God of Lone Rangers, Destroyer of Systems
It is for this reason the Church in the past was not against, and certainly not afraid of, sending out Christians as “lone rangers,” or of accepting them as a necessary part of its own growth. In fact, in the early centuries of the Church, Christian “lone rangers” were praised for their commitment and courage, and their lives were immortalized in official biographies. The literary genre of the biography or the autobiography was in fact very characteristic to the Christian culture—for only the Christian culture valued the individual person enough to make his life worthy of being recorded.1 And of those whose lives were recorded and read in the early church—even as part of the worship service, at times—the vast majority were ascetics or lone missionaries.
There was a theological reason for that, and it had to do with the new status of man under God, in relation to the society. Paganism has always been thoroughly collectivist and statist, it has always tried to bind the individual to a visible, organized society. It was on this issue where Aristotle and Plato, so different from each other in so many respects, agreed, that man needs a visible society to be man. Aristotle even denied human nature to those men who were “lone rangers,” who didn’t need any society:
And why man is a social animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. . . . It is clear therefore that the state is also prior by nature to the individual; for if each individual when separate is not self-sufficient, he must be related to the whole state as other parts are to their whole, while a man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a beast or a god.
Aristotle’s words were accepted as normative throughout the world of Classical Greece and Rome; he based his argument on “natural law,” on the evidence from nature, and everyone just “saw” that man just needs the collective to be truly man. Collectivism is inherent in paganism, and the Classical world knew nothing of “lone rangers.” Christianity, however, opposed to it a new theology of man: and that is, a man with God, even if alone against the whole world, is in the majority.
We have some today who, imagining they are doing service to God, write treatises against “lone rangers,” throwing on them the blame for the failures of the church in the last one century. What they really are rendering is not service to God but restoration of paganism and secularism, in all its collectivistic infamy, in all its distrust of self-control under God, of all its scorn of the individual who has a higher, transcendent calling, independent of man-made social engineering. Even when such men are sincere in their imaginations of the alleged danger of “lone rangers,” they are still defending an anti-Christian worldview, a worldview that is un-Biblical and therefore also self-destructive.
Of course, the easiest debunking of their imaginations is done by the question: “What lone ranger can you name that has been a major factor for the failures and the decline of the church in the last one century?” There is none that can be named. To the contrary, all the false doctrines in the church in the last one century, doctrines that have crippled the church and have made it passive and powerless and devoid of optimism—eschatological pessimism (premillennialism and amillennialism), pietism, antinomianism, statism, Arminianism, etc.—have been taught and promoted by celebrities, men of enormous following, of duly constituted local congregations, or denominations, or seminaries. On the other hand, “lone rangers” have been usually busy trying to repair the damage done by the ecclesiastics—and among those “lone rangers” one can mention a number of names like R.J. Rushdoony, Arthur Pink, Leonard Ravenhill, etc. Believing that “lone rangers” are by default dangerous to the Church while institutional churchmen are by default faithful Christians doesn’t reveal a sound Christian mind; it only reveals an amazing blindness to the covenant realities of our age.
But it also reveals blindness to the realities of the Biblical message. For in the Bible, the God we see is not a God of institutional systems. To the contrary, we see a God Who destroys institutional systems the moment they prove to be in rebellion against Him. And guess what: He does it through independent individuals, through those same “lone rangers” whom so many like Jeff Durbin today denounce as not being members of the Church.
Are there “lone rangers” in the Bible? There certainly are, a whole host of them. We don’t even have to mention Jesus, the Author of our faith, Who stood alone against two systems, the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious leadership; such mention might be a stumbling block to many. But we have many lesser men who were alone, and yet, with God, stood against systems and collectives.
We have Abraham, who was called out of his home and of his family to wander alone all his life. Yes, Abraham had his household but he was still called alone, according to Isaiah 51:2. God didn’t call a congregation our of Ur, He called one man, alone.
We have Moses, who was similarly called out of his people, and spent 40 years of his life alone among unbelievers, and then another 40 years alone in the wilderness. It was there, alone, in the wilderness, that God called him for his mission. And even later, when he had the largest single congregation the world has ever seen, God still required that Moses was alone before Him when He delivered His Law (Ex. 24:2).
We have Elijah, of whom we never have a single record ever submitting to a local congregation or elders, or serving his local community. (“Who are your elders, Elijah?”) Amazingly, Jesus specifically underscores the fact that if Elijah ever helped any widow in her distress, it was a widow outside the covenanted community (Luke 4:26). Much of his life Elijah spent alone, fed by ravens, or living in the house of a pagan widow, or on Mount Horeb, and yet, he continued prophesying against Israel. Ahab’s complaint in 1 Kings 18:17 against Elijah echoes almost exactly Jeff Durbin’s complaint against “facebook prophets”: “You, troubler of Israel.” An official leader of the covenanted community speaks in the name of the collective against a “lone ranger.” On whose side was God, is the relevant question here.
We can quote multiple other examples of “lone rangers” in the Old Testament, all summarized in Hebrews 11:38, and all praised for their faith:
. . . men of whom the world was not worthy, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.
Do we have examples of unrighteous, wicked “lone rangers,” people who stood against the visible covenanted community and its system of legitimate government just out of pride, not of love for God? We do, at least one: Jeroboam (1 Kings 11-12). He rebelled against the rule of King Solomon and against the rule of his son, Rehoboam. We need to remember, King Solomon’s rule was much more legitimate and lawfully established than the “leadership” of any modern Baptist or Presbyterian church; it was established directly by God, confirmed with prophecies and miracles. Modern Presbyterian and Baptist “churches” have nothing whatsoever to show to prove the legitimacy of their so-called “elders,” except for the votes of other men, of whose legitimacy there is no proof either. (And, given the decline of Christianity in the US today, their illegitimacy is well-attested by God’s curse on the modern church.) And yet, in this situation of one unrighteous “lone ranger” against a legitimately constituted authority over the covenanted community, God sided with the “lone ranger,” and sent His prophets to encourage and support the “lone ranger.” And it started as early as the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 11:26-40).
We see the same thing in the New Testament. John the Baptist set the pattern in the New Testament, living alone in the wilderness, without submitting to the properly constituted religious establishment. I have not read a single Baptist commentary explaining why a lone hermit outside any religious structures or ordination would be a lawful authority to perform baptism; nor a Presbyterian commentary, for that matter. We see Jesus rebuking the disciples when they wanted to forbid a man from casting out demons (Mark 9:38-40; Luke 9:49-50). The man was such a “lone ranger” that we don’t even have his name recorded. We see a lone evangelist, Philip, baptizing an Ethiopian (Acts 8) who returned to his country, and must have been the only Christian there, given that Ethiopians were not mentioned among the converts in Acts 2.
