Who Made You the Authority?

The explosion of information on the web has made the idea of authoritative information almost a thing of the past. A CGI-Enhanced Youtube video about the non-existence of the South Pole is as accessible as the online Encyclopedia Brittanica’s information on Antarctica. The crowd-edited Wikipedia is found as easily (or more so) than a peer-reviewed journal. The Internet has not only granted full democracy to all ideas, it has tended to flatten out all judgement, and scrap a sense of hierarchy of trustworthiness. No longer do canons of received knowledge exist in hard-bound Oxford or Cambridge Press volumes. No longer do scholars carry the weight of authority they once did in the popular mind. If a video has garnered three million views, it may just be true.

The democracy of ideas is simultaneously the pooling of ignorance. As Doug Wilson quipped, “We have not yet realized that the computers may simply be moving our ignorance around the planet at incredible rates of speed. As one wag put it, ‘We used to think that a million monkeys typing away at a million keyboards could produce the works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not the case.'”

For many, this democracy is seen as a good thing. After all, canonised error is harder to overturn than the slander and hear-say of the gossip-rags. Further, doesn’t the whistle-blowing potential of the web keep people honest? Any man with a phone can now publish to a worldwide audience, and all strongholds of secrets are vulnerable. Ideas which would previously have been actively suppressed, or dismissed by the large publishing houses, can now see the light of day.

Benefits exist, to be sure. Hide-bound ideologies like Darwinism or liberal progressivism meet their match on the web. Like-minded people meet, though separated by oceans. False teachers and false teaching can be called out as soon as they record. Every idea is exposed to challenge through this technology.

On balance though, one wonders if the negatives outweigh the positives. It is the very cacophony of ideas, and the absence of some filter to discard and retain ideas, that tends to destroy any real sense of judgement in most people. People either grant authority to people and ideas that they ought not, or they become intensely cynical about anyone being an authority. Overwhelmed with ideas and competing authorities, the average person simply sets himself up as the authority, deciding eclectically what he deems plausible.

For example, witness the obsession with fake news. Is fake news alternative media? Is it news that does not support the agenda of the Broadcasting Magnates? Is it the news the Broadcasting Magnates disseminate? Who gets to decide? How do we decide? Or consider conspiracy theories. In the world of the Truthers, a conspiracy theory is true precisely because most people think it isn’t. It is considered factual because They deny it. Every denial, or evidence to the contrary, finds an explanation that supports the Conspiracy Theory narrative.

What this amounts to is a crisis of authority. Who can be trusted? When criteria of judging knowledge to be authoritative have disappeared, when human authorities no longer exist, there is no good reason not to take seriously Youtube discussions of the existence of mermaids, accounts of teleportation to Mars, or evidence of time travellers in old photographs.

But discerning who is an authority is exactly where things begin to fall down. We find ourselves in a kind of catch-22: authorities will give us the right kind of knowledge, but we need the right kind of knowledge to spot the genuine authorities from the self-appointed posers. Experts help us to discern the issues, but we first need to discern who the experts are.On what basis should I trust a professor’s word over Wikipedia’s? On what basis should I listen to one pastor and not another? On what basis should I trust one book over another?

This is where the value of tradition comes in. Whether it is an intellectual, cultural or religious tradition, it reflects the process of elimination and assimilation that people do over centuries. Human beings were not meant to do on an individual level in a moment what is meant to happen on the scale of entire cultures over hundreds of years: evaluate meaning, recognise authorities, and deliver a consensus. Of course we must each make judgements, and trust certain voices, but we were meant to do so with the backing of tradition. Within a culture, judgements are passed on from one generation to another. People who have spoken well on an issue are pointed to, and younger consciences are formed as they are exposed to these judgements. People growing up within the bounds of a tradition had the safety of hundreds of years of judgements from which to learn. If your father’s father’s father said it was good, useful, dangerous, healthy, true, or false, there was good reason to listen. When we don’t know, we must trust our betters. In a tradition, we knew who our betters were.

Certainly, tradition can be a great evil, if it hands down false religion, poor judgements or liars held up as paragons of virtue. But most cultures have experienced some common grace, and therefore some truth. Few traditions are completely useless. Cultures most exposed to the special grace of the gospel usually have (or had) more evidences of helpful judgements handed down.

