Who’s in Charge? Questioning Our Common Assumptions About Spiritual Authority

Introduction and thesis

Who has authority and who does not? This question drives many debates in the church today, and the conclusions drawn from it determine how people can function. But very rarely do we ask the question, what is authority?

We propose a reframing of authority that defines how we function as a Christ-centered community. Being a Christ-centered community should be our primary concern, and, from this pursuit, our understanding of authority should arise. This article seeks to examine new-covenant believer (NCB) interpersonal authority, questioning the appropriateness of individuals exercising authority over fellow disciples of Jesus.1 We contend that we must primarily emphasize how to mature as members of Christ’s communal body and how to exhort others toward maturity, so that we, as a Christ-centered community, might fully express who Jesus is to the world. This maturity is dependent on a proper understanding of the authority of God, not on the authority of one person over another. By seeing authority in this way, we shift emphasis from office and position to maturity and gifting. And, since maturity in Christ is the goal of all believers, and all have gifts from the Spirit, these qualifications should dictate function. One practical way this understanding of authority can be applied is to the issue of women in leadership within the church.

This article will attempt to reflect Scripture’s emphasis on community, then survey Scripture’s lack of emphasis on NCB interpersonal authority, and, finally, close with practical implications of what such a reorientation would mean for the body of Christ and, consequently, the issue of women in church leadership.

Community is primary

Central among the thematic elements of Scripture is the notion of community. Many point to the themes of kingdom and covenant as the most pervasive ideas of the Bible, but community may be even more fundamental than these, as both kingdom and covenant found themselves on community. All things were created by a triune, communal God who cast his image onto humanity, and community is an integral part of who we are as humans. But, what is community? Considering the whole of Scripture, we define Christ-centered community as a group of diverse but equal individuals, interdependent on one another and united in love by the pursuit of a shared, transcendent purpose. We contend that community, thus, consists of six foundational characteristics: shared transcendent purpose, unity, diversity, equality, love, and interdependence. While there is overlap, none of these distinctives can be actualized independently of the others.

Recognizing the prevalence of community as a programmatic theme of Scripture is necessary in order to reframe the conversation concerning women in ministry. Community informs our notion of authority and provides the framework in which we must regard this issue.2

Shared transcendent purpose

The new-covenant community carries out the purpose for which Israel was set apart: that of being a royal priesthood (Exod 19:5; 1 Pet 3:5; Rev 5:9) and conduit of the blessing of God to all peoples (Gen 12, Abrahamic covenant).3 The new-covenant priesthood offers sacrifices of lives fully devoted to God in communal life (Rom 12:1–2), which shows the world who Christ is. The Old Testament covenants are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Through him and by his example, the new-covenant community grounds itself in humility and on considering others as better than oneself (Phil 2:1–11). This community sees the promise of blessing that was given to Abraham coming to fruition when all peoples are included within Christ-centered community as recipients of the Holy Spirit.

Unity

Christ-centered community finds unity in being the people of God. Unity is central to community, and we see it from the very heart of God in the prayer of Jesus in John 17.4 Unity is to exist among the members of the community and also between the community and God. In a moment of great distress, Jesus prays for unity among future believers because it is essential to the message of the gospel being believed through those connected to Christ.

Further, we see the centrality of unity expressed repeatedly in the letters to the early churches. Paul, specifically, is deeply concerned with unity; thus, disunity in various churches becomes the catalyst for several of his letters.5 This notion of unity comes to define Christ-centered community and individual NCBs. Unity becomes all the more important as the community of Christ grows and becomes increasingly diverse, reaching to include even the Gentiles.

Diversity

Not only does this new community include Gentiles in addition to Jews, but it also includes women, slaves, the poor, the wealthy, and all others in society. Those included in the community are diverse, and the inclusiveness of the community of God has been revealed since the promise to bless all people groups was given to Abraham. The beauty of diversity within the new-covenant community is seen on the day of Pentecost, when people “from every nation under heaven” witnessed the power of the Spirit (Acts 2:5).

As diversity is seen in the people who make up the community, there is also diversity in terms of what these members do within the community. The functional diversity of Christ-centered community is most clearly seen through spiritual gifts. Each NCB has been given a spiritual gift or gifts by the authority of the Spirit (Heb 2:4), and these gifts coincide with how God has uniquely called all members to minister. Everyone is gifted to serve, not just a select few, “since all have something to give, there are no mere spectators in church but only active participants.”6 The metaphor of the body of Christ seen in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 is one that values each part as vital to the life of the whole. And, within this community, gifts are to be exercised with zeal and eagerness (Rom 12:6–8). The diversity of the members is essential to the body working effectively as each member’s designated function serves to benefit the whole. In regard to building up the body, every gift that contributes to this end has deep value. However, no gift, ministry, or person is to be valued as greater or lesser than another, as equality is also central.

Equality

Within this diverse body, united by the Spirit of God and called to the purpose of modeling Christ in community, is a powerful realization of equality, demonstrated primarily through the use of family language. The significance of the family in the ancient Greco-Roman world is far different than that of our modern, Western understanding. While we might think of the husband-and-wife bond as the closest relationship in our society, in ancient Mediterranean society, the “tightest unit of loyalty and affection is the descent group of brothers and sisters.”7 It is fitting, therefore, that the sibling model becomes the chief and defining relationship between members of the body of Christ.8

Matthew 23 highlights the centrality of familial language to the new-covenant community.9 Jesus contrasts the behavior of the religious leaders of his day with the way his followers are supposed to live humbly with a mindset of equality, saying,

But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have only one Master 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 “teacher,” for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt 23:8–12)

On the basis of the brother-sister relational model, no one person should exalt himself or herself above others. God is Master and Father, and Christ is Teacher. Essential authority is in God, and the intimacy of the sibling relationship is to govern the NCB’s interpersonal relationships in Christ-centered community. This strong sense of equality founds itself on the humble love modeled by Jesus (Phil 2:5–11).

