Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Authority in the Church

Authority in the Church

Authorised and Gifted for Ministry

A while back, Bible teacher Beth Moore made this comment before she began teaching to a large audience where men were present:

“The gentlemen who had such courage to come into this place tonight . . . I do not desire to have any kind of authority over you.” (Source)

What bothers me about this quote is that it shows that Beth has, what I consider to be, a mistaken view of the nature of spiritual authority.

My understanding is that spiritual authority is the calling and gifting that God gives to a person, or organisation, to engage in a certain ministry. It is evident that God has given Beth Moore the spiritual authority for her ministry as a Bible teacher, and her ministry is a blessing for the church.[1]

Even though Beth has been authorised and commissioned by God to function as a Bible teacher, she does not have authority over men, nor does she have authority over women. Beth is influential but she does not have authority over anyone in her audiences or over anyone who uses her teaching materials.

In the New Testament, we read that Christian ministers, including leaders, are given ministry gifts (charismata) from God which enable them to function in ministry (Rom. 12:6-8). Christian ministers who have been truly authorised and gifted by God, like Beth Moore, similarly have a functional authority to engage in a certain ministry (or ministries), but that doesn’t mean that they have authority or power over another adult.

Functional Authority not Personal Power

It seems that many Christians are overly concerned with the issue of who has authority over another person. In particular they are concerned about whether a woman can have authority over a man.  I believe that the word and concept of “over” is the problem. I would be worried about any person, man or women, who wanted to have authority “over” another capable adult.[2] And I would be worried about anyone who actually believed that they have some sort of God-given authority and power “over” another.

In the Greek, there is no word which means “over” in Bible verses that speak about ministry, including the ministries of leadership and teaching. Unfortunately, some English translations have added the word “over” in verses which are about authority (e.g. Heb. 13:17])[3] or seem to be about authority (e.g. 1 Tim. 2:12.)[8]

Perhaps the difference between having authority over another person and having an authority to function in a ministry is subtle, and the line between them may be blurry at times, but I think it is important to make the distinction. Importantly, no person, ministry leader or not, should ever impinge on another person’s ability to use their God-given free-will, or compel someone to act against their own conscience.[4]

Authority, Service, and Community

A church minister does not have authority over those he or she cares for. A minister does, however, have a responsibility towards them. But then again, every member of a church community has a responsibility concerning the well-being, love, and spiritual nurture of the church members. In fact, in the Bible we see that it is the church community as a whole that has authority to act and decide on matters, not just the senior ministers.

I think we need to get rid of the word “over” when we discuss authentic, godly authority and leadership in the church, and instead have Jesus’ words on leadership at the forefront of our minds:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over (katakourieuousin) them, and their high officials exercise authority over (katexousiazousin) them. Not so among you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slaves –just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”  Matthew 20:25-28

The authority to function as a minister is the commission to serve as a slave. Much has been said about “servant leadership”, yet many church leaders still seem too concerned about maintaining a position, a job, a level of status, and a level of control and clout, rather than working and serving alongside other community members.

Paul was very sure of his calling to ministry, and he wrote authoritative letters to churches, yet he did not assume that he had authority over individuals. In 2 Corinthians 1:24 we read that he did not want to lord it over the Christians in Corinth, rather he wanted to work together with them in a partnership.[5]


So who has an authority to function in a ministry? Anyone and everyone whom God has authorised, gifted and equipped for that ministry, whether that person is male or female.

In the Church age, the Holy Spirit equips both men and women for ministry. In every New Testament passage that speaks about spiritual gifts there is no gender distinction implied or stated, even for leadership and teaching gifts.[6] The Holy Spirit gives his gifts as he determines without apparent regard for gender (1 Cor. 12:11; Heb. 2:4).

The authority to minister comes from God. It is an authority to engage in a certain ministry on his behalf.[7] Hopefully the church recognises the gifting and calling from God in individuals, and allows, endorses, and encourages the ministry of these people.

The authority to minister is not an authority over another person, so the question about whether a woman can have authority over a man is largely irrelevant,[8] and shows a mistaken view of godly authority and ministry gifting.


[1] I do not make an artificial distinction between certain types of church meetings. When Christians are gathered on any day of the week for the purpose of worship, teaching, practical service, or fellowship, etc, it is a church meeting. It doesn’t matter whether they are gathered in a hall, house, purpose built sanctuary, or even outdoors.

