By Ken Marrs
Being raised in the 50’s and 60’s by parents who were both faithful Christians, I certainly heard my share of sermons on “Authority.” I must admit there were times when I grew tired of these same lessons, and thought to myself: “O.K., I got it, now let’s get on to something else!” However, several years later as I began to teach and preach, I found myself more and more appealing to the authority of God’s word as the key to the many different problems and controversies that I and my brethren were facing.
Although I had no bias in my approach to Bible teaching (as a matter of fact, if I had any conscious prejudice it was to not be like some of the preachers I had been exposed to in the years when the “issues” were sharply debated in the brotherhood), I soon discovered that the principles of biblical authority were at the heart of almost every controversy in the religious world; from all the various ideas from baptism, church organization/work, and worship, to the questions surrounding divorce and remarriage.
My experiences showed me that strangely, the subject of “authority” is heartily endorsed . . . as long as the appeal to God’s authority is made upon the behalf of an accepted practice in someone’s life; but let the same message of “authority” be discussed in opposition to one’s baptism, worship, marriage, or lifestyle and dissension is almost always inevitable. Rather than following a “party line,” I learned that the authority of God’s word unified those who would faithfully submit, as well as separated those who had other agendas. It is a peculiar characteristic that “authority” is so potent to polarize.
This special issue has given a brief historical perspective of the principles and problems of biblical authority as it has and continues to affect the Lord’s church. One thing that should be obvious in reading these articles is, though the issue(s) may change from generation to generation, the principles of biblical authority are fundamental for a correct understanding of and compliance to God’s will. Sadly, the lack of regard for, the absolute authority of God’s word is also timeless.
What We Need
Though the potential for division is always at hand, clearly the need for preaching and teaching on the absolute authority of God’s word is no less today than it was 40 years ago.
As the Lord told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 6:6-9 to diligently teach their children, so must we. It may seem repetitious . . . because it is; and it may seem trivial and even unnecessary, but it is not. Quite to the contrary, we know the most effective way to learn and retain facts is through initial teaching and then reinforcement . . . continual reinforcement. When the writer of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31:34 (Heb. 8:9) and states that the Israelites “did not continue (emphasis mine: KM) in My covenant,” we understand the problem was in the Israelites’ failure to follow the admonition of Deuteronomy 6:6-9. This should really grab my attention, as a parent as well as a gospel preacher. The wise man realizes the need for teaching is never out-grown, nor the task ever completed.
An older preacher once told me about a “preacher’s luncheon” he had attended in the early ’60s. After lunch, all the preachers in this area got together at the office and began to discuss what they thought would be the next “issue” the church would have to face. With all of the combined “wisdom” in that room, no one guessed it would be the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. You see, the church hadn’t had that problem for generations, so there was no real need to teach on these things . . . or so they thought.
What we should know by now is that every generation needs to be taught about the authority of God’s word. If we fail, the church will soon find itself as Israel did in Judges 2:10 “. . . another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which he had done for Israel.”
A Word of Warning
It doesn’t take a Solomon to see the church is standing at the threshold of apostasy. Social drinking, gambling, drug use (of all kinds whether you smoke it, snort it, drink it, pop it, shoot it, or chew it), promiscuity, immodest behavior, etc. have long been a problem in the church. Now abortion, adulterous marriages, instrumental music, women leaders and coming soon to a congregation near you . . . homosexuality, are the new threats to the cause of Christ. How could the Lord’s church get to such a point? Why do people who profess to believe in and love God insist upon justifying such things? The answer is rooted not just in the absence of teaching, but in the absence of teaching on the absolute authority of God’s word.
While I was a student at Florida College, brother Robert Turner came to the campus to present a series of lessons on “Authority.” His beginning premise was that “absolute” or “ultimate authority” could not be found in the union of the highest position (“imperial authority”) with the purest truth (“veracious authority”).’ Who is above God, and whose word has consistently proved to be true through the ages? . . . none! Consequently, God has not only the power to command, but also the right. As a young man, this is where it began to “click” for me. As the creature, it doesn’t matter what 1 may think. . . God is my Creator, and I must heed him . . . period.
When the Bible says “… baptism doth also now save us…” (1 Pet. 3:21), it means just that. When the Bible says “. . . women keep silent in the church, for they are not permitted to speak. . .” (1 Cor. 14:34), it means just that. When the Bible says “. . . singing and making melody in your heart. . .” (Eph. 5:19), it means just that. When the Bible says “. . . whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. . . (Matt. 19:9), it means just that. When the Bible says “. . . do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites . . . will inherit the kingdom of God,” it means just that. When the Bible says something, it means just that and nothing more, unless elsewhere authorized in the word of God. Do we get it?