Love

Love is the guiding attitude of Christ-centered community. Without love, all pursuits are in vain, and all other aspects of community crumble.10 The bond of love among followers of Christ is the means by which the gospel is proclaimed and believed. Christ-centered community finds its fulfillment in being defined by love and humility that is countercultural and transformational, and this love stems from interdependence on one another.

Interdependence

Because of the depth of shared transcendent purpose, unity, diversity, equality, and love, members of Christ-centered community are mutually interdependent. A Christ-centered community cannot exist with a party of one, but requires dependence on others. Can someone be baptized alone? Can someone celebrate the Lord’s Supper alone? These are communal acts, because the new-covenant community is an organic, catalytic body that revolutionizes its culture through love and service to one another. This love is the greatest cause for evangelism, as it is the lifeblood of contagious community.11

Further, the concept of partnership in the gospel is significant, as we see brothers and sisters laboring alongside one another in the advancement of the gospel. We see this primarily in the letters of Paul as he uses honorable titles to refer to men and women in various communities, not to bring them glory, but to glorify the God of the gospel. Phoebe is a minister or deacon and leader or patron (Rom 16:1–2);12 Priscilla and Aquila are “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (Rom 16:3); the church at Philippi consists of those who have entered into “partnership” with Paul (Phil 1:5), “partakers” (Phil 1:7), and two women among them who are in conflict are even called those “who have labored side by side” with Paul (4:2–3). In many other places, Paul commends those who contribute to the mission of the gospel, but never calls anyone his “disciple.”13 Paul knew that being a member of Christ’s body meant serving with others, since “the life of freedom involves interdependence, particularly with those who belong to the Christian community, resulting in a mutual serving of one another.”14 On the basis of mutual service within community we find a proper lens for viewing authority.

Degrees of authority and their definitions

In order to see what NCB interpersonal authority looks like, we must look more at what it does not look like, since we have so few examples of what might be interpreted as NCB interpersonal authority. In tracing authority throughout the Scriptures as it relates to God and his people, we note a pattern emerges, moving from essential authority in the triune God, to expressed authority of Jesus and the written word to primary-derived authority in the apostles. Another, far lesser degree of authority emerges as it relates to NCBs.

A few clarifying points will help as we distinguish different degrees of authority and how they are applied. For example, essential authority, expressed authority, and primary-derived authority all carry with them a right to command others to obedience.15 This is different from the secondarily derived authority of NCBs today, which is better termed leadership. Leadership, we argue, is different from authority. We thus define leadership as earned influence based on maturity in Christ, and there is no place for interpersonal authority among NCBs.

Essential authority in the triune God

In looking at what we know of the Trinity, we see all three persons present in the making of the universe (Gen 1:1–2) and fashioning humanity in the divine image (1:7). This triune God does not derive his authority from anywhere, but is the authority, since by him all things “were created” out of nothing and they exist “through him and for him” (Col 1:16). From creation to the end of the Old Testament, the triune God wields ultimate power and reveals it in shockingly direct ways and, most often, in a commanding manner. After all, he has the right to command any created thing to obedience as its Creator and Author. However, this authority is not an arbitrary show of power. Each of these commands was meant to do one thing: to cause humanity to be with him in community. The only prohibitive command for Adam and Eve was meant to keep their perfect community in place so they could walk with God (Gen 2:16). The call for Abraham to leave his family was for God to bless all nations through him and his descendants (Gen 12:1–4). The law of Moses allowed a holy God to be among his people.16 The tedious requirements of the tabernacle were given so God could dwell among his people (Exod 40). The severe actions and words of his prophets were to turn the people back to the God they had grieved (Isa 1:17; 4:2–6; Jer 1:7–8; 1:10; 16:1–21; etc.). As the story of God being with humanity continues into the New Testament, another form of authority emerges as an expression of this essential authority and is intrinsic to God’s triune authority (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: The new-covenant family of God as community

 

Expressed authority in the incarnate Christ and the written word

Expressed authority—the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, as well as the written word of God—has the same intention of establishing community.17 Both Jesus and the word reveal who God is and how to be with him. They work together, as seen in Jesus’ appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative, yet, throughout his life, adding his own words that become a part of the word of God (primarily the Gospels).18 Once the Son enters human history by the power of the Holy Spirit, he reveals how to access the Father, but teaches that this access comes through him alone. He also explains that he is the fulfillment of the word.19

In looking at how Jesus exercised his authority, we discover that he connects it with the word by saying, “Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like . . .” and then explains that this is the person who builds his house upon the rock (Luke 6:47, emphasis added). He also expresses the eternal authority of his word: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:33). While Jesus is still direct and commanding, he is also personal and loving, walking in all his authority through the Holy Spirit. Interpersonally, his authority comes through his teaching and is not like the other religious leaders, but he has “a new teaching with authority” (Mark 1:27). This teaching was written down as our Scriptures, telling us how to live. These are now the commands we hold most dear, and, not surprisingly, have much to do with how to live in community.20 His coming did not undermine the written word, but gave it a deeper dimension of meaning and application since through him we can be one with God and each other. This new dimension reveals the ultimate reality of living life in God, a reality enjoyed before sin entered the human family, but restored now in Christ.

