Elders Are NOT Rulers

It was my junior year of high school when I was reprimanded by two pastors of a church I used to attend for not asking their permission to help another church. I was serving as a non-paid worship minister when a neighboring church down the road asked me to lead the worship for one of their annual youth conferences. This church didn’t have anyone to lead music and they knew their conference wouldn’t conflict with my regular service to my own church. Eager to help them, I agreed to do it and the event went well. Everyone was happy! Well … not everyone. The assistant pastor, followed by the senior pastor of my church approached me to say that those sorts of agreements should have gone through them first. They claimed that I, or the church I helped, should have asked their permission before I agreed to their request. Being unprepared to make a defense for my action, I didn’t tell them what I should have told them — “Go kick rocks” or “jump in a lake” (of course, in more loving words). Looking back, my response to these pastors should have been “where did you get the idea that I needed your permission to make a one-time contribution for a church that was lacking resources in their music ministry?” 

Maybe you have a similar experience when a pastor or elder (these terms are synonymous) exercised what you felt to be undue authority over you. They believed that their position gave them the right to issue orders that you were obligated to follow. You knew that questioning the legitimacy of these orders might have resulted in church discipline, so you held your tongue lest you be deemed a troublemaker and risked being forced to step down from your ministry, or worse — excommunicated for failure to obey your elders. This might sound like an extreme hypothetical situation, but this is a major problem in the evangelical church. I’ve witnessed it! It is stories like mine that should move us to make sure we understand exactly how Christ has organized his church and how he has delegated authority in it. So, what authority do pastors/elders have? Over the years I’m becoming increasingly convinced the Bible teaches that pastors do possess authority but it is strictly limited. Elders are given the authority to lead the church by teaching the word and ministering to the needs of their local congregation. They are not authorized to rule the church by issuing mandatory orders that are not found in Scripture. 

In short, pastors/elders are leaders, not rulers.

It is important to make a semantic distinction between ruling and leading for the reason that the contrast between these two terms is where the debate lies. A ruler possesses decision-making authority over others and coercive power to enforce his will. In contrast, a leader may direct other’s course of action by their instruction and/or by using themselves as examples to emulate without coercive power. Elders are given the authority to lead and are forbidden the authority to rule. Let us first look at the kind of authority elders are given.

Elders are given Declarative and Ministerial authority

First, elders are given declarative authority. They declare God’s word to the congregation both in the positive sense — “teach,”  and the negative sense — “rebuke.” This is seen in one of the qualifications Paul lists for Titus regarding the office of elder: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it, ” (Titus 1:9). The authority is not in the elder’s position but in what he is supposed to be declaring, which is God’s word. Jesus, in his humility, is the ultimate example of this sort of declarative authority while he was on earth. He said, “… The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works, ” (John 14:10). There is no binding command that an elder can give if it is extra biblical. They cannot authoritatively declare their opinions, their agenda, or their good ideas. Only God’s word which is the source of all authority. 

Second, elders are also given ministerial authority.They minister by caring for their congregant’s spiritual and physical needs. Paul says, “… if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? …” (1 Tim 3:1-16). Again, he says to the Ephesian elders, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood,” (Acts 20:28). Elders are supposed to visit the sick and pray over them (James 5:14; Acts 6:4). They are to be “examples to the flock” by exemplifying righteous conduct and behavior as a model for others to follow (1 Pet 5:3). Elders are given the authority to minister to their local congregation in these ways. 

By examining the two important but limited functions of elders we do not see order-giving or decision-making as an aspect of their role. If we were to make a preliminary conclusion just from what their stated roles are, we would conclude that the extent of pastor authority is limited to declaring the word of God and caring for their local congregation. Thankfully, Scripture gives us even more confirmation on the extent of elder/pastor authority by stating how they are NOT to lead.   

Elders are prohibited from ruling

Elders are specifically commanded not to rule their congregants. The Apostle Peter in his instruction to elders tells them not to be “domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock,” (1 Pet 5:3). Katakurieuō is the key term here which the ESV translates as “domineering.” Some translations say “lord it over” and so a common understanding is that this verse is a prohibition on an arrogant attitude in ruling, not necessarily a prohibition on ruling itself. However, there are several reasons why katakurieuō should be translated as simply “rule.” 

