While studying church organization and unity, this week, 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 one of the world’s most celebrated interviewers, David Frost, “If the President does it, then it is not illegal.” This bold statement shocked David Frost, as he realized no democratic nation has such a law. People around the world were shocked to hear a former world leader make such a claim.
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)
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)
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)