This brief essay is entitled “Reflections” about ministerial authority, because that is what it is; nothing more and nothing less. It is not, for instance, a comprehensive study of the doctrine of ministerial authority (though some pertinent authorities are cited), nor is it a biblical theology of rule/authority (though some of that sneaks in also). “Reflections” also conveys something not conveyed by terms such as “research” or “study;” “reflections” includes one’s observations as well as what one has learned from books and from The Book. I was ordained as a ruling elder in 1982, and four years later was ordained as a minister, so I have been in and around church sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies for a few decades, and my “reflections” are, of course, enlightened (or darkened?) by such experience.

In some sense, the idea of ministerial authority is almost an oxymoron, because we do not ordinarily think of “servants” as exercising authority. Paul most frequently refers to his office as that of “apostle” (ἀπόστολος, apostolos, eighteen times), one who is sent or commissioned by someone else to perform some service on his behalf. His next most frequent term is some form of “servant” (διάκονος, diakonos, seven times and δοῦλος, doulos, five times); more frequently than “herald/preacher” (κῆρυξ, kērux, two times) or “steward/manager” (οἰκονόμος, oikonomos, one time). Notably, Paul never referred to himself as “head,” although he employed the term (κεφαλή, kephalē) five times to refer to Christ. Therefore, in some senses, to discuss ministerial authority is to discuss its limits, to discuss how it can be that “servants” exercise rule or authority.

Ministerial Authority Is a Sub-Set of Ecclesiastical Authority

Any conversation about ministerial authority must understand itself as a sub-branch of ecclesiastical authority. Ministers are themselves “servants of Christ” (Rom. 1:1; 2 Cor. 11:23; Gal. 1:10; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:7; 1 Tim. 4:6; Titus 1:1), submissive to Christ’s purposes for them; they are, in their basic office, under authority, more so than exercisers of authority. They are Christ’s agents for caring for his flock; and have no authority beyond legitimate ecclesiastical authority. Note how our Presbyterian standards restrict the exercise of church authority, with one of them (Form of Government 3.3) referring to another (WCF 20:2) in so restricting church authority:

3. All church power is only ministerial and declarative, for the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority; all its decisions should be founded upon the Word of God. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (WCF 20.2).[1]

If “no church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority,” then surely no individual minister may do so. Ministers administer the ordinances of Christ (“only ministerial . . .”) and declare (“. . . and declarative”) what the Holy Scriptures, as the “only infallible rule of faith and practice,” require or permit. They are not authorized to go beyond this. Interestingly, church judicatories ordinarily get this right, though some of their individual ministers get it wrong. An OPC session may deliberate whether parents must home-school their children, private-school their children, or public-school their children; and, ordinarily, it realizes that the Holy Scriptures have nothing to say about compulsory education at all (and Robert Lewis Dabney opposed the practice when the Virginia legislature considered it), and so it rightly takes no position. Ministers of such churches, however, sometimes declare something about the matter from the pulpit, as though the most public and consequential office of the church was free to “declare” things which the church judicatories are not free to declare. Such ministers confuse the Christian pulpit with the so-called “bully pulpit” of public policy-makers, and abuse the declarative power given by Christ to the church and its ministers.

The Church’s Power to Enforce Is Spiritual, Not Temporal

In 1 Corinthians 5 the church is commanded to hand the impenitent individual over to Satan, not to the civil authority, even regarding a sin that, under the Mosaic laws, was a serious, possibly capital, crime (1 Cor. 5:1; Lev. 18:8; Deut. 22:30, 27:20). Following this apostolic example, the majority of the Presbyterian churches have refused to employ the civil authority’s power to enforce ecclesiastical laws. One implication of this doctrine of the spiritual nature of church power is this: Persuasion is always more consonant with the progress of God’s kingdom than coercion. The civil authorities employ coercive power by their very nature; if their citizens disobey their laws, they may fine them, imprison them, and even (in extreme cases) execute them. Ecclesiastical authorities refuse to employ any coercive power; they “declare” the will of God revealed in Holy Scripture, patiently instructing the flock, and equally patiently answering questions that are seriously proposed. Coerced “obedience” is not the same thing as heartfelt obedience; the latter of which only comes through patient instruction and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The Church’s Declarative Power Is Not Inerrant

WCF 31.3 says: “All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.” The church, then, has a responsibility to confess the faith in a manner which recognizes her own fallibility in so confessing. If even the highest courts of the church (general assembly) “may err; and many have erred,” then surely the individual ministers who jointly compose such assemblies “may err; and many have erred.” Even in the exercise of our proper office; to declare the Word of God, we should do so with entire awareness that our opinions about the Word of God are partial and fallible, and therefore not to be made “the rule of faith or practice.”

