Elders, Leadership, and Authority

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Berry Kercheville

In my previous article, “Husbands, Headship, and Authority,” we noted the unique way in which the Lord approaches roles within his kingdom. When God spoke to wives, he commanded that she submit to her husband because “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:23). However, when the Lord instructed husbands, there is conspicuously absent any mention of him being a “head” or exercising authority over his wife. Submission is her choice based on her respect for the Lord and her husband. If she chooses not to be submissive, she is sinning against the Lord, but the husband is not given permission to “exercise authority over” her  or bully her into submission (Mark 10:42-45). His role is to lay is life down for her, which has the affect of drawing her in the same way the Lord draws us into love and submission (Cf. John 6:44-45).

The manner in which a husband handles his headship role with his wife is a biblical parallel for how an elder/shepherd handles his role in the local church. Paul drew a direct relationship between husbands and elders when he said, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4-5, ESV). Notice the phrase, “with all dignity keeping his children submissive.” The HCSB translates, “having his children under control with all dignity.” NET translates, “keep his children in control without losing his dignity.”

There are two ways in which a man could keep his children under control, but there is only one way he can do so with dignity. Some control their children with an iron hand. The children are obedient simply because they fear the wrath of their father. This is hardly raising children with dignity nor is it a picture of raising children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). As fathers, our prime directive is to bring our children to spiritual maturity, training them to love God. We have failed our role if we have trained our children to submit solely out of fear of wrath or serve God primarily out of fear of hell. Paul said, “The aim of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). God’s pattern of generating a restoration in Israel was to “turn the hearts of the children to the fathers and the hearts of the fathers to the children” (Mal. 4:6; Luke 1:17). While discipline is a key part of raising children, it must be mixed with shepherd-like fathers who generate love and respect by binding their hearts to the hearts of their children. While wives are not in the same category as children, woe to the man who has a wife who submits to him out of fear of his reprisals. This is not leading with dignity.

Elders and Authority

God approaches the role of elders in a similar fashion as he does husbands. Just as God never commands a husband to “exercise authority” over his wife, an elder is never  told to exercise authority over the church. Some would appeal to Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls…” But just as Ephesians 5:23 addresses wives not husbands, so this command does not address elders, it addresses Christians who are commanded to be submissive to the elders. Nothing in this text gives elders a directive to take an authoritarian position over the flock.

Just as Paul was silent concerning husbands ruling over their wives, when Peter addressed elders (1 Peter 5:1-4), he not only did not mention ruling over the church, he specified “exercising oversight” and warned against doing so by “domineering over those in your charge.” Watching over the flock is far different from picturing oneself as having authority over the flock. In fact, Peter uses a series of contrasting statements: “not under compulsion, but willingly”; “not for shameful gain, but eagerly”; “not domineering, but being examples.” The opposite of being domineering is being examples. This is similar to Jesus’ admonition: “those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you” (Mark 10:42-43). Elders would do well to consider what it would take to be domineering. Some would never imagine it possible for them to lord it over the flock no matter how invasive they are in the life of the church because they see themselves as having the same rights as rulers or authorities.

This problem is solved by the word “shepherd.” It has often been observed, “cattle are driven, sheep are led.” What does a good shepherd do? “He lays his life down for the sheep” (John 10:11). And what happens when a shepherd lays his life down for the sheep? “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). All of us who lead would do well to ask ourselves if this is the way we “manage our household” or “manage the church of God.” Am I treating the brethren with the same shepherd–gentleness I would treat my wife? Do I speak to brethren in the same loving way I would speak to my wife? Am I being controlling and making rules simply because it fits my personal desires? Do I understand that my prime directive does not have to do with exercising authority but in nourishing and cherishing my wife, my children, my brothers and sisters, and watching out for their souls? If I would not treat my wife this way, why would I believe I am permitted to treat the brethren in an authoritarian way?

If as a husband I believe I should tell my wife to submit to me, I need to first consider my own leadership style. Am I leading with the gentleness of a shepherd or as an authoritarian ruler? The same is true of elders. While there are some, whether husbands or wives, who refuse to be servants as Jesus was, godly people want to follow shepherd-like leaders. It is truly a joy. But just as citizens chaff under the dictatorial rule of political leaders, so disciples are wearied by authoritarian elders. The Lord’s church desires to submit to men who are powerful students of the word, full of godly wisdom, diligent in prayer, and who invest their lives in the souls of men and women. God has appointed leaders. God has appointed those to whom we are to submit and obey. But the manner in which elders, evangelists, and others lead must not be “as the Gentiles.” The kingdom of God is not made up of lords. As Jesus said, neither husbands or elders are given the right to “exercise authority” (Mark 10:42-45).