Three Levels Of Authority


Discern between…

  • New Testament commands
  •  Apostolic practices
  •  Human traditions

This exercise in discernment has proven effective for settling church disputes, ascertaining the level of authority for a church activity, making plans, and establishing priorities. 

LEVEL 1: New Testament Commands

The first level of authority includes all the New Testament commands. We must obey these, and must not hinder any believer or group doing so. These include Jesus’ commands, which are foundational, as well as His apostles’ commands of. The apostles’ commands build on Jesus’ commands and are addressed to Christians already under pastoral care in a church. Jesus’ basic commands, in their most basic form, which the 3000 new believers in Acts 2 obeyed from the beginning, can be summarized as the following:

  1. Repent, believe, and receive the Holy Spirit
  2. Baptize
  3. Break bread (Communion)
  4. Love God, neighbor, fellow disciples, enemy (forgive them)
  5. Pray
  6. Give
  7. Make disciples (witness, shepherd, teach)

The apostles’ commands need to be considered in their cultural context. Some other commands, such as to wash each other’s feet or to wear a head covering, were culturally adopted forms that expressed an underlying, universal command. For example, Paul prohibited circumcision of Gentiles in Galatia, yet circumcised Timothy who was working with Jews; the underlying command that justified both practices was that of love ? loving local people enough to respect their different cultures. 

LEVEL 2: New Testament Practices

The second level of authority deals with practices described in the New Testament that were not commands for all believers to follow. We should not make these into universal laws, nor prohibit obeying them; only Jesus has the authority to do that. These practices included:

  1. Baptizing immediately
  2. Using one cup in the Lord’s Supper
  3. Fasting
  4. Worshipping on Sunday
  5. Speaking in tongues
  6. Naming several elders to shepherd a congregation
  7. And many more (see Application).

LEVEL 3: Human Traditions

The third level is tradition, all those church practices that do not derive from the New Testament, or that are found only in Old Testament Law. We are allowed take these or leave them, but ought to prohibit them if they hinder obedience to New Testament commands. For example, we would not obey Moses’ order to stone a man to death if he picked up firewood on the Sabbath.

Having some traditions is necessary to maintain order and work together, such as designating a certain time and place for worship; however, one church must not force its traditions on other churches. Although most traditions are beneficial, they become bad when they outlive their usefulness, or when imposed where they do not fit. Traditions with no New Testament authority include:

  1. Non-biblical requirements for ordination, officiating Communion, baptism, membership
  2. Sunday School
  3. Wearing robes in the pulpit, not wearing robes in the pulpit; wearing ties, not wearing ties
  4. The pulpit
  5. Choir
  6. Prohibiting wine, even in moderation
  7. Strictly following democratic processes in church business meetings
  8. Episcopal, multi-level hierarchy
  9. And many more (see Application).


Do your leaders, churches or cells have a question about church actions? If so, then have them discern which of the three levels of authority apply to an action. Practice doing so by choosing, from the list below, a few items. Speak them to a gathering, and let the participants express their choice of the level each item belongs to. Good answers appear in parenthesis.

Level 1 = New Testament commands
(We must obey them).

Level 2 = New Testament practices, not commanded
(We may obey them, or have a good reason not to do so).

Level 3 = human traditions
(Most are good, some hinder obedience).

praying (1)

standing to pray (2)

raising hands to pray (2)

kneeling to pray (2)

repeating memorized prayers many times (3)

giving (1)

tithing (3)*

giving goods instead of money (2)

baptizing (1)

counting converts only after they have been added to a church by baptism (2)

baptizing immediately (2)

delaying baptism so it can serve as a graduation ceremony following a doctrine course (3)

baptizing entire families (2)

confirm saving faith by baptism (1)

formal ordination required to baptize or officiate communion (3)

seminaries, Bible colleges (3)

Sunday Schools (3)

using music as an aid to worship (3)

raising hands in worship (2)

chanting (3)

speaking in tongues (interpreted if in a group) (2)

centering worship around a sermon (3)

women prophesying in public worship (2)

celebrating the Lord’s Supper (break bread) (1)

breaking bread in church buildings (3)

using one cup and wine in the Eucharist (2)

breaking bread frequently in homes (2)

breaking bread the first day of the week (2)

discerning the body of Christ in Communion (1)

consciously participate in the body and blood of Jesus in Communion (2)

pulpits (3)

church buildings (3)

separating apostolic teams (“sent ones”) by prayer, fasting, laying on hands (2)

establishing elders when possible in each church (2)

establishing elders in new churches within a few weeks, in pioneer fields (2)

avoiding laying hands on an elder suddenly (1)

one pastor doing all the leading for a congregation (3)

several elders serving as co-pastors in a church (2)

vestments or special dress in the pulpit (3)

avoiding future problems by listing rules and prohibitions in church constitutions (3)

mission agencies (3)

train new leaders by personally mentoring them (1)

submission to the rule of elders (1)

repent, believe and receive the Holy Spirit (1)

demonstrate repentance by raising the hand or going forward in a public meeting (3)

asking one to make a “decision” for Christ (3)

love God and man in practical ways (1)

love one’s wife as Christ loved the church (1)

disciple others (1)

disciple neglected people groups (1)

witness about Jesus’ death, resurrection, forgiveness and repentance (1)

teach new believers to obey all Jesus’ commands (1)

nurture growing Christians with the Word (1)

“full time” (supported, salaried) Christian service (2)

“bi-vocational (volunteer) Christian service (2)

using small business to facilitate church planting (2)

beginning witnessing among the poor or working class, in a pioneer field (2)

using oral communication to spread the gospel (2)

starting with the redemptive stories rather than a philosophical approach to the gospel (2)

churches of a region cooperating closely with each other (2)

regional or national presbyteries (formal associations of churches) (3)

democratic congregational church government (3)

autonomy (independence) of the local church (3)

calling clusters of small house churches “the church” in a metropolitan area (2)

prohibiting drunkenness (1)

prohibiting drinking of naturally fermented wine in moderation (3)


* Expect some opposition to this. It comes as a shock to many to learn that neither Jesus nor His apostles commanded tithing. The New Testament has several passages that deal with the amount believers should give, and none of them mentions the Old Testament legal tithe.


  1. […] Three levels of authority for church life, avoid spats […]

Speak Your Mind