The Basis For True Authority
But though they tried, and verily thought they had succeeded, they could not disfellowship Jesus from the church. Jesus was the church. They merely succeeded in disfellowshipping themselves from the true church. For God “has put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Ephesians 1:22, 23.
The church is still to be “built upon Christ as its foundation; it is to obey Christ as its head. It is not to depend upon man, or be controlled by man. Many claim that a position of trust in the church gives them authority to dictate what other men shall believe and what they shall do. This claim God does not sanction. The Saviour declares, ‘All ye are brethren.’ All are exposed to temptations, and are liable to error. Upon no finite being can we depend for guidance. The Rock of faith is the living presence of Christ in the church. Upon this the weakest may depend, and those who think themselves the strongest will prove to be the weakest, unless they make Christ their efficiency. ‘Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm.’ . . .Jeremiah 17:5.” Desire of Ages, 414. “This principle bears with equal weight upon a question that has long agitated the Christian world,—the question of apostolic succession. Descent from Abraham was proved, not by name and lineage, but by likeness of character. So the apostolic succession rests not upon the transmission of ecclesiastical authority, but upon spiritual relationship. A life actuated by the apostles’ spirit, the belief and teaching of the truth they taught, this is the true evidence of apostolic succession. This is what constitutes men the successors of the first teachers of the gospel.” Ibid., 467.
Within Christ’s church there is to be no hierarchical, centralized, controlling power that supersedes the headship of Christ. As the messenger of the Lord said, “Battle Creek is not to be the center of God’s work. God alone can fill this place.” Testimonies to Ministers, 375. There is a place for order, but it is to be a simple, humble order, always uplifting the primacy of Christ. For “He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.” Colossians 1:18.
Thus, as Christ is the head of the body, He is always to “have the preeminence.” Whenever the church assumes preeminence over Christ or His word, it thereby becomes an idol to the people.
Christ created the structure—it is holy—but it is always to remain subservient to the Word and to Christ as its head. Anything that supersedes God becomes a false God. That is what the Jews did with their temple. The temple became more important than the truth, or even God’s dear Son. A word of criticism spoken against the temple was worse than a false teaching being taught from its precincts. The final charge brought against Christ was that He spoke against the temple.
In view of this danger of making the system and its leadership a false God, Ellen White has a whole chapter in Testimonies to Ministers entitled, “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me”—she was referring to Battle Creek, its system and the leadership. She also warns that “the trials of the children of Israel, and their attitude just before the first coming of Christ, have been presented before me again and again to illustrate the position of the people of God in their experience before the second coming of Christ—how the enemy sought every occasion to take control of the minds of the Jews, and today he is seeking to blind the minds of God’s servants, that they may not be able to discern the precious truth.” Selected Messages, vol. 1, 406.
Jesus was rejected by most because He was not sanctioned by the visible church, and those who rejected Him were lost. According to the Spirit of Prophecy, this will likewise be our test. “To stand in defense of truth and righteousness when the majority forsake us, to fight the battles of the Lord when champions are few—this will be our test.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 136.
The Head Of The Church
“And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues.” 1 Corinthians 12:28. God is the One who has promised to place various gifts in the church. When the church is pure, God is the One who calls and ordains through His chosen instrumentalities. He chooses through the official channels when He can, but when He cannot, He will call people directly, as in the case of David and John the Baptist. Never has God turned the entire control of His church over to human instrumentalities.
The Lord wants to direct His heritage and His church far more than we give Him opportunity to do. “If ministers and men in positions of authority will get out of the way, and let the Holy Spirit move upon the minds of the lay brethren, God will direct them what to do for the honor of his name. Let men have freedom to carry out that which the Holy Spirit indicates. Do not put the shackles upon humble men whom God would use.” Review and Herald, July 9, 1895.
It is not being independent for humble men and women whom God has called to act upon their God given responsibilities. In various places around the world I have been told by laymen that they cannot even give a Bible study without the pastor’s permission. In most places, a layman is not even permitted to hold a prayer meeting in his own home, if it is called a prayer meeting, without the church’s permission —and if the pastor wants to come in and take control, he assumes that prerogative. Not long ago I was asked to have some meetings in one of the major cities of America. Previous to my coming they had had Ron Spear and Colin Standish in to speak. This meeting was held in a private hall and one of the local elders was in attendance and expressed great appreciation for the meetings. However, the pastor of the largest church in town, where this layman held office and membership, asked him not to have these meetings. The layman, however, felt that the Lord wanted these meetings, and as they were not a part of any church function or on church property, and as those who were asked to speak were all ordained Seventh-day Adventist ministers and members in good and regular standing, he felt impressed to quietly go on with the meetings. He had no intention of having a conflict with the pastor, but was simply trying to serve the Lord. Yet, because of his supposed “independence” from the pastor, he was duly disciplined by the church by way of official censor and removed from being an elder.
But who was acting independently—the layman or the pastor? There is no law in the Bible, or even the manual, forbidding people from getting together and reading and studying the Bible together. For the pastor to arbitrarily make these rules is independence indeed! During the Dark Ages it was against the law to hold private meetings, but America guarantees that right—have we lost it in the church? It is “Satan . . . [who] works to restrict religious liberty, and to bring into the religious world a species of slavery. Organizations, institutions, unless kept by the power of God, will work under Satan’s dictation to bring men under the control of men . . . His methods are practiced even among Seventh-day Adventists, who claim to have advanced truth.” Testimonies to Ministers, 366.
