Should the Church Have Authority over Me?

“Honor your father and mother...that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

If we were to put together ten rules for constructing a moral society, it is doubtful that many would emphasize parental respect. Why then does God bother to put in a commandment about honoring your parents? What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that our relationship with our parents instructs us in how we should respond to authority—including God’s authority. As we become adults, our relationship to our parents matures and changes, but we must still honor those in authority over us. God calls us to honor authority in every station of life.

Choose Your Authority: Formal, or Informal?

In some churches today, authority is the first thing you feel when you walk in the doors. However, most churches adopt the philosophy of modernity and the spirit of America, which puts authority down in the count by two strikes. There’s never been an “authoritarian age” in the sense that people were glad to be under hierarchical chains of authority. But there have been times when this was at least normal. It was the background ambience, the accepted structure of life. That is no longer the case. People are pre-loaded with the intuitions of democracy and consumerism: that institutions should be customer-oriented voluntary associations, built to provide me with competitive goods and services. In some sense, this has always been the case in this country. America was born with a suspicious eye toward institutions and authority.

But stripping away titles and wearing jeans with a t-shirt does not equate to an egalitarian utopia. Power and control simply go underground. Position, roles, and influence become more murky, and therefore more dangerous. In the absence of formal hierarchy and clearly recognized authority, we don’t get freedom and equality—we get demagogues and oppression. Organizations descend into the dimly lit backstreets of dark, subversive politicking. Is it any wonder that cults and pyramid schemes sprout like weeds? The sewers are clogged with the rotting remains of fallen celebrity ministers who held authority through popular appeal. And yet we think formal, accountability structures are the problem. We replace our “boss” with a “team manager,” believing we have safely fenced out abuse.

Reforming Church Authority

The church, by and large has swallowed the spirit of our age. Membership has evaporated, and elders and deacons comprise boards for directing finances and programs. Leaders in the church shouldn’t try to play the victim card, however, because we’ve contributed just as much baggage, if not more, to the mess people point to when they react against authority. We greedily grab, cling onto, and attempt to abuse positions of authority, instead of seeking to serve, humble ourselves, and become “least in the kingdom.” Let me offer two suggestions for leaders to restore trust in church authority: 

  1. Demonstrate that you are under authority. Authority will not appear putrid and onerous if people can see their ministers and elders respecting and submitting to authority themselves. This means putting yourself under the authority of God’s Word first above all. Show that God is humbling and correcting your life. Then put yourself in a structure of mutual submission to other elders. Embrace a context where you can be outvoted.
  2. Use your authority to earn trust for Christ. The church only has authority because it represents Jesus and his spiritual authority. That means that the goal of your authority is not getting people to respect you, or even to respect Jesus. The goal is getting people to love and trust Jesus. People will have a hard time believing they can come to Christ for forgiveness, healing, and grace if they don’t believe they will get that from you.

Living Long in the Land

The promise we find at the back half of the fifth commandment (you will live long in the land the Lord your God gives you) provides a painful contrast to how long anyone “lives in the land” of a given church. That’s not to say moving churches isn’t good and sometimes necessary, but as a result we often miss out on the blessings of rootedness. Our shallow and transient church attendance can be partially attributed to a low view of church authority. Let me offer two reasons why formal authority is good for church attenders:

  1. Authority provides a chain of command to handle complaints. People are going to have complaints. The questions is simply what do they do with them? A formal authority structure gives people lightning rods, usually within easier reach than the pastor. That’s a good thing. Without a chain of command where you feel complaints can be passed up the line, people will vent complaints through gossip, or else stuff it down inside and then walk away bitter.
  2. Authority helps you make healthy decisions you don’t want to. How many children would take it seriously if a cafeteria worker urged them to eat their vegetables? But what if their parents told them to do it? We all take things more seriously when they come from a person who has authority over that field of our lives. If we recover a sense of spiritual authority within the church, we recover some ability to make healthy changes we don’t really want to when left to our own devices.

Read previous articles in this series here.

Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL. He blogs regularly at Time & Chance.

Related Links

"Leaving a Church to the Glory of God" by Christian McShaffrey

"How to Delight in Serving Your Church: Read the OT" by Megan Hill

"The Common Work of Christian Parenting" by Jason Helopoulos

What Is the Church? with Michael Horton, Greg Gilbert, and Robert Norris [ Download ]

The Church: One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic by Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, & Mark Dever