The Limits of Pastoral Authority by John Owen

These comments are taken from John Owen’s exposition of Hebrews 13:17 ‘Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you‘ (KJV). They are a brilliant, though brief, summary of the limits of pastoral authority. The authority of elders is only ministerial drawn from Scripture alone. Notice how he demonstrates that obedience is not ‘blind’ or universal. The abuse of authority in the church is a terrible thing. It dishonors Christ, harms the Gospel, and damages the sheep. O may the Lord help us to learn these lessons!

There are two parts of the duty enjoined with respect unto these guides, and that with distinct respect unto the two parts of their office before mentioned, namely, of teaching and ruling.

[1.] It is with respect unto their teaching, preaching, or pastoral feeding, that they are commanded to “obey them.” For the word signifies an obedience on a persuasion; such as doctrine, instruction, or teaching, doth produce. And,

[2.] The submission required, “Submit yourselves,” respects their rule, ‘Obey their doctrine, and submit to their rule.’ And some things must be observed, to clear the intention of the apostle herein.

1st. It is not a blind, implicit obedience and subjection, that is here prescribed. A pretense hereof hath been abused to the ruin of the souls of men: but there is nothing more contrary to the whole nature of gospel obedience, which is our “reasonable service;” and in particular, it is that which would frustrate all the rules and directions given unto believers in this epistle itself, as well as elsewhere, about all the duties that are required of them. For to what purpose are they used, if no more be required but that men give up themselves, by an implicit credulity, to obey the dictates of others.

2dly. It hath respect unto them in their office only. If those who suppose themselves in office do teach and enjoin things that belong not unto their office, there is no obedience due unto them by virtue of this command. So is it with the guides of the church of Rome, who, under a pretense of their office, give commands in secular things, no way belonging unto the ministry of the gospel.

3dly. It is their duty so to obey whilst they teach the things which the Lord Christ hath appointed them to teach; for unto them is their commission limited, Matthew 28.20; and to submit unto their rule whilst it is exercised in the name of Christ, according to his institution, and by the rule of the word, and not otherwise. When they depart from these, there is neither obedience nor submission due unto them. Wherefore,

4thly. In the performance of these duties, there is supposed a judgment to be made of what is enjoined or taught, by the word of God, according to all the instructions and rules that are given us therein. Our obedience unto them must be obedience unto God.

5thly. On this supposition their word is to be obeyed and their rule submitted unto, not only because they are true and right materially, but also because they are theirs, and conveyed from them unto us by divine institution. A regard is to be had unto their authority and office-power in what they teach and do. And it is hence evident,

Obs. 1. That the due obedience of the church, in all its members, unto the rulers of it, in the discharge of their office and duty, is the best means of its edification, and the chief cause of order and peace in the whole body. Therefore is it here placed by the apostle as comprehensive of all ecclesiastical duties.