Authority and Leadership

This is most of Chapter 7 from Discipling Ministries: An Inside Look, Examining the Errors of Legalism in Discipling Ministries by Danny Dixon. Danny was involved in the mainline Church of Christ when the "Boston/International Church of Christ" sect was just beginning. He was a campus minister at UCLA when Lee Irons left the Assembly, and was extremely helpful to him in trying to figure out what was wrong, as this excerpt shows. (A few copies of the book are available free of charge on request.)

First of all, it should be understood that the New Testament distinguishes between those who lead and those who are led. Note the writer’s charge to his readers in Hebrews 13:24: "Greet all your leaders and all the saints". There is a biblical distinction between the leaders and the other saints in the congregation. Several passages may be considered in the present discussion on leadership.

Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. 1 Thessalonians 5:12

This passage contains the Greek word proistemi, which may be translated "be at the head (of), rule, direct, manage, conduct". (17) Some have taken this passage to say that leaders (noticeably undefined here) have ruling authority over other Christians. In each of the eight New Testament occurrences of the word, however, contexts force selection of the more appropriate lexical definition "be concerned about, care for, give aid... busy oneself with, engage in". The noun form of the word is used of Phoebe in Romans 16:2 where she is Paul’s prostatis (Greek, "protectress") (18). But would anyone claim that she exerted any "authority" over Paul?

Also in Titus 3:8 and 14, the word is used in the sense of "devoting oneself to". These contexts must not be limited to a concept of inherent rule: "In all these instances [the eight occurrences of the word in the New Testament] the verb has the New Testament primary sense of both "to lead" and "to care for," and this agrees with the distinctive nature of office in the New Testament, since according to Luke 22:26 the one who is chief ... "is to be as he who serves." (19)

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. I Peter 5:2-3

An interesting correlation exists between 1 Peter 5:2-3 and Matthew 20:25-28, where Jesus speaks of leaders: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority [Greek, an intensified form of exousia] over them, Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

The expression "lord it over" in both passages is from the Greek term katakurieuo, which means "be master, lord it (over), rule over someone or something." (20) The similar word exousia is never used of leaders in the church, although some might question if it would be appropriate to render the word so as Paul speaks of his prerogative or "right" as an apostle to build up the church in 2 Corinthians 10:8. Exousia is sometimes used of "the power exercised by rulers or others in high position by virtue of their office" and may be defined in some contexts as "ruling power, official power." (21)  But this is precisely the kind of authority Jesus says church leaders must not have. Consequently, we must opt for one of the preferred lexical options, "freedom of choice" or "right." (22)

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. Hebrews 13:17

"Obey" in the passage is from the Greek word peitho, which means "be persuaded, be convinced, come to believe; obey, follow." (23)  "The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion." (24)

"those leading you..."  This phrase contains the participle form of the Greek word hegeomai, which means "lead, guide,"  hence "ruler, leader." (25) The unrelated words used of civil rulers with authority are never used in reference to church leaders. One should not, because of general association of hegeomai with ruling, be tempted to conclude that in Hebrews 13:17 we have indisputable authority for a ruling concept associated with church leadership, because there is none.

In marked contrast with this idea, note Jesus’ statement in which he uses a form of the word hegeomai. The leader is more a servant than a director. "Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them are given the title Benefactor. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules [hegoumenos - participle form of hegeomai, like the one who serves" (Lk. 22:24-26)."

"and submit..." The four-word translation "submit to their authority" in the New International Version in Hebrews 13:17 is the single Greek word hupeiko, which means "yield, give way, submit." (26) Only in the figurative sense does the word contain the idea of submitting to authority. A Christian is to allow himself to be persuaded by his guides, not on the basis of any authority inherent in the appointed "office" of evangelist, elder, teacher, or leader, but because the Christian is willing to yield to them because of the leaders’ characters, lives, and fidelity to the word of God. The original language suggests no thought of response to leaders’ directives because of inherent authority in their position. 

Interestingly enough, the term peitharcheo was available to biblical writers to convey the idea of obedience with submission to authoritarian rulers. But this term is not used. It is only those leaders who are insecure about their ability to duplicate Christ’s humility in leadership who must secure their position in the groundless assumption that implies that God authorizes obedience to them whether they merit it or not. The "horse-bit" mentality (James 3:3 uses peitho), which forces obedience, does no honor to those who could lead legitimately with a gentle non-demanding attitude toward those entrusted to their spiritual care.

These thoughts on leadership are directly related to those previous thoughts on legalism. Whenever leaders bind their opinions beyond the confines of the Scriptures, they are guilty of legalism, for they have assumed a role of authority that God has not given them. If there is no "thus says the Lord," there is no binding authority for mandatory expectation. There can only be suggestion and persuasion in the opinions of those who can claim proven wisdom in their experience. This alone is legitimate to bring about the compliance of willing and yielding followers.  Some leaders use a passage like Hebrews 13:17 in the following manner to justify the appropriation of ruling authority over a congregation in matters of opinion:

  1. Hebrews 13:17 ordains that leaders have ruled authority in a congregation and are to be obeyed.
  2. The Hebrews Christians naturally would presuppose the need to obey direct commands from the Lord.
  3. The Hebrews Christians would recognize that the author would want to avoid redundancy, and is indicating the necessity for congregational obedience in areas other than those direct commands from the Lord (i.e., matters of opinions).
  4. Consequently, Hebrews 13:17 teaches that church leaders have ruling power over a congregation in matters of opinion.

