Authority Redeemed, Part III: Elder Authority
Series: Authority Redeemed
Last week we saw that Jesus’ model for local churches is congregational. This week we’ll see those congregations are led by elders, whom He has given the authority to lead.
Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, Jonathan Leeman
We’ve only got 2 weeks left in our series on authority and at this point, we’re in to the nitty gritty. How does church authority work? How will our church be governed when we become a local church? Last week I introduced this concept of “elder-led congregationalism,” and we really focused on the “congregationalism” part of that. We saw that Jesus has given local churches the authority of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, an authority we are neither to abuse nor abdicate. But this week we’re going to look at the “elder-led” part of that. Elders are also called pastors, overseers, bishops, or, as we’ll see today, leaders, in the Bible, and when it comes to abuses of authority, they are no exception. In recent decades we’ve perhaps become especially aware of public examples of pastoral abuse. Nonetheless, the proper response to abuse of authority is not abdication. Jesus redeems authority, and we’re going to see today from this one verse that Jesus gives elders authority, an authority to be obeyed, an authority to lead, and an authority to be enjoyed.
Authority to be obeyed
Our passage begins with a simple, clear command: Obey your leaders and submit to them. Your leaders tell you to give to the poor, obey: do it. Your leaders say, “We as a church are going to raise money to give to the poor in Venezuela,” as we did a few years ago, submit to it. That’s an authority Scripture gives to leaders here, right? This command is not made to people more generally: “Obey your friends, your neighbors, your fellow church members” even. It’s specifically, “Obey your leaders and submit to them.”
Now maybe you noticed that the word leader is not the same word as elder, but again, we often use different words to refer to the same person. My son calls his one grandfathers poppie, and the other grandpa. I’ve heard pop, pap, and a host of others. The clear New Testament pattern is that the leaders who stay, who Christians are then told to submit to, are elders. So in Acts 14:23 we read that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church, in Titus 1:5 we read that Paul left Titus behind in Crete to appoint elders in every town, and when we read the job description of elders in 1 Timothy 5:17, here’s what we find: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worth of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” So the elders rule, and some among the elders especially labor in preaching and teaching. They teach and exercise authority.
And what does Hebrews 13:17 tell us to do with such leaders? Obey their teaching; submit to their authority. This is the “elder-led” part of “elder-led congregationalism.” If we move to elder-led congregationalism, the members of the church will vote on our statement of faith, every new member we receive, and every member we remove. Now, what is this adding to that picture? It’s adding the requirement that members make those decisions by obeying and submitting to their elders. So even next Sunday night at our members’ meeting, Michael and I aren’t just going to show up to the meeting and say, “Alright guys, when we become a local church, we’re going to need a statement of faith. Should we just use the current one, should we make some changes, does anyone want to just write up a new one; what do you think?” No; we’re going to say, “We’ve reviewed the current Citylight Statement of Faith and with one or two minor edits we believe this is a statement of the truth.” This verse means you should plan to obey us when we do that. That doesn’t mean you don’t ask questions or even make counterarguments; good leaders always want that kind of interaction with those they lead. But it means when push comes to shove and there is a final judgment the elders are making, you should vote in line with it. When we’re considering someone for membership or removal, we aren’t just going to show up to the meeting and say, “Alright; what do you think?” We’re going to say, “This person has given a credible profession of faith, here’s why, and so it is our judgment that we should receive them into the membership of our church.” This verse means you should plan to submit to us in that judgment and vote to accept them into membership.
Now, I say “plan to” because you do have the agency to use that vote as you choose, and there are scenarios in which you should use it to vote against the elders. What would those scenarios be? The clearest one is when the elders are teaching false doctrine or leading the church to sin. So in Galatians 1, the apostle Paul, writing to the churches of Galatia says, “If even I or an angel should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8). So he says, “If even I, an apostle, preach a different gospel to you, don’t obey and submit to me. Curse me.” So if the elders say, “Hey we’re going to change the statement of faith to say we’re justified by faith and a sacrament,” which is what the Galatian false teachers were doing, you should say, “No; I’m not going to consent to that leadership. Instead, I will vote against it, and then I will move to remove you from your office if you don’t repent of teaching it.” Under our current governance, you can do neither of those things. So in moving to Congregationalism, we’re trying to restore that agency to you, an agency you will need to protect our gospel witness from false teachers.
So that’s one scenario in which you should not obey your leaders. Another would be when they are leading you in a way that extends beyond their proper authority. The commission of Jesus to the church is to teach whatever He commands; not to teach whatever we want to command. So if you come to the meeting on March 13 and Michael and I say, “Hey we’re going to add into the member covenant that you have to give 50% of your income to the church,” you should vote against it. That’s not something Jesus has commanded, so it’s not something we have the authority to command. And you can know that because you have Bibles that contain the gospel Paul preached and all that Jesus has commanded.
