Parachurch Leaders – Rethinking Our Spiritual Authority

Tim was a part of a group of passionate young believers on campus.  He was being discipled by a Christian just a couple of years older than he was.  One day, Tim’s discipler came to him and said, “we’ve all decided that we’re moving to California.  Get ready, we’re leaving in a week.”  The assumption that this older Christian made was that he was the spiritual authority for Tim, so he expected him to simply submit to that authority.

Similar stories could be repeated:

  • A campus ministry leader tells a student that she’s not allowed to get a tattoo, and she needs to obey their spiritual authority.
  • A mission team leader tells a team member he can’t vacation in country X, and he should obey this spiritual authority.
  • Ministry staff are told who they can and cannot date, or even whether they can date.
  • Students involved in parachurch organization Y are told where they are allowed to go to church or what conference to go to or what to do with their summer.
  • A staff of ministry Z is afraid of letting their leader know that they are taking a new position with another organization or moving into the marketplace.

Now, we could argue about what areas of life spiritual authority should speak into, but for now let’s ask whether a leader in the parachurch has spiritual authority over those they lead.

First, what about the staff serving under a leader.  If I am a missionary team leader, a campus director, or CEO for a Christian non-profit, what sort of authority do I have over those serving under me?  The answer is simply organizational authority.  You can hold them accountable to doing their job.  You are their boss, NOT their pastor.  And the parachurch gets in major trouble when they begin to assume authority over their staff that is reserved for the local church.  So, other than the professional authority related to the job description of my staff, I only have soft power in their lives. They work for me, they do not submit to me.

Will I try to encourage them in their faith?  Will I speak up when it seems they are making unwise decisions?  Might I suggest avenues for growth or good places for vacation?  Likely, I will do all of those things, but not as their spiritual leader.  No, I am simply being a friend and a brother in Christ.

Second, what about the people we serve.  Do Intervarsity, Stumo, Cru, or Navs staff have spiritual authority over students in their ministries?  Do World Vision, Samaritans Purse, OMF, or PIONEERS staff have authority over the men and women they serve?  Again, the answer is no.  They are NOT the church, even though some will eventually plant new churches.  It will be the elders appointed over those churches who carry the weight, responsibility, and therefore, authority over God’s people.  I don’t make anyone give, serve, lead, submit.  I have no spiritual authority.  I only have responsibility for my role within my organization.

Does that mean I won’t rebuke sin in the life of another?  No – but I do that as a brother in Christ, not as their spiritual authority.

So, friends in the parachurch, we are NOT the Church.  We are only scaffolding for the Church.  We serve her!  We love her!  We support her!  We SUMBIT to her!  The leaders of the Church have been granted authority that they wield as servant, as under-shepherds to Jesus.  Let’s remember that.  And let’s, instead, seek simply to serve, to wait tables, to wash feet, and to submit even our parachurch work to the authority of the local church.

2 thoughts on “Parachurch Leaders – Rethinking Our Spiritual Authority

  1. Spiritual authority has nothing to do with telling people what to do. The spiritual leader is a servant and role model. An equipper, empowerer, coach, and counselor. Not a tyrant.


    1. Great point, Blake. I certainly am not trying to define leadership or influence or authority in this post, but simply trying to speak to the location of spiritual authority. So, I would agree with you, in general. I would say, however, that spiritual authority as directive (do this, don’t do that) authority is a part of the call of the elder/pastor. Just as the Lord requires that the pastor/elder work to build up the body and equip the saints (empower, equip, etc. as you said), sometimes the elder/pastor must also exercise spiritual authority, particularly in cases of church discipline. This should be only in rare cases, such as unrepentant sin (as opposed to the sad examples I shared in the post) and for the restoration of the sinner. So, the elder/pastor has real directive spiritual authority (whereas the parachurch leader does not) as well as a call to equip the saints, and all of his service is exercised as a loving, under-shepherd towards the flock of Christ.


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