[2] In a healthy and safe secular society, authority is limited. Politicians, policemen, teachers, employers, etc, have strict guidelines which limit their power. For example, the prime minister or president of a country may have authority as a legislator, but he or she does not have the legitimate power to personally compel a law-abiding citizen to do something that the person does not want to do. Much more could be said to refine and define this point, but I’ll leave it at this.

[3] For some reason many English translators have made a meal of Hebrews 13:17. The KJV translation of this verse is particularly strong, and wrong; the NIV isn’t completely accurate either. Huper with the genitive (as it is in the second half of this verse) typically means “on behalf of” or “for”, and not “over”. There is no “over” at all in the first half of Hebrews 13:17, or in any other verse about church leadership.

[4] When bad behaviour is a problem in a meeting or in another situation, it is not necessarily the job of the leaders to address this. Any member of the congregation can ask a person to behave or leave. Moreover, it seems that in New Testament churches, issues of church discipline were decided and implemented by the church community. The church community had the authority to decide who is part of their fellowship (koinonia).

[5] Partnership or fellowship (koinonia) is a word that often appears in his letter to the Philippians also. Paul regarded the Philippian Christians as partners with him. Paul referred to several ministers, including three women, as his co-workers (sunergoi): Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:6); Urbanus (Rom. 16:9); Timothy (Rom. 16:21); Titus (2 Cor. 8:23); Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25) Euodia, Syntyche and Clement (Phil. 4:3); Aristarchus, Mark and Justus (Col. 4:10-11); Philemon (Phm 1); Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke (Phm 24). Paul shared his ministry.

[6] In the Greek, there is no hint in any of the verses which speak of spiritual gifts (including those of leadership and teaching), that they apply more to men than to women. On the contrary, every New Testament verse which speaks of spiritual gifts, manifestations or ministries is free of a gender bias in the Greek: Acts 2:17-18; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 & 27-28; 1 Corinthians 14:26-33; Ephesians 4:11-12; Hebrews 2:4; 1 Peter 4:9-11. The verses which seem to restrict the ministry of women are few indeed.  [My articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 here and here.]

[7] Some people do not think that it is scriptural for women and men to minister in the church as equals because they have a conception of ministry that is foreign to the New Testament.
“Paul had a conception of the church as an organism in which Christ through the Spirit was constantly directing every member into ministerial service. . . Jesus is the par excellence apostle (Heb. 3:1), teacher (Mark 4:38), pastor (John 10:11; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4), episkopos (1 Pet, 2:25), minister (Rom. 15:8 cf. Mark 10:45), and all ministerial function derive from his living presence in the church.” George Caird, The Apostolic Age (Duckworth, 1975) 150.
Women were not excluded from any ministry in churches founded by Paul.  (See my articles on Paul and Women here.)

[8]  The prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 is not against a godly woman who has a legitimate authority from God for ministry.  More on this here.

Related Articles

Jesus’ Teaching on Leadership and Community in Matthew’s Gospel
Unity and Equality in Ministry
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority

Paul’s Personal Greetings to Women Ministers
Paul’s Masculine and Feminine Leadership
Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
Paul’s Thanks – Philippians 1:3-6 

Wade Burleson takes a brief look at authority in the church and the history of the word ekklesia (congregation/church) in his article entitled Who’s the Boss at Your Church?  And in this video he takes a look at the word “over” (or the lack of it) in the Greek of Hebrews 13.

Postscript 3.5.13: Here’s an image I saw on facebook today that shows the difference between exercising authority over another person, or people, and having an authority to function in ministry as a leader.

Authority in the Church

Post Script 9.8.13: I love what Frank Viola says in this article entitled “The Myth of Christian Leadership”.  It was written just over a year ago but I only discovered it today.

Posted December 3rd, 2012 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Ministry, , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

33 comments on “Authority in the Church

  1. TL says:

    As I was looking around for exhortations to leaders and such, it seems to me that that there is a difference between exercising ministerial, directive leadership and authority “over” an individual. The meaning of proistemi has to do with standing before, which indicates some degree of management and guidance. I’ve always thought of it as steering, facilitating, such as one who has experience and direction from the Lord turning and calling others toward God. As well, guides such as a forest hiking guide direct not only through their experience and knowledge but because they have dedicated themselves to protect and serve the welfare of others.

    Good and complicated subject.

  2. TL says:

    Also, Hebrews 13:7-8 and Heb. 13:17 bear considering.

