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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to look at delegated authority in the church and, more specifically, with the unpleasant and difficult topic of church discipline. Dr. Spencer, we closed last time by mentioning the passage in Matthew 18:15-20. Let me read Verses 15-17 from that passage to begin our discussion. This entire passage is spoken by Christ. He said, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: There are a couple of very important principles that we learn from this passage. First, notice that my first response to a brother sinning against me is to talk to him by myself. There is no need to involve others if the issue is just between the two of us. If he responds favorably, repents and asks forgiveness, then the issue is over and there is no need to do anything more.

But, if he does not respond, I have no freedom to just drop the matter. I should now involve others, it isn’t stated, but elders would probably be the best choice here, and then I go see him again. If there is still no favorable response, then it is time to take the matter to the church. Now, that does not mean that I make some kind of public announcement or that I go around behind the person’s back telling everyone what he did. But, it does mean that the authority to adjudicate the matter is invested in the church as a whole. The elders however, are to function as representatives of the church as John Murray argues in Chapter 27 of Volume Two of his Collected Works, which is on The Government of the Church. He writes, “The church in this case need not be the whole congregation. According to the Old Testament pattern the whole congregation is represented as present and acting when the elders act on its behalf.”[2]

Marc Roby: Of course, having the elders deal with an issue also keeps matters confidential as far as possible, which goes along with the principle represented in the beginning of the passage, that I should deal with my brother by myself if possible.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Even if the elders have to get involved, it is usually best to keep sin as private as possible. But, to get back to the authority of the church, notice that at the end of this passage Christ said that if the person who has sinned “refuses to listen even to the church”, then you are to “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector”; in other words, you are to put him out of fellowship with the church body.

Marc Roby: We have an example of that kind of authority being used in the Corinthian church.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul wrote to the congregation about a man who was committing serious sexual immorality and, in Verses 4 and 5 he told them, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (ESV)

Marc Roby: The destruction of the flesh does not sound pleasant.

Dr. Spencer: No, but the purpose of excommunication is very good indeed. It is “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” That is always the hope when church discipline is brought against someone. Our hope and prayer is not that the person will experience trouble, but that the trouble they experience will drive them to repentance and restoration.

Marc Roby: And, in this particular example, that is what happened, as we learn in 2 Corinthians.

Dr. Spencer: True, but we can’t know for sure that it will happen. And, whether it does or not, the church is called by God to exercise discipline. Which, returning to the topic at hand, is a clear manifestation of the authority delegated to the church. In our day and age people don’t think much of church discipline, but it is far more serious than the power of the sword wielded by the state.

Marc Roby: Now wait a minute. The state has the power, ultimately, to put somebody to death. And you’re saying that the church’s power is greater?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus said “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” When the church properly exercises the authority given to it, the judgments rendered by the church mirror those rendered in heaven. Let’s go back to Matthew 18 and read the rest of the passage. You read Verses 15-17 before, but in 18-20 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Jesus is clearly speaking here about judgments made by an assembly of Christians, and to say that they are gathered in his name and he is present implies that they are acting in accord with his Word. The issue of binding and loosing is very serious. John Murray explains that this passage in Matthew 18 must be connected with John 20:23, where the resurrected Christ told his disciples “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” With respect to this verse Murray wrote that “No exercise of the power of the keys, no act of binding and loosing in terms of Matt. 16:18, 19, could be more basic or representative than the remission or non-remission of sins.”[3]

Marc Roby: I think we need to explain that a little bit more. Murray is certainly not saying that the church can refuse forgiveness to someone.

Dr. Spencer: That depends. If the person has repented and asked for forgiveness, then of course we are commanded to forgive. But, if the church has confronted someone with terrible sin, as the church in Corinth did, and has properly exercised church discipline in excommunicating that person, then that person’s sins are not forgiven unless and until such time as the person is brought to real repentance. And if that does not happen, then that person will go to hell in the final judgment.

