Ecclesiastical Subjection, Unity, and Like-mindedness…
(Some Needful Lessons Learned This Year)
Fairly recently, I heard a sermon from Brother Jesse Gistand that really reinforced (in my own heart and mind) the importance of order and divinely ordained structure and authority. Unfortunately, I cannot remember which sermon it was. Whichever it was, I have thought about the matter much since. The following represents my own thoughts on it, my own meditations on the matter; I’m not trying to be a teacher here, just putting forth my own understanding so that I can edify others if it is edifying or be corrected if there is error.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is Master, Lord, King, and God; He is in absolute authority over the whole of creation — both physical and spiritual. So it makes sense to me that He would establish order here on earth, both in the secular world and amongst His made-faithful people in general and His made-faithful congregations in particular. Amongst His people, this order is not patterned after the current, fallen, secular order; instead, our Lord patterns made-faithful ecclesiastical order after His own Self, His own example (particularly as set forth during His earthly incarnation). Seeing that God our Saviour is the One who establishes these authority structures, then as with the worldly, so with the ecclesiastical, we are to heed the exhortations found in Romans 13:1-2 “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” –and in– Titus 3:1-2 “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work, To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, [but] gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men.”
The Holy Spirit through the writer of Hebrews put it this way “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation” (Hebrews 13:7-9) and again in v17 “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” Paul adds in 1 Corinthians 16:10-11, 15-16 “Now if Timotheus come, see that he may be with you without fear: for he worketh the work of the Lord, as I also [do]. Let no man therefore despise him: but conduct him forth in peace, that he may come unto me: for I look for him with the brethren…15 I beseech you, brethren, (ye know the house of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints,) 16 That ye submit yourselves unto such, and to every one that helpeth with us, and laboureth.”
The Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul also stated “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. 18 For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer [is] worthy of his reward. 19 Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. I charge [thee] before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality” (1 Timothy 5:17-21) and in Philippians 3:14-19 “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing. Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample (for many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, [that they are] the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end [is] destruction, whose God [is their] belly, and [whose] glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things). For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Clearly this ecclesiastic authority, set forth by God, is worthy of our honour and respect. God, through Peter, declares “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: 2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight [thereof], not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; 3 Neither as being lords over [God’s] heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. 5 Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder” (1 Peter 5:1-5a).
The elders, bishops, are to rule with kindness, gentleness, as blessed examples, and with much love for both Christ and His people as we read in 1 Timothy 4:12b “…be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” However, we read in 2 Corinthians 13:10 “Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the power which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction” and 2 Corinthians 10:8-11 “For though I should boast somewhat more of our authority, which the Lord hath given us for edification, and not for your destruction, I should not be ashamed: that I may not seem as if I would terrify you by letters. For [his] letters, say they, [are] weighty and powerful; but [his] bodily presence [is] weak, and [his] speech contemptible. Let such an one think this, that, such as we are in word by letters when we are absent, such [will we be] also in deed when we are present.” So we see that the elders have the power, the God-ordained authority, to use sharpness to maintain godly order and faithfulness to the word of God, the Holy Scriptures.
If any think that this power of sharpness was for the Apostles only and not for the elders/bishops, then consider Titus 2:13-15 “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee;” and Titus 1:13-14 “This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith; Not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth;” and 2 Timothy 4:1-5 “I charge [thee] therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away [their] ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.”
In light of these passages, I see now, far more than ever, that to rebel against true, righteous, God-ordained ecclesiastic authority is to rebel against God Himself for He, and not man, sets this order. Thus, we read in 2 Thessalonians 3:14 “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Yet count [him] not as an enemy, but admonish [him] as a brother.” We are not to fellowship with those who despise authority. If they go on life-long, unrepentantly, how do they differ from those spoken of in 2 Peter 2:10 “But chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government. Presumptuous are they, selfwilled, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities” and Jude 1:8 “Likewise also these [filthy] dreamers defile the flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities;” seeing that “He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God…” I cannot walk with those who routinely, unrepentantly, and after the first, second, third, and many other admonitions, revile either the secular or (faithful) ecclesiastic powers ordained of God.