Ok, so there are exceptions, but don’t kill this verse with a thousand qualifications. The command is to obey your leaders and submit to them. That’s what you should do. In a healthy elder-led congregational church, that means the votes are typically unanimous and in submission to the judgment of the elders. In a healthy church, that means you don’t typically leave church saying, “Well I didn’t like those 2 or 3 things he said in the sermon.” Rather, you typically leave church saying, “I need to obey what I heard today.” If that’s weird for you to hear, trust me: It’s weird for me to say, but you have the verse in front of you too, and isn’t that what it says? I don’t totally understand why Jesus has chosen to lead His church in this way, through fallible leaders. I see my own fallibility and honestly think, “Jesus, there has to be a better way than through guys like me,” but according to Jesus’ Word, elder-led congregationalism is the way. So if you find yourself resistant to it, seriously consider who it is you’re resisting. Jesus is the one, who by His Spirit, in His Word, gave elders authority. If you trust His authority, and we know His authority is a loving, good, and wise authority, can’t you trust Him with this? Jesus gave elders an authority to be obeyed, and that’s because He gave them authority to lead.
Authority to lead
We’ve already covered a lot of this, but an obvious question to ask when saying Jesus gave elders authority, is what did He give them authority to do? In Hebrews 13:7 the leaders are described as “those who spoke to you the word of God.” In some sense of course every member of a church has the authority to do that with one another; we saw that last week. So what is the elders’ unique authority? It’s to lead us in that, hence the title leader in this passage, and the led in elder-led congregationalism. So the elders take the lead in speaking to you the word of God, both up here on Sunday mornings and in the other spaces where we interact with you.
But then there’s another way elders lead on which this verse focuses: They keep watch over your souls. The image here is of a night watchman, who gives up sleep to always be alert. Elders do that with your souls. So they don’t just speak the word to you and then let the chips fall where they may. They speak the word of God to you, and then they get to know you, and watch you, to see what impact it is having on you. In Hebrews, the soul is the particular object of salvation. Hebrews presents the church as sojourners on earth, heading for our heavenly home. Along the way, we face various temptations to turn back: False teaching, the suffering and opposition that comes with following Christ, the pleasures of sin. But those whose souls will be saved in the end are those who, in the language of 10:39, do not shrink back, but have faith and preserve their souls. It’s the job of elders, shepherds, to know their members well enough to know how to speak the word of God to them through those trials so that they do not shrink back, but have faith and preserve their souls.
As usual in this series on authority, do you see how different this vision of leadership is from the world’s vision? In a Western, Capitalist society where so much of our thinking has been shaped by the categories of the market, when we hear “leaders,” we tend to think of bosses or boards. So in the past few decades in America, many churches have even structured their governance after the pattern of businesses. They may drop the term elder entirely and instead have a board of trustees or directors, they may call them deacons, or they may have a board called elders, but what those elders actually do is function like the board of a company does. They’re a decision making body, sometimes made up of people who aren’t even members of the church, for whom the church staff works. So the church staff does the actual work of ministry, and this board is there to review their performance and hold them accountable. And my big goal today is not to criticize these churches, but it is important as we are talking about how our church will be governed to understand why we will not do eldership that way. The big difference between board eldership and biblical eldership is not that one makes decisions and the other doesn’t; biblical elders also make decisions. The difference is that biblical elders make decisions as those who are keeping watch over the souls of the people in their churches. They aren’t hiring staff to do that or training Citygroup leaders to do it. They’re doing it. “They are keeping watch over your souls.” They’re actually trying to get to know you so they can help you distinguish true doctrine from false, encourage you toward maturity and help you see when you may be drifting into sin without knowing it, come alongside you and support you when suffering tempts you to distance yourself from Christ, all so that your soul will be saved in the end. We still have a lot of room to grow in this I think, and we’re considering ways to get to know you all better through things like more regular pastoral visitation, but frankly part of what we need is more elders. Some of you men are going to need to step up.
And on that note, part of why it’s important for you to know that’s what biblical eldership looks like is because our members must approve elders. Right now we’re in the process of evaluating Mark McNutt as an elder candidate; the current elders have recommended him to you as such. But if you don’t know what elders do, you won’t know how to evaluate someone’s qualifications for it. If you’re thinking board eldership, you’re looking for the guys who have proven themselves successful in their business endeavors. But if you’re thinking biblical eldership, you’re looking for the guys who are speaking the word of God to others in the church and getting involved in the lives of the real people of this church to apply that word to them and help them persevere in faith to the end. That’s what we saw in Mark and why we recommended him to you, that’s what we should be looking for in future elders as we seek more help keeping watch over your souls, and that’s what any of you who aspire to the office of elder should be giving your time to.
