The Reins of Authority

If you grant someone authority that they should not have, do not be surprised when they abuse that authority.

For example, the rightful place of authority in a family rests with the parents (especially the father).  If you join a commune and give another man the right to decide what is best for your family, do not be surprised when that man abuses your child or sleeps with your wife.  It is harder for the victims to defend themselves when they have already given over authority to the wrong person.  It is easier for the perpetrator to abuse his authority when he has already assumed authority that should not belong to him.  The lines have already been blurred.

gavelThe rightful place of authority in a local church rests in a plurality of elders who satisfy the requirements given in Scripture.  If a church gives all the authority to one man, do not be surprised when he misuses funds, engages in nepotism, and sleeps with someone he is supposed to be counseling.  If a church gives the authority to a board selected for their business acumen and popularity, do not be surprised when they bicker and divide the church into factions.  If a church hands over authority to the civil government, do not be surprised when the government says the church can no longer follow the mandates of Scripture.

In the public square, it is the role of government to punish wrongdoing.  Hand that authority over to the people, and you get lynch mobs and vigilantes.

Of course, this does not mean that those in places of improper authority will always abuse that authority.  Neither does it mean that those who are given authority properly will not succumb to sin and misuse their authority.  One does not cause the other, and there are other causes for the same effects.  It also does not mean that authority cannot sometimes be properly delegated to someone who would not normally wield that authority.  However, delegation of authority should be done carefully, with limited scope and well-defined boundaries.

The Boundary of Community: White Picket Fence or Razor Wire?

One of the topics that I think about fairly regularly is the struggle to resist the constant allure of “greener grass.”  We live in a culture that is highly mobile, presented with myriad options, and, generally speaking, the affluence to pursue those different options.  While it’s true that what’s billed as contentment may actually be complacency, I think the greater danger is confusing restlessness with the pursuit of excellence.

With this in mind, I have great appreciation for a recent 9Marks blog post that highlights the writing of Wendell Berry as “portray[ing] the beauty of a bounded life, a death to the options of Elsewhere, the embrace of a concrete place and its people.”

The author of the post explains that true community is “more than the welcome and affirmation typically communicated by the word today. To belong to a community is to be at its disposal, to have given over all you have to be used for whatever your community needs. … It is a submission of yourself—your identity, your interests, your ambitions—to the needs of those to whom you’re bound.”

This self-sacrifice for the sake of the community is a good thing, a biblical thing, especially when the community in view is the local church.  However, this absolute submission for the benefit of the community is also at the very heart of the scandal surrounding the potential cover-up of sexual abuse within churches associated with Sovereign Grace Ministries.  Like other stories of high-control groups, the allegations are that members were expected to submit to the wishes of their leaders, ostensibly for the protection of their community.

There are those who would have you believe that calls for submission to a community, such as those expressed in the 9Marks blog above, are major red flags, indicators of abusive leaders who demand total obedience from their followers.  However, the lesson we should learn from SGM (whether the allegations are true or not), is not the avoidance of commitment to a community, but the importance of the community as a whole (not just the individuals who make up the community) laying down its self-protectiveness.  In the same way that unchecked personal ambition is incompatible with true community, a church body that is overly worried about protecting their image, their identity, their ministry, is incompatible with the true Church.

A Higher Standard for Elders

Q:  Is a church elder held to a higher standard of personal conduct than the “average” Christian?

A:  It depends on what you mean by “higher standard.”

Anyone who is serious about the authority of Scripture would agree that a church elder must satisfy the requirements that Paul lists in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9.

Some churches see these requirements as unique requirements for eldership, requirements that are not necessarily expected of all Christians.  Such churches might allow that there are cases where a Christian may legitimately divorce, but they would say that a divorcee may not be an elder, because an elder must be the “husband of one wife.”  Similarly, some churches acknowledge that, while the Bible warns about the dangers of intoxicating beverages, it does not forbid their consumption.  While acknowledging that the consumption of alcohol is a matter of Christian freedom, they may still require an elder to completely abstain from alcohol, because they believe that this is part of the “higher standard” to which elders are called.

I believe that this is a faulty view of the requirements for an elder.

There are not two different standards for Christian conduct: one for elders, one for everyone else.  All Christians are held to the same standard of conduct.  All Christians are expected to be chaste, hospitable, temperate, gentle, self-controlled, etc.  The standard is perfect conformity to the image of God.

However, no Christian can live up to that perfect standard.  Since no Christian actually meets the standard, should the role of elder be open to any Christian, regardless of how fall short they fall?  No, an elder should meet a “minimum” standard of maturity.  While no Christian is perfect, there is a range of Christian maturity.  The biblical requirements for an elder are a way of saying that an elder must be “this far along” in their sanctification.

So, if by “higher standard” you mean that an elder must meet certain requirements not expected of other Christians, then I say, no, the Bible does not teach that.

But, if by “higher standard” you simply mean a greater degree of conformity to the one high standard of Christian living, then I will agree that the “entrance requirements” for eldership are higher than say, the entrance requirements for church membership.

Westminster Confession

Several weeks ago I took a look at the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) as examples of the earliest Reformed confessional statements that still have widespread usage today.  These documents were of Dutch origin, the first two written in the 1560’s, with increasing acceptance through the Netherlands and other parts of Europe.  In the early 1600’s they were established as authoritative statements of Dutch Reformed Theology.

Although I didn’t mention it in my previous post, another early Reformed confession is the Second Helvetic Confession, also written in the 1560’s, by Henry Bullinger, with widespread acceptance throughout Switzerland and other germanic countries.

However, probably the most widely recognized doctrinal statements of the Protestant church are the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.  These were developed in the 1640’s in England.  The historical background (aside from coming about 80 years later) is rather different, due partly to the political environment at the time.