The Apostle Paul is not usually thought of as a “lone ranger,” but the testimony of the Book of Acts and some of his own epistles give us enough indication that he was a man of independent spirit and thought very little of official organizational structures. Before he went on his first missionary journey, there apparently was some sort of laying of hands on him by the prophets and teachers (no elders mentioned) in Antioch in Acts 13:1-3, and yet, the text clearly emphasizes the fact that the sending was done by the Holy Spirit Himself. Paul himself never referred to the church in Antioch as his “congregation” or “sending church.” He never mentioned his ordination by men. The question so darn cherished by modern ecclesiocrats, “Who are your elders?” seems to be ignored completely by Paul. In fact, if anything, Paul insisted to the Galatians that he was ordained and sent not by men (Gal. 1:1). And it is to these same Galatians (2:11-21) that Paul told about the incident in Antioch, in the very church that laid hands on him and sent him out, to which church Paul should have submitted, if he obeyed our modern churchian mythologies of “submission to the local church.”
Keep in mind that by the time of that incident, Paul was still not the authority he is today. He had finished only one missionary journey—not a very impressive feat, yet, for many others had done missions, too. He had just returned from the Council in Jerusalem which approved of his work, but remember, at that Council, Paul was not a participating apostle but a defendant. The Council was a church court, and Paul was examined for the orthodoxy of his ideas and practices. One of his judges was Peter himself. A few weeks or months later, the two met in the church in Antioch, where Paul dared challenge Peter for his practices and views. Remember, Paul was still nobody compared to the Chief of the Apostles. No one in the church shared Paul’s views; the text clearly says that the rest of the Jews and even his beloved Barnabas joined Peter in his hypocrisy. It was a clear position of the majority in the church—the Chief of the Apostles, the elders and the members of the church, and even Paul’s closest associates.
Nothing in our modern churchian mythologies of “submission” and “local church membership” can explain Paul’s actions when he saw that hypocrisy. The man who just recently was a defendant in a church court, a nobody compared to everyone else, alone against the whole church, opposed the Chief of the Apostles “to his face” and accused him of hypocrisy, and of nullifying the grace of God and of the sacrifice of Christ. Yes, this relatively recent convert, to the face of the Apostle who personally saw Christ, lived with Christ, and received personally Christ’s last testament to care for His Church (John 21:15-17).
We don’t know what Peter’s immediate response was; we know that eventually he came to agree with Paul, for in his second epistle written 10-15 years later he spoke highly of Paul and his writings (1 Pet. 3:15). But whatever his response was at that moment, there is a lesson here for Jeff Durbin: That even if a “lone ranger” came to him and opposed him to his face in his own church, in front of everyone, Jeff better not be quick to dismiss him, for he may be dismissing God Himself. Let alone those “facebook prophets” that he so loves to dismiss. Until Jeff Durbin learns this kind of humility and submission, to accept correction no matter where it comes from, he is still unqualified to tell others how to submit.
There’s an even greater lesson in all these examples of “lone rangers” in the Bible, and that is that God almost never speaks nor gives prophetic word through established church hierarchies; He always prefers to speak through lone individuals. And that when a covenanted organization faces a lone individual who denounces the organization or calls it to repentance, odds are, God is Who raised that lone individual (1 Kings 11), and the formal legitimacy of the organization is of absolutely no consequence to God and to His covenant. Anyone who denounces prophets or adversaries solely on the basis of their lack of “local church membership,” or because they are “lone rangers,” is Biblically and covenantally blind, and has chosen the road to destruction. Paul had a good reason to say, “Do not despise prophecies” (1 Thess. 5:20). God is a God of “lone rangers,” and a Destroyer of man-made systems.
The Modern Mythologies of “Submission,” “Accountability,” and “Church Discipline”
There isn’t, and has never been any Biblical argument in favor of mandatory “local church membership.” The Bible just doesn’t mention it, and in fact, it clearly indicates that God supports individuals against collectives more often than He supports collectives against individuals; for one reason or another, men in collectives are much more tempted to stand against Him than men who are alone. Because there is no Biblical argument for mandatory “local church membership,” modern churchmen resort to a rationalist argument: “Without local church membership, there can be no submission to elders, no accountability, and no church discipline.”
This fact needs to be emphasized: no matter how popular this argument is today among modern ecclesiocrats, no matter how often they use it in their sermons and lectures and writings, the argument is not Biblical: it cannot be found in the Bible, and it cannot be reasonably derived from any Biblical teaching whatsoever, for it clearly contradicts the Biblical evidence. Submission, accountability, and church discipline in the Bible were clearly done without an additional covenant or any other additional burden related to “local church membership.” A presuppositional analysis of the argument shows clearly that it is a rationalist argument, not a Biblical argument. It starts with an a priori definition of “submission” as “submission to the local church,” of “accountability” as “accountability to the local church,” and “discipline” as “discipline by the local church.” Once the local church has been included as a necessary condition in the very definitions of these things, then, of course, the question is asked, “How do you have submission, accountability, or discipline without the local church?”
It is the same propaganda trick used by socialists today: their definitions of “welfare” and “charity” include mandatory redistribution of wealth as a necessary condition, so their answer to any libertarian solution is, “How will we have charity if the government doesn’t tax the rich?” Roads, of course, are always by definition built by the government; private entities can’t build roads, therefore, “Who’s gonna build the roads?” Education is by default government education, so when we call for the abolition of government schools, the answer is, “How would people get education then?” The examples for such propaganda manipulation are everywhere around us. In the same way, the modern churchian leaders, after they have re-defined “submission,” “accountability,” and “discipline,” ask the same manipulative propaganda question: “Without local church membership, how can we have submission, accountability, or discipline?”