So, let me be completely clear that the elders in a given church absolutely do not have the power to send someone to hell, or to save someone. That power belongs to God alone. But, when the elders in the church properly exercise church discipline, they are implementing on earth the sentence already carried out in heaven. And that is a very serious matter indeed. In fact, the Greek construction in Matthew 18:18, rather than saying “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” as our NIV renders it, would more accurately be translated by saying “whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, the actions of the church are simply representative of what God has already done.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to mention an example or two. What kinds of things come up that require church discipline?

Dr. Spencer: Well, any true church is a mixture of people who are truly born again and people who are not. And even born-again people are still sinners, so just about everything you can think of shows up in the church. But, one of the most common things to occur is sexual sin, which is often mixed with other sins. Let me give a concrete example.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: This example is based on real experience, although I’m mixing details from a few different events so that no one person or situation can be identified. Our town, like many college towns, has some restaurants in town that have bars associated with them and they have in the past had trivia game nights. Now, if a group of young men and woman get together and go have some nachos, and maybe a glass of beer or wine and play trivia for an hour, that is certainly not a sin. But suppose that one of the young men starts to have a few more beers, and maybe something stronger, and ends up getting drunk and then even leaving the bar with different young women he meets there. Further suppose that one or more of his friends confronts him with this sin, but he tells them it’s no big deal, he isn’t really getting drunk and it isn’t any of their business what he does with the young women they have seen him with.

Marc Roby: That sounds like a serious problem. I suppose the friends would then need to bring this up with the elders.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly what should happen. Most modern churches however, operate with a sort of unstated “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. They don’t want to know about this kind of behavior because then they might feel obligated to do something, and they don’t have the structure or the fortitude to deal with it properly. What ought to happen though, is that the elders should come to that young man – I’m assuming here that he is a member of the church – and tell him that his life is out of order and he needs to change. If he then refuses even when the leaders explain why his behavior is a disgrace to Christ and his church, he must be disciplined. Ultimately, by being excommunicated from the church.

Marc Roby: Which means, as Paul wrote, that he has been handed over to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh”.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly what it means. And, as we noted before, the hope is that he will find himself miserable and will be brought to repentance and be fully restored to fellowship and to walking with God. Just look at Psalm 51, where King David pours out his soul after being confronted by the prophet Nathan and convicted of his sin in committing adultery and murder. True godly repentance is a wonderful thing, and brings real restoration with God and with his people. Unfortunately, there are so many false churches in this day and age, that church discipline is often undermined. Going back to the example of the young man I just mentioned, if he can go down the street, start attending a different church and be welcomed with open arms, then the discipline is not as effective as it should be.

Marc Roby: In a situation like that it is nice to know that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted.

Dr. Spencer: I couldn’t agree more. If God wants to bring that young man to repentance, he will. But, there is still real harm that results. The young man may suffer more than would otherwise have been necessary, and other people’s lives may be adversely affected as well. When the church doesn’t function the way God has commanded it to function, there is a price to pay. Sin always has consequences.

Marc Roby: And there is always the temptation for church leaders to take the easy road.

Dr. Spencer: There certainly is. The proper use of authority takes hard work and it leads to unpleasant circumstances. For example, the parents of the young man in the example we just gave may become very unhappy with the church too, thinking that the discipline was too harsh in some way. So, now you have another problem to deal with. And these people may go and bad-mouth the church to others, causing even more harm. These things have a way of snowballing. And church leaders can avoid many of these headaches by simply not exercising any real authority or discipline.

Marc Roby: But, they will still have to give an answer to God.

Dr. Spencer: They cannot escape that. But, in the meantime, the church will suffer. When authority is not exercised, that is an abuse every bit as real as when someone misuses authority, and frankly, failure to exercise biblical authority is much more common. But, unfortunately, people don’t really see it that way, so the temptation to not exercise authority is very strong.

Marc Roby: And recently that temptation caught up with a well-known evangelical leader.

Dr. Spencer: I’m very sorry to have to say that it did. In our last podcast we quoted, approvingly, from John MacArthur’s commentary on Hebrews 13:17. He did a good job of explaining the delegated authority given to pastors in the church. He wrote that commentary in 1983. But, regrettably, some recent teaching of his on the subject is the exact opposite. On August 29, 2017, the publishing arm of his ministry, Grace to You, published a YouTube video[4] of him answering the question, “How much authority does a pastor have in the lives of his congregants?” His answer is extremely disappointing, and dangerous.

