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More on the Limits of Authority

By admin | November 21, 2008

It is sad that we must think about the limits of pastoral authority. Yet it is true that abusive pastors have done much harm to the cause of Christ. As I have tried to work through the Scripture’s teaching about the subject, two lengthy passages have made a profound impact on my thinking. I call them ‘prescriptive passages’ because they prescribe actions to us. It seems to me that there are two prescriptive passages which must not be neglected.  They are Colossians 2:1-3:17 and Galatians 5:7-6:10.

In both cases, Paul is concerned to highlight the freedom that belongs to believers in Christ.  What may not be so obvious at first glance is that he does so, in both places, in terms of the context of the local church.  He provides the Colossians and the Galatian churches with very clear guidance regarding their mutual relations.  I don’t want to turn this into a treatise, so I will try to be brief.

Colossians 2:1-3:17.  First, we need to notice that the language is full of allusions to the church.  In verse 2, Paul uses the language knit together.  In 2:19 and Eph. 4:16, this is plainly language speaking of relations within the church.  In 2:5, the apostle rejoices with regard to two things: their order and their faith.  Order is the Greek word taxis, and it refers to church order—cf. 1 Cor. 14:40.  Paul rejoices in their faith and practice.  In verse 6, he uses language that clearly refers to the reception of the preached word—parelabete—and in verse 7 he speaks of their being built up, epoikodomoumenoi.  Verse 10 uses language that is virtually identical to Eph. 1:21-23, a text which ties the language to the church.  Verse 12 speaks about baptism.  3:16 speaks about public worship.  It seems to me that this language is shot through with references to the church, and must be understood as a passage about life together in the church.

What does Paul say about it?  He uses strong language: Beware, Let no one judge you, let no one cheat you, why do you subject yourselves to regulations, etc.  And all of this strong language is employed to urge them to guard carefully the liberty that Christ has granted them.  He has removed every obligation of man-made regulations for worship/godly living.  The language that he uses is quite striking!

In their relationships with each other, the Colossian Christians must seek to do the things that Paul says here: they cannot tolerate any attempts to infringe their freedom.  That does not mean that they are free to live as they please—not at all.  Since they have been raised with Christ, they must be heavenly-minded, seeking the good of each of their fellow believers.  They must put away wrath and anger and malice etc.  They must exercise forbearance and forgiveness, and whatever they do must be in Christ’s name.  You can see that all I am doing is summarizing the passage.  I will draw some conclusions below.

Galatians 5:7-6:10.  Again, we need to notice the “church” language present in this context.  Verses 7-10 speak of church discipline, cf. 1 Cor. 5:6 (5:1-13).  Someone, Paul doesn’t know who, is troubling them, and he must endure judgment.  Verses 13-26 speak of mutual relationships.  6:1 introduces the matter of restoration of a sinner, 6:6-8 about ministerial support and vs. 9-10 are about Christian benevolence.  Once again, the language is full of the church.

In the midst of all of this church language, Paul tells these believers how they are to live: the must stand fast in their liberty.  Christ has called them to it.  They cannot use it as a cloak for license, that would completely undermine the nature of liberty.  Nevertheless, they are to live in it.  An important part of this is that they must not tolerate the Galatian heresy—adding human regulations to the freedom of Christ.  They must live in the Spirit, not biting or devouring one another.  And in their mutual relations, they must bear one another’s burdens, they must evidence longsuffering and kindness and goodness and gentleness.  And if they see a brother in a trespass, they must seek to restore him.  These are vital aspects of life in a true church.

But in both passages, Paul urges them to guard their liberty.  They cannot allow for any imposition of human standards.  The grave danger that they face, in both cases, is that human additions, which may seem to have wisdom (in Galatia—they even had a semblance of divine authority—Mosaic circumcision), are imposed on God’s people.  And in both cases, it is the church as the church that must resist these things.  They are not just exhortations to Christians as individuals, but to the church as the church.

Topics: Authority, Church, Pastoral Ministry, Scripture | Comments Off

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