Today if someone tries to raise up a new congregation or hold a meeting for Bible study and prayer, the question asked is: “By whose authority are you holding these meetings?” That was the question that was asked of John the Baptist and Jesus. “Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?’ ” Matthew 21:23.
“Laws and rules are being made at the centers of the work that will soon be broken into atoms . . . The Lord does not ask permission of those in responsible positions when He wishes to use certain ones as His agents for the promulgation of truth . . . Those who know the truth are to be worked by the Holy Spirit, and not themselves to try to work the Spirit. If the cords are drawn much tighter, if the rules are made much finer, if men continue to bind their fellow laborers closer and closer to the commandments of men, many will be stirred by the Spirit of God to break every shackle, and assert their liberty in Christ Jesus.” Review and Herald, July 23, 1895.
God has appointed leadership to act under Him, but never in His place. There is a place for organization —heaven is a place of order. God’s church, all through the ages, has been a place of order. The Old Testament church was a church of order, and God’s church today is to be just as ordered and orderly as was the Old Testament church. There is a place for leadership, a place for elders, a place for deacons and administrators. But their job description was never intended to be that of being the head of the church or of controlling the church, but rather they were to be the servants of God to the people. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25–28.
Do you suppose that I, or anyone else, could ever get to the place where we could supersede God’s authority in the church? We could try, but that would be a false, sinful and assumed authority that God and His true people would not recognize anymore than John the Baptist did. (See Desire of Ages, 132.) Suppose that I had charisma and good leadership abilities, made a lot of friends, and made some good business or political decisions and so began to climb the corporate ladder in the church until I got to the very top. Could I ever get to the place where I had enough authority to supersede God’s authority? Could I tell someone whom God had called to preach, for example, that God had not called him to preach, as they told John the Baptist and Jesus? I could tell him, but no matter how much authority I might have assumed or think I had, I could never get enough authority to supersede God’s authority. That would be the epitome of independence. But in my blind presumption, I would probably think that the person whom God had called and who was merely fulfilling His God-given mission was being independent because he had not listened to me!—what pride!
“But,” someone might insist, “someone must have that kind of authority in order to maintain order in the church.” That is exactly the claim of the papal church. “It is one of the leading doctrines of Romanism that the pope is the visible head of the universal church of Christ, invested with supreme authority over bishops and pastors in all parts of the world . . . God has never given a hint in His word that He has appointed any man to be the head of the church.” Great Controversy, 50, 51.
While God has not given any man the authority to say who cannot preach when the Holy Spirit has made it plainly evident that God has called him to preach, likewise God has not given any man the authority to say that someone can or should preach whom God has not called. No local church should ever be forced by some higher human authority to allow a conference–appointed pastor or leader to speak when the congregation and elders feel, based upon biblical evidence, that God has not called him to speak.
In fact, for men to receive those sent to them from the conference whom God has not sent, causes them to become independent from God along with the pastor, and results in the withdrawal of God’s blessings. “As there are woes for those who preach the truth while they are unsanctified in heart and life, so there are woes for those who receive and maintain the unsanctified in the position which they cannot fill.” Testimonies, vol. 2, 552. “There are fearful woes for those who preach the truth, but are not sanctified by it, and also for those who consent to receive and maintain the unsanctified to minister to them in word and doctrine.” Testimonies, vol. 1, 261, 262.
Yet, how many ministers whom God has never recognized are lauded and applauded by men, and how many ministers have been scourged and even put to death who were the chosen instrumentalities of God.
For a central, ruling authority to assume controlling power over the local membership, telling them who will preach to them and who will not preach to them, is to place one’s self in the place of God over the people. God has entrusted to His people certain inalienable rights and obligations, such as the right and the obligation to carefully and prayerfully decide who they will receive and maintain to minister to them. The Bible predicted that there would come a power that would seek to put itself in the place of God. “Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshipped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 4. That, in a special way refers to the papacy of the Middle Ages, and we can adopt some of the same policies, until we are “following in the track of Romanism.” Testimonies to Ministers, 362.
“The high-handed power that has been developed, as though position has made men gods, makes me afraid, and ought to cause fear. It is a curse wherever and by whomsoever it is exercised. This lording it over God’s heritage will create such a disgust of man’s jurisdiction that a state of insubordination will result . . . The spirit of domination is extending to the presidents of our conferences . . .They are following in the track of Romanism . . .Rule, rule, has been their course of action. Satan has had an opportunity of representing himself.” Testimonies to Ministers, 361–363.
These statements from the Spirit of Prophecy were not written to imply that the church does not, or should not, have proper authority. The church is to have a great amount of authority under God. When a point or a decision can be shown from God’s word and from the leading of the Holy Spirit to be from the Lord, the leaders are to have a great deal of authority. Whenever the church utters the utterances of God, it is as the voice of God. But when they become independent of God and assume authority such as the Sanhedrin assumed, then they are no longer the voice of God. It was when the leaders were becoming independent of God, that Ellen White said, “That these men should stand in a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be,—that is past.” General Conference Bulletin, April 3, 1901.