He answered, and I quote, “None. No authority. I have no authority in this church, personally. My experience doesn’t give me any authority. My knowledge doesn’t give me any authority. My education doesn’t give me any authority. I have no authority. My position doesn’t give me any authority. My title doesn’t give me any authority. That’s why I don’t like titles. Only the Word of God has authority.”

Marc Roby: Now, that is an amazing statement. He says the Word of God has authority, but he completely undercuts that authority by then contradicting what the Word says about the delegated authority of church leaders, such as himself.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. His answer is contradictory. If the Word of God has authority, then it has authority to say that he, as the senior pastor in his church, has authority. I also think it is sad that he is sending out this video precisely because he has a position of authority. So, paradoxically, he is making an authoritative statement that he has no authority.

But, I don’t want to make light of this in any way because it is a seriously dangerous teaching and it absolutely contradicts the Word of God and the bulk of John MacArthur’s own teaching on the Word of God. If this teaching is followed by people, it can bring great harm to God’s church by causing people to despise perfectly proper church discipline. I won’t speculate on why he has changed his tune, but this is an example of just how strong the temptation can be to compromise on the Word of God. And it shows how thankful people should be if they are in a church where their leaders stand firmly on the Word of God and use their authority properly.

Marc Roby: I think it is important to note that you did try to bring this issue up with MacArthur before we decided to say anything about it on the podcast.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I did. I wanted to follow the procedure we have seen from Matthew 18. So, I wrote a letter to John MacArthur, and sent it by registered mail with return receipt requested so that I would know for sure he got it and so that it might come to him with a flag indicating it was more important than just everyday correspondence.

Marc Roby: And did he respond to that letter?

Dr. Spencer: Not in any way. I also sent a letter to Phil Johnson, who is the executive director of Grace to You, and I sent a second letter to MacArthur himself. I have not received any response from either of them. It is interesting to note however, that if you go to the website for MacArthur’s church, under the headings “About/Distinctives/What we Teach/The Church”, you find the following statement: “We teach that these leaders lead or rule as servants of Christ (1 Timothy 5:17-22) and have His authority in directing the church. The congregation is to submit to their leadership (Hebrews 13:7, 17).”[5] So, at least on paper his church still supports the authority of church leaders, even though he completely denounces that authority in his most recent public teaching.

Marc Roby: We can only hope that people will pay more attention to his statement that the Word of God has authority and will reject his statements that contradict the Word of God. Do you have anything more to say on this topic for now?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. We noted in Session 30 that it should be extremely rare for a husband to overrule a wife, and the same thing can be said about church authority. Although any real Christian is corrected and challenged by the Word of God and their leaders on a regular basis, it should be extremely rare for the leaders of the church to have to bring a serious word of correction or rebuke. I would say that the majority of the time that leaders have to deal with serious problems in the church it is because the people aren’t truly born again. So, if you are a born-again Christian, you have a desire to know and do the will of God, and even though you may initially be bothered by something a leader says to you, when you go home and pray about it and look into it, you should find yourself in agreement. I’m assuming, of course, that the leader is properly interpreting and applying the Word of God.

Marc Roby: That leads nicely into a question I would like to ask you. We have argued that the authority of church leaders includes the authority to interpret and apply the Word of God, so what is the responsibility of an individual member of the church in that regard?

Dr. Spencer: We each have a very serious responsibility. We are to know the Word of God so that we can recognize when someone is teaching heresy. That is why all true God-called ministers of the gospel will tell their congregations, as our Pastor does, to read and study the Word of God seriously and to know it for themselves. And they will stick to those things that are clear in the Word when it comes to personal counsel.

Marc Roby: I have one more question I’d like to ask. Why is church discipline so important for the health of the church?

Dr. Spencer: That’s a very important question. We’ve already mentioned that discipline is always meant to be redemptive, that is to bring about the repentance and restoration of the sinner. But, in addition, it protects God’s glory. The church is to represent God to the world and when the church has open sin in it, it is a disgrace to Christ our Lord, the head of the church. It also impacts the church’s witness. As just one example, when the divorce rate in the church is about the same as the rest of society, as is true in most evangelical churches today, what kind of witness is that? Why would anyone be interested in such a powerless Christianity as that? Also, when sin is not dealt with it tends to fester and grow and infect other members of the church. Sin is never stagnant.

