Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Review of Triablogue and Steve Hays on Ecclesial Authority (Continued 1 of 2)

As you know by now, Steve Hays over at Triablogue and I have had another difference of opinion regarding a theological issue. We have been going back and forth over the issue of authority in the Christian Church. So far, Steve has said that Christians need so submit to Scripture since we all have access to Scripture and can read it for ourselves. I have challenged this thinking, accusing Steve of taking a purely pragmatic approach to biblical submission. Specifically, Steve’s statement implies that the command for Christians to obey and submit to their elders was given only until such time as the canon was completed. Once we had the canon, well, we could read it for ourselves. Therefore, according to this line of reasoning, we no longer need elders conferred with authority to whom we should submit. In addition, Steve has argued vociferously that there are numerous false churches and false elders in existence today and this leaves the Christian with little choice, than to be their own self-attesting authority regarding which session of elders they should obey.
Contrary to this line of reasoning, there were false elders, preachers, pastors, and prophets in antiquity as well. This did not deter the NT authors from commanding believers and instructing Christian communities to obey and submit to one another and to their elders. What shall we say in response to Hays? I have already said quite a bit. But there are a few more things I wish to drive home as I leave this discussion. My hope is that this blog will provoke others to take an honest look at what Scripture teaches about ecclesial authority rather than take mine or Hays’s word for it.

First, I want to review Hays two objections and then provide a brief survey of the NT teachings on authority, eldership, and some practical steps for how a Christian must relate to their elders even during times when they think God is moving them in a different direction as far as ministry goes.

Does the completion of the New Testament Canon nullify the biblical command to obey and submit to one’s elders? In order for this to be true, the sole purpose of elders had to be for the dissemination of the teachings and dogma of divine revelation. Once this revelation was committed to writing, collected, acknowledged, and preserved, the office would no longer be needed to carry out this duty. Hays may retort that he has made no such argument. However, his rejoinder that we submit to Scripture would be entirely meaningless if this were the case. In addition, nowhere has Hays even attempted to present a positive case for biblical submission. He has only spouted off about how wrong Frank Turk and Ed Dingess are about the matter. There is no exegetical or even philosophical support for the argument that individual access to authoritative revelation nullifies the need for obedience and submission to elders and the body of Christ. Presumably, if one does not have to submit to their elders, then they would not have to submit to the local body either. After all, what is true of false elders is equally true of false communities. In fact, I would argue that it is nigh impossible to have a true body if the elders are false. If Hays is right, then not only are we under no obligation to obey a session of elders, we are not obligated to obey the local Christian community either.

In Hays view it seems then, that the command to obey and submit to one’s elders and to one another was only applicable until we closed the canon in the fourth century. Even if we move beyond Hippo and Carthage to Athanasius, that puts us at around 300 years for these commands to be in effect. But there is still a problem with this thinking. If Hays is right, it really does not depend on the objective closing of the canon, but rather the subjective ability of the individual to read it. Hence, for those who cannot read, we must presume the command remained firmly in place. And this is a serious problem. I wonder if Hays has actually given this view the consideration it deserves. Even in our day, there are Christians who cannot read the Scriptures. There are cultures where there are no Scriptures. This would mean that the idea of biblical submission, and obedience to one’s elders and the local Christian community would be remarkably different from culture to culture. In one culture, where men have access and can read, the command may be ignored for all intents and purposes. However, for the next culture where the situation is different, Christians may still be required to toe the line in terms of obedience and submission.

It seems to me that Hays’s view of ecclesial authority is radically pragmatic, not to mention entirely arbitrary. If it is true that Scripture is our sole authority, then where exactly does that authority itself instruct us that we are free from our obligation to submit to elders and to one another? Nowhere does the authoritative, divine revelation of Scripture ever inform us that we are no longer obligated to submit and obey once we ourselves can read the text. Hays seems to rest this argument on absolutely nothing in the text whatsoever. There isn’t an ounce of exegetical support for the position that the command for obedience and submission was temporal. I suspect this is why Hays has refused to provide a more robust response, choosing rather to engage in what I deem to be foolish and childish satire when what is needed is an honest and respectful discussion in a Spirit of love and respect.

Does the principle of the authority of Scripture in any way negate the concept of authority within the Christian Church? The view that access to the authority of Scripture somehow negates the command to submit to our elders and to one another is a logical non-sequitur as well as a self-refuting position. Why it is a non-sequitur? The reason it does not follow is because the nature of the authority of Scripture is non-derived and final while the nature of the authority of the church is derivative and imperfect. The authority of the Church is imperfect because it involves human beings with a sin nature. It is derivative because it is informed entirely by Scripture. The Word of God was just as authoritative in its oral form in the ancient Church as it is in its written form. One has just as much access to it when they hear it rightly as they do when they read it rightly. If Scripture commands us to submit to the Christian community while at the same time informing us such submission is not necessary because we have Scripture as our authority, the command is reduced to absurdity. In essence, Scripture would be commanding us to do something while instructing us that we do not have to do it after all. As it turns out, the authority of Scripture, rather than being the ground for no authority in the Church turns out to be the very ground of all authority in the Church. The entire principle of loosing and binding in Matt.18:15-20 is founded on the idea that the authority of heaven is bestowed on the Christian community in matters of sin and forgiveness.

