Authority in the Church

Authorised and Gifted for Ministry

A while back, Bible teacher Beth Moore made this comment before she began teaching to a large audience where men were present:

“The gentlemen who had such courage to come into this place tonight . . . I do not desire to have any kind of authority over you.” (Source)

What bothers me about this quote is that it shows that Beth has, what I consider to be, a mistaken view of the nature of spiritual authority.

My understanding is that spiritual authority is the calling and gifting that God gives to a person, or organisation, to engage in a certain ministry. It is evident that God has given Beth Moore the spiritual authority for her ministry as a Bible teacher, and her ministry is a blessing for the church.[1]

Even though Beth has been authorised and commissioned by God to function as a Bible teacher, she does not have authority over men, nor does she have authority over women. Beth is influential but she does not have authority over anyone in her audiences or over anyone who uses her teaching materials.

In the New Testament, we read that Christian ministers, including leaders, are given ministry gifts (charismata) from God which enable them to function in ministry (Rom. 12:6-8). Christian ministers who have been truly authorised and gifted by God, like Beth Moore, similarly have a functional authority to engage in a certain ministry (or ministries), but that doesn’t mean that they have authority or power over another adult.

Functional Authority not Personal Power

It seems that many Christians are overly concerned with the issue of who has authority over another person. In particular they are concerned about whether a woman can have authority over a man.  I believe that the word and concept of “over” is the problem. I would be worried about any person, man or women, who wanted to have authority “over” another capable adult.[2] And I would be worried about anyone who actually believed that they have some sort of God-given authority and power “over” another.

In the Greek, there is no word which means “over” in Bible verses that speak about ministry, including the ministries of leadership and teaching. Unfortunately, some English translations have added the word “over” in verses which are about authority (e.g. Heb. 13:17])[3] or seem to be about authority (e.g. 1 Tim. 2:12.)[8]

Perhaps the difference between having authority over another person and having an authority to function in a ministry is subtle, and the line between them may be blurry at times, but I think it is important to make the distinction. Importantly, no person, ministry leader or not, should ever impinge on another person’s ability to use their God-given free-will, or compel someone to act against their own conscience.[4]

Authority, Service, and Community

A church minister does not have authority over those he or she cares for. A minister does, however, have a responsibility towards them. But then again, every member of a church community has a responsibility concerning the well-being, love, and spiritual nurture of the church members. In fact, in the Bible we see that it is the church community as a whole that has authority to act and decide on matters, not just the senior ministers.

I think we need to get rid of the word “over” when we discuss authentic, godly authority and leadership in the church, and instead have Jesus’ words on leadership at the forefront of our minds:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over (katakourieuousin) them, and their high officials exercise authority over (katexousiazousin) them. Not so among you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slaves –just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”  Matthew 20:25-28

The authority to function as a minister is the commission to serve as a slave. Much has been said about “servant leadership”, yet many church leaders still seem too concerned about maintaining a position, a job, a level of status, and a level of control and clout, rather than working and serving alongside other community members.

Paul was very sure of his calling to ministry, and he wrote authoritative letters to churches, yet he did not assume that he had authority over individuals. In 2 Corinthians 1:24 we read that he did not want to lord it over the Christians in Corinth, rather he wanted to work together with them in a partnership.[5]

Conclusion

So who has an authority to function in a ministry? Anyone and everyone whom God has authorised, gifted and equipped for that ministry, whether that person is male or female.

In the Church age, the Holy Spirit equips both men and women for ministry. In every New Testament passage that speaks about spiritual gifts there is no gender distinction implied or stated, even for leadership and teaching gifts.[6] The Holy Spirit gives his gifts as he determines without apparent regard for gender (1 Cor. 12:11; Heb. 2:4).

The authority to minister comes from God. It is an authority to engage in a certain ministry on his behalf.[7] Hopefully the church recognises the gifting and calling from God in individuals, and allows, endorses, and encourages the ministry of these people.

The authority to minister is not an authority over another person, so the question about whether a woman can have authority over a man is largely irrelevant,[8] and shows a mistaken view of godly authority and ministry gifting.


