Saturday, July 27, 2013

Steve Hays on Ecclesiology: A Unique View on Ecclesial Submission

In response to Steve Hays at Triablogue, I have decided to provide a response to his position on ecclesial submission.
This is often quoted by high churchman to keep the laity in their place. But it’s important to keep in mind that Biblical commands and prohibitions typically have an implied situation. An implicit or explicit situational context.
To be faithful to Biblical commands and prohibitions means we must make allowance for the implied situation, and apply those biblical injunctions to analogous situations. Far from honoring the authority of Scripture, to disregard the implied situation can make a mockery of original intent.
As I discussed recently, there are well-meaning Christians (e.g. John Murray, Wayne Grudem) who say there are no circumstances in which it is right to lie. They treat the Mosaic prohibition against perjury as a moral absolute.
But in so doing, they are decoupling the Mosaic prohibitions from the Mosaic law, of which they are a part, and reassigning them to any law code. But can you simply transfer those prohibitions from a just to an unjust law code? If a human law code substitutes darkness for light (Isa 5:20), if attaching the Mosaic prohibitions to an unjust law code would generate a Kafkaesque travesty of justice, are we really honoring the Bible? Or have we perverted justice?
Likewise, you have well-meaning Anabaptists who apply 1 Peter 2:13-14 to a modern democracy. But that disregards the implied situation of Christians at the time of writing.
I have already pointed out Hays’s unfortunate characterization of why men call upon this text in discussions about biblical submission. The subtle inference is that we must watch out for men who call upon this text in such discussions because their motivation is more than likely to abuse or lord it over the poor layman. This tactic is regrettable and in my opinion questionable in terms of the Christian ethic.

Steve makes the point that we must make allowance for the implied situation if we are to properly interpret Scripture. The standard way of saying this is that we must take into consideration the historical context within which the text was written. However, an overemphasis on this principle could lead to situational ethics even within the Christian system of ethics and this could have disastrous results.

Hays provides a perfect example of my concern when he asserts that in some cases, it is perfectly right to lie. He places prohibition against lying within the Mosaic Law and proceeds to relativize deceptive behavior. I have reviewed Hays thinking in this area and must say that I cannot agree with his conclusions about the practice of deceptive behavior. This post is not the place to address that issue.

What Hays is attempting to do from the start is relativize the injunction given in the New Testament that believers are to obey and submit to their elders. Let’s take a look at Hays’s argument and provide some responses as we go.

Where Heb 13:17 is concerned, we need to take the implied situation into account:i) There were no Christian denominations back then. There were no rival theological traditions in the Apostolic church.
But nowadays, which elders should a Christian submit to? Baptist? Methodist? Amish? Lutheran? Anglican? Presbyterian? Assemblies of God? Roman Catholic? Eastern Orthodox? Oriental Orthodox?
Should a Christian layman submit to Pope Francis, John Spong, James Pike, Gene Robinson, Katharine Schori?
Clearly the situation is more complicated. It’s necessary for a layman to make a preliminary judgment regarding which elders merit submission. A layman must decide for himself which denomination or independent church has a better understanding of the Bible.  The alternative is to flip a coin. So a layman has no choice but to exercise some independent theological judgment regarding which elders to submit to. Simply defaulting to an authority-figure isn’t a viable option when there are competing authority-figures vying for our submission.
While it is true that there were no denominations at the time of the writing of Hebrews, it is not true that there were no rival theological traditions. The NT is replete with doctrinal and theological threats to the truth claims and values of the Christian group. Perhaps these did not rise to the level that Steve has in mind, but the fact of the matter is that there were heretical competitors lurking everywhere. In fact, the reason for the writing of this very letter was the concern over massive defection from the Christian tradition that was being established back to Judaism.

I agree with Steve that the number of churches and denominations, especially in American culture can be confusing and challenging for any young Christian. But isn’t this approach to interpreting Hebrews 13:17 anachronistic. Shouldn’t we first seek to understand exactly what that writer was getting at before attempting to apply it in our context? The existence of a million denominations has little if any bearing on the task of exegeting and understanding Hebrews 13:17.

