Executive Summary – Ideas
God instituted three separate entities for the governance of mankind. They are the State, Church, and Family. Their domains are separate; an entity only has the right to intervene in the domain of another entity when it has sinned, and then only to rebuild and protect the fallen entity, not for permanent intervention. Jurisdictions of these entities are limited; even collectively they do not rule everything on Earth. There are aspects of God’s Law that God enforces directly with individuals, dealing with their consciences.
God alone is Lord of the consciences of individuals. No one should allow his conscience to be bound by anything that disagrees with, or is beside God’s Word. Examples of this can be: discipling groups like the Navigators, Heavy Shepherding churches, churches that have people accountable to only one elder, modern “Charismatic” prophecy, vows that go beyond the Law of God, extrabiblical ideas of holiness, and ideas of submission that are not limited by jurisdiction or positively prescribed by God’s Word. This was a crucial difference between the theology of Christ and the Pharisees.
Watchman Nee was a heretic, perhaps not a Christian. His view of authority differed from that of the Reformation.
Point seven of “My Covenant with GVCC” is heretical, the rest of the document is weak, compared to the membership vows of other churches. Membership in a church is the highest level of commitment possible. Inner ring groups like the “Flock” are unbiblical. An elder’s responsibilities are limited to: 1) Preaching the Word, 2) Overseeing the ministries of the church, 3) Worship of the church, and 4) Discipline of the church.
Presbyterian Church Government is the divinely appointed form of Church Government. Elders are equal with one another in their governing capacities. Churches and elderships need to be accountable to other churches and elderships that believe and practice the truth. All legitimate Church unity is based on the truth. Individuals are not divisive for leaving churches that formally and knowledgably embrace error.
All meetings of the elders, including those dealing with church discipline should be public. In discipline, charges should be specified and a general rule of fair play observed.
Elders are responsible before God for everything done within their churches. Tolerating sinful doctrines and practices makes one a partaker in the sin.
1) Publicly repent of the doctrines that the eldership of GVCC has previously taught on the issue of authority. It must be public. The eldership has bound the consciences of the members; if repentance is not public, they will remain bound. Merely walking away from the doctrines will leave those with tender consciences still enslaved to the false doctrine.
2) GVCC needs to reform its church courts so that they are fair. Accusations need to be based on hard evidence. People need to have an opportunity to respond to the accusations made against them. Church courts, and all meetings of the elders, need to be public affairs.
3) GVCC needs to modify the “twenty points” to reject the doctrine of authority previously taught there. The twenty points should also be consciously Reformed.
4) GVCC should repudiate prior endorsements of Watchman Nee. The elders should inform the members that they should distrust everything he has written; he has nothing good to say that can’t be found in safer sources.
5) The elders should publicly apologize to those who have been wronged in church court settings. In this way, the former and current members of GVCC can understand that those who have been wronged should be accepted as brothers.
6) GVCC should disband the flock, publicly stating that it is an unbiblical institution.
7) GVCC should join a good Presbyterian denomination, such as the OPC, RCUS, PCA, or RPCNA. The church and elders will then be under the authority that they need.
8) If this paper convinces a minority of the elders, they should seek to convince the majority, even if the majority threatens discipline.
If this paper convinces most of the elders, seek to convince the minority. If the minority is obstinate, discipline them publicly, but not rashly. Remove them from their offices; if necessary, excommunicate them in an orderly and fair way. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
All authority belongs to God. All authority in Heaven and Earth has been given to the God-man Jesus Christ. Some He delegates; some He doesn’t. Thus, some major questions this paper will deal with are: Who has authority from God? Who has authority over what areas, and to what degree?
God created three institutions for the governing of Mankind. They are the State, the Church, and the Family. Each has an important role to play in God’s plan. They are the only permanent institutions that He set up, and are both necessary and sufficient for the public governance of man. He set them up, giving rules for their existence. He gave them areas of the world to manage under Him. The areas are largely distinct, with some overlap, particularly when sin is present. By the commands found in His Word He defined what a good family, church, and state is. He provided tools by which to encourage good, and discourage bad. Thus, He defined the goals, methods, and boundaries of the family, church and state.
The Family was the first of God’s institutions. It is responsible for being fruitful. Within that it bears and raises children, teaches them of God, is economically productive, preserves chastity, and provides mutual help. The authority of parents is deep, but narrow. Deep in that they have a responsibility to train their children in all things, whether directly or by proxy. Narrow, in that they only do it with their own children. Since parents are to train their children to be productive and godly, their authority is positive and negative. They discourage habits and activities that will make their children less godly and successful, and encourage those that will make them more so. They punish bad behavior; they teach and reward good behavior. In training children, and living as spouses, husbands and wives are limited by God’s Word. Also, families are to follow God, no matter whether the broader congregation follows or not.
- Productivity/economics (and bears children) – Ge 1:28, 9:1-19, 17:15-16, 24:60, 26:24, Ps 127, 128, Mal 2:14-15, Eph 6:5-9, Col 3:22, 1Ti 5:8,14
- Mutual help – Ge 2:18, Mal 2:14-15, Eph 5:22-33, Col 3:18-19
- Preserves chastity – Mk 10: 1-12, 1Co 7:2f
- Teaches children – Ge 18:19, Dc 4:9-10, 6:6-7, 6:20-25, 11:19-21, 32:46, Ps 78:3-8, Pr 1:8-9, 6:20, 22:6, Mk 10:13-16, Eph 6:4, Col 3:21, 2Ti 1:5, 3:15
- Children honor parents, care for them when old – Ex 20:12, Mt 15:4-6, Eph 6:1-3, Col 3:20, 1Ti 5:8,16
- Disciplines children – Pr 13:24, 19: 18, 22: 15, 23: 13-14, 29:15,17
- Follow God, regardless – Jos 24:15
- Primary burden of charity – Ro 12:13, 2Co 8:2,12, 1Th 4:11-12, 2Th 3:11-12, 1Ti 6:18
The Church is God’s instrument for the teaching and preserving of His truth. It is the place where the special “gathered together” worship of God can go on. It is the place where the sacraments are observed. It has the means to discipline people who are unrepentant by suspending them from communion, and removing them from membership. Though all of God’s institutions are necessary, it is the most important of them, as it alone has the responsibility for promulgating the Gospel. It is the only one of God’s institutions that will never end. Elders rule, deacons administer mercy/finances, and pastors preach and administer the sacraments, limited by the Word.
- Gospel – Mt 28: 18-20, Ac 2:38-41
- Discipline/Government – Mt 18:15-17, 1Co 5:1-5, Eph 4:11-13, 1Ti 3:1-13
- Administer Sacraments/Worship – Mt 26:26-28, 22: 19-20, Ac 12:5, 20:7-8, 1Co 11:23-28, 14:26-40
The State was created to be a promoter of the public good and a punisher of the bad. When it does not do that, it ceases to be an instrument of God, because it does not obey Him. God raises up evil governments as well as good ones. Everything that comes to pass, God predestines. The good governments should be obeyed out of moral duty; they are God’s servants ethically. People may obey an evil government out of fear, but not out of moral duty. They should obey it in all instances where it does command what is good, and forbid what is bad.
What is good and bad? What God declares in His Word to be such. Or, anything that is so by good and necessary consequence from His Word. The State should enforce the Ten Commandments in areas that are public.
- Punishing evil – Ex 18:21-23, De 16:18-20, 2Ch 19:5-10, Ps 82, Pr 8:15-16
- Christ the King of kings – Ps 2, 110, Re 19:16, Is 9:6-7
- God raises up rulers for His own purposes – Ro 9:17, Da 2:21, 4:2, 32
- Obey lawful civil rulers – Ro 13:1-7, 1Pe 2: 13-17, Tit 3:1
Each of these institutions is limited to what God has given them as their spheres of activity. The State may not usurp the Church or Family. The Church may not usurp the State or Family. The Family may not usurp the State or Church.
The importance of the Family as a God-ordained institution separate from the State and the Church cannot be understated. It is the weakest of the three institutions, and the one most under attack by both states and churches today.
Invasion of marriages is when a state or church interferes in the affairs of a family where it has no biblical warrant to do so. Also, it can involve acting in areas where there is a legitimate, though less direct interest. Non-adult children are members of a church, but a church should not quickly bring them in for discipline for disobedience to their parents. Nor should the parents bring them there. The situation is their responsibility. Only when things are hopeless should such a course be taken. A similar example would be the religious education of children. Both the Church and Family have roles, but the Family should take the lead, while the Church aids and instructs the parents.