Primary-derived authority in the apostles

Jesus had many followers while he walked this earth, some of whom he called out to be apostles. These twelve men would be the initial carriers of the message of Jesus Christ to the world. While it is unclear how this title may have been given to other select people, for the purpose of this article, we will examine apostles designated by Jesus himself in the recorded and preserved Scriptures. This group had a special calling and a special authority, given to them by Jesus. This primary-derived authority carried with it two specific purposes, as seen through the New Testament, that would distinguish them from other NCBs: (1) establishing the church, and (2) committing to written word the teachings of Jesus and how to apply them (1 Cor 3:10–11; Eph 2:20).21

With the teaching of the word and the power of the Spirit of God working in the hearts of the people, the community of Christ grew larger and larger. Eventually, the apostles had to shift from purely preaching the good news and bringing people into the family of God, to building up their brothers and sisters within the family of God. A large part of how they built up the body was through writing letters through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the overarching message of these apostolic letters is that of unity and exhorting various churches to develop the characteristics of Christ-centered community. However, even when discussing a serious concern in the churches to which they wrote, very rarely did the apostles appeal to their authority as apostles. They appealed frequently to the words and deeds of Christ as the authoritative example on how to live, and they gave themselves as models to imitate, but rarely do we see the kind of command language that requires obedience.

For example, in 2 Corinthians 10:8, Paul refers to his exousia as an apostle, which he has to “build you up and not destroy” in regard to the church at Corinth.22 His authority as a founder of the church and an includer of the Gentile people was a calling directly from Jesus. Paul would note this evidence of credibility at the beginning and close of the letters he wrote to the churches he had helped birth. He speaks with great authority because he had a great calling given to him by Jesus himself. However, even his use of authority in this passage is employed to build up the Corinthians and to serve them.23

Therefore, apostles had the right to command others so that they had to obey, and they used this authority to build up the body, especially through the writing of letters that became our Scriptures. The triune God implemented this command authority, specifically in the Old Testament. Jesus’ teachings are also authoritative in that, if one does not believe them, he or she is separated from him and the Father. Similarly, the apostles’ teaching of the expressed authority (the person of Jesus Christ, which is the gospel) mediated through their primary-derived authority must be believed and obeyed in order for one to connect with God and to grow in him. Finally, the apostles recorded this expressed authority through the Holy Spirit, contributing to the written word that must also be obeyed. This now leads us to the last level of authority: NCB interpersonal authority.

Secondary-derived authority in the new-covenant believer

The characteristic attribute of the three types of authority discussed so far is the power to compel obedience. In looking at NCB interpersonal authority, a different texture emerges. We see that authority is derived from the teaching of the apostles, as well as the rest of the Scriptures, yet is secondary in nature. Based on New Testament emphasis on one-another theology, as previously stated, this secondary authority would be better defined as earned influence and leadership. Instead of NCBs having the right to compel others to obedience, they are urged to grow in maturity so that they can lead others to grow in their own maturity. Oddly, we tend to focus on having authority over one another instead of obeying the more than fifty passages related to how we are to love and serve one another (See Figure 2). Understanding NCB leadership as characterized by influencing others confers leadership on mature NCBs who have earned the privilege of being responsible for helping others grow in maturity. However, there are two passages that seem to contradict this definition and which deserve attention: Titus 2:15 and 1 Timothy 2:12.24

Figure 2: One-another theology versus commanding authority

In the most heavy-handed example of the use of a word for authority, Paul does not use exousia, but the word epitagas, in Titus 2:15. This word denotes a heavier authoritative power that is given to Titus even though he does not seem to be an apostle.25 In this letter to Titus, Paul is explaining the kind of authority that Titus needs to exercise in order for the church he is assisting to continue.26 This newly founded church in Crete was experiencing moral failings among its members (1:10–16). Again, in the interest of community and the reputation of Christ, since the body is the fullness of Christ, Paul tells Titus what he must do and, after giving the list of commands, says, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all epitagas. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15). Though this word is rarely used in the New Testament (seven times total, and only in this one instance with reference to NCB interpersonal authority), Paul seems to be using his apostolic authority to give Titus license to command this newly formed church. This NCB interpersonal authority does not seem to be the normative standard, due to its rarity and the nature of what the letter discloses.27

The second instance of explicit language for authority is not actually an example of NCB authority over another NCB, but a denial of authority. First Timothy 2:12 says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or authentein a man.” The word authentein, usually translated “to usurp authority over,” is used only this one time in all of the New Testament and tells us what authority a woman, in this Ephesian context, does not have, but not the kind of authority anyone else does have.28 This word is also paired with teaching, and having established that only Jesus and the apostles could authoritatively teach, perhaps the kind of teaching Paul is prohibiting is apostolic teaching (the kind of teaching that became preserved as the Scriptures).29 It would seem that no NCB can ever teach “with authority,” since the locus of authority is situated outside of the teacher. The source of authority is from the expressed authority of the written word, which is itself from the essentially authoritative God of the Universe. If people, especially Ephesian women, were claiming to have this authority, Paul needed to object, because this is a power and authority no one other than God himself or God’s commissioned apostles (who included the woman Junia) could assume.30

First Timothy 2:12 is often used to prohibit women from serving as leaders in the body today regardless of their maturity in Christ. However, in light of the New Testament pattern we see in NCB interpersonal authority, we must ask whether or not this prohibition is being appropriately applied.31 If Paul and other New Testament writers never wrote about a positive authority of an NCB over another NCB (aside from the two instances discussed here about provisional authority given to Timothy and Titus), we must question how we have defined this authority, especially considering New Testament teachings on community.