    Neither the word rule or obey is in the Greek. Rather we have “remember those leading you” and follow or imitate their faith considering it’s outcome. IOW we have to look at the results of beliefs before giving our whole acceptance, if possible. The implication is to think of them with respect and honor and not fight against them.

    Verse 17 is something like Be willing to be persuaded and yield, because our leaders have devoted themselves obediently to God’s directives to serve you and we should not make that more difficult than it already is. We want them to enjoy serving us not have grief because if we cause them grief it is less profitable for us. We may miss out on the blessings God has for us through them.

    So, while Christian leaders don’t have the kind of authority that corporate owners exercise over employees, this does not negate a certain respect and honor that we are to give them along with a willingness to hear and consider what they have to say if we see that it works God’s goodness in their and other’s lives. So both leaders and those being led need to be submissive to each other, supporting, honoring, considering each other’s needs. Paul told the Roman believers to give Phoebe whatever she needed in order to do her job. Respect and support needs to go both ways.

  3. Marg says:

    Thanks for your comments TL. It is a complex subject and my article doesn’t begin to address various related issues.

    Basically I’ve just shared some of my thoughts on the nature of authority in the church and whether women have any.

    Any organisation, including a church, needs leadership. Paul mentions church leadership in some of his letters. The inference in his letters is that New Testament churches were led by a group of ministers. The idea of a church being led by a solo minister with quite a lot of personal power came later. Irenaeus (115-202) began pushing for churches to be led by a monarchical bishop. Sadly, he was persuasive.

    I fully agree that “both leaders and those being led need to be submissive to each other, supporting, honoring, considering each other’s needs.”

  4. TL says:

    Teamwork is the way to go IMO. But even in teamwork there is going to be one or two who God uses to steer. I would love to see a church with leaders in the fivefold ministries all contributing to the church with equal respect among them. It is interesting to note that each can be a preacher who preaches from their particular emphasis in calling. And the church body needs all the angles in order to be benefitted in every aspect of their lives.

  5. Sarah says:

    Thank you for writing this article on how leaders in the church have authority to go about the ministries God has given them rather than having authority over people. It took me a long time to realize this; in fact, it was just this summer that I left a church with an unhealthy view of authority (think John Bevere… his/my old church’s teachings were “cousins” of the shepherding/discipleship movement). I had been attending this church for years and just putting up with the hurt before realizing the errors in their doctrines and leaving. After I left, it took me months to come to terms with what had happened… Breaking out of the mindset I received from attending there and leaving that environment was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I hope that those in churches that teach an unhealthy view of authority come across this article and give it an honest read.

  6. Marg says:

    Sarah, the church my older son goes to uses the John Bevere DVD series about authority as the major part of their new members’ classes. (Or at least they used to.)

    I’ve tried to read a few John Bevere books. I’m sure he has some good things to say, but I can drive a truck through the holes in some of his arguments. The logic is poor, and the scriptures he uses to back some of his claims are so arbitrary at times. I’ve given up trying to read his books.

    I go to a church that has a very healthy view of church leadership. No solo alpha-male, vision-caster, but a team of men and women with varied gifts and personalities. Moreover, input from everyone in the church, about the direction and scope of ministry, is genuinely asked for.

  7. Marg says:

    This article has produced some discussion, which is not surprising as some of the claims I make are not clear cut. As I said, “the difference between having authority over another person and having an authority to function in a ministry is subtle, and the line between them may be blurry at times.”

    One of the reasons I wrote this piece is because I believe some English translations of the New Testament are misleading in how they translate certain verses which are about authority (e.g. Hebrews 13:17), or seem to be about authority (e.g. 1 Tim 2:12). They have added the word “over” which complicates and skews the issues of church authority and women in ministry.

    The Greek does not say “authority over” in any New Testament verse about church authority.

    However, I am certainly not saying that churches shouldn’t have leaders, or that people shouldn’t exercise authority.

    I should add that Beth Moore’s teachings do not appeal to me personally, but I recognise that others are blessed by her ministry.

  8. Peter says:

    Marg, I just want to thank you for this posting and for your blog in general. As a 65-year-old male, I am turning here and to Rachel Held Evans for a dose of common sense and insight as I struggle with misogynistic nonsense in my own church.

    I do not find the two concepts you mention to be very difficult to separate. One is authority over, the power to dominate and rule, which power must be obeyed or face some retribution. This is a very worldly concept, and nothing to do with the servant leadership of Christ.