And yet, when we look at the results in the American church of the last one century, when the doctrine of “local church membership” became dominant, we don’t see the claimed results. Not only discipline and accountability are at an all-time low, but the church in America has been losing the cultural war for three generations in a row. Whatever the churchmen imagine about the value of their “local church membership,” it apparently contributes nothing to the strength of the church. Baptists, of course, have always been all over the place theologically and practically. As early as the 1640s, there were several Baptist confessions in England, some Calvinist, some extreme Arminian. The 19th century continued the same divide, and there were groups spinning off the two main branches who went into a lot of heretical ideologies. Even today, there is no unified view among Baptists, even within the same denomination. Just recently, a high-level celebrity within the Southern Baptist Convention called for the excommunication of all the Calvinists from the Convention. As if that was not enough, another celebrity-status pastor recently declared that one’s salvation is dependent on voting for Donald Trump. It took the SBC more than 50 years after the beginning of the Christian homeschool movement to come to some sorta unified, although unclear position on who should be teaching the children of Christian parents. Some churches in the denomination have accepted sodomite marriage—one would think that this is where at least Baptists would draw the line, but no. And the situation is even worse when one looks at more than just the SBC, and when one looks at more than just theological and practical views.
No matter how one tries to twist the historical and modern evidence, the truth is, Baptists, who have had a confessional requirement for mandatory “local church membership” for three and a half centuries, have, of all the Protestant groups, the worst possible record of accountability and church discipline.
The other groups and denominations—Presbyterians, Episcopalians (Anglican), Methodists, Dutch Reformed, Hungarian Reformed, Lutheran—have not had such confessional requirement, and while there have been splits and problems, all of them together could not rival the theological and ideological chaos within the Baptist movement . . . until the 20th century, when all these groups also accepted the Baptist ideology of ghettoization of the church. And, guess what, it led to the same result as with the Baptists: not only numerous splits, but also a proliferation of anti-Biblical ideologies within their churches, not to mention hundreds of cases of scandalous behavior and practices and outright betrayal of the basic principles of the Gospel which remain not only unpunished, but in some cases are encoded as normative in the very constitutions of some churches.2
In the face of the overwhelming historical and current evidence, only a severely blind and brainwashed person can seriously claim that mandatory “local church membership” is necessary for maintaining accountability and discipline in the church. And indeed, such blindness is common in the American church today, because these terms have not been taken in their Biblical meaning. They have been rather developed into a modern mythology, a mythology designed to solidify the power of the churchian elites over the mass of ordinary Christians.
As we know from R.J. Rushdoony’s extensive studies3 on the sociological and political implications of paganism and Christian theism (that is, trinitarianism), all pagan mythologies and religions and ideologies are by default statist and collectivist to the core. We also saw Aristotle’s declaration that one who doesn’t need a society is not even a human. There is a good reason for such collectivism: paganism has a problem with the issue of unity. If there isn’t a transcendent God-Creator of the world (polytheism or atheism), or if that God is silent (Islam or Arianism), or if that God is silent on the current applications of His Word (modern churchian cessationism, which is nothing more than baptized rationalism),4 then there can be no transcendent principle of cohesion between men in the society. Or, at the very least, such principle would be impossible to know and comprehend. If there is no such principle, then it is left to human agencies to provide it for the men in the society. If there is such a principle, it will be so concealed that only an “enlightened” or “spiritual” elite would be able to decipher it and convey it to all—which is, again, human agencies providing cohesion and unity. No matter what the starting point of a society’s thinking is, if it is not consistent trinitarianism (equal ultimacy of unity and plurality, of transcendence and immanence) to all its bitter conclusions, that society will tend to degenerate into some sort of collectivism. In the final account, an elite—educational, religious, military, political—will have to take over to provide the unity in that society. This is why all pagan religions and ideologies inevitably produce collectivist and totalitarian societies and cultures.
Once the issue of unity is thus placed in the hands of an elite, of a human agency, then that human agency must be declared divine, for no challenge to its power can be tolerated. The issue, note well, is not just political or organizational; it is first and foremost religious. Belonging to the collective, submitting to its elite (elders, leaders, commanders, or whatever you name it) becomes now a “fundamental part of the life” of the member of the society, it is “God’s design” for him. His refusal to be “under the care” of his beloved leaders by default means that he “despises authority,” for not being “under the care” of the elite means that a man despises unity—as it is defined by the elite. (Remember, there is no unity except for whatever “unity” the elite provides.) Thus, in all paganism, the individual is always viewed with suspicion and distrust; “lone rangers” are always expected to be “troublemakers,” destroyers of that divine unity and cohesion provided by the elite. All social theory and practice of paganism—or of that deficient Christianity which deifies the collective, as in Jeff Durbin’s statement—therefore has for its goal the subjection of the individual and the automatic placement of the elite above all judgment, all accountability, above all discipline. Unless the “leaders” are free of accountability, there can be no protection against the “danger” of free men who exercise their private judgment.
Indeed, that is the very purpose of the modern mythologies of “submission,” “accountability,” or “church discipline.” They always speak of “submission, accountability, and discipline” for individuals. They never speak of “submission, accountability, and discipline” for church sessions. There is never a word in all their writings and speaking of what the obligations of church sessions are—and therefore of what the punishments for church sessions are when they don’t meet their obligations.
One of my elders in the past, involved in planting a church with other elders, had to sit through a meeting listening to their talk about the different levels of government—family, church, and state—about their rights and responsibilities, and about the Biblical principles of mutual control between these levels of government: for example, what the church can speak to the government in terms of correction, of to the family, etc. At some point of the discussion, he asked, “Aren’t we missing one level of government, the most important one? What about self-government, its responsibilities, and its rights to correct and discipline the other governments?” The “session” went silent for a moment, then ignored his words, and continued as if he had said nothing. I wish it was just one church session, but it is not. There is not a single Book of Church Order in any church or denomination in the US today which acknowledges the rights and responsibilities of self-government, and allows it certain power and privileges over church government. Self-government doesn’t exist; or, if it exists, it is only pro-forma, in the form of “submission” to the “local church.” You have to submit to the local church, otherwise you don’t have “self-government.” The question is, of course, “Submit to what? What are you going to ask me to do?” But that answer is left conveniently vague in the books of the modern ecclesiocrats.
Under these modern mythologies, there is never the question of accountability or discipline for the local session. Who is Jeff Durbin accountable to? Just to his session which consists of his handpicked closest friends? If this is “accountability,” then anyone can claim “accountability” to his buddies. Who can excommunicate Jeff Durbin and his session if they commit injustice as a session? Is such accountability of his session included in his church’s constitution? Does it say who can excommunicate the session if they commit injustice?
