The Fine Line Between God-Given Authority and Authoritarianism
Every Christian is to have a conscience singularly informed by the Word of God, but it is utterly indispensable for the minister of the gospel. Ministers are called to take a stand for truth before those who oppose the Word of God in the world; but they also face the unique challenge of taking a stand for truth before those who oppose biblical teaching within the church. In a day of widespread individualism, heightened biblical illiteracy, and diminishing respect for gospel ministry, ministers are faced with the daunting task of taking a firm but loving stand in matters of faith and practice.
The fiercest opposition in the church frequently arises from those whose consciences have been least informed by the Word of God. Often well meaning in their sentiments, such individuals unintentionally cause much harm to the work of the church. Such opposition is amplified in an atmosphere where the Word of God is taught with authority and precision. While similar challenges surface in all genuine gospel ministries, they are more likely to arise in new or smaller churches. In a small church, there is more opportunity to express opinions. In a church plant, opinions are more regularly asked for and welcomed. Individuals who are hesitant to voice discontentment in larger and more established churches sometimes assume that their voices will be heard in smaller settings. What are ministers to do when confronted with such challenges? How are they to deal with complaints that stem from the weak consciences of parishioners in matters of faith and life? What steps can be taken to protect a new church from suffering the irreparable damage of being ruled by the consciences of weaker parishioners?
Ministers first must have their own consciences deeply informed by the Word of God. The word conscience means “with knowledge.” It is crucial for gospel ministers to know and be convinced of what the Scriptures teach. God has revealed in Scripture everything He wants the church to believe and practice. Ministers must search the Scriptures carefully to know what doctrines and practices are taught therein (see 2 Tim. 3:16).
Prayer is equally important when the doctrines and worship of the church are at stake. Being convinced of what God requires in His Word will enable the minister to pray more effectively (for example, see 2 Kings 19:14–19). The Lord has promised to hear His people and to answer them when they pray according to His will.
In addition to searching the Scriptures and bringing difficulties to God in prayer, ministers should be familiar with the doctrines and practices that have been taught throughout church history. Historic creeds and confessions are invaluable resources for discovering the formulations of any given doctrine. The old Reformed confessions are especially useful. They contain the fullest expression of doctrinal truths the Protestant churches have articulated. These resources, while not infallible, are nevertheless beneficial to the degree that they inform us of what our forefathers believed the Scriptures taught in matters of faith and worship.
One of the greatest privileges a minister has is to be part of a session. God has provided a plurality of elders for the oversight of the body of Christ. In this way, the Lord ensures that the pastor is not alone. When confronted with opposition to a particular doctrine or practice, the minister has the benefit of bringing the matter before the session of the church. The wisdom of Proverbs 11:14 is shown in the session: “In an abundance of counselors there is safety.” At times, a minister may need to seek counsel outside of the session. He will find that surrounding himself with wise and godly counsel is an enormous benefit for determining the right course of action.
Finally, officers of the church must carry out their oversight in love. It is far too easy for men to take a firm stand in an insensitive manner. Remember the words of the apostle Paul, “Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21). Paul dealt with every conceivable challenge a minister may face today; in fact, it is safe to say that he had them to a greater extent. While he was unmovable in his resolve and firm in his teaching, he was loving and gentle in his response. Every biblical teaching and practice must be firmly enforced, but it must be done in love for the wellbeing of the people of God.
There is a fine line between God-given authority and authoritarianism. The former is absolutely necessary for the growth and development of the people of God. The latter is destructive to the same. As is true of the husband’s role in marriage, ministers can abuse their God-given authority by lording it over those He has entrusted to their care.
There is no more pressing need for the church at present than for her ministers to take a firm but loving stand in matters of faith and worship. The Lord Jesus Christ will help His servants as they resolve to faithfully minister the whole counsel God.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.