Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Mustard Seed Principle: A Balanced Look at Biblical Authority

One of the most critical and essential efforts a believer must make in their life is to know the proper, biblical response to authority as it is placed in the body of Christ.

Why is this important?

It is key to establish biblically based 'limits' any other person may have to one's life in a literal sense. Believe me, if this is not done and those limits are not defined, any person claiming they have a 'license' through their role as a placed biblical authority can literally wreak havoc in a person's life. It must be remembered that we are all flesh and see imperfectly: fallibility is highly probable and in most cases, graciousness and patience is the rule of the day but there are times when these are not appropriate. There are occasions when 'stretching' the true application of authority must be checked for the benefit of the 'giver' and 'receiver'.

I must say that it is a very difficult topic and I offer no clear solutions here but I do have a perspective I would like to offer. Currently, the role of authority in the church is misunderstood and dare I say it, misapplied. In this misapplication, there are three malformed premises that are currently rampant in the churchscape :

1> authority in any age if in the ecclesia of God is set by God. Thus whatever that authority does - good or bad- is unassailable.

2> authority in the ecclesia of God has not changed and is timeless.

3> the ecclesia and the kingdom of God are the same thing.

The Authority Trap

When the person who is in 'authority' uses these points, it causes each party -- the 'authority' and the 'follower' to view that station in a potentially dangerous light. There is an 'imbalance' that may occur and when it does, it is rarely the 'authority' that is impeded by this kind of interaction. What happens to the 'follower'? Paralysis. The point being it may develop for the 'follower' that any of their life decisions can be 'checked' by the 'authority'. Not having a clear understanding of the limits of authority is the root source of paralysis and opens the follower to --intended or unintended-- abuse. What may be helpful are some guiding principles that may help counter-balance a misappropriation of spiritual authority:

1> If the life of Jesus is studied, it is clear. The Ultimate Authority did not come into the world to judge it (His own words) but to save it. Moreover by His obedience to His Father and the main force of His ministry --to show compassion---, he gained the right to sit in judgment. When anyone sits in judgment to the extent that they are defining another's boundaries that gauge the other's service to God, what must be understood is they are treading on ground that is left for the most part between the person and their Lord. While Jesus has ultimate authority, the authority He delegates to spiritual leadership is limited - especially after the apostolic age and the finishing of the canon. The main reasons why this is true is related to the points below.

2>Any exercising of discipline must be in the light of overt sin not perceived sin. It must be able to be clearly identified and logged and must be according to the scriptures listings of sin. Many times it is the soft area of perception and 'discernment' on the part of the 'authority' that sin is identified when there is nothing clear-cut -- in other words the 'follower' is not practicing their faith in the model that the 'authority' has defined. So what happens? The 'follower' is slated as being in 'sin' when what is really happening is non-compliance to the group-think the 'authority' has defined -- this obviously can be sin but in many cases it is not -- non-compliance is not necessarily sin. In addition, conditioning may have been applied to the 'follower' to the extent that they have identified with the belief system they have been exposed to that they may perceive it as 'sin' as well. In other words, the orthopraxis of the group has replaced biblical definitions with their own practices and as such have defined 'indicators' for sin that supplement that bible. This is no different than the Pharisees in Jesus day. For example, in Jesus' day rituals for purity were identified by the washing of pots and other utensils. The idea here is that the ruling 'authority' of the day identified sin that was what they believed an application of the scripture's teachings, yet Jesus saw it as the 'precepts of men'. This is a main flaw of a dysfunctional group -- what is really being practiced is teachings and not the word of God.

Dissent is not only legitimate here it is the check and balance of any religious group. The authority of God's word gives even the basest in the eyes of the group the right to speak.

