How Does Authority Work?

Authority … the dreaded A-word. For many, this word is the direct cause of sleepless nights and angry knee-jerk reactions. Of course, the abuse of authority is responsible for such feelings, but for those who have suffered abusive (or even misused) authority, it’s often difficult to separate the abuse from the truth.

However, it is vital that we find the courage to do so.

A kingdom without an authority base is not a kingdom at all; anarchy and lawlessness will abound. A family without a healthy understanding of authority is not much of a family; it will become dysfunctional quickly. And herein lies our way forward … understanding authority from the context of the Father-heart of God.

Continue reading as we look at what true authority is and how it works in the context of an advancing Kingdom-shaped ecclesia. The answer to abuse is not non-use; it’s proper use. If we don’t redeem this truth, we’ll struggle to become intentional in our missional life together.

So, how does authority work?

Due to misuse and abuse, authority is a dirty word for many today. However, all true authority flows from the Father-heart of God (Romans 13:1ff). In fact, and this may meddle with your mind at first, authority operates in the Godhead.

Jesus said, “As the Father sent Me, I also send you” (John 20:21). Father God did not say to Jesus, “Son, if you have some time on your hands …”. He sent Jesus. Jesus also said, speaking of the Holy Spirit, “the Father will send [Him] in My name” (John 14:26). Again, Father God did not say, “Holy Spirit, what’s your take on My proposal?” Father God sent the Spirit.

We will continue to have a problem with authority as long as we view it from an institutional construct. But when we view true authority in the relational context it belongs, the problems dissipate. I’m convinced that when we grasp a Hebrew mindset – understanding that “community” is essentially family and “leadership” is spiritual parenting – the concept of authority is no longer a threatening word. When we view authority in the context of love-filled parents and a life-giving family, we unwrap the blessings that God intends through it. Incidentally, it helped me to initially add the prefix “relational” to the word “authority” to renew my meddled mind. (Please refer to the article, What are Hebrew values? 1)

In this article, we look at the two core allocations of God-authorised leadership that assists the healthy and fruitful functioning of the Body of Christ. I would like to apologise upfront if it comes across a little technical and void of heart. This may stem from my inabilities as a writer and because I’ve tried to be succinct in this article. Reading the article, What is apostolic alignment? alongside this one may better paint the topic in the context of the Father’s heart.

Hence, while we investigate the key aspects involved, please remember that it is couched in the context of the above foundational Hebrew values; that is, true leadership reveals the Father-heart of God. Leadership that does not flow from the Father’s heart in a servant attitude is not in keeping with the Spirit of Christ.

Buckle up tight!

First, apostolic authority…

Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me … Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:18, 19). This word Jesus used for “authority” is the Greek word exousia and refers to delegated authority2; authority entrusted from Jesus Himself to apostles. This was not a mandate given to every believer, but was given specifically to the “eleven” apostles (Matthew 28:16). Obviously every believer has a role to play in the fulfilment of the Great Commission, but Jesus first entrusted this authority to apostles. While every believer has a responsibility in it; the apostles are entrusted with functional responsibility for it.

After Paul laboured to teach the worth and value of every single “member” of the “body” (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), he then concluded by stating: “God has appointed these in the church: first apostles…” (v. 28). Paul was certainly not advocating some “top-of-the-pile” super-apostle; that would contradict all he had just taught. Instead, he was referring to priority or sequence of function in fulfilling the Great Commission. The grace gift of apostle is not more important than other gifts but it’s to be deployed first in breaking new ground in establishing spiritual communities to advance the Kingdom of God.

Apostles plant and serve churches standing in this delegated authority. In the difficulties associated with the church in Corinth, for example, Paul appealed to them on the basis of his apostolic exousia3: “Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the authority [Greek: exousia] which the Lord has given me for edification” (2 Corinthians 13:10).

Furthermore, Paul regularly sent members of his apostolic team4, such as Timothy (Philippians 2:19-23; 1 Timothy 1:3), to resource the churches aligned to them as an extension of his apostolic authority. And he expected the churches to “receive” [Greek: prosdechomai] them in this authority (Philippians 2:19-30; Romans 16:1, 2)5. (Please see the article entitled, What is an apostle?6)

Paul wrote, “We, however, will not boast beyond measure, but within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us” (2 Corinthians 10:13). The Greek word for “limits” [metron] refers to a “ruler, a measuring instrument” and the word for “sphere” [kanon] means, “that which is measured, a determined extent, a portion measured off”. Thus, the phrase “limits of the sphere” is literally, “measure of rule” and speaks of the “boundary lines of God-given responsibility”.

As an apostle, Paul had a God-appointed sphere of apostolic responsibility and he was careful not to exceed it – trusting the Lord to enlarge this circle of influence as He willed (2 Corinthians 10:14-17). This is in keeping with the principle that our authority only extends to the degree of our responsibility. Thus, in this sphere of responsibility, the apostle and his team are authorized to drive back the darkness, planting and serving churches. Outside of this sphere, it is different. When Paul returned to Antioch, for instance, he did not ride into town as the super-apostle; he returned as a brother to give account for his endeavours (Acts 14:27, 28).