Back in the 1980s, cops from the LAPD’s SWAT team tortured activists of Operation Rescue on the streets of Los Angeles; they also kicked a pregnant mother until her unborn baby died. The cops were led by Bob Vernon, who was also an elder in John MacArthur’s church. Vernon had the full support of his “local church leadership,” and later, John MacArthur had an honor service for the same cops who had brutalized other Christians and had murdered an unborn baby. No repentance came out from either Vernon or MacArthur’s church elders, not even a formal apology. Who holds MacArthur responsible for supporting this murder? Who can take MacArthur to court and excommunicate him if found guilty? And Jeff Durbin calls MacArthur a “hero of the faith.” Does that mean that one day, if for one reason or another Apologia’s church session commits the same crime, there will be no accountability for them?
Yes, that’s what it means. That’s the very purpose of the modern mythologies of “submission,” “accountability,” and “church discipline”: it is to rob individual Christians of their Christian liberty and to establish the power of churchian elites over the individual conscience of their members. It is to free the churchian celebrities of our age of all accountability and to make then invulnerable to all discipline. As I pointed in my article on “Modern Presbyterianism and the Destruction of the Principle of Plurality of Elders,” no matter what decision a church session makes, there is no punishment, no accountability, no discipline. As long as an elder doesn’t go “rogue,” that is, doesn’t go against the collective of other elders, he can commit any kind of injustice in agreement with other elders, and get away with it. And this is not limited to Presbyterianism; it applies to every single session of every single church or denomination in the US.
The only possible solution to this problem of the lack of accountability and discipline for churchian celebrities and elites is when individual people start leaving their churches, realizing the corruption of the modern so-called “elders” and their so-called “sessions.” Since there is no accountability for the very leaders who demand accountability, and since there is no discipline for the same people who claim to enforce discipline, then those individual members of their flocks who want to remain faithful to Christ and His true Church—not to the fake churches of today—have only one resort: leave. And also, take their money with them and quit supporting the fake leaders of today. And perhaps even take their money to the true prophets and teachers of God, who have not bowed their knees to Baal. Like that man of Baal-Shalisha (literally, the Lord of the Trinity) in 2 Kings 4:42, who, instead of bringing the bread of his first fruits to the Temple, as was according to the Law (Ex. 23:19), brought it to Elisha, the Prophet of God. And Elisha did not return him to the Temple, but used the bread to perform one of those miracles of a little of bread multiplied for a multitude of people. Apparently, God was quite pleased that the man did not obey His Law in the ceremonial detail, but obeyed it in its spirit. And if the Temple that was established personally by God did not deserve the first fruits, why should our modern “local churches” who have proven to be fake and useless deserve any better?
And this is where the doctrine of the mandatory “local church membership” comes to play its most important role: not to secure accountability and discipline, not at all. But to secure the loyalty of the individual Christians. Because, you know, unless you are a “member” and you give your tithe to a “church,” without holding them accountable, you are not a true Christian. And if you dare hold them accountable, don’t forget you are a member, you have made a covenant to submit, and they can “excommunicate” you, while you have no recourse against them. It has nothing to do with real discipline and with real accountability. The doctrine is specifically made to protect the elites. As R.J. Rushdoony said, commenting on the local church, “The attitude of the modern man is that status is a license for irresponsibility.”5 That attitude has become encoded in the mythologies of “submission,” “accountability,” and “church discipline.”
And that’s why the church has been in this sorry state for the last 100 years.
Submission to Church Bureaucrats Is Not in the Bible
The mythology of “submission to elders” needs a special section in this article, given that it has become the main objection to the universal view of the church encoded in the Confessions. It is one of these mantras of the modern church that have been gullibly accepted as true by default by millions of Christians without checking with their Bible as true Bereans, to see if the Bible really supports such concept.
I wish I could include a subsection with an epistemological analysis of this theory of power and submission to power; but this will make this article a little too long. Perhaps I will do it in a future article where I will discuss similar theories supporting the different sorts of collectivisms raising their heads in the Church today: establishmentarianism, patriarchalism, high-churchism etc. Suffice to say here that such theory of power and submission is not based on the Bible and is not supported by the covenantal worldview of the Bible. It is based rather on the “natural law” theory. It is under the “natural law” theory that “naturally” existing power must be necessarily exercised, or it is wasted. A person in power is supposed to actively use his power to force others to do good, not let it lie passively and only use it to prevent them from doing evil. The father in the family (as the most powerful person in the family), the ruler in civil government (as the most powerful person in a geographical territory), the session of elders in the church (as those who wield the power of ultimate decisions in the church) would be wasting the power given to them if they don’t use it to make individuals follow their agenda. Thus, individuals would be “disrespecting authority” if they rely on their own individual judgment and maturity, if they follow their own agenda and vision and mission. Especially if that individual agenda and vision and mission is not approved by the powerful of the day. Or, licensed or permitted by them. This, again, will be left for a future article. For now, enough to remember that modern statism did not appear out of nothing. It was modeled after modern church collectivism, or the same doctrine of “submission to elders” that is so popular today in our churches.
The Biblical doctrine of power and submission is exactly the opposite to that of “natural law.” The Law of God clearly limits the extent of all power in the society and leaves the greatest power to self-government. The New Testament supports this “rugged individualism” of the Law by declaring that “the head of every man is Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3). Not his pastor or elders, nor his civil government. In addition to that, Jesus specifically declared that in His Kingdom, the pagan order of hierarchy—from the powerful to the weak—is turned on its head, and it is those who serve that are the true authority, not those of power:
And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:24-27).
In the Kingdom of God, legal, or physical, or intellectual, or governmental, or ecclesiastical power is not the basis for authority. In fact, the opposite is true: the less a man uses his power to lord over other people and the more he uses is to serve (as the one who serves at the table), the higher his authority is. This reversed system of power vs. authority is apparently very important, given that Jesus repeats the same principle multiple times (see, for example, Matt. 20:25-28; 23:11; Mark 9:35-37; 10:42-45; Luke 9:46-48; etc.). Even more than that, the more power a man is given, the more he must be held accountable and the worse the punishments on him in case he commits transgression (Luke 12:48). The men who are given more power in the church—or in any society—should not be also given submission, for this will lead to a pagan order of things. To the contrary, they must be held to the strictest standards, under severe control, constantly supervised, and immediately punished and sacked in case of transgression. Only in a pagan social order submission is given to men in power; in a covenantal society, submission is given only to servants. Servants are given all the freedom they need to work and serve. Powerful men are kept on a short leash and immediately rebelled against and punished when they cross their lines.
Thus, contrary to all the modern mythologies of some “biblical command” to submit to elders in the sense of church bureaucrats, the Bible contains no such command. It certainly contains commandments to submit to authority, but, following Jesus’s statement quoted above, that authority has nothing to do with legal power or structures in the churches.