Similarly, churches should avoid counseling in marital situations where the Bible does not speak directly. The couple should work it out on their own, failing that, the husband should decide. An example: suppose the husband is tight with money, and decides not to buy a new bed for the children. The wife thinks otherwise and mentions it to the leadership of the church, saying her husband is unreasonable. Perhaps the husband is unreasonable, but it is his decision. The eldership of the church should say that it is none of their business. The woman should be encouraged to submit. Any pressure on the husband, or public sympathy for the wife, would lessen the rightful authority of the husband. It would “invade the marriage.”
Binding the Conscience
It is not as if all of life is under the human authority of another, whether it be father, elder, or civil magistrate. (This excludes Jesus, the one human/divine authority who rules everything from Heaven.) There are areas of life where people are responsible to God alone, who searches our hearts and knows our intentions. These are private or economic areas of life. Private areas are where the Holy Spirit rules our behavior through our consciences, judging the attitudes that motivate our actions. The Church has an important role here to preach the Word, instructing consciences.
The Westminster Confession speaks of “Binding the Conscience.” Here is the text from chapter XX, section 2:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to His Word or beside it, if matters of faith or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.
The first sentence is a critical one. First, we are not to obey anyone who tells us to do anything that is explicitly, or by good and necessary consequence, sin. Second, if someone tells us that we have to do a thing indifferent as a moral duty, or as an aspect of worship, then we are not to do it. When a person obeys anyone, authority or not, who says to do either of these things, he has violated his duty to enslave his conscience to God alone.
This section warns us against “absolute and blind obedience” and “implicit faith.” A major heresy that the Reformation fought was that people believed the Roman Church for no reason. They were raised in it. They were taught it was wrong to question “Holy Mother Church.” Consider Knox and “Mary Queen of Scots.” Mary was taught from birth to believe the Roman Church, no matter what was done there or what the Scriptures said. Knox spent much time trying to show her that we must listen to God, and derivatively, the Bible, rather than any men who claim to have the truth independent of the Bible. But with Mary, it was water off a duck’s back.
(Note: I define heresy as error, and a heretic as one who propagates error. There are heretics and damnable heretics. Damnable heretics are not brothers; they contradict core Gospel teachings. Heretics are presumed to be erring brothers, though no one can know the heart.)
An application of this for today, is pastors who teach people to believe things as true on a “trust me, I’m your Pastor” basis. The teaching of the church should always be explained; this provides a strong faith for those who hear. It forces those who teach to examine what they teach in the light of the Scriptures, and those who listen to judge everything by the Scriptures.
The Reformation encouraged debate. Everywhere the Reformers went they encouraged debate, discussion, and learning in general. They taught the reasons behind things. They never felt any doctrine of God was a matter of indifference; they taught everyone what all Christians should believe. They did not have any inner teachings that were reserved for those who were “initiated.” Everything was open to the light, and open to public scrutiny.
In question 105 of the Larger Catechism, “What are the sins forbidden in the First Commandment?” it mentions “… making men the lords of our faith and conscience…” At some churches, some people will say, “If [Pastor’s name] says the Bible says X, then the Bible says X” If one believes this about his Pastor without the encouragement of others, such a belief is a sin. We are all to search out the Scriptures to the best of our abilities to learn the truth. If believed at the suggestion of others, it is a sin for the suggester and the believer. At the Reformation, many, when confronted by the claims of the Bible said “I will believe what the [Roman] Church teaches.” Sadly, many Protestants today have developed new popish lords for their faith and consciences.
This is why the Bible teaches us to call no man Father, Rabbi, or Master (Mt 23:8-10), for there is only one who is the Lord of our consciences, the Christ. Even Paul, who had the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and as an apostle could command obedience, said he had no dominion over the faith of believers, but was merely a helper to them (2 Co 1:24, 2Th 3:9). Peter encouraged elders not to be “lords” over the members allotted to them (1Pe 5:3). The major function of ruling elders is ruling, but the rule is not a positive one. The positive law has already been promulgated by God. Elders are administrators of what is already there, rather than legislators.
No man deserves such respect that he has authority over anyone’s conscience. Churches that have strong leaders need to be careful that their members do not “idolize” them, or the church as a whole. Though criticism should not be the leading character attribute of churches or individuals, there should be scrutiny of doctrines held, so that they conform to the Word.
Some Charismatic pastors are particularly guilty in this respect. Some will say to a member, “God reveals things to me about you for your good.” Besides destroying the sufficiency of Scripture, they bind those who believe them to an implicit faith. Those who believe them have no basis to question in things that should be matters of indifference (where the Bible is silent). If God had revealed to the pastor, not believing the pastor would be a sin, because we should always believe what God says. People who believe such pastors have entrusted their faith to a person or institution that cannot be rationally examined.
The pastor who has revelations for the good of his members has become a mediator between his members and God. If the pastor claims that he is uniquely that person’s pastor, that a person could not go elsewhere without sinning, then he has become a mediator of God’s grace for his members. He has become an anti-Christ, a rival to Christ, the one who is the only Mediator between God and man.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, section 16.1, talks about adding to the Law. It states, “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention.” We don’t have the right to add to what God has declared to be good. Even in applying the Law to specific cases, people can’t be commanded by the Church that they have to do certain things. They should be taught what the Law says with respect to an area. A pastor could suggest certain applications, but he could not mandate them. That is left to the Holy Spirit working on the consciences of the hearers.
It is akin to the Scriptures that say giving should be without compulsion. (2Co 9:7) God loves a cheerful giver. A pastor should teach that it is good to help brothers in need, who are not lazy. For a pastor to suggest that a certain brother might help another particular brother in need is good. To command it is sin. To guilt someone into it is no less a sin. The same applies to a variety of applications that should be left to the consciences of individuals: Specific lengths and topics of prayer, extra meetings beyond the Lord’s Day, note-taking in sermons, serving or helping anyone, prayer partners, etc.
Any additional revelation falls into three categories: 1) Redundant with the Word. 2) Beside the Word – indifferent 3) Against the Word. This is one reason additional revelations don’t occur. God has no need to reaffirm what he has already said in the Bible. He leaves that to the Holy Spirit applying the Word to the saints. He does not reveal in things indifferent, by definition that He leaves to our consciences. He does not teach us a thing and its opposite. Thus God does not give any additional revelations on things affecting faith and morals.
The Word of God is, as question 3 of the Larger Catechism puts it, is “the only rule of faith and obedience.” It is necessary, sufficient, clear, and authoritative in every respect to teach us what is pleasing to God. The Westminster Confession of Faith echoes this plainly in chapter 1. Contrary to the Romanism they left, they left aside other so-called sources of instruction for faith and life, and retained only the Bible. The false miracles, additional revelations, teachings of the Roman Church, and saints of Romanism were abandoned.
God intended to leave no confusion in what He has to say to the Church. Thus, He gave His Word in a form that would suffice for all His people always. His demands on all people are always the same, therefore His Word does not change. During the time of the apostles, that mode of giving the Scripture was completed, because the revelation of His Son was complete.
The Scripture is both necessary, sufficient, and exclusive for the entire edification of the saints. Necessary, in that one needs to know what it says to know what the will of God is. Sufficient, in that the Scripture does not exclude anything that we need to know to please God. Exclusive, in that the will of God is directly revealed in no other place today. Anything else claiming to directly and immediately represent God lies; everything else is an interpretation at best. (Granted, a correct interpretation should be regarded with the authority of the Word of God.)
Thus, the only place to hear what the Lord is saying (apart from nature) is in the Scripture. Sola Scriptura. It is the only rule of faith and life. It brooks no rivals, as God has no rivals. Its only allies are faithful interpreters. Everything else is an enemy.
The Holy Spirit is needed to witness to the truth of the Scripture in our hearts. But the Spirit no longer reveals new truth, that being completed with the apostles and prophets. The apostles and prophets received direct revelation from God to write the Scriptures. They instructed the Church with noninscripturated revelations from God in the period when the New Testament Scriptures were being written. (Ac 8: 18, 2Cor 12:12)
So where does this leave modern Charismatic prophecy [MCP]? Prophecies that disagree with the Word should be thrown out immediately, as should those beside the Word, because they add to the Word. If they agree with the Word, it is a more interesting problem. The historical testimony of the early patristic era testified to the cessation of revelation. Far from being disobedient, they noticed a change. But suppose they all were wrong. Does MCP that agrees with the Scripture fit the Biblical paradigm?
