Leadership and Authority in the Church: What It Is and Isn't

Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt

This essay is a unified statement of policy from the leaders at Xenos' College Ministry on September 20, 1997.

During recent discussions with members and each other, we have discovered confusion and possible misinterpretation of our position on leadership and authority boundaries. To avoid further confusion and to bring glory to God, we have consulted the elders and come together in a combined leaders' meeting to compose our thoughts on this key subject. The elders have reviewed the paper, and have affirmed these findings as accurately reflecting Xenos policy. This paper can be freely disseminated as members see fit.

What is Leadership Authority?

Although the heart of leadership according to Scripture is servanthood (Mark 10:42-45), the Bible also teaches that legitimate leaders have authority, in the sense of a right to direct others. This authority comes from God and is delegated to leaders for the good of the church. The following verses reflect the clear teaching that leaders should be respected and obeyed when operating within their legitimate sphere of authority:

You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it. . . Such men deserve recognition.
- 1 Cor. 16:15-18
Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.
- 1 Thes. 5:12,13
[Speaking to a leader] These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.
- Titus 2:15
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
- Heb. 13:7
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.
- Heb. 13:17

Of course the Bible's teaching on obedience does not mean the church can outlaw dissent when expressed legitimately. When members conscientiously disagree with a direction advanced by leaders, they have the right to express dissent. This dissent should be expressed in a way that safeguards the unity of the church, is respectful, not bitter, and in love. Xenos elders have declared that we will respect a right to dissent in our church as long as it is expressed maturely. The paper, "A Vision for Christian Servanthood" details steps members can take to assure their dissent is effective and constructive. Any effort taken by leaders to harm the reputation or exclude legitimate dissenters from the life of the church would clearly be wrong. Leaders must be mature enough to accept the fact that others may disagree on judgment calls, even within their own church, without reacting in hurt or becoming insecure.

Dissent is different than rebellion. Rebellion involves attempting to set people in the church against the leadership. This is also division and schism, which are sinful and subject to admonition and even formal discipline. The elders have written a paper on our rules for church discipline, called "Rules for Church Discipline".

In addition to these points, we would remind people of key qualifications from another of the earlier elders' papers on authority in the church:

1. Leadership Accountability

    "There is no such thing as autonomous delegated authority. All delegated authorities are under God's authority. This is why, when scripture addresses those under delegated authority, it also addresses those in delegated authority in the same passage and reminds them of their responsibilities before God."

    We take this qualification to mean that, just as members are accountable to leaders when it comes to home church ministry, leaders are accountable to the elders or "overseers" (1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1) of the church and to each other. This accountability includes demonstrating to their colleagues that they conduct their ministry in accordance with ministry standards established by the eldership and the Servant Team. When Xenos leaders are out of line, members can contact the office to complain to a grievance board, to the relevant sphere leader, or to the elders. They will launch an investigation of leadership errors or misbehavior and give members full opportunity to be heard. 

    2. Leadership Limitations

    "The scope of the authority is limited to the area of the authority given to them by God. God does not require us to obey leaders outside the legitimate sphere of their authority. This is why wives are urged to "be submissive to your own husbands" - not to all men (1 Pet. 3:1; Eph. 5:22). For the same reason, it is inappropriate for parents to tell their adult children whom they must marry, or for civil authorities to tell their citizens what religious beliefs they must hold, or for church authorities to tell Christians what jobs they may take."

    In connection with point #2, we remember that Xenos has been troubled at times in its past by leaders and members assuming that church leaders have authority in areas where they do not. As a result of such misunderstanding, members or leaders have at times tended to make leaders into surrogate parents who regulate areas of life completely unrelated to church ministry. In the Bible, the church is sometimes called the family of God, but we should remember that the parent is God the father--leaders are brothers and sisters like the rest.

    We notice two exceptions: 1) Paul compares himself to a mother nursing and a father to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:7, 11). However, the similarity with mothers is the affection they have for their children, and the similarity to fathers was in the way they were "exhorting and encouraging and imploring" the Thessalonians. These actions suggest pleas, not commands. 2) He calls himself the Corinthians' father (1 Cor. 4:15) and implies that this gives him a measure of authority, but this applies only to those who were actually converted through his ministry.

