Aquick survey of church history reveals that the only thing more prevalent than the abuse of church power is the unwillingness of God’s people to submit to the proper administration of it. The problem is that few Christians actually understand how power and authority are meant to be exercised through the ministry of the church. Understood biblically, church power is “ministerial and declarative,” an expression that underscores the church’s non-legislative nature. In other words, the officers of the church do not make laws, statutes, and promises; they declare and enforce the laws, statutes, and promises of God’s inspired and authoritative Word. Getting this right is critical to the health of the church.
The Roman Catholic Church, with its popes, bishops, and councils, has historically viewed itself as magisterial, imperial, and legislative. Roman Catholic authorities believe that they have been vested with power to bind consciences according to dogma derived from sources other than Scripture alone. For example, the doctrine of transubstantiation was affirmed at the Fourth Lateran Council (1415), the doctrine of purgatory was adopted at the Second Council of Lyon (1274), and the Immaculate Conception of Mary became dogma through the so-called infallible interpretation of Pope Pius IX (1854). In addition, the medieval church’s treatment of “heretics” through the use of torture and execution demonstrates a view of church power that is far beyond the scope of holy Scripture.
The crucified, risen, and ascended Christ shepherds His flock through the ministry of the elders.
Protestant churches are also guilty of exercising church power beyond biblical limits. In recent times, we see this abuse of power when churches or ministers demand that members vote for a particular political candidate, mandate a certain way of educating their children, or require the gift of tongues for church membership. In each of these cases, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, unbiblical doctrine has been legislated, and the leadership has wrongfully bound their members’ consciences to believe and act on it. These kinds of abuses of church power cause widespread confusion and turn the church’s attention away from the authoritative Word of God. Moreover, they distract the church from her mission— to go into all the world as Christ’s ambassadors and make disciples through the ordinary means of Word, sacraments, and prayer (Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 2:42; 2 Cor. 5:18–20).
In addition to the abuse of power by the leadership, there is often an unwillingness of Christians to submit to the faithful exercise of church authority. To be sure, Christ is the Head of the church. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. Nevertheless, Christ has vested qualified and lawfully ordained church officers with the authority to proclaim His Word, shepherd His flock, and discipline His sheep. Church elders are authorized by Christ to bind the consciences of believers with anything clearly set forth in His Word or deduced from it by good and necessary consequence. The Apostle Paul charges ministers to “preach the word . . . in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). Therefore, God’s people are required to listen to and obey God’s Word. Peter exhorts elders “as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ . . . [to] shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you . . . being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1–3). Therefore, we are exhorted to humbly submit to our leaders who shepherd our souls in the name of Christ (Heb. 13:17). The Scriptures also teach us that the church is vested with the power and authority to discipline its members (Matt. 18:15–20; 1 Cor. 5:5, 11–13; Titus 3:9–11). Therefore, God’s people must respond to biblical discipline as if Christ Himself were exercising it in person.
Many years ago, I was privy to two identical but unrelated church discipline cases that had emerged within the same congregation. Both situations were straightforward and required the elders to intervene. In one case, the response to the session’s loving confrontation was anger and contumacy (refusal to submit to authority). In the other case, the response was deep humility and submission to the elders’ leadership. The result was a beautiful process of biblical restoration to the fellowship of the body. This underscores the important point that when the church exercises power and authority according to Scripture, it is for the believer’s spiritual blessing and not for harm. The crucified, risen, and ascended Christ shepherds His flock through the ministry of the elders (Acts 20:28).
James Bannerman, in his classic nineteenth-century work The Church of Christ, helpfully explains why every Christian should submit to the exercise of biblical church authority:
When Church power is employed ministerially to declare the truth of God in a question of faith, or ministerially to judge in a question of government or discipline, the declaration of doctrine and the decision of law are to be received and submitted to on two grounds: first, and chiefly, because they are agreeable to the Word of God; but second, and in a subordinate sense, because they are emitted by the Church, as an ordinance of God instituted for that very purpose.
Christ loves His bride, the church. He gave His precious life for her on Calvary’s cursed tree, and He continues to care for her through the faithful ministry of the church (Eph. 5:25; 1 Tim. 3:1–13). Therefore, if you are an ordained elder, remember that your ministry is ministerial and declarative. You are members of church courts, not legislative bodies. Indeed, you do not establish the rules and regulations for worship, discipleship, mission, and discipline. No, your calling is to declare and exercise in a strictly spiritual manner what Christ Himself has set forth in His Word. In addition, we are all called to live in joyful submission to the faithful shepherding care and oversight of our elders, “for they are keeping watch over [our] souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17).
Dr. Jon D. Payne is senior pastor of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, S.C., convener of the Gospel Reformation Network, and author of In the Splendor of Holiness.