Dr. Nathan T. Morton
The Fallacy of Pastoral Authority
Updated: Mar 31
I spent 15 years in a cult-like ministry led by a dictatorial tyrant. The authority of THE PASTOR was championed as absolute and beyond question.
There were no church votes, congregational meetings, or consensus.
The “godly” were those who blindly followed the leader and those who didn’t were the “ungodly” who “went out from us because they were not of us.”
There was the appearance of a leadership “board” but any board member who questioned THE PASTOR or did not blindly follow was soon removed. THE PASTOR was a law unto himself.
With an arrogant sacerdotalism, he lorded over the flock, abused the people, sided with offenders, and enthroned himself, not only in the church and in the lives of the people.
I would love to tell you that this is an exception to the rule, but it is not. This kind of leadership has been experienced in churches large and small across denomination lines.
In the New Testament, there is no example of THE PASTOR leading a ministry but instead, there are elders, shepherding the flock—not one but many—not one over many but one among equals.
Some would argue that Paul had authority over the first-century churches he founded but there is no evidence for that claim.
Reading through the book of Acts we see Paul in cities such as Thessalonica, Berea, Ephesus, and others submitting to the counsel of the elders in those churches.
“The apostles made recommendations and gave advice, but they exercised no real rulership. Nevertheless, in his letters to various churches, Paul had to argue for his apostolic authority and ask his readers to follow his teachings.”
Peter and Paul were probably the best-known leaders in the first-century church, yet they didn’t set themselves up as THE AUTHORITARIAN PASTOR. WHY? Because they knew first-hand their individual weaknesses and personal potential for failure.
Peter’s fallibility first revealed itself when he betrayed Jesus at the trial and then again in Antioch when he stood against Paul’s inclusion of the Gentiles. [Thankfully, in both cases, Peter corrected himself.] The preacher of Pentecost even warned other elders to follow his lead and not lord over the flock of God.
Paul equally knew his weaknesses and his sinfulness, and so he preemptively warned the Galatians.
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him! (Gal. 1:8-9 CSB)
Self-governing authority invested in THE PASTOR around which the religious community orbits is more rooted in 19th-century individualism than it is in the Bible. Individualism teaches that the ends and purposes of the individual take precedence over the community. So the verse is quoted “where there is no vision the people perish” and it is THE PASTOR’S vision, not God’s, that is promoted.
This is the opposite of elder-led congregationalism which regulates authority and limits the power of the individual or any select group. Multiple elders mean multiple shepherds therefore authority is disseminated throughout the group rather than it being bestowed on any single individual. In this way, the body of Christ (i.e., The church) like the Trinity, is a family or community of equals mutually submitting to one another.
Furthermore, congregationalism, which is built upon the doctrine of the believer’s priesthood, locates the ultimate authority for all matters within the collective of the whole body. There is no ecclesiastical hierarchy within or without. Every member of the body of Christ, being equal in worth and value, labor in tandem for the good and progress of God’s kingdom.
I know this will not be popular, but it should be said. Biblical authority does not reside in the individual, the office, or any segmented group but rather in the Word of God. There is no elder rule, only Christ’s rule in His body. No one person should have authority over the house of God.
In elder-led congregationalism, titles and positions are not invested with power and therefore cannot be coopted for manipulation or abuse. It is sustainable, more biblically based, and vastly healthier than the revolving door of CEO bully solo pastors that have been experienced in many churches.
The ludicrous argument of hiding the sins of THE PASTOR to “protect the ministry” holds no weight in the context of elder-led congregationalism because everything does not “rises and fall on leadership.” The church is a family of equals, one in Christ.
When tragedies come, and they will, the response is no longer, “O, no, what will happen to the ministry now?” The Word of God has already told us, church discipline will occur with the hope of repentance, restitution, and in time, continued service by the one who stumbled, and the work of the church will continue without the loss of credibility because the ministry is not built upon the name or reputation of an individual but the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promoting the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part. (Eph. 4:16 CSB)
The fallacy of pastoral authority has left too many congregations wounded, broken, and dysfunctional because it is man-centric, not Christ-centered. Therefore in light of all that has been revealed it needs to finally be discarded for the glory of God and the spiritual health of God's people.