This page is an extended answer to a letter on another page, Difficult Questions:  Pastoral Authority.  The reader may wish to refer to that page for a better understanding of the background of this one.  This is the answer page, and begins with a quote from that letter.

The whole thing didn't sit well with me--I felt that the senior pastor over-extended his authority in demanding the worship leader's obedience, when the worship leader had sought God's will and didn't feel God was calling him to do what the pastor wanted.  It concerns me, because in conversations with the pastor (who is a close friend, by the way) and others that attend the church, the underlying attitude seems to be that we are not to question the authority of "those God has placed over us".

  Thanks for your note; I hope I can help.

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  My view is that the pastor is mistaken regarding how authority works within the church.

  For one thing, it always works by deference, not enforcement; for another thing, it comes through service, not direction.  Put together, that means that a pastor has such authority as he has because when he speaks, people recognize that he is right, and that he is coming from a position of enabling others.  That is very different from an approach in which he is obeyed because he is the pastor and gets to direct things.

  This is greatly complicated in our modern churches, however, by the impact of history and modern thought on what any particular group means by the word "pastor".  Some pastors are expected to act as church elders, and others are explicitly excluded from that position.  Some are expected to be deacons.  Some who are called pastors are really called to be teachers, and minister in that capacity without realizing that pastors are also needed.  At the same time, parts of the church are still feeling the impact of the 1970's discipleship movement (in which very strict hierarchical structures of authority and submission became part of otherwise unstructured churches).  What any individual thinks, and what any particular church thinks, is the role of the pastor within the congregation may be founded on error, but it may also be founded on something as simple as confounding the actual calling and ministry of the man with the label "pastor" that gets stuck to him.

  Still, I think there are some critical points that should be recognized.

  The first is that God deals with us as individuals, even while dealing with us as fellowships.  C. S. Lewis often expressed it through words like, "No one is told someone else's story."  It would be better to say that when God wants you to do something, he's going to tell you first nearly every time.  Even if it is a direction for the fellowship, when those in ministry announce, "we feel God leading our fellowship in this direction," at least the majority of those in the fellowship should recognize that not as a surprising new direction but as a clear expression of something that has been happening already.  I believe there are prophets in the church today.  (I believe that many who claim the title are not prophets, and many are prophets to whom it would never occur to claim the title.)  Looking at Agabus in Acts, I note very specifically that when he spoke to Paul, and everyone got upset, Paul's answer was, "I already know this."  When the leadership within the church comes and says it's time for you to do something, it should be something you already felt to do.  Again, note that when Paul and Barnabas were commissioned to be apostles, the word to the church was, "Set aside Paul and Barnabas for the work to which I have [past tense] called them."  Paul and Barnabas already knew that they were going to be sent on missionary work; they were merely waiting for the church to recognize the time for it.  Always when someone in ministry or authority in the church tells you what God wants you to do, it should resonate within you (for better or worse) as something God has told you or been trying to tell you already.

  The second is that anyone who has authority in the church is given it so that he can perform his ministry better.  A teacher has authority to correct mistakes; if someone explains things in a way that is incorrect, it is within the authority of the teacher to find a way to respond to the error.  A pastor's job is to enable the members of the church to grow into their own places within the body of Christ.  He has the authority necessary to facilitate ministry--to suggest that perhaps the person who is always doing this should step aside and let this less confident person do it this time, to advise individuals on solving their own problems, and things of that sort.  It is certainly within his purview to encourage someone to take on a new area of ministry if he feels they may have a calling to it, or even if he needs someone and they are willing to do it.  It is not within his purview to order people to do things for which they have no calling, no ability, or no time.  If he thinks there is a need within the church that he cannot meet and the first person of whom he thinks for that job can't or won't do it, he should consider what other people might be called for that spot.  It is a truism that a very small minority of the participants in any group do the vast majority of the work.  Part of the pastor's job is to overcome this, to draw people into being more involved, and not to succumb to the thinking that those on whom he has been able to depend in the past will be the answer to his needs in the future.  It is not to strong-arm people into doing what he wants.

  The third is very like the others.  We are all called to serve.  In a sense, we should all be fighting to get to the bottom of the heap:  to be in the position from which we can serve the most people.  We use the words "minister" and "ministry" for a reason:  they reflect the idea of being the servant, not the leader.  Long ago it occurred to me that the goal was to become the Servant's servants' servants.  A pastor shouldn't really be telling people what to do; he should be asking them how he can help them.  The rest of us should also be asking each other how we can help each other, and looking for opportunities to do so.  We shouldn't be stupid about it--we should be looking for such opportunities within our own gifts and abilities.  I'm sure there are many people in the church who could really use help with their cars; I'm not the guy to help them with that--probably I should be on the list of people who need that kind of help.  We should be willing to explore whether we have gifts and abilities we never realized, but we shouldn't feel like we have to solve problems that are completely beyond us.  That's why it's a body:  because each of us can solve some problems, and each of us needs help with others.  By looking for how we can help others, we find our own places within that body.  Now, in a church in which one person has been singled out as "The Minister", it would seem to be far more effective for that person to invest himself in asking people how he can help them.  Some, at least, will ask how they can help him.  At that point, he could suggest things that he would like to see someone do, which maybe they might be able to do; and he could also suggest that they do as he is doing, asking others in the church how they can help.  We build this body by serving each other, not by giving orders.

  Besides, there is only one head, and the pastor doesn't get that title.

  So I think that there is a place for authority within the church, but that it's entirely different from what many seem to believe.

  I hope this helps.

--M. J. Young
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