Having already commented some about the promises given to those who obey the fifth commandment already recently , I do not wish to repeat myself here. Nonetheless, I did wish to examine an often neglected implication of the fifth commandment in the area of ecclesiology, in showing how honoring your father and mother relates to our obligations to the greater Church of God and the body of Christ (which, in biblical terms, are considered to be synonymous). As these implications have been largely neglected and misunderstood, I think it a worthwhile subject to at least briefly discuss.
The Bible is very plain and open about the fact that believers, even though we have a personal relationship with God, do not have a relationship with God apart from a body of believers . Wherever two or three are gathered in God’s name in a “house of God,” God is present. And each congregation, however small, is a part of a larger Church of God, with whom it is to share the same doctrinal beliefs and practices. Though a specific organization and constitutional structure is not specified in scripture, all congregations were supposed to respect and show hospitality to genuine ministers of God (3 John) and not show hospitality to heretics (2 John). Everywhere in the Bible, schisms are harshly forbidden, and it appears as if there can be determined to be two types of reasons for groups breaking off from the body of Christ–schisms over authority and heresies over doctrine, both of which are said to be a sin by God (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 3).
This would appear to set up a complicated dynamic system where the Church of God and the scriptures exist as two authorities, that of the father (God’s word) and the mother (the Church of God). The authority of the father over his bride, the Church, shows that the whole word of God is the ultimate authority in our lives as Christians. Nonetheless, just as mothers have authority in families, so too the Church is an authority as well, subject of course to the ultimate authority of the Father. This means, in general, like any relationship between fathers and mothers, that mothers have a substantial amount of leeway in enforcing the rules of the house that the children (believers) have to accept without murmur to avoid discipline.
All too often we act as if we are authorities on scripture, finding the church to be lacking in a given area, and then thinking ourselves freed from the obligation of belonging to an imperfect group of human beings, focusing instead on our own personal relationship with God to the exclusion of belonging in a congregation as we are commanded by the Word of God. Alternatively, other people get bent out of shape because a body of brethren judges them as lacking in a biblical area (say, sexual morality) and the response of the person, instead of repenting of their sins, is to judge the group of people as unloving or as hypocrites because of their own sins and problems.
In both cases the failing of the church may be genuine, but there are often failings on both sides, failings that are not solved by schisms and railing accusations but are solved by patient and long-term effort so that all believers can more closely meet the belief system of the whole Bible in consistency as well as demonstrate the love and noble character of Jesus Christ in our dealings. The fact that we may fall short in an intellectual manner of belief (orthodoxy) or practice (orthopraxy) does not negate what is a true judgment about a different matter. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, and our wisdom and insight in some areas is often counterbalanced by weaknesses and struggles in other areas. Our strengths do not negate the danger of our weaknesses and our struggles to our salvation if we choose to wallow in our sins or refuse to repent of them, and neither do our weaknesses negate our insights and strengths, both for the individual and the congregation as a whole.
And this goes both ways. The church as a whole benefits when its members push each other into greater obedience and consistency with God’s ways (especially when this is done with love and gentleness and not an attitude of superiority and fault-finding). Each member benefits when they are held accountable for their sins and when their shortcomings are brought to light gently and in love, not as a way of insulting them or putting them down or making them feel worthless, but as a way of refining their precious metals from some of the dross and corruption that comes from flawed backgrounds and life in a fallen world. Both we as believers and our institutions are often corrupted by mistaking human tradition for biblical doctrine, from having leaders who have a lust for authority and a misguided and mistaken belief that they know all truth and practice it perfectly already, and from believers who are often unwilling to admit their own sins and failings in the misguided belief that it will lead their own genuine insights to be rejected on that count.
Many of our failures as a culture are due to our failures in ecclesiology. Where we fail to respect the honorable position of the Church of God as an institution, and the respect it is due even where it is occasionally mistaken, then we will view ourselves as the judges of other believers or institutions without also judging our own imperfections and inconsistencies, which is to place ourselves in serious danger of divine judgment. For by the same standard we judge, we will also be judged. If we demand perfection of our institutions, a perfection far above our own ability to meet, we will face a very harsh judgment indeed. It is far better to have high standards but also forgive others their debts, in the knowledge that we must be forgiven of our own.
A lack of respect for the Church of God as an institution and as a body of believers has led to a great deal of evils. These evils include a belief that only the leadership of a given organization is actually “the Church” and that the brethren as a whole are merely servants or revenue sources without any citizenship or legitimacy. Likewise, far too many members, as a result of having seen spectacular failures in the institutions they trusted (perhaps too much in light of events), have ceased to give the Church of God the respect it is due afterward, instead of recognizing that flawed authorities are still worthy of respect simply due to the offices that they hold, and that just as God will hold authorities accountable to a very high standard, we too will be held to a high standard if we view ourselves (or others view us) as authorities as well.
We also ought to be far more generous with each other on all sides of disputes over offices and minor doctrinal matters. A genuine believer will not leave a body of believers simply because of a loss of title or privileges, or over being exposed in a genuine sin. A genuine believer will rather repent of any sins and faults, and will accept that God will repay us many times over for the wrongs we suffer in flawed and fallible human institutions, just as God will repay many times over those we sin against if they remain patient and godly themselves. Likewise, a genuinely godly organization will not pretend to have all truth and all knowledge, but will admit that it too is in a process of growth, so long as the Bible itself can prove a case.
Not all beliefs have the same degree of certainty–we ought to consider doctrines as important to the extent that the Bible is crystal clear about them, and those things that the Bible is less clear and certain about, we too should be less dogmatic about as well. If we base a doctrinal position on human tradition, we should be mature enough to admit it, and to accept biblical judgment rather than hold on to mistaken opinions. Likewise, if a personal flight of doctrinal fancy is opposed by other scriptures that we may not have considered, we too ought to accept biblical judgment when we are confronted with the larger biblical context rather than hold to our positions in the face of the clear statement of the word of God.
Recognizing that ecclesiology, both in neglecting the role of the general body of members in improving and honing the doctrinal understandings of a congregation and organization as well as neglecting the clear need to respect authorities who have not rejected truth (even if they may not have perfect understanding or practice of that truth), is a serious problem for us ought to be the first step in improving that shortcoming. In so doing we can become less prone to schism by recognizing the divine abhorrence for division and petty strife, and more alive by accepting that the Bible is the ultimate authority, and determining what questions are differences of understanding, differences of interpretation, with a great deal of humility on all sides. In the face of God’s great wisdom and our clear ignorance, we all have many reasons to be humble and no good reasons at all to be arrogant about our understanding. And more love and humility all around would do much to smooth over our inevitable disagreements, and to arrest the trends of schism and division that are so common in our contemporary experience.