To start with, the only verse that specifically says “submit to your elders” in the English translation, clearly doesn’t have “elders” as “church leaders”:
You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders. . . . (1 Peter 5:5).
The clear meaning of the word “elders” is the original, direct meaning: “older men.” (That’s the meaning of the word presbus in Greek.) The counterpoint between older (presbuteros) and younger (neoteros) is the same as in 1 Tim. 5:1: “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers.”
The objection here may be that Peter perhaps had in mind church elders, given that the context in the first four verses of 1 Pet. 5 indicates men in formal office. Such formal office, however, has to be assumed first before read into these verses; and even then, it is not clear why only the younger ones are admonished to obey. Aren’t the older non-elders not commanded to obey?
The more Biblical interpretation of the word “elders” in Peter’s words is not “church administrators” but “men of authority,” whether these men had any official legal power in the church or not. The same Greek word of “be subject” (hupotasso) is applied in other places for different circumstances, but an important one in respect to “submit” is 1 Cor. 16:16 where Paul commands the church at Corinth to “be in subjection to such,” and from the previous verse the “such” are the “household of Stephanas.” Obviously, the whole “household” can’t be a group of church administrators, for the word includes also the women in the household (and, if you are a paedobaptist, the children as well). The special position of authority of Stephanas’s household was that they “were the first fruits of Achaia, and have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints.” Their authority of “elders”—older in the faith than anyone else in that church—had nothing to do with their position of legal power but with their service. That is, just as Jesus said it should be: it’s the servants who should be rendered submission, not the rulers.
The same focus on submission for service is in Heb 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.” Again, the assumption that the “leaders” here are “church bureaucrats” is unwarranted. The description would fit anyone in a position of teaching and influence and authority, whether they are church bureaucrats or not. It, in fact, would exclude those of the modern “church elders” who can’t demonstrate being responsible for anyone’s soul; such deserve no obedience and submission whatsoever, no matter what their official title in the church is.
This point is even further emphasized in 1 Tim. 5:17:
The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.
This is the closest statement in the Bible of obedience—or, rather, “double honor”—to church officers, for the designation elder is clearly connected to the word “rule.” And yet, even here, “double honor” is only conditional: “the elders who rule well.” If we assume that the verse speaks of church administrators or officers, the question that we need to ask is, Who decides which elders rule well and which don’t? If you ask the church bureaucrats themselves, they will all say that they rule well. We already know what the standard is for good rule: service. But who or what institution decides if an elder really lives up to that standard?
To answer this question, we need to raise from oblivion one of the most important, and yet the most forgotten doctrines of the Reformation, a doctrine that in previous centuries was understood to be the mark of Protestantism by every single Reformed theologian, and yet today is never mentioned by any supposedly “Reformed” celebrity, and in the few places where it is mentioned, it is only to be rejected, maligned, and ridiculed: the doctrine of the right and duty of private judgment.
The Priesthood of All Believers and the Right and Duty of Private Judgment
What is missing from the mythologies of the modern ecclesiocrats is one of the foundational doctrines of the Reformation, namely, the priesthood of all believers. Not that the modern “Reformed” celebrities don’t mention that doctrine; but the way they teach it is vastly different from what the Reformers meant by it.
A number of examples can be presented of the modern, twisted meaning of this doctrine, but this article by Ligonier would be a good example, with a succinct presentation of it: “A Royal Priesthood in Christ.” Going to the Old Testament for the meaning of our priesthood, the article ends with the following summary:
In Christ, there is a true priesthood of all believers. All of us who trust in Jesus alone for salvation have free access into His presence, and all of our lawful vocations are set apart for true God-honoring service.
Notice what the “priesthood” is limited to: to our access to God and to our salvation. That is, our priesthood is limited to our passive standing before God. And perhaps our daily job routine, as well. This is entirely in agreement with the modern mythologies of “submission,” as we discussed them above. Whatever we do, as individuals and priests, we do not have any authority above and beyond our own personal life and salvation. All that our “priesthood” counts for is our salvation. Nothing else.
But the author of this Ligonier article is wrong: this is not what the function of the priesthood was in the Old Testament, and this is certainly not what the Reformers had in mind when they proclaimed the priesthood of all believers. A priest was not simply one who was personally saved by having direct access to God. Such idea of a priest personally saved may be a good pagan idea, but it certainly is not a Biblical idea. The concept of priesthood was a concept of mediatorial service, of judiciary authority in the name of God and based on His Law. It was not the direct access to God that defined a priest—in fact, only one priest entered the Holy of Holies once a year. (If anyone had direct access to God all the time, it seems to be the prophets, not the priests.) People were saved without being priests, directly by God. People could offer to God without a priest, or could make their offering to non-priests (2 Kings 4:42). Non-priests could enter the Temple and eat of the bread that was only for the priests. But the function of the priests was to read the Law and to interpret it to other people. It was not their status before God that defined them as priests; it was their function to the world outside the Temple and even outside the covenanted community that defined them as priests. They were supposed to read the Word, and judge everything based on their understanding of the Word.6 Yes, judge even the church and the other priests of the covenanted community.
Thus we come to one of the most puzzling of all paradoxes of modern Protestantism: the complete disappearance of the doctrine of the right and duty of private judgment from our modern pulpits.
This was part of Luther’s idea of the priesthood of all believers: That every believer is entitled to his private judgment as to what the Word of God says, and is obligated to exercise his private judgment in relation to whatever the church or the civil authorities say. Any submission to any kind of authority must start from the personal conscience of the individual, and therefore from his private judgment. There was more to Luther’s idea, of course, and it was that the priesthood of all believers made it the rule that any Christian has the mandate to preach the Word of God to any authorities and to any audience, whether he has a permission from bishops or popes or not.7 Submission to authorities, in Luther’s view, was to be conditional, and the condition was whatever the authorities said must be first judged by the individual based on his understanding of the Bible.
