Good works must be defined biblically. Otherwise, we will start to think of good works as anything and everything. Good works are those behaviors which God has prescribed and which bring him glory.
If good works are those which bring glory to God, then they are works which we can only do in faith. No man attributes glory to God before the act of regeneration. The Confession continues with the place of works in the life of the believer.
“These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith.”
There are those who say that Paul’s doctrine of justification is contrary to James’ doctrine of justification. But reading each of the relevant passages in context shows that to be untrue. Paul is speaking of justification as the declaration of God’s justifying act on sinners. James speaks of justification as the demonstration of the faith that results from God’s act on sinners. It is James who primarily speaks of works as the evidence of faith, though by no means is it absent from Paul’s letters.
James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14). “Works” is the usual biblical term for the evidence of saving faith. Some examples include charitable acts, a renewed way of treating your family, a renewed work ethic, a renewed prayer life, and an ever-increasing sense of love and joy in being made right with your creator.
Martin Luther came very close to saying that he hated God because God demanded righteousness and we cannot meet the righteous standard. But everything changed when Luther read and meditated on Romans 1:17, “For the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
This was the turning point for Luther. He later wrote, “Night and day I pondered until I grasped the truth the the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.”
And yet, Luther, including many other firm believers throughout the ages, have struggled with the language that James uses. He said that he would give his “doctor’s beret” to anyone who could reconcile justification and works between Paul and James.
We must keep in mind a few things when we come across texts that at first seem to say opposing things. The Bible does not contradict itself; use clear texts to interpret unclear texts; understand the context; we should attempt to build a system of theology that considers the full counsel of God.
At the Jerusalem council, Peter reported on his ministry to the Gentiles, concluding that “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:11). James then speaks on behalf of the entire council, perhaps even being the one who drafted the letter sent with Paul and Barnabas. Their decision is to not impose any burden on the Gentiles coming to faith in Christ except refraining from what would offend their Jewish brothers and sisters (Acts 15:19-21). James agrees with Peter that God saves by grace through faith.
Famously, Paul writes in Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
And again in Romans 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Is James contrary to Paul when he writes, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (James 2:21)?
Or again, “And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way” (James 2:25)?
Context helps clear the confusion. Paul was writing to those who taught that we must add works to faith in order to achieve justification. James was writing to those who taught they had faith but whose works proved otherwise.
By way of reminder, Paul is speaking of justification as the declaration of God’s justifying act on sinners. James speaks of justification as the demonstration of the faith that results from God’s act on sinners.
What’s incredible is that both Paul and James use Abraham to make their point, quoting Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (cf. Romans 4:3, James 2:23).
James ties Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac to this statement, but it took place 30-40 years before Genesis 15:6. So while Paul simply uses it as proof of the source of Abraham’s righteousness, James is using it as proof that Abraham possesses righteousness.
James also uses the story of Rahab to make his point, from Joshua 2 and 7. We don’t read the conversion story of Rehab; we simply read about what she did. And that’s the point: a renewed heart and a renewed spirit will without question be reflected in renewed behavior, however meager. If Rahab made this big verbal show of her faith in God, but then she let the spies get killed, what would we have thought about the validity of her faith?
Trying to separate faith and works into two different categories is like trying to separate body and breath. You might separate them for reasons of discussion and understanding, but to say one is unnecessary is to kill the other.
But we can’t combine faith and works in such a way so as to make faith a work itself. Works are simply the expression of our faith. We worship, we pray, we serve, we repent, we commit, and we humble ourselves not to get anything from God but because of what God has already done. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
Next week, we’ll look at what results from good works.
If I were a betting man, I would say that two of the more difficult doctrines to understand in their relationship to each other is the role of good works and salvation. Scripture speaks to the importance of holy living and doing good. Scripture also speaks of the finished work of Christ and our inability to add anything to it.
Besides that, what should be considered “good works”? Is every nice thing we do a good work? What if it could have been nicer? When does it become good enough?
The Confession helps us in thinking through these questions by driving us back to Scripture. The Confession spills a lot of ink on this topic. It begins, “Good works are only such as God has commanded in his Holy Word, and not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intentions.”