3> Many mistake the Kingdom of God as the church. In a simple statement: it is more than that. The church composes members of the Kingdom of God. This is an important distinction that on the surface appears to be semantic. Yet in this the true government of God is exposed and defined. Folks, Jesus is head of the Kingdom of God where we the believing are members. Many times in a dysfunctional world the view of the Kingdom of God gets truncated to the microcosm of the group and its boundaries are so highly defined that the worldview of such becomes a reflection of the midrash (interpretation) of the group's leaders. In this setting what becomes the focus: the leader and their teachings. This is no different in Jesus' day: the teachings and the practice of them is a gauge of one's progress in-- you guessed it-- the Kingdom. Jesus is displaced and the way to Him directly becomes barred. Authority on the Kingdom takes on a 'local' flavor and whatever the Lord is going to administrate in His Kingdom is through the leaders. If this were the first century and the authentic apostles were in this administration, then I would have no problem with it but we do not live in that time and the time that event could even occur is long passed. The apostolic age was replete with revelatory authority for the purpose of defining and CLOSING the canon. This level of authority no longer is possible. The whole point of the scriptures was to raise its authority as the revelation of God's will and methods to men. This coupled with the Holy Spirit's coming completes the two factors required for successful discipleship. What dysfunctional groups do is create a third need that is on equal setting of the first two: in fact the other two are only supplied to the members through the conduit of leadership: this is a Pharisaic model of government not at all like the government of the Kingdom and if I might be so bold is despised by the Lord Himself (what was His reaction to the Pharisees?).

Re-Laying a Foundation for Biblical Authority

There is a counter-balance for any misapplication of biblical authority. Each relates to some essential facts:

1>We do not live in Jesus' day,
2> We will never understand the full breadth of living in the time-space of that culture.
3> While the applications and teachings of Christ were for all of us, they were transmitted to a people who better understood and related to the subject matter.

So the essential facts are that application of the bible in terms of authority are at best clouded. Some might counter this argument with the fact that the Holy Spirit can bring a clear perspective and to that I say amen...but the key word here is 'perspective':

'A related danger and enemy of study, is the notion that because the Holy Spirit influences our lives, he will somehow fill us with knowledge of the New Testament's truth without our having to work at mastering it ourselves. While we should not minimize our dependence on God's Spirit to understand scripture aright, it is a mistake to substitute spiritual influence alone for the substantive means of grace that God has given in the form of scripture....' Elwell and Yarborough's Encountering the New Testament - A Historical and Theological Survey

This in essence churns up some basic flaws in the application of biblical authority:

1> One can only invoke such degree of authority if one possesses a full understanding of what has been relayed in the scriptures. We stand at a point in time where this is very challenging and dare I say it unreasonable. In the area of spiritual authority, today and in recent history, the 'authority' often relies on revelation (of what the scriptures are actually teaching) to claim degrees of power and position -- as the apostles did. Well, one cannot 'go back' and claim the level of understanding of the writers of the New Testament and the foundations upon which Christendom is built. This is a good argument on the cessation of the office of the Apostle and the Prophet and there are many more - see blog entry: The Emperor's New Clothes-A Comparison to Authentic Authority. April 2, 2010. Here is a test: When discussing any subject with the 'authority' keep the conversation based on scriptures and if there is a contending interpretation you might have on a subject that the scripture is about, watch the reaction of the 'authority'. Let me tell you how it will go: The 'authority' will either evade the question or begin personal attack because their 'authority' is being questioned. This is a principle you are practicing: the scripture is the first and best revelation of God to man. You will witness the authority of God's word trumping the individual - it is your best and ONLY defense. In essence the discernment between wisdom that comes from above and that which is concocted here is clearly seen in this type of discourse: James 3:17 (Amplified Bible)

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure (undefiled); then it is peace-loving, courteous (considerate, gentle). [It is willing to] yield to reason, full of compassion and good fruits; it is wholehearted and straightforward, impartial and unfeigned (free from doubts, wavering, and insincerity).

Evasion and personal attack are not in the characteristics of godly wisdom and indicates insecurity in one's position. In discussion and application of scriptures to your life, it is ultimately between you and Christ. If the 'authority' interjects themselves in between, this is a spiritual no-man's land. They are to assist and guide not to mandate.

