attempted to stop a fight, one of the Hebrew combatants demanded,
"Who made you a prince and a judge over us? (Exodus 2:14).
This is an apt question and one with which Christians constantly
wrestle. It is not a trivial question. Over this issue, the American
Pilgrims sacrificed their livelihoods and their homeland. They
nearly sacrificed their children to the vicissitudes and temptations
of life in Holland. They planted America over their answer to
the question. Many have since lost their lives to defend and live
the principle of Christian liberty, that God must fundamentally
direct their life and religious paths, not men. Consider the question
of how godly, earthly authority arises, and in particular, where
we get the authority to commence a church.
Covenantal Basis of Authority for God’s Work
The Biblical basis of human authority is simple: God decrees any
work. God calls a man or men to take leadership to accomplish
it. God calls particular men as constituents of that work. Then,
those men covenantally ratify that authority and submit to it
within its sphere. The leader and his constituency combine to
effect their covenantal mission.
In the time
before Christ, God directly anointed special individuals for His
work. Anointing, such as with oil, is a symbol of commissioning
and empowering. In these early days, God did not give His Holy
Spirit generally to the people. Rather, the Scriptural record
indicates that God granted certain appointed servants power to
exercise themselves in their offices for Him.
Moses’ story establishes a precedent regarding authority
for leadership. The Lord calls Moses while a humble shepherd.
to possess no particular leadership quality. His greatness as
the son of a pharaoh has vanished. His one initiative at leadership,
when he broke up the fight between two Israelis, backfired on
him. As we find later in his story, He does not even want the
job. Nothing seems to recommend Moses as a leader.
this is an important factor in choosing leaders. We often overlook
the one chosen by God. Men look upon the appearance, rather than
recognizing the true character, potential and calling of an individual.
We often judge by present accomplishment and do not give able
candidates the opportunity to prove themselves, to learn and grow
over time. We mistake human virtue for godly virtue. The better-looking
one, the better spoken, we believe will somehow make the best
leader. Jesus Himself was not comely, the Scripture says. Nonetheless,
as with Moses, God fulfills the calling, equipping, and matriculation
establishes the constituents of a governing authority. In other
words, God chooses the followers as well as the leaders.
In the case of Moses (and others such as David), the people voluntarily
submitted to authority. Neither leader wielded military power
to force ascendant authority. Any constituency or following submits
to authority either by coercion and compulsion, or voluntarily.
For social and civil political association, God ordinarily provides
for voluntary submission among a people who are capable of some
degree of self-government. This is not to say God’s command
of covenant is not compelling. To resist the covenant of God is
to call chastening or destruction upon oneself. Yet if it is God’s
will, we need not worry whether He will fulfill the calling upon
His chosen. If God decrees a thing, He does not need men to force
its fulfillment, which is tyranny. Thus, with some notable exceptions
such as children in a family or a nation in slavish rebellion
requiring a dictator or another evil nation to chasten or judge
it, initial voluntary submission to authority is God’s rule.
no means of compelling Israel to follow him. Rather, Moses and
the people each necessarily found their respective covenants with
God. God demonstrated His power among to Moses and the people.
God’s Spirit prevailed upon those who followed. Of course,
the consequences of avoiding submission to Moses would have been
dire—the death of the first born. Here, God used some external
means to force the issue with a slavish people. The plagues got
their attention. If only out of fear, they were willing to cooperate.
Finally, God seems truly to have worked a significant degree of
faith among them, which He would continue to work through the
wilderness experience. This is a level of government somewhere
between absolute compulsion of abject slaves and the voluntary
covenant keeping of a mature and godly people. Nevertheless, God
chose the leader for the people, and the people in turn chose
that leader and submitted to him.
though Samuel as God’s prophet anointed David king of Israel
many years earlier, the people he would rule necessarily
first must have themselves accepted him and anointed him before
he could rule them. In due season, the people made David king,
first of Judah, then of all Israel. Though God will assemble a
constituency for His work, it may be slow developing. God will
often test the faithfulness of His called leaders. In a new work
God’s man may at first find no following whatsoever! Moreover,
any new work will find adversity. Tradition is a powerful force
and novelty is often met with persecution. Because innovation
will appear strange, God provided us with the Berean principle.
We must search the Scriptures to see if it be so. Jesus said to
judge a tree by its fruit. In a word, leadership is fraught with
pain and trouble. A man of God must possess a character for faithfulness
in adversity. However, when God calls anyone for a particular
work, with perseverance, however slowly, a constituency will grow
and together they will overcome adversity.
constitutes God’s spiritual and civil leaders’ actual
authority over other men? The Bible indicates that first Abraham
submitted to Melchizedek as a superior (Hebrews 7:4). Moses submitted
to Jethro, both as son-in-law and as a spiritual counselee (Exodus
3:1; 18:24). When godly men note God’s work in other men,
they submit within the proper sphere of authority. What constituted
spiritual authority? A calling of God. God chooses the leader.
The followers ratify their leaders by some process of choice,
that is election, and then submit. God chooses the followers.
One may observe the principle of submission operating over even
reprobate “parishioners” of God’s prophets such
as King Ahab.
of authority is an important question. Once God establishes authority
must not men submit to the natural succession of that authority?