The prophecy of the Bible came through apostles and prophets, offices that do not exist today. In terms of revelation, the two offices are connected – if no apostles, no prophets. MCP that agrees is not like New Testament era prophecy – the New Testament era prophecy was a substitute for the lack of the New Testament. We have the New Testament now. Unless one quotes scripture exactly, in a good translation, something he says (if he says, “Thus says the Lord”) will disagree with the Bible, in emphasis, if not in fact. (Repeating the scripture would not be prophecy.) All of the Bible is relevant always; at best, the idea of a MCP is to take one aspect of the scripture and blow it out of proportion. “This is what the Holy Spirit is saying now.” There is good knowledge of the Bible, and the Holy Spirit aiding us in interpretation and application to an individual situation, but to call it prophecy is wrong.
To explain, here is a quote from Calvin’s tract, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, (Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, Vol. 1, P. 142):
And would that those who preside in the Church, when they corrupt its government, only sinned for themselves, or at least injured others by nothing but by their bad example! But the most crying evil of all is, that they exercise a most cruel tyranny, and that a tyranny over souls. Nay, what is the vaunted power of the Church in the present day, but a lawless, licentious, unrestricted domination over souls, subjecting them to the most miserable bondage? Christ gave to the Apostles an authority similar to that which God had conferred on the Prophets, an authority exactly defined, viz., to act as his ambassadors to men. Now, the invariable law is, that he who is entrusted with an embassy must faithfully and religiously conform to his instructions. This is stated in express terms in the Apostolical commission, – ‘Go and teach all nations whatsoever things I have delivered unto you.’ Likewise, ‘Preach,’ (not anything you please,) but the ‘gospel.’ If it is asked what the authority is with which their successors were invested, we have the definition of Peter, which enjoins all who speak in the Church to speak ‘the oracles’ of God. Now, however, those who would be thought the rulers of the Church arrogate to themselves a licence to speak whatsoever they please, and to insist that as soon as they have spoken they shall be implicitly obeyed. It will be averred that this is a calumny, and that the only right which they assume is that of sanctioning by their authority what the Holy Spirit has revealed. They will, accordingly, maintain that they do not subject the consciences of believers to their own devices or caprice, but only to the oracles of the Spirit, which, being revealed to them, they confirm and promulgate to others. Forsooth an ingenious pretext! No man doubts that in whatever the Holy Spirit delivers by their hands they are to be unhesitatingly obeyed. But when they add that they cannot deliver anything but the genuine oracles of the Holy Spirit, because they are under his guidance, and that all their decisions cannot but be true, because they sit in the chairs of verity, is not this just to measure their power by their caprice? For if all their decrees, without exception, are to be received as oracles, there is no limit to their power. What tyrant ever so monstrously abused the patience of his subjects as to insist that every thing he proclaimed should be received as a message from heaven! Tyrants, no doubt, will have their edicts obeyed, be the edicts what they may. But these men demand much more. We must believe that the Holy Spirit speaks when they obtrude upon us what they have dreamed.
In sum, it is very dangerous, at least, for pastors to claim any supernatural guidance regarding those they shepherd. Good pastors limit themselves to the exegesis of the scriptures. That is no small, weak limit. It is the only powerful stuff there is. (Hb 4:12)
‘Discipleship” and Binding the Conscience
Even without additional revelations, there is another abuse that can go on. Some churches (and parachurches, like some groups of the Navigators) teach that discipling/eldership relationships are unique, that each member has one elder to disciple him, and that the one being discipled cannot end the relationship to begin one with another elder without sinning. But the government of the Church is entrusted to elders as a group, not individually. (Ac 14:23, 15:many, 20:17, 21:18, 1Ti 5:17, Tit 1:5, Jas 5:14, 1Pet 5:1) Even the authority elders exercise in their own congregation is limited, local elderships must heed the broader assemblies of elders when the broader assemblies accurately interpret God’s Word. (Acts 15)
Individuals are not assigned elders for life, and certainly not any particular one; they may have one group of elders all their days, but it is not necessary that it be so. To the extent that an eldership teaches that they are the only allowable eldership appointed for the good of an individual, they sin by adding to the Law, and illegally binding the conscience of their members. Those who would claim otherwise need to show some verses showing this is necessarily so with respect to elders. (This precludes verses that would apply such obedience to prophets and apostles, which are different from elders.)
Harold Camping does a variation on this by teaching (implicitly) that all churches today are apostate. If one believes him, he can no longer trust any Christians who don’t agree with Camping. Similarly, churches that explicitly teach that they have something really good going, run the risk that their members will no longer be able to view the church objectively. There is the tendency in independent churches with strong pastors for that to be the case. As those who could give constructive criticism to the pastor usually leave when the pastor and other members don’t listen, or when they get “nudged” out, the church can become monolithic; a mirror image of the pastor. The church is left without ability to self-correct, because everyone thinks exactly alike. The solution to this is Presbyterian Government, which is covered below.
Part of the confusion that exists in authoritarian churches is the lack of a distinction between the apostles and prophets, who are the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20, 3:5), and pastors, teachers, and elders who continue to build on the foundation once laid by the apostles and prophets. Apostles must be eyewitnesses of Christ. (Ac 1:20-22, 1Cor 9:1) Miracles were a sign that the apostles were there. (Ac 8:18, 2Cor 12:12) Only the apostles and prophets were given the Revelation of God in its original giving. (Eph 3:5, 2Pet 3:2) Apostles could rightfully command economic support, and total obedience. (1Th 2:6) Prophets in the New Testament did not rule, as apostles did, but they did serve as oracles of God along with the apostles, giving us the Scriptures, and directing the Church doctrinally until the Scriptures were complete.
Until the revelation of Christ was complete, the New Testament Church required inspired teachers to guide her. The apostles and prophets filled that role. Thus, during the first few decades of the New Testament Church, disobedience to the apostles and prophets, as they spoke faithfully, was disobedience to God. But once the revelation was complete, there was no further need for apostles and prophets. The elders remained to explain what had been revealed. Whereas an apostle and prophet could command obedience in matters that were not yet recorded in the Bible, subject to the constraint that the prophecies be tested against the Old Testament scriptures and existing New Testament scriptures and prophecies, the elders could only command obedience where revelation had already occurred. The elders could not go outside the God-appointed bounds of the revelation given through the apostles and prophets.
As in many heresies, fuzzy language is used to confuse the issue. For example, a man in any of the above offices could be called “the man of God.” (Though in the Old Testament, such a term referred to a prophet. The bare use of the term in the English is ambiguous.) Thus all men in those offices deserve the same respect and obedience. But apostles and prophets have a unique function: that of revealing God’s until now unknown prescriptive will to men. The pastor, teachers, and elders have the responsibility of taking the now-made-known prescriptive will of God and declaring it to men. The former group spoke infallibly with respect to the revelation of God, and thus deserved the respect due to the Word of God as they proclaimed it. But the latter group is fallible, and must be constantly tested against God’s Word. Thus the degree of allegiance due each is different. Paul could demand obedience on the mere basis of being an apostle, though even he did not avail himself of the right, for the good of the Gospel. Pastors, teachers, and elders can’t demand the obedience due to an apostle. They can demand obedience to Word of God as it is faithfully taught, but no more than that. They have no blank check from God.
As Calvin put it in his Tract on the Necessity of Reforming the Church, (Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, Vol. 1, P. 216):
God declares, by Malachi, that the government of the Israelitish Church was committed to the priests, under the condition that they should faithfully fulfill the covenant made with them, viz., that their ‘lips should keep knowledge,” and expound the law to the people, (Mal 2:7). When the priests altogether failed in this covenant, he declares, that, by their perfidy, the covenant was abrogated and made null. Pastors are mistaken if they imagine that they are invested with the government of the Church on any other terms than that of being ministers and witnesses of the truth of God.
In sum, the authority of elders is ministerial, taking what God has said and applying it. It is not legislative, creating new commands for people to follow under moral constraint.
As an aside, it is good for the members of churches to see each other frequently, and aid in the bearing of each other’s burdens. But this should be strictly voluntary, except for Sabbath worship services. Since the details of how the broad commands on fellowship are not specified, positive obedience in an individual circumstance cannot be commanded by the elders. It is left to the individuals’ consciences, while the Pastor preaches the Word of God, trusting that the Holy Spirit will apply it to the hearts of their hearers. A similar case would be made for giving beyond the tithe. It is good to give more, but elders cannot require it. For example, if the elders of a church told their members that it was the will of God to give above their tithe so that a church building could be built, they would be sinning. Besides pretending to know the secret things of God (De 29:29), they would be binding the consciences of their members.
