What are the limits of pastoral authority? This is a pressing question with very significant practical implications, and the matter is of importance and interest to many people.
I have found one of the best exegetical treatments of the issue is in John Owen’s Hebrews Commentary on Hebrews 13:17. Skillfully avoiding the twin dangers of authoritarianism and anarchy, Owen demonstrates that the rule of elders is limited by the Word of God. Here are some excerpts from Owen:
(2.) 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. I. 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.