Here’s another reason it’s important for you to know this is what biblical elders do: You have to decide, do you want elders like that in your life? In my 7 years as a pastor, I’ve met many professing Christians who don’t. They may want business leaders like we talked about, inspiring sermons, counseling, life coaching, affirmation, but then besides that, they really want to be left alone. Professing Christians will even say things like, “I don’t want to feel like I’m being watched.” But do you see what the very thing Jesus has given elders the authority to do is? It’s to watch you. Yes there are weird and unnecessarily intrusive ways of doing that and that’s not what I’ talking about, but watch means watch. So why wouldn’t you want that? Maybe it’s because you’ve been hurt by leaders in the past who abused their authority. If that hurts and it makes it harder for you to trust church leaders now, that’s not your fault. But you do now have a choice: Will you work toward healing and restoring trust with those who are truly worthy of it, or will you let that past hurt control the rest of your life? And maybe you’re like, “Well how do I know which elders I can trust?” Good news: God’s got your back. There are two passages of Scripture that spell out the qualifications of elders: Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7. God says, “Men like this. Those are the men you can trust.”
So maybe hurt is a big part of the issue, but let’s not stop there. If you find you don’t want elders keeping watch over your soul, it may also be because you’re proud, and you think you can take care of your soul just fine without anyone else’s help. Christians even find ways to dress that up: “I have Jesus, so I have all I need.” That’s true as far as it goes, but Jesus is the one who gave the keys of the kingdom to His church, and then He gave elders authority to lead it. So how are you going to tell Him you don’t need what He’s given? That’s like a coach telling you to hit the weights so you can get stronger and you telling him, “But coach, I have you; why would I need to hit the weights?” The fact is, the book of Hebrews especially tells us sin is deceptive, and if it’s just you and Jesus and you’ve refused to let the shepherds Jesus has put in place keep watch over you, guess what sin is likely to do to you? Deceive you. Does that matter to you? Your soul is really valuable. Jesus said it profits a man nothing to gain the whole word but lose his soul. Don’t treat your soul with such flippancy that you assume it’ll be fine without elders keeping watch over it. The Bible gives you no reason to assume that’s true.
Jesus has given elders authority to keep watch over your souls, and they do this as those who will give an account. The writer of Hebrews is picking up on a theme that appears throughout the Bible, that God requires an accounting of leaders He puts over His people. Leaders in Jesus’ church are always stewards, never owners. The church belongs to Him; elders are just managers. And in the end, as with any manager, they will give an account to the owner. There are numerous implications of this; let’s just consider a couple. One, it means elders do not ultimately work for the congregation. That’s a potential pitfall of congregationalism; since the congregation must affirm the elders and has the authority to remove them from their office, we start to think of them as though their job is to enact our will. But in biblical eldership, their job is not to tell you what you want, but what Jesus wants, and not to lead you in the direction you want to go, but the direction you ought to go, according to Jesus. Two, it means you can err on the side of trust. If you must be the final judge of the elders, you’ll never quite be able to kick that, “But what if they aren’t who they appear to be?” question. Because how do you know with certainty whether you can trust any human? You can’t. But if they will ultimately give an account to God, you can trust imperfect elders, knowing that if they really are just wolves in sheep’s clothing, the Lord will deal with them, and He is more just than you or I or anyone else.
Do you see, then, why it is your leaders you should obey, and to whom you should submit? They’re the ones keeping watch over your souls, and they do so as those who will give an account. In other words, they’re leading you for your good, for the good of your soul’s salvation, and if that’s not what they’re doing, they’ll answer to God for that. One of the challenges we face today in obeying this command is the sheer number of voices seeking to exercise authority over us. So imagine this: The original Christian churches were very tight knit communities without the printing press, televisions, podcasts, smart phones, or social media. So the primary voices telling them what to believe and how to live were other Christian voices, especially those of their elders. Now today you all hear my voice for about 30 minutes on Sunday in this sermon, and then in scattered hours throughout the week depending on how much you interact with me or Michael. Meanwhile, you’ve got unbelieving family, friends, and co-workers, some who control your paycheck, books, tv shows, podcasts, twitter timeline, random websites, youtube, coming at all you all week and whether they tell you or not, they’re influencing what you think is true and good.
