by John Ellis
Two years into our marriage, my wife and I sold almost all of our furniture, reserved a moving van for our remaining possessions, and announced to the Elders of our church that we were moving to California. The Elders informed us that we were making a mistake. That, of course, ticked me off. We spent many hours attempting to rationalize to them why it was “God’s will” for us to move. They spent many hours praying for us and attempting to show us that it was a bad idea for a young married couple with a toddler and no job prospects waiting in California to pick up and move over two thousand miles away from our church and support network. They also counseled me that as new Christian, and less than a year removed from a crisis of faith as I was confronted with God’s sovereignty while watching my mom die, that it was probably best for us to stay where God had us so that I could continue to be discipled by those who knew and loved me. The ins-and-outs of this anecdote probably deserve a several thousand word post in order to be adequately unpacked. Suffice to say, after a month of being confronted about my pride, foolishness, and general stupidity, the Holy Spirit, through the patience and wisdom of our church leaders, protected me and my family and opened my eyes to the wisdom of our Elders. We stayed in Greenville, SC.
The opening of my eyes didn’t come without resistance on my part, however. Many nights, after returning home from a conversation with one of our Elders, I would rant and rave to my wife about how they had no right to meddle in our life; that they were overstepping their bounds and should mind their own business. Never mind the fact that what they said made perfect sense; I didn’t want to be told what to do. I hate authority. Always have.
My hatred of authority does not, by any means, make me unique. In fact, hating authority makes me like every other human being, except one, who has walked this earth. Humans have resisted authority from the beginning. Adam and Eve, wanting to transcend their roles as God’s vice-regents and become like God, defied God’s law and ate of the fruit. Since that time, the cosmic, historical halls have been crowded with us humans lying on our backs, kicking, screaming, and pounding our clinched, little fists because we don’t get to be in charge.
That means that the rejection of authority is not unique to any one generation. I may not like how the Millennials’ rebellion looks and sounds, but that’s because I’m comfortable in the Tower of Babel that I helped my fellow Gen X-ers build. It would be easy to rant and rave about specific acts of rebellion that I personally find distasteful while ignoring the acts of rebellion that give me the warm and fuzzies. Not to say that I’ll shy away from publicly calling out sin, but I do need to be careful that the beam is out of my eye before scoffing at the splinters in the eyes of others. Besides, with this article, I’m not necessarily interested in specific acts of rebellion, but in partially defining where authority rests.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor will this post be comprehensive in regards to the three sources of authority mentioned. For example, at this moment, I have no plans to write about parental authority. That’s not to say that the issue of parental authority isn’t important and doesn’t need to be interacted with. It’s to say that where I’m at in my life and the disagreements that arise from the expressions of my beliefs, parental authority isn’t much of an issue. The three sources of authority that this post is concerned with are God, the Bible, and the Church.
When I encounter disagreement about my beliefs, especially in regards to my writing, I often find that the crux of the disagreement is actually over authority. In other words, so-and-so may disagree with my conclusion, but so-and-so and I will never find agreement because we disagree on where or with whom authority lies; our presuppositional starting points are in completely different places and our rhetorical paths will probably never cross in any meaningful ways. For example, when I write that I believe that smoking marijuana is probably out of bounds for Christians because of the Bible’s strictures against drunkenness, I’m not crafting an argument that’s intended to be convincing on any level for non-Christians. I mean, I can’t; my argument is predicated on the belief that the Bible is authoritative. If someone doesn’t believe that, my argument will not be convincing for them.
Refusing to acknowledge God’s authority doesn’t let non-Christians off the hook, though. God’s voice thundering into the void as the creative act for everything established His authority over all things. All things include, well, all things – even humans who refuse to acknowledge His authority. The Apostle Paul was speaking to Athenian pagans when, paraphrasing Job 12:10, he said, “In him we live and move and have our being”. Like the Athenian pagans of two thousand years ago, modern humans have fallen prey to the lie that we do not answer to the God of the Bible. We think that God, at best, is like an elected representative; He has power, sure, but on some level, He answers to us – His constituents. Job’s friends thought the same thing, and their political theory wasn’t even shaped by the Social Contract theories of the Enlightenment.
