As a pastor, I have authority in my community. But authority is not really what I want. What I really want is influence.
Authority is the ability to get people to do what I think they should do. Influence, however, is the ability to move people to want to do what they need to do.
Here’s what I know from Scripture: Pastors/elders/overseers have authority in the local community. Hebrews 13:17 encourages us all to “Obey your spiritual leaders and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God.” First Thessalonians 5:12-13 says, “Dear brothers and sisters, honor those who are your leaders in the Lord’s work. They work hard among you and give you spiritual guidance. Show them great respect and wholehearted love because of their work.” Of course, this isn’t carte blanche for church leaders to have control over every aspect of peoples’ lives, though I bet you have met some leaders who’d like to think so.
Jesus pointed us toward the correct use of authority, both in His strong-yet-compassionate example and in His admonition that we lead through serving and avoid using authority in an “authoritarian” way (Mark 10:42-43).
Paul demonstrated both his authority and his influence when on numerous occasions he reminded the Corinthians of his authority (1 Cor 9:3, 2 Cor 10:8) but was still careful to point out that he was trying to use a different lever when moving their hearts to give: “I am not commanding you to do this…” He urged them to think about the grace and generosity of Jesus to them and let that move them (2 Cor. 8:8-9). Though there were times when he clearly felt the need to lean on authority and give clear instructions about what needed to happen (1 Cor. 5, 2 Cor. 2:9), generally speaking, for Paul, authority wasn’t about getting people to do what he wanted them to do–it was about moving them to want to do what they needed to be doing. “For I want to use the authority the Lord has given me to strengthen you, not to tear you down” (2 Cor. 13:10). It was about using his position in people’s lives to apply the Gospel and speak the Good News of Jesus into individual and corporate situations and let that Good News move them towards maturity.
I’ve come to realize something about the difference between my pastoral authority and my pastoral influence. When I get to a place where I have to lean on authority, because my influence just won’t get the job done, I’ve probably already lost. I may be able to get what I’m after by saying “Because I’m the pastor!” or using phrases like “executive decision” and so win that particular battle. But I’m almost certainly losing the war for maturity, for the strengthening of others in my community, and in my own soul.
I agree with those who say that our authority is rooted in relationship. I think it’s also rooted in our influence and our ability to demonstrate the life we are calling others toward, to live transparent lives seeking Jesus and invite others to join us. Our influence grows as people see the consistency with which we live these lives, the good that comes out of it for ourselves and others and the depth of our love for Jesus and for them.
Our influence comes from being able to stand before our communities and echo with a clear conscience the words of Paul: “Follow me as I follow Christ.” First Peter 5:3 encourages elders, “Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example.”
Authority is quickly gained. All you need is a title. Influence takes time. It takes constancy and attention to the small things. It is slowly gained, but quickly lost–by a stray comment, an unthinking response, an inability to own our mistakes and repent of them. People don’t want perfection (well, some do), but what they do want is someone they can respect, someone who lives the life they are calling others to, even the hard parts of repentance and sacrifice and humility.
Critiquing and minimizing pastoral authority is very much in vogue right now. But the reason this is currently part of the zeitgeist in the Church in the West is not because pastoral authority isn’t biblical, but rather because it’s been wielded in such unbiblical ways.
Lord, let us recover a spirit of mutual submission in the Church, let leaders lead with a Christ-like spirit of servanthood, and let us all follow those elders in our community in such a way that we fulfill the biblical commandment and “Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow.”