This is immediately helpful in defining what good works are. For many of us, when we think of good works, we think of helping little old ladies across the street or buying your neighbor’s daughter’s Girl Scout cookies. With the sinful effects on our minds and hearts, we need guidance on what pleases God.
When God is reminding the disobedient Israelites about his consistent provision to him, he asks them what he has commanded in return. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). These are the good works God commands in return for his loving care. We take on the role of advocate in seeking biblical justice. We take on the role of caregiver in showing kindness to others. We take on the role of a humble servant in walking with God.
As the author of Hebrews concludes his comments on sacrifices that are pleasing to God, he writes that God will “equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever” (Hebrews 13:21). Not only does God command these good works, but he also makes doing them possible. It is grace that began the good work in us, and it is grace that continues the good work in us.
We see in this definition of good works that motives are vital to right understanding and behavior. If we want to please God, we will do the work he has given us. If we want to please others, we’ll make extravagant shows of religiosity. This is what makes social justice so repugnant; it is a self-indulgent show of piety while nothing of any significance is accomplished. We may not think of social justice as a religion, but it absolutely is. The difference is that it’s a works-based religion.
Isaiah speaks to the vanity with which many worship God, which should be our good work. Jesus then quotes Isaiah, saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8-9). This was the practice of the Pharisees, who Jesus then called hypocrites. To invent new ways to worship God does not please God. We do not create new laws and regulations, burdening God’s people when he has set them free from rules such as, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (Colossians 2:21). The outcome of every new attempt to worship in a novel and unbiblical manner is legalism.
Many within the Pentecostal movement claim that their worship is free and unhindered, simultaneously demanding that people speak in tongues and have fresh experiences of the Holy Spirit. They froth the emotions of the people through music and prayers and tell the people that God is being worshiped. Emotional expression is the key to “good” worship, they say. Freely expressing yourself and your feelings is the point of worship gatherings.
How does God know if you love him or not? You get his attention by volume, extravagance, and lots of emotion. I can’t help but think of how the prophets of Baal did everything in their power to get Baal’s attention. They had to get creative and ending up cutting themselves to show their devotion to the point that their blood gushed everywhere. Elijah, however, did not need to scream or bleed to get God’s attention. He said a simple prayer, and God sent fire from heaven to consume his sacrifices (1 Kings 18:20-40). If you’re not familiar with the story, check it out and see what happened to the priests of Baal who tried to get his attention in extravagant ways.
Pentecostalism has had an enormous influence in how other denominations expect worship to be handled. People jump from church to church looking for the best “worship experience”. We talk about worship as if it is a product to be peddled, and it had better be more energetic and flashy than the church just a little bit bigger than ours or we’ll lose people.
Is this the standard for good works set forth in Scripture? Do you find a single reference to “energy” or “experience” in evaluating the health of a church?
Of course, this is not to argue that the worship of God and the Christian life should not seek to be excellent. But that excellence is not defined as a concert-like experience and perfectly timed transitions. Excellence is understood as life and worship that conforms to biblical norms and order in worship. First Corinthians is heavily focused on order in church life, especially when it comes to weekly gatherings.
All that is to say that good works must be defined biblically. Good works are not “nice” works but right worship and right living. We do not add to the good works we’re called to do, and good works do not add to the finished work of Christ.
Next week, we’ll see how good works do not contribute to our salvation but do in fact give assurance of salvation.
Back to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith!
The Christian life is a life of ongoing repentance. As with our sanctification, it begins at a certain point in our lives and continues through to natural death. Repentance is not unlike that; when God calls us to repentance and faith, we do repent of the sins and transgressions that cast us away from him. But throughout our life, as we become more Christlike and finely-tuned to the presence of sin in our life, we repent again, not for salvation, but for sanctification. When we become aware of a sin which we have committed or a good work which we omitted, we repent in obedience to God’s call.
The Confession begins, “Such of the elect that are converted at riper years, having sometime lived in the state of nature, and therein served divers pleasures, God in their effectual calling gives them repentance to life.”
