Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part III: Thinking it Through (Logical and Theological Perspectives)
Chapter 15 – The Nature of Authority in the New Testament. Walter L. Liefield.
Dr. Liefield begins his essay distinguishing between leadership, authority and power.
We may distinguish authority from leadership on the one hand and from raw power on the other. Leadership is used here as a general term to describe personal influence that generates a positive response among followers. It is earned, it may be invited, and it is voluntarily accepted. Authority, in the sense under consideration, is a narrower term used to describe the right to command others and to enforce obedience. It is usually conferred, through appointment or election, on someone having a position in an organizational setting. Power is usually thought of as influence and authority that are seized rather than earned or voluntarily conferred. Often what begins as welcomed leadership or acknowledged authority is later transformed by an ambitious person into power or tyranny. (255-256)
From here Liefield launches into a wide ranging survey of Scripture examining authority from a wide variety of angles. Using his outline, I will offer some brief statements on his conclusions.
Instances of Authority in the New Testament
The authority of Jesus – Jesus said that “’all authority in heaven and on earth, had been given to him." At issue for us is what dimension of his unique authority, if any, was passed on to his followers.” (257)
The authority of the Twelve – The only mention of exousia (authority) with relation to the disciples refers to authority over demons. Peter was given the keys to the Kingdom and an implied authority to “bind” and “loose” is given, but in neither mention of this story is it linked to teaching or preaching. There is a wide variety of interpretations as to what the keys mean. Bottom line, Liefield concludes authority over the evil powers was the only authority given to the twelve.
Paul’s Apostolic Authority – “First, he exercised authority over his coworkers … and churches he himself founded. Second, he primarily uses exousia (“authority”) language in a struggle with the Corinthians over “rights” (1 Cor 8:9; 9:1-18). Third, with the exception of urgent and emotional cases, he was usually gentle in his authority, “urging” rather than commanding Timothy and Titus … and not issuing a “command” to the Corinthians (2 cor 8:8).” (258)
The Question of Authority and “Church Government" – Liefield writes, “While there is clear evidence for the fact of early church governance, there is no express teaching on the subject in the New Testament.” (258) From here Liefield moves into an examination of verses like Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” The key word is peitho “obey” and Liefield suggest it is quite fluid in meaning. The TNIV reads “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority.” This verse challenges the idea that there was no authority but the wording is “…clearly temperate in comparison to stronger terms in the same semantic domain. (259)
A second word he examines is proistemi which he says can mean “‘to show concern/ care for / devote oneself to’ and ‘to be at the head of’ (thus to exercise leadership.)” (259-260) It appears eight times in Paul’s writings and in four cases it tends to convey the idea of leader giving devoted care. Four other cases are found in the Pastoral epistles.
Authority in the Pastoral Epistles – “Proistemi” appears three times in 1 Timothy 3:4-5, 12 and relates to and elder’s or deacon’s relationship to this family. The key verse is I Timothy 5:17
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; …” (NRSV)
In place of “rule,” some translations use “guide” or “direct the affairs of the church.” Liefield believes the alternate translations are more in keeping with the connotation of the word elsewhere. “As with 1 Thessalonians 5:12, this description shows evidence of a plurality of leadership, a group who are to be respected, esteemed, loved and honored (probably with financial support.) (261)
Liefield notes that in most places, leadership is described more in terms of guidance and caring, and less in terms of authority. He notes there are exceptions like 1 Timothy 1:3 where Timothy is commanded to halt teaching of false doctrines but it is clear is not an elder or past or but rather Paul’s apostolic representative with Paul’s full authority.
Specifically Gender-Related Passages – Liefield draws our attention to 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 dealing with the sexual relationship between husband and wife. Neither the husband nor the wife has authority over his or her own body. “Thus in the most intimate aspect of marriage the authority of husband and wife is equal.” (262) Liefield mentions the confusing 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 passage about a woman having “authority (control) over her head” but Liefield says that the head covering “…is not a ‘sign’ the woman is under authority.” (262) He also mentions 1 Timothy 2:12 but notes that exousia is not used here. Rather the word is authenteo and as we have already visited this issue in an earlier chapter I will not revisit it here.
Order and Structure in the New Testament Churches
Discussion about authority in today’s church can easily move in the wrong direction. It often starts with one’s own church structure and with assumptions that are more characteristic of our times than of the first century. It then moves back to the New Testament, seeking to fit its teachings into our contemporary structures. (263)
With this caution, Liefield then turns to other aspect of Church order and structure.
