Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Biblical Authority and the Church


This blog is mostly concerned with the defense of the Christian faith as explicitly articulated in Scripture. I love to appraise views that challenge Christianity and provide cogent arguments in defense of the most rational view of all: God exists and Jesus Christ is the expression of His divine person in the NT writings. However, there is a difference between defending biblical Christianity and defending the actions of people in the church. The greatest threat to any church is the culture in which it finds itself. We see this throughout the NT. The culture constantly threatens to infect the church with its own sinful way of thinking and doing things. We see this in our own culture in the West. One example is how we handle pastors. Many churches in the West treat pastors as if they were CEOs to be hired and fired like anyone else based on the popularity of that pastor in the congregation. If a congregation does not like the pastor, he does not get the job. If a congregation grows weary of the pastor, they fire him. I have been around for 32 years in the church now. Most congregations I know simply do not make enough of an investment in their own spiritual maturity to be qualified to make such decisions about pastors in the first place. Secondly, and most important, Scripture never hints at this sort of practice anywhere. Yet, here we are. Where does this thinking come from? The church has adopted this practice from the culture. This is precisely how the culture thinks.

Conversely, not a small number of pastors have adopted attitudes from the cultures in which they find themselves. Rather than producing churches that are opposing unbiblical and ungodly cultural views and practices, they are creating and incubating churches that are more the product of their culture than they are the product of biblical sanctification. This is most visible in those churches that have openly denied the authority of Scripture, and most veiled in those churches that mask themselves in solid creeds and confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, all the while denying the very confessions they profess to believe by engaging in or tolerating sinful practices and ungodly attitudes. For instance, many churches have adopted a pro-homosexual stance contrary to what Scripture teaches. They buy into the cultural philosophy that homosexuality is the product of God and therefore God accepts the lifestyle. If God accepts the lifestyle by continuing to give us people who make the homosexual choice, then so should the church. Some churches even accept abortion as a woman’s right. They accept the cultural views on the subject and integrate those views into the practices and polity of the local church. Now, many conservative folks reading this blog will shout a hardy “amen” to much of what I have said. However, you may want to hold your “amen” until the end. This is because your criticism is next. I have given up the notion of defending the church or the actions of people who claim to be legitimate members in the church. The issue is one of credibility. To be clear, I do not mean my own credibility. Rather, I mean the credibility of argumentation. I mean the credibility of the art and science of defending truth is lost when we hypocritically defend the indefensible. For example, when we defend the practice of unbiblical divorce or unforgiveness or hateful acts and attitudes in our own churches, we are defending a practice that cannot be legitimately defended without abandoning the truth of Christianity itself. Churches that have all but abandoned Church discipline have no credibility by which to defend the gospel. This is the price one pays when they decide to pick and choose which truths they will integrate and which truths they will conveniently lock away out of sight and out of mind. I cannot defend the behaviors that have become normative in the visible Christian community. I am not talking about the fact that we sinfully fail in our attempts to please Christ. I am not talking about legalism. I am talking about the manner in which the Christian community has dispensed with Biblical Authority. The local church has adopted Western politics and as a result of that decision, she rarely permits Scripture to preside over her affairs. This is unfortunate and regrettable, but not altogether unpredictable given our sinful proclivities. Humble and complete submission to God’s Word is a lifelong challenge for all of us. It is the most difficult thing any of us will ever do. If you do not understand this fact, then you do not understand biblical submission. The idea of completely submitting to God without qualification is not something our sin nature wants to do. Nevertheless, do it we must. We must die to self. We must mortify the deeds of the flesh. We must die daily. As John Owen said, either we are killing the flesh or the flesh is killing us. We are fine submitting to God with certain qualifications. I will submit to God as long as I am happy with my spouse. If not, then I will not submit. I will divorce her and move on. Pastors will submit to God until it means having a hypocritical group in the church leave because that group holds some key positions or has a little more influence than makes the pastor comfortable. I am sad to say that the flesh is killing many churches. The church has returned to a pre-reformation arrogance as she displaces Scripture, not so much with her own traditions, but with whatever cultural philosophies she fancies the most. The most damnable thing about this new condition of the church, especially the conservative church, is that she does so all the while professing to uphold the most conservative creeds and confessions. Western culture is a culture of lip service. We love the way we sound. Presidents have learned how to avoid answering the most direct questions about their conduct by playing with words. It is not surprising that so too have our pastors, elders, and members in the Christian community. Rather than seek to simply bind ourselves to the Word and humbly do as God has called, we engage in all sorts of strategies to reach our ultimate objective. We even convince ourselves we are doing the work of the kingdom in many instances by engaging in “wise” behavior. Sin can be extraordinarily deluding.

