Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version of the Bible (1979), unless otherwise indicated.
For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage, if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face. (2 Corinthians 11:20)
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This event would spur a revolution in the Christian world with one overarching agenda: restore the authority of the Word of God. It is estimated that millions of Christians were killed under the orders of the Pope during the time of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers rallied behind the idea that the Scriptures alone were to be the authority of the Church (Sola Scriptura), and they were killed and tortured for choosing to bow to this authority instead of church leaders.
In 1948, Watchman Nee gave a series of Christian sermons in Kuling, Foochow, China addressing the subject of authority among Christians. Notes from these messages were translated, and in 1972 they were published in a book entitled, Spiritual Authority. Groups of Christians enthusiastically read this book, but some adopted an unscriptural approach to establishing and submitting to human authorities within the church. As a result, these Christians began to teach and practice complete submission to church leadership, regardless of what the leaders taught. It was argued by some that any error of Christian leaders will be corrected by God, and, therefore, it is the responsibility of every Christian to absolutely obey leadership even if they teach errors. Those who subscribe to such a view have argued their point on the basis of principles taught in Watchman Nee’s book and/or various proof texts from the Bible. It is my aim to correct the misapplications of the Scriptures and Watchman Nee, shedding light on the truth of this important subject in the church.
Though I never had the chance to meet Watchman Nee, I feel greatly indebted to this dear brother for his profound insights and godly character. Much of his wisdom and teaching has inspired and nourished me in many regards, and I personally believe he would feel great sorrow and anguish to know that his name has had a detrimental effect in leading some Christians away from the foundation of the Reformers (Sola Scriptura). After devoting many hours to studying Nee’s Spiritual Authority, I am completely convinced that he had no intention to promote the hunger for power that has risen among various church leaders who cite his book, and, instead, Nee desired to teach Christ’s meekness towards all people. Unfortunately, the old adage is correct, “Abusers abuse,” and, sadly, it seems that Nee’s teachings have been abused to fuel a corruption of God’s true authority among select Christians.
In Spiritual Authority, Watchman Nee taught an attitude of submission towards everyone and obedience to God alone, yet some have corrupted this, exalting themselves as leaders and demanding others to submit to them. They have inserted their names in place of God, and demand people to listen to their instructions without fail. With this in mind, I would feel grieved if what I have written here tips the pendulum too far in the other direction. I thought it would be good to title this study, “Spiritual Authority – Afterthoughts,” because I aim to give a complement to Nee’s book. He focuses on an attitude of following true authority, while I intend to teach what true authority is. My sincere hope is that this may be used in some way to help reestablish the authority of God’s Word among Christians, but my greatest fear is that people might abuse what I am saying as a license to rebel towards the delegated authorities established. Nee led many who thought they were authorities to become tyrannical, though I don’t believe he ever set out with such intentions. In a similar way, I would hate to find that this leads those who think they are under authority to become rebellious.
I believe that at the heart of Martin Luther and Watchman Nee lay one objective: to worship God in spirit and in truth. May we adopt a similar attitude in seeking the truth on this issue of spiritual authority.
Respecting Rulers, Worshiping God
You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people (Exodus 22:28)
In the Old and New Testaments, it is clear that God takes very seriously our respect towards those in positions of leadership. Paul quotes Ex. 22:28 when speaking against the High Priest who was persecuting him, quickly apologizing for his remarks against this ruler (see Acts 23:3-5). Though we must be keen to show respect to all those in leadership, our allegiance needs to always be towards God, no matter what we are commanded. For instance, when Peter and John were told by the Jewish rulers not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they refused, saying: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20). Their response was not rebellious, though it was contradictory to the wishes of the rulers. They showed respect, but they did not show allegiance to the leaders’ wishes where those wishes interfered with God’s desires.
You shall not delay to offer the first of your ripe produce…The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me.(Exodus 22:29)
After Ex. 22:28, there arises this equally important command. The first command regards respecting rulers, but this second command regards the offering and allegiance of new life. Here, there are two things to be presented to the Lord without delay:
- the first of your produce
- the first of your sons.
The first of the produce from the ground symbolizes resurrection – Jesus said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24). This foreshadowed his death and resurrection. Such symbolism is also why the Feast of the Firstfruits is so important in the Scriptures. In this feast, all the Israelites were commanded to offer up the firstfruits of their harvest to God (see Lev. 23:9-14). It was celebrated on the first day of the week after the Passover, and it symbolized offering up new, resurrected life. In fact, Jesus resurrected on the very same day of the year that the Feast of the Firstfruits was celebrated (compare Matt. 28:1 with Lev. 23:9). He literally was the firstfruits of all the dead. He was the first one to resurrect in such a manner. This is why 1 Corinthians 15:23 calls Him, “Christ the firstfruits”. From this, we know that when the Jews offered up the first of the produce, it is in a similar nature to us offering our new lives to God.
In a related manner, the firstborn son also speaks of offering new life to God. Ex. 13:2 defines the firstborn sons as: “whatever opens the womb”. This is very similar to the firstfruits that open the ground. In both a mother and the earth, a seed has to go in, and later the womb/earth are opened by wonderful new life that originated from this seed. You will remember that the final plague in Egypt was the killing of the firstborn sons. All those who had the blood of the lamb on their doorposts, kept their firstborn, but those without the blood lost their firstborn. This speaks of the work of the cross. We can never receive new life from God unless we receive the blood of Jesus to cleanse our sins. But when we receive His work on the cross, we receive new life. Just as the firstborn son comes from the mother, but is yet a completely different person, we also are birthed as a new creation when we receive Christ: “unless one is born again…”, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (John 3:3; 2 Corinthians 5:17).
