Checks on Power and Authority in the New Testament

Summary of an article by Dr. Harold Bussell, author of the book, Unholy Devotion, Why Cults Lure Christians

There are two problems with accountability in the church: one is that people fail to be accountable to others. Another is that when people are accountable often that willingness to be responsible is abused by leaders.

  • Have you ever had a Christian leader imply that you were either rebellious or disobedient to God because you didn't take their advice?
  • Have you ever had a Christian leader tell you that you had an evil spirit or a spirit of rebellion simply because you asked questions?
  • Have you ever challenged a leader and they saw this as an assault on their authority?
  • Have you ever felt that a leader (or leaders) was (were) lording it over you?
  • Does it ever bother you when a Christian group, community, or bible study all look, act and talk alike?
  • Has another Christian ever told you that they were your shepherd?

If any of these questions ignite a positive response in you, you may be involved in an aberrant and potentially destructive relationship or group.

The New Testament gives us some basic guidelines too protect us from getting involved in relationships which are destructive both emotionally and spiritually.

Peter was accountable to others

He carefully explained his position to eat with and baptize Gentiles.  He did not presume that his position as an apostle was beyond question.  He explained his actions and answered questions.  He did not see this accountability as an assault on his authority. (Acts 11:1-4; Acts 11:18)

Paul encouraged challenge

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to judge his words and evaluate them to see if they were appropriate or not. (1 Corinthians 10:15)

Paul confronted Peter

When Peter, who was an apostle before Paul, moved from grace to legalism as the way of faith, Paul confronted him.  Paul did not say, "I cannot question those in authority over me." (Galatians 2:11-14)

Peter was open

Peter was open and answered questions about his behavior with Cornelius.  Subsequently the apostles and elders met to consider the issue once more, as there were many questions and disagreements.  They did not say, "Peter is a spiritual authority over us so we cannot challenge him." (Acts 11 and 15)

Problems did not cause despair

Problems arose between Peter and Paul before the whole congregation, (Galatians 2:11-14), between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark (Acts 15:36-40), and between Paul and the Corinthians over many issues (2 Corinthians).  These problems neither ended their relationships nor caused despair that the unity was not achieved instantly.  Paul and Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and Paul and the Corinthians worked through these difficulties in time. (Galatians 2:11-14; Acts 15:36-49)

Elders may need confrontation

The New Testament assumes that elders may need confrontation and have the capacity to abuse authority.  We are not to be like the world, lording it over one another seeking status for ourselves afraid of losing face before others.  Our confidence is in Christ and not in our positions of authority. (1 Timothy 5:19,20; Luke 22:24-27; 1 Peter 5:3; Luke 11:43; Luke 20:46)

No authority structure will usher in a utopia

Paul assumes problems will always exist and we need to deal with them in a certain manner.  This includes leadership as well. (Colossians 3:12-15)

God is the only person who never has to apologize.  If Peter could go off base after Pentecost, so can leaders today.

Jesus and shepherding

Jesus did not force his disciples to submit to Him.  He did not duplicate Himself in them.  He always left them with their personalities and attitudes.

Jesus went into the garden to pray.  He asked the disciples to pray, but they went to sleep.  His discipleship program left them with wills of their own.  They chose to sleep.  He did not force His will in the matter. (Matthew 26:37-46)

During Judas' betrayal you do not see Jesus commanding Judas to submit and straighten up.  He allowed the man to break rank and to rebel. (Matthew 26:47-50)

The disciples rebuked a man because he was not one of their group.  Jesus then rebuked them.  He informed them that the man was of Him even though he was not in their group. (Mark 9:38)

After the crucifixion the disciples were so disorganized and confused that they didn't even know that Jesus was the Christ.  If He had exercised a strong authority over them, they would have been forced to believe in the resurrection.

No closed meetings

Jesus took the disciples out on a special retreat, and five thousand people went with Him.  He taught them all the same things.  They did not have greater truths belonging only to a select few.

Paul makes the point that unbelievers were present in New Testament meetings. (1 Cor. 14:16).

God called Saul directly.  He didn't use the apostles to speak for Him.  Ananias baptized Paul and he was called a disciple not a shepherd. (Acts 9:10-18)

There is no evidence of shepherds (the apostles) indoctrinating Saul through cell group activity.  There is no evidence that they sat down with Saul (Paul) and told him how to submit to them.  There is no evidence of any "super submission" program.

Words of caution and guidelines

Any discipleship program must keep its eyes on Christ and not on the human leader.

In true discipleship, one is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.  (Galatians 4:19; Hebrews 12:2, Colossians 3:10; Ephesians 4:15; Luke 6:40)

Paul says: Do not be anxious about anything but go to God.  He doesn't say elders. (Philippians 4:6-7)

James writes: If anyone lacks wisdom, let him go to God.  He doesn't say elders or shepherds. (James 1:5)

Paul asks them to pray for him, not make decisions for him. (Ephesians 6:18-20; Colossians 4:3,4; 1 Thessalonians 5:25)

Paul says: Carry each other's burdens.  He also says each person is responsible to carry their own. (Galatians 6:2-5).

Elders are responsible to counsel, encourage, and rebuke on the personal level.  So are believers.  (2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 2:15; Galatians 6:1-5; Colossians 3:16).

We are to honor those in leadership over us.  However, they are to be oversees by example, not force. (Hebrews 13:7)

Jesus only is the head of the Church

Each hand moves independently of the other hand.  Each finger and each foot moves independently of the other finger or foot.  The head gives the instructions.  One finger does not have to ask the other finger for permission to move.  The nerves and the muscles in the arm move the finger but never the will of the arm.  It is always from the head -- who is Christ.

Paul and Barnabas refused to follow a legalistic rule of submission when it violated their convictions. (Acts 15:36-39)

Many authoritarian discipleship groups claim that the sheep are too dumb to receive direction from God and therefore need shepherds.  The letters in the New Testament are written to all -- not just leaders.

In the New Testament the word sheep is used twenty-two times, and pertains to God's children.  The word son fifty-six times, heirs thirteen times, saints sixty times.  This is not to mention the many times we are referred to as kings, priests, conquerors, overcomers, brethren, etc.  To overemphasize the characteristics of sheep is to destroy the greater truth of the word of God.

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