When those elders/bishops and deacons who otherwise profess the true Gospel without compromise, engage in serious doctrinal or moral error, they are just as accountable to the brethren as anyone else. We can reject their error, speak out against their error, as John the Baptist did with Herod and as Paul did with Peter, but we are not to attack their persons, revile them, mock them. Sometimes the distinction isn’t clear but the clarity lies in this: is the focus primarily on the error or on the person; is the focus designed to highlight the error or cast down the person; and is the focus set on righting the error (as God enables) or in condemning the person bringing the error? We also have to remember that we can make as much of an idol out of refuting an error as an idol has been made of the error being refuted. An over-emphasis on any truth, to the neglect or overshadowing of other (more pertinent/needful) truths, can become as much a problem as anything else. Wisdom and moderation is key in all things. Gentleness, humility, and long-suffering are likewise vital… again lessons learned and that I am still learning.
Also, as we read in Galatians 2:11 “But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed…” note that it was one in authority who withstood the one in authority. I truly believe that, as much as is possible, this should be the norm. An Apostle rebuked an Apostle, and told all, because of the great harm that it could cause. Likewise, whenever a great doctrinal harm exists, an elder/bishop should be the one rebuking the elder/bishop before all (in love, humility, and with the aim of recovering that brother) for the good of the body; however, in those cases wherein no elder/bishop appears to be stepping up to that role, I must wonder how long the “laypeople” whose consciences are pricked and hearts are burdened can remain silent. Yet, whatever is spoken by them, it must be spoken aright or else they risk falling into the same (general) condemnation.
We who are not in ecclesiastic authority (as elders/bishops or deacons) are also to be subject one to another. We read in 1 Corinthians 14:32 “And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets;” and Ephesians 5:21 “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God;” and in 1 Peter 5:5-6: …Yea, all [of you] be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.”
There should be no doubt that in addition to being subject to the higher authority, we are to be subject (albeit in a different manner) to one another. The elders/bishops, and even deacons, have powers, authority, that the individual does not have. Though all are to mark those who cause divisions and to have no company with them (due to heresy or outward, unrepented of sin), not all have equal power/authority to set things in order. It is the God-ordained leadership of the assemblies (as 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, etc., makes clear) that has the greater weight and responsibility of seeing that God’s will be done amongst His people — not as lords, not as legalists, and not with cruelty — but in love, as examples; yet, nonetheless having (as those with the power and authority to do that which God has specifically called them to do) the authority to rule even with sharpness and strong rebuke if need be.
Yet we who are not elders/bishops or deacons are to indeed be subject to one another. How? By heeding the godly exhortations, encouragements, admonitions, reproofs, and rebukes that come our way; by suffering rather to be defrauded when wrong is done unto us by the brethren; by not seeking our own but the things of others; by viewing ourselves as being the lesser; by knowing when to hold back meat from those who can only handle milk. We are to do all in love and for love; love for God in Christ and love for His people – seeing that He first loved us and gave His life for us.
Also, seeing that God the Word temporarily left the perfection of glory to be clothed in the dust of humanity, to suffer what He suffered in life as our perfect law-keeper (in the midst of wicked, hateful men), and even more so to suffer as the elect’s aggregate sin-bearer under the full wrath of the Father unto His self-sacrificial death on the cross (all to effect a righteousness, ransom, and atoning redemption For His people – and His people only); seeing all such things, how much more should we humble ourselves and love, obey, and respect Him (and in so doing, loving and respecting His people and His order as well) — remembering that Christ, even aside from being Saviour, still deserves perfect obedience as Master, Lord, and King. It is in this light that we read in Philippians 2:1-5 “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, 2 Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. 3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. 5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”
The Safeguards Against The Abuse Of These Exhortations
Some may object “aren’t the elders/bishops likewise subject to the brethren” or “if we, who are not elders/bishops, are subject to one another does that mean we have to accept, adhere to, or obey whatsoever another brother says to us or commands of us?” When it comes to the subjection of under-shepherds to the flock, or the subjection of the members of the flock to one another, or the subjection of the members of the flock to the under-shepherds, God gives us some very clear guidelines — and I want to wrap up with these:
1. We are to submit ourselves to those who walk (as an example) orderly, godly, not bringing immorality and false doctrines into the midst. Moreover, we are to submit ourselves to the true brethren; not to the Calminian, Arminian, and other such false prophets, brethren, and teachers…
The Bible is clear that we are to resist such — we are not be subjected to them. The Apostle Paul set this example when He said in Galatians 2:4-5 “And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.”
