew 21:23-24 "When He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them,“I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things."

Introduction: Understanding the immensity of Jesus' authority and the importance of God's authority
In three of the four Gospels we find a major discussion going on between Jesus and the Pharisees over the matter of Divine authority (Matthew 21:23-27; Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-18). The word translated "authority" in the discussion between Jesus' and the Pharisees undergirds what we're aiming to understand in this post today - namely God's authority in the local church.1  One way we could summarize the subject of authority would be under three words: right, responsibility and rulership. Jesus was exercising His right of authority over the disciples (Matthew 21:1-11); in the temple (Matthew 21:12-17) and over life itself (Matthew 21:18-22). In regards to His responsibility, Jesus indirectly answered his accusers by identifying His responsibility as deriving from the Heavenly Father and Himself. Then finally, Jesus' rulership was defined by both His right and responsibility as God in human flesh. The Pharisees perceived the immensity of authority in Jesus and chose not to submit to it.

God's people need to understand how God's authority operates in the church
Essentially, the subject of authority is not seriously considered until people perceive that the will of one person is being placed over their own. Knowing who is in charge and to what scope such authority functions is necessary when it comes to making decisions, facing crises or maintaining order and peace in day-to-day life. Ministry life demands a clear understanding of how God's authority works. It was clear that the Pharisees did not understand Jesus' authority. 

When it comes to modern day church life, everything that is done must observe the Bible's teaching on spiritual authority. The conversation that occurs between Jesus and the Pharisees, and their short-sightedness in being able to distinguish the manner of Jesus' authority and that of John the Baptist, underscores the importance of this subject. If we as God's people misunderstand how God's authority functions, we could miss out correctly identifying when and where He is moving in our lives. 

Clarifying some important distinctions on how God's authority operates in the local church
With that said, I simply wanted to share today a helpful distinction in understanding how God's authority operates within a local church, with some commentary. Douglas K. Blount and Joseph D. Wooddell recently wrote a book that comments on the doctrinal statements in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. In that work they expound on the BFM's treatment of the doctrine of the church. The particular paragraph in question is very helpful in discerning the ways in which God's authority operates in a local church. Here is the quote: "The New Testament Church is ruled by Jesus Christ, governed by the congregation, led by pastors and served by Deacons." In brief, that one sentence captures in about as a clear a way as possible what is often-times a confusion over how pastors, congregations and deacons function in a church. Let us explore the distinctions spelled out in this statement:

The Church is ruled by Jesus Christ through the Word of God
There is no question that Jesus Christ exercises absolute rule and reign over His church (Ephesians 2:20; Colossians 1:16-20). As we have witnessed in the last two posts, Jesus Christ exercises His sovereignty by way of the scriptures - which are His voice in written form. Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians 4:2 "For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus." The Sovereign authority of the Lord Jesus Christ as exercised through His word renders the Bible as the final authority to which all secondary authorities make their appeal. 

As stated above: Jesus Christ rules over His church. Jesus' authority and the scripture's authority are absolute. Any other remaining authority is derived from Him and thus is secondary or delegated authority. The secondary authorities that are under the authority of Christ and the scripture are the pastor, the church and the Deacon body. Jesus has so-chosen to delegate His authority to each in different ways. 

The church is led by pastors who are faithful to the Word of God
Pastors are charged with the responsibility to lead the church (Ephesians 4:11-12; 2 Timothy 4:1-4; 1 Peter 5:1-4). To aspire to such a task means the Pastor is aspiring to a high calling and noble task assigned to him by the Lord (1 Timothy 3:1-7). A pastor's authority to lead His flock operates insofar as He is doing so with an open Bible, a willing heart and life above reproach.2 

The church is governed by congregations submitted under the Word of God
The church congregation govern the affairs of the church. In regards to pastors and church congregations, each one's delegated authority interrelates and ought to function together in harmony. The congregation keeps the authority of the pastor in check with regards to hold him accountable. Paul reminds Timothy to be sure to take heed to himself and to make his progress in the faith evident to all (1 Timothy 4:13-16). 

In the same token, the congregation is under the obligation to follow the pastor's lead insofar as He does so with a chaste example and Biblical fidelity (Hebrews 13:7,17). The congregation's governing authority extends to it's ability to receive members, exercise discipline when needed and function as the governing administrator of the ordinances of the Lord's table and Baptism. 

The pastor undoubtedly is the Elder who performs and leads the church in the observance of such ordinances, however he does so not on his own merit, but in relationship to the church he serves. Afterall, Jesus gave the ordinances to the church, not to individuals.

The church is served by Deacons who exemplify the Word of God
Then lastly, the Deacons serve the church. The concept of Deacon boards or Deacons ruling over pastors or congregations finds no Biblical precedent. Whenever we look into Acts 6:1-7 or 1 Timothy 3:8-13, we find the consistent pattern of Deacons serving and supporting the congregation and the pastor in their respective roles. Deacons are needed to faciliate practical, hands-on care of the membership and encouragement of the pastoral leadership. If any type of authority is accorded to Deacons, it would be by the example they place before the church body in serving the Lord without question. 

My hope is that these thoughts have provided clarity to an often misunderstood topic: namely in understanding how God's authority functions in the local church. In short, we have discovered the following about how God's authority functions in the local church:

1. Jesus Christ rules over the church by the Word of God

2. Pastors lead the church as they are faithful to the Word of God

3. Congregations govern the church as they are submitted to the Word of God

4. Deacons serve the church by exemplifying the Word of God 

1. The Lexham Theological Wordbook explains how this word is used in the New Testament: "The NT uses the noun exousia in several ways relating to the concept of authority. It can refer to a state of control over something (John 10:18; Rom 9:21). It can also indicate a potential to command, control, or govern (Matt 9:8; Rev 9:19). Further, it can point to a right to control or command (Mark 11:28; Rev 12:10). The word can also refer to a sphere in which power is exercised (Luke 4:6; Col 1:13) or to a means of exercising power (1 Cor 11:10)." Douglas Mangum; Derek R. Brown; Rachel Klippenstein; Rebekah Hurst. The Lexham Theological Wordbook. Logos 6 Bible Software. 

2. Some church bodies will often have other elders aiding the pastor in the over-seeing of the congregation's spiritual and pastoral needs. The concept of multiple elders working with the pastor has merit in scripture (compare Acts 14:23; Acts 20:25-38; 1 Timothy 4:11,13-14; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1) and historic Baptist belief (compare 1689 London Baptist Confession; 1742 Philadelphia Baptist Confession; 1833 New Hampshire Confession and the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message.)

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