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Gray Areas and Pastoral Authority

We are pastors.  You should know that already, but if you didn’t, now you do.

As pastors we get all sorts of questions, and we find ourselves facing situations that tend to be unique to our role.

It is a precious task we do, and it is a difficult one to do well because it can be fraught with all sorts of potential traps and pitfalls. The one we want to discuss today is how much authority a pastor has in the private lives of the church members. Commonly these are centered upon what are called by many as the “gray” areas of life and decisions. 

Being a pastor is a strange and wonderful role to fill.  It is hard to explain what a pastor is and what a pastor does to others, and it is due to many factors.

One is that most people have a preconception of what pastors are to do. What is interesting to us is that most have that preconception, but when you press them for what exactly they think a pastor does it suddenly gets real vague. 

It would be fun to get the listeners in a room, and have them write down the top ten things a pastor does.  

Another challenge to discussing the role of a pastor is the various traditions within the Church-at-large. What an Anglican priest will do is very different than an independent Baptist pastor.  Even within the various denominations there is quite a spread.  What a pastor does in a church of 25-30 people is vastly different than a pastor of a multi-campus church of thousands.

Then, if you add to all of this the image so often given by the film industry, the confusion grows all the more.  Usually the pastor is either very broad-minded and open, or the exact opposite.  Their knowledge is usually either very small, or it is so niche-oriented that it is practically useless. Like you are an expert on Romanesque religious iconography in the Southern France region. If the pastor is portrayed relatively nicely by the film they are usually a nice person who is very concerned about social issues.

Identity and role of the Pastor:

It may surprise you, but a pastor is actually hard to define because of theology, tradition, and history.

Biblically speaking, a pastor is an elder.  It is really that simple but for many that is surprising to hear.  We invest a lot of time in teaching in Ethiopia that very fact, and even then we are met with polite smiles.  When we get to biblical polity in our Systematic Theology we will develop this in detail, so we will simply touch lightly here.

Some see the OT and NT as with a sense of strong continuity. As a result, they see the idea of the priest of the OT as being replaced by the pastor of the NT. This then allows them to look to the OT priest for examples of the roles and responsibilities of the pastor.  Others, like us, see a strong discontinuity between the OT and NT and the pastor is not related to the priest at all.  Therefore, the NT alone defines their role and responsibilities.

Tradition also comes into play.  Over time the early church developed a distinction between the elder and overseer. Along with a tendency to go back into the OT imagery of the priest and you have the rise of the clergy. And then the distinctions within the clergy class of priest, elder/pastor, and bishop/overseer. 

As we already said, the bible itself simply does not make these distinctions. The best place to go would be Acts 20.  We will read from specific verses for time’s sake.

"From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church." (Acts 20:17)

"Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood."(Acts 20:28)

Here you see all three terms that are used in the bible, and they all relate to one group of men. The NT also uses some other terms occasionally to describe this office and role.  They are described as the teacher, and as those who lead.

The role briefly described:

Pastoral care:

The term for “pastor” carries the idea of shepherd. This involves the idea of feeding and leading the people of God in a healthy way. It also involves protecting them from dangers.

Building up the believers in their faith:

Ephesians 4 makes it clear that the task of ministry is not the job of the pastor.  Rather, they are to train the members of the church to do those things. This is not specifically defined by Paul in that passage. Instead, through images he creates the idea of this role.  It involves leading and teaching toward a unified understanding of doctrine and practice.

In the Western world, the pastor is also usually responsible for the administrative aspects of the church.  Worship service planning, planning out church calendar, weddings and funerals, and counseling to name a few.

The authority and influence of the pastor:

The authority of the pastor/elder is built into the commands and expectations given to them.

For example) An elder is to have a well-managed home and children under control in a dignified manner (1 Tim 3:4-5).  This is all done through the wise use of authority and expectation of obedience to direction.  The rationale for Paul is that this is how he will manage the church as well.

In Acts 20 elders were expected to guard the church against false teachers. Again this implies authority to step up and place themselves between the church and perceived threat.  In addition they were to feed/teach the church.  Teaching always involves authority.

In Acts 15 the elders were part of the council gathered to hear Paul and deal with ecclesiastical issues related to the Gentiles coming to faith.  This is a clear example of authority.

You are expected to look to them as an example to follow in life.

"Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith." (Heb. 13:7)

You are expected to submit to and obey your leaders.

"Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you." (Heb. 13:17)

στενάζω - sigh, groan, inwardly with deep groan (Mk 7:34); as discontentment directed against another - to complain strongly, mutter, grumble (Ja 5:9

You should hold your pastors and leaders in respect.

"But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another."

(1 Thess. 5:12-13)

So in these passages it becomes obvious that the pastor has authority and quite a bit of it. Again, we want to emphasize that the pastor is not just the person who has that title. It is anyone who is qualified and recognized as an elder in the church.

We would also add that the bible assumes a plurality in this role for each church.  It doesn’t mean that at times there might only be one, but that should not stay like that. 

Always the NT speaks of the leaders and elders in the plural. Having said that, the pastor has authority from God and it is also authority that is usually vested by the church itself.

So the question is not if he has authority, but to what degree and in what areas?

Scope of authority:

The spiritual health of the church. This is a very broad one that is hard to define precisely and this is where problems can arise.

It deals with the direction the church goes and what it chooses to emphasize as no church can do everything.

It involves counseling and promotion of spiritual disciplines such as prayer and scripture intake.

It is the process of discipling people, promotion and guarding unity of the Spirit, and aiding in the process of church discipline.

Teaching and doctrine:

Doctrine is to come through the leadership.  They should be the primary source of instruction for the church as a whole.

This is not to say they are the only source, but that they should function in such a way as to become the ones their church members come to see as trustworthy in this capacity.

Doctrine at the pastoral level is to be solid, deep, thoughtful, biblical and ever-developing. 

The authority of the pastor is limited to what the bible commands and prohibits.

Areas of limited authority:

Every other sphere that people live in: work, home/family, society/government, leisure, finances.

There are some pastors who will seek to control these areas, but there is no biblical warrant to do so. Ultimately, each member is expected to make decisions within the spheres of responsibilities they possess.

It does not mean that the pastor has no impact in these areas.  Frankly the pastor should, but it should come through instruction, doctrine, and theology.

This is where the issue of grey areas come into play.

We get this all the time and it is both pleasurable and a pain to help out in these areas.

Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 speak to the issue of the conscience.  What is important in those passages is that each person is responsible to make decisions in relation to the conscience and the rest of the church ought to respect them, but also that the issues of conscience cannot be pushed upon others.

Here we can simply give examples and we can also talk about how any of these might become issues that the elders must step into, and deal with, authoritatively.

Household decisions:

Buy property?

Move to another state?

Mother-in-law problems?

Schooling choices; Public/private/homeschool?

Both husband and wife pursue careers?


Take a promotion?

How much do they give to the church?

Their philosophy on debt.


Do I vote?

How should I vote?

What does it look like to submit to the governing authorities?


Do I have a TV?

What shows do I watch or not?

How do I spend my off time?

Hobbies and sports, etc.

The pastor should strive to be a source of counsel and a model of example to follow in these grey areas. The more faithful he is in them, and the longer he labors faithfully among the people, the greater his influence will be.

However, the pastor cannot force his position or opinion upon the people if it is not overtly commanded, or prohibited in the bible. This doesn’t mean he has no opinion, only, that opinion should be founded upon the Word of God.

Within those areas, sin can arise and in this the pastor, along with any other believer, must speak authoritatively. The members should practice grace toward their leaders as they are often put in very unpopular or awkward situations when it comes to grey areas.

When members do not wish to heed the counsel of their pastors on these grey areas, they should not be surprised when the pastor becomes rather silent in their lives. The pastors should not use this as a way to manipulate the people.

The pastors should learn to practice pointing people back to the appropriate authority figures in many of these situations.  To the husband, parent, boss, law, etc.

Members should not expect their decisions to be praised, regardless of the decision. 

This is perhaps one of the hardest positions a pastor finds himself placed in.  A family has made a decision that the pastor thinks is very unwise.  It is beyond the pastor’s authority however.  He has given counsel and it has not been accepted. It really just needs to be left there and left alone and allow time to reveal all things.


In summary, the pastor has the authority that involves theology, teaching and the things commanded and prohibited in Scripture.

Application of theology and Scripture is not authoritative in the lives of the individual members. 

Finally, we would say that this all requires truly godly men who are in church leadership. And that these men need to be patient, brave, bold and gentle.  That is a hard balance to hold.  

So these are our thoughts. And We hope they have been of some help. Because this isn’t a black and white topic, we know that this usually raises a lot of questions. 

So do please feel free to reach out with any questions, or thoughts you might have.

Maybe it will spark another episode.


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