The Holy Spirit and maturity/immaturity as distinctions

Every level of authority includes the Holy Spirit, and while he has not had a specific level to occupy in our scheme, hopefully the dynamic nature of his function has emerged through seeing Figure 1 and the discussion of his empowering work throughout every level of authority. The Spirit is also an expressed authority when working alongside the Father and Son (which is always the case). As the Spirit dwelled within the apostles, they walked by his authority and performed signs and wonders in Jesus’ name in the power of the Spirit. They wrote the word through the Spirit’s inspiration and strategically evangelized the world through his direction. The NCB also has access to this authority, but, unlike Jesus, the NCB must test the Spirit with the word because we are not perfect conduits through which the Spirit can work. Jesus, being perfect, could walk in the perfect authority of the Spirit. The apostles, in imitating Christ, also did their best to walk in the Spirit, though they did so imperfectly. They still set an example for NCBs to imitate, as the apostles worked out their salvation just like any other NCB. Thus, for the fledgling church, as maturity in walking in the Spirit increased, so the need for being directed and commanded by the apostles decreased. Perhaps this is why a common distinction among NCBs, seen primarily in Paul’s letters, is based on maturity and immaturity (See Figure 3).32

At this point, it will be helpful to explain what maturity is. The most practical means by which a person can grow to maturity is by developing the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5 lays out the mature lifestyle by which followers of Christ should progress from life focused on the flesh (immaturity) into life governed by the Spirit (maturity). This is also the means by which deterrents of community are defeated and the body of Christ is built up. Further, in Ephesians 4, a passage that parallels the teaching in Galatians 5, Paul gives instructions for living as a Christ-centered community, stressing that spiritual gifts (specifically, the ability to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers) were given in order that the body be built up to maturity to become more like Christ. Here, he also contrasts life dictated by the flesh with life focused on the Spirit. So we see that maturity is the development of the fruit of the Spirit and, thus, walking in the fullness of life dictated by the Spirit in contrast to life governed by works of the flesh.

Maturity becomes a unique distinction that we see in the New Testament community, and the purpose of Paul’s work was to establish churches and then lead them to reach Christian adulthood and maturity.33 There seems to be a correlation between the maturity of a specific church and the authoritative language and tone Paul uses. For the churches demonstrating less maturity, such as the ones at Thessalonica, Crete, Corinth, and Galatia, Paul’s tone is more authoritative as he rebukes, warns, and strongly urges. For churches demonstrating more maturity, like that of Philippi, Paul employs a tone that is less authoritative as he is more affectionate, thankful, and encouraging. There is overlap among these different churches as Paul refers to each with familial language and in a loving and passionate tone, because clearly he desires for all God’s people to reach maturity. Immaturity should thus be a temporal distinction.34 Also, communities, regardless of their overall level of maturity, are called to imitate Paul and other leaders (1 Cor 4:16; 11:1; 2 Thess 3:7; 3:9; Phil 3:17). But, above all, they are called to imitate Christ (1 Cor 11:1). Imitation of other NCBs is especially important to new believers. Those who are mature in their faith have a responsibility not for commanding and directing, but guiding and leading (Heb 13:7, 17).35 Such responsibility is earned, based on one’s proven work and faithfulness (2 Thess 3:6–10; Phil 2:19–24; Gal 2), and not assumed by one’s position or title.

Figure 3: Paul's responses to maturity and immaturity

While God gives gifts to all who come to him through Jesus regardless of their maturity, these gifts are given based on his authoritative decision (1 Cor 12:7, 11; Eph 4:7; Rom 12:5–6; 1 Pet 4:10). Following this logic, it would seem that the gifts God gives to individuals should dictate that person’s function. The only limitation that should be placed on how someone functions is temporal, since immaturity should be temporal. Gifting and maturity therefore determine function—not title, race, gender, etc.

In summary, the authority of an NCB is not the same as the command authority seen in the essential, expressed, or primary-derived levels of authority. In fact, NCBs should not assume or exercise authority over one another at all. Rather, we earn influence based on maturity in Christ and are responsible to live out one-another theology in our communities. A strong community life of interdependence as we express the fullness of Jesus Christ (Eph 1:23) is encouraged as the mature continue to grow in maturity and guide those who are less mature to the same end, all as disciples of Christ Jesus. While NCBs do not have authority over one another, this does not negate the need for structure and leadership. However, the structures should be built under the direction of the Holy Spirit, with leadership based on gifting and character, not on positional authority. Further, leadership in churches should be plural and shared, a precedent we find clearly in the New Testament. Those who lead have earned that privilege based on their maturity in looking more like Jesus and the influence they have earned, over time, through their service to the body. Hence, the ultimate authority is the Holy Spirit, who tests by the word. Those who are mature have the character to evidence their growing closer to the Spirit and being led by the Spirit; maturity is the qualification for leadership.

A reorientation of our view of authority

Given this understanding of community and authority, we suggest that, rather than viewing community through the lens of authority, we should view authority through the lens of community. In Luke 10, when the seventy-two return after being sent out by Jesus with authority over the spiritual realm, Jesus says to them:

Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. (Luke 10:19–20)

Clear authority is given to Jesus’ disciples over all the power of the enemy and over all spirits, yet Jesus calls his followers to rejoice not in their authority, but in their inclusion among the communal people of God. The identity markers of Christ’s community do not include badges of authority, even over evil, but those of being God’s children (Rom 8:14–17) and heirs of the promise (Gal 3:29).36

An emphasis on the command authority of one or even a few over a Christ-centered community sets a dangerous precedent. It strips dignity from the community comprised of believer-priests who are conduits for the authority of the Spirit of God in union with the word of God. This emphasis also shifts the focus from the Chief Shepherd to a person(s). Today, if leaders are striving for or strongly advocating command authority in their communities, then they communicate a message that members of the community are incapable of living out their priesthood apart from a human authority figure to manage them. Too often, the preservation of order or the final say in a decision is used as an excuse for prominent authority structures in churches. Yet, what messages do such structures communicate to the body as a whole? Do they prompt others to maturity? Do they allow for the outworking of the authority of his Spirit? Do they encourage the use of spiritual gifts?

