One of the more remarkable aspects of David’s life when he was on the run from the homicidal king Saul was the regard and respect he had for Saul as the Lord’s anointed. Repeatedly we find him feeling guilty even for the small amount of harm he gave to Saul through cutting a fringe of Saul’s robe, or for sneaking into Saul’s camp to steal a spear and water jug, all in the interest of proving his own good character and lack of threat to Saul, before eventually giving up the effort and joining with the Philistines led by Achish of Gath. David’s high view of the protection and honor due to those who have been anointed into leadership by God, who have been ordained in positions of high office, sprang from his own experience of being ordained by God and thinking long and hard about what that meant. To honor those who have been ordained in the sense that one has is setting an example for how you yourself should be honored and treated by others, even when you have become estranged from such a person. This is an example that more people should follow in recognizing that their own status is helped by having a high degree of respect and regard for others who have the same sort of ground for the legitimacy of their own authority.
In speaking about such matters as the authority that exists within the Church of God as is defined in scripture, specifically within the New Testament, I do so with the obvious limitation that I am not ordained myself. In stark contrast to most people who write about such subjects, I am not writing about the respect that I am owed by others but rather the respect that I must give to others without sharing in it myself. And just as those who are ordained have to deal with the accusation that they will exaggerate such requirements of honor and respect that are owed to those who have been ordained as they have for their self-interest, so too any comment of mine on the subject may be viewed as having a bias either because of an untoward ambition for such office on my part, or should I not be as expansive on such duties, because of a hostility towards authority and its just claims. Even so, as a student of the scriptures and as someone with an openly avowed and possibly dangerously intense level of interest in matters of political philosophy and the legitimacy of authority and its proper limits, I find it necessary from time to time to comment on such issues even with the hazards it presents.
Without any attempt to be exhaustive about the subject here, I would like to comment at least somewhat about a subject that was mentioned by a deacon in our local congregation this past Sabbath on the matter of sovereignty and authority within the church. I gave him a verbal compliment after his message, as it was a very good message and dealt thoughtfully with the subject, and I did not wish to make my own desire to write about the subject myself (as I am doing right now) to seem to be a criticism of his message. There is a great deal that can be said about authority within the church, and the speaker made a point about the issue of sovereignty in a way that I do not think has often been made and that has implications that have not often been sufficiently realized, so I wish to draw them out and make explicit what was implicit in the message, not least for my own benefit in that I tend to understand things better in the process of writing and talking about them, as well as for anyone else who finds such matters to be of interest.
One of the key points of the message was that the sovereignty of the ordained leadership of the Church of God in the New Testament consists in the matter of judgments that bind the membership, and in the respect that members need to have for this authority. It is not hard to find discussions of the nature of this authority and how it is vigorously defended by the leaders of the early New Testament church and recorded for us in scripture. Here is one such example: Matthew 18:15-20: ““Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.””
Let us briefly note a few of the pertinent aspects of this particular passage. For one, it sets forth a seldom-followed process for dealing with disputes that begins with people going one-on-one to an offending (or offended) fellow member, then seeking good-faith witnesses to bring about reconciliation, and only then going to the church leadership to resolve an issue and punish through disfellowshipment or something equally drastic. For another, let us note that the church itself is limited to certain means, as the church does not have the penal authority of the state when it comes to sanctioning offending brethren. Removal from the assembly and its good graces is the extent of what can be done, and this is viewed as binding on earth what is to be bound in heaven–those not in good graces with godly religious authorities are viewed as not being in God’s own good graces. Let us also note that what is being bound and loosed on earth and in heaven are matters of judgment–the application of God’s commandments, statutes, and laws in particular situations with particular fact patterns, including behaviors, attitudes, and the like. Church authorities do not have the authority to authorize disobedience to God’s laws, but rather must apply those laws to believers based on such information as they have available as well as the insight that is given to them by God’s spirit and through their own practice of discernment and judgment. Finally, let us note that this authority is never viewed as being given to one person alone, but is given to at least two or three people who can meet the requirements for two or three witnesses in all matters of judgment that is defined elsewhere in biblical law. All of these matters serve to demonstrate that the authority and sovereignty given to the church does not replace the existing body of biblical law starting in the first five books of the Bible but is rather a continuation of that authority.
And that is indeed what we find elsewhere when we look at how the sovereignty of the Church is defended in scripture. The author of Hebrews, for example, speaks of Christ’s sovereignty as High Priest in the following fashion in Hebrews 5:1-11: “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness. Because of this he is required as for the people, so also for himself, to offer sacrifices for sins. And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: “You are My Son, today I have begotten You.” As He also says in another place: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek”; who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, called by God as High Priest “according to the order of Melchizedek,” of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.”
In describing the authority that Jesus Christ has as a high priest, the author of Hebrews does not claim this office to be a new one without precedent, but rather goes all the way back to Genesis 14, as well as Psalm 110, to point out that Jesus Christ is a high priest in an existing order that precedes and is superior to the Levitical order of the priesthood that was then in operation in the temple (which was, as it happen, soon to be destroyed by the Romans). Here again, as we saw in Matthew, Jesus Christ does not operate in a way that negates what comes before, but rather in a way which draws deeper spiritual meaning from existing law and precedent in a way that serve to demonstrate the connection even further between the authority that exists in heaven and that which exists on earth. The same is true, it should be noted, in the connection between Exodus 19:5-6 and 1 Peter 2:9-10 that gives believers in the church the same promise of being a royal priesthood and a chosen nation for those who live in obedience to the covenant that was first offered to the Israelites at Mount Sinai immediately before the ten commandments and the law of the covenant were uttered and written which they promised to obey in its totality and repeatedly failed to do so throughout their history.
We see a similar phenomenon when we look at Paul’s discussion of the leadership of the church in 1 Timothy 5:17-19: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses.” Every aspect of this spring from the law. The elders who rule well being counted worthy of a double honor are being treated as firstborn sons who, by biblical law, were to receive a double portion of the family inheritance because of the responsibility that they were given within the family. After this Paul immediately quotes two biblical laws which demonstrate that those who labor in the Word be properly remunerated for so doing as was the case in the Old Testament through the tithes and offerings which were paid to the Levites and priests. After that, Paul again cites the requirement that accusation made against church leadership must follow the evidentiary requirements of two or three witnesses that we have already cited from Matthew which spring from Deuteronomy. Here again we see that the church of God operates within the structure of commandment, statute, and law that existed from God’s dealings with ancient Israel, even if those ancient laws and ways are being adapted to new circumstances and offices of authority.
This ought not to surprise us. When Jesus Christ said that not a single jot or tittle of the law would be abrogated until all was fulfilled, He meant exactly what He said–and it remains true nearly 2000 years after he said these words that all has not yet been fulfilled. The laws that granted legitimacy to the sovereignty of priests and kings and that provided for periodic prophets to bring a wayward people of Israel into reconciliation with the Eternal still remain in force to provide a basis for the honor and respect that is due to ordained leaders within the Church of God. These laws have been applied to novel circumstances where the church has no civil authority but where it does enforce spiritual sanctions on believers who have been called to follow God in spirit and in truth and who have accepted that call through repentance and baptism and the laying on of hands and thereby have placed themselves in voluntary submission to that religious authority. Yet rather than abrogate the laws which form the foundation of the legitimacy of authority within the divine economy, the Bible repeatedly demonstrates that the commandments and the law are holy and just and good, no less so when written on our hearts than they were when written on tablets of stone for people with stony hearts and stiff necks. About that we shall have more to say anon.