Private judgment was specifically included in the Reformed confessions of faith as one of the legitimate sources of knowledge, on the same level as church councils, and in need to be judged by the Word of God just as much as the opinions of the church councils:
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (WCF 1:10; LBCF 1:10)
It was on this basis, and on the basis of their struggles against the prelacy that the early Presbyterians in Scotland and the Puritans and other dissenters in England developed the concept of private judgment, as an application of the priesthood of all believers, to the position of a fundamental doctrine of the Reformed faith. Among a small modern sect today who fancy themselves to be spiritual heirs of the Scottish Covenanters, it is fashionable to lambast private judgment and to extol collective decisions of churchian “councils” as if they are the last time the Holy Spirit has spoken (similar to the Romanists after the Council of Trent). But the truth is, the original Covenanters trusted private judgment far more than any of the modern supposedly “Reformed” theologians. No less of an authority than George Gillespie declared the importance of private judgment:
The subordinate judgment, which I call private, is the judgment of discretion whereby every Christian, for the certain information of his own mind, and the satisfaction of his own conscience, may and ought to try and examine, as well the decrees of councils as the doctrine of particular pastors, and in so far to receive and believe the same, as he understands them to agree with the Scriptures (George Gillespie, A Dispute Against The English Popish Ceremonies).
Gillespie was consistent, and he did not change his mind when it came to Presbyterianism, but actually denied the right even of a Presbyterian government to discard private judgment:
The prelates did not allow men to examine, by the judgment of Christians and private discretion, their decrees and canons, so as to search the Scriptures and look at the warrants, but would needs have men think it enough to know the things to be commanded by them that are in places of power. Presbyterial government doth not lord it over men’s consciences, but admitteth (yea commendeth) the searching of the Scriptures, whether these things that it holds forth be not so, and doth not press men’s consciences with sic volo, sic jubeo, but desireth they may do in faith what they do (George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 1646).
Earlier in that same book, Gillespie contends that when a church is not doing its job of a church, individual Christians have the right to leave, have no obligation to obey the church, and that they even have the right to speak to it with the same spirit as the prophets, quoting Calvin himself to this regard:
They, therefore, who give their will for a law, and their authority for a reason, and answer all the arguments of their opponents, by bearing down with the force of public constitution and the judgment of superiors, to which theirs must be conformed, do rule the Lord’s flock “with force and with cruelty” (Ezek. 34:4); as “lords over God’s heritage” (1 Pet. 5:3) Always, since men give us no leave to try their decrees and constitutions, that we may hold fast to no more than is good, God be thanked that we have a warrant to do it (without their leave) from his own word (1 Thess. 5:21) . . . “If we rightly feel we are deprived of the faculty of questioning, it must be indicated by that same spirit who speaks through his prophets,” says Calvin. We will not then call any man rabbi nor, “jurare in verba magistri“, nor yet be Pathagorean disciples to the church herself, but we will believe her and obey her in so far only as she is the pillar and ground of the truth (George Gillespie, A Dispute Against The English Popish Ceremonies).
Apparently, the original Covenanters were much more Biblical than modern Presbyterians, and than Jeff Durbin, being willing to both listen to prophets outside the church, and to speak to the church as prophets outside it, with the same Spirit who moved the prophets.
Francis Turretin went as far as to say that individuals guided by the Holy Spirit were better capable of finding out the meaning of Scripture:
Rather we hold only that private believers gifted with the Holy Spirit are bound to examine according to the Word of God, whatever is proposed for their belief or practice by the rulers of the church; as much as by individuals separately as by many congregated in a synod. Also they are to believe that by the guidance of the Spirit, by pious prayers and diligent study of the Scriptures, they can better find out the meaning of Scripture in things necessary to salvation than whole synods receding from the Word of God and than a society which claims for itself (but falsely) the name of the true church. (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1696)
This was part of their “indispensable” office as priests and was meant to protect them against church tyranny and bondage:
That cannot, therefore, be considered rashness or pride which belongs to the execution of an indispensable office imposed upon all believers. Nor under the pretext of avoiding pride ought believers to blind themselves and to divest themselves of their right in order that their consciences by a blind obedience may be reduced to bondage. (Ibid.)
Turretin’s conclusion is that individual Christians do not owe anyone any obedience in the matters of conscience, because such obedience would put their souls in danger:
But in affairs of conscience which have reference to faith, piety and the worship of God, no one can usurp dominion over the conscience; nor are we bound to obey anyone, because otherwise we would be bound to error and impiety and thus we would incur eternal punishment and our consciences would be stained with vices without criminality because we would be bound to obey superiors absolutely (Ibid.)
But these were Presbyterians. What about Reformed Baptists, like Charles Spurgeon? England has never had a more stout defender of private judgment against all human authority than the Prince of Preachers. The examples from his sermons are too many to list, so we will have to limit them. The clearest of all is in his sermon on Luke 12:54-57, where he identifies private judgment and resistance against authority with “manliness of spirit”:
He charges them to use their common sense, and not submit themselves to be hoodwinked by their leaders. He asked, “Judge you not even of yourselves what is right?” Why bow yourselves down that scribes and Pharisees may go over you? Think and judge for yourselves like men. The Lord, here, declares the duty of private judgment, and exhorts the people to use it, urging them to yield no more a slavish obedience to the mandates of their false leaders, but to use their own wits as they would upon ordinary matters, and even of themselves judge what was right. The people needed awakening from spiritual slumber. They required to be exhorted to manliness of spirit, for they had so completely surrendered their judgments to their blind leaders, that the most conspicuous signs of the time were unperceived by them.
Obviously, Jeff Durbin’s insistence of people submitting to the “care of pastors” would lead to “un-manliness” of spirit. One doesn’t create true men by making them dependent on someone’s care. Manliness is produced by maturity, and maturity is produced by the ability of a man to deal with challenges alone, with the invisible God, against all visible odds. Jeff’s call for all to find a “safe space” under leaders who are neither proven legitimate nor mature themselves will only create immature men. We have too many of those immature men. We need Spurgeon’s manliness of spirit. For this we need private judgment to resist all human authority. Yes, even that of Jeff’s church.
The “right and duty of private judgment” was so dear a doctrine to Spurgeon that he was willing to break his ties with his Baptist brethren over it as one of the most important doctrines of Protestantism. In 1888, he offered his resignation as a member of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland. His dissatisfaction with the Union was that it allowed membership to people who were questioning or rejecting basic Biblical doctrines. A delegation from the Union was promptly sent to Spurgeon. His reply to the delegation was that the Union needed to have a “simple basis of Bible truths. These are usually described as Evangelical doctrines.” He then gave the delegation the following list of those Evangelical doctrines (notice the order in which they were given):
- The Divine inspiration, authority, and efficiency of the Holy Scriptures.
- The right and duty of private judgment in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.
- The Unity of the Godhead, and the Trinity of Persons therein.
- The utter depravity of human nature in consequence of the fall.
- The incarnation of the Son of God. His work of atonement for sinners of mankind, and His mediatorial intercession and reign.