A heavy emphasis on the authority of individuals also takes away from the involvement of the community in decisions that guide and direct the group. In the New Testament, most of the letters are written to the entire community, and thus frequently use the plural “you” when they refer to community life. Even in matters of church discipline, responsibility rests in those immediately involved and then proceeds to include the community at large, if necessary, for the sake of restoration (Matt 18:15–20; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19). The level of dignity of each person in Christ-centered community is great, and leaders, as mature followers of Christ within the community, serve to guide and assist others out of their own gifting as they grow from immaturity to maturity in their relationships with Jesus.37

We must also trust the corrective nature of Christ-centered community. As we see with church discipline, the community is equipped to correct itself based on the common access to the authority of the written word and the active Holy Spirit. If a person errs in the pursuit of his or her calling, then the community serves as a loving and remedial source of discipline unto itself, much like a body healing itself when wounded. This is the front line of healing, though, as with Luke, Paul’s “beloved physician” (Col 1:1), we also have doctors of the body and of the mind (as are counselors), our second-line resources for referral for more prolonged help.

A deprofessionalization of ministry

We applaud the efforts of formal education that trains women and men to be equippers of the body of Christ. However, sometimes, educational institutions train women and men to build ministry around their own particular strengths or giftedness, and thus primarily serve to edify the one being trained and not the body as a whole. Those who construct ministry around their personal giftings fail to uphold the message of Ephesians 4:11–13. Unfortunately, students at such educational institutions become doctrinally knowledgeable, but too frequently may be left spiritually immature, not receiving adequate spiritual formation avenues or given practical training in building up the body of Christ. This results in teaching congregants an overdependence on an individual:

Remove the pastor and most Protestant churches would be thrown into a panic. Remove the pastor, and Protestantism as we know it would die. The pastor is the dominating focal point, mainstay, and centerpiece of the contemporary church. He is the embodiment of Protestant Christianity.38

The body theology we find in Romans and 1 Corinthians, however, leaves no room for a one-person show. Scripture references a plurality of elders and leaders, and no one is called or gifted to be exalted over the rest, even in a modern-day honorific sense.39 In fact, “Paul rejects the idea of certain people in the community possessing formal rights and powers over ordinary members.”40 This would seem to speak to the language of “office” and the title of “senior” pastor among Christian communities as a human construction meant to elevate individuals beyond what the Scriptures state.41

You might be wondering how we could have diverged so far from what the Spirit intended when he inspired the human authors to pen our Scriptures. According to research done by William David Spencer, this divergence can be traced to the publication of the Didache in the second century.42 This church discipline manual curtailed Christian freedom significantly, as a method for baptism was instituted, rituals were required, and the exercise of spiritual gifts was discouraged. Women were restricted from serving, and, eventually, this led to restrictions on men being allowed to serve as well, thus creating the second-class laity.

How do we start turning back the clock on eighteen hundred years of misdirection? A helpful starting point is the deprofessionalization of ministry, specifically the pastorate, through modification of our language and rhetoric: eliminating titles such as senior pastor and labels such as clergy and laity. When one person is elevated above the rest, it may be difficult to motivate some individuals to pursue their gifts and be satisfied with their value to one another and to God. The concept of leadership as an office to be filled by the pastor contributes to viewing ministry as a specialized endeavor only for an elite few.43 Reframing the gender debate in terms of community rather than authority takes the emphasis from position and office and places it on service. Much of the gender debate focuses on whether or not women can be senior pastors or among the professional clergy. Thus, a decentralization of such offices in church structure would go far to mitigate the tension surrounding the debate.44

But, we are not simply advocating an overhaul in language without a change in practice. In the Old Testament, structure exists, and individuals function as priests and in their unique giftings. However, “The goal of these structures is not to squelch, but to release all of us to live out our calling within the context of the fellowship of believers.”45 In the New Testament, Ephesians 4:11–13 tells us that the function of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers is to build up and equip the body of Christ for ministry until all attain unity and knowledge that leads to maturity. There is often a huge bifurcation between clergy (pastors, evangelists, teachers, etc.) and laity (everyone else) that communicates active value to the former and passive unworthiness to the latter.46 This passage, and the whole of the New Testament, do not affirm this distinction, but instead affirm a single, unified body with unique functions of mutual service and empowered ministry based on gifting. Calling, gifts, and maturity are inextricably linked to fulfilling the purpose of the body, and our structures need to encourage these.

Churches should be sure to equip the body with tools on how to study God’s word, incorporate spiritual gifts into membership processes, while providing arenas for people to grow in them, appoint properly gifted individuals for specific church needs, and encourage each other in godly character.47 Not only will this serve to deprofessionalize ministry, but also will mobilize the body of Christ.

A mobilization of the body of Christ

If only pastors have the gifts of pastor/shepherd, leadership, teaching, etc., and only a few can be pastors, then the rest of the body is left believing that their contributions are insignificant.48 In order to mobilize the body of Christ for the work of ministry and ensure that every member is functioning most effectively, we must value each spiritual gift as vital to the body and make distinctions in function based on one’s gifts and maturity, not on external markers (1 Cor 12:14–20; Eph 4:1–16).