Likewise, we read “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work, 2 To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, [but] gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men… [This is] a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself” (Titus 3:1-2, 8-11) –and– “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:17-18); and “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. 7 Be not ye therefore partakers with them” (Ephesians 5:5-7).
2. We are to submit ourselves to those who value the word of God (and thus the Word of God, for they are His words) and not the doctrines, commandments, traditions, or opinions of men. If a doctrine cannot be substantiated by Scripture, it ought not be enforced, made a point of contention, nor made a point of separation.
We read in Colossians 2:4-8,18-23 “And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words. For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ. As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving. Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ…18 Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God. Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.”
3. We are to submit ourselves to the truth that is being brought no matter, and without regard to, who is bringing it. When they speak biblical truth, we are to agree with our friends and adversaries alike whilst in the way with them (see Matthew 5:25); we are to receive the biblical words, commandments, and exhortations that God by grace and providence brings to us through men, rejecting no truth, but being quick to keep it, hide it, even to guard it in our hearts so as to do — as God enables (see Proverbs 2:1-12; 4:1-13; 8:1-21). When that hard truth is spoken, even when you do not want to hear it, per James 4:7-10, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you. Cleanse [your] hands, [ye] sinners; and purify [your] hearts, [ye] double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and [your] joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” seeing that “open rebuke [is] better than secret love” (Proverbs 27:50) and “[It is] better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:5).
The natural temptation is to revile and judge those who bring those hard words to us but we are exhorted in James 4:11-12 “speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of [his] brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?” Consider the Lord Jesus “Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed [Himself] to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). If we, following the pattern of Christ, are to endure reviling without reviling, and cursing without cursing, how much more should we endure needful truth without engaging in such wicked things. I found it helpful to think upon 2 Samuel 16:5-12 in this regard.
4. We are to submit ourselves to those who are humble enough, wise enough, and lovingly-kind enough to hear our words without rejecting them off-hand. Those who are quick to reject the positions of others often lack wisdom themselves and are stuck in their own traditions. We read in Proverbs 18:13 “He that answereth/rejecteth a matter before he heareth [it], it [is] folly and shame unto him;” and Job 29:16 “I [was] a father to the poor: and the cause [which] I knew not I searched out; and John 7:51 “Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?” and Proverbs 18:17 “He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him.” When one is so steeped in the mire of tradition that they can neither hear nor consider a position other than there own, then per the biblical language, this is shameful folly. Those who are gentle shepherds and not hirelings do not lord their views upon others with sharpness immediately but first labour patiently, long-sufferingly, with kindness and love, to correct the error and to set the wayward one straight. They do not simply declare, affirm, and decree — as if they are to be believed based upon their fame, name, or title — no, they encourage the ‘wayward one’ to search the scripture as they do so themselves, with the recognition that they, themselves, only see in part and may be the one in error.
Remember, we read in 1 Timothy 5:17 “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” Those who rule well, and who labour in the word and doctrine, are the ones worthy of the double honour. To labour in the word and doctrine is not to routinely fall back upon the words of Spurgeon, Gill, Beebe, nor any other notable one; instead, it is to compare spiritual things with spiritual, scripture with scripture, as a means of coming to truth and refuting error — all as the Father ordains and the Holy Spirit enables. I am convinced that many can point to the works of men; few will do the work themselves to see if these things be so. We read in Acts 17:11-12 “[The Bereans] were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.”