As apostolic teams purpose to advance the Kingdom rule of God, contending for the Body of Christ, churches may specifically align themselves to them. This happens either because the church was birthed by them, such as Paul and the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4:15), or because their relationship with the church matures into a father-son relationship, such as Paul and the Ephesians; a church he did not start (Acts 19:1ff). These relationships should be identified and regularly affirmed as they are so crucial to true apostolic life and accountability.

When Paul wrote “to the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2), for example, he was writing to the churches within his apostolic authority; the believers in his “sphere of responsibility”. This epistle deals with specific issues handicapping these believers and Paul was the one, by virtue of apostolic alignment, who had to address them7. While Paul encouraged the Corinthian church to be blessed by all that God was doing in their city, sternly rebuking sectarian attitudes (1 Corinthians 3:4), he reminded them of his apostolic calling to them (1 Corinthians 4:15, 16). In a nutshell, he was their dad!

As outlined in another article6, the concept of apostle is rooted in the military concept of an admiral authorized to establish a new city and set up the infrastructure of the new colony. This is a wonderful picture of the spiritual work of an apostle as he coordinates an apostolic team in establishing self-governing communities to advance God’s Kingdom.

Therefore, while not every church in the New Testament record was started by an apostle, every church benefited from an apostle’s input at some point.

For example, the church in Samaria was only fully established once the apostles stepped into the work that Philip was led to initiate (Acts 8:5-17). Philip did not require permission to evangelize Samaria; he followed the Spirit’s leading. But the spiritual establishment of the church required apostolic alignment. In another instance, unidentified “men from Cyprus and Cyrene” were used by the Lord to preach the Gospel in Antioch; and while some of those who initiated the work may have had the grace gift of apostle, Barnabas – certainly operating in apostolic authority – arrived on the scene to help establish the church (Acts 11:19-26).

Obviously, every believer is called and anointed to preach the Gospel: “Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Jesus commanded “those who believe” – not just apostles – to “preach the Gospel” and to demonstrate His Kingdom through signs and wonders in His name (Mark 16:15-18). But in the New Testament, we do not see churches planted, “commended to the Lord” (Acts 14:23), without the involvement – at some point – of apostolic authority and ministry.

This does not mean they have to personally sanction every church plant by “cutting-the-tape” at a dedication ceremony. We certainly do not need any more show-boating and empty rituals. But for an apostolic foundation to be laid, apostolic authority is required. Why would God give this grace gift if it was unnecessary or merely optional?

The local churches then planted by an apostolic team thrive by being correctly aligned to this team; their input being crucial for the churches to fulfil their spiritual destiny (Ephesians 4:11-13). This is, of course, not to propose denominationalism where “command and control” lies with those at the denominational headquarters. Remember that even when Paul’s apostolic authority was challenged by some at Corinth, he fell back on these two issues: one, his apostolic calling to them, and two, his father’s heart for them. He did not threaten to remove them from the denominational register or issue some damning papal decree.

In fact, Paul described his relationship with the churches as a father and mother not master or lord; his authority was exercised as a parent’s appeal not in the issuing of directives (see 1 Corinthians 3:2; 4:14, 15; 2 Corinthians 12:14; Galatians 4:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11). The words he used most in his personal instructions to the churches aligned to his apostolic fatherhood were the Greek words parakaleo, which means “to appeal” – a derivative of the word parakletos, “to come alongside” – and erotao, which refers to “making a request”. Thus, the nature of apostolic authority is expressed through a parent’s heart and a servant’s attitude.

Now that we’ve looked at apostolic authority…

Let’s look at eldership rule…

The appointment of elders is what distinguishes a fully functioning church from just any grouping of believers. In fact, it is the next key delegation of apostolic authority. Remember that the first transfer of exousia authority was from Jesus to apostles and their teams. The second, and final, transfer is from the apostolic team to parent-elders who they appoint.

After an apostolic team has made in-roads into a new “people group,” their intentional goal is to release the new formed community of believers into the oversight (spiritual parenthood) of elders. Paul “appointed elders in every church” and thus “commended them to the Lord” (Acts 14:23). He instructed Titus and Timothy to “appoint elders” in the churches they were sent to (Titus 1:5; 1 Timothy 3:1-7).

Apostles are responsible for the identification and release of elders because this is the key transfer of authority. While an equipping gift is a gift of grace given by God and recognized by man, an elder is a role of leadership both recognized and appointed by man. For this reason, the Lord has given a detailed list of character requirements to assist in the appointment of elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7).

The Bible then uses the term “rule” to stress the importance of the elder’s authority (1 Timothy 5:17); a strong word meaning, “to stand before,” hence “to lead, to attend to,” stressing care and diligence. As the Biblical picture associated with the elder is, of course, the shepherd and his flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2) and since the church finds its life predominantly through communal life, an elder’s primary role is to parent a community of believers, a simple church family. (Please see the article, What is an elder?8)

Paul instructed Timothy to “let the elders who rule [Greek: proistemi] well be counted of double honour… ‘The labourer is worthy of his wages.’ Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (1 Timothy 5:17-22). This passage highlights two crucial issues:

The government of the simple church is entrusted to the elders.