The break of the English church from the Roman church in the 1530’s was driven more by political desires than theological differences, but it created an environment that allowed the theological moorings of the church to veer away from Roman Catholicism.  As the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer drafted the first doctrinal statements of the Anglican Church that distinguished the Church of England from the Roman church.  It took a while for the English church to find its identity (during the reign of “Bloody” Mary I, it moved back towards Catholicism), but when Queen Elizabeth I came to power in 1558, she established a church that was entirely distinct from the Roman Catholic church.  The Thirty-Nine Articles become the official doctrinal statement that defined the distinctive “middle path” (via media) of the Church of England, which was no longer Roman Catholic, but not as Lutheran or Reformed as the Reformation churches on the European continent.

With the break from the Roman Catholic church complete, the debates in the Church of England became less “Catholic vs. Reformed” and more “Episcopal vs. Puritan.”  Episcopacy retained characteristics more similar to Catholicism, while Puritanism desired further reform, and favored presbyterian or congregational polity.  The Puritan faction of Parliament attempted to enact further reforms to the Church, but found themselves stymied by King Charles I and his supporters.  Finally in 1643 (without the assent of the king), Parliament appointed the Westminster Assembly to undertake the restructuring of the Church.   Although it was intended to encompass episcopal influences as well as presbyterian, congregational, and others, the episcopalians did not participate, and the presbyterians were the majority.

Initially tasked with revising the Thirty-Nine Articles, the assignment was shifted to that of formulating the basis of a church that would be “nearer agreement with the Church of Scotland and other Reformed Churches abroad.”  (The Protestant Church in Scotland, under the influence of John Knox, and the Scots Confession that he and others wrote in 1560, shared much in common with the theology of John Calvin.)

The resulting Westminster Confession, Shorter Catechism, and Larger Catechism (plus a few other documents) that the Assembly produced were adopted by the Church of England for a short period of time, being revoked in 1660.  However, they were adopted by the Church of Scotland and remain the definitive doctrinal standards for many Presbyterian denominations and other Reformed groups.

The history and content of many Christian creeds has been well documented by church historian Philip Schaff in his work, Creeds of Christendom.

Quote o’ the Day

“Evangelical churches today are often more concerned about their philosophies of ministry than about their statements of faith.” (source)

Would some take umbrage at this statement? Is a “philosophy of ministry” another way of saying, “how we go about making disciples”? Isn’t making disciples more important than reciting what you believe?

Is it possible to make disciples effectively if you don’t have a solid doctrinal foundation? If you are making disciples, are they the right kind of disciples?

If you have a suitable statement of faith, shouldn’t it be a given that you intend to be making disciples?

Three Forms of Unity

I’ve known about the Westminster Confession and Catechisms (both Shorter and Larger)1

I also knew there were other confessions/catechisms, and I was kind of interested in the Baptist-flavored ones (like the 1689 London Baptist Confession, or John Piper’s adaptation of a Baptist catechism), because at this point I’m more inclined towards believer’s baptism than infant baptism. (Also, though I’m not sure what these creeds have to say about church polity, I’m more accustomed to congregational polity than presbyterian polity.)

However, I was recently intrigued by the “Three Forms of Unity” comprised of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort.

I haven’t read through all three yet, but I would like to. It appears that these are the earliest of the confessional compilations that endure with significant use today.

The Belgic Confession is the earliest of the three, initially written in 1561 by Guido de Bres. Although de Bres wrote his confession independently, it reflects and incorporates the theology expressed by John Calvin. The occasion for this confession was to defend against charges of rebellion against the Roman Catholic political system. Reformed Christians rallied around this confession to affirm in the face of persecution that they believed and abided by the Scriptures. It consists of consists of 37 articles dealing with the doctrines of God, Scripture, humanity, sin, Christ, salvation, the Church, and the end times.

The Heidelberg Catechism has similar content to the Belgic Confession, but a different structure and purpose. Commissioned by Frederick III, the Electoral Palatinate of the Rhine, the catechism is designed to instruct church members in the faith and provide a structure for preaching the scriptures. The catechism was written by theologian Zacharias Ursinus and pastor/theologian Caspar Olevianus, and approved by the Synod of Heidelberg of 1563, then subsequently approved by other synods of the reformed faith. The catechism consists of 129 questions and answers, which have been divided into 52 sections.

Finally, the Canons of Dort are a judicial decision put forth by the Synod of Dort in in 1618-1619. Followers of Jacobus Arminius objected to some content within the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, and in 1610 drafted five “Articles of Remonstrance” articulating their differences with other protestants. An international synod met in Dordrecht to respond to the controversy between the Remonstrants and the “Calvinists.” The Synod rejected the views of the Remonstrants, reaffirmed the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, and reiterated their views on the five issues at stake in the Articles of Remonstrance. The resulting decision is an exposition of five doctrinal points that have come to comprise the five points (or TULIP) of Calvinism.

These documents were developed during the working out of the Protestant Reformation, in the years following Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (1517), the reforms of Ulrich Zwingli (1520’s), and the publication of John Calvin’s Institutes (1536). While other confessions , catechisms, creeds, and doctrinal statements were written before and after, these three are significant in that they are among the earliest and most enduring.

For future study, it would be interesting to compare the differences between the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession, the Baptist Confession, and the Savoy Declaration .


  1. aren’t those inconsistent terms? shouldn’t it be “shorter and longer” or “smaller and larger”? anyway, I digress… 

Quote o’ the Day

“If I profess, with the loudest voice and clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battle fields besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

-Martin Luther

(found at Douglas Wilson’s Blog and Mablog)