Note: I originally wrote this post a few weeks ago, in partial response to everything that was going on at Mars Hill. I didn’t post it, however, because I was hesitant to speak up about issues at a church where I don’t attend.
However, the issues at Mars Hill pertain to many crucial biblical principles that are relevant and important for us all. In light of Mark Driscoll’s recent resignation, therefore, I think it is important for the church (in the universal sense) to take this as an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the nature of true biblical leadership. While the initial impetus for the article was what was happening at Mars Hill, this article chiefly seeks to outline those broader, universal principles of leadership in the church that are applicable to us all and crucial for all of us to come to understand better.
At the end I will also tip my hand and say what I think the root issue at Mars Hill was. I think the root issue is different from what almost anybody has said so far. It goes to the issue of how a wrong view of leadership can lead even people with good intent to do great harm.
Here’s the article:
Recent controversies in the evangelical world have shown that Protestants are not immune to falling into an unbiblical understanding of the nature of pastoral and elder authority.
It’s probably obvious which controversy I’m referring to; there are others as well.
This is why it is especially important to understand what the Bible actually teaches regarding the role of elders and the nature of their authority. Almost everyone affirms that elders should not “domineer” over the church (1 Peter 5:3). But few people, in my observation, understand what that actually means. Often, people think that not domineering simply means leading for the good of others, rather than your own gain. That is certainly part of it, but there is more. For if you lead for the good of others and yet fail to see yourself as an equal with those you are leading, you are still domineering because you are putting yourself in a special, elite class above others. Such leaders, while turning aside from the harsh dictator model of leadership, have simply fallen into the benevolent dictator model of leadership — which is just as harmful as straight-up authoritarianism (sometimes more so, because it is so subtle).
So we need to understand what type of authority elders really have in the church, and what it truly means to not be domineering.
There are many sources we could go to to summarize the biblical view on this (which has always been the historic Protestant view). One of the best is John Stott, who covers this issue very well in a few simple but profound paragraphs from his book Christ in Conflict. So in this article, what I’m going to do is quote a few sentences from Stott, make some comments, quote the next few sentences from Stott, make some comments on those, and so forth. By the end we will have a clear outline of the real nature (and limitations) of the authority of elders in the church, to the end that we will know what the Scriptures mean when they say that elders are not to “domineer” over those they are leading.
Principle 1: Elder Authority is Limited, Not Absolute
[Citing Mark 10:42-45] Thus Christian ministers are to take as their model the Christ who came to serve, not the Gentiles (or the Pharisees) who preferred to be lords.
This is not to deny that some authority attaches to the ministry, but rather to define and limit it (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 3:5; Hebrews 13:7).
Here Stott gives us the first principle of the nature of elder authority: it is limited. That is, elders don’t have full and absolute authority over anyone in the church, no matter what, and no matter what their intentions are.
There is a useful analogy here from civil government that helps make this especially clear. In grade school, most of us (hopefully) learned one of the most basic principles of government — that government authority is limited. The government does not have the right to tell you to do literally anything or lord it over your life. Because people are in the image of God and have the God-given (not government-granted, but God-given) right to freedom, government does not have unlimited rights over a person.
Sometimes people say “that’s just a distorted view of those biased Americans who love democracy are really just interested in avoiding authority.” But that is completely false. For the fact that people are in the image of God and thus have a right to be free is a deeply significant, universal truth of common grace, which is ingrained in conscience and taught clearly in the Scriptures themselves. It stems from the fact that we are all in the image of God (Genesis 1:27; 9:6; James 3:9), and all equally in the image of God (Job 31:13-15; 34:19; Proverbs 22:2; Ephesians 6:9; James 2:1-13).
So, in reality, it is not the case that this is just a silly American idea. In fact, I would say that the reality is that, due to our history of being a nation birthed in overcoming tyranny, Americans have the greatest responsibility of all to recognize, grasp and defend this truth.
