To understand Paul’s view of the church we have to understand how he came to have the authority of an apostle.  He wasn’t appointed by anyone or any organization.  He was appointed by God.

Gal 1:1  From Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor by human agency, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead)

As an appointed messenger of God he felt that he had the authority to build people up (2Cor 10:8) and he could speak authoritatively about what God’s will might be in a certain situation (1cor 7:10).

It is abundantly clear that in Paul’s concept of ministry that the real authority in the church is the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit’s ministry is expressed through spiritual gifts in the entire body (1Cor 12) but is best expressed through genuine love (1cor 13).  Authority, even Paul’s authority was nothing without love.

In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonains he makes an a direct authoritative statement.  He even uses the word hupakuo (obey) which is so strong he uses it to describe the how children should obey their parents (Eph 6:1) and slaves obey their masters (Eph 6:5).

2Th 3:14  But if anyone does not obey our message through this letter, take note of him and do not associate closely with him, so that he may be ashamed.

Take note that it says “our message” and not my message.  In the beginning of the letter it states it is from Paul, Timothy and Silvanus…not just Paul.  That must be where the “our” comes from.  The context of the chapter indicates that there were people that sponging off others, refusing to work, and living an undisciplined life.   It is interesting to note how tightly integrated the community was, as people were being fed in the church.  Clearly Paul felt he could use his apostolic weight in this situation.  I wonder if he felt more leeway on this given that the message came from 3 people and not just one.

Even though Paul felt he had the authority to command he frequently chose not to.  He said the following in his first letter to the Corinthians.

1Th 2:7   although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ; instead we became little children among you. Like a nursing mother caring for her own children,
1Th 2:8  with such affection for you we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.

We see something similar in Philemon.

Phm 1:8  So, although I have quite a lot of confidence in Christ and could command you to do what is proper,
Phm 1:9  I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love — I, Paul, an old man and even now a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus —

It is a common theme in Paul’s letters that he states he has every right to do something, yet refrains from doing it because he feels it was in the best interests of Kingdom to refrain.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he was in a pitched battle over authority with a group of church leaders he called the “super apostles.”  The letter gives us a pretty good idea of what Paul thought gave him authority and what the “super apostles” thought.

Scripture Super Apostles Paul
3:1 Letters of recommendation Changed lives in the Corinthian church
3:2 Written in ink / Carved in stone Written by the Spirit of God / On human hearts
3:5 Qualified by themselves Qualified by God
4:2 Shameful deeds / underhanded methods No trickery or distortion of the word of God
4:5 Preach themselves Preach Christ as Lord
4:5 Not servants (implied) Servants
4:7 Fragile, the light is from God
4:10 Suffered
4:13 Preach in faith
4:15 For the benefit of people
5:7 Live by sight Live by faith
5:9 Ambition is to please God
5:11 Try to persuade
5:13 Pride in outward appearance Pride in the heart
5:14 Compelled by the love of Christ
5:16 Acknowledge from human point of view Acknowledge no one from human point of view
6:4-10 with great endurance, in persecutions, in difficulties, in distresses,
in beatings, in imprisonments, in riots, in troubles, in sleepless nights, in hunger,
by purity, by knowledge, by patience, by benevolence, by the Holy Spirit, by genuine love, by truthful teaching, by the power of God, with weapons of righteousness both for the right hand and for the left, through glory and dishonor, through slander and praise; regarded as impostors, and yet true;  as unknown, and yet well-known; as dying and yet — see! — we continue to live; as those who are scourged and yet not executed; as sorrowful, but always rejoicing, as poor, but making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
7:2 Wronged no one, ruined no one, exploited no one,
10:7 Judge by outward appearances
10:8 Authority to tear down Authority to build up
10:12 Recommend themselves
10:12 Compare themselves with themselves
10:13 Boast within the limits of the work God appointed
10:17 Boast in the Lord
11:2 Led astray Pure and sincere devotion to Christ
11:4 Different gospel Pure gospel
11:4 Different spirit Holy Spirit
11:13 False apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ
11:20 Make slaves “To weak for this”
11:20 Exploits “To weak for this”
11:20 Takes advantage “To weak for this”
11:20 Behaves arrogantly “To weak for this”
11:23 Greater labours, more imprisonments, severe beatings
11:26 Dangers
11:27 hard work, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst
12:1 Visions and revelations
12:9-10 Supplied by grace in weakness
12:12 Signs of apostle performed
12:13 Not a financial burden
12:19 Everything is to build up

What is missing from Pauls list?  There is no mention of rank or position.  Paul didn’t say I have authority because I’ve been appointed by the church and all church leaders are God’s delegated authority.  The Corinthians originally recognized Paul’s authority as their Father in the gospel (1Cor 4:15).  Even this authority had limits.  He had no authority to tear down (2Cor 10:8). Much of his 2nd letter is devoted to persuading the Corinthians he still had that authority.  Even in the expulsion of the immoral brother Paul instructed the whole Corinthian church to do it (1Cor 5:4).  He didn’t do it and he didn’t instruct the leaders to do it.

Super-apostles reflect shades of covering theology.  In covering theology everyone is commanded to obey people almost solely on their organizational rank.  Organizational rank is very much “outward appearance”, acknowledged by “sight”, from a “human point of view” bolstered by “letters of recommendation.”

Paul presents himself as one who preached Christ as Lord.  The super-apostles preached themselves.  Covering theology equates the authority of church leaders with God’s authority.  This too sounds a lot like preaching “themselves” rather than preaching the Lord.

For more on Paul’s attitude toward church leaders go Galatians 2.