Authority and Individual Conscience
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Sunday’s section of this week’s Sabbath School lesson states that “Over the long centuries, people have struggled to understand the role and function of government and how citizens should relate to it. What gives rulers the right to rule?”

It is worthwhile for all of us to think about the role of government and our individual responsibility – not just secular government but church government as well.

Former United States President Richard Nixon defended himself in the Watergate scandal, by telling reporter David Frost, “If the President does it, then it is not illegal.” This bold statement shocked David Frost, and every other competent thinker! I suspect that in the United States, people really started to question their leaders after Nixon’s downfall.

I believe we are keeping a healthy balance of respect for leadership without blind submission when we ask for accountability and checks and balances. In the United States we have a constitution with which the President must conform. This Constitution declares who has the ultimate authority. It reads, “We, the people.” Not “I, the President” or “I, Thomas Jefferson, or Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama.” The power and authority of the Constitution comes from “The People!” Therefore the United States president is not above the law.

In the church we have the Scriptures as our sole authority, and our leaders must be held accountable to them. And the church as a body has authority derived from the Scriptures and the leadership of Jesus Christ as represented in the body of the church.

God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority.” -Ellen White, Last Day Events, p. 56.

Just as in the United States, the President is not above the people, the church leaders are not above the church. While working in a different Adventist conference many years ago, my boss told me to do something on the Sabbath which my conscience did not think was appropriate. My boss told me the conference president expects me to do it so I better do it, no matter what! (Please keep in mind my boss said this and the conference president never actually made such a threat.) I thought to myself, Sorry, the conference president didn’t die for me, Jesus did. I have to be faithful to Jesus.

It does not matter what church affiliation you belong to, you have to follow your conscience and what the Holy Spirit has convicted you is truth based on Scripture. If any leader, secular or ecclesiastical, tries to place his authority above your conscience based on the Scriptures, then consider,

The doctrine that God has committed to the church the right to control the conscience, and to define and punish heresy, is one of the most deeply rooted of papal errors. -Ellen White, Great Controversy, Pages 292-293

Papal errors are not confined to the papacy. The church in Christ’s day was quite papal when they crucified Him even though the word “papal” was not recognized yet.

“The church is 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. …. 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.” The Lord “is the Rock, His work is perfect.” “Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him.” Jeremiah 17:5; Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 2:12. (Ellen White, Desire of Ages, p. 414)

Jennifer Schwizer wrote a compelling post on clergy sexual abuse. However, sexual abuse is only one form of abuse of power. Pressuring people to violate their conscience in any way whatsoever is abuse. The ugliness of sexual abuse is not so much what it does to the body as what it does to the soul and conscience. You don’t have to use sex to rape someone’s soul and violate their conscience. Any time someone puts their power over your conscience, that is spiritual rape. Thank God for the millions and millions of clergy members throughout the ages and across all denominational lines who have ministered to God’s children faithfully, without ever harming a single soul. Because of them we have confidence in the clergy, and people can find in them the mercy and love of Jesus.

Many years ago, I heard the testimony of a church leader defending himself for some shady deals, saying his boss (another church leader) told him to do it, and therefore he had no choice but to obey his boss who had “authority.” I am sure Joab was thinking the same thing when King David told him to put Uriah on the front lines of the war. Please read what God’s messenger has to say about Joab’s rationale.

“And Joab, whose allegiance had been given to the king rather than to God, transgressed God’s law because the king commanded it. David’s power had been given him by God, but to be exercised only in harmony with the divine law. When he commanded that which was contrary to God’s law, it became sin to obey. “The powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1), but we are not to obey them contrary to God’s law. The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, sets forth the principle by which we should be governed. He says, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 11:1. (Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 719)

Martin Luther before Emperor Image © Providence Collection from GoodSalt.com

While we need to be respectful of authority,  we also need to remember the ultimate source of authority. And while we respect those in leadership, we must remember we are accountable to the Scriptures and God’s church, of which Christ is the Head. Even Martin Luther, the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, tried his best to be respectful of the leaders of his church. It was not his goal to start a new church, much less a movement that would change the world. He sought to bring his leaders into harmony with the Scriptures, and it was only after his efforts to work within his church failed, that he felt he had to make a choice between allegiance to God or allegiance to his leaders. Martin Luther was loyal to the only One who loved him enough to create him and die for him. Likewise we should make every effort to submit to our leaders as far as we can without being disloyal to the One who died for us.