Does the presence of false elders invalidate the NT command for Christians to obey and submit to elders? There were false elders everywhere in the NT world. Nearly every NT project was written to deal with false teachers in some way. The existence of false teachers would be all the more reason for us to submit to godly elders, and to one another. It does not follow that false paths produce a state of affairs that lead to individual self-determination and sufficiency. Exactly the opposite is true. The last thing the NT authors had in mind was that Christians would eventually become, as in America, islands unto themselves. But this is precisely where the hermeneutics of Hays leads us. At the end of the day, in Hays logic, I will determine for myself what Scripture teaches and I have no obligation to submit to anyone with whom I disagree, to include my pastor, my elders, and my Church. Ladies and gentlemen, this is American Christianity at its core. It is why we are in the mess we are in today. Each Christian believes and does what is right in his own eyes. Unity and diversity has been swallowed up by individual autonomy.

Finally, what are the consequences of a Christian community without authority? There would be no way such a community could call on the authority of Scripture with any conviction whatsoever. She would be powerless to impose Scripture’s commands in any manner. How could she deal with the heretic? Someone has to bear the sword. Given that she has no authority, and each person’s hermeneutic is as valid as the next, what would her basis be for purging folly and leaven from her community? How could she deal with the man who took his father’s wife for himself in ancient Corinth? Would there be any way she could put those out who refuse to follow Paul’s commands as Paul instructs in Thessalonica? How would she address the impenitent? By what mechanism could she ensure continuity in leadership for the next generation? Hays offers no way through this maze of devastation. In addition, we end in doctrinal skepticism and moral relativism. In other words, Hays’s approach brings us to the current distressing and contemptible state we see today. No doctrine of the Church is secure and no practice so sacred that even the most inexpert among us can recast it into whatever his heart desires.

I need to say one final thing about the consequences of Hays’s view. One of the single greatest challenges confronting the contemporary Church in America is the complete lack of accountability. The nature of sin that continues to confront the Christian after conversion demands that we be held accountable for everything from our beliefs, and our thinking, to our daily behavior. Accountability furnishes the indispensable structure required for spiritual growth. Hays’s view, as I understand it, seemingly offers  no accountability in support of spiritual growth and in defense of heresy and immoral behavior. This is because, after all, each person must decide for themselves what to think, and how to live. And this they will do without any oversight from anyone else. After all, we can read a commentary the same as our brothers and sisters and elders. Accountability is destroyed in this paradigm. Accountability only works if there is someone to whom we feel obliged, responsible.

A brief survey of biblical texts that show that genuine Christianity would collapse absent the authority paradigm. Matt.18:15-20 sets out the guidelines for when the Church must act to remove the impenitent from her community. You see, without some sort of authoritative structure, the Church is lacks the mechanism necessary to keep leaven from the body. The Church is said to be a light on a hill, a city that cannot be hid. But if the Church has no authority to keep darkness from her ranks, how on earth is she able to continue to be this light? The answer is simply that she cannot.

Acts 20:28 commands the Ephesian elders to watch out for themselves and for the flock of God over which God has made you overseers. Implicit in this oversight is authority: the authority to influence and lead into truth, sanctification, and spiritual growth. Without followers, submitters, there would be no one to watch over.

1 Peter 5:1-5 gives us great instructions for how godly elders are to lead. They are to exercise oversight, meaning they have responsibility for the care of the saints. They are to do this not by compulsion but voluntarily. In addition, they are not to lord it over the community allotted to their charge, but instead they are to be examples. This is to say that their authority is not secular, not Roman, not worldly. But it is authority nonetheless. Without some sort of authority, this function would be impossible. Think about it from this perspective: if the congregation were filled with one-hundred Steve Hays, how would the elders ever be able to carry out this service? I submit that it would not be possible. After all, Steve has access to the very same authority these elders have and he does not need their oversight. In addition, Peter informs the young men to submit to their elders. This word means to submit to the orders or directives of someone. This word is in the imperative mood, indicating it is a command. In other words, this is not an option. How can such a situation exist without authority? It simply cannot.

1 Th. 5:12 tells us that we are to appreciate those leaders who have charge over us in the Lord. Once more, this points us up to a formal structure of authority already established very early in the Church. Such a structure is obviously necessary for the spiritual welfare of the Christian community. Without it, we are like a ship at sea without a compass. Spiritual growth is impossible. Doctrinal purity is impossible. Unity of values is impossible. Each man does what is right in his own eyes.

Paul informs Timothy (1 Tim. 5:17) that the elders who rule well are considered worthy of double honor. There is no question that elders are placed out front, in charge of the very health of our souls individually as well as collectively as a community. It is heavy load to carry but a most rewarding one as well.
Acts 16:4 is a perfect picture of ecclesial authority as it relates to the Galatian controversy. As a result of this controversy, the apostles and elders sent out a decree that was to be observed by the Gentile Christians. This decree carried inherent, implicit authority.


The authority paradigm is anchored, not only in Scripture but is everywhere present in the context of group thought in Mediterranean cultures. The idea was indispensable to the social setting of that time. The authority of the collective group was one each person willingly submitted to in that culture. This is true to a very large degree even to this day. The idea is radically antithetical to the extreme individualism we witness in American culture. This is why it is so difficult for us to appreciate and understand. The group would police its own. The group had inherent authority to shame and excommunicate anyone who insisted on not identifying with it by living up to its values. The Christian group’s authority is derived from Scripture. As such, it has the authority to excommunicate anyone who is not actually part of the group by dealing harshly with obstinate behavior.

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