To begin with, the most obvious reason is that Peter seems to be setting up an antithesis to the term which is to be “examples to the flock.” Whatever Katakurieuō means, it must be in sharp contrast to “being examples to the flock.” This is indicated by Peter’s use of the strong adversative “alla” (but).Blass and Debrunner’s A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature says this about “alla”:

ἀλλάusually refers to a preceding negative (“but”). This relationship can also be expressed, though more weakly, by dev. A distinction is to be observed between general contrast (δέ) and that which is directly contrary (ἀλλά).[1]

Since ruling poorly and ruling well isn’t exactly the sharpest contrast but rather the same ball park category, it is doubtful that this is the strong dichotomy Peter is trying to draw out. It then makes more sense to understand Peter’s sharp contrast to be between ruling and not ruling at all but being an example.

Furthermore, katakurieuō is used to contrast gentile rulers with Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership (Matt 20:25–28; Mark 10:42–45). The parallel account in Luke’s gospel, kyrieuō is used, which simply means “to rule,” instead of katakurieuō. If these two terms are completely different concepts, then the authors of the synoptic gospels are in disagreement. Avoiding this conundrum is simple—katakurieuō simply means “to rule.”

Moreover, in his article The Meaning of (KATA)KURIEUEIN, Greek palaeographer Kenneth Willis Clark writes, “There is no place in the New Testament, nor in the wider expanse of Greek literature, for the translation ‘to lord it over.’” He continues, “In so inclusive a sweep of the literature, from Septuagint to Byzantium, in private documents on papyrus and in formal essays, both secular and religious, we find the meaning of [κατα] κυριεύειν to be consistent ‘to rule over, to be lord over,’ with shades of meaning influenced by the context.”[2]

Albert Barnes also recognizes the consistency in translating katakurieuō to mean “rule.” In his commentary on 1 Peter 5:3 he says, 

The word here used (κατακυριεύω katakurieuō) is rendered “exercise dominion over,” in Matthew 20:25; exercise lordship over, in Mark 10:42; and overcame, in Acts 19:16. It does not elsewhere occur in the New Testament. It refers properly to that kind of jurisdiction which civil rulers or magistrates exercise. This is an exercise of authority, as contradistinguished from the influence of reason, persuasion, and example. The latter pertains to the ministers of religion; the former is forbidden to them. Their dominion is not to be that of temporal lordship; it is to be that of love and truth. This command would prohibit all assumption of temporal power by the ministers of religion, and all conferring of titles of nobility on those who are preachers of the gospel. It needs scarcely to be said that it has been very little regarded in the church.”[3]

Regarding the same passage, some have claimed that the phrase “In your charge” insinuates ruling authority, however, this is in reference to the portion of believers assigned to particular elders, not the extent of their power. Klēros is the word used here which is an object used in casting or drawing lots, which was either a pebble, or a potsherd, or a bit of wood.[4] In this context, it is the congregants who have been assigned or allotted by God to the care of a particular elder. It in no way suggests a ruling authority.

So far we have seen that the function of Elders is positively stated as teaching the word of God and caring for their flock. We then saw that there is a command for elders stated in the negative, not to rule those God has allotted to their care. This leads us to conclude that God has established boundaries in which elders are to lead. They must lead according to what is specifically laid out as their duty and should refrain from assuming more authority than God has given them. Case in point, dictatorial or decision-making authority. Still, there are other passages which, on the surface, seem to be teaching dictatorial authority. However, a deeper look at the terms used to describe the function of elders will lead us to conclude that these terms are actually in agreement with an elder-led model of church government, rather than an elder-ruled model. 

A closer look at the disputed passages

What is perhaps the strongest support for dictatorial authority of elders is found in Hebrews 13:17. In this verse, the author instructs their congregation to, 

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Some have used this passage as proof that elders have dictatorial or decision-making authority from the mention of the congregants’ clear obligation to “obey” and “submit” to their leaders. This understanding of Hebrews 13:17 teaches dictatorial authority in appearance only. By taking a closer look at what was going on in chapter 13 and a brief word study in verse 17 will lead us away from the prima facie interpretation to one that allows the audience the freedom to follow their leaders rather than be coerced by them. 