It has already been demonstrated that the language of Hebrews 13:17 does not convey the concept of authoritarian oversight. In addition, if such reasoning were correct, there would be absolutely no meaning at all to the following words, written by an apostle to a local church, which acknowledges the existence of various opinions with regard to religious and practical matters: "Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One man has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand." (Ro. 14:1-4) (27)

Apostles and prophets did have the right to proclaim what God had ordained as law. What they set forth as God’s intention of what was absolute was not to be regarded as opinion, unless they expressly indicated it was so. Jesus told Peter, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Mt. 16:19)

We have seen how Paul speaks of his prerogative or right (exousia) as an apostle to build up the church (2 Cor. 10:8). He has spoken of his desire to see if the Corinthians will follow through in giving a gift to "serve the saints" in another place. The Macedonians previously were given to this cause "entirely on their own" (2 Cor. 8:4). Paul wants to compare the Corinthians’ love with the Macedonians’ earnestness. But he clearly says, "I am not commanding you," choosing rather to give, he says, "my advice about what is best for you in this matter." (2 Cor. 8:8,10).

Paul gives married couples advice about how they relate to one another sexually, particularly when it might be desirable, by mutual consent, to devote themselves to the spiritual discipline of prayer. But he is careful to point out, "I say this as a concession, not as a command," even though he has his own preferences. (1 Cor. 7:6)

Concerning the never-married and considering some undefined "present crisis," Paul advises against marriage: "I think that it is good for you to remain as you are," he says, but qualifies by saying, "I have no command from the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:25-26). He prefers that a widow (an older one perhaps?) remain unmarried—"as she is" (1 Cor. 7:40). Of course, he gives the opposite advice to young widows in I Tim. 5:14, qualifying with, "I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy" (I Cor. 7:25). Other phrases suggesting that he is not inclined to order the believers include "In my judgment" and "I think that I have the Spirit of God" (1 Cor. 7:40).

In addition, note how he gently tries to persuade Philemon to release Onesimus the slave:  "Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love" (Phm. 8-9a). It is not characteristic of love for Christ’s ministers to order other Christians’ behavior. The preferred approach is to give advice, verbalizing clearly and really meaning that the Christian is absolutely free to do as he deems best where God has given no specific command.

Decision-making and Church Cooperation

Decisions do have to be made concerning local church policy or else a congregation will not be able to function at all. But the Scriptures give a different picture of how the apostles went about gaining the believers’ unified support of that policy. The apostles asked the congregation to have a hand in decision-making (Acts 6:1-6). Certainly this speaks against the "lording it over" type of "forceful leadership" that some church leaders assume. The apostles could have declared the will of the Lord with authority.

Note the severity of the discipline expressed when Ananias and Sapphira conspired to lie to the apostles. They were struck dead on the spot (Acts 5:1-11). Consider the fact that Paul told a man who was hindering another’s reception of the gospel that he would be struck blind for the offense (Acts 13:6-11). He could have "laid down the law," so to speak.

But strangely enough, when certain men came and tried to impose circumcision on the Gentiles in Antioch, Paul opted not to act drastically, and he allowed this matter of absolute doctrine to be considered in conference with brothers of another congregation (Acts 15:1-29).

Man’s Wisdom and God’s Way

Some church leaders, essentially locked into a clergy-laity pattern of thinking, believe the people in general do not have the wisdom to judge as wisely as do those who are more mature in Christ. They consequently conclude that the decisions of the local church must be left to the discretion of the appointed leaders only and that this is God’s reason for giving ultimate authority to those leaders in the church. But in the New Testament, this is not the most prevalent pattern.

Where there is the clearest indication of church policy in opinion matters in the New Testament, it may be observed that leaders called for congregational involvement in making decisions (Acts 6:2-3). Prayer and fasting played a significant role in seeking the Lord’s will (Acts 13:1-3). In this way Christians hoped to be practically guided by the Holy Spirit who would provide wisdom.

To the degree that they could be applied, the Scriptures revealed God’s will in matters of expediency and sound judgment (Acts 15:12-21). Leaders then acknowledged the will of the people and the Holy Spirit as determined within these God-given guidelines and limits. They then gave recognition to the God-directed will of the church, sometimes confirming the decision through the symbolic laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 15:22ff).

From a human point of view it may appear that only those with most experience in Christ may rule in the church. To be sure, there will always be a great deal of efficiency when activity is controlled through orders and regulations handed down by those who decide what will be best for all. But God's way for the church is for leaders to guide in mutual cooperation with the led. The imposition of an implied or explicit hierarchy-over-laity structure has no place in the Lord's church.

There is only one head of God's church, and He is the Lord Jesus Christ. The church is to be governed according to His revealed will. From a biblical perspective, the only resources servant-leaders have to evoke responses from the people they would persuade are the examples of their godly lives and their knowledge of the word of God. The authority is in the word of God, not in the men.


17 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Translated and adapted by William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2nd edition revised and augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 403.

18 Ibid., p. 707.

19 Bob Reicke, "Proistemi," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6, G. Kittel and G. Friedrich, eds. (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1968), p. 702. See his complete discussion on pp. 700-703. Also see Jack Lewis' discussion of the word and his accompanying discussion as it appears here and in Ro. 12:8; 1 Ti. 3:4-5, 12; 5:17 in Leadership Questions Confronting the Church (Nashville, TN: Christian Communications, 1985), pp. 30-32.

20 Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon, p. 412.

21 Ibid., p. 278.

22 Ibid., p. 277. So too says O. Betz in "Might, Authority, Throne," New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2, Colin Brown, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 611.

23 Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon, p. 639.

24 W. E. Vine, The Expanded Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, John R. Kohlenberger III, ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1984), p. 796.

25 Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon, p. 343.

26 Ibid., A Greek-English Lexicon, p. 838.

27 This rendering is from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1963)

28 See Jn. 16:12-15. Also cf. Mt. 18:18 and Jn. 20:22-23 where similar statements about apostolic authority are made about all the apostles.

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