Who is Allowed to Preach Within the Local Church?

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As I write this, the SBC national convention just finished and much of it focused on the issue of complementarianism and whether women have a right to preach within the local church. I’m not writing this post to address this topic (You can read my views here and here if you’re interested), but it has got me thinking – who is allowed to preach within the local church? The obvious answer is the eldership. After all, elders must be “able to teach” as Paul states to Timothy (I Tim. 3:2). In fact, teaching is the primary responsibility of the elder. Thabiti Anyabwile writes, “Teaching is the primary task of the elder. Other things are necessary in a church, such as administration, mutual care, and so forth. But the one thing that necessarily sets an elder apart is his ability to teach.”

We can see this distinction as we study the qualifications of both elders and deacons in I Timothy 3. There are many similarities between the two offices of elders and deacons, both must live up to a very high standard of godliness. Yet, one glaring distinction is that while deacons must know their theology (“hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience,” I Tim. 3:9), there are no qualifications on teaching that theology. Elders on the other hand must be able to teach. This distinction of regularly teaching the Word of God to the congregation is what separates elders from deacons. It is also what gives the elders spiritual authority over the church. 

What gives the elder his authority?

Many would know that the Word of God repeatedly uses “elder,” “shepherd,” and “overseer” synonymously to refer to the office of pastor. That word “overseer” literally means “one who is over.” So the elders certainly have some authority over the local church. Before any fundamentalists reading this get too scared, there are of course many passages that would temper that authority. Whatever this authority is, what qualifies this elder to have it? I don’t believe it’s his character, after all the deacon has that too but does not possess the authority of an elder. It is my belief that elders possesses authority only because they are the ones who open up the Word and feed the flock. This can be clearly seen in Paul’s argument that women are not to teach in I Timothy 2. Why? Because they don’t know how to teach or can’t teach as well as men? Certainly not. Women are not to teach because in doing so they exercise spiritual authority over men (And I said I wasn't going to get into complementarianism, whoops..). Spiritual authority and the regular preaching event are directly connected according to Paul. The authority of elders over the local church directly flow from their faithful declaration and application of the Word of God.

If the elders exercise their authority by faithfully expositing the Word, should they give up that authority by allowing someone else to take up that authority? Again I will ask the question, who is allowed to preach within the local church? As a reformed baptist, whenever I stumble upon a difficult question I run to the 1689. The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689, reads, “Although an obligation lies on the elders or pastors of the churches to be urgently preaching the Word by virtue of their office, yet the work of preaching the Word is not exclusively confined to them. Therefore others who are also gifted and qualified by the Holy Spirit for the task, and who are approved and called by the church, may and ought to perform it.” Uh oh, it looks like I’m going to disagree with my most trusted resource. Well, maybe not…

Biblically, what does it mean to “preach?”

Any student of Greek. Would know that “preach” comes from “κηρύσσω” which means to publicly herald a message. It was often used to describe a servant of the ruler declaring the message of that ruler. In the New Testament it is used to describe Jesus declaring the Gospel of the Kingdom (Matt. 4:17), the disciples heralding Jesus’ message (Mk. 16:20), and even Timothy’s responsibility to preach the Word (II Tim. 4:2). There are many ways to take this word “preach,” but most often it is used to describe the event of proclaiming the Gospel in evangelism efforts. In this way, all Christians are called to preach. If we simply remain with this broad view of preaching then of course we would say that nearly anyone can preach within the local church. After all Stephen and Philip preached and they were just deacons. Yet those accounts would clearly fall into the category of evangelism. Some would run to I Peter 4 or I Corinthians 14 to say there is preaching there, but those are clearly both related to giving testimonies. 

Another word is more often used to describe what most of us would consider preaching in the local church – “teach” or “διδάσκω.” This is what Paul and Barnabas do within the local church of Antioch (Acts 15:35), what Paul tells Timothy he does in local churches (I Cor. 4:17), what Timothy is to do within the local church (I Tim. 4:11), and what qualifies an elder of double honour according to Paul (I Tim. 5:17).  We must also consider James’ warning that not many should become teachers since teachers will be judged for their words (Ja. 3:1). It is this word that is predominantly used to describe what the pastor does on the Lord’s Day. To my knowledge, there are no examples of a non-elder regularly delivering this type of teaching in the context of the local church. 

Let me jump back to the 1689. I can agree with what it states in that I agree that qualified non-elders can teach on special occasions or in emergencies. We have no Scripture that states otherwise. Yes, whoever preaches must fit the qualifications of an elder that is clear in Scripture, but on occasion a qualified non-elder may preach the regular Lord’s Day message(s). If we were to be too rigid with this thinking then missionaries or visiting pastors would never be able to preach outside their church. Nor would young men be allowed to practice their giftedness within their own local church. There must be some flexibility where the Bible does not state an abundantly clear position. 

The End of the Matter (for me at least):

That being said, I have recently come under conviction that it should not be the norm to have even qualified non-elders exercising spiritual authority over the local church. This should be reserved for qualified, set-apart, and recognized elders of that local church. While we must remain flexible in some ways, we do not possess the freedom to go around what the Bible clearly states – elders are to teach. If someone is qualified to teach and the people desire him to teach regularly, then he should be appointed by the local church to the office of elder as to better serve the local church and avoid confusion or even conflict. So who is allowed to preach within the local church? Qualified elders are to regularly preach, while equally qualified non-elders can preach on occasion with the blessing of the elders for the edification of the local church.

- Dean

Cited Works:

  1. Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons by Thabiti Anyabwile

  2. The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689 updated by Peter Masters