Thursday, August 01, 2013

Unjust authority

I'm going to comment on some more assertions by Ed Dingess. Ed suffers from a persistent problem. He raises an objection. I draw attention to a flaw in his reasoning. He then repeats the same objection. He fails to engage the counterargument. 

Specifically, Steve’s statement implies that the command for Christians to obey and submit to their elders was given only until such time as the canon was completed. Once we had the canon, well, we could read it for ourselves. Therefore, according to this line of reasoning, we no longer need elders conferred with authority to whom we should submit.

No, that's not an implication of my position. However, you can't just quote a Biblical command in a vacuum. You must make allowance for the implied situation. Take my example of Deut 22:8. What should we do with that command? Should we say: "We can't fence our roof unless we have a flat roof; therefore, Christians are required to build houses with flat roofs., regardless of where they live."

No, the command is implicitly conditional. It doesn't literally apply to Christians in Alaska. It doesn't mean Alaskan Christians are mandated to build houses with flat roofs rather than gabled roofs. Rather, it means that if you have a rooftop terrance, then you're obligated to fence your roof.

In addition, Steve has argued vociferously that there are numerous false churches and false elders in existence today and this leaves the Christian with little choice, than to be their own self-attesting authority regarding which session of elders they should obey.

I didn't predicate my argument on a layman's "self-attesting authority."

Contrary to this line of reasoning, there were false elders, preachers, pastors, and prophets in antiquity as well. This did not deter the NT authors from commanding believers and instructing Christian communities to obey and submit to one another and to their elders.

So is Ed saying the NT enjoines the laity to obey "false elders?" 

If Hays is right, then not only are we under no obligation to obey a session of elders, we are not obligated to obey the local Christian community either.

I don't have a problem with church authority or church discipline. I have a problem with a free-floating authority structure that's detached from what is right and true. 

The entire principle of loosing and binding in Matt.18:15-20 is founded on the idea that the authority of heaven is bestowed on the Christian community in matters of sin and forgiveness.

As I've pointed out before, that's not a prooftext for elder authority. That text doesn't distinguish elders from laymen. 

Does the presence of false elders invalidate the NT command for Christians to obey and submit to elders? There were false elders everywhere in the NT world. Nearly every NT project was written to deal with false teachers in some way. The existence of false teachers would be all the more reason for us to submit to godly elders, and to one another. It does not follow that false paths produce a state of affairs that lead to individual self-determination and sufficiency. Exactly the opposite is true. The last thing the NT authors had in mind was that Christians would eventually become, as in America, islands unto themselves. But this is precisely where the hermeneutics of Hays leads us. At the end of the day, in Hays logic, I will determine for myself what Scripture teaches and I have no obligation to submit to anyone with whom I disagree, to include my pastor, my elders, and my Church.

Notice that Ed is oblivious to the glaring inconsistencies of his position. If, by his own admission, laymen must distinguish between "false elders" and "godly elders," in order to confine their submission to "godly elders–in contrast to "false elders," then that's something the layman "just determine for himself." Who else would make that determination? Elders can't determine that for him since that determination presumes a prior distinction between "false" and "godly" elders. Ed's appeal is viciously circular. A second party can't make that determination on the layman's behalf unless the party in question is qualified (i.e. a "godly elder"). So the layman must make a preliminary judgment regarding which elders are godly and which are false. 

In addition, even "godly elders" are fallible. Both elders and laymen are fallible. So it's not as if the judgment of an elder is presumptively correct, binding, or authoritative. 

Finally, what are the consequences of a Christian community without authority? 

Notice how Ed always frames the issue of "authority" in the abstract, without regard to whether the exercise of authority is right and true. 

I need to say one final thing about the consequences of Hays’s view. One of the single greatest challenges confronting the contemporary Church in America is the complete lack of accountability. The nature of sin that continues to confront the Christian after conversion demands that we be held accountable for everything from our beliefs, and our thinking, to our daily behavior. Accountability furnishes the indispensable structure required for spiritual growth. 

Accountability to what? Accountability to authority figures, or accountability to truth? 

Ed constantly about the duty to submit to your elders even if you disagree with your elders. But that ignores the basis of the disagreement. What if the elder is wrong? Ed keeps ducking that issue, even though he also talks about a plethora of "false elders." 

A Christian has a standing duty to be faithful to the truth. He is directly accountable to God. He doesn't have a right to delegate his Godward obligations to a second party. That's the essence of Roman Catholicism. You put your brain in the blind trust of Mother Church. You let your religious superiors do your thinking for you. 

A brief survey of biblical texts that show that genuine Christianity would collapse absent the authority paradigm. Matt.18:15-20 sets out the guidelines for when the Church must act to remove the impenitent from her community. You see, without some sort of authoritative structure, the Church is lacks the mechanism necessary to keep leaven from the body.