Communicating, both through word and practice, the need for diversity that involves all in the community will edify all members. Recognizing the various gifts in the body will send a message of affirmation. Often, we do not intentionally send messages of command authority, and the vast majority of church leaders do not wish to see the community of which they are a part undermobilized. However, our messages on authority are typically conveyed silently, through our practices. Thus, a plurality of teachers might serve to diminish the problem of depending on one person for the teaching of the word. Additionally, administration of the Lord’s Supper could be done by mature NCBs or even celebrated as a meal as it was in the New Testament. Mature believers could also baptize those whom they know and with whom they were influential in their journey of coming to Christ. We should also publicly commission new followers of Christ to be ministers of the gospel to their homes, workplaces, and other circles of influence. Publicly laying hands on and commissioning these people would convey the sense of purpose and empowerment they have through the support of the community of Christ. Seminaries also should be utilized to help NCBs mature in their ministry skills, character, and spiritual gifts. These are not training grounds only for the few “called into the ministry,” but are for everyone, since we are all ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Figure 4: Three contextual problems in discussing the issue of women as elders/pastors

Conclusion as it relates to the gender debate

This article calls into question how we have defined NCB interpersonal authority and argues for reorientation through the lens of Christ-centered community. With the overarching question of the gender debate centering around the authority women do or do not have in relation to men, we would do well to begin by asking: what authority can any NCB have over any other NCB? When we refocus on how the community of Christ can be most built up so that all members are pursuing maturity in Christ, the issue of interpersonal authority seems far less of a concern and ultimately unnecessary. Perhaps, after having highlighted the harm of an unbalanced view of authority, which leads to an overprofessionalization of ministry and an undermobilization of the body of Christ, more emphasis can be placed on the practical steps of equipping the entire body to utilize its gifts (See Figure 4).49 In this way, we focus more on applying the authority of the word so that individual believers can discern the authority of the Spirit within them in the context of community.

Notes

1. This article only seeks to discuss the role of spiritual authority. Secular authority structures (government, business, education, etc.) not founded on the authority of God are not our concern here. These authority structures do not require the indwelling of the Living God and, as such, are governed by different principles and take on a different texture than Christ-centered community. Christ-centered community is meant to be supernaturally governed and stand in contrast to secular authority structures (Rom 13:1–7; Mark 10:41–44).

2. In this article, priority will be given to the notion of new-covenant community as seen in the New Testament, even though much can be said for this concept’s development in the Old Testament. For more on community in the Old Testament, see Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

3. This covenant sets the tone for the rest of Scripture as this promise is ultimately fulfilled in Christ as evidenced in Gal 3:14.

4. In John 17:1–6, Jesus reveals the unity he has with the Father, and he is the expression of God’s authority. He has received this authority from the Father and exercises it to bring eternal life to all people. He proceeds by praying for his disciples in vv. 6–18 and says, “Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11). Then, he lifts those up who will believe in the message of the disciples “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

5. For instance, in Romans, Paul argues for unity between Jews and Gentiles on the basis of faith available to all peoples. In Galatians, he strongly rebukes the divisive notion that circumcision carries spiritual value in the community united by the Spirit of God, and even references a dispute with Peter, who had been neglecting table fellowship with his uncircumcised brothers.

6. Robert J. Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 109.

7. Joseph H. Hellerman, The Ancient Church as Family (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 36.

8. Hellerman, The Ancient Church as Family, 35.

9. While the new-covenant community is uniquely defined by its equality (Gal 3:28), this is a new development in comparison with the old covenant. There were clear disparities in terms of race, class, and gender under the old covenant. However, under the new covenant, anyone can be a part of God’s family, and not just any member of the family, but a privileged “son” (Rom 8:14). A sign of this new covenant is now baptism and not the exclusive practice of circumcision. The priesthood is no longer of the Levitical order, but all are now part of the kingdom of priests. Hence, the equality characteristic of new-covenant community supersedes the inequality of the old order.

10. The example of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet proves to be one of the greatest portrayals of love through service ever recorded. John 13:3 sets the tone for the humility in Jesus’ love: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” That a teacher would wash his followers’ feet is unprecedented, and the fact that this Teacher is the promised Messiah and Son of God who has all power makes his humble love most exemplary. He calls his followers to do just as he has done by saying, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all [humanity] will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34–35).

11. In the book of Acts, we see a mobilized group of NCBs who rely on one another to meet their needs and thrive. Acts 6:1–7 discusses the appointment of the seven to distribute food to widows. In Acts 4, we see the community gathering together to pray corporately for boldness to speak the gospel message. The place they are meeting is shaken, and they are filled with the Spirit. We also see the sharing of possessions for distribution to those as there is need (Acts 4:32–37). Also, many of Paul’s letters close with a call for funds to support the believers in Jerusalem who gave sacrificially at the beginning stages of the church, which allowed for the spread of the gospel to those to whom the letters are written.

12. “a. properly, a woman set over others. b. a female guardian, protectress, patroness, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources (A.V. succourer): Rom. 16:2.” Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Coded with Strong’s Concordance Numbers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 549.

13. This disciple language is used one time in Acts 9:25, but it most likely refers to Paul’s disciples from when he was a rabbi before his encounter with Christ. We would do well to model this practice by not calling anyone our “disciple,” but using language that emphasizes our coming alongside other brothers and sisters as we are discipled by Jesus together.

14. Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, 181.

15. We find support for these definitions of designated authority and earned influence in Walter Liefeld’s essay “The Nature of Authority in the New Testament” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 255–71.

16. The book of Leviticus shows the disparity between the holy God and the people of Israel. Yet, the law allowed community to exist on some level between God and humanity, though it was not the complete fulfillment of community we see in the later covenants, especially the new covenant.

17. While the Father, Son, and Spirit have essential authority, when the Son entered human history as Jesus of Nazareth, he gave up the right to this essential authority in order to walk as the expression of this authority for the purpose of his crucifixion (see Phil 2). However, there is still much debate as to whether or not the Son and the Spirit have always had the same essential authority as the Father, yet authority seems to be a non-issue with a being who is perfectly united in all things. Debating who has the “right to command the other” or the “right to send the other” seems fruitless to discuss regarding a God with one will, and thus does not seem supportable as a logical necessity based on the Scriptures.

