Governance and authority are a big deal in modern churches, yet the New Testament is strangely silent on these issues. The concept of governance is not mentioned at all. Most references to authority relate to worldly governments (Acts 26:12: Rom 13:3) and to demonic powers Eph 6:12; Col 2:15; 1 Pet 3:22). References to the authority of church leaders are noticeable for their absence.

The business world has a fairly standard model of governance and management. A board of directors provides governance and oversight. It makes strategic decisions and appoints the CEO, who is usually becomes a member of the board. Under the CEO, there will be several divisional managers or vice presidents. The divisional managers will have operational managers reporting to them. The number of management levels varies with the size of the organisation. The CEO is tasked with the management of the business.

In the business model, the CEO has authority delegated by the board and is accountable to the board. The various managers have authority delegated down to them and are accountable to the CEO through the manager in the hierarchy above them. Authority and accountability go together and come from the same source.

Most modern churches, just copy this model, but change the names to hide the similarities. The CEO is usually called the senior pastor or apostle. The Board of directors is often referred to as a board of elders, leaders committee or oversight team. The divisional managers and operational managers are given religious names, but their role is much the same. Their authority and accountability are delegated by the senior pastor.

We need to understand that this is the world's model. If a church is going to operate a series of large programmes, with a big budget and professional and/or trained staff in purpose-built buildings, it probably has to adopt this model. However, it should not pretend that this is a biblically based.

Top Down

In the world, authority comes from the top, being delegated down through the hierarchy. The people in a business organisation exercise the authority that has been delegated to them by a manager, whose authority has been delegated from the CEO. Staff are accountable to the CEO, through their manager. Accountability and authority go together.

In the church, authority comes from the bottom, when people freely submit to more mature Christians that they love and trust. Christian elders are given authority by the people who submit to them. They gain authority through character and gifting, not from position and appointment. If the elder loses the plot, the people who have freely submitted to the elder are free to withdraw their submission. When that happens, the elder loses all their authority. This is why submission is more important than authority in the New Testament. Voluntary submission creates authority, so without submission, there is no authority.

On the other hand, Christians are accountable to God for the people he has entrusted to them. Elders will have to give account on the judgment day for their oversight of the people who have freely submitted to them. This is very different from the business world. God has made Christian elders accountable, without giving them authority. They have to earn their authority by demonstrating wisdom and love. In the world, authority and accountability go together. One comes with the other. In the church, leaders have accountability without authority. That really raises the bar.

All Authority

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he said that all authority had been to him (Matt 28:18). Jesus never delegated authority over members the church to elders or apostle. The only authority that he gave to elders and apostles was authority over sickness and demonic powers. He gave them authority to heal the sick and cast out demons (Luke 9:1). He did not give them authority to command Christians or tell them what to do.

Leaders of the modern church tend to be absorbed with authority over the church. I wish they showed the same zeal for authority over sickness and demonic powers.

The only statement made about governance in the New Testament is that Jesus is Lord of Lords and head of the church. He has authority over the church. There is no record of him delegating it to anyone else. God expects those who belong to Jesus to obey him alone. Jesus words are clear.

If you love me, keep my commands (John 14:15).

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me (John 14:21).

These verses raise an important question. How does Jesus exercise this authority. He gives the answer in a verse that is sandwiched between the two just quoted.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever-the Spirit of truth (John 14:16-17).

The gift of the Spirit makes it possible for the church to obey Jesus. The Holy Spirit knows God's will, so he can tell us what Jesus wants us to do. We do Jesus will by obeying the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus has not even given the Holy Spirit authority over the church. The Holy Spirit can only tell us Jesus will, and leave it to us to decide if we will obey it. He can speak to us, but he cannot make us obey his words. We give the Holy Spirit authority when we chose to obey his voice, but we can withdraw that submission at any time by choosing to ignore his leading. That removes his authority.

Exercising Oversight

Elder, pastor (shepherd) and overseer (often transliterated as episcopal and misleadingly translated as bishop) are not separate roles. In the following two passages, they are all mixed up together.

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:17;28).

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness (1 Pet 5:1-2).

Elders care for people like a shepherd. They exercise oversight over Christians to protect them from evil.

