The Bible Talks About Spiritual Authority

Carson Valley Christian Center(CVC) is committed to being a thoroughly Biblical church.  That means that we consider everything we do in light of the teaching of the Bible and we evaluate the activities of the church in that same light.  When CVC was started, we articulated a number of values that we hoped would make clear what “kind” of church we believed God wanted to give birth to in Carson Country.  One of our values reads this way:

We honor those God has gifted and called to authority.  Those in authority exercise their leadership with humility and grace as servant‑leaders

Our culture recognizes the tremendous vacuum of leadership that exists today.  And yet, we seem uncertain about how to resolve our lack of leadership.  Tensions like these cry out for a Biblical perspective.  Furthermore, because a good number of us have varying church backgrounds, there are a number of issues that we “bring to the table” from our own experience base.  In particular, those of us who come from congregational systems (where the church as a whole is the primary source of authority and “voting” power), the concept of spiritual authority can be particularly difficult.

Congregational Government grew out of the Reformation understanding of the “priesthood of all believers”(I Peter 2:9).  Believing that Christ is the head of the church (Col. 1:18), congregational churches typically understand each local gathering of believers to be an autonomous setting where the believer-priests are to seek and discern God’s leading for ministry and mission.  While subject to no outside ecclesiastical control, local churches may enter into voluntary relationships and mutual ministries of their own determination.  This “egalitarian” approach helps everyone to feel valued, but can be in conflict with the clear teaching of Scripture on the topic of spiritual leadership.

A tremendous advantage to congregational polity has been the egalitarianism which can result from this system.  Galatians 3:28 can become an experienced reality within a local church where all members of the congregation are both full participants and have access to decision-making.  The functional reality, however, is often a far cry from the ideal.  Members with longevity, persuasive power, or fiscal control often exert tremendous influence.  Pastors/Staff and Boards often become involved in battles related to power and authority/influence.  Though the intention of the design is ideal, it often works as imperfectly as our republican form of government in the United States!

A Biblical understanding of the Body of Christ, particularly as portrayed in texts like Ephesians 2:19-21 and Hebrews 10:23-25, makes clear that when believer-priests gather together in the local assembly, they are the church.  Direct access to the throne of grace, immediacy of access to the Father, and ability of the body to discern the will of God are all Biblically established.  However, none of these understandings contravene a Biblical pattern of spiritual authority as described in the New Testament, particularly in the Pastoral epistles.

CVC wants to provide a Biblical perspective by asking and answering questions like:  What does the Bible teach about spiritual authority?  Can people exercise authority in the lives of others when we basically are all “equal” in the sight of God?  Are some “more equal” than others?  The Biblical foundations for recognition of spiritual leadership are largely found in the 59 references in the New Testament to “elders”.  It is our goal in this document to pull out the fundamental teachings from those passages in order to articulate a Biblical worldview on spiritual authority.

There are four basic principles articulated in the Bible which help to “frame” the issues of spiritual authority and power:

1) God is a God of order (I Corinthians 14:33, Titus 1:5)

“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you,”(Titus 1:5)

“For God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (I Corinthians 14:33). 

Having a plan or structure is not “unspiritual”.  In fact, one of the most spiritual things God does is work through His people to create His-story among us.  When we are faithful and responsible to exercise our faith by both believing AND planning, we give God the maximum room to bring blessing and fruitfulness into our lives (e.g. see Jesus’ admonition to plan before we build in Luke 14:28-30).

2) God’s order is a hierarchy, not “popular democracy”.

This is a difficult subject for a lot of Americans.  However, even in our own secular governance, we have chosen to have a republican form of government rather than popular democracy (or what some call “mob rule”!). A careful reading of Scripture suggests that the “order” of God always involves a hierarchy of responsibility and assignment.

3) Spiritual leaders are anointed and appointed by God, not elected by us (Romans 13:1, Hebrews 13:17)

The Bible regularly describes God’s activity in the life of a leader by using terms like “calling, anointing, appointment”.  The more time you spend in the body of Christ, the more you begin to recognize when someone has been called and anointed and when someone is (with every good intention)responding to a need or filling a slot, but is not necessarily called and assigned by God to meet that need.

4) What the Body of Christ does is confirm what God has already done in calling people to leadership and ministry

This is another difficult subject, but clearly in keeping with the teaching of Scripture.  Each of us has to determine whether we can/will receive teaching and ministry from a real or potential leader.  When we do, we play a part in the confirming process.  People who minister over a long period of time, and with varying groups of people, and never receive confirmation by other believers of their leadership gifts should seriously question God’s calling.  In fact, the adage “He who thinks he leads and has no followers is only taking a walk” is appropriate here!