So the command in Ex. 22:29 tells us to offer up this new life to God. “You shall give to Me”. It is similar to the words in Romans 6:11: “reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ”. It does not say to be “alive to Paul” or “alive to Peter” or “alive to Mary”. We are “alive to God”. Just as they were to offer the new life in Ex. 22:29 to God, we must offer our new, resurrected life to Christ. So the words of Ex. 22:28-29 can be summarized by saying: Respect rulers, but live for God. It is important to remember both of these commands. We are not told to offer our new lives to those who rule over us. There is a distinction here. The responsibility for every believer is to show respect towards leaders, but to give all of your new life to the LORD. If the leaders’ commands clash with the Lord’s commands we must be respectful to the leaders, but still obey God rather than men.
Nowhere does it say we are to present our new life to those who lead us. Even when God uses leaders as delegated authorities, we must never assume that the leader himself has the authority. We must reject the leader’s commands if they do not align with God’s.
Five Realms of Delegated Authority
In the Scriptures, there are five main realms where God delegates his authority to humans (this is vastly different than giving someone authority in themselves). They are the authorities of:
- Husbands over their wives (Ephesians 5:22).
- Parents over their children (Ephesians 6:1).
- Masters over their servants (1 Peter 2:18).
- Kings/Rulers over their people (Romans 13:1).
- Christian leaders (shepherds) over other Christians (Hebrews 13:17).
ALL Authority Hinges Entirely on God’s Word
Although these positions of authority are deemed by Scripture, they are only contingent on the supreme authority – Christ and His Word.
In Matthew 28:18, Jesus says: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Though the husband, father, master, king, and shepherds may be granted authority to speak God’s words, we must remember that God is called THE Husband, THE Father, THE Master, THE King, and THE Shepherd (John 3:29; 20:17; Luke 13:25; Revelation 19:16; John 10:11). Wherever husbands, fathers, masters, kings, and shepherds differ from God’s own Word, we must defer to God as the authority over and above these delegated authorities.
The true test of authority is the Word of God. In Matthew 8:5-13, a centurion comes to Jesus pleading for healing for his servant. The centurion says to Jesus:
Only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, “Go,” and he goes; and to another, “Come,” and he comes; and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.(Matt 8:8-9)
This truly was a man who understood authority. It says that Jesus marveled when He heard these words. Jesus commends the centurion, saying, “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” But what did this centurion understand about authority?
“Only speak a word…” The man knew that all authority is contingent on the words of he who has the authority. Since Jesus has authority to heal, his words will bring forth healing. What a mighty revelation for us to see. No matter who may be in positions of delegated authority, if they speak contrary to the Word of Jesus, their words no longer have authority. A husband, father, and so on only have authority where they are in line with the true words of God.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus never announced his authority. In fact, when people and even demons suggested they would tell people of Jesus’ authority, He quickly silenced them from such folly: “He warned them not to make Him known,” (Matt. 12:16). Nevertheless, many realized Jesus had authority because of one factor: His words. “For He taught them as one having authority.” “And they were astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority.” “Then they were all amazed and spoke among themselves, saying, ‘What a word this is! For with authority and power He commands…” (Matt. 7:29; Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32,36). It is even more striking that they compare the words of Jesus with the words of the scribes: “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Matt. 7:29). This contrast shows that authority does not come by position, but by words and teachings. Jesus was only a carpenter’s son in their eyes, and the scribes were positionally in authority. Yet Jesus had authority in His words that they did not possess.
The Word is the true test of authority. Jesus says that His words indicate his authority, whether it be an authority of God or of men (John 7:17; 12:48-49). He later appropriates the same test for the Holy Spirit: “the Spirit of truth…will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak” (John 16:13). This verse is truly revealing. Even the Holy Spirit does not have an inherent authority outside of the other members of the Godhead. The authority of the Spirit is measured by the words of the Father. Thus, our authority can only be measured by the Word of God, and not by any “position” we may have. Remember that the apostle Paul said, “If we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you…let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8). Therefore, the apostles and angels have no authority if their words disagree with the gospel of God. In fact, they are said to be “accursed”, or “eternally condemned” (NIV). We must have ears to hear this supreme truth!
Examples of Following God’s Word Over Delegated Authority
Though there may be realms of delegated authority in the Scriptures, these authorities lose all power before God when they contradict His Word. The Bible speaks of Moses saying, “By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible.” (Heb. 11:27). Moses feared God’s authority over man’s authority. He went by faith in God’s Word, even though it contradicted the king’s commands. We will soon see that within every realm of delegated authority, the faithful always choose God over any commands of “authorities” that contradict His Word.
Husbands and Wives
Husbands do have a positional authority over their wives, for the Scriptures say, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” (Eph. 5:22). If this verse were the only one on the matter, we might very well say that there is nothing but subjugation in the home of a husband and wife. The husband is the ruler, and the wife the ruled. However, this verse is not the only one on the matter. It is the practice of Satan to only view verses without their context (see Matt. 4:4-11), and therefore we must notice the other related verses. Watchman Nee writes,
The Bible teaches that wives should be subject to their husbands; yet husbands should exercise authority with a condition. Three times in Ephesians 5 are husbands called upon to love their wives even as they love themselves…The love of husbands ought to be the same as the love of Christ for His church. If husbands wish to represent God’s authority they must love their own wives.(Spiritual Authority, 188)
Nee realizes there is an authority of husbands over their wives, but it is a conditional authority. Wives submit to your husbands, but husbands also must love their wives. A husband is not in a position to domineer over his wife. He must act in love and speak according to God’s Word. And what happens when a husband speaks contrary to the Word of God?
Peter writes that women are to be submissive to their husbands, just “as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (1 Peter 3:5-6). This is a solemn principle that is truly in the Scriptures. Surely, there is a submission of wives unto their husbands, but in Genesis 21, we see that Sarah’s example also teaches us that the authority of God’s Word needs to be followed over any authority of a husband.