Meredith Kline writes, “In our study of canon, our concern is with Scripture not as powerful word but as authoritative word, not as architectural fiat but as authoritative model. For canonicity is a matter of authoritative norms. Thus, when we affirm that the Old Testament is the canonical covenant by which the Lord built the kingdom-house of Israel, we refer to the fact that God structured the covenant community perceptively by the covenant stipulations and definitively delineated the constituent elements of his holy house in its historical and theological, human and divine dimensions. As to its nuclear formal function, canonical covenant is a community rule.” [Kline, Meredith. The Structure of Biblical Authority. 89]

Kline rightly observes that the nature of the Christian community is what it is because of the authoritative nature of Scripture. Without the authoritative canon, the covenant community falls apart. The authority of the canon is the glue that holds covenant community together. Without the covenant, there is no community. Hence, it follows that the submission of the covenant community to the canon is bound up in the essence and identity of the community itself. Any attempt on the part of the covenant community to separate its essence and identity from the ideal of authority is oxymoronic. The covenant community is bound by the covenant and subject to the covenant or it is not a covenant community. A community that picks and chooses the parts of a covenant that it likes and dismisses those parts it finds offensive or inconvenient, is not a covenant community, it is a selective community. The idea of covenant community means a community bound together by a specific covenant. It is to that covenant that the entire community submits itself. Otherwise, authority is misplaced! Authority moves from the covenant to the community. And this is where we find ourselves today. How can you tell if your church is one that has moved away from biblical authority? There are some clues. Pay close attention, but be warned, this last portion is designed to produce serious change. Serious change always comes at a cost. In the movie, Luther, there is a scene where Luther’s spiritual father was trying to save Luther’s life by persuading Luther to compromise. Johann von Staupitz was the Vicar-General of the Augustinian order in Germany. Von Staupitz was appointed promagister of the order at the Diet of Worms. It was during this time in the movie that Luther said to Von Staupitz, “When you sent me out to change the world, did you not think there would be a cost?” Great change always comes with great cost. As the church has once again, on many fronts, moved away from biblical authority, the return to that old faithful position will come with great costs. So how can you tell your church has moved away from biblical authority?

The Practice of Church Discipline

One way you can tell if your church still recognizes biblical authority is church discipline. There are enough unregenerate people in the churches today that the process of church discipline should not be unfamiliar to the congregation. This practice should be taught in the new members class, it should be part of the church covenant, and it should be taught and preached as a matter of routine. I find it outrageous that one could be attending a church for five years and never witness the public excommunication of someone from its role. That is a serious red flag. At a minimum, it merits self-reflection and examination. Jay Adams writes, “But even though discipline is difficult and runs many risks, churches dare not run the greater risk of withholding a privilege and blessing provided by Christ, thus depriving sinning members of all the help He has provided for them. Nor dare they disobey Him in refusing to follow his program for church discipline lest, in the end, they find themselves disciplined by Him (cf. I Cor. 11:31-33).” [Adams, Jay, Handbook of Church Discipline. 75]