The most serious problem that the Pharisees had was that of adding to the Law. This grew out of a need to have laws that were more easily handled by average people. Instead of having a vague law, “Keep the Sabbath holy,” that bothered the consciences of those who wondered if they kept it well enough or not, they created simple rules to define what Sabbath-keeping was. Keeping the rules of the Rabbis gave an illusion of doing God’s will. One could keep some rules that affected one’s external person, but not touch the heart attitudes at all.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained the Law as it was meant to be. Yes, the Law barred certain acts, but it went further, barring the thoughts that led to the acts. Some of the Law was thus not to be enforced by human authorities, whether civil or ecclesiastical. These were matters of the heart. Who knows the heart of a man except the Lord, and perhaps the man himself? (Jer 17:9-10, 1Co 2:11) The Pharisees wanted easy enforcement on all sinful behavior by merely human authorities, so they had to take the law and break it down into measurable sins, thus leaving the affairs of the heart not to be counted as sins. Enforcement of laws by merely human authorities is important, but it is not everything God requires. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, people need to self-police their attitudes and hidden sins. Not everyone likes that; many prefer to have a stripped-down list of external sins that do not touch the problems in their hearts.
Strangely, in that sense, heavy shepherding churches can unintentionally abet a form of antinomianism. People can become so attuned to observing the prized and enforced external distinctive doctrines and practices, that they neglect the internal application of the Law to their attitudes, and external things that the elders don’t police or care about. Love can cease to be the leading motivator, replaced by fear of the elders. (I leave aside how it can affect the behavior of elders, except to say that violations of the church’s distinctives or authority structure can get tougher treatment than sins that are arguably more serious. Loyalty and fear can cover a multitude of sins.)
The other problem the Pharisees’ laws created was barring people from doing things that were in themselves legitimate. When the disciples were gleaning grain on the Sabbath, they were keeping the Sabbath, taking a little food to nourish themselves while listening to the teaching of Christ. The Pharisees interpreted it as work, Christ interpreted it as necessity. The issue is one of conscience; if one needs to do it to keep the Sabbath, do it. Another may not need it, he shouldn’t do it. Everyone should examine their motives.
Jesus criticized the Pharisees for adding to the law. In adding to the law, they did two things: 1) made things that were indifferent a matter of faith (Mt 12:1-8), and 2) commanded things against the law. (Mr 7:11, Mt 12:10, Lk 13:14) This led to the neglect of weightier matters of the Law. (Mt 23)
Yet the Pharisees were the civil and religious leaders of their day. They were leaders then of both the Church and the local civil sphere. Ought obedience be given to them where they claimed authority? Only where they commanded things in the law of God, or in civil matters, not opposed to it.
This was and is an error of the Roman Church. They created their own holydays, not appointed by God. They created new worship styles, adding elements to God’s worship that He had not commanded. They added new laws of obedience to the Roman Church, commanding where God had not. They exchanged salvation by grace for salvation by grace and works, nullifying grace. They created a new system for Church governance, giving the Church one human head that was not Christ.
To what does this boil down? Both the Pharisees and the Roman Church originally started out teaching God’s Word. They sat in Moses’ seat (Mt 23:2). But they added their own ideas, put them on a par with God’s Word, and used their ecclesiastical authority to command obedience. Their hearers ended up bound in conscience and bound from Heaven.
So how might this apply to GVCC? GVCC made two errors. The first error was teaching the false doctrine of authority, thus binding the consciences of the members of GVCC to a blind and implicit obedience to their elders. The second error is related. The elders of GVCC added to the Law in the following ways:
1) Encouraging members to seek the counsel of the elders in all areas of their lives, and then accusing them of sin if they did not seek counsel and obey in areas that were not ethical questions, but ones of better and worse.
2) Elders “spoke into the lives” of members, often on topics not related to moral questions. Refusing to heed the advice was considered sin. Occasionally this advice involved economics and giving to the church beyond tithing.
3) “Pressing in” was taught as morally binding to all members.
4) Members were taught that the statements and commands of the elders should be regarded as “the Word of God to me.”
5) At various points in time amounts of prayer were mandated, prayer partnerships were mandated, extra meetings beyond the Lord’s Day were mandated, note taking in sermons was mandated, serving particular individuals, particularly the elders, was mandated. “Mandated” does not mean physical punishment was possible for the individuals who resisted, or even that they were threatened with excommunication. They were informed that they were sinning if they did not do it, and that bound their consciences.
On the topic of extra meetings, it must be added that bringing up children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord takes time. Possibly the largest unseen cost of belonging to a church like GVCC is that a significant amount of child raising time is taken away, particularly for those who work outside the home. Parents instructing children is one of the two most important things in seeing children follow God. The other is not having detestable things like “children’s church”. Children need to hear real preaching when their hearts are young and tender.
6) There was a tendency among the elders at Grace Valley to put their members to the test. What is meant by that is, the elders would take something that a member liked, that was not intrinsically sinful, and make the member choose between that and GVCC. Perhaps Jennifer Roth and her family are an example of this. (I have no idea – if I had to pick someone at the time of our leaving GVCC who would be loyal to the death – she would have been on my short list.) Regardless, members were informed that tests like this would occur. Husbands were even encouraged to test their wives in this way. This cuts against what the Larger Catechism teaches in question 130, which is covered in detail below.
Modern Evangelicalism and Heavy Shepherding
We don’t learn from past errors easily. In the face of Antinomianism, in the face of elderships that failed to guard the flock of Christ as they were commanded, some Christians have sought more rigorous Church government. Ignoring the errors of the Pharisees and the Roman Church, they end up in a variant of their error.
As Francis Schaeffer commented in Complete Works Vol. 3, P. 392-393, [Speaking of Heavy Shepherding groups – DM]:
In other places it is less dramatic, but there is a tendency to place each person directly under the spiritual direction of another individual. I’m sure this is helpful in some instances, but the danger of too much discipline is present. This, of course, was the old Roman Catholic system, with each person having a confessor. And in all such cases, the danger is that the individual is cut of from the direct direction of the Lord.
Schaeffer also comments in Complete Works Vol. 4, P. 59-60 “It is my thesis that we cannot bind men morally except where the Scripture clearly commands (beyond that we may only give advice), similarly anything the New Testament does not command concerning church form is a freedom to be exercised under the Holy Spirit for that particular time and place.” [Emphasis not added]
As far as that went, Calvin concurred with this. As he wrote in his Letter to Cardinal Sadolet, (Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, Vol. 1, P. 51):
But whatever the character of the men [Romish priests and bishops – DM], still you say it is written, ‘What they tell you do.’ No doubt, if they sit in the chair of Moses. But when, from the chair of verity, they intoxicate the people with folly, it is written, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” (Matt. xvi. 6) It is not ours, Sadolet, to rob the Church of any right which the goodness of God not only has conceded to her, but strictly guarded for her by numerous prohibitions. For, as pastors are not sent forth by Him to rule the church with a licentious and lawless authority, but are astricted to a certain rule of duty which they must not exceed, so that the church is ordered (1 Thess. v. 21; 1 John iv. 1) to see that those who are appointed over her on these terms faithfully accord with their vocation. But we must either hold the testimony of Christ of little moment, or must hold it impious to infringe in the least degree on the authority of those whom he has invested with such splendid titles! Nay, it is you who are mistaken in supposing that the Lord set tyrants over his people to rule them at pleasure, when he bestowed so much authority on those whom he sent to promulgate the gospel. Your error lies here, viz., in not reflecting that their power, before they were furnished with it, was circumscribed within certain limits. We admit, therefore, that ecclesiastical pastors are to be heard just like Christ himself, but they must be pastors who execute the office entrusted to them. And this office, we maintain, is not presumptuously to introduce whatever their own pleasure has rashly devised, but religiously and in good faith to deliver the oracles which they have received at the mouth of the Lord. For within these boundaries Christ confined the reverence which he required to be paid to the Apostles; nor does Peter (1 Pet. iv. 11) either claim for himself or allow to others anything more than that, as often as they speak among the faithful, they speak as from the mouth of the Lord. Paul, indeed, justly extols (2 Cor. xiii. 10) the spiritual power with which he was invested, but with this proviso, that it was to avail only for edification, was to wear no semblance of domination, was not to be employed in subjugating faith.