So then, since God is a God of order who calls and appoints leaders within His body to serve in local churches, what roles do those leaders fulfill?  The New Testament uses four primary terms for governance roles within a local church family.   These four roles comprise the leadership team of any healthy and growing church body.

1) Elder (Titus 1:5, Acts 20:17): (Greek: presbuteros)  This word is used with an emphasis on plural leadership.  Strictly speaking “elder” has to do with age (and certainly did in OT Israel), however in NT times it came to mean maturity in Christ.  The word primarily describes maturity, but denotes both the responsibilities of exercising authority and teaching. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders on their Missionary journey (Acts 14:23), referred to elders of specific churches (Acts 20:28), and Paul gave qualifications for those who would serve as elders/overseers (the terms appear to be interchangeable) in the Pastoral Epistles (Titus 1:6-9, I Timothy 3:1-7).

2) Overseer (Acts 20:28, Titus 1:7): (Greek: episkopos)  This word connotes an emphasis on governing over others for their spiritual welfare.  It involves effective guidance and protection of the flock.  It is often used interchangeably with the word for elder.  Using the Pastoral Epistles as a base, it may also mean overseeing several churches (e.g. the more “modern” role of bishops in some parts of the Body of Christ)

3) Pastor (I Peter 5:1-4, Ephesians 4:11): (Greek: poimen)   This role clearly relates to nurturing the spiritual health of fellow believers.  I Timothy 5:17 makes a special distinction between those who rule well and who work hard at preaching and teaching.  Shepherd roles as seen in I Peter 5 make clear that the role is to be conducted in submission to Christ, seeking to know God’s will and serving as an example.

4) Deacon (I Tim. 3:8-13, Acts 6): (Greek: diakonos)  Service is what this word is all about.  It is where we get our word for deacon.  The role relates to ministering to the needs of others.  Whenever people are using their gifts for ministry, they are being “servants for Christ”.  Note that the qualifications listed are very similar to those for elders/overseers.



Spiritual authority is given to enable the gathered people of God to be effective and efficient in accomplishing God’s kingdom agenda in this world.  Paul’s admonition to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:17ff is instructive in that he tells them to “guard the flock, shepherd the church of God, be on the alert”. Biblical Servant Leadership is exercised with excellence when people are all 3!

Are there pitfalls?  Yes!  However, the existence of pitfalls should not cause us to waver from the New Testament pattern.  Rather, they should cause us to redouble our efforts to walk in the Spirit and in conformity with God’s expressed will rather than in the flesh and in conformity with our natural desires and historical patterns.  The two primary pitfalls that await every church seeking to practice Biblical spiritual leadership are leadership excesses and congregational disobedience.

Leadership excesses occur most frequently when leaders begin to “lord it over” the congregation (see I Peter 5:1ff) of which they have been placed in leadership.  Leaders can be driven by ego, can be overwhelmed with the need for power and control, and can begin to focus on position, title, and authority rather than by a heart for God’s will to be expressed within the local assembly.  Obviously, the leadership system within a local body needs to allow for correction of this, hopefully within the leadership system itself.  More importantly, the Scripture is clear about the judgement of God that will come to those who are in positions of teaching and governance and lead His children astray.

Congregational disobedience occurs when a congregation as a whole (often by vote!) determines to step outside the will of God.  This typically occurs by removing a leader (note the caution against hearing an accusation against an elder in I Timothy 5:19-20), or in refusing to obey God as to direction or ministry priorities.  When this occurs, those in spiritual leadership may be forced to step aside, or to remain with the body when it invariably falls under the discipline of God (Hebrews 12:5ff).  Yet, God’s discipline of a disobedient congregation is a worthy enterprise that can lead to repentance and restoration of an entire church assembly.

At CVC, our vision, consistent with the Scripture, guides and directs each step of the way.  Those who are placed in positions of authority lead as servants.  Our staff, elders, and directors are all in positions to provide ministry leadership and to serve Christ and His body, particularly here at CVC, through living consecrated lives.  God has called us to get our “house in order”.  By rightly establishing spiritual authority and leadership within “our house”, God can fulfill His local, national, and international ministry calling through this family.

Dr. John Jackson is the President of Jessup University. He’s the author of 10 books, the most recent being “Grace Ambassador”. He’s a transformative leader, committed to equipping believers and fostering change in their local communities… Read more

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