Endnotes

[1] I do not make an artificial distinction between certain types of church meetings. When Christians are gathered on any day of the week for the purpose of worship, teaching, practical service, or fellowship, etc, it is a church meeting. It doesn’t matter whether they are gathered in a hall, house, purpose built sanctuary, or even outdoors.

[2] In a healthy and safe secular society, authority is limited. Politicians, policemen, teachers, employers, etc, have strict guidelines which limit their power. For example, the prime minister or president of a country may have authority as a legislator, but he or she does not have the legitimate power to personally compel a law-abiding citizen to do something that the person does not want to do. Much more could be said to refine and define this point, but I’ll leave it at this.

[3] For some reason many English translators have made a meal of Hebrews 13:17. The KJV translation of this verse is particularly strong, and wrong; the NIV isn’t completely accurate either. Huper with the genitive (as it is in the second half of this verse) typically means “on behalf of” or “for,” and not “over.” There is no “over” at all in the first half of Hebrews 13:17, or in any other verse about church leadership.

[4] When bad behaviour is a problem in a meeting or in another situation, it is not necessarily the job of the leaders to address this. Any member of the congregation can ask a person to behave or leave. Moreover, it seems that in New Testament churches, issues of church discipline were decided and implemented by the church community. The church community had the authority to decide who is part of their fellowship (koinonia).

[5] Partnership or fellowship (koinonia) is a word that often appears in his letter to the Philippians also. Paul regarded the Philippian Christians as partners with him. Paul referred to several ministers, including three women, as his co-workers (sunergoi): Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:6); Urbanus (Rom. 16:9); Timothy (Rom. 16:21); Titus (2 Cor. 8:23); Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25) Euodia, Syntyche and Clement (Phil. 4:3); Aristarchus, Mark and Justus (Col. 4:10-11); Philemon (Philem. 1:1); Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke (Philem. 1:24). Paul shared his ministry.

[6] In the Greek, there is no hint in any of the verses which speak of spiritual gifts, including those of leadership and teaching, that they apply more to men than to women. On the contrary, every New Testament verse which speaks of spiritual gifts, manifestations or ministries is free of a gender bias in the Greek: Acts 2:17-18; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 & 27-28; 1 Corinthians 14:26-33; Ephesians 4:11-12; Hebrews 2:4; 1 Peter 4:9-11.The verses which seem to restrict the ministry of women are few indeed.  [My articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 here and here.]

[7] Some people do not think that it is scriptural for women and men to minister in the church as equals because they have a conception of church and of ministry that is foreign to the New Testament. Contrary to what these people think:

“Paul had a conception of the church as an organism in which Christ through the Spirit was constantly directing every member into ministerial service. . . Jesus is the par excellence apostle (Heb. 3:1), teacher (Mark 4:38), pastor (John 10:11; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4), episkopos (1 Pet, 2:25), minister (Rom. 15:8 cf. Mark 10:45), and all ministerial function derive from his living presence in the church.” George Caird, The Apostolic Age (Duckworth, 1975), 150.

There is no evidence that women were excluded from any ministry in churches founded by Paul. (See my articles on Paul and Women here.)

[8] The prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 is not against a godly woman who has a legitimate authority from God for ministry. More on this here.


Related Articles

Jesus’ Teaching on Leadership and Community in Matthew’s Gospel
Unity and Equality in Ministry
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority

Paul’s Personal Greetings to Women Ministers
Paul’s Masculine and Feminine Leadership
Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters

Wade Burleson takes a brief look at authority in the church and the history of the Greek word ekklēsia (“congregation/church”) in his article entitled Who’s the Boss at Your Church?  And in this video he takes a look at the word “over” (or the lack of it) in the Greek of Hebrews 13.

Postscript 3.5.13: Here’s an image I saw on facebook today that shows the difference between exercising authority over another person, or people, and having an authority to function in ministry as a leader.

Authority in the Church

Post Script 9.8.13: I love what Frank Viola says in this article entitled “The Myth of Christian Leadership”.  It was written just over a year ago but I only discovered it today.