Marc Roby: Well, are we finished with this topic?

Dr. Spencer: Not quite. We need to discuss the limits and abuses of delegated authority in the church.

Marc Roby: Very well, but we’re out of time for today, so we’ll have to take this up in our next session. I’d like to remind our listeners to send their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 339

[3] Ibid, pg 338

[4] Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X65vspiZLLA&feature=youtu.be

[5] https://www.gracechurch.org/about/distinctives/what-we-teach

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to look at delegated authority in the church. Dr. Spencer, perhaps I should briefly summarize what we covered last time since we are continuing with the exact same topic?

Dr. Spencer: That would be a good idea.

Marc Roby: Alright. Last time we noted that the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 commanded people in the church to avoid things that are not, in themselves, unlawful. But, they were doing that to avoid causing weaker brothers to stumble and sin, which is completely consistent with the biblical command to love our brothers as ourselves and, in fact, is explicitly commanded in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 8:9, which we read last time, and in Romans 14:20, where Paul says “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.” [1] And so, we established that elders have authority to interpret and apply the Word of God to the lives of the people who are in their congregations. We also noted that Paul told Timothy to stay in Ephesus and to command those over whom he had been appointed as an elder.

Dr. Spencer: That is a good summary. And let’s begin today by giving another example having to do with Timothy. Paul wrote to instruct Timothy about how to deal with rich people in the church, who have a tendency to be arrogant because of their wealth, and in 1 Timothy 6:18 he said, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”

Marc Roby: Certainly wealth can be a trap; people are more tempted to trust in themselves and this world when they have no material needs.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. But, for our present purposes, the important point is that Paul tells this appointed church leader Timothy to command people to do things, which pre-supposes that Timothy had the God-given authority to do so.

We could give more examples as well. Paul wrote to Titus, in Titus 2:15, that he should “encourage and rebuke with all authority.” And we must again point out that Titus was not an apostle.

And this isn’t just the apostle Paul’s idea either. Peter also wrote about the authority of elders and how it is to be properly used. In 1 Peter 5:1-4 he wrote “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

We see two things in this passage that are relevant to our present discussion. First, Peter was writing to elders who had been appointed in the churches as Paul had commanded Titus to do in Titus 1:5 and as we see in Acts14:23 was common practice in the New Testament church. God’s church is an orderly place and there is delegated authority for the good of the church. Second, an elder is a shepherd who is to lead those under his care.

Marc Roby: It’s hard to imagine how you are to shepherd if you have no authority.

Dr. Spencer: I would say it is impossible. God clearly delegates authority to elders to interpret and apply the Word of God to those who are under them. The leader is, of course, not to lord it over those under him and he is to be an example to them. But we must not limit him to just being an example and speaking in general terms from the pulpit. As the other verses we have looked at make clear, and we could cite many more as well, he has authority to speak directly into their lives individually.

Marc Roby: That goes against the tide of our times, which emphasizes being a “servant leader”.

Dr. Spencer: It goes against that tide because that tide is unbiblical. Now, of course, if the phrase “servant leader” were interpreted biblically, it would be fine. Christ said in Matthew 20:28 that he “did not come to be served, but to serve”, and yet he also told us in the great commission, in Matthew 28:19-20 that we are to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” So, his serving did not preclude his commanding and expecting obedience. We are also told in Philippians 2:10-11 that “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” So, Christ’s serving also did not preclude his being given all honor and glory. Therefore, if the phrase “servant leader” is interpreted biblically, it does not preclude authority and honor in any way.

Marc Roby: But, that is not what is usually meant by that phrase in the modern church.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. It is usually taken to mean that the leader has no authority whatsoever, which is unbiblical. The passage I read from 1 Peter 5 a couple of minutes ago did say that a shepherd should be “eager to serve”, and certainly in a sense a leader is a servant. He is serving the people under him by leading them for their good as God has called him to do. But that includes rebuking, correcting and training. These are the same purposes we see the Scripture itself serves in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, where Paul wrote that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

We can also look at Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church. In 1 Thessalonians 4:2 he wrote, “you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.” That is a pretty clear and bold statement about delegated authority. And, after reminding them of some of the instructions he had given, he wrote, in Verse 8, that “he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.”