Now, when it comes to church authority, here is the important thing to recognize: This truth regarding the limited scope of authority for human government does not go away in the church. Otherwise, while we may live in a nation where we are now free from the tyranny of the state, we are ripe to have that tyranny replaced by the tyranny of a church. For if we think that the authority of government is limited, but the authority of elders in the church is not (based on a misunderstanding of passages like Hebrews 13:7), we have simply replaced one form of tyranny for another.
In fact, if church elders do not recognize that their authority over an individual also has God-given limitations, we are in a much worse position than if we were the victims of political tyranny. For then, instead of only one entity lording it over people, there can effectively become millions of miniature kings claiming authority over people’s lives.
In other words, what we have (hopefully) learned through human history and the Scriptures about the need for government authority to be limited reflects universal principles which are also true in the church. Because the right to freedom and self-direction arise from the fact that we are all equally created in the image of God, then it is not only wrong for the government to assume ultimate authority over an individual; it is also wrong for anyone in the church, such as elders, to assume that they have this role and type of authority.
You might think at first “well, of course no one in the church actually thinks they have that type of authority.” But that’s not true. One example is the institution of the Papacy. Though I have Roman Catholic friends and affirm the good that so many institutions founded by Roman Catholics are doing in the cause of social good, one of the chief reasons I am not a Roman Catholic is because the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church is that the Pope has universal authority over all Christians. I reject the supremacy of the Pope, as God has given no person (or even institution) such authority. It exceeds the limits on authority that God has granted to the government of his church, and for that reason (along with objections to the official Roman Catholic doctrines on foundational issues such as justification by faith alone, the Mass, and others) I am not a Catholic.
However, as Protestants, we are not immune from accepting over-reaching authority in our churches, either. We can sometimes fall into what can be called (alluding back to the analogy of the Papacy) a functional Roman Catholic view of authority when it comes to church elders. Here is one example of this (exceeding, ironically, even the authority the Pope seeks to exercise). I recently heard of an individual who was dating a certain person. An elder at their church did not want them dating that person. When the person said “I have the right to date the person I choose,” the elder said “I’m your elder and have authority over you; you have to do what I say.”
That is a completely wrong and unbiblical view of elder authority. That elder did not have the authority over this individual to tell them who they can and cannot date. The elder was failing to recognize that when the Scriptures say things like “submit to your elders” (Hebrews 13:7) it does not mean this in an unlimited sense any more than “submit to the government” (Romans 13:1) is meant in an unlimited sense (see above). The authority of elders, like the government, is a limited authority, not an absolute authority. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and the Scriptures alone are the only authority to which we are to give unquestioned allegiance. When an elder in the church (or anyone at all) seeks to require a person to do or believe something in their personal lives that the Scriptures do not require, they have overstepped their authority and set themselves up as a lord over that person. (And note — this is true even if the elder has good intentions. Good intentions do not justify over-stepping God-ordained limits on authority.)
Sometimes people have the view that this individual, or those in other situations like his, are selfish for wanting to direct their own decisions. But that is a completely unbiblical view. God wants individuals to make their own decisions in areas where his Word has not said that there is only one particular choice that can be made.
This is how people mature — by using their own judgment and making their own decisions. God wants wise, mature Christians — not merely compliant rule-followers who outsource the direction of their lives to others. (Some might, finally, object that perhaps this person was seeking to date a non-Christian; from everything I’ve read on this case, that doesn’t seem to be the case; but even if it were, the elder should have appealed to Scripture — not his own [non-existent!] authority as an elder per se.)
Principle 2: Elders Have Authority insofar as They Are Affirming What the Scriptures Affirm
If the authority of elders is a limited authority, what, then, is the scope and nature of their authority? Stott answers that well as he continues:
It is the authority which stems from sound teaching and consistent example. It is never authoritarian to the extent that someone attempts to dominate another’s mind, conscience, or will. “Not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Yet lording it is exactly what the Pharisees were doing, keeping the people in subjection under them.
The authority of elders is this: First, it is authority to direct the affairs of the church. If the elders determine that the services will be at 9:00 am on Sunday mornings rather than 10:00 am, they have the authority to do that. Second, it is the authority of truth. When an elder speaks truth, there is real authority in that. Not because the elder said it, but because it is true. (If you say “but non-elders have that authority as well,” you would be right!) There is a real authority in speaking the truth.