Church Power Is Both Joint and Several

The Scottish Second Book of Discipline in its very first page made a distinction which continues to appear in Presbyterian books of order and government: the distinction between joint power and several power.[2] In the OPC, this distinction is articulated at Form of Government 3.2 (emphases added):

Those who join in exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction are the ministers of the Word or teaching elders, and other church governors, commonly called ruling elders. They alone must exercise this authority by delegation from Christ, since according to the New Testament these are the only permanent officers of the church with gifts for such rule. Ruling elders and teaching elders join in congregational, presbyterial, and synodical assemblies, for those who share gifts for rule from Christ must exercise these gifts jointly not only in the fellowship of the saints in one place but also for the edification of all the saints in larger areas.[3]

The officers, in whose hand church power is effectively exercised, sometimes exercise that power “severed” from one another, acting as individuals; and sometimes they exercise power joined together in church courts, exercising authority over those under their jurisdiction. Thus, an individual minister teaches and preaches both privately and publicly, exercising the keys of the kingdom (calling people to faith and repentance) severally. His words are his. The officers of the church assembled, however, frame, modify, and approve the church’s confession, acting jointly. Acting jointly, the officers may determine that “lascivious . . . dancings” is sin (WLC 139); while acting severally, a given minister might very well counsel a member of his flock that his (or her) particular dancing is indeed lascivious, and should cease, while another member of the same session may declare that the dancing is not lascivious. Such counsel is private counsel; it is church power severally administered. If the individual does not heed the counsel, and a trial ensues, only at the end of the trial has the church acted jointly to determine the matter.

Misrule occasionally attends confusion about joint and several power. Some Sessions have adopted (in practice if not in law) the practice of what they call “rule by consensus.” What such rule ordinarily turns out to be is brow-beating session members who are in the minority. The entire beauty of our form of government is rule by plurality; and the beauty inherent in plurality is that there is more wisdom (ordinarily?) in a group than in an individual. If individuals are pressured into conforming their opinions to the opinions of others, we sacrifice the most important aspect of our form of government. Sessions need not have unanimity; it is preferable that on occasion they do not have unanimity, because this indicates that our form of plural government is still working, and that people recognize (and respect) the difference between joint and several power.

The Commend/Command Distinction

Sessions and ministers are routinely asked for their counsel on a number of matters; for some of these matters, there is no specific biblical information. This does not mean, however, that sessions and ministers may offer no counsel; they not only may offer counsel, they ought to offer counsel in such circumstances, as long as they indicate clearly that their counsel is informed by natural wisdom, and not from the Holy Scriptures. If parents ask a minister or session for advice regarding a child who is applying to college or university, such advice should be freely given, in accord with the wisdom and light the minister or other elders have. Should the child attend a Christian college or a secular university? To what degree does the amount of debt incurred influence the decision? These are valid, important questions, and ministers and elders should freely offer the best counsel they can provide, as long as they indicate that they are not declaring biblical truth. My elders and I called this the “commend/command distinction.” We attempted to distinguish obedience to divine laws—disclosed in Scripture—from consideration of human wisdom. We developed the habit of answering many requests for our counsel with words to this effect: “To my knowledge, Holy Scripture does not address this specific question. However, here are a few matters you should probably consider in the process of making your decision. . . .”

Ministers May Fail by Over-Exercising or Under-Exercising Their Authority (Timothy?)

According to the biblical witness, the human was made to be a ruled ruler; ruled by God, and exercising rule over the material order. Submissive to God’s rule, the human was entrusted with responsibility to govern other aspects of the created order. Our Reformed heritage ordinarily refers to this rule as the Cultural Mandate or the Creation Mandate.