Exercising oversight is an important role, because the enemy is always prowling around looking for someone to devour. False teachers and deceivers will try to lead Christians astray.

Oversight is not control, so elders must exercise oversight in two ways.

  1. Elders should always pray for those whom the Holy Spirit has placed in their care. They can join together to stand against the spiritual forces that are attacking the flock.

  2. If Christians have chosen to submit to them, they can also give advice. But they will do this in a way that does not make people depend on them. Their goal will be teach to believers to listen to the Holy Spirit and receive his advice. They may sometimes challenge behaviour or attitudes, but they will need to be care careful they are worried about the same thing as that the Holy Spirit is worried about. Otherwise, they will be warning about the wrong things.

The elder's role is mostly praying. When they get the opportunity to go beyond that because a person has submitted to them, they are limited in what they can do, because they are not seeking control, and because they do not want to create dependence. They are always pointing to Jesus, and pushing people to listen to the Holy Spirit and obey his voice to follow Jesus.

No Pastors

The concept of a CEO/Pastor does not exist in the New Testament. Funnily enough, the role of the pastor is missing as well.

Most English translations mislead with the use of the noun "pastor". The word "pastor" is actually a transliteration of the Latin word for "shepherd". The role of a professional pastor is a modern concept, so the Greek language did not have a word for it. That does not matter, because the New Testament concept is shepherding, as in a shepherd caring for a flock of sheep (in a traditional way, not with a four-wheeler motor-bike and sheep-dogs).

Apart from references to Jesus, the word for shepherd is only used once as a noun, and that is Eph 4:11, where it refers to a gift and not a role. When not referring to Jesus, the word shepherd is used as a verb, ie as an action word, not a naming word. And the subject of the sentences that use shepherd as a verb is the elders (eg 1 Peter 5:1-2). Therefore, shepherding is an activity that elders do, it is not a separate role in the church.

The New Testament does refer to a "head shepherd" (1 Pet 5:4), but that is clearly a reference to Jesus. The prefix often translated as head or chief, just means the first in order of rank, so it could be validly translated as Senior Shepherd. So, those who call themselves Senior Pastor are dangerously close to claiming a title that belongs to Jesus.

1. Authority Organisation

Most business organisations are authority organisations. The Roman army was the epitome of an authority organisation. The centurion that came to Jesus understood this well. He could tell a soldier what to do and he would follow the instruction without question. He knew that if he disobeyed his centurion, he was dead.

In a business organisation, the directives of the CEO are followed without question. A few people may ignore the wishes of the CEO and do their own thing, but they will not last long in the business.

In an authority organisation, it is normal for the people to implement the directives of the CEO. He may delegate some decision, but these will only be made within the policy boundaries that he has established. An authority organisation is very efficient at getting things done, because everyone in it is on the same page.

2. Relationship Organisation

The church is a relationship organisation. Members are commanded to love one another. They are required to submit to each other. The only authority comes from the outside from Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

No member of the church has authority to tell others what to do. If they want other people to do something, they must persuade them. For example, Paul wrote letters that gave advice to many people, but they were free to ignore it, and sometimes did. He often suggested things that other leaders should do, but he did not have authority to make them do what he wanted. The people that Paul wrote to trusted him, because he had watched over them when they were young Christians. They respected his wisdom, so they took his words seriously. However, Paul never controlled anyone else in the church.

A relationship organisation finds it much harder to get things done, however, that does not matter because getting things done is not the primary objective, because loving one another has eternal significance.

Winning People

The Letter to Timothy lists the qualifications of an elder. The standard is high, but the reason is different from what we often think.

The common view is that elders must be of good character, because they control the church. Paul's words are used as a checklist for deciding who is good enough to be given so much power. It is assumed that elders need to be of good character, because they have power and authority.

The opposite is true. Elders have no power and authority over the church. They need to be of good character, so that that younger Christians will freely submit to their oversight and welcome their advice on how to hear and follow the Holy Spirit's guidance. Unless they have good character, people will not submit to elders them, no matter how long they have been Christians.

If apostles need to appoint elders, because they are moving on, they should not look for people who tick the boxes on the character list. They should look for Christians that people in the church love, trust and submit to, because they are kind and wise, and authenticate what they are already doing by acknowledging that they are already acting as elders.