Marc Roby: Jesus Christ himself told us much the same thing in John 13:20, where he said, “I tell you the truth, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” So, to receive a Word brought to you by a God-called minister of the gospel is to receive Jesus Christ himself, and the Father.

Dr. Spencer: We could continue to pile up example after example. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Paul wrote, “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” We again see that there are leaders who are “over” the people and who “admonish” them.

Marc Roby: It’s pretty hard to escape the clear teaching of the New Testament that God rules his church through delegated authorities. And we haven’t yet cited the most obvious verse in the New Testament. In Hebrews 13:17 we are told to “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the classic verse on this subject. And, in context, this verse is clearly speaking about the authority of church leaders. I don’t know how the writer could have been any clearer than this. We are to submit to their authority, and we are to obey them. That should lay to rest any silly notions that the authority of church leaders consists in simply preaching the Word of God in a general way from the pulpit.

Marc Roby: It is also interesting how that passage concludes. It says that we should “Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very interesting, and important, conclusion. The writer puts it in a negative way, that if you don’t obey it will be “of no advantage to you.” But, we can restate that in a positive way and say that if we obey our church leaders it will be to our advantage! Remember that a leader is to use his authority for the good of those under him. If he is doing that properly, it logically follows that obedience will bring blessing.

Marc Roby: But that doesn’t always mean that I will initially be in agreement with the command.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t mean that at all. In fact, one can reasonably argue that if I obey a command I agree with, that isn’t really obedience, it is simply agreement. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with agreement, so long as we are agreeing with God’s will, but true obedience is displayed when I obey a command I do not, at least initially, feel like obeying.

Marc Roby: That’s a good point. And it certainly helps to remember that God will bless us if we obey.

Dr. Spencer: That does help a lot. As always, we are ultimately trusting in God. We are trusting that he can use fallible men to speak to us from his word. Of course, since Christians are continually being sanctified and changed more and more into the likeness of Christ, if we obey a proper command even though we may initially disagree with it, we will usually find that our own attitude is changed, perhaps gradually, but nonetheless changed so that we eventually are in agreement with the command.

Marc Roby: We just had a testimony in our church that provides a marvelous example of the blessing that comes from this obedience.

Dr. Spencer: Your right. There is a relatively young couple in our church who came to faith a few years ago and, shortly after coming to faith, realized that their financial situation was not right. They were in a significant amount of debt. So, they came to the elders and asked for counsel. We don’t need to go into all the details, but suffice it to say that some of the counsel was pretty difficult because their situation was severe. But, they embraced that counsel and have been greatly blessed. What appeared to be an impossible situation has been reversed, to God’s great glory and their great peace and freedom. And their elder also testified that their obedience made his life a joy – which is precisely what is supposed to happen as we just read from Hebrews 13:17.

Marc Roby: I think that John MacArthur did a good job of explaining the importance of that verse, Hebrews 13:17, in his commentary on the book of Hebrews. He wrote, “God mediates his earthly rule, secular and spiritual, through various men. Even pagan rulers who have no use for God are nevertheless used by Him … But, for believers, God’s most important rule is through Spirit-controlled men. Someday God will rule all the earth through His Son, the King of kings, but in the meanwhile He rules His church through godly men. Submission to these men, therefore, is submission to God.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: That is a clear statement about God’s rule in his church. And MacArthur went on in that section to add that “The leaders of the church are called elders (presbyters) or overseers (bishops), the titles being interchangeable.  These mature men are ordered by the Spirit of God to rule over His church on earth until Christ returns.” [3] So, independent of the specific title given to the leaders in the church, they are called to rule.