Job 38 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. Up to that point in the book, the narrative is mainly Job and his friends going back and forth about who’s to blame for what, God’s role in it all, and what lessons Job should or should not learn from the whole ordeal. In chapter 38, God doesn’t just step into the story, He whirls and thunders into the story – literally. “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind”. The dramatic contrast is poignant; the story jumps from the mealy-mouthed whining of humans to God who uses a whirlwind as His mouthpiece. Out of that whirlwind, God asks Job a series of rhetorical questions designed to illustrate the absurdity of Job and his friends thinking that they could question the authority of God. Through those rhetorical questions, the reader, like Job, is confronted with the reality that God is the author of all things, His authority extends over all things, and He answers to no one.
Since God is the author of all things that means that He’s also the author of love and justice – two concepts that dominate much of the contemporary public dialogue. No matter how skillful the sophistry, when an individual writes or speaks about those concepts apart from God’s authoritative definitions, they are in rebellion and, as Image Bearers, lying about who God is. For me, as a Christian, my opinions, beliefs, and actions should conform to God’s definitions and standards. When I write about sexuality, I should make sure that I’m writing as a servant to a King who has already made an everlasting decree about the topic. However, without revelation of some sort, it would be difficult to know how to submit to the authority of God; His authority would be arbitrary and capricious. Thankfully, I’m not left to wonder what God thinks because He provides His definitions in His unchanging word, the Bible.
Yes, the Bible – that two thousand year old book written in dead languages. I believe, unwaveringly, that the Bible is authoritative over all humans. Why? Well, God, the author of all things, chose to reveal Himself primarily through the inspired writings of the sixty-six books of the one Book. In the Bible, among other things, God tells us what “love” means; He tells us what things he hates; and, most importantly, He tells us how He is making a new nation from all tribes and tongues through Jesus Christ. This book, the Bible, is a single narrative, and as Michael Lawrence writes, “this narrative is intended by God to envelop us and redefine us. It provides us with a way of understanding reality that is different from the narratives that our fallen culture provides”.
Further, and possibly most shocking to many, I believe that the Bible is inerrant. Agreeing with the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, written in 1978, I believe that the Bible is without error. What that means, in a nutshell, is that I believe that Jesus Christ literally rose from the dead – he came back to life. In fact, I’ll go an epistemic step further and say that I know that Jesus literally rose from the dead. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul explained that, “if Christ has not been raised … your faith is in vain”. He goes on to explain that if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, Christians are fools who should be pitied. In summation, I actually believe that a dead man came back to life; if I believe that, the most absurd claim found in the Bible, of course I believe the rest of the Bible to be true and authoritative over all life and practice.
Acknowledging the Bible as a source of authority changes almost everything; for example, I won’t covenant in membership with a Church that doesn’t openly and fully confess inerrancy. You see, the source of the Church’s authority is Jesus Christ and the Church’s job is the preaching and teaching of the Word. If the church doesn’t take the Word seriously, it has no reason to exist.
The Church may be the most contentious source of authority among the three, especially among Christians. For those who haven’t bowed the knee to King Jesus, the idea of the Church having authority is no less ridiculous than the fact that I believe that God, through the Bible, is the one who defines marriage. Many Christians, unfortunately, view the Church as little more than a spiritual club; a one day a week event that gives helpful tips on how to manage life until heaven arrives. This mindset views the Bible as nothing more than an owner’s manual and God as either an extra-special genie-in-the-bottle or a wizened grandpa who is waiting to heap material blessings on those who ask enough times. An improper view of God and the Bible often leads to an improper view of the Church.
To be clear, for this post, when I use the word “Church,” I mean the visible, organized Church. The theologian Louis Berkhof wrote that, “the invisible Church naturally assumes a visible form”. Berkhof goes on to explain that the visible Church is manifest in the administration of the sacraments, the ministry of the Word, the profession of faith and life of faith by Christians, and the church government. Meeting with Christian friends to study the Bible is not the Church. There is a prescribed structure for the Church, and that prescribed structure is found in the Bible.
One of the important aspects of the Bible’s prescribed structure for the Church is that of Elders – leaders. It’s hard to deny that the Bible expects Churches to have a leadership structure. 1 Timothy 3:1-7, which gives some detailed qualifications for Church Elders, would need to be removed in order to subvert the fact that there is an authority structure in the Church. Further, when 1 Timothy 5:17 uses the language, “Let the elders who rule well be considered for double honor,” there is an explicit assumption that Elders exercise authority. Maybe this raises the question, “Who is under the elders’ rule?” Well, the answer is Christians. Those of us who confess Jesus as Savior and King are commanded to “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”. Obeying and submitting to leaders is going to be difficult to do if you’re not a member of a Church.