Some have argued that they should do whatever their elder tells them, so long as it isn’t explicitly sinful. That is an error. An elder ceases to have authority outside the jurisdictional boundaries of his office. If he commands outside the boundaries of his office his words should be taken at best, as those of a friend giving advice, at worst, as a busybody.
An elder’s responsibilities are limited to: 1) Preaching the Word, 2) Overseeing the ministries of the church, 3) Worship of the church, and 4) Discipline of the church. The last of those may seem to include a lot. But what is not included? Elders cannot make up new sins, or place new positive demands on the members that the Bible does not give them. Thus they are limited in their scope of discipline.
It has been said and taught at GVCC, “If my (Elder or Husband) says anything to me it is the Word of God to me.” Besides being wrong, this is blasphemous. How dare we elevate human commands to the Word of God! We may respond to commands agreeing with the Word because we should obey the Word and its implications. But the commands are not the Word of God itself, they are only agreeable to it, at best.
To summarize this area: With respect to our consciences, God the Father is the sole Lawgiver, Christ the Son is the sole Mediator, and God the Holy Spirit the sole interpreter of the will of God to us. When human authorities ask us to obey out of conscience, we must not obey their commandments, if they are in any way contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship.
On the topic of vows, consider the Westminster Confession of Faith, section 22.7:
No man may vow to do any thing forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God. In which respects, Popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.
Note that the three vows of Romanist orders are within one’s capacity to do. Regular obedience to Romanism is sinful in itself. Poverty and singleness are not. With respect to poverty, if it is sought as a higher virtue, that is sinful, because poverty is not any more spiritual than wealth. Poverty would be an idol of sorts. It may hinder in the performance of other duties. On singleness, there is no guarantee that God has given the ability for it. That one has the liberty to choose the single or married life is undisputed, but God gives either the gift of marriage or singleness to each person. Ability to fulfill the vow is limited to the gift God gives.
There are vows that sound innocuous that people should not take. One is a promise not to move from where one lives. There is no guarantee that God has given the ability to fulfill such a vow. Local economies are notoriously unstable, and vowing to stay, a man might find that he can’t support his family. No sin involved; he should move, despite his vow. If there is any sin, it was the original vowing.
Another is a vow to obey any person, unless there is an escape clause for the commanding of sin, implicit or explicit. Besides things forbidden in the Word of God, sin includes anything that would hinder any duty that the Word commands, anything not in one’s power, and anything where one has no promise of ability from God to do what might be required.
For example, someone might vow that he will spend all of his time attempting to reform the Church. But he is not paid to do so, and as a result, he does not tend to the economic needs of his family. His vow is not legitimate – it is hindering the performance of other duties God has given him, and is not within his power to perform. Another example would be a man who vowed to become wealthy, so that he could give a lot to the Church, but in the process neglected higher duties of obedience to God. Similarly, a church that has many required meetings can have the same problem. They can hinder the duties parents have to train their children, and possibly the economic well-being of the families involved.
Vows of obedience to one’s elders are dangerous unless they are very carefully crafted. The danger is that one ends up in a Romanist situation, where one’s conscience is no longer enslaved to God, but to the elder, and to the church.
Membership at GVCC
Why is this an issue? Two reasons: One is Flock vows, the other is membership vows. With respect to flock, people at GVCC vow to submit to the elders in all things when they join this inner group of the church. “All things” includes where one lives, economic decisions, who one marries, also smaller issues. This has been taught by the elders of GVCC implicitly, occasionally explicitly. The idea of not being able to move from the Davis area unless the elders of GVCC agree removes a necessary economic freedom of individuals, that no one should vow away. Absent violations of the Eighth commandment, economics is not the province of elders, but of the Family, fathers particularly. The same goes for whom one marries, it is a Family affair, unequal yoking and other violations of the seventh commandment excluded. The vows taken in flock unbiblically bind the consciences of members, and places the elders in authority in jurisdictions where they should not be.
What vows should be taken when joining a church? The vows should include belief in the Bible, assent to the doctrines taught there (for brevity asking assent to a complete and orthodox creed, the Westminster Standards), assent to the government of the church when faithfully exercised, confession of personal sinfulness, and repudiation of current evil zeitgeist.
Membership vows should represent the standards of the church for membership in good standing. They represent the disciplinary boundaries of the church. They should be sufficiently detailed that a person taking them knows what beliefs and behaviors he is binding upon himself. For the sake of brevity, they should reference other documents such as the Bible and the Westminster Standards, but it is necessary for the church to explain the depth to which assent is asked. If there are common controversies within the broader church environment, the church needs to clarify what the correct interpretation of the Bible is in such instances. Similarly, if there are sins common to the spirit of the age, these should be included in what is vowed.
In short, the authority of the elders extends no further than the Bible, but members joining a church need to understand what interpretation the elders place on the Bible. Once those interpretations are understood, a potential member can make an informed decision on whether to vow or not. Vague vows do everyone a disservice; both parties can make them mean what they want. Using them for disciplinary purposes is useless – there may as well not be any vows. The same would apply to vows regarding attitudes -since they are not disciplinable, though outward actions stemming from them may be, they are less useful as membership vows. Further, vows that bind people to agree with the elders’ interpretation of the Bible, unless these vows explicitly spell out every interpretation included, together with detailed exegesis, they bind people to an implicit faith. Vows where the elders say “trust us,” are not different in form from those which the Catholic Church binds people.
Implied in all of this is that when one is a member of a church, he is subject to its government and doctrines in the fullest sense. The pastor should teach the whole counsel of God to each member, according to their ability to understand. Children get less, adults get more. Nothing is hidden. (Some might argue against this using 1 Cor 2:6, but the mature in that passage refers to the whole Church, not a subset. Some might argue against this based on the pattern of Jesus’ teaching, where smaller groups received more instruction. But Jesus told the disciples to teach the nations all things that He had commanded them. (Mt 28:20) Jesus taught in a way that many, though physically hearing, would not hear spiritually. With respect to this, His method as it fell out in history cannot be used as a pattern. He knew the hearts of men completely, whereas His disciples did not. The command He gave before ascending is far clearer, and less subject to misinterpretation. Thus we always teach the whole counsel of God to the whole Church.)
The idea of teachings reserved for a core group is Gnostic. Those who are the “initiated” can receive the deeper teachings. Others must wait. One of the strong points Christianity had in the Roman Empire was that its teachings were totally open. Going in, potential converts knew what they were getting into. That is not true of all churches today. Many will try to induce people into a church for reasons other than the Gospel, (e.g. friendship, clubs, social contacts, school, daycare, etc.) and only later teach them the Gospel. The other things aren’t all bad in themselves, but the Gospel should accompany, if not precede.
To each member, the pastor should be teaching the whole counsel of God. (Ac 20:20, 27, 35, 2Co 4:2, Mt 28:20) What more is there? If a church has an “inner ring” for “deeper teaching,” the pastor is either neglecting to teach the whole truth to all of his members, or is teaching error to the select group.
The idea of additional vows past membership for a deeper level of teaching also is strange. What more can a member vow, legitimately? The member either didn’t make vows that the church should have required of him, or the church is asking the member to vow on matters unrelated or make an illegitimate vow. If it is a matter unrelated to being a church member, being used as an entrance to deeper spirituality, then the church is adding to the law by encouraging the member to vow.
Leaving a Local Church
There is one reason a person would have to leave a church. It is that the doctrines of the church are not in accord with the Bible, and the church is making no efforts at reform. One should leave, and find, or start a church that is reforming, making its ways closer to the Bible. When the elders of a church are presented with an opportunity to reform, if the elders don’t repent of their errors, they should be treated as disorderly brothers, and one should part from them. (2Th 3:6) This can be practical as well as doctrinal. If the church acknowledges the truth, but ignores its applications in major ways, and if they don’t repent when informed of their sins, it’s time to go.
It is permissible to leave when the economics of the situation (broadly understood) drives one to leave. For example, if there is no work in an area, or if the church makes such huge time demands that one can’t raise his family well. Another reason would be persecution, or an improvement in one’s work in an area where a church at least as good as the present one is.
To close this section, an aside: if a person is in an abusive church situation, where he is being slandered, and justice is absent, does he need to go through the “proper channels” to transfer his membership? No. He has a duty to love and protect his good name in the ninth commandment. Give the formal exit door a try, and if the result is slander, leave without pangs of conscience.
While he has the chance, he should defend his good name. Rutherford deals with a parallel problem in the civil government in Lex, Rex. Should a person just take it if the civil government becomes tyrannical, threatening his life? No, he should flee if he can, defending himself otherwise. The sixth commandment requires it.
