Rev. Joshua Engelsma, pastor of the Crete PRC in Crete, Illinois

Previous article in this series: May 1, 2023, p. 341.

In a few recent editorials, I laid out what I see to be two dangers for the church with respect to ecclesiastical authority. One danger is that those who are under authority in the church adopt a critical, rebellious spirit found presently in the world and express that toward those who are in positions of authority. The other danger is that those who are in positions of authority in the church misuse or abuse their authority to the confusion and hurt of those entrusted to their care. Both I consider to be serious threats to the church of Christ in the world.

Having set forth the dangers, I intend in this and the following two editorials to spell out positively some of the basics of church authority. This editorial will examine the nature of church authority and God’s intention with it. God willing, the second editorial will address the calling of pastors, elders, and deacons as they exercise authority in the church, and the third editorial will speak to the calling of church members in relation to their officebearers.

What do we mean when we talk about authority?

Authority is related to, but distinct from, the idea of power. In many cases those who have power also possess authority and those who possess authority have power; yet the two concepts are not identical. Power (or force or might) refers specifically to the actual ability a person has to accomplish a certain task. Authority, on the other hand, refers to the right (or warrant or prerogative) to govern or rule over others. A man might possess the powers of physical strength, sound judgment, good morals, and persuasive speech, but those powers do not make him king. A king might be physically weak, lacking in wisdom, and morally corrupt, but he still possesses the right to rule and is king. Authority is the right one has to rule.

One aspect of authority is that the person who possesses the right to rule has the warrant to make decisions that affect the lives of those over whom he rules. He has the right to make certain laws that govern the lives of others. As we will come to see, he has this right to make laws only within a certain, limited sphere, and he is bound to do so for the good of the ruled rather than in pursuit of his own whims.

Another aspect of authority is that the person in authority has the right to demand obedience to the laws he makes and conformity to the decisions he takes by those under his authority.

He also has the prerogative to enforce those laws and decisions by exercising discipline upon those under his rule who disobey and do not conform.

What gives one person the right to rule over another?

The right that one person has to rule over others is not ultimately based on superior strength, knowledge, or experience. Authority is not ultimately based on what family or level of society that person is born into. It is not ultimately conferred upon him by majority vote or the consent of the ruled. All authority is conferred upon men by God.

What stands behind this reality is the foundational truth that God is the Authority. He possesses all authority, and there is no authority outside of Him. He alone possesses the right to rule over all things. He is the only One in the universe with the right to make laws for how His creatures are to behave. He is the only One in the universe with the warrant to demand obedience to His laws and conformity to His will. He is the only One in the universe who has the prerogative to correct and punish those who disobey and refuse to conform to His law. Psalm 103:19 says of God’s universal rule, “The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all.” God holds all authority because He is God alone. His eternal deity is His right to rule. He also possesses all authority because as the omnipotent God He created all things. Because He called the whole universe into existence, He has the right to do with the universe and all the creatures in it as He pleases.

It is significant for what we will say later about those in earthly positions of authority to note here that the triune God has entrusted all authority to the incarnate, crucified, and risen Jesus Christ. In Matthew 28:18, Jesus says of Himself, “All power [the Greek word here literally means authority] is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” Ephesians 1:20-22 says that God “set him [Christ] at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come, and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church.” The triune God exercises His sovereign authority over the universe through the Mediator, so that our Lord and Savior holds sway over all things in heaven and earth.

The fact that God possesses all authority means that no man has authority in himself. All human authority is derived authority. If a person is in a position of authority here on earth, he has received that authority from God in His providence. Lord’s Day 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism in its explanation of the fifth commandment ends by saying that “it pleases God to govern us by their hand [the hand of those in authority].” In the end God is the One who governs, but He is pleased to do so by conferring authority on certain persons.

What are the different spheres of authority ordained by God?

God has conferred authority to mankind in four main spheres of earthly life.

The first and most basic sphere of earthly life is the sphere of the home. The home is foundational to every other sphere of life. In the home, God has conferred authority on the husband to serve as the head and leader of his wife (Eph. 5:23). In the home, God has also conferred authority on fathers and mothers with respect to their children (Eph. 6:1-3). Since we believe that the Christian school is an extension of the believing home where teachers stand in the place of parents, we hold that God has conferred authority upon Christian school teachers over the students.