- The justification of the sinner by faith alone.
- The work of the Holy Spirit in the conversion and sanctification of the sinner.
- The immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, the judgment of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, with the eternal blessedness of the righteous, and the eternal punishment of the wicked.
- The Divine institution of the Christian ministry, and the obligation and perpetuity of the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.8
These were the doctrinal priorities of the Prince of Preachers. The right to private judgment is in second place, after the importance of the Holy Scriptures, before everything else. He was a good Calvinist, after all, and like Calvin in his Institutes, started his priorities from the knowledge of God, which could only come from Scripture through private judgment in interpretation. The Divine institution of Christian ministry comes last. What about the Baptist confessional requirement for “local church membership”? Nowhere on the list.
Returning to the Presbyterian camp, Charles Hodge, of whom we talked above, also makes private judgment the mark of the Protestant faith, and relates it to the centrality and the perspicuity of Scripture. He has a special section on “Private Judgment” in his Systematic Theology. Here’s what one of the greatest theologians in the history of Presbyterianism has to say on this issue:
What Protestants deny on this subject is, that Christ has appointed any officer, or class of officers, in his Church to whose interpretation of the Scriptures the people are bound to submit as of final authority. What they affirm is that He has made it obligatory upon every man to search the Scriptures for himself, and determine on his own discretion what they require him to believe and to do.9
Echoing Turretin’s statement of the danger of obeying men on matters of faith and conscience, Hodge continues:
Every man is responsible for his religious faith and his moral conduct. He cannot transfer that responsibility to others; nor can others assume it in his stead. He must answer for himself; and if he must answer for himself, he must judge for himself. It will not avail him in the day of judgment to say that his parents or his Church taught him wrong. He should have listened to God, and obeyed Him rather than men.10
We will talk later of the real meaning of church discipline, and that in the Bible, contrary to our modern practices, it has absolutely nothing to do with church elders. Hodge himself makes the correct observation that divine admonishments in the Bible are always directed at the people in general, not at their elders. The people do not need anyone to stand between them and God in understanding Scripture:
The Scriptures are everywhere addressed to the people, and not to the officers of the Church either exclusively, or specially. The prophets were sent to the people, and constantly said, “Hear, O Israel,” “Hearken, O ye people.” Thus, also, the discourses of Christ were addressed to the people, and the people heard him gladly. All the Epistles of the New Testament are addressed to the congregation, to the “called of Jesus Christ;” “to the beloved of God;” to those “called to be saints;” “to the sanctified in Christ Jesus;” “to all who call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord;” “to the saints which are in (Ephesus), and to the faithful in Jesus Christ;” or “to the saints and faithful brethren which are in (Colosse);” and so in every instance. It is the people who are addressed. To them are directed these profound discussions of Christian doctrine, and these comprehensive expositions of Christian duty. They are everywhere assumed to be competent to understand what is written, and are everywhere required to believe and obey what thus came from the inspired messengers of Christ. They were not referred to any other authority from which they were to learn the true import of these inspired instructions. It is, therefore, not only to deprive the people of a divine right, to forbid the people to read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves; but it is also to interpose between them and God, and to prevent their hearing his voice, that they may listen to the words of men.11
This, of course, is in agreement with the description of the New Covenant in Heb. 8:11 and Jeremiah 31:34. The quotes from Charles Hodge to this regard are so many that we will have to limit them, but the last is important, for it not only defends the right to private judgment, it also establishes our duty to resist any alleged church “minister” who wants to mandate submission to a human authority:
It need hardly be remarked that this right of private judgment is the great safeguard of civil and religious liberty.
The principle of the right and duty of private judgment is not limited to Presbyterians and Baptists; it is common to all reformed Christians. I will present in the conclusion of this article a very powerful quote by Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed theologian, but for now, the next example will be from a Reformed Anglican Bishop, J.C. Ryle himself, recently praised even by John MacArthur in a sermon as a Reformed authority. (Although, MacArthur is probably ignorant of all the views J.C. Ryle taught.) Ryle, a bishop of Liverpool, believed so much in private judgment that he even had a separate paper on it, titled . . . well . . . “Private Judgment,” of course.
Here’s how J.C. Ryle describes what won the victory for the Protestant Reformation:
There were three great doctrines or principles which won the battle of the Protestant Reformation. These three were:
(1) the sufficiency and supremacy of Holy Scripture,
(2) the right of private judgment, and
(3) justification by faith only, without the deeds of the law.
The whole article is an amazing defense of the right, duty, and necessity of private judgment, so I won’t quote all that is relevant, but one line is important to us here, for in it, Bishop Ryle comes to the logical conclusion of the concept of private judgment, and that is, that a true Christian has the right and the duty to stand alone against the whole Church when necessary! And that local churches all come and go, but a Christian must stand on the truth of God, even if that means to stand alone. Yes, that’s an Anglican Bishop saying it:
The particular branches of the Church are not infallible. Any one of them may err. Many of them have fallen foully, or have been swept away. Where is the Church of Ephesus at this day? Where is the Church of Sardis at the present time? Where is Augustine’s Church of Hippo in Africa? Where is Cyprian’s Church of Carthage? They are all gone! Not a vestige of any of them is left! Shall we then be content to err — merely because the Church errs? Will our company be any excuse for our error? Will our erring in company with the Church remove our responsibility for our own souls? Surely it is a thousand times better for a man to stand alone and be saved — than to err in company with the Church, and be lost! It is better to “prove all things” — and go to Heaven; than to say, “I dare not think for myself” — and go to Hell!
Jeff Durbin should pay attention: as a Baptist minister, it should be particularly alarming to him that a Presbyterian (Hodge) and an Episcopalian (Ryle) have a better view of Christian liberty and the rights and duties of the individual against the church. This is a very good sign that in his ecclesiology, he is not Reformed, but he has rather gone over to the side of Rome and their ecclesiology, making himself a little pope. Granted, he may be listening to other Baptist preachers whom he respects and esteems, but this may turn out to be a dangerous trust. For many Baptist ministers in America today are nothing more than practical papists in their view of their own congregations.
To this list of Reformed theologians who held the right and duty of private judgment to be the distinguished mark of the Reformation we can add other theologians like Heinrich Bullinger, Melanchton, A.A. Hodge, John Owen, James Henley Thornwell, Robert Dabney, Richard Baxter, and many others. Obviously, the doctrine of private judgment was considered one of the most important doctrines of the Reformation and in the history of Reformed theology, no matter which part or group of the Reformed family one chooses. In fact, this is how the Reformation started, with Luther’s firm affirmation of his right and duty to private judgment before a court of the political and church elite of the day:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.