So consider what voices you’re giving greatest influence in your life. A unique temptation for Christians today even is you can find a lot of Christian voices in those spaces. You can read a Christian blog, download a pastor’s sermons on podcasts, pay for a Christian counselor. In many ways, these are gifts, gifts from which I personally benefit. But here’s the risk, and I’ve seen it happen to people: The lady on the podcast, the guy with the blog, the counselor, functionally become your elder. It’s their voice you submit to and obey, even though they may not meet the biblical qualifications of elders, and even though none of those people are keeping watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account. They may seem great because you don’t see their imperfections the way you see the imperfections of a real flesh and blood pastor, but that’s just because you don’t know them. The command here is to obey your leaders, the ones who keep watch over your souls. It’s one of the reasons Michael and I as your leaders are advocating that we not join a denomination to start when we become a local church, because you shouldn’t have to submit to and obey someone in an office hundreds of miles away who doesn’t even know your names, let alone keep watch over your souls. Jesus has given your leaders that authority, and finally, we see it is an authority to be enjoyed.
Authority to be enjoyed
So the ESV translates the second part of this verse as a separate sentence: “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Members are to submit to and obey their elders, elders are to keep watch over their souls joyfully. That’s all true. But as I’ve studied it further, I don’t think that’s what this verse is saying. The Christian Standard Bible (CSB), another very good translation, translates the verse this way: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, since they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” The NIV and NASB translate it similarly, and after studying the Greek myself and talking to a few people who know far more Greek than I do, I think that’s the better translation here. So the sense is another reason you should obey and submit to your leaders, on top of the fact that they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will give an account, is so that they may do that with joy, and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
In other words, you have a role to play in the joy of your elders, and the joy they experience in the work is directly proportional to the advantage their work is to you. I’ve gotten to experience this first hand in our church, because in so many ways, you all, the members of this church, make it a joy to be one of your elders. To just give a recent example, we had a member meeting last month and going into it, I had just had a rough day. I knew in the meeting we were giving updates on some church discipline cases and unrolling Michael’s and my plan for our becoming a local church, which involved some changes. Going into situations like that, it’s easy for me to feel insecure. But then here’s what happened: We taught, we led, people asked good, respectful questions, and then we all enjoyed a great dinner together. During the meeting, when I talked about ways I was struggling, one of you, Elise, came forward and prayed for me right then and there. After the meeting Kim shared some specific ways she saw God working in our church. As best as I could tell, you all were actually ready and willing to follow us where we were leading as we relayed our sense of where God was leading us from His Word. And multiple conversations since then have confirmed that further.
And man, it just put the wind back in my sails. Part of that’s because it’s just a blessing to know you aren’t alone, but part of that is honestly because I want what’s best for your souls, and I saw a church of people who wanted to obey Scripture as we were teaching it. And so do you know what I wanted to do the next day? I wanted to keep watch over your souls. I wanted to love you more. You know what makes pastors groan? When we try repeatedly to speak to you the word of God and keep watch over your soul, and all we get in return is resistance and criticism. That doesn’t make any pastor say, “Man, I want to love this person better now.” We still should, but man, it’s harder that way. I’m not saying we don’t need constructive criticism; we do. But there’s a way to do that that says, “You suck. Stop doing what you’re doing.” And there’s a way to give that that says, “I love what you’re doing. Can I make a suggestion on how you might do it better, so you can keep doing it?” And I’ll just say I think you all are really good at the latter, and it makes our work a joy. Hopefully, you find then, that such will be to your advantage. If you want better pastors, submit to and obey the ones you have, so that they can keep watch over your souls joyfully. As they do it joyfully, they’ll do it better.
Over and over again I find the easiest people to pastor are those who actually want a pastor. Maybe you think you’ve got a lot of issues and you’d be a hassle for a pastor to deal with, but can I just tell you, if you what you sincerely want is a pastor, we would be glad to pastor you. Maybe you think you’re immature and you don’t know anything and you’ve got sin in your life, but if you want a pastor, guess what? That’s what I am! This is going to work great! But sometimes what people want is a cheerleader. They want further affirmation and confirmation of whatever they’ve already decided they want to do, even if they dress it up as what God wants them to do. They don’t want to even entertain the possibility that maybe what they think God wants them to do isn’t what God wants them to do, and part of the reason God gave them elders is to help them see that. Those are the people that are nearly impossible to pastor, because they don’t want a pastor.
Maybe you’re here today and you’re one of those people. Maybe you’re here today and you recognize that the thought of submitting to and obeying anyone makes you want to run the other direction. Welcome to the club. That’s why we all need Jesus. Above your leaders in your church, He is the leader to whom they will give account, and He has grace for you today. He is the ultimate shepherd and overseer of your soul, who for us and our salvation came down from heaven, and put Himself in a position of submission. Jesus Christ submitted to and obeyed every word of His Father, and then suffered our condemnation on the cross, so that our souls could be saved. Then He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sent His Holy Spirit, not only to bring us to faith in Him, but to keep us to the end. He will raise you up on the last day. Your leaders are instruments in the redeemer’s hands, but He is the redeemer. You can always trust His leadership. Believe in Him, obey Him, submit to Him, and then you’ll be able to obey and submit to your elders in His name.