And MacArthur usefully goes even further. He continues, “In many churches today, the congregation rules the leaders. This sort of government is foreign to the New Testament. Church leaders are not to be tyrants, because they do not rule for themselves but for God. But the command in unqualified: Obey your leaders, and submit to them. It is the right of such men, under God and in meekness and humility, to determine the direction of the church, to preside over it, to teach the word in it, to reprove, rebuke, and exhort (Titus 2:15). They are to ‘shepherd the flock of God …’. [and] Just as church leaders are to rule in love and humility, those under their leadership are to submit in love and humility.”[4]

Marc Roby: The idea that we should “submit in love and humility” is certainly foreign to most in the modern church.

Dr. Spencer: It is. And that is a shame because we forfeit some of the blessings that God has in store for us when we don’t come under his rule. The example I gave of the couple in our church getting out of significant debt is a clear example of the blessing that follows obedience.

Marc Roby: When we spoke about the authority of the state, we noted that the state was given the power of the sword to back it up, and when we spoke about family structure we noted that parents are given the power of the rod. What is the power given to the church?

Dr. Spencer: The most frightening of all powers, the keys to the kingdom.

Marc Roby: Which, I dare say, most modern churches would say refers only to the preaching of the gospel.

Dr. Spencer: I think you’re right about that. Now, we must agree that the preaching of the gospel is included. When we present the gospel, if someone responds in faith, he or she is saved and becomes a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. But, if he rejects the gospel, he remains in his sins and is outside the kingdom. So, the preaching of the gospel is certainly part of what is meant by the keys to the kingdom.

But, it is not all that is meant. There is also a need for discipline in the church. We don’t have time now to go into this in detail, but there are several passages that are important to take note of. In Matthew 18:15-20 we are given instructions for how to deal with professing Christians who sin against us, and the final step is for the church to get involved in adjudicating the case and, if necessary, putting someone out of fellowship.

Marc Roby: I think we are getting into a very important discussion, which we don’t have time to complete now, so perhaps this would be a good place to end for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John F. MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Hebrews, Moody Press, 1983, pg. 444

[3] Ibid, pg 445

[4] Ibid, pg 445

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to look at delegated authority. We have already examined delegated authority in the state and in the home. Dr. Spencer, is there anything else you want to say about those topics before we move on to discuss delegated authority in the church?

Dr. Spencer: There is. In looking over our last session I realized that there is a point I should have emphasized even more.

Marc Roby: What point is that?

Dr. Spencer: It has to do with the authority of a husband. The husband is clearly called to be the head of the family, and even though I noted that he is to rule for the good of those who are under him and must not be abusive in any way, I think I need to further emphasize how extremely rare it should be for a husband to overrule his wife. If a marriage is working properly, it should be possible to arrive at most, if not all, decisions jointly.  The Holy Spirit speaks to and through our wives and it is a dangerous thing to proceed on a course of action with which your wife does not agree. I’m not saying it will never happen, but it certainly should be extremely rare.

If a husband and wife find themselves disagreeing about the proper course of action, they should pray together about it, ask God to reveal his will to them, and then talk it over. If this is done and both of them are sincerely seeking to know God’s will, they will almost always be able to reach an agreement as to what that will is. And, in fact, unless there is some situation that absolutely requires action within a certain time frame, I would say that you should never do something if your wife disagrees. And, if you do need to act quickly for some reason, then the two of you should probably meet with the elders in your church to help determine God’s will.

Marc Roby: Can you give an example of the type of thing you are talking about?

Dr. Spencer: Sure. Suppose you and your wife have been discussing the possibility of buying a smaller home. Maybe your children have all grown and you want to downsize. So, the two of you go out and look at homes and you see one that you’re completely confident would be the right one to buy and you want to make an offer on it, but your wife doesn’t agree. You might be tempted to tell yourself that a decision has to be made quickly or someone else will get the house, but in fact, you should not move without your wife’s agreement. God may be speaking through her and it would be dangerous to overrule her. It may be true that you will lose that particular house, but there will be others. It’s not a situation that absolutely requires you to act, and so acting when your wife disagrees would not be wise or godly leadership.

Marc Roby: We must remember that God does speak through our wives.

