The God-Ordained Authority In The Church

We have been reminded of the solemn calling and responsibilities of the office-bearer of the church of Christ as we have only a short time ago witnessed the installation of the elders and deacons.

This is a good time, in the first place, further to reflect upon their position in the church as those who are lawfully called of God’s church and consequently of God Himself and, secondly, to consider our calling and responsibility with respect to them.

In the first part we want to consider the office-bearers as they represent the authority of Christ in His church. Our reference is, therefore, primarily to the elders as they have been particularly entrusted with the oversight and rule of the church. We consider this emphasis on the authority in the church beneficial and proper because of the erosion of the idea of authority in all the spheres of life. In just about every institution and area of life the idea of an objective authority is scoffed at and ridiculed as “old-fashioned”. To have an objective set of principles as the basis of order will no longer do. The attitude today is that man is come of age and, therefore, able to make decisions for himself, with respect to the rule of things. The authoritarian system impedes development and stifles the self-expression of man. At bottom what we observe in these arguments is sheer lawlessness. Sad to say, this lawlessness has spilled over into the church and has had its devastating effects. It is over against this influence of lawlessness that we must guard ourselves, lest we be found resisting the ordinances of God and, therefore, God Himself.

God in His Word lays down the basis of all authority in Romans 13:1, 2, “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” It is true that the context in Romans 13 deals primarily with the sword power; nevertheless, we can gain from this passage a very clear statement concerning authority which applies to the church also. In this connection we ought to observe from Scripture that in this present dispensation all power and authority has been given to Christ, through Whom God is pleased to rule. In turn, Christ is pleased to rule through men, as can be seen from Eph. 4:11, 12, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” This does not mean that there are three authorities in the church, nor even two, but one—the authority of God in Christ. This one authority can be spoken of as either God’s or Christ’s interchangeably without fear of contradiction, since Scripture does so. The point is that in the church there is one objective authority, that is, the Word of God in the Scripture. This is something that cannot be passed over lightly, because here hinges the whole rule of the church.

Officebearers stand or fall in relationship to the Word. Implied in the calling of the officebearer is that he rules in Christ’s stead, and he can only do that when he rules according to the Word of Christ in the Scripture. That makes knowledge of and conformity to the Word of Christ an indispensable requirement for the officebearers. In and of himself the officebearer is nothing, but in connection, with the lawful calling and the Word of God he functions in the place of Christ.

It must be granted that this is an awesome concept—man ruling in the place of God; but this is nevertheless the teaching of Scripture. In II Cor. 5:20 we read, “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though, God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” And in I Thess. 2:13 we have, “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.” In both of these passages it must be acknowledged that the first reference is to the Word preached and, therefore, to the office of the ministry, but Scripture makes no distinction between the authority of the Word of God preached or the Word of God brought by a lawful elder. In fact, the minister is an elder, a teaching elder, who rules with the other elders or ruling elders. The officebearer who functions in his office in harmony with Christ’s Word cannot be separated from Christ as far as authority is concerned. Christ Himself says in Matt. 10:40, “He that receiveth you receiveth me. . . .” This fact ought never to puff up an officebearer, but ought always to bow him down. The officebearer ought always to rule in the consciousness that his authority rests in his conformity with the Word. If he ceases to rule in harmony with Christ’s Word, he ceases to rule in Christ’s stead. By the very fact of taking a position contrary to the Scripture the officebearer cuts himself off from the authority of Christ.

All this presents the offices of Christ’s church as positions of awesome responsibility, which they are. The Form of the Ordination of the Ministers of God’s Word confesses that “Since no man is of himself fit for any of these things, let us call upon God with thanksgiving.” This certainly points officebearers in the only direction that they can go to find help. Officebearers ought not to faint nor fall in the face of their heavy responsibility, but ought to be assured that whom Christ calls He also qualifies. God will give to officebearers His grace and Holy Spirit as to all those who continually ask them of Him and are thankful for them. Officebearers must understand that a faithful rule does not come automatically nor by nature, but in the way of imploring God’s grace and Holy Spirit both for himself and for those over whom he rules.

In this second part we must consider our calling and responsibility with respect to the officebearers. On the basis of the first part it may seem unnecessary to spell out our responsibility with respect to submission to the authority of Christ in His church. But we must remember that everyone of us is by nature a rebel and dislikes the idea of authority. All authority and, therefore, all submission to it is presented in the Scripture as directly connected with God. We need not dwell on the fact that God is The Authority and that He rightfully demands obedience. For it is written in the Scriptures, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve.” (Matt. 4:10b) The fact that “God hath set some in the church . . .” (I Cor. 12:28) and that Christ “gave some, apostles . . .” (Eph. 4:11) implies that the proper officebearers be obeyed even as we must obey God. This can be very clearly seen from Heb. 13:17 where we read, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” This verse shows plainly that officebearers must be obeyed not in and of themselves, but in that they rule in the stead of Him to Whom they must give account. Ruling in the place of Christ, remember, means ruling according to His Word. There is only one authority in the church that we may obey and only One that we must obey. In other words, we can be bound by nothing but the Word of God. You will certainly recognize the previous sentence as embodying a precious reformational principle. Not only must we be bound by the Word of God, but that is also our chief desire as regenerated children of God. Being bound by God’s Word, then, is not something that is grievous, but rather something that we willingly seek.

It follows, then, that only when officebearers rule according to the Word do they rule authoritatively; and only then must they be obeyed: We must be very careful at this point that we do not set ourselves up as, authorities in our own right and, therefore, introduce another authority into the church of Christ. Always our judging of the rule of the authorities must be on the basis of God’s Word. We must not merely posit on our “say so” what is right or wrong but that must be shown in the light of the Scripture.

Officebearers who rule well, that is, in harmony with the Word of God are to be counted worthy of double honor according to I Tim. 5:17. This certainly shows us that faithfulness to the Word is a thing to be looked for in the officebearers and something to be highly esteemed for God’s sake.

Let us pray for our officebearers that they be found to be faithful to the Word of God. Prayer for the officebearers is commanded in the Scripture. The Apostle Paul pleads in I Thess. 5:25, “Brethren, pray for us.” With Paul every officebearer desiring to rule well pleads “pray for us.” Pray for the officebearer in your homes, so that your children may understand how important the offices of the church are to you and that they may early learn that to obey the officebearers is to obey God.