2> While God may have seats of authority in the churchscape, these seats are limited and always defer to the authority of Christ -- and they have always been limited.

********* The Mustard Seed Principle******************
In biblical times God's revelation to man was a seal of His choice of that person to lead. Yet in the time that spanned the completion of God's revelation in scripture to now, that criteria can no longer be fully applied. There is a principle here. In many of the parables about the mystery of the Kingdom of God -- which is resident in and completely depends on the person of Jesus Christ, there is a common theme: the Kingdom of God is established in Christ's work and slowly increases: He is the mustard seed that becomes the great tree and He is the leaven that leavens the whole lump. In the principle of the Kingdom, all must decrease as He increases: this most assuredly is applied to the delegation of authority. Why is this the case? Because Christ and scriptures are the only permanent fixtures in the Kingdom of God. The idea that any biblical authority can possess a 'revelatory seal' is long past. This is seen in the scriptures in the letter to 2 Timothy 2:

24 And the servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome (fighting and contending). Instead, he must be kindly to everyone and mild-tempered [preserving the bond of peace]; he must be a skilled and suitable teacher, patient and forbearing and willing to suffer wrong. 25 He must correct his opponents with courtesy and gentleness, in the hope that God may grant that they will repent and come to know the Truth [that they will perceive and recognize and become accurately acquainted with and acknowledge it],26 And that they may come to their senses [and] escape out of the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him, [henceforth] to do His [God’s] will.

The 'seed' of Christ's example of true leadership [and authority] personally demonstrated by Him when He served the disciples and then gird a towel around Him to wash the disciple's feet is exemplified in Paul's words to Timothy at the end of the times of the genuine apostles. Any authority now possessed by anyone comes from the scriptures and these are the clearly defined borders whereby any authority is to operate and function. The revelation of God started with a few and so God's authority while the process of scriptures being completed was concentrated yet in the latter epistles, the role of the lowly believer is put on a higher footing: Peter writes in his first epistle about two things: Jesus is the builder and cornerstone and second that He is raising a house of living stones a royal priesthood (notice the absence of the foundation i.e. the humility of Peter). This is an execution of the mustard seed and leaven parable. The final form of authority in the church is much flatter as the canon begins to close. Note the final teachings of the New Testament as the canon was closing:

But as for you, the anointing (the sacred appointment, the unction) which you received from Him abides [[o]permanently] in you; [so] then you have no need that anyone should instruct you. But just as His anointing teaches you concerning everything and is true and is no falsehood, so you must abide in (live in, never depart from) Him [being [p]rooted in Him, knit to Him], just as [His anointing] has taught you [to do].

In the time of the writing of the New Testament, the writings of John were at the end of the apostolic age. What John was countering here were the teachings of those who had foisted their beliefs on the readers of the letter in order to gain control over them through their superior teachings and revelation. What John was stressing here is not the absence of leadership nor there being no need for it: he was stressing the fact that anyone who believes in Christ can and should rely on their abiding in Christ first and foremost and is the first and foremost teacher through His Spirit to the person. If 'revelatory authority' is past its time and role, then the structure for authority is based on two things: Jesus and the canon of scripture -- church leaders and such can only augment and should be seen as secondary in this process. To the extent that they manifest the characteristics Paul defines for them in the above scriptures, they have a role to play...nothing more. My friends, you not only have the right to question teachings it is your duty to do so!

Some Errata...Some Thoughts

The below is provided as supplemental material before I conclude this entry. Just some
food for thought.

When it comes to spiritual authority, some have what I call the 'Moses Complex'. To explain what this is it is that some hold that authority as chronicled in the old testament as being unapproachable. What is the premise of this? God did the appointing. Therefore if God did the appointing then there is no escaping that fact to the one who sits under and recognizes that authority. However, by the very nature of 'Gods' appointing' this sets apart any example of the Old Testament from being used as comparison. Why?