Not that God “gives” repentance. Even repentance is not a work done by us! Titus 3 reminds us that God regenerates and renewes us by his Spirt, not by works (v.5). This harkens back to the golden chain of redemption of Romans 8:29-30, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
God foreknows us, he predestines us, he calls us, he justifies us, and he glorifies us. It is the call to salvation that leads to repentance. In his kindness toward his enemies, he moves us to see our original nature as wicked, which then moves us to repentance (cf. Romans 2:4).
The ongoing repentance that marks the Christian life is even yet a grace of God. The Confession continues, “Whereas there is none that does good and does not sin, and the best of men may, through the power and deceitfulness of their corruption dwelling in them, with the prevalency of temptation, fall in to great sins and provocations; God has, in the covenant of grace, mercifully provided that believers so sinning and falling be renewed through repentance unto salvation.”
Every regenerate believer will face temptations, and will at times give in to those temptations. God’s love and kindness is so great that he does not let us fall away when we show our weaknesses. He calls us again to repentance, not to shame us, but to restore us. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). The prayers of the Son are more than sufficient to keep us in his love and care.
Jesus then tells Peter that he will betray Jesus three separate times before morning comes. Peter denied having ever met Jesus, and yet Jesus prayed for him that his faith would not fail. Repentance restores us to the joy of right-standing with our heavenly Father. If Peter betrayed Jesus three times in one night and yet was restored on the beach (John 21), then what fear do you have if you repent?
The Confession then begins to more clearly define repentance as it says, “This saving repentance is an evangelical grace, whereby a person, being by the Holy Spirit made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin, does, by faith in Christ, humble himself for it with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrancy, praying for pardon and strength of grace, with a purpose and endeavor, by supplies of the Spirit, to walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things.”
Faith in Christ. Humility for sin. Sorrow for sin. Hatred of sin. Resistance of sin.
These traits mark true repentance. We all know what it feels like to be caught in the act, and there is a certain kind of sorrow for that. But it is not the same sorrow, by any measure, of knowing your sins have been seen in the throne room of heaven. "For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death" (2 Corinthians 7:10).
You have not offended your parents, your spouse, your mayor, your governor, or your president. You have offended your creator. Who can stand?
In humility, we confess, or agree, with God that what we have done is ungodly. In sorrow, we confess that we should never have entertained the notion. In hatred, we truly recognize and feel that what we did was abhorrent. We then seek again to resist future temptations of the same sin. All of this is predicated upon the belief that Christ's once-for-all sacrifice really and truly covered over your sins, from first to last.
We either live in the flesh, or we live in the Spirit. Those who are truly converted live in the Spirit, which equips to be humble and sorrowful for our sin, leading us to hate it, which in turn draws us to resist it in the future.
We will all fall many times. Repentance is definitely a vow to not give in to temptation again, but it is more than that. When we fall, do we hate what happened? Do we hate that God was offended once more by our deeds? We will never perfectly repent, because we will still stumble and fall. But we must absolutely endeavor to not give the devil a foothold or any advantage.
We don’t only confess in general but also in particular. “As repentance is to be continued through the whole course of our lives, upon the account of the body of death, and the motions thereof, so it is every man’s duty to repent of his particular known sins particularly.”
It is nearly impossible to address sins and temptations if they are not named. That's one reason the law was given on Sinai. When Jesus saw Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus repented not of sins in general but of defrauding those from whom he demanded excessive taxes (Luke 19:8). He promised to give back even more than he had taken.
As we grow and mature in the Christian life, there may be sins whose temptations never lighten. We face them head-on daily. But by God’s mercy, we are assured we can come to him in repentance each and every time we fall. In fact, we are commanded to do so.
And finally, "Such is the provision which God has made through Christ in the covenant of grace for the preservation of believers unto salvation, that although there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation, yet there is no sin so great that it shall bring damnation to them that repent, which makes the constant preaching of repentance necessary."
We do not serve a God who condemns those who repent. As Isaiah tells us, “Let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (55:7b). The Lord Jesus is full of compassion on weak, weary sinners who turn to him in faith and repentance, leaning on his everlasting arms.
This is the tertian installment of a three-part series on sphere sovereignty.
You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.