There are many aspects to Reformed doctrine. The many aspects support one another. The doctrines are together for a reason – they are a summary of what the Scriptures teach. One can’t remove one doctrine without weakening the rest. The doctrines are a unit, though deviants choose as they like.
Reformed doctrine has distinctive views on Soteriology, Law, the Civil Magistrate, Religious Worship, the Church, Marriage/Family, God, Creation/Fall/Eternal Decree, God’s Covenantal dealings with man, and the Bible. Such teachings have been systematically presented in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards.
In the popular parlance, a church is called “Reformed” if they hold to a Reformed view of Soteriology. Is such a church really Reformed? The Reformation, for all of its stress on the gospel, put no less emphasis on the other doctrines. Having pure government and worship were important to the Reformers. Even when they were able to preach the gospel freely in the Roman church, they left because of worship and government issues.
At GVCC, when someone joins, he signs something called “My Covenant with Grace Valley Christian Center,” sometimes called the twenty points. It is a nonsystematic document that asks people to assent to some basic points of the faith and some errors. It is confessional in nature, and not precise in the way it uses words.
One would expect a Reformed church to refer to some Reformed Creed in such a document, or at least sound Calvinistic. This one doesn’t; there is not one thing in it that an Arminian church could not have in its membership covenant.
The first thing that strikes some about the covenant is the title. Note that it is a covenant with GVCC, as opposed to God getting the title billing. Most Reformed churches would call a membership covenant one primarily with God, given the gravity of the things that are promised in terms of belief.
The document is structured more like a suzerainty covenant than a parity covenant. In a parity covenant, both parties mutually promise what they will do for each other. In a suzerainty covenant, the lesser party makes all the promises. The covenant of church membership should be a suzerainty covenant with God as the Suzerain, and parity with members. In the membership covenant of GVCC, it seems the Suzerain is not God but the church. Coming from a group that calls itself Reformed, this is strange. Reformed churches, based on Ac 14:23 and Tit 1:5 have always elected their elders. Thus the manward side of a church covenant resembles a parity covenant more closely.
Their GVCC covenant in point seven reads as follows, “I freely and willingly and with joy submit to the government of this church as exercised by the council of elders, in accordance with their understanding of the Holy Scriptures.” [Emphasis added]
Most Protestant churches act on their understanding of the Scriptures when they discipline, but almost all will say in theory that they just follow the Bible. It is rare for a Protestant church to say that discipline is based in theory upon their elders’ understanding of the Scriptures. This means that in principle, the elders of GVCC are infallible in a judicial context.
There are other aspects of the twenty points that are fuzzy, redundant, Arminian-sounding, etc., but point seven makes the eldership of GVCC virtually Roman Catholic in their view of their judicial function. It is no longer Sola Scriptura in discipline cases but the Scripture as understood by the church! The heaviness of this error can’t be overstated.
The Westminster Confession of Faith and Authority
What does the Westminster Confession of Faith have to say regarding Authority? Some of it is in sections 20.2 and 22.7, which have been commented on previously. Most of the teaching centers on the Larger Catechism’s handling of the Fifth commandment (Q 123-133).
The Larger Catechism, following the Bible, summarizes the moral law under the Ten Commandments. All moral teaching fits under at least one of the commandments in a broad sense. Of all the commandments, the fifth is the one under which the authority question fits. The question must be important, because the Westminster divines spent more questions on this commandment than any of the other nine.
Parenting, in a limited sense, is the pattern for all authority. God calls Himself our Father, and both ecclesiastical and civil rulers are sometimes called “Mother,” or “Father,” in the Bible.
Why are the rulers called Mother and Father? Because the nature of the relationship should be one of love and tenderness by rulers, and willingness and cheerfulness in the performance of duties by the ruled. In good families, this is how parents and children behave.
Question 126 puts the scope of the fifth commandment at the performance of duties that we mutually owe in our relationships. Note that the duties are mutually owed. Though there are rulers and ruled, there is a parity aspect in all human relationships because of the mutuality of duties owed. God, who commanded the duties, is the transcendent one; any human differences pale in light of that.
Besides that, rulers are to be chosen by those that rule them, whether they be civil rulers or elders. (The point of civil rulers is covered in Lex, Rex. Elders are covered below.)
Touching the topic of obedience of those ruled to their rulers, questions 127 and 128 modify the word obedience with the word “lawful.” Question 130 works similarly in describing the sins of rulers – “…commanding things unlawful…” Rulers were only to command things lawful. Obedience is to be total in lawful matters, down to the actions, words, and attitudes of those ruled.
There are at least three ways to command unlawful things: 1) Command things against the Scriptures. 2) Command things as a moral duty that are indifferent. 3) Exceed the boundaries of one’s office. 1 and 2 have been covered sufficiently above, but number 3 will be treated here.
A conundrum that I faced at GVCC was the possibility that two authorities, both ordained of God, could command things that opposed each other. What if one’s boss and one’s elder commanded different things, things legitimate in themselves, but disagreeing? (Elder: Required church meeting this Saturday. Boss: You will break your employment contract with us if you don’t work with us this Saturday.) This forced me to the idea of jurisdiction. My boss had authority over a certain area, my elders over another, and the civil authorities over another. For most questions, the areas do not overlap. This led to the question of where the boundaries were.
If two authorities God ordained command things opposed to each other, at least one of them is wrong. Leaving aside the possibility of proper overlap of jurisdiction, a common reason for such an error would be that one authority exceeded the boundary of his office, meddling in a place he was not intended to rule. Even with good intentions, when an authority attempts to rule outside his jurisdiction, his judgment errs more frequently. The roles that different authorities play in the lives of those they rule vary considerably. Fathers get a tight degree of scrutiny over a small group of people for a short time. Elders don’t have the same degree of positive authority. What they can teach and discipline over is already determined in advance. (Creative elders are frequently heretics.) The authority is over a larger group of people over a variable unit of time, in a narrower area, with negative sanctions only in the case where members break God’s laws. Civil magistrates have a little more freedom to apply God’s law to society as it changes technologically, but their lot is similar to that of the elder. They have many people over a variable length of the time, but the areas they can rule in are limited by God’s laws.
It is possible for any authority to command so many things lawful in themselves that the demands on the resources of the ruled virtually forces them (tempts them, really) to neglect other duties God has already placed on them. This is another reason authorities should be restrained in their ruling. Every positive command, every regulation adds to the burdens of those ruled. Whoever adds to the burden must be certain that the rule added is a necessary implication of God’s laws. Resources are limited. Any manmade command necessarily diverts resources away from the God-ordained commands.
There are other sins of Q 130 in the Larger Catechism – “…Correcting them unduly; careless exposing, or leaving them to wrong, temptation, and danger; provoking them to wrath, or any way dishonoring themselves or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behaviour.”
Occasionally at GVCC, elders would say that they would test members to see if they were still with the program, in total submission to the elders. Husbands were encouraged to do the same thing with their wives. Now, this is either undue correction, or setting up a stumbling block, a careless exposing. Whether it is one or the other depends on whether the test is a sin or not. It is also too rigorous. Those who are ruled have enough tests just in the course of daily life, than to need extra tests at the discretion of rulers. Rulers should assume that those who are not in rebellion are in submission. To test positively is unjust, too rigorous; for elders, it smells of trying to separate the wheat and the tares. (Mt 13:24-30) To do so in open meetings is indiscreet as well. For the value of testing human submission to elders, the faith of a member in God is risked. The trade is not a good one.
Strangely enough, the question that got me thinking about the doctrine of authority taught at GVCC was this. In 1984 or 1985, impressed after re-reading Spiritual Authority by Watchman Nee, I asked myself, “I wonder why Watchman Nee discovered this great doctrine on authority, and the Reformation never figured it out?” At that time I admired Nee, but the question began to bother me. Two years (or so) later, I was forced by the sheer weight of Biblical and historical evidence to conclude that Watchman Nee’s doctrine was that taught by Roman Catholicism and the Pharisees.
Seriously, I have seen in print someone claiming that the doctrines of authority taught by the Westminster Confession of Faith and Watchman Nee are identical. It would be hilarious if the deluded fellow weren’t serious. I have provided enough quotations from Calvin to show adequately that he did not believe this, but believed what I am saying. The remainder of the Reformed (as opposed to Lutheran, Arminian, or Counter-) Reformation did not dramatically expand on what Calvin taught. It would be quite surprising and notable for them to adopt a different position, particularly when the different position was that of the Roman Church. I put this test to the historian who will still claim that the Westminster Divines and Nee agreed on the issue of authority: show me historical instances where the Westminster Divines followed Nee’s view.
