I’ve been sitting on this post for quite a while, debating whether or not to post it. Two things prompted me to finish it up and then post it. First is my ongoing study of Galatians for my ACG; and second, a growing concern over the abuse of spiritual authority in the church (no, not at ECC).
It would be easy to write a post about the abuse of spiritual authority by pastors and churches. There are plenty of examples to choose from, Scriptures which condemn such abuse are easy to find (c.f. Mark 10:42; 1 Peter 5:3), and the stories are often heartbreaking. Certainly, those who use authority in an abusive way are guilty of grievous sin.
But, Scripture leads me to believe that those who submit to spiritual abuse are also guilty of sinning. I know, that sounds off, and maybe it is, so stick with me and test what I’m saying.
Obviously, submission is commanded many times in Scripture. We’re all commanded to submit to God and his law (James 4:7, negatively expressed in Ps. 81:11, Rom. 8:7, Rom 10:3), to the human authorities God has put in place (Rom. 13, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13). Children are to submit to parents (‘obey’, Eph. 6:1, 1 Tim. 3:4), slaves are commanded to be submissive to masters (‘obey’, Eph. 6:5, Titus 2:5, 1 Peter 2:18), wives to husbands (Eph 5:22-24, 1 Cor. 14:34-35, Col. 3:18, 1 Tim 2:11, 1 Peter 3:1-5). Peter also commands the younger (beleivers?) to be in submission to those who are elder (1 Peter 5:5). Indeed, we’re all to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21). The church at Corinth was commended for the submission to Paul’s appeal to gather money to care for the poor in Jerusalem. Later in the same letter Paul commands the Christians there to be subject to the saints committed to serving the church (1 Cor. 16:16). Hebrews 13:7 commands us to submit to those charged with providing spiritual leadership and ‘guarding our souls’.
Now that’s just a sampling, but it may lead you to ask, ‘Can you really be overly submissive?’ The answer is a resounding ‘yes!’. In fact, you may be sinfully overly submissive. Consider Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Also Galatians 2:4-6, “Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.”
Or Colossians 2:16-23, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels…20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
Pastors are called to speak the whole counsel of God. Preach the law, Yes! Preach repentance. Preach against sin. But pastors and churches don’t have authority to go beyond Scripture in binding the conscience of the people. This is a major implication of the Reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
I love this statement from Calvin, “Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God. . . Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God.” (John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians).
Pastors should not go beyond Scripture, and parishioners should not let them! For a pastor to do so is a sinful abuse of his power and position. For a parishioner to submit to it is sinful too. But aren’t those who suffer under spiritual abuse victims? Yes. But they are victims that are allowing themselves to be victimized supposing that doing so will make them holy or more acceptable to God. God commands that we ought to submit to authority. Failure to do so is sin. God also commands us that we ought not submit to slavery – to a unbiblical binding of our consciences, even if that slavery comes in the from a pastor or in the name of ‘holiness’. To do so is to break God’s commands and is thus sinful.
What does this mean practically? It means that if a pastor commands you not to drink a beer, you should have two to spite him (thanks Luther for that). If you’re commanded not to date that girl (unless she’s an unbeliever), plant a wet one on her lips and take a pic and send it to the pastor. If he commands you not to read a certain book, you invite the author to a book signing in your living room. Ok, maybe none of those are good responses, but neither is submitting to unbiblical infringements upon our Christian liberty. Don’t submit, and don’t stay in a church that expects you to.