As I've pointed out, that doesn't suggest a Christian should submit to church sanctions even if the Christian was falsely accused. To the contrary, that text grounds church sanctions in a true allegation. Ed keeps disregarding the clearly qualified force of the passage. 

The authority paradigm is anchored, not only in Scripture but is everywhere present in the context of group thought in Mediterranean cultures. The idea was indispensable to the social setting of that time. The authority of the collective group was one each person willingly submitted to in that culture. This is true to a very large degree even to this day. The idea is radically antithetical to the extreme individualism we witness in American culture. This is why it is so difficult for us to appreciate and understand. The group would police its own. The group had inherent authority to shame and excommunicate anyone who insisted on not identifying with it by living up to its values. The Christian group’s authority is derived from Scripture. As such, it has the authority to excommunicate anyone who is not actually part of the group by dealing harshly with obstinate behavior.

Let's take a concrete illustration of Ed's groupthink authority paradigm:

Amish Woman 4: My mom was a very gentle soul. She was always a servant to everybody else. She always made sure everybody was taken care of, except mom. She always tried to be the submissive woman. And already then I wasn't sure about that word "submissive." And then I married an abuser, and then the word "submission" just became a monster.I was so proud of my first child. But I also remember, I would sit at the window rocking my baby. And sitting there alone, and I cried a lot. I knew things were not as they should be, but I kept telling myself, it's okay, it'll be all right. But I would cry a lot. I talked to my husband, and he'd say, "We're married, and I'm the head of the house." I'd say, "You know, the Bible says the father is the head of the home as Christ is the head of the church. But we also need to remember that Christ was not up here like a master with a big whip." Well, that didn't work well, because I was confronting him, and I was doubting his words of wisdom. I soon learned not to say those things.  They always say that we need to go to the church first, which I did. I went to the church and I asked for help. The very first thing that the minister said to me when I said, "We've been struggling with a lot of abuse, and I need help," he looked at me and he said, "So what did you do that caused your husband to treat you this way?" That was such a blow. That was such a blow. In fact it came to the point where the church actually had both of us not be able to go to communion until we can see where we have failed. And I felt like an outsider looking in.Finally I reached the point where spiritually I just said, "I'm just done. I've just had it, Lord. I don't know what to do. But I have to be connected with the church again." I told my husband, "I'm going to go back to the ministers, and I'm just going to lay myself out and say, 'Here I am. I'll take any punishment you give me. I'll do anything. I just need -- I need the church so bad.'" And he said, "Well, if you do, you're on your own because I'm not going to do it that way." And so that's what I did. I went back to the ministers, and I just cried, and I just said, "I'll just do anything you tell me to." I acknowledged anything and everything that I could think of under the sun. And yeah, say yes to things that I didn't really think were maybe exactly right to say yes to. But I did it out of obedience because I felt God nudging me that way. And I got back in the church, without my husband. Obedience is not easy.

That's what Ed's authority paradigm leads to. Raw authority. Unjust authority.  


  1. Steve,

    What would you do if Ed Dingess and Frank Turk were your local church elders and they told you to shut down Triablogue?

  2. Steve,

    I've enjoyed your rebuttals to Ed and Frank. You've clearly demonstrated what you consider to be the deficiencies in their application of the Hebrews passage (among others). What do you consider to be a proper use of it in the context of a local church, and secondly, with parachurch organizations? If you've already done that elsewhere, I apologize. Just point me in the right direction.


    1. Heb 13:17 ("Obey your leaders and submit to them") refers back to vv7,9 ("Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God…Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings"), which–in turn–refers back to 2:3 ("It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard"). So, in context, that involves a chain-of-custody, where their leaders are faithful custodians of the deposit of faith. And that stands in contrast to the "strange teachings" of false teachers who don't preserve the deposit of faith.

      By analogy, laymen should submit to his pastor's teachings insofar as those teachings faithfully transit the deposit of faith.

    2. Ed on the one hand:
      I have emphatically stated that the authority of elders is derivative, that the basis of their authority is the authority of Scripture alone, that they have no right to impose personal opinion or even unclear views and practices on the community.

      Ed on the other hand:
      if the layman decides that the pastor is wrong, he can whimsically refuse to submit to his pastor and do as he pleases. But this is not submission nor is it wise. It is closer to chaos.

      I'm just left scratching my head. Maybe it's only Ed who gets to question his elders.

    3. In his clumsy way, I think Dingess is trying to deploy an argument similar to Bryan Cross: if you only submit to authority when you agree with it, then you never really submit to authority. You're following your own judgment from start to finish.

      But the problem with that argument is that it either proves too much or too little. For that requires blind obedience.

      If, on the other hand, Dingess rejects blind obedience, then individual judgment is decisive. That's his logical dilemma.

  3. In Ed's world, accountability to fellow believers never seems to make an appearance. And yet it's huge, vastly important.