Before we jump directly into the topic let me define my terms. First, by elders I’m referring to men who have been recognized by a certain congregation, because of their blameless character (1 Timothy 3:2), as leaders of the congregation. Second, by authority I’m referring to the right elders have to make a choice. Specifically the right to choose in matters of which the Bible does not give clear instructions. We call these “matters of opinion.” They span from the times the congregation will meet for corporate worship, to determining which missionaries the congregation will support. Thus the question addressed put in another way is: Do the elders (as the recognized shepherds of the congregation) have the ability to make choices in “matters of opinion?”
1 Peter 5:3 (read my study of this verse here) has become a proof-text of sorts for people who deny that elders have authority within the church. It is often argued that from this verse we can glean the truth that the ONLY way that elders can lead is by example. The verse reads not “lording it over the lot, but being examples to the flock.” The conclusion then reached is since elders can’t “lord it over,” then they do not have authority.
Why it’s flawed?
I believe this conclusion is flawed for the following reasons:
First, there is a difference between “lording it over” and “having authority.” “Lording it over” views leadership as a means for power and authority. It is domineering and forcing your opinions on another regardless of their say. It is seeing leadership more as a position than a service. However, it is possible to make decisions for a group without “lording it over” the group.
Second, the very fact that the elders could potentially “lord it over” the church seems to imply that they have some legitimate authority. A group with no authority at all would never be tempted to use that authority in ways that were inappropriate. Thus, since Peter speaks of abuse of authority, it seems to imply that the elders have some measure of authority.
Third, the Old Testament and Synagogal background to elders in the New Testament show that the role has authority. Elders in the Old Testament served in a wide range of ways including the settling of disputes, enforcement of the Mosaic Law, and taught the people the message of God. In the Synagogue the elders of that group were involved with the distribution of funds and the setting of worship times and organization.
Finally, the word shepherd in the Bible denotes a position of authority and leadership. It is used to describe God, Jesus, prophets, priests, and king. All of those are people with varying degrees of authority. Applying this terminology to an elder would also mean that the elders have a degree of authority.
Some people have been hurt by shepherds that they viewed were using dictatorial practices. I’m also sure in actuality there are men like Diotrephes (3 John 9) in the church. However, just because someone has sinned in “lording over the flock” does not mean that we shift to the other extreme of saying they have no authority at all.