Sphere sovereignty is a helpful framework for understanding God’s orderly creation and where he has vested authority. The family is the first sphere, born on day six of creation. The family is the primary building block of any functioning society. We only destroy or redefine a family at our peril. The family has received commands from God that neither the church nor the government has.
The church is made up of many families and individuals. By the church I mean God’s elect throughout the ages. We rightly say that Israel was chosen by God and was the sole conglomerate of God’s people on the earth. The New Testament church, now made up of both Jews and Gentiles, is grafted into Israel. So the church is distinct from Israel in the same way a branch is distinct from the tree. But the church and the branch are both naturally and necessarily connected the root, who is Jesus Christ. And the church has received commands that neither the family nor the government has.
But what are we to make of the government, especially when a government rejects the authority of God, whether in word or in deed? What makes a government good and just? What is the responsibility, chartered by God, of any civil government? Are there more and less biblical forms of government? We’ll try to address some of these issues now.
For many, the locus classicus of earthly, civil government is Romans 13. It most clearly addresses a government that is not a theocracy or a theonomy, as it was in ancient Israel. Jews and Christians will find themselves under a variety of governmental forms, so they must be ready to live in any set of conditions under any kind of ruler.
Paul begins by saying that everyone should place themselves under the governing authorities. As Americans who value our freedoms, and rightly so when many people around the world have far fewer than we do, we might not exactly love the idea of submitting to the government. This does take some understanding. Starting in Romans 12, Paul is describing not just civil government but how the church should live. Christians are not to seek vengeance for wrong done against them (12:19). Is God therefore unjust? Not at all. In fact, God has set up earthly rulers to deal with injustice. Enter Romans 13.
Civil governments are actually a good thing and a gift from God. Governments, when ordered biblically and without stepping outside their sphere of authority, bring order to a nation. Resisting such divinely-ordered authority is to resist God himself.
Biblically-minded Christians can and should have conversations about whether a government should be small or big. Small governments typically recognize that most decision-making should be done at the lowest level possible, which is the principle of subsidiarity. Small governments actively try to be as unintrusive as possible. Larger governments, which we must admit come with a heftier price tag, are generally more intrusive. Larger governments make more decisions that affect more people and are usually program-oriented.
Political philosophies come in to play. Classic conservatism holds that human nature is both capable of great good and great evil. The purpose of traditional institutions is to promote the good and to temper the evil. The individual receives the most good when the group is prioritized, creating structures of support from which many individuals can be helped. Classic conservatism also believes that decisions are best made by those people who will be affected the most, hence, the principle of subsidiarity. Civil government must therefore promote group health over individual idiosyncrasies.
The other end of the spectrum is classic liberalism. This political philosophy holds that human nature is a blank slate, and individuals are generally good. The highest good is expressive individualism, or the belief that the individual has complete autonomy over him- or herself. Therefore, everyone should be permitted to live any kind of lifestyle they so choose as long as it truly expresses their true nature. Outside forces, such as family expectations and traditional foundations, prohibit such expression. Civil government must therefore be about deconstructing oppressive institutions.
One of the most dangerous tricks of the enemy has been the widespread acceptance of the notion that the church should stay out of politics. If that were the truth, Romans 13 would never have been written. You will, as a matter of fact, develop doctrines about what a government should do. Case in point—if you have ever been mad at a president, then you have a doctrine of civil government. If you align yourself with one political party over another, then you have a doctrine of civil government. If you think that whoever did not vote in like manner as you was wrong, then you have a doctrine of civil government.
So why not develop your doctrine of civil government from Scripture? Romans 13:3 assures us that under a good government, no one should fear those in authority except those who have done wrong. If you have done no wrong, and yet you have cause to fear what the government will do, you have a responsibility to participate in civic processes. In America’s democratic republic, you do that by casting your vote against the guilty party. Having said that, if you live under a just government and you do wrong, you have every right to expect the government to punish your wrongdoings.
Paul had already mentioned how the church is not to act in vengeance. Now he even goes so far as to say that the government is who bears the sword (13:4). This means that the government is to take certain matters out of the hands of the people and to ensure those that threaten the people are dealt with swiftly. We do not have to worry about justice because God has set up governing authorities for that very purpose. God sends his wrath on those who reject his rule, which he often mediates through governing bodies. Do you want to avoid the wrath of God? Do you want to have a clean conscience? Don’t make the government notice you for the wrong reasons.