No one should ever listen to Watchman Nee. Among churches that are more orthodox, he is of bad report. His followers are usually either part of Witness Lee’s cult, or part of an independent heavy shepherding church. With such a preponderance of bad fruit on the tree, it seems to be a bad tree. Besides that, he was an Arminian, Dispensationalist, Baptist heretic. But in criticizing him for that, much of American Evangelicalism would be tarred with the same brush.
His exegesis is frequently bad, sometimes extremely so. His doctrine of spirit/soul/body is without foundation, but works its way into much of his teaching, encouraging antinomianism and disregard for God’s Word. Watchman Nee might not be a Christian; if he held Witness Lee’s doctrine of God, there is reason to doubt.
Leaving that aside, the biggest thing wrong in Nee’s book, Spiritual Authority is this: The Bible teaches that we individually bear responsibility before God for our own sins. Consider Eze 18, and Jer 31:29-30. The fathers, the leaders of Israel had sinned, and the sons, those that followed in Israel were suffering as a result. The suffering was physical suffering; God did not judge the sons spiritually for the sins of their fathers. Covenantal institutions (Church, State, Family) all are judged for the sins of leaders. Followers receive physical judgment because they are within those covenants, but that has no necessary impact on their individual spiritual standing with God. Physical judgments pass from leaders to followers, spiritual judgments do not necessarily do so, unless the followers knowingly and willingly aid and abet the actions of their leaders.
If someone, an authority or not, tells a person to do something wrong, and he does it, it is his sin. There is another more serious sin by the one who told him to do it. We do not have an excuse before God to say, “The authority told me to do it,” even if we didn’t know it was wrong. God expects us learn, according to our abilities his will for our lives from His Word. If unknowingly we do something wrong, it is still a sin, though less of one than sinning against knowledge. If an authority commands us to do something we know is wrong, then the authority is evil, and is not from God, at least in that circumstance. Disobedience to tyrants is obedience to God.
Thus, Christians should part company from those authorities who are evil in doctrine. One will never find a perfect authority; they are all sinful. Everyone sins in life, but repentance is a test there – do they repent of known sins? Are they attempting to reform their ideas so that they more closely match the Bible’s? Such authorities are good, and their lawful requests should be heeded.
Authorities sin by commanding things that bind the conscience of the hearer. Even if the authority is correct, the person does not obey because he is convinced from God’s Word that it is right, but out of a blind and implicit faith. Nee’s writings encourage a blind obedience of authorities. That is not what the Bible teaches.
There are four points of variance between the government of GVCC and Presbyterian government. They are: 1) Christ the sole human head of the Church, 2) True plurality of elders, 3) Election of elders, 4) Right of appeal.
The first of these has been discussed at length above. It should be added that elders are supposed to be examples, not lords. (1Pet 5:3) This does not deny the ruling function of elders, but it is restricted to its domain.
The second states that people within congregations have more than one elder over them. In evangelicalism, the place that this is most violated is in small groups, where one elder manages the affairs of his group. Below, is discussed the danger of having one man to be the shepherd of any group. The New Testament pattern is to have multiple elders within such contexts. No one is responsible to primarily or only one elder.
The third shows that elders in the New Testament were elected by those they were to be elders over. They were not appointed by a pastor. In Acts 14:23 the people voted for their elders by raising their hands. This was the pattern that he gave to Timothy and Titus. Similarly, deacons, and even an apostle, were elected. (Paul was one abnormally born. As with the rest of the apostles, excluding Matthias (though God chose him by lot), he was appointed directly by Christ.)
The last one implies a broader assembly than merely a single congregation. As shown in Acts 15, members had the right of appeal beyond their own congregation. Note that the letter published was not from the apostles alone, but from the apostles and elders. Elders had a ruling function even when the Apostles were around. The church from Antioch had a problem that it could not solve on its own. It was a problem that faced the broader Church. Thus Synod was called in Jerusalem to address the problem. The statement that they issued was binding on the whole church, not just Antioch. They correctly interpreted the Old and New Testaments, and the events that had happened in their own lives. They set down a decision, stating that the ceremonial law was not binding.
No apostle delivered an inspired ruling, though that could have happened. The church of Antioch did not believe itself sufficient to solve a problem that was Church-wide in nature. Thus, the broader assembly of elders rules the believing churches. All believing churches should join themselves to the broader assembly and submit to it, while it does not go beyond God’s Word. The church that says they are sufficient to govern themselves is arrogant, even if they don’t intend to be.
One thing that proceeds from these doctrines is that all elders are equal in their governing capacities. Thus, no one elder can rule over another. Only one office was created for governing the Church; the eldership. Each church needs multiple elders. Individual members need multiple elders. This is a flaw of cell groups. Ordinarily, they have one elder overseeing any individual member. In theory, they might say that the other elders also oversee those within their cell group. In practice, that oversight is very small compared to that of the elder leading the cell group. In practice, such members have one elder only.
The Bible does not speak of denominations, per se. In the Old Testament, there was a division between Israel and Judah. Though the division was not intended by God to be a religious division by God, it became such through the sin of Jeroboam. Jeroboam feared that Israel would desert him for the House of David, if they kept going back to the Temple at Jerusalem, so he set up a different worship of Jehovah at Bethel and Dan. At that point, religious unity was impossible. There were two denominations in Greater Israel, one true, though varyingly faithful in practice, and one false, though with a remnant of true believers and worshippers in it. Over time, many, perhaps most of the faithful emigrated to Judah, including most of the Levites.
The New Testament had similar difficulties. There were many who sought to draw the churches of a given area away from the doctrines of the Apostles. Some doctrines taught by these deceivers contradicted the gospel, as understood in a narrow sense. (Ro 16:17,18, 1Ti 6:3-5) Others contradicted less central teachings; such people were considered disorderly (deviating from the received Apostolic pattern – 2Th 3:6), and were to be separated from. This is the doctrinal basis for denominations. Denominations exist to promote a testimony to the truth. Unity is based on the truth, and so is separation, when it is called for. (Pr 19:27, 1 Cor 11:19)
As Calvin wrote to Charles the Fifth, remarking on a letter the Emperor had received from the Pope [Paul III – a.k.a. Farnese], (Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, Vol. 1, P. 259):
(4.) Once, indeed, the specious gloss of the Romish harlot was the boasted unity of the Church, but it has now been worn off by long use. It has so often been blown away by the blast of the Lords mouth, and so effaced by the clear testimony of Scripture, that she is no longer able with it to hide her ugliness even from the blind. For Christ is the only bond of holy unity. He who departs from him disturbs and violates unity, while out of him there is nothing but sacreligious conspiracy. Roman antichrist invites us to himself, under the pretence of unity, and pronounces all to be schismatics who do not spontaneously submit to be harnessed to the yoke of his tyranny. We, however, on the other hand, hear the words of Christ, ‘Where the carcase is, there the eagles will be gathered together.’ We hear the Spirit exhorting us to be, ‘of one heart, of one mind,’ but in Christ We hear the pious admonition of Hilary, ‘The name of peace is, indeed, specious, and the idea of unity beautiful, but who knows not that the only united peace of the Church and the Gospel is that which is of Christ?’ Let Farnese then show that Christ is on his side, and he will prove that the unity of the church is with him. But seeing it is impossible to adhere to him without denying Christ, he who turns aside from him makes no departure from the Church, but discriminates between the true Church and a church adulterous and false.
In sum, Scriptural unity is based on truth. Since there is little agreement on the truth among Christians today, denominations are a proper way for those who have the truth to preserve it against those who controvert it. Those who have the truth should separate from disorderly brethren so that the witness to the truth may be maintained purely, with pure discipline, sacraments, and worship.
In the face of churches that are admixtures of truth and error, the Church both then and now is one. Consider section 25 of the Westminster Confession:
The catholic or universal Church which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto. This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error: and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will. There is no other head of the church. but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.
The Westminster Confession doesn’t spend much time on the unity of the church. It says that the catholic or universal Church is composed of all the elect in all times. It is united in Christ, its head. It is invisible.
The visible Church is universal in a different way. It contains those living from all nations (as opposed to just Israel) who profess the true religion, and their children. Very few, if any, can be saved without the aid of the visible Church. This is the Church that God has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, in this life. His Spirit makes this effective.
