To put it another way, we often say that the authority of the elders is ministerial and declarative. It is ministerial because it is service-oriented. The elders are representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ and it is their job to serve him above all else. The authority of elders is also declarative, which defines how they serve. They serve Christ by declaring and enforcing His Word through the sovereign power of His Spirit. Their role is to set Jesus Christ before the people as their only true Shepherd (John 10:11; i Pet. 2:25; 5:4). Properly speaking, then, the government of the church is by the ministry of the Word, not by the ministes of the Word. The elders of the church are stewards of the “keys of the kingdom.”
-Frank Walker, Biblical Church Government, p. 25
I love this description of the nature of church authority- “ministerial and declarative.” “Ministerial” authority teaches that all authority, including that of the church, is servant-authority- there for the good and welfare of the people, not the right or aggrandizement of the office-holder. That part is easy to understand, though harder to implement. But the idea of “declarative” authority is a little harder to understand, and is even less practiced.
It makes it clear that the authority of the church is real, and yet puts sharp limits on it. It is not absolute. The church cannot exercise arbitrary authority any way it likes; it is limited to declaring what the word of God says. When the church excommunicates someone, the church is not determining anything about that person’s status, but rather making a declaration about what the Word of God says about their status. The distinction may seem fine to some, and in dishonest church officers the distinction will not matter. But in churches that take the distinction seriously, it is a huge difference. No church can rightly kick someone out of its fellowship over matters that are not Biblically determined; they cannot excommunicate someone because they are a Democrat or Republican, for example. They can, however, bring someone under the discipline of the church for advocating political policies which are clearly against the Scriptures, such as abortion or gay marriage. Church officers have no right to legislate where the Scriptures do not; the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, for example, is an abuse of church authority since the Scriptures do not themselves prohibit such beverages. The Scriptures prohibit drunkenness, so the elders would need to determine in particular cases whether behavior rises to that level or not. But they could not simply forbid all alcohol, because the Scriptures do not.
So the officers of the church have no independent authority over people at all; they merely have the authority to apply the Scriptural teachings to particular cases in the church. That’s what it means that their authority is “declarative”- their authority is to declare (and by doing so, implement) the principles of Scripture. This is an important aspect of the doctrine of Christian liberty. The church has no right to bind the consciences of Christian people, and whenever the church invents rules for people, even if they believe that by doing so they will advance Christian principles (like the aforementioned banning of alcoholic beverages), they are guilty of tyranny.
On the contrary, whenever the church refuses to declare the truth of Scripture, including the declaration that those who reject the gospel or rebel against Scriptural principles for the thankful Christian life are outside the kingdom of God and therefore must be excluded from the church, they are failing to be faithful to their calling and are guilty of truancy, the neglect of God-given responsibility. Both tyranny and truancy are major problems in the church today and throughout its history, as churches have failed to implement Biblical requirements for the church and its discipline, and at the same time have invented their own rules and regulations which they have enforced on people.
Walker’s book is a solid one that calls the church to be faithful to the obligations Christ gave us.