The problems the church is facing just didn’t appear overnight, the ground-work was laid years earlier with a relaxing attitude toward and growing ignorance of Bible authority. I am afraid that while many preachers were applying the principles of “authority” to oppose “institutionalism” in the congregational realm, the same principles were not being consistently or equally applied to immoral behavior and unscriptural thinking in the individual realm.
When “biblical authority” is ignored, the Bible eventually becomes a facade. While there may be the external appearance of a religious faith in God, in reality, the core objective is the pursuit of a religious “comfort zone” where one can find a framework of accepted behavior and beliefs .. . and woe to anyone who would question it!
No one plans to leave the Bible message, we are simply deceived into accepting the logic that will allow a certain practice, while still functioning under the guise of a religious “faith.” This “faith” is what makes apostasy palatable. As long as we are believers in God’s existence and grace, and we want to be good people, we couldn’t possibly be wrong . . . or so the logic goes. Again, the basic problem is not in understanding that a faithful relationship with God is predicated upon his authority, not our logic!
I’ve been asked to make some remarks about preaching “the Cross/Christ, not the church.” With all love, I must say I never cease to be amazed at how short-sighted some of my brethren are. I would hope that all of my brethren understand in the light of the subject of biblical authority, you can’t preach one to the exclusion of the other! To preach Christ is to preach his church (Eph. 1:22,23; Col. 1:24). To preach the cross is to preach baptism (Jn. 3:3-5; Rom. 6:3-9). Read Acts 8:12 and see if you can honestly exclude preaching Christ from preaching on the church or baptism. These cannot be made mutually exclusive!
This reminds me of the attitude of the Calvinist who sees one particular aspect of salvation (grace) to the exclusion of all others. Certainly grace is a necessary part, just as faith, repentance and obedience are; but to take any part of God’s word to the exclusion of any other is not rightly dividing or honestly handling the word of God.
In an article written by Dr. Cecil May Jr. (President of Magnolia Bible College), he tells of a sermon he heard while a student at Harding College. J.P. Sanders stated that while baptism, worship, church organization, and such like are essential, they were not really “first principles” of the gospel. Christ, the cross, and the resurrection were the “center of apostolic teaching.” Dr. May states that years later Sanders began preaching for the Disciples of Christ, and that he (Sanders) said he was mistaken about the essential nature of baptism, worship, church organization, etc. Dr. May comments:
. . It is a mistake, however, to think we can effectively promote greater obedience to Christ in neglected areas by undercutting the authority of the Bible in other areas. Worship, the church, and the answer to `What must I do to be saved?’ are not peripheral. They matter.”
“There also are some today who seem to have bought the latter view, that baptism is not essential and the forms of worship and church organization are not even important. They have not left to preach in `Disciples of Christ’ pulpits. They will, however, if they continue unabated, lead their congregations to be what the `Disciples of Christ’ now are. It is not as far as some think from, `What the Bible says about baptism doesn’t matter,’ to, `The Bible is not the word of God,’ from, `I’m not sure women preachers are wrong,’ to `I’m not sure homosexuality is wrong.’ Check the road the `Disciples’ have taken, and see.”2
Interestingly, even one having accepted “institutional-ism,” upon further analysis, has to agree that the integrity of “biblical authority” is the fundamental issue.
A Word of Caution
At the same time, we need to be careful that in our judgments we do not see apostasy where there is none. Granted, there are those who are disputing or disregarding the importance of baptism and the church in their teaching. These individuals need to be reproved and must repent … no question. Yet, if a brother speaks of the cross of Christ and his great love and does not mention baptism, or doesn’t put what we think should be the proper emphasis on baptism, this does not necessarily mean he is a heretic. I am afraid there sometimes exists a “protector of the faith” attitude in some who see apostasy in many things done and said. I am reminded of the danger of using the term: “total commitment.” When the term is used, this does not necessarily mean it is a message from a “multiplying ministry” (there’s another red flag). I would pray that all of my brethren are “totally committed,” and their efforts were “multiplied,” but this does not mean that I am endorsing the methods of the “Boston Church.”
Brethren, let us always stand upon the authority of God’s word in all we say and do. Let us never surrender to the efforts designed to undermine God’s authority. Speaking out on the sinful practices of men is quickly becoming “out of season,” let us be “instant.” And at the same time, let us be patient, understanding and righteous in our judgments of one another (Jn. 7:24).
‘”Truth is, abstractly, `a conformity to fact or reality.’ Its authority is, therefore, the authority of reality.” Series on Authority, Notes by Robert F. Turner, Lesson #1, page 1, c. 1972.
‘May Jr., Dr. Cecil, “The Heresy of False Emphasis,” Preacher Talk, June, 1993.
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 20, p. 22-24
October 20, 1994