Friday, December 11, 2009

On authority or the lack thereof

I wrote last month:

I think the solution to radical individualism is not authority. The antithesis of individuality is community, not hierarchy. We don’t overcome individuality by elevating certain individuals to rule over the others but rather through selfless service and ministry to one another. It is only when the whole Body ministers and serves one another that individuality is overcome.

That brings us to the mantra of “submission to authority”. That seems to be the solution proposed in many circles to the problem of individualism in the church, i.e. submit to the men in charge of the local church. It is the "Ninth Mark of a Healthy Church Member" for crying out loud!

Going a step further, it is generally considered an “either or” proposition. Either you accept authority as it is traditionally configured or you don't accept leadership and authority at all. It is just a given that the model of authority we see in the local church is the way it is supposed to be, without question. I have been accused and I have seen similar accusations thrown that about essentially assert that questioning the traditional systems of church government is tantamount to rejection of authority, sort of a Christian anarchy. I reject that dichotomy as false on its face.

I have no issue with what the Bible says about authority. The Word of God is authoritative (2 Tim 3:16). Christ is the head of the church (Eph 5: 23-24) and all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Him (Matt 28:18). We should submit to those in civil authority (Rom 13:1). We also see places where Christ gives authority to cast out unclean spirits to His apostles (Mark 6:7, Luke 10: 19). We do see a passage in Hebrews that speaks of submitting to leaders, Hebrews 13:7:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

So that seems pretty straight forward. Hang on though. Who are these “leaders”? These leaders are spoken of earlier in this chapter in verse 7:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Heb 13:7)

So our “leaders” are identified as those who spoke (past tense?) to us the Word of God. I would expect that for most Christians the guys in leadership at their local church are not the ones who preached the Gospel to them when they were converted. In my case it was Rev. Sheldon Hale at First Baptist Church in Walton, Kentucky. So does that mean that I should only submit to him? That is kind of hard since he is no longer at First Baptist Church in Walton and I haven't been there in years. My point is that we read “leaders” and apply that to “pastors” in the local church. Also, how do they lead? We are to "consider the outcome of their way of life" and we are to "imitate their faith". They lead us by example as well as by teaching and we are to imitate them. This fits neatly with Ephesians 4: 11-16 where we see the goal of leadership in the church is not to be a permanent division but helping others to achieve the same level of maturity as those more mature in the faith. The goal of leadership in the church is not leadership itself but leading others to maturity in the faith (see Preaching Yourself Out Of A Job). Now I may be wrong about the interpretation of Hebrews 13 but I don't think it is as cut-and-dried as it is made out to be.

Hebrews 13 is hardly the only place we read about submitting in the Bible. In various other places we are to submit to one another (Eph 5:21). We are to submit to God (James 4:7). Wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22-24), children are to submit to their parents (Eph 6:1) and slaves to their masters (Eph 6: 5-8). We are to be “subject to” those who are serving the church and to all who are “fellow workers and laborers” (1 Cor 16: 15-18), That is a lot of submitting going on. Is that a defense of the traditional idea of submitting to local church leaders? Eh. The “support” for submission to local church authorities seems pretty flimsy in spite of centuries of tradition.

Again, I am not questioning authority per se. I just question whether we express the Biblical concept of authority properly in the local church. In traditional parlance, those having authority in the church are the leaders of the local body, who have authority over us based on our “membership” in that local body and by virtue of their “calling”. “Calling” is church speak for someone being selected based on a vote or appointment by an ecclesial authority. So what this boils down to is that we are supposed to submit to authorities, which typically means the men who have been elected, by whatever criteria, in the local church. The relative merit of one local assembly as opposed to another comes down to the men elected to lead that assembly.

Is that proper? Is it Biblical? Is that what the Bible means by “those in authority”? An authority based on what? A seminary degree, a solid work history as a pastor and a “calling” after a few interviews and sample sermons? I think an enormous leap has been made here. This begs the question: what are the marks of a man called to lead? More to the point, what do we view as the marks of a man called to lead? I am afraid that it may be based on many things that may make sense to us from a traditional and pragmatic standpoint more than from a Biblical standpoint. Being a good preacher, a good manager/organizer, having the proper experience and education, etc are all well and good but the picture we get in the Bible is a bit more complex and counter-intuitive. More on that in the next post.

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1 comment:

Goblin said...

Great post Arthur. The issues surrounding spiritual authority in church have been a problem for us for a few years now. We believe firmly that elders are to lead the church in making decisions, not impose on the church decisions elders have made in isolation. Our own recent failure to 'toe the line' and to admit to being '100% in the wrong' on this issue has lead to us being labelled as 'unable to accept authority', 'trouble-makers', 'disobedient' and 'unpastorable'. Most of this was due to some relatively young and inexperienced 'elders' lacking the wisdom of how to gently encourage fellow believers and resorting instead to various forms of compulsion. They had honest and well meaning intentions, but in my view sadly became abusive due to a misunderstanding of spiritual authority.
As believers WE ALL need to re-examine what we believe in the areas of authority, servanthood and humility and how they apply to our dealings with one another and to leadership in the church.