Monday, September 20, 2021

Anonymous Asks (163)

“Do elders have authority?”

A hundred years ago nobody would have asked this question. Today, authority of every kind is being challenged at every level. Don’t like what the founders wrote in the Constitution? Just reinterpret it. Don’t like the Governor’s latest executive order? No worries, an unelected County Circuit Judge will shortly declare it unconstitutional so you don’t have to comply. Don’t want the fraudulent election results you certified audited? Just refuse to hand over the evidence of your malfeasance. Are the health care rights guaranteed in your province getting in the way of your ability to impose mandated vaccination? Don’t worry, we’ll find a way around that.

Agreement vs. Submission

Here’s one that’s a little closer to home. Don’t like the restraints of your husband’s God-given authority when it’s wielded by an imperfect human being? No problem. Just declare his headship “abusive” and half your local church will side with you against him. They may even cheer you on when you take your leave.

Is it any wonder the authority of elders is up for grabs?

Hey, let’s be real. Submission is not fun. Nobody likes it. If we liked it, it would be called “agreement” rather than “submission”. But if elders have biblical authority — that is to say, if God himself stands behind their commands on the rare occasion they issue them — then despising their instruction, dismissing their advice and/or badmouthing them to fellow believers is a more dangerous game than we may think.

So do they have biblical authority? Let’s have a look.

A Man Under Authority

Several words in our New Testament are translated “authority” in English. The most common is exousia, which means power of choice, liberty of doing as one pleases, or power of government. To have exousia one must be under exousia, as the story of the centurion’s faith in Matthew 8 makes clear. “I too am a man under authority,” he said, “and I say to one ‘Go,’ and he goes.” Jesus agreed. The man under authority speaks with the weight of the entire chain of command. Because the centurion is subject to the military tribune, and the military tribune is subject to the legate, and the legate to the commander, an obedient centurion’s voice is really the voice of the commander of the entire army. The soldiers understand this, and they hop to it when the centurion speaks, even though he is just a man like they are.

The Power of Delegated Authority

On this principle, elders possess delegated authority in the measure in which they themselves are subject to Christ. Obedient undershepherds speak with the full authority of the Chief Shepherd himself. For this reason, Hebrews says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” The spiritual “chain of command” is in effect, and it goes all the way to the top. Your “leaders” are “those who spoke to you the word of God”.* True leaders are acting under orders, just like the centurion.

I note that this command to Hebrew believers was not phrased conditionally. It is not “Obey your leaders WHEN they speak to you what you agree is the word of God.” It is simply “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” Yes, they are human too, and yes, they will make errors in judgment. Nevertheless, their service to the flock in the word of God has morally qualified them to make those judgments, and their instruction is to be respected whether or not we agree with their reasoning or their interpretation of scripture.

The same principle is seen in the words “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”. While we often apply this promise to church gatherings, it was given in the context of disciplining a sinning brother. To gather in Christ’s name is to act on his behalf, under his authority, with the full weight of his glorious heavenly throne behind your requests. This is a solemn responsibility, but done properly and biblically, no power can stand against it. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” It is this authority to which a group of elders appeals in prayer. Only the very unwise resist it.

In short, beware of finding out too late that you were the “erring brother”.

But Supposing ...

But supposing the elder is wrong in his interpretation or application of scripture to my situation. Suppose he’s got the facts of my case wrong. Does he still have his authority? Anyone asking this question is usually really wondering if it is remotely possible God might discipline them on an elder’s say-so, and the answer is maybe not ... IF he is acting on his own. An elder who cannot persuade other elders of the rightness of his position is better not to act unilaterally, and most elders usually don’t. As we see from Matthew 18, the authority elders wield is not an individual but a corporate authority. It is “where two or three”. It is “Obey your leaders”, plural, not singular.

Still, that doesn’t mean we should be frivolous about obeying instructions from an elder acting alone. There’s always the chance he’s right and we are wrong, and “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”. James cites Elijah as an example. He was acting alone, but he was in the right, and God stood powerfully behind him and granted his request. His judgment stood, even without further human confirmation.

I cannot think of too many situations when resisting the authority of an elder or elders has turned out well. In my judgment, it is better (and safer) to be submissive and wronged than to be rebellious and technically in the right.

* For the purposes of this post, we will consider the terms “elder”, “leader”, “shepherd” (or “pastor”) and “overseer” to be functionally equivalent, though each term speaks of a different aspect of an elder’s work or necessary qualifications.

No comments :

Post a Comment