This, by no means, gives license for dictatorial Elder regimes. They, after all, are to submit themselves to God and His revealed Word just like the rest of the congregation. But the phrase “obey your leaders and submit to them” does mean something. For those of us who are not Elders what is our attitude when the Elders approach us with a concern? For me, at any rate, if my response is to flare up and resent the encroachment into my private life, I doubt that I’m obeying Hebrews 13:17.
I want to be clear, and echo the words of Dr. Michael Horton when he writes, “Christ is the only head of the church; the authority he gives to his pastors, elders, and deacons is ministerial rather than magisterial”. In lay terms, that means, for example, that the Elders of my church don’t have the authority to tell me what kind of car to buy. If, however, they find out that I’m shopping for a Mercedes, it is within the purview of their authority to counsel me that I am not being a good steward of the resources that God has provided my family. But what would happen if I were to go against their counsel and buy the Mercedes anyway? Well, I’m not entirely sure about what would happen, but I do know what wouldn’t happen. I wouldn’t be disciplined out of our church (I wouldn’t get kicked out). The authority of the Church doesn’t extend to dictating the minutia of life like where families go on vacation, where people send their kids to school, and vocation.
Placing myself under the authority of the Church does mean that I take seriously the counsel from my Elders. And that is hard for me to do; I hate authority. Like all humans, I want autonomy; I want to be Sovereign over my life. But disdain for authority is not a valid justification for refusing to submit. The Apostle Peter tells us that “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly”. That raises the question – are you going to submit to God’s definition of “ungodly,” or are you going to try and convince God that He should accept your definition?
 And never mind that I had asked them their opinions.
 Jesus Christ. Jesus perfectly obeyed the Father, accomplishing the perfect obedience that a just and holy God demands.
 If I don’t publicly call out sin, it’s probably due to my cowardice and not to mature circumspection.
 Assuming my kids aren’t reading this, of course.
 Acts 17:28, ESV.
 Job 38:1, ESV.
 Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology In the Life of the Church, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 31.
 FYI – epistemic certainty wasn’t invented during the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment thinkers codified certainty into a man-centered epistemology that made man the source of knowledge and not God. But make no mistake, when the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:1 “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” he stated it with certainty. Further, when the writers of the Apostles Creed wrote, referencing Jesus, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead,” they were making a propositional statement and claiming knowledge. Deny epistemic certainty if you like, but please don’t fall into the trap of believing the false propositional statement that until the Enlightenment humans were not really concerned with epistemic certainty. What is true is that until the Enlightenment, many humans weren’t concerned about acquiring epistemic certainty apart from the revelation of God. Enlightenment philosophers searched for ways to build an epistemic Tower of Babel.
 I Corinthians 15:14, ESV.
 I wish that I could flesh out Christ’s resurrection in this post, but that requires a book. If you do have questions, please ask in the comments or an email, but I highly recommend that you read N.T. Wright’s wonderful book The Resurrection of the Son of God.
 See Matthew 16:18-19 and 18:15-20.
 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 566.
 Like the Resurrection, I would love to go into more depth about Ecclesiology, but space doesn’t permit. Know that I am skipping quite a bit, and rushing to what I believe is most relevant for the discussion at hand. If you’re interested in learning more about Ecclesiology, I recommend Systematic Theology by Berkhof (or any number of good systematic theologies – Grudem, Michael Horton, Frame), The Church: The Gospel Made Visible by Mark Dever, and The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love by Jonathan Leeman.
 Hebrews 13:17, ESV.
 Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 746.
 I mean, I am shopping for a Mercedes … don’t tell my Elders.
 For the record, and contradicting my previous footnote (which you should’ve known was a joke), if God ever gives my family the necessary resources (enough money), I’m buying a Mercedes.
 I’m basing this on the fact that buying a Mercedes at this point in my life would be foolish and demonstrate things like a lack of wisdom and lack of self-control, but it is not sin that meets the necessary qualification for church discipline of being outward, serious, and unrepentant. If that’s confusing, and it probably is too many, please consider reading Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus and The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love both by Jonathan Leeman.
 With the caveat that if my wife and I decide to go to an adults only Hedonist type resort for our vacation, that may *probably* would be a church discipline issue. Likewise, if I start cooking meth as a job – church discipline issue.
 II Peter 3:7, ESV.