Third, it is the authority of enforcing the truth within the church. “Enforce” can be a strong word. My main meaning is that elders have an authority of defining the statement of faith for the church, for example, defining membership requirements in accord with that standard, and holding church members accountable when there are egregious violations to Scriptural doctrine or ethics (example: 1 Corinthians 5:1-13). But note especially (which is my main point) that this is an accountability to truths that already exist, being taught in Scripture, not an inventing of truths or rules beyond the Scriptures that people then have to follow.
Someone might say here, “I don’t think the authority of truth is enough to define the scope of an elder’s authority, because it seems like elders have an authority within the church that goes beyond what any member does.” In response, the first thing I’d say that, as a congregationalist, I actually believe that the ultimate authority in the church, underneath Christ and the Scriptures, is the congregation, not the elders. The elders are ultimately accountable to the congregation, and thus ought to see themselves and operate as servants in the fullest sense of the word. One reason we know this is because, for example, the apostle Paul addressed his letters to the congregation, not the elders. And in the book of Galatians, he reproves the congregation for allowing false teachers to gain and have authority over them. As Mark Dever has said, in the NT “the congregation is seen as having ultimate responsibility for what the church becomes.”
Then, the second thing I would say is that the authority to direct the affairs of the church (not the lives of the individuals in the church) is a real and significant authority, and it does go beyond the authority individual members have. For it includes things like defining the confession of faith for the church, accepting and denying membership, and other such things. These things are not simply matters of order and organization; they communicate something about what the Bible teaches and have real influence in people’s lives.
For example, when a church refuses to accept into membership someone who rejects the Trinity, they are communicating that what we believe about the Trinity is a very important thing that is a matter of heresy and orthodoxy. While the church does not have the right to infringe on this person’s conscience and force them to believe in the Trinity (which would be impossible anyway), the act of affirming that membership is reserved only for those who uphold the orthodox teaching of Christianity keeps the church pure and, along with that, can in itself be a persuasive act that may lead to the person reconsidering their view and freely changing it to accord with what the Scriptures teach and the historic church has affirmed through the ages.
Third, included in this authority to direct the affairs of the church is the authority of church discipline. For example, if a member starts sleeping with his mother-in-law (as happened in 1 Corinthians 5), the church has the right to exercise church discipline if that person does not repent. This also preserves the purity of the church and upholds the clarity of truth. Note, however, that church discipline has to always be based on the Scriptures and pertain to foundational truths, never secondary doctrines. If a church were to seek to excommunicate someone for what they believe about the age of the earth, for example, that would be to exceed their authority and go beyond what the Scriptures allow.
What are the Scriptural foundations for this limited nature of elder authority? This is another area where some come in and say “this whole notion of limited church authority and such is just an American idea. Americans fell in love with democracy, and then just applied it to everything.”
But this is not true at all, as we already covered above. The limited nature of elder authority is rooted in the reality that all people have equally been created in the image of God and that there is therefore no elite class that has been specially designated with making people’s decisions for them and infringing on their conscience. Further, things like recognizing that elders are actually accountable to the congregation are also very solid common sense principles, as this principle is the best reflection of the truth that elders are not “philosopher-kings” set over the people. Further, it is the best check against abuse of power; accountability to some higher group, for example, would create a disconnect with the needs and concerns of the congregation. Accountability to those they are leading creates real accountability, because those in leadership cannot so easily fall into corruption or dismiss legitimate concerns of those they are leading.
Beyond this, there are specific Scriptural teachings on the nature and limitations of authority in the church. Stott continues:
Jesus exposed the tyranny of the Pharisees by drawing attention to the revealing titles which they loved. He insisted that in the church he was founding such titles were not to be used: “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah” (Matthew 23:8-10).
In other words, no one is to be involved in a child-father relationship of dependence or a servant-aster relationship of unquestioning obedience or a pupil-teacher relationship of uncritical acceptance. Each of these attitudes is doubly wrong.