What we face now is every man adrift on a sea of opinion, cut loose from the Western cultural and intellectual tradition, cut loose from the Christian worship tradition, with gales of opinions battering each pathetic raft that each person is on. We are back to the book of Judges. Within this storm, we nevertheless have to (and do) choose whom we will trust. Whether the person is living or dead, we should consider three suggestions for evaluating his or her trustworthiness, and therefore, his or her authority. We’ll consider these next.

Authority and Authoritarianism

When authority is usually discussed, about three sentences later, the word authoritarian will make its entrance. In fact, for some, authority is authoritarian – there is no other kind. Recovering the mangled word authority from all the thought-debris that has been hurled at it requires distinguishing it from authoritarianism. I’m not sure whether dictionaries help or hurt the cause of clarification, but for what it’s worth, Webster’s has authoritarian as “of, relating to, or favoring blind submission to authority” and “of, relating to, or favoring a concentration of power in a leader or an elite not constitutionally responsible to the people”. For ‘English language learners’, Webster’s defines authoritarian as “expecting or requiring people to obey rules or laws”, which, unfortunately, implicates every parent, schoolteacher, policeman, and pastor on the planet as authoritarian.

The slipperiness of these definitions becomes downright frictionless once it gets into popular usage. There, authoritarian can mean anything from dogmatism to bullying, from having a visible leadership structure to insisting upon ‘blind submission’ to unaccountable authority. And as we know, when something can mean almost anything, it means almost nothing.

If we have a biblical idea of authority, authoritarian has to represent some kind of deviation from that idea. As we have seen, authority is good, and authority is grounded in Someone who did not derive His authority from anyone outside of Himself. God is  a “concentration of power not constitutionally responsible to the people”, but this is hardly a bad thing. For that matter, sometimes God requires submission without giving us lengthy explanations of the purpose or rationale behind our obedience. If that constitutes ‘blind submission’, then there’s a good deal of it in biblical religion.

Clearly, we need another way of distinguishing authoritarian from biblical authority. Perhaps authoritarian could be rightly defined as “human authority which asserts itself as an end in itself”. Genuinely authoritarian leadership would be the kind that is more conscious of its position than of the direction it wishes to point others to, more aware of its status than its function. Authoritarian leadership mistakes the means (authority) for the end – which ought to be the glory of God and the good of our neighbour.

Having said that, judging when authority has become authoritarian requires a prudent and sober judgement. It is not necessarily authoritarian to

  • assert authority to accomplish God-glorifying goals
  • have explicit authority structures and teach the importance of submission
  • require submission and enforce it against the will of another (e.g. child discipline or church discipline)
  • defend one’s authority against rebellion or divisive people (e.g. the book of 2 Corinthians).

Every Christian parent, pastor, manager or governor has to do every one of those four at some point. Almost always, the accusation of authoritarianism will follow. But the humble leader must accept those calumnies as part of leading in a fallen world. He may be tempted to abdicate his role or back away when such accusations come, fearing that the appearance of authoritarianism is enough to mar his blamelessness. But this would actually be honouring his own reputation above the glory of God. It would be to cede ground to those who hate authority itself, not merely authoritarianism.

He may also be tempted to respond to such attacks or rebellion by furiously defending his role as leader, and resorting to strong-arm tactics, intimidation, power-plays, or manipulation. Such fleshly behaviour turns what was a false accusation into a true one. It plays into the hands of the scoffers who begin with lies, and wait to see if they will materialise into truths.

He must accept that even the humblest leaders will be accused of self-promotion. “They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?'” (Num. 16:3)

A faithful leader’s goal is to lead people to where God wants them, using God’s methods, and seeking to display God’s character. He need not defend himself against every fool, but he should explain authority and submission to those who have ears to hear. When God’s church is in danger, he should defend the office of authority, even if it appears he is defending his own name. He should stay the course, outlast the rebels, disciple the teachable, and let the implacable implode on their own.

It is the easiest shot to make: when authority acts like authority, accuse it of being authoritarian. But those under God’s authority see through this.

Evil men do not understand justice, But those who seek the LORD understand all. (Prov. 28:5)

Pastors – Become Literate in Christian Culture

When the topic of music and worship comes up, a favourite slap-down argument against thoughtful discrimination of music is that pastors need not study music to be faithful pastors.

