God has established order and authority in His Church. He gets to design the organizational chart, He is the one who has determined its mission and purpose, and He appoints His leaders.
One of the problems with leading the Church of God is that the people are, for the most part, defenseless and lack wisdom and discernment. That is why they are compared to sheep in need of a shepherd (pastor). So shepherds have an incredible responsibility for the feeding, guiding, guarding and protection of the sheep for which God will hold them to a high degree of personal accountability.
On the other hand, the sheep are not excused simply because they are dumb. Every Christian is personally responsible for whom he follows and what he swallows. Blind, unquestioning loyalty to pastoral leadership is one of the marks of a cult. Any pastor who insists on it is probably an hireling and not a true undershepherd. That is an abuse of pastoral authority.
God’s Word is absolutely clear; church members are to obey and submit to the authority of legitimate church leadership. But that leadership authority is scripturally identifiable, limited in scope and must be discerned by the members.
Who are the shepherds? In the first book of Samuel in chapter 16 is the account of how God provided a king to replace Saul. He instructs Samuel to go to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse because, “I have provided me a king among his sons (vs. 1).” As Jesse proudly paraded the best and brightest of his sons in front of Samuel, the Lord instructed him with these words, “Look not on his countenance or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him (vs. 7).” Then, one by one, he brought his other sons before Samuel. Samuel rejected every one of them because none of them was the one God had chosen. In this account, it is evident that God ordained and provided His man to lead His people.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul makes this statement to the church at Ephesus, "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ”(Eph. 4:11-12). Here, again, we see that it is God who gives His leaders to His Church. Everything we need, He supplies.
It is not our privilege to choose or reject men for church leadership based on their abilities, education, experience, charisma, appearance or style. It is our responsibility to identify God’s ordained man whom He has given to us for His purpose. And His man is objectively identifiable by scriptural qualifications and not by our feelings or personal preferences. A church must be very careful to not reject the men whom the Spirit of God has appointed.
What are the limits of pastoral authority? The foundational basis of a pastor’s authority is his calling and his scriptural qualifications. Christians are to submit only to those who give plain evidence that they are called by God and qualified by His Word.
Hebrews 13 instructs Christians to submit to those who have spoken the Word of God. Church leaders do not have authority in themselves; their authority is only in God’s Word. Even the apostle Paul limited his authority when he said to the Corinthian church, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1). Any decisions, directions, actions or directives of the shepherds that cannot be justified by God’s Word cannot be imposed on the sheep.
In chapter 5 of his first epistle, Peter exhorts the elders about their primary responsibility as shepherds. It is to feed the flock of God and not to be lords over them. Here Peter reminds them that the church is not their property; it is God’s. They do not comprise the corporate head of the church; Jesus Christ is. They are not to decide purposes and programs; the Word of God has. They do not have authority to cast vision; they must reflect the vision of Christ. Their responsibilities are to gently and humbly care for and lead the flock by example and always mindful of the fact that they are undershepherds who will give account for any abuse of the sheep.
Should members question the legitimacy of leadership? Wise discernment is not an option; it is a duty of every Christian. 1 Thess. 5:21 says, “Prove ALL things; hold fast that which is good.” Not even church leaders are above the reach of this directive and according to Proverbs 14:15, it is a simple man who blindly believes everything a church leader says. The apostle Paul commended the Bereans because they carefully examined his words and compared them to The Word before they believed him and followed him. 1 John 3:11 commands us, “Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good.” Some things are to be followed and some are not. It is our responsibility to discern the difference. In order to obey this command, a Christian must carefully evaluate every situation in the light of Scripture, regardless of its source.
How should the members deal with elders who abuse their authority? Paul instructs Timothy regarding this matter, “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. THEM THAT SIN rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:19-20). The apostle is NOT prohibiting the act of receiving accusations about sinning elders; he is giving instructions about how it must be done. Sometimes church leaders are wrong and they are not above correction and discipline. Paul’s instruction here is not unlike the instructions from Jesus in Matthew 18 about a sinning brother. The order is the same. First, the matter should be addressed individually. Paul cites an example of this, (Galatians 2:11-15), when he says about Peter, “I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.” But Peter was guilty of hypocrisy “insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation.” That word, “dissimulation” used here means to pretend that one’s action is from one motive, where, in fact, the action is really inspired by another motive. Since Peter’s hypocrisy had become public, Paul rebuked him publicly.
If the matter cannot be resolved privately, accusations about an elder must be brought by two or three witnesses. If the sinning elder will not be corrected, the matter is to be brought before the church. Ultimately, the responsibility for all church discipline, up to and including excommunication, lies with the congregation.