Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Stop Calling It "Reformed" If It Wouldn't Have Permitted the Reformation

Google informed me today that Wade Burleson had linked to a post of mine. I don't know what's wrong with Google—Wade hasn't linked to a post of mine in years. Google was picking up an archive page on Wade's site somehow. But I followed the link and, curious, I looked to see what Wade had been blogging about lately.

The years have not afforded me too many opportunities to blog in agreement with Wade Burleson, and by golly, when a chance like that rolls around, I'm going to take it!

Wade posted back on September 17 about James MacDonald's (and it is MacDonald, not McDonald—apparently he's comfortable with everyone's thinking he's a lowland Scot) view of the authority of elders. Here's perhaps the most relevant snippet of Wade's prose:

[MacDonald's] views [on the authority of elders] can be clearly seen in the prefacing words Pastor James McDonald used when the majority of elders publicly disciplined the three minority elders in September 2013 (you may watch the actual video if you desire):

  • "I just want to remind you that God has entrusted spiritual authority to the local church."
  • "We believe that (this) authority of the church is invested in the elders."
  • "When the elders speak collectively in agreement, they speak for God to our church."
  • "That's about as serious as serious gets."
  • "These elders are now going to speak on behalf of God to our entire church."

The elders then proceeded to explain why the minority caucus of elders in their midst were 'Satanic to the core,' were 'false messengers,' and everyone was to avoid them lest "you incur great detriment to your own soul."

I have not researched the situation with James MacDonald at all. I do not have the time to perform this research. I'm weighing in not at all on whether MacDonald said this, whether this is what his church believes and teaches, or whether his views have been represented accurately by Wade.

I do, however, know that there are people out there whose theology of the authority of elders is precisely this. Wade's post offers me an occasion to air my thoughts on the matter.

First, I want to affirm that I, too, believe that God has entrusted spiritual authority to the local church. I also believe that some authority is entrusted to the elders of a local church. The mistake MacDonald (as he is represented in Wade's blog) makes is to conflate the two. All of the authority of the local church is not vested in the elders of the church. Jesus grants sweeping authority to the gathered church in Matthew 18. Elders are mentioned nowhere in that passage. Rather, quite expressly, the authorization of Christ is given to gathered believers—to ANY assembled believers who are operating in the name of Christ. The authority of elders must be balanced against the authority of the gathered congregation if we would be Christian and biblical.

Second, I'd like to point out an important historical aspect of this point of doctrine: If the elders of the churches speak with all of the authority of God that He has entrusted to the church, then virtually every phase of the Protestant Reformation was a rebellion against the authority of God. I know that there are people who believe precisely that, and I want to be charitable in acknowledging that schism is never pretty and is never God's best plan. Nevertheless, I do question whether a theory of spiritual authority that would have prevented the Reformation can rightly be associated with the label "Reformed ecclesiology."


Unknown said...

The authority of the church supersedes the authority of the elders, for it is from the church that the elders derive their authority.

So that when the elders, whether in plurality or even as a single pastor, err, the church has the authority and the responsibility to respond in love and in discipline as the situation warrants it.

Bart Barber said...

Precisely, Mike. I agree entirely.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you both about what authority the elders should have. However, Brother Bart, I don't think it is a proper test of things "Reformed" to disqualify them if they wouldn't have permitted the Reformation. Although the Reformed like to think of themselves as "always reforming," they quickly instituted various practices to ensure that such a "grass-roots" uprising against the authority and beliefs of the institutional Church never happened again. In other words, they adopted many of the same practices and attitudes of the Catholic Church out of which they came---such as combining church and state authority to persecute dissent and "heresy," as well as their permanent penchant for confessions and catechisms, centralized church authority, and trials for deviating in the least from the confessions. Their attitude since the Reformation has not been one of encouraging such independent thinking as Luther practiced. Rather, the attitude is very similar to the Catholic Church that Luther fought against" we already know the right doctrines, so let's do what we can to make sure no one every deviates from them.

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