Laying on hands commissions new works upon the authority of the
old, such as with Paul and Timothy. Joshua succeeded Moses. As
God’s anointed representative, Eli commissioned Samuel,
and Samuel commissioned David. The people of Israel generally
adopted the principle of generational succession, which is apt,
according to God’s promise to David. Thus, God normally
provides for succession of authority, once rightful authority
is established. Orderly succession conserves a work already accomplished.
It removes the need for revolutionary change, which ordinarily
produces a net destruction.
does not always use a succession of authority. In the absence
of a present authority receptive or available to God’s latest
work among men, He may call special new ones. God called Melchizedek
and Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, as priests without previous
lineage. Indeed, by all appearances, these two set up shop as
ministers of God apart from any other human ordination or ratification
and with no divine contradiction. Moses certainly received authority
from no other man. Interestingly, God may not always desire a
continuing succession. With Jethro, and certainly with Melchizedek,
no following succession of authority appears. Indeed, due to the
individuality of His work among many men in many different times
and locations, such special works may well be God’s norm.
God can handle diversity and change. God can bring the Many into
His One without help from men and without destroying liberty.
New Testament Legacy
chose the disciples and not the other way around (Luke 6:13 and
John 15:16). De-fusing the notion of absolute succession, God
sovereignly called Paul, though he appeared to be perhaps the
worst candidate for Apostle. (Humanly speaking, Paul’s latter
resume appears not much better.)
So then how
did New Testament churches begin? The Jerusalem church first gathered
around the Apostles of Christ. Jerusalem Christians then took
the Gospel to Judea and beyond. Here, then, churches developed
under a successional authority, though it is far from clear that
the Apostles founded established central authority over the churches.
The succession we speak of here is founding authority.
One church member or several took the Gospel from where it was
to a new place and people.
arises here: Were the evangelists always Apostles or church officials
directly commissioned for such work? That is, did God require
a succession under formal church authority? Or were the evangelists
merely identified as anointed, thus going about God’s business
on His terms, with the corresponding blessing of their
fellows? I do not pretend to answer the question authoritatively.
This is an honest difference between Presbyterians and historic
Reformed Congregationalists, such as the American Pilgrims and
later their neighbors the Puritans. Acts 6:8 declares, “And
Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs
among the people.” Did he receive this power from the church,
or did the church merely recognize Stephen’s gifts when
they called him to the deaconate? We know that Stephen’s
great power to witness of Christ became manifest after his ordination
as deacon. Then there is Philip. After Philip evangelized Samaria,
the church sent Peter and John to them (Acts 8:14). Nothing in
the text indicates the church specifically sent Philip, but rather,
“Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and
preached Christ to them” (Acts 8:5). The language seems
to indicate personal volition.
was an Apostle and God clearly sent him to plant churches. How
do we know that God called him? We know because men witnessed
and responded to his ministry. Paul had a special ministry that
no one else had—the conversion of the Gentiles. Others,
such as the inspired physician Luke, recognized it. Christians
in general have recognized it. We canonized Paul’s writing
as the Word of God! Paul founded churches through his apostolic
authority. Paul clearly possessed authority from God to perform
his ministry. Paul founded churches, but he did so apart from
the formal authority of any other church. By mutual agreement,
but not fiat, the Council of Jerusalem decided the question of
gentile Christianity with respect to the ritual law of Moses.
This seems to be the only formal central authority exerted in
the New Testament. All other human spiritual authority is exercised
individually, by way of reason and influence, or specific church
discipline when needed. The point is Paul held true authority,
and yet not successionally derived from men.
Even as God’s
anointed apostle, Paul’s authority is limited. His is not
formal authority, but rather an authority granted by God and earned
as it were, upon the truth of God’s calling and His work
in the hearers. Chapter 10 of 2 Corinthians gives us an inkling
of Paul’s view of his own authority. Indeed, the great theme
of 2 Corinthians finds Paul defending his real authority for the
sake of the Corinthian church who needed to hear his voice. However,
Paul knew a restriction of his formal authority over churches
he founded. He appeals to and pleads upon his
history with the church to heed his rightful authority. He wielded
real authority because he represented God as the infallible interpreter
of His Gospel. He spoke God’s truth for God. Moreover, Paul
argued his authority over the Corinthians because they had submitted
to his doctrine. He fathered their belief. Yet as we find in verse
one, Paul appeals to the Corinthians to submit voluntarily to
his real authority. Paul’s dignity is not at stake, but
rather his real ability to assist the church in their apparently
grave need. Thus, even as Paul is an apostle, he claims no formal
and absolute power over the church, but rather urges them for
their own good, according to his godly office.
Paul taught Timothy to lead by example. Jesus said that the world’s
leaders Lord it over their constituents, but it ought not to be
so with the church. Thus, the great evangelical church planting
and maintenance principle corresponds to the Old Testament’s
pattern: God calls the man or men to leadership. God calls the
constituting body. The constituting body chooses its leader (“Choose
this day!”). Then the church body, in this case, submits
to its ruler (bishop or overseer) within his sphere as defined
by the Scriptures.
On what Biblical
ground do individuals possess the electoral authority in any given
community? Under our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, God assembled
the priesthood of all believers (as 1 Peter 2:9). Here again,
this understanding speaks of the reciprocal nature of all Biblical
authority among men: the power to choose; the obligation to submit
to limited and rightful authority. So then, where a body of believers
gather, Jesus is in our midst. If the election principle ruled
in Old Testament times, how much more in an age where the Holy
Spirit is shed abroad?