Submitting Elders

The most important thing that elders do is submit to each other. They are often talented leaders, who do not find it easy to submit to other people. They will often have very different personalities and giftings. Pastors do not find it easy to submit to prophets. Apostles do not enjoy submitting to people who are more settled.

Elders will not find it easy to submit to each other, but it is important that they do, for their own spiritual protection, and as an example for others. If they are not willing to submit to each other, they cannot expect other Christian to submit to their oversight.

Christians submit to elders for oversight and protection. They do not submit control over their lives. Jesus has set us free, so we must not give any person control over our lives. We need to be free to follow Jesus, by obeying the Holy Spirit. However, because we are engaged in spiritual works, we submit to each other, so we can stand together against evil.


Christians should stop using the word "ministry, as it has now totally changed its meaning from when it was first used. In the modern world, the word minister is used for the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence or Finance Minister. The United States calls them Secretaries (which dramatically changes the meaning of another word), but in the rest of the world, they are called ministers. The word minister refers to a position of power.

A government minister exercised control through a ministry: the ministry of defence or the ministry of internal affairs. A ministry is a bureaucracy. I presume there was a time when political power pretended to be servants of the people, but those times are long gone. When the word minister is used by the church, it refers to a paid professional or the CEO of a local church, which is not much better.

The modern words minister and ministry have no connection with the ascension gifts listed in Ephesians 4. The word the King James Version translated as minister or ministry is "diakonos", which is the Greek word for "servant". It is used to describe an attendant, who runs errands for his master. This is the total opposite of the modern meaning of the word.

The English word "minister" comes from a Latin word for "servant". It derives from a Latin word meaning "minus" or "less". It actually refers to a lowly position. We have lost that understanding of the word, so Christians cannot use it to describe roles in the church without creating confusion by justifying coercion and control.

Plurality of Leadership

The principle of plurality of leadership is basic to the New Testament. Each church should be led by a team of elders (Acts 14:23). The minimum number would be three or four. A Church will be led by a group of elders working together.

The elders would all agree to submit to each other. None of the elders will make an important decision without the concurrence of the others. They will each give the others permission to speak into their lives to provide correction. All important decisions for the church will require a consensus among the elders. This principle of plurality of eldership provides covering and protection for the church. There will not be one elder who stands above the others. Having one leader at the top is both dangerous and unbiblical.

An example of this structure is found in the Church of Antioch, one of the most successful Churches in the New Testament. Luke tells us that in Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen and Saul (Acts 13:1). That is, there were five elders who led the Church together. There is no suggestion that one of these elders was the overall leader.

According to Acts 14:22,23, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every place where there was a group of disciples. This was all that was needed to make a group of disciples into a Church. Nothing more was needed. They never appointed a single pastor to take charge.

The number of elders in a church will be limited by their ability to have strong relationships with each other. Even though they have different ministries, they must have strong relationships with each other. Maintaining these relationships will be almost impossible if there are more than about five leaders. (They will also be maintaining relationships with six or seven people whom they are discipling.) One person cannot relate in this way to more than about twelve people. Therefore, if the number of elders increases to more than about five or six, the relationships between them will weaken and the covering will be broken and the strength will be lost. The chinks in the relationships will allow evil to get in.

Plurality of leadership has not been taken seriously by the church. It has long been normal in the church to have one person, usually a pastor, as leader. Even churches with elders will have a senior elder or pastor. The common cry in the church is "We need a pastor" or "We need a leader". However, this desire for one man to lead is a consequence of the fall. Sinful people have a tendency towards slavery and domination (1 Samuel 8:6-9), but those who have been redeemed should have the same mindset.

The best example of this leadership style is the Trinity. The Father said about the Son, "Listen to him". However, Jesus said he could only do what he saw the Father doing. He also said it was better for him to go away, so that the Spirit could come; but the Spirit, when he came, gave glory to Jesus. Each of the members of the Trinity has absolute freedom and authority to exercise their perfect ministry. Yet each one honours and submits to the others. No one is in control. They demonstrate perfectly how three persons bound together by love can work together in perfect unity.