    The other separate idea is “authorisation to do something”, which is the giving of permission or license. This is very consistent with the ideas of being gifted with certain charisma, being assessed by how those charisma work out in your own life and the lives of those around you, and having communal assent to fulfil a role such as teaching.

    And I entirely agree with you that an acknowledged gift which the community allows you to exercise (such as when we call a pastor) has nothing to do with legalistic domination.

    As a side note, special thanks for sharing your scholarship about Greek. That’s one aspect of theological study I regret missing out on.

    Blessings on your work. I look forward to the further exercise of your charism!

  9. Marg says:

    Hi Peter, Thanks for your comment and encouraging words.

    You’ve explained the difference between exercising power and exercising functional authority better than me. 🙂

    Here is one of my favourite Greek words which, surprisingly (considering the topic), didn’t make it into the article: exousia. This word is common in the NT and is usually translated as authority, right, freedom, etc. I liken the meaning of exousia to having a driver’s licence. When you have a driver’s licence you have the authority, right and freedom to drive a vehicle on public roads.

    (As I’m sure you know, exousia is not the word used in 1 Tim 2:12.)

  10. Judy says:

    Hi Marg, thank you for this article. Do you have a bible verse for reference where NT churches are led by a group of ministers instead of a solo minister? I could google it, but just wondered if you have one that you think explains it particularly well?

    Also, just wondering, in regards to endnote 2, what do you make of authority in society in general? Is having a certain degree of authority “over” someone important, such as a parent to a child? School teachers to children? The subject is just confusing me a little bit. I made a comment in this thread as well – http://equalitycentral.com/forum/index.php?topic=4696.msg53690;topicseen#msg53690 if you prefer to reply there, or here, whichever is easier and when you have time.


  11. Marg says:

    I think capable people should have authority over incapable, or less capable, people for the sake of their protection, education and nurture. These less capable people would include children, minors, people with a reduced mental capacity, and also criminals. When/if these people become capable or rehabilitated there is no longer a need for them to be under the authority of their protectors, teachers and keepers.

    I think very few New Testament churches if any, were led by a solo minister; however the owner of the house where church meetings were held would, in most circumstances, have had been one of the main ministers.

    The church in Antioch appears to have been led by a group of prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1). Paul addresses his letter to the Philippians to overseers/bishops (plural) and ministers/deacons (plural) (Phil 1:1). Titus is instructed by Paul to appoint elders (plural) in every town in Crete (Tit. 1:5). “Elders” and “overseers” seems to be used interchangeably in the New Testament letters (cf 1 Peter 5:1-3).

    Importantly, the authority of the church in New Testament times is given to the church as a whole, not just to the people who have leadership functions. Most of Paul’s letters are addressed to local churches as a whole (e.g. 1 Cor.1:2).

    The idea of a church being led by one overseer/bishop is plainly stated in the letters of Ignatius which were written at the beginning of the second century. From his letters we learn that Ignatius was himself the bishop of the church of Antioch, Onesimus was the bishop of the church at Ephesus, Polycarp was the bishop of the church at Smyrna, etc. However, these bishops had elders and deacons helping him. The roles of elders and deacons in the first and second century church were very different to the roles of elders and deacons today. These elders, and especially the deacons, were very active in important ministries.

    Ignatius advocated for the rule of bishops over their respective churches because he was worried about the influence of false teachers; he believed that if the church obeyed the bishop, the church would better stand against heresy.

    The threefold structure evident in the letters of Ignatius soon became permanent in the early church: (1) one bishop, (2) elders or priests, and (3) deacons. But the roles and functions of these ministry positions changed over time.

    I hope this helps. The issue is not clear cut.

  12. Ashley says:

    Could you recommend any books on the subject of authority in the church? Or leadership in the church?

  13. Ashley says:

    I see what you mean about that book being hard to find. Thank you for your suggestions.

  14. Ashley says:

    I was wondering if you had read Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the roots of our church practices?

  15. Ashley says:

    What did you think of reimagining the church?

    • Marg says:

      I’d have to look at it again to refresh my memory and make a meaningful comment. But I do remember that much of what he said resonated with me.

      I’ve got my head in so many books at the moment. I just don’t have time for another one right now. But I’ll try and look at it again in a week or two.

  16. judy says:

    “I would be worried about anyone who actually believed that they have some sort of God-given authority and power “over” another.”

    Like me, then, we have a lot to worry about ☺

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