Ask Steve: The Church’s Authority

Question: Steve, what authority, if any, does the church have over individuals and the counseling process?

Answer: The church has the right of authority over individual believers in that the church has the obligation to nurture, shepherd, and edify them in love and truth. In turn, believers are expected to obey and submit to church authority (Hebrews 13:17). This church-laity relationship is very similar to that of parent-child and husband-wife based on the Trinitarian model of the Father-Son leadership-submission practice prevalent throughout all eternity: the church is to lovingly and faithfully rule over the body of Christ as the members of the church faithfully submit to the church government. The church’s authority includes teaching, nurturing, exhorting, rebuking, and holding believers to accountability to use their gifts and talents to contribute to the body.

The church also has rightful authority to exercise church discipline/restoration on any member living in unrepentant sin or rebelling against church authority, in which God grants the church the right to exercise proper judgment in dealing with sin and allowing two to three people to bind or loose sin, and God would support that decision (Matthew 18:15-20). The purpose of church discipline is not display the haughty or unjust authority of the church over the laity, but for the purpose of lovingly restoring a sinning brother back to spiritual health and fellowship according to the mandates of Scripture.

As I have mentioned, the church is not to abuse their authority and impose extra-biblical demands on individuals. A church officer is one who has been publicly recognized as having the right and responsibility to perform certain functions for the benefit of the whole church. Therefore, the church’s authority must be in check. Failure to do so would be grounds for church discipline on the sinning elder. If the church acts in accord with God’s word, then the individual is expected to obey and faithfully abide by the church’s wisdom and guidance, as Scripture commands (1 Cor 16:16; 1 Thess 5:13).

The church should have and be closely aligned with a counseling ministry, in which it calls members in the church to seek help from its counseling department and not from psychologists. The biblical counseling department should be part of the church, since church teaching and biblical counseling have their common foundational core in biblical truth. The church’s counseling programs should not be done off premises (with unqualified, unaccounted for counselors) as totally disconnected from the life and program of the church. Counseling must not be based on some other form of wisdom, such as psychology or pop-culture wisdom.

Like all edification done in discipleship, counseling must be based on Scripture. The church must see to it that official counseling is done by qualified men and women who have proper education in the word of God, a solid theological foundation in line with the church’s statement of faith, and practical training to counsel sinning believers. If the counseling programs base their practices on secular psychology or any form of human wisdom apart from Scripture, the church has the right to intervene and institute correction based on what Scripture teaches, since the counseling programs would be openly defying the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word (John 8:31-32, Psalm 119:60). A major goal of biblical counseling is to affirm the teachings of the church, which should theoretically be based on Scripture, and therefore call counselee’s to submit to God’s Word and the church’s counsel.