No one has ever been happy to pay their taxes. No. One. But Paul does tell us that taxes support governmental structures, which in turn serve us (13:6). Even if we have reason to believe that not every cent is used honorably, we continue to pay our taxes in obedience to God. To be clear, he does say that taxes serve to support a government that is concerned with justice. So this begs the question, what is the purpose of government? What do you do when governments no longer concern themselves with justice?
Clearly, Paul sees the purpose of government as protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty. Is there an argument to be made to expand government beyond that? In the same way that a lack of government is a problem, an outsized government is also a problem.
There are times when rebellion against civil authority is not only permitted but necessary. The governmental structure of the Egyptians preserved Isaac’s family from starvation and offered them a safe place to live and prosper. Several generations later, the same structure proved to be a wicked system laser-focused on treating the Hebrews like machines. God raised up Moses to act in defiance of Pharaoh.
Daniel openly prayed in full view of the tyrannical system of government that demanded he cease. For that, he was thrown into a den of lions, though God spare him. His three compatriots refused to pray to the earthly king, and they were therefore thrown into a furnace to be burned alive, though God spared them.
Paul was held in prison for years for refusing to cease in preaching the gospel. He was mistreated and poorly judged. God did not spare him from this, either.
Though this line was used to stand up against religious authorities, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). There is no excuse for Christians to submit to any law or command that prohibits worship of God, especially if it insists upon worship of another god.
Peter also addressed the issue of civil government (1 Peter 2:13-17). He even recognizes various levels of government, from the emperor to local governors. In fact, in honoring our government officials, we honor God and silence those who mock us. We should seek our freedom and the freedom of others. We show those in government offices honor despite their foibles. We are blessed that if we don’t like them, we can voice our concerns and hopefully give them das boot at the end of their term. We should strive to live at peace with everyone.
In general, Christians should pay their taxes and take part in civic responsibilities. We can come to different conclusions about the size of government with a clean conscience. But if we prefer a bigger government, we must be ready to pay for it. Praise God that we live in a country where citizens are represented in their governments. That is a fragile thing we must never take for granted. But Scripture clearly outlines that governments are a blessing from God that foster good order and peace.
The sphere of civil government is still under the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ, as are the family and the church. One day, every knee will bow. The glory of the nations will be subsumed into his kingdom. Emperors, kings, presidents, and mayors will be brought low. That day will be the beginning of eternity. Until that day, we honor the empower and live at peace with all men as far it is reliant upon us.
This is part 2 of a 3-part series on the doctrine of sphere sovereignty. Parts 2 and 3 are a follow-up to a sermon on the family, which can be viewed by clicking here.
The doctrine of sphere sovereignty is a helpful guide in determining where certain authority lies and why. The three primary spheres of creation are the family, the church, and civil government. We have already addressed the family, its origins, and how authority is layered. Today we’ll address the church, what it is, and how authority functions within the church.
What is the church?
We must have a clear understanding of what the church is before we can think of authority. English has low-German roots, and the English word “church” comes from the German word “kirche”, sometimes seen as “kirk”. But the Greek word we translate in to church from the Greek of Scripture is ecclesia. It literally means “to be called out of”, but by the time of the New Testament it was primarily used in a sense of “gathering”.
Theologically, we can relate this gathering to God’s elect. The ecclesia is the gathering of God’s elect from among the four winds. Some theologians speak of the church in the Old Testament, which if understood as the elect throughout the ages, we can agree. Paul writes in Ephesians 2 that the Gentiles were alienated from Israel, strangers to the covenants, and hopeless (v.12). But God has broken down that dividing wall and made one new man out of Jew and Gentile in order to destroy any hostility between the two (vv.15-16).
Paul also writes in Romans 11 that we should think of the Jewish people as the branches and the Gentiles as a wild olive shoot growing naturally out of that branch (v.17). The image is of something growing naturally out of a tree. The root supports the branches, and the branches support the olive shoots. Note, then, that taken with Ephesians 2, we must say that there is one people of God, made of up Jews and Gentiles. The Jews mentioned are not even entirely ethnic Jews, for “not all Israel is Israel” (Romans 9:6). Not every Jew is truly regenerate, based solely on heritage.