In Gen. 21:8-14, Sarah speaks to Abraham on behalf of Ishmael and Hagar (Hagar was a slave of Abraham and Ishmael was the son they had together). She says, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son” (Gen. 21:10). But this advice was not received well with Abraham: “the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight” (Gen. 21:11). At this point, Abraham may have tried to demand Sarah’s allegiance to his desires, since he was the husband, but he recognized an authority greater than the authority of a husband over his wife: “God said to Abraham, ‘…Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice” (Gen. 21:12). God’s Word carried more weight to Abraham than his opinions as a husband. We see that Sarah was not wrong in asking something disagreeable of Abraham, because she was speaking according to God’s Word. For a wife, whenever her husband’s wishes contradict the Word of the living God, she is to obey the latter rather than the former.
In a similar vein, Pontius Pilate’s wife warned him, “Have nothing to do with that just Man [Jesus], for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him,” (Matt. 27:19). God spoke a message to his wife, and she confronted him with God’s message (in a decision where, seemingly, he never asked her advice to begin with). Though Pilate would wash his hands of the incident, he still made a decision to succumb to the crowd’s wishes over his wife’s message from God, and has been known for roughly 2,000 years as the man sentencing Jesus to die (committing a “sin,” according to Jesus [Jn. 19:11]).
Multiple times in the New Testament we read of Christian wives with unbelieving husbands (1 Corinthians 7:13; 1 Peter 3:1). This means that they obeyed Jesus, even though their husband did not agree with such belief. They chose the wishes of their eternal Husband over the wishes of their temporal husband, and this was reckoned unto them as pure (see 1 Cor. 7:14). I repeat that true authority is very much contingent on the Word of God – when you speak God’s Word you have authority, but when you speak contrary to God’s Word you lose this authority.
Parents and their children
When Jesus was twelve years old, his parents surely had a certain authority over Him, for the Scriptures say: “Honor your father and mother” (Deuteronomy 5:12). However, Luke tells us that at the age of 12, Jesus lingered away from his parents when they were returning from Jerusalem (Luke 2:43). In fact, Jesus stayed at Jerusalem’s temple for three days while his parents looked frantically for Him (v. 46). When they finally found Him, they rebuke Him and said He had acted outside of their own desires (v. 48). But Jesus’ reply is telling: “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (v. 49). He shows that He owes allegiance to his Heavenly Father over his earthly father. Jesus was not rebellious by submitting to God instead of his parents, instead, He was truly honoring his parents by obeying the Lord’s wishes over their own wishes. This is why He repeatedly speaks of choosing your heavenly Father over your earthly father: “For I have come to ‘set a man against his father’” (Matt. 10:35, see also Matt. 4:22; 8:21; 10:21,37; 19:29; etc.). This does not negate the necessity to obey your parents, but it does reveal that the final say in all matters is God and His Word.
And in a similar vein, we see repeated examples of the dangers of obeying ungodly wishes of your parents:
He did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother…who had made Israel sin(1 Kings 22:52)
His mother advised him to do wickedly. Therefore he did evil in the sight of the LORD(2 Chronicles 22:3-4)
They have walked…after the Baals, which their fathers taught them(Jeremiah 9:14)
But I [God] said to their children in the wilderness, ‘Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor observe their judgments(Ezekiel 20:18)
It is absolutely our duty to keep an attitude of submission towards our parents at all times. This is the first command that gives a promise – longer life (Eph. 6:2-3). But it is also paramount that we know the wishes of our heavenly Father, and follow these where they contradict the wishes of our earthly parents.
Masters and servants
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.(1 Peter 2:18)
This gives us a parameter as servants: obey no matter how insensitive or harsh the requests of your master. I believe that many servants neglect the latter part of this passage. They believe that if they are asked to do unjust and harsh things, it is their right to stand up against this abuse. Sadly, we have forgotten that we are all but “unprofitable servants”, undeserving of any preferential treatment (Luke 17:10), and that our answer to unusual cruelty must be unusual kindness: “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also” (Matt. 5:40). The love of God blesses those who persecute you, and we should, as servants, obey whatever our masters ask of us as long as it does not go against the Word of God.
Daniel and his three friends were truly submissive to their master, King Nebuchadnezzar. These men were hired to serve in the king’s palace, and had much favor with the king, obeying his orders through and through. Even when the king planned to kill all those who could not interpret his dream these four men of God did not complain of such a request nor did they try to escape this sentence. Rather, they turned towards God who truly did reveal the interpretation of the king’s dream (Daniel 2). However, when their master asked them to eat the king’s delicacies (food that was contrary to the commands of God), they could not agree to partake: “Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies” (Dan. 1:8). Later the king commanded that Daniel’s three friends worship him, but they refused this command as well: “let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods” (Dan. 3:18). Their hearts were in no way rebellious, yet they refused to compromise the word of their God where it disagreed with the commands of their master. Even the people they worked beside saw this, as they grew embittered against Daniel and hoped to ruin his life: “These men said, ‘We shall not find any charge against this Daniel unless we find it against him concerning the law of his God.’” (Dan. 6:5). Do you see that even the world recognized Daniel was devoted to God’s Word over the commands of his master? We must take seriously the importance of submission to those we work under, but we must be equally sincere not to compromise God or His Word in order to please our earthly masters. Remember that we will be called to give an account before God, our true Master, and the lazy servant said of Him: “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.” (Matt. 25:24). We must therefore obey the commands of God wherever they are in conflict with the commands of masters on earth: “For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave…do not become slaves of men.” (1 Cor. 7:22-23).
Kings and governing authorities.
Jesus spoke to Pilate, the man putting Him to death, saying: “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:11). And Paul later writes, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” (Romans 13:1). We will remember that both Paul and Jesus lived under corrupt government. Both of them would receive persecution from the hands of the governing authorities. Yet they knew that the kings and governors received their authority from God Himself.
It is absolutely true that every governing power has authority from God, whether the rulers recognize this or not. Solomon writes: “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord…He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1). We must recognize the grace and meekness by which the servants of God submitted to unjust kings. Regardless of our feelings towards the laws of kings, we must submit to their rule as long as it meets one qualification: it must follow God’s Word.