The Bereans did not simply accept the truth because it came from certain men; they were not respecters of persons in that regard. Instead, despite the fact that it was Paul and Silas bringing truth, they searched in out anyway. Moreover, they didn’t reject it offhand either, as something that conflicted with their preconceived notions, convictions, and traditions. Instead, they submitted themselves, by God’s grace, to the word of God (holy writ). This ties in with 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 “Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil” or as the LITV/KJ3 more clearly puts it “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things, hold fast the good. Keep back from every form of evil.” Thus, all Christians (whether in positions of authority or not) are to test all doctrines, all teachings (prophesy) being brought forth. They are to hear them readily but view them completely in the light of scripture. They are to hold-fast to those doctrines that the Bible affirms and they are to hold-back from (keep from, abstain from) from all forms of doctrinal evil, that is, all that scripture refutes (seeing that “to the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, [it is] because [there is] no light in them,” Isa 8:20, at least as it pertains unto the subject they are addressing).” When we adhere to this method, we affirm the principle that “a wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels” (Proverbs 1:5).
Therefore, we must be patient, long-suffering, and zealous (all with much endurance) to labour in the word and to seek out Truth therein, seeing that “it is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter” (Proverbs 25:2). This we will do if our ‘delight [is] in the law of the LORD; and in His law doth we meditate day and night’ (Psalm 1:2); remembering that “we have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake [as they were] moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:19-21) and that “All scripture [is] given by inspiration of God, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16).
The Apostle Paul set the example of patience and labouring/enduring in the word when he “went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing [dialoguing, reasoning] and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God;” I have no doubt that he reasoned from Scripture (or, in His case, direct revelation) and not from the traditions, notions, nor opinions of men. He did for three months what many of us find difficult to do for three days… He also exhorted all to follow this example, the elders/bishops first, but all as well (as God gives strength and ability seeing that some are infirmed or otherwise incapable to labour to the same degree). We see such exhortations in 1 Timothy 4:16 “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee; and 2 Timothy 4:2 “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine;” and 2 Timothy 2:15 “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth;” and of course (albeit from the Psalmist and not Paul) Psalm 1:1-3 “Blessed [is] the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. 2 But his delight [is] in the law of the LORD; and in His law doth he meditate day and night. 3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.”
We are to be subject to the authority that God ordains; submitting ourselves to them (both to the secular powers and to the godly ecclesiastical ones). We are to submit ourselves to one another, being ready to heed the godly advice, exhortation, and rebuke given. We are to walk in unity, to be like-minded (even of one mind and Spirit); yet we can only do this aright if the word of God forms the basis of our beliefs, doctrines, and actions. Yes, the Holy Spirit must lead us and guide us but He does so through His made-living word and not through notion, feeling, or conviction. We walk together, submit ourselves to one another, and endeavor to be like-minded when we, like the Bereans, search the scripture to see if these things be so. If they are indeed so, then we must be subject to the biblical truth being spoken.
Finally, notice the God-ordained hierarchy within the body: we have the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the word of God, the faithful under-shepherds, the deacons, and the faithful flock (with fathers/husbands, mothers/wives, and children found therein) — this is the order and the structure that God has given us and that must be respected, honoured, and obeyed. But notice that in between (1) the Godhead (tri-equal in divinity and Persons but subordinate in their role on this Earth) and (2) the saints, there is the word of God. God gives us His word (amongst many other reasons) to ensure that no man rises above the word. So if we want to know how each of us ought to submit to one another, and the authorities that be, let us search the Scripture and find the answer therein (and therein alone) — knowing that as we do, if we be Christ’s, what we will find is the very pattern already set by our Blessed Lord. All godliness, obedience, virtue, every right example we are to follow, was already set by Him. He is wisdom, humility, love, obedience, right authority, patience, and everything else that is godly — *personified.* Seeing how we ought to live and conduct ourselves is seeing how He, Himself, lived and ever lives; it is seeing His way, His path, His character. We cannot do anything aright without an Eye set on Him within us, fixed on Him for us. The more we look to Christ; the more we are manifestly transformed and conformed to His image (and to His pattern and example), the more we will be able to walk as He would have us walk. Nonetheless, this is all of God. God ordains our works; purposes our works; determines the set time for those works; and effectually brings them about — all unto His glory. In godly things we are to labour, strive, and be diligent, but only with the mindset that all must, and all does, come from Him.
To God be the glory!