In 1979 I traveled with Ray Stedman to Brazil. Ray was in his prime. I was just a young man, very wet behind the ears, as they say. I saw Ray in action. I saw a man who exercised pastoral authority in wise and effective ways. He was a man who had innate personal authority. When he spoke, people listened, but he spoke only when he felt it necessary. He listened to others who differed with him, even when they were lowly interns. I learned more about authority from Ray Stedman than from anyone else, before or since. I learned from him that genuine authority doesn’t demand control or power. An elder or pastor is one who isn’t afraid to make mistakes, listens, doesn’t need to have all the answers, champions others, is humble and patient.
Elders have authority, and they can’t be afraid to exercise that authority. The responsibilities Scripture assigns to elders require that they have authority to accomplish them: teaching God’s truth, equipping the saints, exercising church discipline, and confronting false teachers. But where do elders get that authority to shepherd a church?
ELDERS HAVE NO AUTHORITY IN THEMSELVES
All authority in the church is derived authority. Even Jesus’ authority was delegated authority. He said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). Authority isn’t an elder’s; it’s Christ’s, and elders have authority only as He exercises it through them. If an elder doesn’t rely on Him alone, they may have the title of elder, but not the authority. They may have the power to make others do what they want, but they’ll lack the moral leverage and respect that calls others to follow them. They may have control for a short time, but they’ll never have genuine authority. Being an elder doesn’t bestow authority on them; instead it gives them opportunity for divinely given authority to be recognized. They either walk with Christ or they fall on their faces. How then do they get authority?
ELDERS GET AUTHORITY FROM CHRIST
An elder’s authority comes from the Lord Jesus. He’s the one who makes a man an elder. In Acts 20:28, when Paul is addressing the Ephesian elders, he says, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” Not only that, but when others know they’re obedient to Him, they more willingly follow their leadership as their shepherds. His authority over their lives gives them authority in their lives. They gain authority the same way Christ did, through vulnerability, love, and self-sacrifice.
ELDERS GET AUTHORITY FROM BEING LIKE CHRIST
They also get authority from who they are, because knowing Christ makes them more like Him. Their authority comes from their person more than their position, from trust earned more than from power delegated or control exercised. They gain authority as they grow in Christ-likeness. Christ’s sheep know His voice and recognize it when they hear Him speak. If they hear His voice through an elder, their confidence in him grows and their trust in him deepens. They can tell, however, when Christ’s name is being masked by their own interests, and then they’ll resist authority at every turn. Ultimately an elder’s authority comes from their character tested over time.
ELDERS GET AUTHORITY FROM SERVING OTHERS
Elders get authority not only from who they are, but also from serving others. In Matthew 23:11 Jesus says, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” A spiritual man of high moral character who won’t humbly serve others will not earn authority from followers. An elder’s authority comes from caring for people, meeting needs, leading people to obey God and His Word, calling people to take a stand for Christ, calling people to be accountable before God, and organizing people to work together. If elders are to have authority, they must serve others well.
ELDERS GET AUTHORITY FROM THE PURITY OF THEIR MOTIVES
Motives make a difference. Peter told elders to “shepherd the flock of God,” and appealed to them to be examples to the flock and not to use compulsion or seek sordid gain. They’re not to lord it over others, but to exercise oversight of them. Many people think exercising oversight means establishing control over others. But nothing could be further from the truth. The elder cares for his sheep; he encourages growth. Even when they must discipline the sheep, their concern for them should be care and growth, not punishment. They’re motivated to nurture, not to overpower. An elder’s primary concern is his accountability to God, not authority, because their Chief Shepherd may return at any moment. When He returns, they’ll give an account of how well they carried out the job He gave them. He’s the owner and He’ll be concerned about the way they treated His sheep. Did they provide green grass and still waters for them when they were hungry? Did they protect them from wild animals and thieves in the darkness of night? Did they pursue them when they wandered off? They’re to care for them as Jesus cares for us. As Peter wrote, “For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (2:25). Oversight means loving care and concern, a responsibility willingly shouldered; it can never be used for personal gain.
Check back tomorrow for how Elder’s lose power and as I wrap-up these posts.