It is accurate to say that authority is present in Hebrews 13:17, but the authority is declarative and ministerial, not dictatorial. This seems to be confirmed in verse 7 where the author says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Now we have the context of what the original audience is ultimately supposed to be obeying and submitting to; the teaching of the word of God as taught and lived by their church leaders. So, the kind of authority we are dealing with in Hebrews 13:17 is teaching authority.

Further evidence of this is found in verse 9 where the biblical teachings of the church leaders are contrasted with “diverse and strange teachings.” Based on verses 9-16, this is probably a reference to Judaizing teachers and to their ceremonial traditions and observances, which Paul condemned as a “different gospel” (Gal 1:6). Hence, the author’s warning not to be “led away” by them. The contrast the author is making now becomes clear: Judaizing leaders vs. Christian leaders, heresy vs. orthodoxy, strange doctrine vs. sound doctrine.

Based on the context of verses 7-16 we have come to the conclusion that the authority that is to be followed in Hebrews 13:17 is teaching authority not ruling authority. Now let us see if the words for “obey” and “submit” in their original language are in agreement with this conclusion. The question we are looking to answer is: do these terms necessitate decision-making authority or do they allow freedom to follow?

The first term we will examine in Hebrews 13:17 is the word that is translated “obey”; Peíthō which predominantly means—to persuade, and does not imply a ruling authority.[5] For instance, king Agrippa asked the apostle Paul, “In a short time would you persuade [Peíthō] me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28). In the very next verse, Paul essentially says “yes” to Agrippa’s question. If Peíthō exclusively implies a ruling authority, then what is Paul saying “yes” to, that king Agrippa must convert to Christianity out of obedience to Paul’s ruling authority? Of course not! Paul is not insinuating that Agrippa is subservient to him. He wants him to be persuaded by the gospel so that he will become a Christian. Peíthō implies persuasion, not subservient compulsion. Since Peíthō carries the overall sense of persuasion, a more appropriate translation of Hebrews 13:17 would be: “follow or trust your leaders.”

The term “submit” (hypeikō) also is commonly mistaken to imply decision-making authority. This is the only verse the term appears in, however, Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of The New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains present hypeikō as synonymous to hypotassō which is also translated as “submit.”[6] Submission is to yield one’s will to another either voluntarily or under compulsion; willingly or unwillingly. It can be used in a decision-making context with civil rulers (Rom 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13), but it can also be used to convey the act of yielding to others voluntarily out of love and unity in Christ. When speaking of the Godly household of Stephanas, Paul urges the Corinthians to “be subject [hypotassō] to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer” (1 Cor 16:16). Clearly, the command to submit is extended to all those who are laborers for the gospel and not particularly elders. Furthermore, Paul explicitly tells the church at Ephesus that they should be “submitting to [hypotassōto] one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). The “submission” in Hebrews 13:17 is not without qualification. The original audience should submit because their leaders were teaching them sound doctrine in contrast to the “strange teachings.” It is in no way a blank check for limitless authority for church leaders. 

Another term we see comes from 1 Timothy 5:17 which is often cited in defense of ruling authority because of the phrase “elders who rule well.” In this verse, “rule” is translated from the term proistēmi which may refer to ruling, leading, or caring for others.[7] Deciding which sense it is used here depends on the immediate context. Those who labor in preaching and teaching are described as a subset of the “elders who proistēmi well.” Since preaching and teaching are better understood to be activities of leading rather than ruling, 1 Timothy 5:17 is best translated “the elders who lead well.” Below are some of the modern translations that have translated proistēmi as in harmony with the concept of leadership. The words in bold indicate the term. 

  • The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor (NIV).
  • The elders who are good leaders are to be considered worthy of double honor (CSB).
  • Elders who provide effective leadership must be counted worthy of double honor (NET).

Another reason proistēmi does not necessarily imply ruling authority is seen in Romans 12:8 where Paul includes proistēmi in a list of gifts that are found among members of the body (vv.4, 6). Ruling implies an official position and does not seem to be a strictly functional gift like leading. That is why many Bibles translated Romans 12:8 as “the one who leads.”

Some also have quoted 1 Timothy 2:12 as a possible indication of ruling authority. However, from the context of this passage, Authenteō refers to the authorization to teach, not to rule. 

At this point we have made three conclusions: (1) the only authority that we see in Scripture that is given to pastors/elders is the authority to lead the church through teaching the word and ministering to their needs; (2) pastors are commanded not to rule their flock; and (3) disputed terms that describe the role of elder in the original language are more in-line with an elder-led model rather than an elder-ruled model. Now let’s answer some of the common objections raised.