A Plurality of Elders

Before I comment on this, let me say that some churches have an elder board or session, but not from a biblical perspective. In many of these situations, these men are simply walking in the teaching elder’s (pastor) shadow and they are little more than rubber stamp men who go along with almost every suggestion the pastor makes in order to keep the peace or simply because they do not know how to stand up in dissent. They are made to feel like they are being factious if they do not go along with the rest of the team. This is ungodly manipulation! ME GENOITO: May it never be! That is a sad state of affairs, but unfortunately, it exists more often than not. A true plurality of elders is designed to hold the authority of Scripture in high regard while holding church leaders to a very high standard of accountability. Men in these situations do not succumb to the pressure of manipulation or political pastors who have other agendas outside the simple management of church affairs according to the expressed will of God in Scripture. Elders who rule well are to counted worthy of double honor. These are the men who uphold Scripture even when it is unpopular to do so. It is easy to stand for truth when there are no risks. It is when there is a risk that you test the metal of a man. Conversely, when our elders are submitting to biblical authority and properly handling Scripture, believers are obligated to submit to their rule. We are to place ourselves at their direction and guidance. Churches have lost sight of this practice due to the democratic way of life we have grown accustomed to in the West. The Church of Jesus Christ is NOT a democracy.

The community is inextricably bound up in the reality of canonical Scripture. The concept of covenant-canon requires a covenant community. Though the community does not confer canonical authority on the Scriptures, Scripture in the form of constitutional treaty implies the community constituted by it and existing under its authority. Canonical authority is not derived from community, but covenantal canon connotes covenantal community. [Kline, Meredith. The Structure of Biblical Authority. 90] Oftentimes, we reverse authority. We imagine the church has inherent authority. She does not! The church has authority only because she submits to the authority of the canon. When she departs from this authority, she divests herself of any authority whatever and becomes little more than a religious cult in which people with all sorts of curiosities and superstitions play. She draws in the mystics, the existentialists, the rationalists, the empiricists, and the moralists. These groups combine to produce what looks like a real covenant community. However, upon close examination, when she is put to the test, one realizes that the only thing this sort of community submits to is her own wants, wishes, desires, and goals. She is no more a covenant community than the local pub that sports a good fight on the tube when one springs up. Not everything that parades itself around as a Christian Church is really Christian and in those cases, not only is it not Christian, it isn’t even a church. The Church is the body of Christ. When you see her, you cannot miss seeing Jesus. If you cannot see Jesus for all the politics, the immorality, the lack of love, the lack of forgiveness, the twisting of sacred Scripture and the autonomous behavior of members who think they live in a spiritual democracy, then you likely are not looking at the body of Christ.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Ed,

    Amen to that - I attend a church which does loving works but has not real discipline at all. People can attend church with no objection to their life style...We may have a word here and there. We have a number of "couples" who live together "but do not share the same bedrooms" and this way of life has become acceptable. They have been baptised and no one says anything to them now...I stood up against this (admittedly in the wrong way) and I took a roasting.

    Womne are aloud to preach to the whole church. Now I am not sexist one bit whatsover...all I want to do is follow what the bible says but the scripture in timothy which denounces women preachers is so manipulated today (because its not politically correct to tell a women she isn't allowed to do that). There is so much we can take from the new testament scripture which is not followed today in any shape or form that I mourn in sorrow for the church...I think that its an indicator of the very last days that we are now living in - Paul the apostle warned us of a great apostacy which would happen before the man of sin is revealed to the world - I believe that while the church is holding out and following the word of God that the man of sin is held off...but the church is becoming weaker and weaker by the day and is turning to the traditions of men instead of upholding the teaching of God.

    Please pray for me or give me advice here...I don't know where to turn in my community because churches have turned away so much from the word of God that I don't know where else to go!? I read revelation and I am starting to think that I am not going to get involved in churchy things but instead - attend and worship God - fellowship with like minded Christians who can see the same things and do like it says in the book of Daniel (exploits) - going out on the streets whenever possible and take the gospel directly to the people. Any ideas on any of this would be greatly appreciated.

    God bless,

    Colin (England/UK)

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