18. Jesus uses Scripture when he resists the devil in the desert (Matt 4; Luke 4). He appeals to it on other occasions in his teaching (Matt 11:10; 13:14–15; Mark 4:11; 7:6–7; Luke 4:18–19; 7:32; John 12:40, etc.). He also adds to it through his new teachings and commands that his followers carry his teachings to the world (Matt 5:21–48; 28:19–20).

19. For this reason, John’s statement that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” has such weight, since he is the authoritative way we come to know God (John 1:14).

20. In summarizing the law, Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). If he summarized the law and emphasized these commands, these should also be the emphasis of our lives. Also, in John 15:14 and 17, Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . . These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”

21. At the outset of their ministries, after being commissioned by Christ and soon thereafter filled with the Holy Spirit, the apostles performed many signs and wonders. They healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead (Acts 5:12–16; 9:36, etc.). These powerful signs helped to authenticate their primary-derived authority as they traveled around proclaiming the gospel. However, the gospel that they preached was effective apart from their authority because it is an expressed authority unto itself.

22. The word exousia is the most common word used for authority in the New Testament.

23. See also 1 Cor 4:21; he would rather come to them gently than with discipline. Also, Paul allows them the dignity of getting themselves in order without his needing to come to them—“that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down” (2 Cor 13:10). Paul does not want to have to be heavy-handed, but he knows that the reputation of Christ is on the line in Corinth and that they must change or they will experience God’s discipline. We see a similar urging in Phlm 8: Paul has the authority to command, but he appeals to the fact that Philemon is a brother in Christ. He allows the authority of the Spirit coupled with the word to urge Philemon to obedience.

24. For the purpose of this article, we only included the passages that use a word for authority as opposed to including passages on submission, since there is debate as to whether submitting to someone means that he or she has authority, or if this means serving that person without an authoritative connotation. (For instance, Eph 1:21, “Submit yourselves one to another,” does not seem to mean that everyone has authority over everyone else, but that putting the needs of others first takes precedence in Christ-centered community.) One passage that does use exousia, but is not explicitly about the church, also supports the point about community: 1 Cor 7:4 explains that a husband has authority over his wife’s body, and, in the same way, she has authority over his body. This statement is unique in all of the New Testament and among ancient writings, but seems to relate more to a husband and wife than to the church specifically and, for that reason, is not included in this argument even though it is a clear example of mutuality. Also, while 1 Cor 11 appears primarily to fall into either category of husband and wife or man and woman in a church setting, this passage seems to be about congregational worship and maintaining gender distinctions rather than leadership and/or authority. Also, the exegetical issues with 1 Cor 11 make it a dangerous linchpin passage on which to determine NCB interpersonal relationships related to gender. For more detailed discussion, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 124–39, and Gordon Fee’s response essay, “Praying and Prophesying in the Assemblies,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 142–60.

25. This word means “right or authority to command; with all or full authority,” Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 383.

26. In order to understand Paul’s relationship with Titus better, Walton, Strauss, and Cooper say that Titus was sent by Paul “to represent him in Corinth during Paul’s worst troubles with the church in that city (2 Cor 2:13; 7:6–7, 13–15). His maturity is further seen in the fact that Paul left him in charge in Crete, a very difficult area of ministry.” John H. Walton, Mark L. Strauss, and Theodore W. Cooper, The Essential Bible Companion: Key Insights for Reading God’s Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 110.

27. Similarly, in 1 Timothy, we see that false teaching is being promulgated in Ephesus, and young Timothy needs to take charge of the situation until Paul arrives. Therefore, Paul gives him the charge to command what he has told him to command (1 Tim 4:11; 5:7). While authority language is not used, “command” is used twice. This authority also seems temporary and provisional for Timothy until Paul can come to Ephesus himself.

28. Due to the lack of internal biblical comparisons to ascertain the meaning of this word, scholars have been forced to look at extrabiblical sources. Linda Belleville has argued that the connotation of this word indicates a domineering use of authority (“Teaching and Usurping Authority,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, 205–23). Andreas J. Köstenberger has made a case for an opposing view that the term carries no negative connotation, but is a statement excluding authority of any kind of a woman over a man (“Teaching and Usurping Authority: 1 Timothy 2:11–15,” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 10, no. 1 [Spring 2005]: 43–54). Regardless of which position one takes, the fact that Paul uses exousia twelve other times, yet chooses a different word in this context, should cause hesitation in using this passage as the primary foundation for prohibiting women from teaching and leading. Also, Jesus himself prohibits having authority over one another (using the far more referenced exousia) in Mark 10:42.

29. This seems plausible in light of this entire discussion on NCB relationships and due to the fact that the context of Ephesians was a society where the cult of the goddess Artemis was alive and well (Acts 19). If women were trying to usurp apostolic authority through trying to teach authoritatively, perhaps due to their preconversion status as priestesses, or simply because there was a female city god, this would have been dangerous indeed.

30. While this is a prohibitive statement, we often make its converse a prescriptive statement. Reading that women are not to have authority over men, we conclude that men ought to have authority over women. We also assume that women can have authority over other women. This begs the question: On what basis can any NCB have authority over any other NCB?