Dr. Spencer: And he can speak through an unbelieving boss or acquaintance, or even through our children as well. We need to be listening for God all the time, and he has given us the Bible as the standard by which we are to test everything we hear. If our wife tells us to curse God and die, as Job’s wife did, then we should rebuke her rather than obeying her. But, there are things, like the example I just gave, where the Bible is silent. It says nothing about purchasing or not purchasing a particular house. Although it says much about the various motives you might have for wanting one house over another.

I should also point out that this goes the other way too. A wife should never act on something unless her husband is in agreement.

Marc Roby: OK. Are we ready to move on and discuss delegated authority in the church?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I think we are. And it is a very important topic. We live in a time and a culture in which authority in general is despised, as we’ve noted several times. And there is no sphere of activity in which it is more despised than the church. Most people see the need for the state to have some authority, and most people see the need for parents to have authority. And, even though the authority of a husband over a wife is not generally acknowledged, I would say that the authority of the church is acknowledged less often, even among professing Christians.

Marc Roby: I’m sorry to say that, based on what I have observed, I have to agree.

Dr. Spencer: It is common in modern churches to say that only the Word of God has authority and, thereby, to limit the authority of a pastor or elder to simply presenting the Word of God from the pulpit in a general way and then leaving it up to everyone in the congregation to apply it to their own lives. But, that is not what we see in the Bible, and it is not what is best for Christians. We have many examples in the New Testament, as well as the Old, where church leaders use their authority to give very specific counsel to people in the church.

Marc Roby: Do you have a particular example that you’d like to look at?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s look at the example in Acts 15.

Marc Roby: Alright. Let me set the stage for our discussion by reading Acts 15:1-2, which tell us about the issue that was dealt with. We read that “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: This idea that Gentile believers should first become converts to Judaism by being circumcised and obeying the ceremonial laws was common in the early church. The first thing we should notice in this passage is that the believers in Antioch recognized the authority of the apostles and elders. It is especially important to notice that it was not just the apostles. Elders in the church have authority too, and that continues to this day even though we no longer have any of the apostles with us.

When we go on and read the rest of the chapter we learn a great deal. The elders and apostles met together and each side was allowed to present its case in an open discussion to determine God’s will. Peter presented evidence based on the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Gentile believers in Caesarea, with whom he had shared the gospel, and Paul and Barnabas also shared about the signs and wonders that God had performed among the Gentiles through them.

Marc Roby: And then James, the Lord’s brother, spoke last.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. He appears to have been the head of the church in Jerusalem, even though he was not an apostle. In any event, he summarizes what has been said and points out that what Peter and Paul said is in agreement with the Scriptures. In other words, everything was being tested by the Word of God, which alone is our standard for truth.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to note that it was an Old Testament prophet that he quoted!

Dr. Spencer: That is important. As we have mentioned before, the Old Testament is still relevant to modern Christians. We see that fact clearly because it was quoted as the final authority in deciding issues in the New Testament church! They didn’t restrict themselves to quoting the words of Jesus. In Verse 19, as James announces his decision, he says “It is my judgment, therefore …”. The word “therefore” harkens back to what he has just quoted from the Old Testament. So, the point he is making is that since the argument presented by Peter, Paul and others is in agreement with the Bible, it is the right position, in other words, it is in accord with the will of God. But, the specifics of the final conclusion they reached are illustrative of a couple of important points.

Marc Roby: Let me read that conclusion now. In Acts 15:19-21 James says, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

Dr. Spencer: The first important point that we can make about this conclusion is that the Jerusalem council had authority to consider the issue and determine how to properly apply the Word of God to the situation. This is a clear example of the authority of the church. Look at how the letter they wrote began. In Acts 15:28 we read that it began by saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:”. Note two things here. First, they had consulted the Word of God, so that they could say the counsel they were sending seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and second, they were sending requirements, not suggestions. The Greek word used actually means things that are necessary.

Marc Roby: And what you said earlier bears repeating; the council was not just composed of apostles. In fact, it was headed by James, who was not an apostle.

Dr. Spencer: Right, that point is very important because it shows that we are not just talking about authority that was given to the apostles and no one else. The second thing we learn from this proclamation is also very important, and somewhat surprising.

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s first note that it is not at all surprising that they should tell the Gentile Christians to abstain from sexual immorality. That is, after all, everywhere and at all times, sin. But, what is very interesting is that they also decided to tell them to abstain from food polluted by idols, the meat of strangled animals and blood. None of these things are, in themselves, sins in the New Testament age.