Disputing over biblical truth did not stop with the age of Luther. It is our job to continue to press forward and put into action the truth that is contained in Scripture. And sometimes that makes people uncomfortable. Sometimes it causes heated arguments. And sometimes leaders weigh in with their opinions on one side or the other. Any particular interpretation of a biblical passage is not automatically more “right” because a church leader says so. God has designed the governance of our church in such a way that, if all of us allow the Holy Spirit to lead us individually, the mind of the Spirit will be met through the vote of the church body. And that is why the vote of the General Conference should be regarded as authoritative.

No one person or relatively small group of persons has authority to dictate his or her opinion to the rest of the church body, no matter how strongly they feel on the matter. Leaders need to respect the vote of the members, and members need to respect the position of leadership, as far as it is biblical.

I know people who are afraid to speak up in board meetings or church business meetings, because they feel they are too young or poor, and their influence would not be felt. I have also seen people abusing their age or money to hurt others. I would like to encourage all – no matter how young, old, rich or poor you are – you need to speak your convictions in these meetings. And, no matter how young, old rich or poor you are, you need to respect others when you do. We all have a right and a responsibility to speak, and we all have  a responsibility to respect each other. (Ro. 12:10)

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Authority and Individual Conscience — 7 Comments

  1. Hi William,

    This post raises questions. You said, "It does not matter what church affiliation you belong to, you have to follow your conscience and what the Holy Spirit has convicted you is truth based on Scripture. If any leader, secular or ecclesiastical, tries to place his authority above your conscience based on the Scriptures..."

    What I find happens with some SDA, because they think and feel that the Holy Spirit is always giving them special messages, that whatever that message is, is the authority over any other authority.

    I believe in human authority and leadership in various areas of life. So rarely has that ever conflicted with my God-given convictions. When I homeschooled, all by myself, I reported to the authorities and worked with them. We had our struggles, but came through them all.

    On my jobs, I've asked for Sabbath off, even before I took the jobs. I work with principles I believe in.

    And I find that the special messages from the Holy Spirit are actually a way for people to get what they want. It's not about loving, caring, helping or being of service. It's about getting attention and selfish desires met.

    I think we are in danger from the people with the special messages from the Holy Spirit, because they won't work together and think their ideas are the tops. Funny how these people act as supreme authority in church but when they had jobs, they believed in authority in the work environment.

    Like(6)
  2. Exactly Jane. That is why I said "based on the Scriptures" and not on your whims or what you thought was a revelation with no Scriptural foundation. We must hold others accountable to the Scriptures but we must also hold ourselves accountable to the Scriptures as well.

    Like(5)
    • Thanks William for the response. I appreciate the "based on scriptures" part. It seems that humility is not a desirable trait although that is what God desires and so do many even in the world businesses. Below is the attitude we have often been up against as church leaders.

      Conclusion: I am responsible to God alone, not to anyone in the Church, He is my Boss. There is no such thing as a church leader. We are servants, bond slaves. Jesus is our only Leader. In the words of Jesus, "And do not be called leaders: for One is your Leader, that is, Christ: But the greatest among you shall be your servant". Mt.23:10-11

      Like(1)
  3. Thank you for your well-thought article.
    Dictator-types who oppress the conscience always seem to work very hard for a position of authority, don't they? Our church organization (at every level) has its own challenges with some individuals who want control, yet without transparency or respect for individualism.
    It is difficult to respect a leader who has this type of character flaw. Not only can it be disheartening, but it can cause those of us who see this to stumble ourselves in discouragement. "What's the use?"
    This is the state the enemy wants us to fall in and I believe it is the result of spiritual abuse.

    Like(4)
  4. A conscience unenlightened by scripture will abuse power how much more absolute power absolutely...It is not an easy thing to wear the signet of authority but if borne with a scripture enlightened mind ah! What a blissful existence for the church,the people and the world.enlightenment in and through christ Jesus should be prime subject to leaders and subjects and the humble acceptance of God's recommendations

    Like(3)
  5. We always need to achieve a balance between the church, our community and the individual. If we devalue any one of these components we run into problems. It is important to understand that both God and Satan can use all three. We should not ignore individual rights and responsibilities but we should also take note of what our church and community is saying. One of the problems that we have with mind controlling sects is that they devalue the individual to the extent that the community no longer works appropriately and becomes the right arm of the often-warped leadership. Good leadership ensures that the balance is maintained and will accept that individuals and the community have the right and responsibility to be responsibly critical.

    Like(1)

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