The apostolic team appoints the elders to “rule, to govern over their “measure of rule” – the simple church under their oversight. In this sense, the church is not overseen by the apostolic team but parent-led by the elders that the apostolic team appoints. Thus the simple church is a self-governing family9 of believers fathered by parent-elders.

The elders remain aligned to the apostolic vision.

In these instructions to Timothy, Paul shows that the elders remain mutually accountable to the apostolic team; in this passage, the Ephesian elders were aligned to the apostolic team that Timothy represented. Thus the simple church is not an independent group “doing-their-own-thing;” it is a vital part of the Body of Christ and apostolic vision, and should regularly recognize and affirm its interdependence.

Notice some of the implications of Paul’s instructions.

Firstly, the elders stand in a place of honour in relation to their apostolic oversight: “Let the elders … be counted worthy of double honour” (v. 17). In other words, the elders do not stand on their own; they have authority because they make themselves accountable to authority.

Secondly, the apostolic team is at the very least aware of the administration of the financial affairs of the churches aligned to them; Timothy was to ensure that the elders were compensated in certain cases: “The labourer is worthy of his wages” (v. 18). Obviously, an apostolic team must be “honourable” in this regard “not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (2 Corinthians 8:21). Therefore a healthy set of checks-and-balances are required for all to be “above-board”. But the point here is that the elders are accountable to the apostolic team in financial matters.

And thirdly, the apostolic team is to carry out necessary discipline of elders in sin: “rebuke in the presence of all” (v. 20). The protection of the flock lies in the strength of the relationship between the elders and their apostolic oversight, and the responsibility every believer has to appeal to the apostolic team should their elders be in error. No man is an island; he who attempts to isolate himself not only “rages against all wise judgment” (Proverbs 18:1), but often results in ship-wrecking the faith of others.

This then is a foundational principle in the relationship between apostolic teams and the elders they appoint. Although the government of the simple churches rest with the elders, they wisely remain mutually aligned to apostolic vision even as the apostolic team submits to the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what we refer to as apostolic alignment. (Please see the article entitled, “What is apostolic alignment?”10)

Summing up then … I personally don’t believe it gets any more complicated than this when it comes to God-given leadership authority …

Apostolic teams, in the authority of the Lord of the Harvest, pioneer new ground and birth a new fledgling spiritual community. Nurturing this new work to be a self-governing simple church, their goal is to identify and appoint parent-elders to oversee the spiritual family. When the apostolic team appoints the new parent-leaders, these elders now stand in the authority of the Head of the Church to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2 c. Acts 20:28).

At this point, having commended the church to the Lord (Acts 14:23), the apostolic team has made themselves redundant. From this point, they honour and respect the authority delegated and serve as they are invited back in by the parent-elders. We thus speak of, from this point, relationally-invited authority as opposed to hierarchically-imposed authority. The simple church would certainly benefit from their perspective, but does not require their permission.

In keeping with the family metaphor, the apostolic team serves as the grandparents of the church, respecting the elders as the parents of the spiritual family.


1 What are Hebrew values? <My Big Fat Greek Mentality>

2 While the Greek word dunamis, translated “power” (Acts 1:8), refers to an inherent power given to all believers through faith; the Greek word exousia refers to a delegated authority entrusted in line with God-give grace and responsibility.

3 From this point on we use the phrase “apostolic authority” in place of this Greek word exousia. Some question the validity of apostles today: “Were there not just twelve apostles … full stop?” No. The original twelve apostles did have a unique role as witnesses of the resurrection of Christ, and we refer to them as the pre-Ascension apostles (Revelation 21:14). But there were post-Ascension apostles in the early church (see for example, Acts 14:14; 1 Corinthians 4:6, 9; Galatians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2:6). And in fact, the Bible makes it very clear that the equipping gifts – including “apostles” – were given after Jesus’ ascension (Ephesians 4:7-11) and that the church will not come to the “fullness of Christ” without them (Ephesians 4:11-13). Until then, all the equipping gifts – including the apostle – are not just valid but are absolutely vital.

4 The phrase, “apostolic team” is a helpful umbrella term in referring to a team of Ephesians 4:11 equipping gifts working together facilitated by an apostle gift(s).

5 This word “receive” captures the responsibility of believers to willingly submit, by their own volition, to apostolic authority and enjoy the blessing of the sent person’s grace gift. The derivative of the same Greek word is found in this foundational statement of Jesus: “He who receives [Greek: dechomai] a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward” (Matthew 10:41).

6 What is an apostle? <Definitely Maybe>

7 Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians was different from his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, which were letters intended for circulation, covered doctrine and related practice – they did not deal with specific problems in each situation.

8 What is an elder? <The Good Shepherd>

9 The word “self” in the phrase “self-governing” obviously does not refer to the selfish, fallen nature. It refers to the awareness and growth the group has in Christ independent of external support. We use it to refer to a group in the same way that the word “self-control” is used to describe an individual whose selfish, fallen nature is under the government of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23). Thus, the goal for every new community is to be self-governed; operating freely under the government of the Spirit through appointed elders.

10 What is apostolic alignment? <A Few Good Fathers>