And it is for this reason the first thing he did after the Diet of Worms was not to establish a new church hierarchy but to translate the Bible into the language of the people, so that the people could exercise their right and duty of private judgment.
To make it simple: without the right and duty to private judgment, there is no Reformation, and we are back to Papism.
Isn’t it strange, then, that the modern allegedly “Reformed” celebrities never even mention this doctrine, and very few, if any, of modern “Reformed” Christians even know about the doctrine and about its importance for the Reformation? John MacArthur has had 30+ years of preachings, and a search on his name and “private judgment” doesn’t yield any results. Same applies to Albert Mohler. Same applies to John Piper. Same applies to Michael Horton. Same applies to R. Scott Clark, and all the other names at Westminster West. Same applies to RC Sproul. Same applies to a number of other modern Reformed celebrities. I don’t follow Jeff Durbin’s show and I can’t find any database of topics, but when I asked people who follow it, they can’t remember him ever speaking on the issue of private judgment. I have never heard a sermon on private judgment in any “Reformed” church I have been to. None of my friends can remember such a sermon or lecture ever, neither in church or at any seminary. I have had people who have been Presbyterians their whole lives and have been through hundreds and thousands of sermons and lectures, and when I mention “private judgment,” they are all against it; and they are deeply surprised when I tell them that it was actually one of the most important doctrines of the Reformation.
(On a side note, if we follow Spurgeon’s declaration that exercising private judgment is “manliness of spirit,” perhaps we have an explanation of why the modern church in America is so effeminate and devoid of manliness.)
Any conscientious reader should be deeply alarmed by now. How is it that a doctrine that just 100 years ago was considered one of the cornerstones of the Reformation and of Protestantism, is today so well-forgotten, and never mentioned by the same teachers who should have been teaching us about it? What kind of “Reformed theology” have we been taught, anyway? With so many claims of “Calvinist” revival in the churches today, how is it that the very doctrine that started the Reformation is missing?
The reason should be obvious: The doctrine of the right and duty of private judgment can’t co-exist with the modern mythologies of mandatory “local church membership” and “submission to the local church.”
Since according the Confessions, “The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan,”12 then the burden is laid on the individual believer, filled with the Holy Spirit, to judge every word and every teaching and every practice of any local church, and any pastor or elder or bishop. It’s not just a right that he can exercise whenever he decides. It is a duty that he must exercise always, or, according to Turretin, “an indispensable office imposed upon all believers.” Even more than that: the individual believer must exercise that office even when he is alone against the whole church, and the whole church is clearly in error; just as Paul did in Antioch (Gal. 2). Without this duty of the individual believer, there is no Reformation.
When the individual believer, however, is bound by a special covenant into “membership” and “submission” to a local body—even if it is among the “purest churches under heaven”—this right and duty of private judgment is compromised. Yeah, yeah, I know, modern ecclesiocrats use the excuse that such submission is not absolute. What they don’t say, however is that under the terms of “local church membership” their power to declare “excommunication” continues to be absolute, and their immunity to sanctions is absolute. That is, the individual believer is not absolutely bound to obey what the “elders” say, but the “elders” are still free to do whatever they want with him. (Just like with taxes: Paying taxes is supposedly voluntary, but the government will still put you in prison and confiscate your belongings if you don’t pay.) The only challenge to their power comes when more and more people take seriously their right and duty of private judgment—for this is the same challenge that shook Rome in the Protestant Reformation. When the individual believers have the right and duty of private judgment, then the whole concept of “submission to the local church” becomes meaningless. Submission is owed only when the local church is faithful to the Word of God—but then again, there is no necessity for a special oath of “membership” for that, such oath has already been made in baptism. At the same time, when the local church goes against the Word of God, then what is owed is not submission but resistance and rebellion against the ungodly power of the “elders”; and also sanctions against the session up to excommunication. Of course, no church session would include such a clause in their church’s constitution.
So the only solution for the modern ecclesiocrats is to conveniently forget about the distinguishing mark of the Protestant Reformation—the doctrine of the right and duty of private judgment—and never mention it to their flocks. And instead, return to a Papist and cultist ecclesiology which elevates the elite and frees it from any sanctions, while subjecting the individuals in the church to its power. In Rushdoony’s words,
. . . where a strong doctrine of the Spirit is not operative and governing, a strong doctrine of the church replaces it, so that institutional controls and government replace the Spirit.13
And conversely, in order to replace the Spirit with institutional controls, the churchian elites need to rule out of the church the only way through which the Spirit has always been operating in opposition to the elites: through the individual consciences of men.
Thus, when John MacArthur complains about people moving from church to church, “never submitting to the care of elders,” he accuses these people of “misunderstanding of the believer’s responsibility to the body of Christ.” The truth is, MacArthur only shows his ignorance of the Biblical teaching and of Reformed theology. Under the principle of the right and duty of private judgment, this is exactly what people should be doing: listening to sermons in the churches and judging the preachers according to the Word of God. What MacArthur wants is to be free of accountability to the Holy Spirit acting through the private judgment of the individual believers. In the same way, when Jeff Durbin wants to silence the “facebook prophets,” he is not speaking for God, and he is certainly not speaking as a Reformed minister. All he wants is to be free of accountability before the court of private judgment, which court was the most distinguished characteristic of the Protestant Reformation. In that statement Jeff Durbin was not speaking for the Church, and was not speaking for the Holy Spirit. He was speaking for the interests of the modern corrupt church hierarchy, which, to borrow from Tertullian, “has driven the Holy Spirit out of the Church.”
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- Bojidar Marinov, “The Tale of the Two Aurelii: The Hero vs. the Real Man.” [↩]
- See, for example, Edmund W. Robb and Julia Robb, The Betrayal of the Church. [↩]
- See The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy and The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church. See also Numa Denis Fustel De Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome; Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine. [↩]
- R.J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, pp. 296, 323-26. [↩]
- Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 685. [↩]
- See Axe to the Root Podcast, “Covenantal Thinking.” [↩]
- Martin Luther, “Right and Power of a Christian Church.” [↩]
- The Baptist Quarterly Review, Vol. X (London: Trübner and Co., 1888), p. 224. [↩]
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, ch. 6, §5. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- WCF 25:5; LBCF 26:3. [↩]
- R.J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 296. [↩]