“But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded” (Exodus 1:17). The king of Egypt asked these midwives to kill all of the firstborn sons, but they could not obey this command. They feared God, and could therefore not obey the king. This is not a contradiction. Fearing God always means obeying Christ, The King of Kings, but may often mean disobeying the orders of earthly kings. The faithfulness of the midwives allowed Moses to come forth and deliver the people of God from their bondage. Moses’s parents, along with the midwives, also rejected the king’s command for the sake of their son: “By faith Moses…was hidden three months by his parents…they were not afraid of the king’s command.” (Heb. 11:23).
In many ways, Moses was a type for Christ who would come. And just as the king of Moses’s day ordered the male babies to be killed, the king of Jesus’ day did likewise – Herod “put to death all the male children…two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16). King Herod met with the wise men, and commanded them to return to him after they saw Jesus. However, we read that these wise men were “divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod” (Matt. 2:12). The wise men were commanded to speak with the king, but God commanded them not to speak to the king. They chose obedience to God’s Word over the king’s command. As we saw before, whenever the commands of God conflict with the commands of kings, the faithful will always submit to God.
Over and over we see similar examples of God’s servants rejecting the commands of rulers to obey the Word of their Lord.
“They [the rulers and family of the high priest] commanded them [Peter and John] not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.’”(Acts 4:18-19).
And the high priest asked them, saying, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name?…But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’(Acts 5:27-29).
Every man who petitions any god or man within thirty days, except you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions…Daniel…does not show due regard for you, O king, or for the decree .(Dan. 6:12-13)
Peter and the other apostles are said to be foundations of all those who believe (Eph. 2:20), and they say: We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). What a tragedy it would be for us to miss this point. We MUST give our allegiance to God and His Word even at the risk of disobedience to any rules of men. To be submissive and respectful is one thing, but to be in complete obedience is quite another altogether. Ex. 22:28 says to be respectful of rulers, but verse 29 affirms that we must give all of our new life to God ALONE. May God give us mercy to see such a fine balance.
(5) Christian “Shepherds” and Their Flocks.
I felt it necessary to devote an entire chapter to the subcategory of authority within the Church. It seems to be within this subject that the most grievous mistakes have been committed, and MANY lives have been wounded and even ruined as a result of dangerously false doctrines. We must approach this ever so carefully, because much is at stake if we err even a little concerning this teaching.
Watchman Nee notes that,
While on earth our Lord rarely taught people how to be in authority, for this was not His purpose in coming to the world. The clearest passage in which the Lord did instruct on authority is this one found in Mark 10 [verses 35-45]. If anyone wishes to know how to be in authority he ought to read this passage.”(Spiritual Authority, 169-170)
I, too, view the passage in Mark 10:35-45 as the best starting point for all those who desire to understand authority within the Church.
In this passage, James and John were hungry to be people with a high position. They asked, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory,” (Mark 10:37). Instead of giving a direct answer to such a request, our Lord took this opportunity to teach all those listening about authority. First, He explains the suffering that all those who desire to follow Him will go through (vv. 38-39), but even after this, He makes it clear that He cannot grant them their request of a high position. Instead, in Mark 10:42-45, Jesus describes the striking difference between the authority of the world and the authority of the Church:
Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. YET IT SHALL NOT BE SO AMONG YOU; but whoever desires to be great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.(Mark 10:42-45, emphasis mine)
The Gentiles rule through a hierarchy, by lording it over the people, but the church’s authority is the opposite of this.
In the Lord’s eyes, it seems unimaginable and repulsive that God’s people should be governed in any similar fashion to the world. James and John were hoping to grasp a high position, but Jesus makes it clear that anyone who elevates himself shall become “slave of all”. The pattern for Christian leaders is service, just as the Son of Man came to serve. When any Christian tries to usurp authority over another Christian, they are disobeying the strict command of Our Lord. There is no authority except Christ. And He tells us that every person, without fail, who tries to grab authority, will have absolutely no authority. We must learn to serve others, and humble ourselves.
In the church, there is one body and one Head: “And He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). Watchman Nee speaks of the body’s relationship to the head in this manner:
The left and the right hands do not have direct communication; it is the head which moves both of them. The left hand is in no position to direct the right hand, and vice versa. Neither can the hand order the eyes to look, but it merely notifies the head and lets the head give command to the eyes. Hence all the various members are equally close to the head.(Spiritual Authority, 79-80)
You will notice in Ephesians 4 that the job of the body is to obey the Head and grow up into the Head (Christ). This means that the Church has only one hierarchy: The Head over the body. Every part is to do its share in causing growth of the body.
In Philippians 1:1, Paul writes to the entire church saying: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons”. We see, then, that there are only three classes for Christians to fall in:
There is no one else named in Paul’s listing. He does not say, “To the pastor and those under him”. If you do a thorough search throughout the New Testament, you will find that there are no other positions mentioned. You either are an elder, deacon, or saint – and of course, these are not mutually exclusive terms.
To be an elder/overseer means that you are overseeing that the Body is functioning as it should. Notice they are called “overseers”. This very term implies that they are not the only ones doing the work, but rather, they are seeing that everyone is doing the work of the ministry. It is true that elders possess a certain maturity relative to the Christians around them, but this in no way means they are a special class of Christians who are separated from the rest in prominence. Peter writes, “The elders, who are among you I exhort” (1 Peter 5:1). The elders are among the rest of the Body, not over them. Even Peter himself does not claim to be over anyone else: “I who am a fellow elder” (1 Peter 1:5). There is no such hierarchy between elders and the other saints. Peter goes on to write: “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you…not by compulsion but willingly…nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock,” (vv. 2-3). Do we see how this agrees with the statement Christ made in Mark 10? There should NEVER exist any hierarchy or “lording over” in the church. It is contrary to the words of Jesus and contrary to the rest of the New Testament as well.