Extending out from the home is the sphere of the church. The local congregation is the gathering of believers and their seed in a particular locale. In the church God has conferred the right to rule to officebearers over the members of the congregation. Particularly, God has conferred this authority upon men who serve in the office of elder (or, ruling elder). Hebrews 13, speaking of elders, says in verse 7, “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God…” and again in verse 17 says, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account…” (cf. also Belgic Confession, Arts. 30 and 32).

A third sphere of earthly life is that of labor and the workplace. The Bible speaks of the authority of masters over slaves (for example, Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1), which today addresses the authority God has conferred to employers over their employees.

A fourth and final sphere of earthly life is the state. God has given the right to rule to those in positions of government—kings, presidents, senators, judges, mayors, police officers—over the citizens of the country. Romans 13:1 says in reference to magistrates, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power [literally, authority] but of God: and the powers [authorities] that be are ordained of God.”

In considering these different spheres of authority, it is necessary to recognize that their authority is limited. All authority is limited to the boundaries of its own specific sphere. For example, husbands are called to lead their own wives, not the wives of every other man. For this reason, wives are repeatedly called to submit to their own husbands (cf. Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5; I Pet. 3:1), rather than to every husband generally. Parents have authority over their own children, not the children of every other home.

Not only is authority limited to its own sphere, it is limited in that sphere to the specific calling given them by God. For example, in the workplace, employers do not have authority to dictate every aspect of the life of their employees. Their authority is limited to the workplace and the work that is conducted there. In the sphere of the state, those in positions of government do not have unlimited power, but are limited to the calling God has given to the government. That calling is to wield the sword-power for “restrain[ing]” the “dissoluteness of men” and seeing that “all things [are] carried on…with good order and decency” (Belgic Confession, Art. 36; cf. also Rom. 13:3-4). This means the government does not have the authority to interfere in the business of the church, specifically her sacred calling to worship God and preach the gospel. And the church may not allow the state to intrude where it does not possess authority.

What is the purpose of God in conferring authority?

When we talk about authority, we must go beyond the fact of God’s conferring authority on some and consider what His purpose is in conferring that authority.

God’s purpose with authority is that it be an instrument to care for and protect others. God confers authority on some so that they use that authority for the good of those under authority. Those in authority are called to rule in love, using their position to bless those under their care, by protecting them from harm and seeking their welfare and flourishing. They do that by establishing rules that are in harmony with and reflect the law of God, and by giving instruction and counsel regarding those rules. They do so by correcting those who do wrong, and by being fair and just in their correction. They do so by showing themselves to be honorable, trustworthy, and blameless, thus removing barriers that the ruled might have in trusting and following them.

God’s will for husbands is that they use their authority not to serve self but to bless their wives and promote their well-being by “instructing, comforting, protecting” (cf. the Reformed “Marriage Form”). God’s will for parents is that they use their authority to bless their children and promote their well-being. God’s will for elders is that they use their authority to bless the members of the church and promote their well-being. And the same goes for employers toward their employees and for magistrates toward their subjects.

Because God’s design for authority is that it serve the well-being of the ruled, the Scriptures warn repeatedly against leaders who are self-serving. In Matthew 20:25- 28, Jesus contrasts a sinful view of authority (“they that are great exercise authority upon them”) with the proper view of authority (“whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant”).

Inasmuch as those in authority serve the well-being of those under them, they reflect the sovereign God.

What are the implications of this for those in authority and those under authority in the church?

The following two editorials will spell out in further detail the implications of these truths about authority, but I want to conclude this article by giving a taste of what those implications are for life in the church.

First, these truths about authority have an important implication for those who are under ecclesiastical authority. The implication is that they are to honor the elders in their speech and attitudes, as unto Jesus Christ, the Head of the church. They are to view the authority of the elders with gratitude, as the God-ordained instrument for protecting the church and promoting her welfare.

Second, these truths about authority have an important implication for those who hold special office in the church. The implication is that they are to be humble servants. Rather than being filled with pride at the office they hold, they are to be humbled that God would have them be representatives of Christ. Rather than using their office to serve their own agenda, they are to serve the church by instructing, comforting, and protecting. More on this next time.