    As an example, we know of cases where members have asked leaders to "hold them accountable" for their spending. Home church leaders agreed, and began going over the member's checkbook each month checking whether they were living up to a budget. Later, when the member came to resent the leader's oversight of this area, they left the church and reported to a cult watch group that Xenos leaders went over their checkbook each month, including assigning them how much to give to the church! Of course, the member failed to mention that he had requested this assistance, resulting in an embarrassing and misleading picture of Xenos leaders. However, we also believe the incident never should have happened. When the cult watch group later leveled the charge that Xenos leaders oversee budgets including giving commitments, the elders looked into it and found that they were unable to deny the charge, much to our embarrassment. In this case, leaders had allowed themselves to be drawn into inappropriate authority.

    Similar problems have arisen in the past, often from well-intentioned efforts to help members in areas such as dating and marriage, sex counseling, career counseling, relationship counseling, and social practices, such as whether to go to certain bars, to attend certain concerts, or to watch certain movies. Leaders should have declined to accept such parent-like roles, even if asked, and instead insisted that members learn to think through these issues for themselves. The elders have addressed the problem repeatedly at workers' meetings and servant team meetings over the past 15 years, but not recently. Their message has been that leaders need to exercise care to avoid implying that their authority extends further than it really does, or letting members press them into using authority in areas that are not legitimate.

    Members may be accountable to each other in a more general sense. For instance, I may ask my friend, "How is it coming with your eating problem." But I would refuse to monitor his daily menu. Another example would be cases where a brother has asked a friend to install software on his computer that blocks internet porno, and to keep the password secret. This seems legitimate, because the helper is not actually monitoring or supervising the other's browsing. The key is to consider what sort of accounting would be parent-like, or more appropriate for children than adults.

    We are zealous to avoid illegitimate expansion of leadership authority, not only because of our reputation as a church, but also because of the negative effect such expansion has on our members. Members who wrongly depend on leaders to "hold them accountable" or make decisions for them never learn the self-discipline and mature decision making that should characterize good disciples of Jesus Christ. Leaders should be eager to foster independence and internal moral control in their members, avoiding dependency.

    To understand the appropriate scope of authority for any given office we can examine the question of responsibility. If an authority figure is responsible for some area, then it is reasonable to assume that he or she should have the authority to carry out that responsibility. If, however, someone else is primarily responsible for the outcome of a given decision, church leaders would be out of line for suggesting that they should make the decision.

    For instance, who is responsible for the way you raise your children? Clearly, parents alone bear this responsibility. Therefore, while church leaders can teach parenting principles, and can offer advice to parents, they would never accept decision-making authority, even if parents asked them to.

    This principle would also apply in many other areas, such as dating, finance, diet, media, etc. We believe church leaders are assigned authority almost exclusively in the relatively narrow sphere of running the ministry of the church. While leaders have a pastoral role in members' lives, this is accomplished by persuasion, not by command authority. A number of examples of legitimate and illegitimate areas of authority may help us understand this principle.

    Sample Legitimate Uses of Home Church Leaders' Authority

    1. Deciding how a home church will use or not use music in its meetings.
    2. Deciding on membership of cell groups or other study groups focusing on discipleship. (But not regulating who attends public meetings like home churches. Note that campus ministry home churches are technically "Ministry Teams" in Xenos, which means they do have the right to restrict attendance at their meetings.)
    3. Deciding who is admitted to ministry houses. (However, terms for admission and removal from houses should be disclosed to prospective members before they move in.)
    4. Deciding who will teach at meetings, and what will be taught.
    5. Deciding what ministries will be prioritized at meetings (with announcements, for instance), but not preventing people from practicing ministries they feel led to practice.
    6. Deciding when and how to apply formal church discipline. (The elders require an opportunity to review and possibly veto any proposed formal discipline involving removal from the church.)
    7. Deciding what standards will apply in judgment areas of ministry, such as how strict or lenient to be on gray matters, or how certain problems should be counseled. For instance, how soon after a serious moral failure should a personal be allowed to teach?
    8. Mapping out a doctrinal position on areas open to question, such as the role of women in the church or social or divorce ethics (but not forbidding members to hold different views in these non-essential areas).
    9. Recognizing ministry house leaders, cell leaders, high school leaders (but get sphere approval for change in Sr. leaders), or sit-in leaders.

    Even from this partial list we see that church leaders have substantial authority to carry out their ministry. The prerogatives mentioned in this list would easily enable leaders to establish what emphases the church will feature, which ultimately determines the tone and feel of a church. They are truly authoritative leaders of the church's ministry.