1>It must fit the situation of the Old Testament. That is, it is a major move of God for His people. What do I mean by that? My answer is look at the texts often cited by 'posers'. The scale and gravity of the scripture's examples deal more than with a mere small group but is national -- get this: Nations were impacted. We are not talking a small group here but millions of people. If one is going cite an example of the Old or New Testament as an example of proper application of biblical authority for the church, then one must look at the proper context of it.

2>Is the person claiming such a degree of authority at or above the calling of any key Old or New Testament figure? The countermanding question is 'Has God risen them to a position of prominence that the peoples of the world within and without the body of Christ so that they are known and more importantly is there a high degree of visibility of what they teach as the 'truth'?' This is one evidence of the degree of authority one truly possesses.

3>Authority is given for a reason: impact on the world. There is no figure in the Old or New Testament that was obscure and was only impacting a handful. Moreover, as time passed and their lives ceased, their words and teaching became universal. This is a pretty high bar for any modern day authority

4> In each and every case, Old and New Testament the focus of the authority was outward. Why? God is a seeker not one that sequesters. Many times such persons that claim a degree of 'biblical authority' turn inward and so the group they lead. There is so much inward focus that the burden for the lost and growth of their ministry through conversion and not biological growth (i.e. people in the group have children) is not a priority. True authority focuses on what God considers very important - so important that He sent His Son to die for it. What is the important effort from God - to reach out to the lost and dying.

With the points above one can conclude that if a person in one's life claims governmental authority and uses biblical examples and applies them to their personal self and ministry, they that must meet the criteria above.

In Conclusion: Say it isn't So

So the question is, can biblical authority be in any way corrupted? One only has to look at history to answer that one. In one word: absolutely. Following history from the Old Testament to the present, there are many stories of authority that was perceived as going in the wrong direction and in each of those cases there were those who dissented. A classic case of this kind of thing revolves around Saul and David. Here is the point, Saul having biblical authority -- he was the anointed king-- had conflict with David. Many would argue that the 'anointing' left him because of what he did and David was the replacement yet David was the one who lived the time of transition. He was almost murdered by Saul on several occasions until he realized he could no longer survive in the presence of the king so he fled. I use this example because those who would say biblical authority is 'absolute' have a very flat interpretation and frankly is not according to the real scriptural account. Some would say obedience is the rule when it comes to authority and to that I would say 'obedience to whom'? If we understand the use of authority within the church versus the Old Testament, it is the same. In David's case, it was obedience first to God and then to those He appointed. Now in David's case, there was a conflict of the two, how did this conflict arise? The usurpation of authority Saul did not and should not have tried to acquire. What was the crux of this usurpation? He wanted to become the mediator between God's people and God Himself. If you follow the biblical account, Saul waited for Samuel to come and after a time, decided to offer sacrifice. This was his usurpation. There is only One who can hold the position of Priest and King and it was not Saul nor any earthly man. This is the litmus test for biblical authority that goes awry: one begins to act as mediator between God and man in any sense. How can this be expressed? It is usually manifested by the usage of the scriptures that reflect and emphasize the absolute nature of biblical authority by those who use it to retain position. David being obedient to God first, dissented. He did not speak ill of the authority because he knew God would judge it in His time - however, he did not continue to subject himself to it to be 'obedient' and as onlookers would perceive a respecter of God's placed authority. No, he left and I believe this is the proper course of action for anyone living under such conditions. Dissent is more a shaper of the church than blind obedience to a rogue authority. Dissent was the classic argument of the protestants that first tried to change the catholic church from within and when that did not make progress, they took their dissent to the next level, they left the holy mother church. What was their premise? Any biblical authority that violates biblical principles it uses for the basis of its authority disqualifies itself.

In Luther's response to Papal authority, it was the scriptures that set him on equal footing and were the bulwark and manifesto of the Reformation:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Sola Scriptura..amen