Some Objections Answered

  • Rejecting the elder-ruled model fosters individualism. On the contrary, the elder-ruled model fosters far more individualism. It forces Christians to divide their ministry into two categories: church ministry and individual ministry. Church ministry is the service a Christian engages in with their local Christian community on Sundays under the supervision of elders. Since the elders cannot supervise one of their congregant’s ministry from Monday through Saturday, that becomes individual ministry and that member is usually not allowed to provide his or her service in the name of their church during that large portion of the week. The elder-lead model does not make this false dichotomy in ministry. It sees only one ministry which is service to Christ’s universal kingdom. Who is really being individualistic here?
  • If elders don’t have decision-making authority, how does anything get done in the church? Those who make this objection have completely missed the decision-making authority given to the church as a whole. It is the entire local congregation who had to make the decision to receive members into their community (2 Cor 2:5-11) and excommunicates members for unrepentant sin (Matt 18:14-19; 1 Cor 5; Gal 1:8-9). The selection of the Seven in Acts 6:1-6 was a decision made by the local community. The church in Antioch made the decision collectively and voluntarily to send aid (Acts 11:27-30; cf. 2 Cor 9:7). Actions such as sending representatives from the church was a corporate local church decision in Antioch and Jerusalem (Acts 15:2-3, 22; cf. 2 Cor 8:19). The church as a whole make decisions together under the strict rule of Christ.
  • If elders don’t have decision-making authority, then doctrinal and moral chaos is sure to ensue, since there is no human accountability higher than the congregation. I could make the same argument cut the other way. Who keeps the presbytery accountable? Or the general assembly, or the bishop, or the synod? Doctrinal and moral deviance can occur at any level. Having a human hierarchy doesn’t fix the problem of evil. At some point, you have to trust that Christ knows how to govern his own church.

Conclusion

The pastorate/eldership is a non-legislative office. It cannot make laws; only declare Christ’s law which is revealed in his word. Elders do not possess decision-making authority over other people and how they are used by the Holy Spirit in their spiritual gifts they receive from Him. Because Elders have no decision-making authority, they must influence others by teaching the word and by being a godly example to them. The church today is in desperate need of this kind of leader. We need godly examples, not people who are good at barking orders. We need those who can influence and persuade with God’s word, not dictate into existence their own vision. Getting this right is crucial for the health and mission of every local church.

A word of wisdom: To those who are serving or are about to serve as pastor/elder — lead your congregants, do not presume to rule them. Leading requires much more patients and much more spiritual maturity than ruling does. If you lead by example the way the Apostle Peter commands, you will find that the people God placed under your care will be far more open to your influence. If you find that you cannot be an effective elder without issuing orders, then maybe this isn’t the ministry for you. I hear business is great.

To congregants — follow your pastors/elders who lead according to the biblical model of servant leadership. Make it a joy for them to lead you, not a chore. The good ones genuinely care about your walk with the Lord and have dedicated themselves to seeing you grow in your relationship with Jesus. Support them with love and encouragement.


References:

[1] Blass, Friedrich, Albert Debrunner, Robert Walter Funk, and Friedrich Blass. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

[2] Clark, Kenneth Willis 1898-1979, and John Lawrence Sharpe. “The Meaning of (KATA)KURIEUEIN.” The Gentile Bias and Other Essays 1980: 207-212.

[3] Barnes, Albert. “Commentary on 1 Peter 5:3”. “Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible”. https:https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bnb/1-peter-5.html. 1870.

[4] Perschbacher, Wesley J. The New Analytical Greek Lexicon. Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.

[5] Ibid

[6] Louw, J. P., and Eugene A. Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. 1. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. New York: United Bible Societies, 1989.

[7] Ibid

Published by Ben Moore

Hi, I'm Ben Moore, a Christian worldview writer. This site is committed to seeing Christ's kingdom permeate throughout all of life, including the social institutions that God has designed; family, church, and civil government. While Christian churches have been focused on applying the Bible to the heart of the individual, its application to society is often neglected, lost, or even rejected. The content of this site predominately speaks into these issues and wants to discover how God's word applies beyond the life of the individual Christian and to the public square.

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