Does a layman decide for himself, or is there more to it than that? Are we free to pick and choose which church we attend based on our own personal preferences? I would suggest that the role of the Holy Spirit in the area of spiritual growth is a strong common denominator for how believers decide which church they should join. A love for God and His truth, which is the unavoidable by-product of genuine salvation will move an individual to like-minded people. Is this really individual choice or is it the result of the Teacher who leads us into all truth?

ii) Does Heb 13:17 enjoin unconditional obedience? This verse qualifies the nature of submission. The laity are accountable to the leaders insofar as the leaders are accountable to God.
By converse logic, if church leaders are derelict, then the laity aren’t accountable to unaccountable leaders.
V17 comes on the heels of vv7,9. The laity are admonished not to be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. Given the fact that false teachers even infiltrated NT churches when the apostles were away, you could easily have a church, even in NT times, a church planted by an apostle, where the leadership went astray. A church where the elders were heretics.
So surely Heb 13:17 doesn’t enjoin blind submission to church elders. That would give false teachers carte blanche.
I am in full agreement with Hays on this point. There are churches where the elders have been seduced by the deceiver, and who have shown themselves to be false converts. My response above shows how God protects true believers from such deception. Jesus Himself said it is impossible to deceive the elect. The Teacher is our guide into all truth. But there is a God-ordained means by which this process takes place.

The laity are indeed accountable to the leaders and to one another as the leaders are accountable to God. But the danger zone is precisely here. Who determines when the leaders are NOT accountable to God? By what standard? How can we protect ourselves from both error and insubordination? Where is the balance? Safety is found in the perspicuity of Scripture. If you deny this doctrine, you end up upon a sea of pure subjectivity without any authority structure at all. Moreover, the determination that a group of leaders is not being accountable to God is exceptionally easy to see. If it is unclear of foggy, the best course of action is to submit from a sincere heart. The seductive aspects of radical autonomy, especially in American thought should serve as serious warning signs for each of us. We are reared in a culture that values the individual, freedom, autonomy in an idolatrous fashion. We must consider this fact any time we talk about ecclesial submission.

We do not want to give leaders carte blanche. However, I am afraid that Hays’ lack of a positive statement on biblical submission gives the individual carte blanche and that is no better than the problem he seeks to avoid. His solution destroys the Church far quicker than the problem he is trying to solve, false elders teaching false doctrine.

iii) Keep in mind, too, that at the time Hebrews was written, the NT wasn’t complete, collected, or disseminated.Most laymen couldn’t read. Even if they could, they couldn’t afford books. That’s why the Scriptures were read aloud in church.Back then, laymen were far more dependent on church leaders for their knowledge of the Christian faith. But nowadays, Christian laymen can go straight to the source. They can read the Bible. They can read Bible commentaries. Biblical theologies. Systematic theologies.
Hays seems to imply that ancient ecclesiology was what it was for merely pragmatic reasons. We are, presumably, past that now. We have progressed. We don’t need the structure they needed because we are, after all, more sophisticated. We can read it for ourselves! We can read commentaries! This is no solution at all. The idea of submission is much deeper than Hays seems to understand. It goes to the very nature of the Christian Church. We are one! We are the body of Christ. Biblical submission can only be rightly understood if one rightly understands the organism that is the Christian Church. Hays’s understanding of ecclesial submission seems misplaced. Rather than being the product of the very nature of the Church, for Hays, ecclesial submission seems more pragmatic, more of a matter of convenience. I strongly disagree with such an ecclesiology.

iv) At the time Heb 13:17 was written, elders were either apostolic appointees or ratified by apostles. Witnesses to the life of Christ were still alive (Heb 2:3).
Once again, we’re in a very different situation. Both pastors and laymen depend on the same source of information–the Bible. It isn’t mediated in the same way.
We need to apply biblical prescriptions and proscriptions to situations comparable to what the injunction originally envisioned. To tear a Biblical injunction out by the roots and transplant it to a completely different situation isn’t honoring the authority of Scripture.
If by “ratified by apostles” Hays means authorized by delegates of the apostles, I agree. Titus was not an apostle, yet one of his duties was to ordain elders in every city. I suspect Titus was not the only one given this responsibility. Moreover, I highly doubt that he had to review each candidate with an apostle prior to their appointment.