The deacons are also mentioned as a distinguished group of Christians because of their particular duty: to tend the physical needs of the church. The origins of the deacon are found in Acts 6. In this chapter, we see that there are physical needs that had to be met – some “widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (v. 1). The disciples met together to discuss this, and said: “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables” (Acts 6:2). Thus the office of deacon, which literally means “servant”, was born and the physical needs of the church were met by these servants. They appointed seven men to take on this task, and Paul later writes of all the requirements of a deacon: “Likewise deacons must be…” (1 Tim. 3:8-13). Nowhere do we see the role of deacon as “lording over” the other Christians. They are simply those people entrusted by God to handle many of the physical affairs of the church.
This brief overview of the roles of the church reveals to us the truth that “There is one body” (Eph. 4:4). But this leaves us to wonder, what is the authority that Christians must obey within the Church?
As with any other delegated authority in the world, the authority of the Church is contingent on the Word of God. Paul says that if he or an angel speaks contrary to the gospel, they are fit to be eternally condemned (Gal. 1:8). And the “authorities” of Jesus’ day (the scribes) did not possess the same authority Jesus had, simply because their words were not from God (see Matt. 7:29). Do not misunderstand me here. It is true that God does delegate his authority to saints within His church, which we will look at shortly, but this authority is only good as far as where it agrees with the Word of God. Like the authority of husbands, parents, masters, and kings, the authority of those within the Church ceases where it departs from God’s Word. Watchman Nee writes, “There is no authority except God. If we have seen nothing before God, then we have absolutely no authority before men.” And he later asks, “What authority do you have if you are not sure that what you say is God’s word?” (Spiritual Man, 117, 120).
Jude warns all the Christians “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3). He later writes of the false teachers among them that are leading many astray from the faith, and he contrasts these apostates with the true saints: “But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord…” (Jude 17-18). The saints are called to contend for the faith by remembering the words of the apostles. Paul, Peter, and John also warn the Christians to detect false teachers with the Word of God as the barometer. In fact, Paul gets very upset with the Christians who were putting up with false teachers: “For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage, if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face.” (2 Cor. 11:20). Do we see that it is not the way of the Lord to tolerate false teachers? God will equally repudiate us if we fail to challenge any person who “exalts himself”.
We must remember the example of the Bereans. In Acts 17:11, the Christians of the city Berea “were of more noble character than the Thessalonians” (NIV), for two reasons: (1) “they received the word with all readiness”, (2) they “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” (v. 11). I have heard some people joke, suggesting that Paul wrote no letter to the Bereans because they had their act together, whereas the churches in the other cities did not. Whether this is true or not, we do have a noble example of what our attitude should be towards those who teach us. We receive their teachings eagerly, then check it out in the Bible to see if they are true. These two traits are the greatest indicators of our Christian growth. There are some who never receive new things eagerly, and therefore refuse to grow with the Lord. But there are other Christians who receive new things with great eagerness, while neglecting to compare their “new revelation” with the Word of God. The first error stunts growth, and the next error causes growth in the wrong direction. One brings obstinacy and the other brings much deception. Both are miserable mistakes to make.
Like the Bereans, it is our duty to receive what we are taught, but reject those things that go against the Scriptures. Paul instructs Timothy on the requirements of a servant of the Lord: “And a servant of the Lord must…” (2 Tim. 2:24). One such requirement is, “in humility correcting those who are in opposition” (v. 25). One characteristic of the Lord’s servant involves correcting those who are in opposition. What does it mean to be in opposition? Paul later writes: “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine…” (2 Tim. 4:3). To be in opposition is related to teaching and believing false doctrine. Therefore, it is the duty of every servant of God to teach the word and correct those who do not – in season or out of season (see 2 Tim. 4:2). Regardless of the position of any leader in the church, we must acknowledge that there is only one Head and one “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4), and it is our duty to correct and not “put up with” (2 Cor. 11:20) all who do not speak according to the Word of God.
Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. (1 Samuel 8:5). In 1 Samuel 8, we see the origins of Israel’s human monarchy. The first man who was king was Saul, though their first True King was really not Saul. God speaks to Samuel about the Israelites: “Heed the voice of the people…for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.” (1 Sam. 8:7). The first king of Israel was God Himself. He reigned over them and longed to continue reigning over them, but they rejected his rule. They rejected God as their king so that they could be “like all the nations” (v. 5). They wanted flesh and blood to be their king, not the “invisible God” (Col. 1:15).
It is striking that Saul was anointed king while he was unsuccessfully trying to gather his father’s donkeys that had gone astray (see 1 Sam. 9). In a similar manner, he would become an unsuccessful king over the Israelites who had also strayed from their Heavenly Father. God warned the people that Saul’s behavior would be unfavorable towards them, but they still said: “No, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:19-20).
With this in mind, let us revisit the words of Jesus in Mark 10:42-43: “Those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them…Yet it shall not be so among you.” The Israelites said that they wanted a king so that they could be like the world. Now Jesus says that Christians were to adopt an authority that was completely contrary to the authority of the world. Today the Church is faced with a most serious dilemma. Do we rule with the authority of the world, or the authority of Christ? If we rule in the way of the world, we will have people lording over us and must obey whoever has the “biggest stick”, so to speak. But if we accept Christ as our only Head, then His Word becomes our bylaw and only the servants who speak His Word have His delegated authority. It would certainly be a tragedy to run the church like a corporation in the world.
Now, please do not misunderstand me here. There surely is a degree of delegated authority among earthly shepherds in the church today:
“The household of Stephanas…they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints – that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labors with us.”(1 Corinthians 16:15-16).
I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the authority which the Lord has given me for edification and not for destruction.(2 Corinthians 13:10)
And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love(1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)
Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor(1 Timothy 5:17)
Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority.(Titus 2:15)
Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct…Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive.(Hebrews 13:7, 17)
We can be assured that God will delegate his authority to ministers in his Body, but what are the qualifications of such authority?
It is not an authority based on position or age in the Lord, for Paul chastises Peter for his hypocritical eating habits: “when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed” (Galatians 2:11). Peter had been a Christian longer than Paul, and was the first to convert the Jews and Gentiles (See Acts 2 and 10). He had even been a direct disciple with the Lord during the years of Jesus’ ministry, while Paul spent those years opposed to Christ. Nevertheless, Paul saw it fit to rebuke Peter because of one reason: “I saw that they [Peter and his friends] were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).