Based on Paul’s imagery, we cannot say that the church is a completely different group from Israel, though it is distinct. The church’s roots (pun intended) are in Israel. That also means that neither has the church supplanted Israel as God’s people (see all of Romans 11). There is one universal church, one people of God, now made up of not only regenerate Jews but Gentiles also. When Jesus told Peter that he would build his church, Peter didn’t ask for an explanation. There is one people of God.
The church is the elect of God from all tribes, tongues, nations, and people, including Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free.
What does the church do?
The church’s primarily responsibility is to worship God. After Pentecost in Acts 2, we read that the believers were fed apostolic teaching, devoted time to being together in person, celebrated the sacrifice of Christ over food, and prayed (v.42). So the church is not just a weekly gathering, though that should be guarded at all costs. The church is the body whose head is in heaven. We live lives that are intertwined with other believers. They are our friends, our brothers and sisters. They are our spiritual fathers and mothers.
When the church gathers, we still hear apostolic teaching. This is the preaching of the word, “more fully confirmed” (1 Peter 2:19) than anything that came before. Preachers are not apostles, but preachers preach what the apostles gave to the church.
When the church gathers, we share in the memory of the sacrifice of Christ. After Paul gives instructions on preaching in gatherings, he moves immediately into the practice of the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). We share the bread and the cup, the body and the blood, remembering the reasons we are gathered together at all. In doing so, not only in preaching, but also in communion, we proclaim the death of the Lord, but we also look forward to his second coming.
We also gather at other times simply for fellowship. We should grow in our love for each other as brothers and sisters. It’s perfectly lawful to gather just to enjoy each other’s company. It is not our primary purpose in gathering, but it is a blessing beside.
We gather for prayer, as well. Of course we pray on our own, but there is power in gathered prayer. That’s why it’s an important part of Lord’s Day worship. We pray before and after the preaching of the word. We pray in Bible study time. We pray in small groups. Prayer is no small matter. When people are sick, we bring them before the congregation for special prayer. When people are leaving their families for extended periods of time, we bring them before the congregation for special prayer. Prayer does not change God’s mind, but it does change ours.
Who has authority in the church?
Christ is the head of the church. He is its sovereign ruler. When Peter first confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus blessed him (Matthew 16:17). The divinity of Christ was a divinely-revealed truth. Jesus then makes a pun, of sorts, saying that Peter is the rock on whom Jesus will build his church (Peter’s name in Greek means “rock”.). We do not need to do some complex theological maneuvering to avoid Roman doctrines of the papacy. Jesus clearly said that it would be upon Peter that his church is built. But you will find no doctrine of the papacy here. There is no Petrine succession, no church at Rome, no papal infallibility, nothing of the sort mentioned here.
Peter would go on to be a crucial member of the Jerusalem church. Even before Paul, he would minister to the Gentiles, such as Cornelius. He would become an apostle to both Jews and Gentiles. He would author Scripture. In the new city in the age to come, the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are written on the foundation, and the names of the twelve apostles are written on the gates. We should not elevate Peter to the vicar of Christ, but neither should we demote him from his divinely appointed role in the building of the church.
Even in the Old Testament, God considered the priests to be the shepherds of the people. Throughout the writings of the prophets such as Ezekiel, God condemns the shepherds of Israel for abrogating their duties. Later, Peter would call elders the shepherds of the church and Christ the chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4).
The New Testament regularly chooses different words for the office of elder, oftentimes focusing on a different responsibility of an elder based upon the word it chooses. Those words are elder, overseer, bishop, and pastor. Paul gives the qualifications for being an overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, most of which are character qualifications. The only skill of an overseer that Paul calls out is the ability to teach (v.2). This skill is the primary qualification difference between elders and deacons, the other biblical church office. Paul tells Timothy to devote himself to example-setting and teaching (1 Timothy 4:12-13).
