I presented the following for the congregation I serve during their annual Planning Council. I think it could be useful for discussion.
Life Together – Authority and Responsibilities
One of the keys in our Life Together as a congregation is authority. Authority is a key word for us to understand as a congregation because authority is not power. Power is taken. Authority is given. The use of the word “authority” always keeps in mind the one who gave the authority in the first place. There is a much different way in which Christians are supposed to behave when we understand that the authority we have in the places that God puts us is from His hand. Remember that Jesus has all authority in heaven and on the earth (Matthew 28). He received that authority from God the Father, and He bestows certain parts of that authority to Christians in certain roles.
First of all, many times in the life of a congregation authority is abused or neglected. Each of these affects the other. If authority is abused (used improperly by someone given to exercise it; or used by someone not given to exercise it) then it often creates neglect by those who suffer from the abuse (others let the usurper exercise authority rather than confront it and suffer more abuse). Neglect of authority likewise encourages abuses. The damage is cyclical and it can really tear into a congregation.
Often this pattern of abuse and neglect happens with the interaction with clergy and laity. Clergy have been known to “lord it over” congregations and become involved in matters in which they have no authority. Clergy have also been known to be run under by laity who usurp the authority of the preaching/teaching office and demand a pastor do things that are contrary to Scripture. Each of these is a horrible sin which causes collateral damage for generations. Each of these abuses can cause neglect by the other “side”. For instance, with a lording over clergyman, the laity may simply stop doing as they are supposed to do and submit in all things to the word of the pastor, even though the pastor has no authority over the congregation in such a matter. With a usurping laity, the pastor may simply become a hireling and neglect the honest care of souls which requires both using the Law and Gospel. In this case of pastoral neglect of the ministry, the pastor judges things not according to faithfulness but upon pleasing the people (and keeping himself in their good favor).
In every congregation’s life, these situations have occurred. Sinners misuse authority, it is what they do. Rebellion against authority comes naturally to the Old Adam, and so that rebellion will reveal itself in both abuse and neglect of authority in the congregation. The only solution to that is both the Law of God to reveal such sin, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to cover that sin with the forgiveness that creates New Life.
In that forgiveness is the solution to the problem of authority abuse or neglect. Forgiveness leads us back into the Word of Truth, the Scriptures. It is there where we find what God has given to the Church and what God has given to the Pastors (who are also a part of the Church). Dr. Luther clearly showed this understanding when he wrote the Table of Duties for the Small Catechism. This set the grounds for “authority” for us as we live out our lives. Forgiveness frees us from worrying about pleasing God (Jesus has done that already for us) so that we can work hard on serving our neighbor. Forgiveness cleans the slate of the past for us. If embraced, it can create a fresh start for congregations which have suffered under authority abuse or neglect.
There are some key points that we need to consider with regards to authority in a forgiven Life Together. First of all, we need to consider where God has placed us. In Divine Service, are you a preacher or a hearer? In the congregation, are you clergy or laity? In the congregation are you a communicant member or baptized member? Has God placed you into a board or officer position?
That last one is most pertinent for us to consider here at this Planning Council. God has given authority to the congregation. He has created the Office of the Ministry within the congregation (Matthew 28; John 20). To those pastors God has given the authority to publicly administer the keys (to forgive or not forgive) for the good of the souls of the congregation. This is done through preaching, teaching, absolving, baptizing, communing, and providing spiritual care for members of the congregation. This is the pastor’s authority. It is handed over to the pastor through issuing a Divine Call, which is Christ’s action through the congregation. Other things which are necessary in the congregation for it to go on are not in the pastor’s authority. Decisions about money, property, and other things are not in the authority of the pastor, but in the congregation. The pastor may and indeed should use his teaching authority to teach the Scriptures in these matters so that those who are given authority to act can do so with God’s wisdom. This is why the congregation has set up boards to handle these other matters with the authority of the congregation behind them.
What is your authority as an elected officer or board member of this congregation? First of all, consider your place. Then go to those documents which spell out the authority found in that place. That is usually spelled out for most congregations in their Constitution and Bylaws. These materials can be supplemented by policy manuals as well. If you know your place in the congregation, consult those materials to find out which authority God has bestowed to you through the congregation. Please note that the authority ultimately goes back to Christ, and also to the congregation. What that means for you is that if the congregation decides to change who has the authority to do these things, it can do so (a congregation can override a board).
The Scriptures do not prescribe a certain kind of organization for the congregation (other than having a man fill the Office of the Ministry). In all other things, we are encouraged to use our own reason, seasoned by and subjected to the wisdom which comes from God (found in His Word). The Word teaches us that in a Life Together, love should rule the day in our interactions. Love for each other should help us look past our sins against one another and work hard to come to common goals and solutions to any problem. In all things, the pastor is always available to apply the Word of God to a given situation and if necessary, preach Law or Gospel or teach (as that is his authority from God).
As you consider the authority this congregation has given to you, it is wise to ask God for wisdom to conduct your duties with all godliness, keeping the good of the congregation and the glory of God in mind for all decision making. We want all things to provide good order so that the pure Gospel can have free reign among our congregation and all of our members be found in good spiritual health. We want to allow for our fellow members to be able to receive from God the good things He gives and then respond in praise and thanksgiving for what they have been given. We want them freed with a good conscience so that they can serve the neighbor in love. All of what we do has these things as goals. If you have questions about understanding the authority given to you, talk to your pastor, who can teach you more about it.