Marc Roby: Can you explain that statement? Certainly, worshiping an idol is sin.

Dr. Spencer: It definitely is. But, at that time there was meat sold in the marketplace that had been sacrificed to some idol, but could be purchased by anyone. Just purchasing and eating the meat did not involve worshiping the idol in any way. Paul wrote about meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8:8, where we read that “food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” But, he also goes on in the very next verse, Verse 9, to say, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” And he then goes on to explain that a weaker brother, who does not understand that an idol is nothing, may see a more mature Christian eating the meat and may himself eat some even though he thinks that doing so is, or may in some way be, idolatry. And so, this weaker brother is led into sin. So, in this particular case, the Jerusalem Council decided to command these Gentile Christians to not eat this meat because it would likely be a stumbling block to their Jewish brothers, who were still very sensitive to the Jewish ceremonial laws.

Marc Roby: But, the council did not have the writings of Paul to look at.

Dr. Spencer: No, they didn’t, those didn’t exist yet. But they were interpreting the same Old Testament teachings that Paul had available, and they knew the teachings of Christ as well. In Leviticus 19:18 God commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. And Christ told us that to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves are the two greatest commandments. Also, in Luke 17:1 Christ tells us that “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come.” Putting these things together, we get the principle Paul gave us in 1 Corinthians 8:9 as we just read, “Be careful … that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Marc Roby: OK, what about the other two things listed, eating the meat of strangled animals and eating blood?

Dr. Spencer: Those are both things that are prohibited by the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, which was done away with when Christ fulfilled the law and gave himself as the final, perfect sacrifice. The entire Old Testament sacrificial system and ceremonial law pointed to the need for a sacrifice of atonement for our sins, and Christ was the final sacrifice. We are told in Hebrews Chapter 10 that the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were not ultimately efficacious, but were an “annual reminder of sins”. Then, in Hebrews 10:10 we are told that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Marc Roby: I’m reminded that Jesus Christ himself said from the cross that “it is finished.”

Dr. Spencer: And, praise God, it was finished. In Verse 14 of Hebrews 10 we are told that “by one sacrifice”, which is speaking of Jesus Christ, “he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” There is nothing left for us, or anyone else, to do to atone for our sins. But, we are, as the verse says, “being made holy”, so we are to live holy lives out of thanksgiving to God and because we want to. Anyone who has truly been born again has a desire to please God. If you have no desire to know and do the will of God, then you are not born again. But, even truly born-again people still have sin living in them and waging war against them, so we need each other and we need the church. And we need the church to have authority to speak into our lives.

The important thing to note about this example though, is that the answer the Jerusalem council gave included these commands, which we are told elsewhere in the New Testament are no longer things required of all believers. That clearly shows the authority possessed by the leaders of the church; they exercised their God-given authority to tell the believers how to apply a biblical principle to their specific situation.

But, we must be clear that they did not command anything that is contrary to the Word of God. Quite the opposite in fact, the principle they were upholding, that of not causing your brother to stumble, is a command of God and is an application of the principle to love your brother as yourself. So, the elders have clear authority to interpret that principle and apply it to this specific instance. The specific commands they gave in this letter having to do with food, meat, and blood are not binding on all Christians at all times; rather, these commands instructed the Gentile Christians of that time how to love their Jewish brothers in a specific context– one in which many newly converted Jewish believers still thought of the Jewish ceremonial laws as being binding on God’s people.

Marc Roby: This episode reminds me of what Paul wrote the church in Ephesus. In Ephesians 4:11-13 he wrote that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great passage. Pastors, teachers and elders are gifts God has given to us to help us understand and apply his Word. But we must be clear that they have authority to speak into our lives. In 1 Timothy 1:3 Paul told Timothy, “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer”. So, Timothy, who again was not an apostle, but was an appointed leader in the church, was told to “command” people. You see this word command often in Paul’s writings. In fact, he uses the word seven times in first Timothy alone.

Marc Roby: I look forward to continuing with this topic next time, but I think this is a good place to end for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

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