first among equals?

In a comment in an earlier thread, Dan offers these observations and questions:

My question has to do with the definitions (as are popularly understood or employed) of authority, leadership, and decision-making. You stated in your example that “someone who is an expert has more authority in the area he has gained expertise.” Then you state that the theologian presumably has more knowledge and that should “carry weight,” but you backed off from authority. The congregation, you say, should make the decisions. But certain people have “spiritual leadership.” I’m probably pretty much on board with your ideas, but I think a little more definitive explanation should accompany words like authority, leadership, and decision-making if we are using them to distinguish activity or degree of control. Okay, I guess I have not yet formed a question. My question is how do you definitively distinguish between authority and leadership in the above areas. More precisely, what does it mean for a pastor, for example, to have responsibility of spiritual leadership, but not of a decision-making form? (especially in view of some verses that mention obeying your leaders.) Expound, if you will.

As I said in my initial response, this is an excellent question. It gets at the heart of church life and government.

The word ‘authority’ has differing uses. When we speak of the authority of knowledge, expertise, or experience, we are speaking of the kind of value someone’s opinion carries in his area of expertise. It is true that there can be competing authorities of this kind, where equally experienced or educated individuals may subscribe to differing schools of thought. If they both happen to be involved in a decision making process, conflict can ensue and their differences tend to weaken the weight of each other’s comments. Those responding have to make judgements about differing opinions by weighing the contrasting opinions or by consulting a “tie-breaker” – another expert.

When we come, however, to church governance, Baptists believe in the responsibility of local congregational governance in keeping with the Scriptural patterns and under the theory that a regenerate church membership consists of Spirit-led people. In making church decisions, then, each member of the church may have differing opinions and differing levels of competence/expertise, but decisions have to be made on the basis of a congregational vote. After an issue has been discussed, experts and non-experts weighing in, a vote is taken and the church moves forward.

The Bible also brings pastors and deacons into the mix. Pastors, in particular, are called overseers by the Bible. There are at least two ways in which this oversight is exercised.

  1. Spiritual oversight
  2. Administrative oversight

Spiritual oversight is the pastoral responsibility given as a minister of the Word of God. It carries the authority of God to the extent that the pastor admonishes, corrects, rebukes, etc., from the Word of God and consistently with the Word of God. It is not an authority limited simply to the extent of explicit Biblical statements, but does include authoritative application of Biblical revelation. Study the Timothys and Titus for Paul’s direction to these ministers about their ministry. You can see several instances where it seems Paul urges them to speak up against errors of faith or practice. Paul uses somewhat general terms which can be expanded upon, it seems to me. For example, Titus 1.9, where the pastor is to ‘refute those who contradict’, or Titus 2.6 where the pastor is to exhort the young men to be sensible. There are numbers of admonitions like this.

In general, this spiritual authority is God-given by virtue of the office held, but is limited to the context of Scriptural admonition and oversight as described above.

Administrative oversight is the pastoral responsibility designated by the office held and by congregational assent. Certain administrative aspects of the ministry are taught in the Bible. Certain administrative aspects are not explicitly taught in the Bible but are given into the hands of the pastor by congregational decision. (This is not unbiblical, but may not be explicitly biblical either.) I am thinking of such things as administering the budget for building maintenance, for social events, for Sunday school or other aspects of a modern church budget. The whole church shouldn’t have to vote every time you need paper towels for the kitchen, or every time you need to order Sunday school material.

In general, congregational decision making is focused on annual or quarterly business meetings which direct and delegate administrative authority.

Between these two areas of authority there is likely some overlap. When decisions have to be made about which Sunday school material the church will use, the pastor has spiritual oversight authority as well as administrative oversight authority. Both of these may be delegated to others with final oversight in the hands of the pastor.

In the day-to-day life of the church, the pastor may be making a lot of the decisions, but he ought to be conscious of what his people are saying and thinking along the way.

Pastor/People and Who is the Expert?

Turning from the authority structure of a church to the matter of expertise and experience, it is true that the more well-studied, skilled, and experienced a pastor is, the more people will listen to what he says. When I was a young pastor, I said a lot of the same things I say now, but they seem to carry more weight now that I have been at it a while. Perhaps I have learned better ways to communicate (undoubtedly true), and certainly I have seen a few shipwrecks I can point to and say, “I told them so.” And I have simply spent more time in the Word. It all adds up. It does seem that people listen to me somewhat better than they used to.

If you have made it this far, I would like to close by linking to a post by Jay Adams. He put this up just the other day and it bears on what we are talking about. He is writing about counseling, but I think it also applies here. He makes a distinction between what we can command and what we can suggest. I am suggesting that between the two there is some kind of biblical exhortation that is Biblical and should be listened to. In the end, though the office of pastor does carry authority, the people have feet with which they can vote and they often do. Many simply travel around until they find a pastor who agrees with them (or doesn’t care). In any case, Dr. Adams says some things here that seem to fit and he says it much more briefly than I seem to be able to do!

Probably more needs to be said to really answer Dan’s question fully, but hopefully this will get us started. Perhaps in the comments you can force me to be clearer. Brevity is another matter.



  1. Dan Salter says:

    Okay, I understand the general outline you provide. A couple of follow-up questions– A pastor’s authority includes admonition. Should a congregation member ever admonish another member? or is that the exclusive job of a pastor? If a member can admonish another, how is a pastor’s authority in that regard different?

    Certain passages indicate the need for obedience to the authority of a leader. Is this blind obedience (in other words, if the pastor admonishes me to do or not to do something, do I obey without question, waiving my responsibility for thinking on my own and determining whether such action is correct)?
    If not and I should first adjudicate what is my right course of action, is not “obeying” the leader an act of defiance? If I do agree with the rightness of the authority’s admonition, what is the Scriptural injunction for? Does it apply only to those who know to do right but act in rebellion?