To be sure, there is a respect that we owe those who are older than us and older in the Lord: “you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders” (1 Pet. 5:5; see also 1 Tim. 5:1-2). Our respect and submissive attitude towards them must be unconditional, but our allegiance to their commands must always be based on the Word of God. Paul rebuked Peter because he went against “the truth of the gospel”. We can surmise that one’s authority is only based on speaking the truth of God’s Word, not on any special position.
Hebrews 13:7 gives a clear answer of what constitutes one’s authority:
Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.
Here are three things that grant authority in the church:
- Speaking God’s word
- Good Conduct
To the degree that you are shepherded in this way, you should imitate their doctrine, faith, and life.
Speaking God’s word.
Paul writes to Timothy that he should give double honor to “the elders who rule well” (1 Tim. 5:17). He continues speaking of these elders, saying, “especially those who labor in the word and doctrine”. This is at the essence of God’s Authority – His Word, teaching, and doctrine. Jesus was said to teach as one having authority, and not as the scribes. It was because of his teachings that He was said to have authority. There is a careful admonition throughout the New Testament to keep the doctrine pure (Matt. 16:12; Romans 16:17; 1 Tim. 1:3; 1:10; 4:16; 6:3; Heb. 13:9; etc.). Paul says to the Christians at Rome: “Note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.” (Rom. 16:17). After the writer of Hebrews tells the Christians to submit to their leaders, he writes: “Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines.” (Heb. 13:9). The first test of any true spiritual authority is determined by the teaching of God’s Word. If any elder does not speak according to the Scriptures, we are commanded to correct them (2 Tim. 2:25) and avoid them if they refuse to be corrected (Rom. 16:17). Do not think that any person is exempt from being tested by the Word. Many people have begun as strong Christian leaders only to lead heresies and cults later because of a lack of correction with the Scriptures. If any man teaches contrary to the word of God, he has absolutely no authority in his words that we should be following.
Faith relates to good doctrine. If any leader has faith in things contrary to the pure doctrine of Scripture, he is equally unfit to have a position of leadership among Christians, and is devoid of God’s true authority. But faith also goes one step further than simply speaking God’s word. Faith puts into action the Scriptures.
So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Rom. 10:17). Faith is the receiving of the Scriptures in your heart. There are some who teach the truth of God’s Word, but they have not really received the promises of the Word. They spend more time walking by sight than by faith (2 Cor. 5:7). James warns of hearing the Word of God and not “putting feet to it”, so to speak. If a Christian ministers to you with true words but no faith in these words, he may be unfit for such ministry.
“An overseer then must be blameless…” (1 Timothy 3:2; see also 1 Tim. 3:2-7; Titus 1:5-9). The conduct of elders must be above reproach. Paul sternly admonishes the believers to safeguard against corrupt conduct of elders: “Those [elders] who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.” (1 Tim. 5:20). The character of the elders must be blameless and consistent with the criteria mentioned in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1. If an elder is in sin, we are to be careful that we have our facts straight on the matter (Do not receive accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses, 1 Tim. 5:19), but then we are to rebuke, even in the presence of the rest of the church (though rebuking in public may be conditional on the circumstances of the sin).
According to Heb. 13:7, and other related Scriptures, we have an obligation to follow the doctrine, faith, and conduct of leaders who demonstrate these things according to God’s Word. But where they depart from God’s Word and example, we are commanded to remain true to the Chief Shepherd, and not share in their sins or doctrinal errors. In fact, we are commanded to speak against such sins and false doctrine.
See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise…submitting to one another in the fear of God.(Eph. 5:15, 21)
God’s people are expected to submit to others in the church. Younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive. Etc. (1 Pet. 5:5a; Heb. 13:7). But the overarching principle is that we are to be submissive to everybody, not just specially assigned people who are “over us”. “All of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility” (1 Pet. 5:5b). We must understand this principle of Christ’s Body.
In 1 Corinthians 12 we see how the body is intended to function. There are two primary sins that members of the body fall into: (1) Thinking that they are not needed in the body (1 Cor. 12:15-16), and (2) Thinking that other members are not needed in the body (1 Cor. 12:21). Both of these sins are caused by a lack of submission. The first is a lack of submitting ourselves to the body, and the second is a lack of submitting to other people in the body. The principle must be submission one unto another. If any member of the body speaks the truth of God’s Word, I must obey this authority. And if any member of the body speaks false things of God’s Word, I must correct them in an attitude of submission and humility. The sin of the Gentiles is in exalting themselves above others, but the way of the Cross is to lay down our lives for all the brethren, and to serve instead of being served. Even if God should trust you as a leader among many Christians, we read that the head has no right to say to the feet, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21). This head is not Christ, but most likely represents those who have prominent roles as leaders in the local church of Corinth. Both the head and feet must submit to each other, and the eyes and hands as well. No member of the body is exempt from submitting to the rest of the members. Every member has authority where they speak the Word of God, have a faith to match, and a good conduct among the Church and the world. Paul heard the word of God through a little known man named Ananias, and he was expected to obey because it was truly God’s word.
Those who God delegates the most of his authority will surely be those who lay their lives down in humility, even as Christ laid his life down for all and received ALL authority. Watchman Nee says,
We should never try to establish our own authority. The more we try, the less are we fit for authority…The person least likely to be given authority is often the very one who considers himself an authority. Likewise, the more authority a person thinks he has, the less he actually does have.(Spiritual Man, 127)
Quite contrary to the authority the world gives, the church’s authority is based on God and His Word. If we ask for a human king, we go the way of the world and forsake God as King. We must restore the rally cry of the Reformers who rejected the authority of church leaders where they contradicted the authority of the Word of God.