Balanced Leadership

The elders of a church must have balanced giftings. Each elder will have one of the ascension giftings and all of these ministries should be represented in the eldership of the Church. One of the elders will be a prophet. One will be an evangelist. Several will be pastor-teachers. Some will need the giftings to be sent out as Apostles. All these ministries must be functioning together in unity for a Church to grow to maturity and unity.

Every Church must have one elder who is willing to ask the tough questions and ensure that there is an emphasis on holiness (prophet). Every Church needs an elder who has a passion for the lost and a gifting for sharing the gospel (evangelist). A Church also needs elders who can help new Christians grow to maturity and ensure that all members remain united (pastor-teacher). Every church needs at least one elder who is outward looking and adventurous (apostle).

A Church without a prophet is like a body with only one leg. A Church without an evangelist is like body with one arm. A Church without several pastor-teachers is like a body with no heart. A church without an apostle will become inward looking. If any of these giftings are missing from a Church, it will be unbalanced.

The ascension giftings do not relate together naturally. This creates a problem, because people with different giftings and personalities often do not get on well together. Most leaders find it easier to work with people like themselves. The strength of balanced leadership comes through elders committing to work with people they would not normally get on with.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 outlines a set of attitudes that enables people with different personalities and giftings to work together. Elders who love each other will be willing to submit to each other. This is the key to their unity. Submission is hard for people who are seeking power and control. Submission is only possible for people who love each other. Love is not easy, but if elders cannot love one another, they cannot expect Church members to do so. Commitment to love at the top will spread love throughout the body.

The best example of this unity is the Trinity. The Father said about the Son, "Listen to him". However, Jesus said he could only do what he saw the Father doing. He also said it was better for him to go away, so that the Spirit could come, but when the Spirit came, he gave glory to Jesus. Each member of the Trinity has absolute freedom and authority to exercise their perfect ministry. Yet each one honours and submits to the others. No one is in control. The Trinity demonstrates how three persons bound together by love can work together in shared leadership.

To manifest the full glory of the Trinity, the church must have shared and balanced leadership. A church will be strong when it is led by a team of pastors, prophets and evangelist who are one, just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. They will be united by submitting to each other. Their submission will be powered by love.

Balanced leadership requires elders with diverse gifting to submit to each other in love. When love and submission are absent, one person tends to take control and dominates the others, or the leadership is paralysed by mistrust, division and bickering.

Ephesians 4 is not a description of high-level ministries or an organisational structure; it is a description of how elders with complementary, but conflicting gifts can work together to strengthen the body of Christ. Paul was not concerned about giving status to church leaders, but ensuring that every Church has a balanced eldership.

One person cannot be Jesus. It takes at least four elders with different giftings to fully represent Jesus and accomplish his ministry within a church.

Replication of Ministries

Elders will replicate their ministries in their disciples (i.e. produce clones of themselves). This is an extremely important principle. Every person who has developed in a ministry should be training up several people in that same ministry. In this way, the ministries of the church will multiply. Multiplication of ministry is as important as multiplication of membership.

Potential evangelists will tend to be drawn to the evangelist. Potential prophets will be drawn to the prophet. Potential pastors will be drawn to the pastors. They will learn all that they can from them. Each elder in a church should be developing some people who have potential to develop into a similar ministry. They should be training someone to replace themselves, if they are called to leave. Jesus said that everyone who is fully trained is like his master (Luke 6:40).

One test of the quality of a church is what has happened to a person who became a Christian in the church three years earlier. Are they functioning in a ministry (Jesus disciples were)? If they are not, then the church is not functioning correctly. Is there a development path for the new Christian? Can they expect to be functioning in a ministry within three years? This should be normal. (People who come to Christianity with severe problems may take longer to grow to maturity, but they should be on the same path).

The ascension gifts are for equipping others. The best way to be equipped for a ministry is to learn off someone who is further on, as Elisha learnt his ministry by following Elijah. An elder is just someone who has been around a little bit longer, so new Christians should attempt to start where they left off. Elders should desire to see those who follow them go further than they have.

Future Proof

The most important question about governance is not who is in control? A new world is coming. Will the leadership of your church be able to cope with everything that the future brings?

The New Testament church demonstrated that it could cope with all these challenges.