    • Dan you ask great questions. You must have inherited an analytical mind from someone!

      All believers have some level of authority in admonishing one another, but Paul does insist that we have at least two witnesses to receive a rebuke of an elder. It does seem there is some difference between the office of elder/pastor and the layman. Nevertheless, we are all admonished to bear one another’s burdens. If that includes admonition and rebuke, and I think it does, then there is universal Scriptural authority for this.

      The pastor’s authority in this area does seem to differ from the average member. I am struggling to define this, but it does seem there are differences. I was going to say that folks somewhat expect a pastor to intervene in their lives and might ‘take it’ better from him than from another member, but that isn’t always the case. I’ll have to think on this some more to express it better.

      I don’t believe the Bible ever demands blind loyalty to any authority. We are responsible first to God. This is where soul liberty comes in.

      If you disagree with a pastor’s rebuke/exhortation, the consequences could involve leaving the church, but this isn’t always the case. Some will coexist as best they can while remaining at disagreement on the issue. If they can do this without causing a controversy in the local church, such a relationship can be maintained for some time.

      I am not quite sure about what you mean in your last three questions. Perhaps you could give them another try?

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Keith says:


    This may be slightly off topic, but I think it is sufficiently related to justify hitting the “submit” button:

    Earlier in this discussion you said that the only justification for congregational government is that it is the N.T. pattern. Could you show me where in the N.T. we can see a congregational vote or a quarterly or annual business meeting.


    • Hi Keith

      I would see the congregational vote in Acts 6 and the selection of deacons. No scripture mandates quarterly or annual business meetings, so the number of meetings is certainly a matter of liberty. However, some kind of regular meeting should occur whereby leadership is held accountable for their stewardship of church business. Annually would seem to me to be the minimum (and all that is necessary in relatively small churches), but I suppose you could argue for every two years or every three years instead. I think this is reasonable and a minimum of annual meetings is the practice of non-profit societies in secular culture. I don’t think we should be less diligent about business than lost people are.

      So this would be a matter of wisdom, testimony, reasonableness, etc., with the pattern of Acts 6 as a precedent. A few other passages might imply some congregational decision making and others imply accountability (see 2 Cor 8-9 for a few hints at it). Those would be my basis for our business practices.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Dan Salter says:

    After I reread those questions, I thought you might have some trouble deciphering. They were rather cryptic. Here’s what I meant to say–

    Hebrews 13:17 – obey your leaders
    Romans 14:5b – each one should be fully convinced in his own mind

    So, a pastor rebukes, corrects, and generally admonishes one of his congregants. That person is doing something his pastor thinks wrong and–
    A. he thinks right
    B. he thinks wrong, but is being rebellious
    C. he didn’t think about, but now should

    So, I see the Hebrews injunction applying to B definitely, to C possibly (at least until the person has become fully convinced otherwise in his own mind), and to A only in the sense as encouragement to reexamine.

    Is that how you see it?
    Basically, then, a pastor’s spiritual authority is in taking care to actively encourage toward that which is right and speak out (rebuke, correct, etc.) against that which he believes wrong. Right?

  4. Dan Salter says:

    By the way, “first among equals” sounds awfully Marxist.

    • Hi Dan

      Well, one shouldn’t read too much into my subject headers. I had something much more pedestrian in their originally, but then thought of the phrase as somewhat interesting (although cliched – I’m the king of cliches).

      Yes, I think I would agree with your stance on the three scenarios. Pastoral leadership does have authority, primarily based in the Scriptural context. It needs to be exercised carefully, hopefully so that individuals will see their errors if they are in error and be willing to grow. I could tell a few stories of how that has worked out in our experience, but since our church is so small, if someone stumbled across these posts it could cause some embarrassments. But let me say that I have learned from bitter experience how NOT to exercise authority, and I have also seen members react entirely unspiritually and unscripturally even with (to my mind) utmost care in not “overlording” the flock. The process is certainly a difficult balancing act, complicated by the flesh on all sides.

      Nevertheless, we are talking about ideal situations here. In theory, what I am describing and what you have added are the ways things should work.

      Generally we have had a pretty good spirit in our church and folks have worked together fairly well. We try to cultivate a family spirit. It does take time. The test of quality comes at the moment someone needs some kind of admonition.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  5. Keith says:

    “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

    (_Animal Farm_ George Orwell)

    • So that’s where it came from. I remember having to read that in high school. What a sickening book. Orwell got his point across, though, didn’t he? I think I read 1984 also, but I don’t remember if it was an assignment or not.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. tjp says:


    I don’t want to derail this thread, but I’d like to ask you a question.

    I’ve been part of fundamentalism for decades. I cut my teeth on perhaps the best of GARB fundamentalism, and I’ve fellowshipped with independent Baptist fundamentalism for years. I’ve seen good things and bad things. But I must confess I’ve never seen fundamentalism weaker and more unsure of itself than it is now.

    Perhaps I’m wrong here, but I attribute much of fundamentalism’s current weakness to the secondhand lions now heading up its institutions and fellowships. Are there any fundamentalist institutions that currently model what fundamentalism should be?

    Here’s the question I would like to ask you, Don, since I believe you’ll answer it partisanly but fairly. Fundamentalism as an idea is chic enough, but at some point it must take on a concrete expression. What in your opinion should a fully-dressed fundamentalism look like?


    • A very good question.

      I’ll give some thought to that and get back to you.

      Off to prayer meeting!

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3