David and Saul
Though the Israelites rejected God by pleading for a king, in David God was able to make strides towards reinstating His reign among the people. David gives us a true type of Jesus, who would come to reign as King of Kings.
Saul and David serve as marked contrasts. Where Saul was in search of his father’s wandering donkeys when he was anointed king, David stayed quietly tending his father’s sheep when Samuel came to him to establish his kingship – “there he is, keeping the sheep” (1 Sam. 16:11). Saul was taller than all of the people: “From his shoulders upward he was taller than any” (1 Sam. 9:2), but David was a man after God’s own heart. Saul was truly the people’s choice and David was God’s choice. When the people choose a king he is unable to tend his Father’s flock, but God’s choice is more than able.
Though David was chosen of God, he refused to exalt himself as king. This only fueled Saul’s hostility towards him: “Saul was afraid of David, because the LORD was with him, but had departed from Saul.” (1 Sam. 18:12). It was not long before Saul set his heart towards killing David. In the midst of his rampage, Saul unknowingly spends the night in the very cave that David was hiding in. David’s men urged David to kill Saul and seize his seat as the rightful king, but “David arose and secretly cut off a corner of Saul’s robe.” (1 Sam. 24:4). Though David could have rightfully seized his position as a leader, he refused to exalt himself, and instead cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. But even this action disturbed David’s conscience: “David’s heart troubled him because he had cut Saul’s robe.” (1 Sam. 24:5). David knew that the LORD requires utmost respect towards all those in authority (even if they are unjust), and he said, “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the LORD’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the LORD.” (1 Sam. 24:6).
It would have been absolutely wrong of David to try to seize his own authority. Just as Jesus would be exalted after He humbled Himself, David must have known that those who humble themselves are exalted, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled. We must be clear that this passage reveals David’s respect towards Saul’s position as a leader, but it in no ways means David gave absolute allegiance to Saul’s dictates, as some today teach. For there are examples of David disobeying and speaking against Saul’s orders while Saul was yet the king.
“David said…’Indeed tomorrow is the New Moon, and I should not fail to sit with the king to eat. But let me go, that I may hide,’”(1 Sam. 20:5)
Here is one of multiple examples of David acting contrary to the wishes and commands of the king. Saul wanted David to join him at the king’s table, but David could not obey this request. For years, Saul sought David’s life, yet David refused to obey his wishes. Even when Saul had David dressed in armor to fight Goliath, David refused the king’s wishes and said, “I cannot walk with these” and then took the armor off (1 Sam. 17:39). From David we can learn much of respecting authorities. He was unwilling to exalt himself, and trusted God to exalt him at the proper time. But we also must see that David refused to give Saul his complete obedience. The Scriptures never teach such a thing. We owe complete allegiance and obedience to the King of Kings alone, and where all other kings fall short of God’s words and commands, we must choose who we will serve: God or man.
“The LORD forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the LORD’s anointed. But please, take now the spear and the jug of water that are by his head, and let us go.”(1 Samuel 26:11)
David knew not to inflict harm upon God’s anointed one; to do so would be sin. But he saw it fit to take away the spear and water jug by his head. May we look with anointed eyes upon this principle.
The spear was Saul’s weapon. It had the potential to prevail against his enemies, but it had an equal potential to destroy his allies in a moment of haste. Saul thrust his spear three times at David and once at his own son, in hopes of striking and killing them. Saul’s spear rarely left his hands, because he wanted to be ever prepared to strike anyone or thing that displeases him. His jug, however, was the vessel that held his water. The spear had the power to take away life from foe or friend, but the jug was used to receive life by containing water. One was a source of death to men, and the other could be used to bring life to men. But the jug only will bring life if the water is pure and unpolluted. If the drink in the jar is contaminated, it could bring death just as the spear could. We also read that the jug and spear rested by Saul’s head.
The apostle Paul writes that a person’s head is symbolic of authority: “the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” (1 Cor. 11:10; see also vv. 2-16). God is the head of Christ; therefore God is the authority of Christ. Christ is the head of the Church; therefore Christ is the authority of the Church. Through and through, the head is a symbol of authority, just as our physical head dictates the motion of all the members of our body. It is therefore striking to see that at the place of Saul’s authority (his head) rested a spear and jug.
Anyone who functions with God’s authority has a spear and jug. The spear is used to punish disobedience and destroy the enemy, and the jug may suggest the “earthen vessels” of 2 Corinthians 4:7. The spear is a weapon of attack, and the earthen vessels are those people who are waiting to be filled. If one in authority chooses not to follow God’s will, his spear and jug become dangerous if left in his possession. The spear becomes a weapon that destroys the people and things of God (just as Saul thrust his spear at David). And the jug fills with poisonous doctrine and false spirituality that destroy the people who may be seeking life. It is true that we must have an attitude of respect towards authorities, but like David, we also have a responsibility to take away the spear of their heresy and the empty vessels that will only be poisoned. We do this by correcting their doctrine and teaching and studying the Scriptures daily with other believers, as the Bereans did (Acts 17:11). We have a responsibility to keep as many people from deception as possible: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (John 4:1).
“Touch Not Mine Anointed” (Psalm 105:15, KJV)
It is frequently argued that the Scriptures say, “Touch not mine anointed” (Ps. 105:15, KJV), and therefore we have no right to challenge Christian leaders. In 1 Corinthians 2:15, Paul writes a similar statement: “But he that is spiritual…is judged of no man.” (KJV). Both of these verses essentially warn against the same thing: Don’t oppose those who speak and walk by the power of the Holy Spirit. This concept is as true as the Scriptures, but it begs the question, how do we know who is speaking of the flesh and who is speaking of the Spirit?
A few sentences after Paul speaks of the spiritual Christian of 1 Cor. 2:15 he speaks of the carnal Christian of 1 Cor. 3:1. Therefore, a Christian has the potential to be spiritual or carnal. To the Roman Christians, Paul charged them to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh (see Rom. 8:13). This clearly implies that Christians have the power to choose walking by the flesh or walking by the Spirit. This agrees with the experience of sin in the life of a Christian. Just because someone is a Christian, and therefore has the Holy Spirit, does not mean that person is walking by the Spirit. Where they walk in the Spirit, they are labeled “untouchable” and “unjudgable” by the Bible, but where they fail to walk in the Spirit, they have no such promises.
