A church board with which I am connected is considering some changes to its structure and functions. At this point it is constituted as an “elders board” and one of the questions raised in these discussions focused on the issue of “spiritual authority.” If spiritual authority within the congregation is vested in the “office” of elder, then this creates some challenges to devising a church board structure whose members will not be called “elders.” Perhaps a similar issue arises if your congregation defines its board members as “deacons.” And where do pastoral staff fit into this issue of “spiritual authority”? Getting clarity about the place and function of spiritual authority within congregational polity becomes then a critical question when devising and implementing church board structure, functions, and relationships.
In my view spiritual authority defines the ability to discern God’s will and the authority to act upon it. Within a church context people vested with spiritual authority, including responsibility for teaching within the congregation, are viewed as representing God in a specific way, with the expectation that individuals in the congregation will heed and follow their direction. While this usually has to do with defining theological truth, interpreting God’s word, and discerning vision and direction, it can also get wrapped up with tangible elements such as building programs, hiring new staff, and budget direction. When spiritual authority is viewed as vested in a particular individual or set of individuals without accountability, then it is hard to limit the scope of that authority just to one aspect of their leadership activities.
Traditionally, how have churches committed to congregation polity understood the dynamics of spiritual authority within their communities? I think most bylaws established by these congregations make it quite clear — spiritual authority is vested in the congregation as a whole. Consider the decisions which the bylaws require the congregations to make — usually associated with appointing board members and officers, appointing a lead pastor (and other other pastors), approving an annual budget, approval of extraordinary expenditures (including building projects), approving changes to bylaws and Statement of Faith, etc. All of the critical decisions related to the life of the congregation are made by the congregation. In my view this means that spiritual authority, i.e., the authority to discern God’s will in these important matters, lies with the congregation. They may be informed by, taught by, and brought recommendations by a lead pastor or board, but ultimately the congregation discerns and decides. Of course the biblical foundations for this arrangement lie in teaching related to the equality of believers, the priesthood of believers, and the residence of God’s Spirit in each believer, as well as the values that define Christ’s church. Congregations organized around other understandings of church polity will define the flow of spiritual authority differently.
So where does that leave board members and lead pastor in a context determined by congregational polity when it comes to spiritual authority? In my view it is their appointment by the congregation that invests them with a delegated, accountable, spiritual authority. The congregation authorizes these leaders to exercise spiritual authority on their behalf, and usually this authority is carefully defined and delimited in the same bylaws. They have a specific accountability for the spiritual authority entrusted to them. These limits include ethical boundaries, as well as decision-making boundaries.
When it comes to discerning “theological issues,” I think the congregation appoints a lead pastor (along with other pastors) with the expectation that they will use their spiritual intelligence, vocational competence, and theological acumen on behalf of the congregation to provide the best direction possible for the congregation. By this means they invite the church board and the congregation under the Spirit’s direction to consider with them the appropriate interpretation and application of God’s word to the theological issue under discussion. Of course, such discussions normally will have been held extensively within the board before a recommended course of action is brought to the congregation for approval. This presumes then that spiritual authority is in a sense shared by the congregation with its appointed leadership in defined ways. It is the responsibility of the board, on behalf of the congregation, to ensure that spiritual authority is used appropriately and responsibly within the community.
If this understanding is correct, then a church board has considerable flexibility when it comes to recommending to the congregation how the church board should be structured, how its role should be defined, and how it should relate to other leadership within the congregation. A church board does not have to be an “elders board” to ensure that spiritual authority is exercised appropriately on behalf of the congregation.