Hays seems to say that we don’t need to do it that way any longer because our situation has changed. This raises concerns around Hays’s version of situational ethics based upon his situational hermeneutic. This method introduces a degree of subjectivity that should make any theologian or pastor squirm with discomfort. After all, God had the text penned, not just for the ancient Church, but for the Church of all ages.

In summary then, I can agree with Hays that we must not blindly follow leaders without some form of structure and accountability. Elders must submit to Christ’s Word as they carry out their responsibilities. In addition, they must submit to one another. Finally, they must submit to the Church as a body. While there is no guarantee in numbers, the level of safety is increased exponentially. For icing on the proverbial cake, we do have the Teacher as our Great Protector.

I agree with Steve when he says that entire sessions have been given to serious error and even heresy. But this is not easy to pull off. One does not flip a switch and end up with an apostate church. It generally takes several years for this to happen. Believers must be discerning about their Church. Their loyalty must be to God, to His Truth first. True believers have the Holy Spirit and are enabled to recognize, in time, when the deceiver has the floor.

I am not urging blind commitment to elders. I am not advocating that leaders can lord it over the people of God. Elders cannot inject their own opinions on non-essential issues and invoke the authority of the church on such matters. A plurality of elders in Spirit-filled Church helps to mitigate such behavior.

I am urging believers to view biblical and ecclesial submission through the lens of the ancient Church and not from the standpoint of modern American culture. We do not have the right to leave a church over petty issues. Such thinking is natural, carnal, sinful, and rebellious. And such thinking unfortunately is reflected in a majority of Christians today. We think we have rights to pick our own church based on whatever criteria WE decide. We think we have rights to privacy. We think we have rights to engage in whatever ministry WE want without any interference from anyone, even our elders. This is a very serious problem in Protestantism.

I see no positive statement about biblical submission in Hays’s ecclesiology. It simply does not exist.

Hays’s statements almost indicate that he doesn't like the idea of submission himself and this is the reason he takes the position he does.

Hays’s ecclesiology leads to a radical individualism that destroys the oneness of the body of Christ.

Hays’s ecclesiology provides no framework or protection for the body in terms of her ministers and teachers or her ministries.

Hays’s ecclesiology is pragmatic at best and highly subjective at worse. It is based off an anachronistic understanding of biblical submission. He reads back into the text from the modern perspective. He makes excuses for why they did it that way and why we no longer have to concern ourselves with texts like Hebrews 13:17.

Leaders in the body of Christ are called by God and eventually recognized by the Church. They may take months or years of training before they are permitted to engage the public and be the face of the Church and of Christ to the world. But there is a disciplined process in place. Jesus selected His apostles. The apostles replaced Judas. Paul ordained elders. Paul ordained men to ordain elders. The deacons were selected by the congregation with the consent of the apostles. Elders had a very specific set of standards to meet before they were qualified. This also applied to deacons. This gives us good reason to think that such standards apply to all men who desire to serve in such capacities. These standards REQUIRE a formal ecclesial structure by which we identify such men.

There are leadership requirements for men in the Christian Church. They are to display certain values, skills, and abilities that others do not. The very existence of these requirements demands some level of authoritative structure. Without such structure, we could never enforce the requirements and ensure godly leaders are appointed which is what Scripture demands. Hays seems to ignore this fact altogether in preference for an ecclesiology that is more American, more individual, more autonomous, more pragmatic, and more subjective.

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