The Biblical Concept of the Church

Chapter 3. Church Authority

by Leland M. Haines

[*] 1. Binding and Loosing
[*] 2. Judicial Authority
[*] 3. The Situation Today
[*] 4. Elders Have Authority
[*] 5. Opinions
[*] 6. General Agreement and Support

Need to Know

The Christian is to lead a life of discipleship in conformity to God's will. This is the natural outcome of repentance and the new birth. Discipleship means that the Christian is willing to follow Jesus Christ and His teachings, as well as those teachings given in the New Testament by His apostles. To follow Christ, however, the disciples must know His will.

Jesus taught that His disciples would know His will. He spoke about them keeping His commandments: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you" (Luke 6:46; cf. Matthew 7:21); "If any one hears my sayings and does not keep them" (John 12:47); "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15; cf. v. 21; 15:10). He also told His disciples how to identify false prophets: "You will know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:16). To do this they would need to know what sin was. He also spoke about those who sinned: "If your brother sins" (Matthew 18:15), "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23). All these show that Jesus expected His disciples to know His teachings and will.

Binding and Loosing

Earlier we mentioned the process of binding and loosing. Because there is so much confusion about this subject, let us examine how Jesus used the concept. He used these terms twice, once in a legislative sense and once in a judicial sense.

When used in a legislative sense, the concept becomes a method of teaching. We have this aspect taught in Jesus' words to Peter: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19). These disciples quickly grasped this as a teaching concept since "keys" were the symbol of the scribes, the teachers of the law.[8] These keys were given to Peter, but as Acts 15 shows the keys were also given to the apostles in general. All the apostles were called together to a conference in Jerusalem to consider the question how Gentiles related to the Mosaic Law. Peter did not decide this question as if he alone had the keys to the kingdom.

Paul in his letter to the Ephesian church made an allusion to Jesus' teaching when he wrote that "the household of God, [was] built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:19, 20). The church was built by all the apostles, thus they as a group possessed the keys. These keys enabled Christ to build His church after His resurrection so Christians would know more about God's will than found in the Gospels.

The apostles did not arbitrarily decide what to bind and loosen on their own. Jesus said, "The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:25, 26). Later Jesus told them the Holy Spirit "will bear witness to me," and the apostles will be "witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning" (John 15:26, 27).

Jesus did not teach His disciples everything they needed to know for His church. He told them, "I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come" (John 16:12, 13). The sending of the Holy Spirit enabled the apostles and some of their close associates to write the Gospels and other New Testament books. This whole process served to bind and loosen the will of God for the church age. The result was that "all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (II Timothy 3:16, 17).

An example of the legislative binding and loosing brought by the Holy Spirit is found in Acts 15. This chapter concludes a section that shows God accepted the Gentiles as members of His church. The early church had to overcome the attitudes that their Jewish heritage strongly ingrained in them. The Jews thought of themselves as being God's people and the Gentiles as being "common and unclean." God used visions and signs to show the early disciples that they should not treat the Gentiles as "common and unclean." Among these were Peter's vision at Joppa concerning the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10:1-11:18), Antioch Greeks turning to Christ (11:19-26; 13:44-52), and Iconium unbelieving Jews stirring up the people against the brethren (14:1, 2).

After many Gentiles turned and followed Christ and were accepted by the apostles and brethren, some men from Judea taught that unless the Gentiles were circumcised according to the custom of Moses, the Gentiles could not be saved. "Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them." Because of this dispute, these parties went "to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question." There "the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter." They discussed and debated the issues. This included speeches by Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and James. After this they sought God's will and came to a decision on this matter. "Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church," to send their position back to the church. Their letter clearly spelled out the decision stating "it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things" (Acts 15:1-29). The "burden" they decided not to lay on the disciples involved keeping the Mosaic Law, especially the rite of circumcision.

Later we read that "as they [Paul and Timothy] went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem" (Acts 16:4). The decisions reached at Jerusalem by the apostles and the church involved major doctrinal issues and were carried to the other churches. The decisions were not a matter of the church exercising authority to legislate God's will on minor everyday issues facing Christians.

Judicial Authority

The church was given another type of binding and loosing. Jesus spoke once about judicial "binding and loosing." He said, relating to brethren sinning, "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18). This power to exercise discipline belongs to the church (v. 17). Jesus emphasized this teaching again when He came to the disciples after His resurrection. He told them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23). This is binding and loosing expressed in different terms. These two passages teach that the church does have authority to pronounce judgment on brethren who fall into sin and do not repent. These passages do not speak to the issue of applying scriptural principles to define God's will.

An example of judicial "binding and loosing" is Paul's pronouncement of judgment on a man living in immorality with his father's wife. He told the church, "Let him who has done this be removed from among you. . . . I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord on the man" and they were to discipline him when the church was assembled (I Corinthians 5:2-5).