31. In looking at the directives for church leadership in 1 Timothy, we see two major functions described: that of elder (also termed overseer and undershepherd) and deacon. While most scholars agree that deacons can be male or female (e.g., Phoebe, Rom 16:1), this is often justified on the argument no “authority” exists in this function of service. The issue of who can be an elder has become more central to debate, primarily because it is seen as authoritative. However, there is no authority language used to describe this function in the rest of the letter. So, the question remains: What is the nature of authority for the elder? What can an elder command that must be obeyed that is not already laid out in the expressed authority of the Scriptures? The elder can teach the word, but the word is the authority, working alongside the Spirit to convict that person.

32. Also, concerning the laying on of hands in the New Testament as evidence of a special division of believers, Grenz explains, “The book of Acts suggests finally that the laying on of hands following baptism may have been a common, if not usual practice in the early church. The believers did not see it as a rite separate from baptism, however, but as part of a single act of initiation. They may have employed baptism (the outward declaration of faith) and the laying on of hands (the sign of the reception of the Spirit and of the oneness of God’s people) in one symbolic expression of the mystery of conversion.” Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 430.

33. Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, 169. Other Scriptures on maturity include Eph 4:13; Col 1:28; and Phil 3:12–17.

34. This is why the author of Hebrews says in 5:12, 14, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food . . . but solid food is for the mature. . . .” There is an expectation that growth into maturity, evidenced by being able to teach others (which is also a part of the Great Commission), is the normative standard for followers of Christ.

35. Liefeld highlights the use of the word peithō in Hebrews 13:17 as a word translated “obey,” when it has a more fluid meaning of “being persuaded” by the leaders in the body. This is consistent with the overall message of Hebrews in which the author is exhorting maturation in order to stand firm under persecution. The Nature of Authority in the New Testament, 259.

36. While not within the scope of this article, one insight that has emerged is that we often overestimate the authority we have over other human beings, but underestimate the authority we have over spiritual beings.

37. In the passages that describe the function of these leaders, authority language is not present; leading and guiding language is (1 Tim 5; 1 Pet. 3).

38. Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, revised and updated ed. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2008), 106.

39. Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Pet 5:2; etc. Many churches today are beginning to adopt this model of multiple pastors who lead and teach. Responsibilities are sometimes dispersed among a group of “teaching” pastors and “administrative” pastors, for example. Such structures are being adopted at churches regardless of the views of its leaders on the gender debate.

40. Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, 132.

41. This is seen when people ask, “Do you think women should be ordained?” Such a question emphasizes the position of the person. If we shift the question to, “Do you think women are Spirit-gifted to have any of the spiritual gifts?” then we may ask, “How are women able and encouraged to serve in their Spirit-gifting within the body?”

42. For his complete article, see William David Spencer, “The Chaining of the Church,” at ChristianityToday.com, 1988, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1988/issue17/1725.html (accessed 2012).

43. The Greek terms translated as office in English occur very rarely in the New Testament, and on all but two occasions they are used to describe priesthood in the Old Covenant. The two occasions where office is used for ministry-related purposes (Acts 1:20 and 1 Tim 3:1) make use of an abstract form of the noun, allowing for office to be implied. Ralph Earle, “1 Timothy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), 363. The terms ierateia (Luke 1:9; Heb 7:5) and episkopē (1 Pet 2:12; Luke 19:44; Acts 1:20; 1 Tim. 3:1) connote the word office. Forms of episkopē are employed in Acts 1:20 and 1 Tim 3:1 in relation to ministry. Acts 1:20 quotes Ps 109:8 (“may another take his office!”) and refers to the replacement of Judas among the twelve apostles; 1 Tim 3:1 speaks of overseers and proceeds to list qualifications (the vast majority of which are without contest related to character) for such people. The term episkopos (translated “overseer”) occurs five times in the New Teastament and does not necessarily imply office. Though office may be implied with these Greek terms, we believe that gifting should determine the function of overseers and elders in the body of Christ (along with all other functions), in addition to biblical qualifications found in 1 Tim 3.

44. At this point, there is an impasse in the gender debate as to whether the qualifications given in 1 Timothy exclude women from the function of elder. Regardless of one’s interpretation, we argue that mature female NCBs should be allowed to exercise their gifts of leadership and teaching even if not allowed to be elders in their specific contexts. Further, among the qualifications for an overseer listed in 1 Tim 3 is the phrase “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2). The ability to teach is listed explicitly as a requirement of an overseer. It seems that proper teaching of the word serves as an authoritative guide for the church more than the person who teaches, as the elders are one conduit for the authority of God’s word. The other qualifications in 1 Tim 3 are character traits. The disputed phrase, “man of one woman,” is often used to restrict women from being elders/overseers. However, it would seem, based on the thrust of the passage and the New Testament as a whole, that Paul’s use of this phrase is pointing more to the fidelity of an elder than anything else. This “one-woman man” language used for elders is also used for deacons; however, women are often allowed to serve as deacons (Rom 16:1). Other qualifications are also not as strictly enforced as the gender prohibition, such as “he must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive” (1 Tim 3:4). This requirement would take unmarried men, men without children, and men with rebellious children out of the running for this function. This literal interpretation would even make Paul and Jesus out of the running for being an elder. Oddly, some are comfortable with not holding those as strict requirements, but being male is held fastidiously. If this hinges on 1 Tim 2:2, in light of the information presented in this article, perhaps the entire understanding of the function of elder should be reexamined.

45. Stanley J. Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 245.

46. We would urge everyone to eliminate “laity” from one’s vocabulary. As Marshall states, “I firmly believe that many of our problems regarding ministry generally would be mitigated by a less rigid understanding of ordination and by getting rid of the unbiblical distinction between clergy and laity.” I. Howard Marshall, “Women in Ministry: A Further Look at 1 Timothy 2,” in Women, Ministry, and the Gospel: Exploring New Paradigms, ed. Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), 54.

47. Central to deprofessionalization is teachin