1 John 4:1 says, “Test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” We are called, then, to test all people, regardless of their label. Understand that a label or position can never save you from deception. Many have been deceived by “prophets”, “apostles”, “pastors”, “bishops”, “popes”, etc. We must test what we are taught and told.
Deuteronomy 13:1-5 warns against false prophets:
If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or wonder, AND THE SIGN OR THE WONDER COMES TO PASS, of which he spoke to you, saying, “Let us go after other gods”…YOU SHALL NOT LISTEN TO THE WORDS OF THAT PROPHET OR THAT DREAMER OF DREAMS, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.(Deut. 13:1-3, emphasis mine)
Here we have prophets rising “among you”. They even have true prophecies and real miracles, yet they tell the people to worship other gods. Their advice directly contradicts the first commandment of God: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:3). In this situation, God is testing the people to see if their hearts are completely surrendered to Him. Oh, that we would see this truth. There may very well be prophets speaking true prophecies and visions, but if they contradict the Word of God, they are to be utterly rejected. God says, “that prophet…shall be put to death” (Deut. 13:5). It is that serious to God. He wants all prophets who lead us away “from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk” (v. 5) to be put to death. Today, we no longer throw stones to physically kill people, but we are called “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5) that we might be used to put to death the sin among us.
1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 says: “Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good.” The attitude here is similar to that of the Bereans. We must first have a heart to receive – in this case, prophecies – while still testing later. It would be a terrible tragedy if the people of God never received any prophetic utterances today. But it would be equally terrible, and possibly worse, if the people are led astray by prophetic utterances that have not been tested by the Word.
Jesus says that the Holy Spirit would only speak by God’s word: “He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak.” (John 16:13). It is therefore impossible for someone to speak anything contrary to the Word of God under the influence of the anointing of the Holy Spirit. When we speak by the Spirit of God we are truly “untouchable”, but we are commanded to test all things by the authority of the Scriptures. “Touch not mine anointed” must always be heeded when the Spirit, who speaks only according to God’s Word, is speaking through someone, but God will not defend anything spoken outside of His own authority.
We are all earthen vessels who can speak spiritually or carnally, and should therefore be thankful when brothers and sisters sincerely test our words by the Scriptures.
“Lest We Offend Them”
In Matthew 17:25, Peter comes to ask Jesus if they were required to pay the temple tax. This disciple felt that it was right for them to pay the tax, but seems to want to verify this with Jesus. Anticipating his question, Jesus interrupts Peter to ask him a question of His own: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” (v. 25). Of course, the answer to this question is that they collect from strangers, for no king would ask taxes of his own son. Peter knew this and answered, “From strangers.” (v. 26a). But Jesus sought to teach a deeper lesson. “Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are free.’” (v. 26b). The implications of this answer is paramount in our present study. The sons are free! We all, being sons of God the King, are free from pledging allegiance to any other king on earth. However, Jesus goes further:
Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.(Matt. 17:27)
It is true that the sons are free, and thus Christians are not subject to the laws of this world, in one sense, but there is also a principle of not offending. Jesus says, “Lest we offend them.” As believers we cannot abuse our freedom in Christ.
Peter would understand this principle, as he later writes to Christians in hopes of reiterating and explaining this deep truth:
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake…For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the foolish men – as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.(1 Peter 2:13,15)
He says that we are truly free, yet we should not abuse this freedom and show disrespect towards the ordinances of men (kings, governors, etc.). We should conduct ourselves in such a manner because of our testimony on the earth, putting to silence the foolish men. Essentially, Peter is saying that we truly only serve the authority of God, but we should nevertheless honor all the authorities of the world. This way we live above reproach, giving no room for Satan to taint our testimony to those who are around us.
A picture of this powerful truth can be seen in Acts 16:25-34. In this passage, Paul and Silas were imprisoned for preaching the gospel. They stayed in the prison singing songs and giving praise, when a sudden earthquake opened all of the prison doors and loosed all of the prisoners’ chains. Paul and Silas were truly free to walk out of the prison, with no door or chains stopping them, but they decided to stay there. When the keeper of the prison assumed the prisoners left, he drew his sword to kill himself. Paul, though, yelled out, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.” (Acts 16:28). The keeper was stunned that freed prisoners would still remain within the prison walls. Immediately he called for a light in the prison, and soon after was converted to Christ.
What a wonderful testimony! When the prison keeper saw these free men stay within the prison walls, he had to have light to believe it for himself. He asked for such light. Do we not see that all those in the world will be amazed when they know that truly freed men still honor the kings of the world? So many will ask for light to understand such a phenomena, and the Light of Christ will soon shine brightly in their hearts. How many nonbelievers still grope in the darkness because Christians abuse their freedom, and disrespect the ordinances of man?
This principle is at the nature of balancing God’s direct authority with his delegated authority. I do truly hope that all who read this will realize just how free they are in Christ, but be warned that our testimony will surely suffer if we do not respect all those in positions of delegated authority.
Peter later writes: “Fear God. Honor the king.” (1 Pet. 2:17b). These two sentences are at the heart of what I am teaching. We could replace “the king” with any other position of authority: “Fear God. Honor the husband.” “Fear God. Honor your parents.” “Fear God. Honor the Christians who lead you.” All of these statements would be just as true, for God is the only one with total authority. We must fear God alone, yet honor his delegated authorities. Exodus 22:28 tells us to respect our rulers, but Ex. 22:29 shows that the allegiance of our new life is completely to God. So we obey God rather than men. Only God’s authority is worthy of our attention. And God has, in turn, given His authority to His Word: “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him – the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.” (John 12:48).
May the meekness of Christ and the fear of God be upon us all.