    Also remember that in Xenos, the elders have reserved certain decisions exclusively to themselves. These are not delegated to home group or ministry team leaders. They include:

    1. Setting certain budget parameters for the church and authorizing new spending
    2. Removal of deacons or elders from office
    3. Removal of staff workers at, or above the level of department heads
    4. Ordaining new deacons and commissioning new ministries
    5. Approving brochures and literature that speak for Xenos

    Sample Areas Where Church Authority Often Becomes Illegitimate

    Bible studies or other public ministries started by members outside the established schedule

    Leaders should be very reluctant to oppose new ministries that are within biblical norms (such as Bible studies, evangelistic outreaches, or fellowship groups). Our history is full of examples where individuals began ministries on the side, and those ministries have grown into important features of the church today.

    There may be exceptions to this rule of thumb, where, for instance, the one starting the group has been discredited by recent, objective immoral behavior or false teaching to the degree they may not teach. Another case would be ministries that may cause damage to our reputation. But in general, we want Xenos to be a place where individual ministry initiative is allowed and encouraged, not restricted. Note that Xenos accredits ministries, which is completely different than giving permission for workers to pursue ministries. Accreditation is merely a decision to prioritize a ministry, not to permit it. Usually ministries are accredited after already existing for a period of time.

    Dating and Romance

    Christians are often harmed by wrongful dating practices, and leaders are painfully aware of the dangers in this area. Sexual predators pose a danger to any group of single Christians. However, leaders may be tempted to block this damage through illegitimate use of church authority. Scripture draws a clear line at sexual misbehavior (1 Cor.5:11) and at marrying non Christians (2 Cor. 6:14). In the event that either of these happen or are likely to happen, leaders have a clear basis to intervene with strong admonition and even some types of church discipline.

    Other cases may be more borderline, such as older Christians deciding to seriously date brand new Christians, perhaps only days old in the Lord. These often reflect foolishness, and may call for advice and appeals for wisdom. However, any two walking Christians ultimately have the freedom to date if they want to.

    Even more subjective would be cases where leaders sense that one or both involved in dating are not mature enough or relationally advanced enough to succeed in long-term dating and marriage. While leaders may believe they can tell, especially in extreme cases, that certain couples face major problems and possibly failure in marriage, the fact is, no one can know for certain what the future holds. We know of examples where even our most experienced leaders have erred in their predictions, both claiming marriages would fail when they actually succeeded, and claiming they would succeed when they failed. Besides the subjectivity involved, it should also be clear that the members bear the responsibility for their own marriages, not leaders. For both these reasons, leaders have to restrain themselves to offering personal opinion, and carefully delineating between their opinion and their authority as leaders.

    This should include three distinct elements that should be shared along with any personal advice to dating couples: 1) that the view is only a matter of personal opinion, and could be wrong 2) that the decision belongs to the dating members, not to the leaders and 3) that they will be supported regardless of how they chose to proceed.

    Other cases are so subjective they don't merit even advice from leaders. These would include cases where leaders think the personality mixes might be bad, or where personal tastes regarding looks or life occupations differ. For leaders to offer opinions in such cases constitutes a wrongful intrusion and tends to discredit leaders' advice by bringing it down to a level where they couldn't possibly know what they are talking about. Raising questions in these areas to stimulate members to think carefully may be legitimate, but again, these should be carefully delineated from any sense of urging or appeal.

    Neither we nor Xenos elders want anything to do with telling or pressuring members not to date except in cases involving objective recent sexual misbehavior or unequal yoking with non Christians. Opposing marriage plans between walking Christians is also usually out of line. An exception is the right to decline to officiate at a marriage that bothers the conscience of a given leader. While leaders should not lightly refuse to marry members, we cannot ask them to actively facilitate a union they are uncomfortable with.


    Discipleship means teaching or training. In the 80's a movement grew up in the U.S. known as the "Shepherding Movement." Leaders of this movement argued that people need a discipler to give them orders (even in non-moral areas, like what car to buy) so they could learn to obey. The argument was that by learning to obey an earthly discipler they would learn to obey God, and meanwhile, the discipler could fix them up with good imperatives. This movement has become a catastrophe in the eyes of virtually all churches today. It was completely discredited because either disciplers damaged others' lives but were unable to take responsibility for their actions, or they ended up giving bizarre and unwarranted imperatives. The damage done to evangelicals' reputations was pointless, because this is not how people learn to follow God.