The Situation Today

These are models of seeking God's will and "binding and loosing" in the early church. Today we do not have apostles to help us with decisions, but we have, as the apostles had in the early church, the Holy Spirit to guide us in our decisions when we look into the Word (John 16:13). The church also has elders who can study the Scriptures and teach the congregation their meaning. Their teachings must always be based on the Word and can never go against it. The Holy Spirit moved men to write the Scriptures ("no prophecy ever came by the impulse of men, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" [II Peter 1:21]), and He will not lead men in a different direction today. And, as in the case of the early church meeting in Jerusalem, there should be consensus among the church leadership and "the whole church." There should not be disagreements and divisions over these applications.

Elders Have Authority

There are several New Testament passages showing that elders have authority in the church. Paul wrote that the Christians should "respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you" (I Thessalonians 5:12). He wrote to Timothy that the elder "must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God's church?" (I Timothy 3:4, 5). The answer to the last question implies that God cares for His church through her leadership. Paul also wrote to the Corinthian church about their need to be subjected to leadership. Writing about Stephanas and how "they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints," Paul adds, "I urge you to be subject to such men and to every fellow worker and laborer" (I Corinthians 16:16).

The writer of Hebrews wrote, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. . . . Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account." Their leaders were worthy to be remembered and obeyed because they spoke the word of God and were keeping watch over them. Obedience was to be given "joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you" (Hebrews 13:7, 17).

Peter's admonition to the elders was to "tend the flock of God that is in your charge." This shows the elders' responsibility towards leading the church. They were not to be "domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock." He also wrote, "You that are younger be subject to the elders" (I Peter 5:2-6). The imagery here is drawn from the shepherd and his flock. The shepherd is to lead the flock, and this does not entail driving the sheep.

The above Scriptures show that the leadership of the church is called of God to guide the church and to teach the disciples so they will know the will of God. These leaders are warned that they will be judged according to how well they serve and will be "judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1). Therefore they should always seek the welfare of the church, yet it must be recognized that such is not always the case.


It is important for elders and the church to be careful in applying biblical principles. In some situations church leaders, as mentioned earlier, can express their opinions on special situations facing the brethren where there are no explicit scriptural teachings. The elders must be careful in these situations, to state that they are expressing their own opinions and are not giving the commandments of the Lord.

An example of a church leader expressing his opinion is Paul's recommendation "concerning the unmarried." When Paul made this recommendation, he had "no command of the Lord," but he gave his own "opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy." He expressed that "in view of the impending distress it is well for a person to remain" single. He also gave a second reason for this view, that "the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided." These are two good reasons for a person not to marry, but remaining single was still only Paul's opinion. It was not a commandment of the Lord so the brethren and sisters who married "do not sin." If they did marry, no one should judge them (I Corinthians 7:25-36).

Throughout church history many problems have been caused by church leaders not being careful in these types of matters, especially when they came out against new inventions and products. There is no biblical basis to reject new products created by application of new technologies. Some areas of the church did not show much wisdom when they rejected such things as automobiles, electric, the telephone, etc., and disciplined those who obtained these things. The church has no right to bind and loosen in these cases. Binding and loosing belonged to the apostles. In writing about this, D. D. Whedon wrote, "Our Lord therefore here confers upon the twelve an inspired and miraculous authority and power to found and to govern his church after his resurrection, by decisions which should be ratified in heaven. . . . There is no proof whatever that this miraculous power of the twelve apostles ever descended to any successors."[9] If church leaders treat their opinions as commandments of the Lord and try to enforce them through the use of discipline, great harm can be done to brethren and the church.

General Agreement and Support

The whole area of ethical teachings should be firmly grounded on scripture and have general agreement and support within the church. We should follow the exhortations Paul wrote to the Philippian church to "complete my joy by being of the same mind" (Philippians 2:2), and to the Corinthians "that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you" (I Corinthians 1:10) and "agree with one another" (II Corinthians 13:11). Following these admonitions would produce agreement on applications within the church and bring oneness and unity to the church (John 17:21, 22; Romans 12:16; 15:5).

A good example of how the church should agree on issues is when in the early church "it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church" that the Gentiles need not be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:22). Although church leaders do not have the authority today to make decisions as done at Jerusalem, brethren should expect the same type of agreement in today's churches concerning applications.

The church members should not take elders' teaching of the Word lightly because the Bible does teach that Christians are to obey their leaders. And the same applies to when the elders express their opinions, but in these matters it is not a sin to follow one's own conscience. Today many think they are free to do as they please. This is almost a replay of the period of the judges when "every man did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 17:6). Christian freedom does not mean that disciples have license to do as they please. Christian freedom means freedom from the Mosaic Law and from sin (John 8:34-36; Romans 8:2; Galatians 5; I Peter 2:16; II Peter 2:18, 19).


8. D. D. Whedon, Whedon's Commentary Revised, Harrisonburg, Virginia: Christian Light, 1981, p 203.

9. Later in I Corinthians Paul wrote twice about "doing the work of the Lord" (I Corinthians 15:58, 16:10). Paul referred to this work as a singular work, and not as plural works. Therefore it was not "good works," but the overall, strenuous effort of Christians to build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. See Ephesians 4:12 and II Timothy 4:5, I Thessalonians 5:12-13 for other references to the singular works.


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June 22, 2000