The Fall constituted a revolt against God’s order: Adam governed neither his wife nor the serpent; Eve yielded neither to God nor to Adam. From that time to the present, the fallen human swings—pendulum-like—from one extreme to the other, under-ruling where God assigned us legitimate responsibility, and over-ruling where he did not. We tend to abdicate our proper responsibilities, while taking upon ourselves responsibilities that belong to others. Consider David: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. . . . But David remained at Jerusalem” (2 Sam. 11:1). David the giant-slayer had now become David the coward, David the fat cat. He neglected his first and primary duty as Israel’s prince to defend her; but then he abused and transgressed his authority by sending Uriah to the frontlines to be killed and by taking Uriah’s wife to himself. He failed to exercise the rule that kings ought to exercise, and he exercised rule he had no just authority to exercise.

Not surprisingly, ministers (and church courts) are not free from the human tendency to over-rule and under-rule. I’ve seen ministers abdicate to their sessions, without instruction, decisions regarding public worship, for instance. Yet the minister is the only member of the session ordained as a minister of the Word and Sacrament, and ordinarily the only member of the session with graduate level training in Bible. On such matters of the public administration of Word and Sacrament, the minister under-rules if he does not provide biblical instruction. On other matters (e.g., real estate), many ministers take an aggressive (even hostile?) approach to matters for which their seminary training makes them no more expert than other members of the session or congregation. On such matters, the minister over-rules by assuming responsibility to which he is not specially called.

Ministers are uniquely entrusted with the ministry of Word and Sacrament, for which they are (or ought to be) qualified, and therefore need not defer to their fellow elders on such matters, but rather should instruct them. Ministers share with their other officers a common knowledge of their region, their city, or town, and ministers do not necessarily know more about these matters than their fellow elders. Ministers should “devote themselves” to apostolic doctrine, in pulpit and in lectern. Any competent, seminary-trained pastor can put together an adult education class in a fraction of the time that most other adults in the church—including many elders and deacons—could do the same. A minister who habitually surrenders pulpit or lectern to others, in order to attend to things that require no seminary education, is probably under-ruling in one area and over-ruling in another.

Ministers and the Flock

Most of the exercise of proper ministerial authority with the flock is feeding them with the true gospel of Christ. If Peter loved Christ, he would prove it by feeding Christ’s lambs (John 21:15–17). There are many members of the body of Christ that can perform many acts of Christian service to other parts of the body; there is ordinarily only one part of the body of Christ who can serve the entire body, at the same time, every week, and that is the minister, who exercises his ministerial authority by declaring to otherwise utterly hopeless sinners that there is a competent Redeemer, who can and will save to the uttermost those who come to God through him. One of the lengthiest, profoundest paragraphs in the Form of Government is chapter 8, which appears in its entirety as a single paragraph, profoundly shaped by John 21, and part of which is this:

Christ’s undershepherd in a local congregation of God’s people . . . is called a pastor. It is his charge to feed and tend the flock as Christ’s minister and with the other elders to lead them in all the service of Christ. It is his task to conduct the public worship of God; to pray for and with Christ’s flock as the mouth of the people unto God; to feed the flock by the public reading and preaching of the Word of God, according to which he is to teach, convince, reprove, exhort, comfort, and evangelize, expounding and applying the truth of Scripture with ministerial authority, as a diligent workman approved by God; to administer the sacraments; to bless the people from God. (emphasis added)[4]

Under-ruling ministers neglect parts of this to do other things; over-ruling ministers do other things, neglecting parts of this in the process.


[1] Form of Government 3.3, The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, PA: Committee on Christian Education, 2015), 4–5.

[2] “This power is diverslie usit: For sumtyme it is severally exercisit, chiefly by the teachers, sumtyme conjunctly be mutuall consent of them that beir the office and charge, efter the forme of judgment. The former is commonly callit potestas ordinis, and the uther potestas jurisdictionis. These two kinds of power have both one authority, one ground, one finall cause, but are different in the manner and forme of execution, as is evident be the speiking of our Master in the 16 and 19 of Matthew.” (Chapter one, sections 7 and 8). From the edition published as an appendix in Stuart Robinson, The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel (Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson, 1858).

[3] The Form of Government 3.3, 4.

[4] Ibid., 11.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, February 2019.

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Ordained Servant: February 2019

Ministerial Authority

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