April 28, 2017

The Ordinances and Pastoral Authority

Thomas Overmiller

A Command and a Qualification

Churches need leaders, but they also need a biblical understanding of leadership. We too easily fall into the trap of the leadership craze, chasing after leadership books, flocking to leadership conferences and experimenting with all kinds of creative leadership strategies, whether secular or Christian. But biblical leadership is far more simple than all of this. Take a look at how Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 11:1-3.

In 1 Corinthians 11:1, he gives a command. Then he immediately qualifies that command.

  • The command is to “follow me.”
  • The qualification is “as I follow Christ.”

This is important to understand, because Paul was an apostle.

What is an Apostle?

The word apostle means “sent one,” somebody sent out directly by another person, just as Paul was sent directly from Jesus Christ after his resurrection. Apostles of Jesus Christ lived only in the first century AD, and Paul was the last one (1 Cor. 15:8-9).

What was the role of these apostles? To teach the early church and to record for the future generations of the church the teaching of Jesus. This included what Jesus taught during his earthly ministry. This also included what Jesus taught the apostles after his earthly ministry.

Today, we build upon the doctrinal foundation that Jesus and his apostles provided (Eph. 2:20). They told us exactly what God wanted us to know, recorded for us in the 27 books of the New Testament. We do not add anything to this foundation. Instead, we build upon it by obeying and teaching it to others.

So being an apostle was a privileged position. These men spoke the words of God to the church for all generations to follow. And if that’s the case, then you might think that the command Paul gave here was enough. “Follow me.” But that’s not how he says it. He adds “as I follow Christ.” I will show you what this means.

The Ordinances

1 Corinthians 11:2 explains what Paul means by “follow Christ.” He describes this as “keeping the ordinances.” What does this mean?

As an apostle, he taught certain things to the many churches he served. He had spent 18 months teaching at Corinth. At another time, he spent 3 years in Ephesus. At another time, 3 months in Thessalonica, and so on.

But wherever Paul traveled, he taught certain things as doctrine from God. He did this because it was his role as an apostle, giving us the foundation of God’s words for the church. But this does not mean that everything Paul said or did was worth following.

Imperfect Apostles

Apostles did not always speak or behave in an exemplary manner.

  • In Romans 7:19, Paul admits this: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” Even though Paul was an apostle, he did not always make the right choices in life.
  • In Galatians 2:11, Paul tells us about a time that another apostle, Peter, behaved (and taught) badly: “But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.”
  • And another apostle, James, clearly admits his own tendency to say something that is not correct (Jam. 3:2): “For in many things we offend all.”

So here Paul is saying that as an example and teacher to the church at Corinth, he expected them to follow his example. But he qualifies this by saying “as I follow Christ.”

The Right Way to Follow an Apostle

Paul charges his disciples to evaluate his teaching and lifestyle. The implication is that if anything he says or does is out of line with what Jesus said and did as the chief cornerstone of the church, then they should not follow him on that point. And we have a wonderful example of how this should work, recorded about Paul himself in Acts 17:11:

These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.

Here you see the right way to follow an apostle. And if this is how to follow an apostle, it is definitely the way to follow a pastor as well.

  1. You listen willingly to what they are saying, with an eager, gracious spirit.
  2. But you follow up with study to make sure that they are teaching and living according to the teaching of Christ and the Word of God.

That is why Paul emphasizes “keep the ordinances.” You follow Christ by following the words of Christ, which are the ordinances that Paul was passing along to the churches when he taught them.

As the shepherd of Faith Baptist Church, it is my solemn duty to feed our congregation the Word of God as well. And how? By teaching and preaching the Word of God.

What is Pastoral Authority?

Whether you are pastor or not, you need to embrace a biblical view of pastoral authority. God gives pastors the solemn and sacred responsibility to lead and care for his churches. As a pastor, how should I fulfill my role? How should I lead? Since I am not an apostle, God does not reveal new teaching and insights to me directly. Instead, he tasks me with feeding the church a regular diet of the words already given. Consider these commands to pastors.

2 Timothy 2:15 commands me to “rightly divide the Word of truth.” This means that I am to take the words within the Word of God and explain them carefully. The word rightly divide means to “cut up.” I am supposed to “carve out” as it were the exact, precise meaning of Scripture so that you understand God’s Words exactly as he intends. He does not permit me to quote verses however I want, to serve my own purposes. I need to serve you the Word of God in exactly the right way.

2 Timothy 4:2 commands me to “preach the Word.” This means that I am supposed to give you the Word of God like a herald announces the message of a king. I take the words of God from the Word of God and give them to you in such a way that you know exactly what he said and exactly what he wants you to do.

Titus 1:9 commands me to “hold fast the faithful word as I have been taught.” This means “to hold something firmly, to cling to something, to be devoted to something.” I am to be a pastor who clings to the Word of God exactly as it has been given through the prophets and the apostles. I cannot change it in any way or let it go. I cannot let go of those things that are unpopular or hard to understand.

In summary, I do not have authority because I am a pastor. I do not have authority because I have experience. I do not have authority because I have an education. I only have authority when I tell you what the Word of God teaches and when my teaching is accurate.

But what about Hebrew 13:17? “Obey them that have the rule over you.”

According to this command, you should obey your pastor. “Them that have the rule over you” is a reference to church leaders. But how should you obey them? You should know that the word obey in Hebrews 13:17 is not the same word that Paul uses for children to obey their parents in Ephesians 6:1.

Obeying your pastor has nothing to do with the way that children should obey their parents. The word obey in Hebrews 13:17 means “to be persuaded.” This means that you should obey your pastor whenever he persuades you that what he is saying is biblical. This excludes obedience to a pastor “because he says so” or “because he is your pastor.” This requires him to demonstrate that he is personally submitting to the Word of God in a biblical manner and is persuading you to do the same thing. That’s why a pastor should be diligent to “labor in the Word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17).

In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul explained it this way: “Follow me, as I follow Christ.” He is urging believers to follow him to the degree that he properly taught and modeled the very words of God. And that is a pastor’s only authority – the Word of God.

Remarkably, that is how Jesus submitted to God the Father as well, even though he was equally God. Jesus explains this himself in John 12:29:

For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.

And that is the right way to view church authority. You follow a pastor to the degree that he is following the words of Jesus and the teaching given to us from the apostles.

So, What is Leadership in the Church?

So, if you were to ask me to recommend the best book on Christian leadership, what will I say? You guessed it. The Bible!

And how does the Bible describe leadership in the church? “Keep the ordinances.” It is the job of faithful pastors to encourage this. And it is the responsibility of members in a congregation to insist that pastors lead this way. Any view of church leadership that ignores the clear, accurate teaching of Scripture or injects further elements of so-called leadership principles and philosophies goes astray from the ordinances of Christ passed down through the apostles.


Thomas Overmiller serves as pastor for Faith Baptist Church in Corona, NY and blogs at Shepherd Thoughts. This article first appeared at Shepherd Thoughts and is used with permission.

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