Organization, ministry and leadership – New Testament “Church organization probably differed somewhat from place to place, but as noted above, churches founded by Paul, at least, had plural leadership by elders. The early church had no equivalent to the Old Testament priesthood, nor is there evidence in the New Testament that one person with special authorization ‘presided' at the Lord’s Supper.’” (263-264) “Apostles unquestionably were acknowledged as the leading figures in the church; but no provision is made in the New Testament for their “succession.” People designated as ‘pastors’ functioned within congregations, not above them.” (264) “With the exception of the Pastoral Epistles, addressed to Paul’s apostolic delegates, Paul’s letters are addressed to the churches themselves. None is addressed to a single leader, nor is one person ever spoken to as being 'in charge' of the church." (264)
The Role of Teachers – Liefield references the idea of “teaching authority” as an activity women are frequently restricted from engaging in. “…there is no verbal connection in the New Testament between the word teacher and the vocabulary of authority. Hence the very term teaching authority, as though authority were vested in the teacher rather than in what is taught, it is an anachronism when we are discussing teaching/teachers in the New Testament.” (265)
Liefield also observes that “What is often overlooked in these discussion is that women traditionally were not welcomed as teachers in either Greek or Jewish society….If missionaries, like Paul, were to be all things to all people to win them to Christ (1 Cor 9:22), public proclamation of Christian teachings would ideally be done by men.” (265)
The Role of Elders – “First, there is no evidence of an individual elder who acted with autonomous authority. Eldership was plural, whether in a church or in a town. ... Second, elders were shepherds, not a board of directors. … On the other hand, nowhere does Paul say that individuals or groups possessing an ongoing authority made the decisions. (266)
Ordination – “It is increasingly recognized that while ordination is significant, it is not found in its usual modern sense in the New Testament or in early Christianity. The practice as we know it developed toward the third Christian century. … Whatever else, the laying on of hands was not an appointment to an “office” but corporate recognition of a ministry already in progress, which is the point of 1 Timothy 5:22. … The fact that the New Testament church did not practice ordination as commonly understood today is significant, because spiritual authority has long been connected with ordination.
The Use of Titles and the Term “office.” Here Liefield quotes Jesus in Matthew 23:8-12:
"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
…. office is not a New Testament church term. The concept of “office can be traced to the English word in the KJV, which gave the impression that it is in the Greek text; but in none of the passages in which the KJV has the word office (except concerning the Jewish priesthood) does any word meaning “office” occur in the Greek. (268)
Contemporary Expressions of Authority
De jure, de facto and de senso Authority
“If decisions regarding authority in the contemporary church are to be considered biblically legitimate (=de jure) for the church, they must derive from biblical principles and precedents such as those discussed above. Yet it would be unrealistic to ignore the fact that often individuals have an actual (de facto) rule over others in a setting where Scripture does not grant the de jure authority. An aura of de facto authority, for example, sometimes marks the founders of the congregation with de facto authority. … the prominence of today’s senior pastor and preacher has tended to increase the perceived (or what we might call de senso) authority of the person in the pulpit over those in the congregation.” (269)
Further Practical Issues
If authority is in the church itself as a “committee of the whole,” do women have a vote? [Therefore in authority.] …Another issue is whether the preaching of a sermon is an authoritative act, because that logically carries the implication that the congregation must obey the imperatives in the sermon, not just those in the Scripture being quoted. Further, churches may differ as to whether baptism and “presiding” at the Lord’s Supper are acts of authority that should be restricted to ordained clergy. This is de jure in some denominations but undocumented and therefore de facto in some churches. (270)
Concluding Observations: Four Distortions
Formalization – Over emphasizing the authority of people fulfilling a function and creating “offices.” Elevating some in “authority” (through ordination) over others.
Normalization – Attributing New Testament apostolic authority to pastors.
Generalization – Taking a specific case like 1 Timothy 2:12 and authenteo and then applying to women in all places and times.
Minimalization – The tendency to minimize the ministry of women both in the New Testament and today.
Liefield closes, reminding us that all church authority is under Christ, under Scripture and under the leading of the Holy Spirit. Leadership is a matter of servanthood and, “The purpose of authority is to glorify the Lord and to facilitate his mission in the world.” (271)
Walter L. Liefield received his Ph.D from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. He is distinguished professor emeritus of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He has held several pastorates, most recently serving as senior pastor of Christ Church in Lake Forest, Illinois. Among his several books are New Testament Exposition, Interpreting the Book of Acts and (cowritten with Ruth Tucker) Daughters of the Church. He and his wife, Olive, have three grown children and seven grandchildren.
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