For one thing it disrupts Christian fellowship: “You are all brothers.” For another it assumes rights which belong to God alone: “You have one Father [on whom you are to depend], and he is in heaven,” “you have one Instructor [whom you are to obey], the Messiah, and [Jesus might have added] you have one Guide [whose instruction you are to follow], the Holy Spirit.”
Domination by clergy or ministers is an offense both to God and humanity, to the three persons of the Trinity and to the fellowship of believers.
Principle 3: The Chief Purpose of Elder Authority in the Church is to Protect Church Members from the Abuse of Authority and Limitation of Their Freedom in Christ
What then, is the role of elders? It is to use their authority to protect church members’ freedom of conscience and self-direction in opposition to any who would seek to come in and violate this and l0rd it over their people. Further, it is to use their authority to serve and build up the congregation by being a source of help to them in their Christian lives, while always upholding the reality that true maturity in Christ comes as people are encouraged and empowered to make their own decisions (rather than being told what to do).
And it is to point people to righteousness chiefly through influence (not authority) by means of teaching the word of God clearly, accurately, and with passion. That’s why Peter contrasts domineering eldership with leadership by example: “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Elders are to lead chiefly by influence, not authority. And when they do exercise authority, it is to be within the God-ordained limits that we’ve seen above.
As a postscript, here is what I think is the root issue at Mars Hill. I am deeply concerned about the way so many people were mistreated by the leadership at Mars Hill. There is no place for that in the body of Christ; and, though unpleasant, I think it is necessary to speak up about. In relation to Driscoll, I do always attempt to give the benefit of the doubt, and it at least appears, in his sermons and reading of his letter to the church 2 months ago, that he did love his congregation and genuinely wanted their welfare. I think the root issue is a wrong view of the nature of biblical authority. It was not recognized that wanting the good of the church is not by itself enough to clear someone of the charge of authoritarian leadership.
Authoritarian leadership exists whenever the leader sees himself or herself as having more authority over the people they lead than they really do. It happens when the leader sees himself as knowing better than the congregation simply by virtue of his position. It happens when leadership is seen as chiefly about exercising authority and control over people — even if done with good intent! — which ends up putting the leader in a special elite class, and thereby diminishing the followers. Whenever leadership is seen as creating two tiers of Christians, you have authoritarian leadership. It appears to me, from all that I have read about what happened to people (and I’ve read A LOT), this is how eldership was conceived of at Mars Hill. It just wasn’t recognized as authoritarian leadership, because it was seemingly done for the good of the congregation.
True servant leadership, on the other hand, is not simply a matter of seeking the good of those that you lead. It also means recognizing that the leader is equal to (not above) those that they lead. In true biblical, servant leadership, the leader leads from a posture of equality. They do not see themselves as necessarily smarter than the people they are leading, or lead from a posture of command and control. True leadership recognizes that people are capable of self-direction, and seeks to build up and fuel that self-direction, rather than fuel conformity to the leader’s authority. Whenever someone leads in a way that doesn’t harness and call upon the person’s own self-direction and right to govern themselves under God, they are leading in an authoritarian way. Even if they think “this person needs me to direct them in this way, and it is for their good,” it is not really for their good, because it diminishes them as a person and treats them as a less worthy person than the leader. It is the “leader knows best” paradigm rather than “the leader exists so unlock potential” paradigm.
In other words, true leadership is about seeing yourself as equal with the people you lead, and building up their self-direction from a posture that sees them as better than you. True biblical leaders have to lead from the bottom, not the top. In my view, that’s what went wrong at Mars Hill. I know there are a thousand other things that could be said. But I think unless Driscoll recognizes this about the real nature of biblical leadership, he will never be able to come to terms with what happened. He will continually get caught up on the fact that he had “good intent,” not realizing that good intent that doesn’t also see oneself as underneath, rather than over, those that they lead is not enough.
The issue, then, is that repentance in this situation is not simply a matter of acknowledging the specific mis-deeds that happened. It requires going beneath that to the wrong view of people behind those sins, and turning from that wrong perspective of leadership altogether.