Based on other passages that describe the work of an elder, we can see what they should be doing. When Paul is saying his tearful goodbyes to the elders in Ephesus, he calls them overseers, emphasizing general leadership. He then tells them to care for the church by being alert to the kind of teaching that will try to come in to the church (Acts 20:28-31). This reinforces the fact that the primary discipleship of an elder is his teaching.
Paul says that elders who rule well should be honored (1 Timothy 5:17). He also says that the church should especially honor those elders who teach and preach, implying that just because every elder should be able to command a room and expound the word of God, not every elder will. Some may primarily be overseers while others focus on preaching and teaching.
Paul does command that the office of elder is reserved for godly, qualified men. When Paul writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12), he is not giving a command to one particular culture and one particular time. This is based on his rationale for the command: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (v.13). This command is not based on established gender roles but on the order of creation, which transcends culture.
But that is not all that Paul says. Another passages that builds this doctrine for us is 1 Corinthians 11. Paul mentions that when women prophesy in church, they should do so with their head covered (v.5). Paul does not condemn the women who are speaking; he rightly orders them. Paul has spent considerable energy laying out the pattern of husband-headship and wife-submission in 1 Corinthians 11, and it is in that context that he speaks of women prophesying in gathered worship. Paul even gives the same creation-order rationale in vv.8-9, thereby setting the norm for how we think of these matters.
In chapter 14, Paul is writing about prophecy and how to believe and interpret it (read: preaching). It is when prophecies are being judged for their truthfulness (preaching) that women are to be silent, or not to lead. Male headship is still the norm. Women are permitted to pray and prophesy in church, but when it comes to the explanations of those prophecies, when it comes to preaching, they are to model submission.
It is completely appropriate to have women praying, reading, leading music, and more in gathered worship. But when it comes to explaining those prophecies, when preaching takes place, men model Christ’s headship of the church and women model the church’s submission to Christ when men preach and women are silent. When Paul says that women should ask their husbands about the prophecy and its interpretation, that means that the men in the congregation had better be listening and know their Bibles!
The second office of the church is that of deacon. Acts 6 records what might be called the formation of the proto-deacon. Greek-believing-widows were being passed over when food was being given out as an act of charity and love. The apostles knew that their role of teaching and preparing to teach would not permit them to handle the distribution of food. So they charged the congregation to choose seven men who could handle this responsibility. These men should have good reputations as well as be spiritually-minded and wise. Once the people agreed on seven men, the apostles laid hands on them and charged them to fulfill their duty with integrity. Note that by this time, the church in Jerusalem may have already had elders, such as James. The elders didn’t choose the deacons; the congregation did.
We see here the early deacon was not primarily a teaching role but a service/administration role. Surely these seven men did not hand out all of the food themselves. We even know that Stephen and Philip preached from time to time. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a deacon. Philip met the Ethiopian and baptized him. The consequence of delineating leaders from deacons was that the word of God and the number of disciples increased exponentially (Acts 6:7).
In the same way that oversees have qualifications, so do deacons. They are almost entirely the same character qualifications with the exception of the requirement to have teaching ability (1 Timothy 3:8-13).
But we should not come to the conclusion that the elders are completely in charge of the congregation. As Baptists, we hold to a congregational form of church government. This form of government realizes that there were letters written to both pastors (Timothy and Titus) and whole churches (Rome, Corinth, Galatia, etc.). When believers refuse to repent of ongoing sin, it is the fellow believers, not just the leaders, who call to repentance (Matthew 18:15-20). As an example, when a man who refused to repent of sexual immorality was found out in Corinth, Paul does not address the elders but the congregation. He tells them that, when they are assembled, to cast this unrepentant man out of the congregation (1 Corinthians 5:4-5). Might elders have an outsized role in this process? Probably. But it is not an elder-based decision; that responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the congregation.
This is only a smattering of passages. The church does not only gather for worship, but it also sends missionaries, establishes institutions, and helps those in need. Our worship should be regulated by the word of God, or else we wind up thinking our forms of worship will please God when they don’t. The church speaks prophetically to the world, calling sinners to repentance.
The whole earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Sphere sovereignty helps us see that analytically. Scripture speaks to the family, church, and government directly. When we understand how each sphere stands on its own, only then can we understand how they can work together.
Next week, we’ll see how Scripture addresses civil government.