At various times in history, the visible Church has been more and less visible. Particular churches can be more and less pure, depending on their agreement with and obedience to the Word of God. No church is perfect, but perfection is defined as agreement with and obedience to the Word of God. Some institutions that call themselves churches are works of Satan. The Church of Rome is a leading counterfeit in this regard.
For the visible Church, for those that live who are in Christ, unity is found in truth. The truth is God’s inscripturated Word. All other things are to be measured by it. All churches, through disagreement with God’s Word, and disobedience to it, are imperfect. To the extent that churches agree with and obey the Word of God there is unity. (Am 3:3)
Given that the visible Church is divided, with various errors besetting different churches, true unity is to be found in agreement to the truth found in the Word. Elders in churches only have authority as far as they conform to the Word. Anything disagreeing with, or beside the Word of God should be regarded as the opinions of mere men, and not as those who have authority to rule in God’s Church (at their own discretion).
Though there were minor differences among the churches in the Apostles’ times, they were nonetheless called the Church. They were even defined locationally, the church at Corinth, Ephesus, etc. There are churches that are more and less pure, according to their level of agreement with the truth of the Word. To the extent that the churches preach the gospel, those at them should be regarded as brothers. To the extent they believe falsehoods, they should be warned. (Gal 3:1, 1Cor 3: 1, Ac 15)
In a certain sense, there should be no isolationism among churches. Each should boldly proclaim the truth to those that do not agree. There should not be a “code of silence” that avoids debate for the discomfort of it. If a church has the truth, love should compel them to share it.
So, with respect to the authority doctrine of GVCC – if GVCC loves the rest of the Church, they should go into print with it, and encourage everyone in the Church to believe it. They should not keep it hidden under a bushel as a secret inner teaching. If GVCC is right, the whole Church needs what it has. If GVCC is wrong, they need to listen to the Biblical arguments of the rest of the Church.
To the extent that there are other churches that agree with each other, they need to encourage fellowship and unity. People benefit from hearing the ministries of other faithful pastors, whether that be in person or in print Too many churches end up with a “cult of personality” of the pastor. (3Jn 9-11) Being exposed, in print or in person, to other good ministers benefits the congregation, and avoids ingrownness. As in 3Jn 9-11, those who are ostensibly in doctrinal agreement with a congregation should not be refused, but welcomed, even if they may bring a rebuke. Even Beza suggested that anyone who listened to the sermons of Calvin would benefit by listening to the sermons of Farel and Viret.
As argued above, the groups of elders overseeing local congregations need oversight as a group. Such churches as agree on the truth were made to aid one another. Further, members of such churches should allow members to transfer without any thought that those members are doing something wrong by going to another local church. It is not being members of a particular congregation that is important, but being members of any congregation that serves God well. Also, as argued above, God has not assigned permanent elders to members of this church. He does want all members to be subject to the lawful requests of elders of congregations that most closely approximate what the Word teaches.
The elders of GVCC are not under authority as a group. GVCC is not Reformed, except for some of their soteriology. The elders need to be accountable to other faithful elders; also, the elders of GVCC can aid those elders in their tasks; they need to be accountable too. That is a duty to other churches that GVCC is neglecting. Considering some of the idiosyncratic doctrines of GVCC that could be shared with other churches, which if true, could benefit them, the loss is greater. The loss is greater if they are false, too, but the loss is GVCC’s – the loss of needed correction.
A side-effect of this is that there is no automatic transfer for members who want to go to other believing churches – i.e., to churches with which the eldership should have no doctrinal disagreement. Robin Warner was an example of this, if what she told us was true. Supposedly, she asked Pastor Mathew if she could transfer her membership to another Charismatic church that was Reformed. Pastor Mathew refused her, saying that any Pastor that accepted her was sinning. In this case, there are no doctrinal difficulties. It seems that GVCC was the only church that God appointed for Robin, in the mind of Pastor Mathew.
In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin maintained that all disciplinary hearings of the church should be public. He says in section 4.12.7:
In this place I say nothing about those persons through whom this jurisdiction is to be exercised for I have discussed this elsewhere. I add only this: Paul’s course of action for excommunicating a man is the lawful one, provided the elders do not do it by themselves alone, but with the knowledge and approval of the church; in this way the multitude of the people does not decide the action but observes as a witness and guardian so that nothing may be done according to the whim of a few.
Why did he say this? In Matthew 18:17, the final step of discipline is “tell it to the church.” Jesus could have said, tell it to the elders, but He didn’t. The church acts through the elders who have the keys. The rest of the church has a right to be there even if it is the elders who decide. It is harder to prove that elders should preside in discipline, than that church courts should be public. (Nonetheless, it can be demonstrated that elders should preside.)
This has the benefit of aiding the members, who will “bump into” the one excommunicated far more frequently than the elders. They will then know how to encourage their errant brother. On the other hand, if the elders are unfair or in error themselves, it will carry a higher penalty for doing what is wrong. The truth always acts in the open. (Jo 3:19-21, Eph 5:11-13) Secret disciplinary meetings can encourage bad behavior among elders, particularly popish ones.
In such church courts, the charges should be specified in advance. The charges should be based only on things revealed for which there is hard evidence. For example, one can’t conduct a church court on the charge of pride. Because the heart of each man is known only to himself and God, there is no evidence. Particular visible sins stemming from pride should be judged.
Fishing expeditions and pressure tactics should similarly be avoided as sin. Far from accomplishing justice, they are an attempt to incriminate the person in question when there are not sufficient grounds for a real accusation. Some techniques bear a greater resemblance to “deprogramming” than to Biblical Church discipline. As one elder of GVCC put it, “Gestapo tactics” have been used in such meetings. Even though “humorously” meant, it was still a sad thing to hear from an elder.
In any church court, both sides must be heard. (Pr 18:13, 17) It is unfair when elders are allowed to level accusation after accusation, and the one being accused has no chance to answer back. This is another reason church courts should be public.
Finally, as argued above, there should always be the possibility of at least one appeal. No single church court is perfect. Even the best of them makes mistakes occasionally. When the possibility of appeal is there, there is a greater restraint among elders of a local congregation not to abuse their authority.
One way that this manifested itself at GVCC was in the refusal to discuss (much less debate) the doctrine in a way that allowed those questioning to ask without being accused of sedition. Though I have other examples, consider my family. When we asked to be released from membership in GVCC, so that we could seek membership in another Bible-believing church we were accused of:
1) That our desire to leave was contentious.
2) Hating or not loving GVCC.
4) Having a root of bitterness.
5) That our marriage was sinful and idolatrous.
6) That we had had “deep fellowship with Satan.”
7) That we were proud, putting ourselves above God.
Consider, Gentlemen – all of the above accusations are affairs of the heart. They are things that can’t be known except by the individual and God. This is what we were accused of. This is Biblical justice – to be in a church court where we are not given a chance to speak in our defense, after many solid hours of accusations? And not to be accused of things for which there was hard evidence?
Conclusion Responsibilities of Elders
In conclusion, what should an elder do if after reading this, he finds he agrees with the idea that the authority doctrine of GVCC is not Biblical? I know that at least four of the people receiving this letter already agree, or at least harbor severe doubts about the authority doctrine, but see no way to implement change. You really have two choices: 1) Lie low and wait for opportunities to change matters, or 2) open a discussion within the eldership over the matter. Your responsibility as an elder would be the latter of these, though, the responses of the other elders to this paper will give you an idea of how well you might be received. Count the cost, and realize it is worth paying, not for your good alone, but for all the members of GVCC.
Additionally, within the areas of your purview in the church, you need to teach and encourage the truth. You need to unbind consciences from human ordinances so that they can be subject to Jesus alone. My recommendations in the summary explain the details of this.
It is possible that a real discussion of the authority doctrine could be viewed as divisive. Remember that there is no unity in God’s Church that is not based on unity with Christ and His truth. The divisive elder or brother is the one that opposes the truth. The elder or brother who clings to the truth, even at the price of causing a separation in the Church is not the divisive one. The divisive ones are the ones who cling to error, whether they rule in the Church or not.
All elders, teaching and ruling alike, must submit to the Biblical requests of the entire eldership. Any elder sinful in doctrine or practice can be removed from office, even pastors. All elders are responsible for what the church teaches and does. If an elder teaches false things, or does sinful things, and other elders make no efforts to correct him, they are sinning along with him. Remember Eli and his sons; he did not restrain them though he had the power to remove them from office.
I hope and pray that GVCC would reform in the areas outlined in this paper. But failing that, I pray that families within GVCC would reform, and join me in a witness to the truth. May God bless GVCC and its members and make GVCC to last more than a few generations.