    At Xenos Fellowship we want nothing to do with this understanding of discipleship. Biblical discipleship is a role involving facilitating others' growth through sharing knowledge and experience, and living as models. It is not a role involving controlling others in any way. Actions taken under pressure from a discipler are of doubtful value in any case. We believe in sharing our point of view and the reasons for our opinions, and letting others do as they decide in non-moral areas.

    Another area where leaders should observe restraint is respecting the Holy Spirit's ordering of discipleship ministry and personal friendships. When a member brings a friend to Christ and begins discipling that person, we believe leaders should not interfere unless the one discipling is morally disqualified because of recent, serious, and objective sin. As leaders, our mission is to raise up those who can disciple others. Therefore, it makes no sense to interfere with natural discipleship relationships that could lead to future ministry spheres. An obvious exception to this rule of thumb would be cases of male-female or female-male discipleship. Such relationships are inadvisable except when involving seniors, as shown over and over again historically. Another case calling for intervention would be when a member's efforts to initiate discipleship are interferring with already established discipleship by another member.

    On the other side, leaders (or anyone else) are free to come alongside and also invest in a new person. No one "owns" a disciple in an exclusive sense. But this should be done to assist or help the younger discipler, not to replace him or her. Likewise, we recognize that leaders should respect the relationships people build with one another, such as those in cell groups. It would be arbitrary and harmful to call on people to constantly change groups and lose the continuity of their friendships. While leaving friends is inevitable if we are to plant new groups, this should only be done when necessary to plant new groups or for some other compelling and unusual reason.

    Hobbies, Sports, and Time Management

    How Christians order their time priorities is a matter of some importance in determining how rapidly they grow. We would love to see all Christians give high priority to Body life, evangelism, self-equipping, and relational investment. However, the amount of time to devote to these things is a judgment call that must be made by members, not by leaders. Leaders find themselves in a very sensitive position when they try to explain that failure to prioritize relational investment or time in fellowship could impact a member's growth. We have to explain the relationship between commitment and growth without appearing to issue a demand. As leaders we have to learn to respect different freedoms used by Christians, realizing that not all Christians grow at the same rate or intensity. Scripture does not tell us whether we should spend nights playing softball missing certain meetings, so we should not invent new absolutes in these areas. We believe leaders should not be intrusive by calling on members to order their schedule a certain way.

    We note two important exceptions to this principle. 1) Ministry houses often require attendance at certain meetings as house rules. This is not wrong, as long as the house leadership make their rules clear to members before the move in. 2) Leaders are accountable for a certain level of participation in meetings and other activities as part of their freely accepted burden as leaders. Leaders are more accountable than others, as seen in the requirements for deacons and elders. These requirements are specific to leadership offices, and should never be imposed on members in general. Neither should leadership requirements be imposed on members.

    Choosing Friends

    Which friends a Christian chooses to spend time with can affect their spiritual growth. Scripture warns that "Bad company corrupts good character." (1Cor. 15:33) However, this general maxim is not an absolute, and must vary greatly in application. We believe it is up to individuals to decide whether spending time with certain friends is harmful to their walks. Leaders can point out obvious problems arising in certain relationships, but it is up to the individual to pick his or her own friends.

    Personal Spending

    Some Christians get into trouble through bad spending decisions, and leaders may be tempted to try helping them through guiding their spending. This would be a mistake. While we must feel free to teach biblical principles of financial stewardship, or to raise questions about extremely questionable big-ticket spending, these decisions belong to the individual member. One exception might be where members are in such debt or default that they are bringing disgrace on the name of Christ, or are defrauding fellow Christians. At this point, stealing or defrauding becomes a moral issue.

    The Xenos College ministry is an exciting, outreaching, growing group of students and leaders. We thank God that we have such a motivated and energized group. We are not calling in this paper for a shift that would make us a soft group. We want full involvement. We want zeal. We want commitment. These are the least we should offer the Lord. By making sure we all have a proper understanding of church leadership and authority, we believe we will sustain our zeal and commitment without stain of wrong-doing or over-doing. While we may see some take advantage of the grace of God, in the long run we will see deeper and more lasting results if we all accept only that authority we should have in our position, and refuse any more.

    In Mark 10, Jesus warns about "the spirit of the Gentiles" who love to lord it over one another. John also rebuked "Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them." (3 John) We are thankful we have the kind of leadership that will take positive measures to prevent these problems in our church. Our leaders are our most important assets and we are glad we have good ones.

    We hope the whole church can come together around these principles, and that we will have a clearer understanding than before.