The Biblical doctrine of submission to an ungodly authority requires that we turn away from revolution to regeneration, from man’s way to God’s way, to reconstruct and re-order our world.
But what about the Christian community? Are we to submit to evil here? If we are dealing with presumably regenerate men, are we to submit as we would to the ungodly from whom we cannot expect God ’s justice?
As we saw last month, the Jesuits have required an unquestioning submission to the pope, and they have only earned the hostility of many Catholics, including the clergy. An unquestioning and total submission to anyone other than God is rightfully seen as wrong, and those making such a vow have been mistrusted even by their fellow Catholics. It is very dangerous to require a submission of any such dimension to any other than God and His Word. What then does godly submission mean within the Christian community?
The Word of God
The alpha and omega of our understanding of godly submission is that we recognize that every word of God is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16) and is binding on us. Because it is God-given, the words of Scripture are all God ’s law. The Bible is God’s law-book.
In Matthew 18:15-17, we are given God’s way of dealing with problems created by sin. The first step, when we have an offense committed against us, is to go to the offender quietly and to tell him of the problem.“If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother ” (v. 15). The presupposition is that an actual offense has occurred.
Second if this effort fails, “then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established ” (v. 16). We are here dealing with a procedure which is both neighborly and yet also legal. Its purpose is restorative.
Then, third, “if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it to the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican ” (v. 17). Notice that this reads,“tell it to the church.” As long as the church was small in numbers, and for at least two centuries home churches predominated, this could be true, but in time this hearing was delegated to the elders. In 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, we read:
And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
Paul here exercises apostolic authority to function by the Holy Spirit as the church. What is relevant for us is that the disciplined man was not to be counted as an enemy but as a wayward brother. The goal was to make him ashamed and repentant. On occasion, however, the judgment could be severe. In 1 Corinthians 16:22, Paul writes, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema,” or accursed. At times, as in 1 Corinthians 16:22, we find Anathema and Maranatha joined together, and this usage was at times present in the early church. Maranatha was a Hebrew word meaning, “The Lord is come.” Its use could have meant either, “The Lord had come in judgment,” or “Lord, come in judgment.” In either case, its usage stressed the solemnity of the judgment.
The Pope vs. Jesus Christ
As we have seen,the Jesuit error was to tie absolute loyalty to the pope rather than to Jesus Christ, and this misplaced loyalty was resented by other Catholics. A like misplaced loyalty is to the church rather than to Jesus Christ. A related error is to insist that there can be no reversal of any church court’s decision except on procedural grounds. A great injustice may be perpetrated, but, if the legal procedures of the session or presbytery are correct, there can be no reversal unless an incorrect form has been filed, or some like technical error. This is also true in civil courts in the twentieth century. What this does is to declare that the decisions of the court of origin are virtually infallible; and, with respect to justice, they are inerrant and do only err in procedural matters. This is, of course, a denial of the Reformation, and a very common one. The Reformation stressed the fallibility of men and institutions; Calvinism in particular made clear that no class of men or organizations, neither church nor state, were exempt from sin. To trust in men and institutions was tantamount to distrusting God and His Word. Even though the Calvinists tended to be well educated and scholarly, even into the eighteenth century, Calvinism was regarded as a faith unfit for gentlemen because it placed them on the same level as common people. For Calvinists so-called to insist on trusting the church was a denial of their heritage.
Church Courts vs. Community
In a very real and important sense, we have begun at the wrong end by stressing the work of the church court. Because the church is a community whose central rite is communion, any judicial action must be preceded by prayer and godly, loving care by the people. Instead of talking about the sin of a member, they must be in prayer and manifest a family’s concern for a member.
The texts requiring this are too many to cite. Here are a few from the gospels alone: Matthew 5:23, 24; 6:12; 18:21f.; 23:28; and 25:31-46 (the parable on judgment). In Luke, we have 10:27-37 (the Good Samaritan) and 14:12-14, and in John 15:15-17 we are most emphatically commanded to love one another. Any church that ceases to be the family of Christ and becomes simply a court has failed. The elders cannot replace the functions of the family members, and to reduce a church’s duty to the work of elders is to handicap the elders.
Life depends on obedience, and without it we have anarchy and death. In fact, our Lord tells us in John 7:17 that knowledge depends on obedience: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine.” This means that an inactive congregation will be an ignorant one.
At this point, an important aspect of the Biblical doctrine of submission comes to light. Submission is not inaction but rather a reliance on Christian action. This can mean prayer for the person or persons involved, intercession by friends of the offended party before the matter goes to the elders, and even afterwards. This must be brotherly helpfulness rather than censoriousness. Its good is restoration rather than judgment, although that may follow at the hands of due authorities.
We began by calling attention to the very different views of non-Christians and Christians, the difference between revolution and regeneration. The first sees compulsion and violence as the answer, and too often in church history men have put their reliance in compulsion. For the Christian, the answer is regeneration, and this means the ways of grace. Now grace is not without judgment,but in essence its ways are the ways of peace. We live in a culture that refuses to admit the existence of supernatural grace, but this does not diminish its reality, and neither does the widespread prevalence of revolutionary violence diminish its failure. We, the people of God, have God’s work to do, and it must be done in God’s way.
When our Lord declares, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God ” (Mt. 5:9), He does not say, “Blessed are the elders who are peacemakers.” If we know enough about a problem in the church to gossip about it, perhaps we know enough to help remedy it! Submission, we must remember, begins with submission to every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God (Mt. 4:4).
We submit to civil powers in most instances, although where the freedom of the Word is at stake, “We ought to obey God rather than men ” (Ac. 5:29). The scope of a non-Christian civil solution is limited, and even in a Christian state, the state is at best a ministry of justice, not salvation. Salvation is from the Lord. We must constantly seek the regenerating power of the Lord, and here the church and the Christian people and community have God’s power in ways that the state does not. They can invoke Christ’s regenerating power to cope with sin. As against coercive power, the Christian must invoke the regenerating power of God. If we do not do so more often, it is perhaps because we have come to believe more in compulsion than in grace, more in revolution than in regeneration. Too many churchmen have become children of their times and expect compulsion to be more effective than grace. Christian submission begins with placing ourselves under the every word of God and His Spirit, for only so can we do His work.