It is beside the point to say that pastors need not become art critics. If their vocation is that of shepherding the flock, it is manifestly true that they are not called to a full-time practice of judging the merits of art. The real point is that pastors are leaders of Christians, and they are to lead Christians not only in theological thought, but in the practice of worship. It is impossible to worship without art (for we must at minimum use music and poetry – Colossians 3:16), so a pastor who knows nothing about art and wishes to provide leadership in worship is equivalent to the pastor who wishes to lead through the pulpit but neglects to learn a modicum of theology. However sincere he may be, however homiletically gifted he may be, a theological bumpkin will confuse and mislead in the pulpit. He must master (or become competent in) the canons of theological thought if he is to bring lucid biblical ideas to believers.

Not every pastor will have been trained musically, poetically or otherwise. This is a disadvantage, but not a crippling flaw. To lead he must grow in judgement, not in technical proficiency. Judgement of art may be enhanced when the critic is himself a musician, poet, or writer, for he understands better the materials used, and the skill required. But judgement and artistic ability are not Siamese twins, by any means. Many musicians are abysmal critics, poor judges, and have appalling taste. Indeed, in some cases, they are the worst critics, because their technical ability blinds them to their poor taste. Some critics cannot play or sing, but can make valid and insightful judgements. This is because art is experienced before it is understood technically or judged critically. Every man is capable of experiencing art, and reflecting on his experience – though technical and critical judgement should make us more reflective about our experience.

How should a pastor become a better judge of the art to be used in worship? I would not discourage the man from seeking to learn about music or poetry from composers, such as Bernstein, Copland, or Meyer, or by reading the judgements of men like Scruton. As a pastor myself, I have a suspicion that he will be hard-pressed to fit these books into his reading list, which itself is forever being postponed by ministry necessities.

What I would recommend is that the man expose himself to historic Christian culture. Let him read the poetry and hymns of his people in his devotions. Let him him hear their music in his office, in his car, and in his living room. Let him surround himself with Christian voices worshipping, until he begins to hear in them voices in union. The longer he spends with historic Christian verse and music, the more he will imbibe its sentiments, its affections, its very posture before God.

While he does this, he should compare what he is hearing from the church triumphant, with what is written and produced by the professed church militant. If he is doing this thoughtfully, he will begin to notice some very different Christians resemble each other in their worship, while some very similar Christians (theologically) differ widely in their worship. Though separated by centuries, theological chasms, and even language, he will easily find parity between Bernard, Rossetti, Herbert, Watts, Wesley, Montgomery, Milton, Donne, Faber, and Tersteegen. Likewise with Palestrina, Bach, Mendelssohn, or Górecki. Should he live with these men and women, he will listen to 21st century verse or music with a different ear. When judging music or poetry from our era, he will not be looking for something nostalgic, but for something equivalent in our day. He will not be looking for what merely seems accessible or familiar, but for something that echoes historic Christian sentiment.

Becoming culturally literate in your own culture should be a small ask, particularly for those men charged with reproducing Christian culture on a micro-scale in their local churches. Sadly, too many pastors have embraced a view of culture and a view of Scripture that disputes the very existence of Christian culture, and grants a kind of autonomous power to propositional statements from Scripture. For these men, the only question is what music or poetry can be culled from contemporary pop culture that seem (to their judgement) to support the propositional statements of Scripture. And having no comparison for their judgement, the decision comes down, ironically, to how the pastor ‘feels’ about these bits of pop – hardly a propositionally-based judgement.

If I have not persuaded you, at least listen to the Narnian:

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period…. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books….The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books. (On the Reading of Old Books, C.S. Lewis)

Authority – Its Origin

The English words authority and author come from the same Latin root, auctor – an originator. Strange how far we’ve come from older ideas, where the concept of authority was connected with authoring, creating, and making. Today, authorities are guilty until proven innocent of being destroyers.

English etymology aside, Scripture, in its first chapter,  makes the case for authority being creative. There the God who brought order from chaos delegates a similar sub-creational role to Adam and Eve, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:28) The Author calls on His image-bearers to author with Him. He authorises them to exercise dominion over creation, subjugating it. Adam and Eve are to expand the Garden to encompass the Earth. They need authority to do so, and have just received that delegated authority from God Himself. As Paul would say, “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” (Rom. 13:1)

Authority, then, is a gift from God. Order is superior to disorder, and God, the self-existent Authority delegates authority to man. Rightly used, it spreads the glory of God with loving subjugation. From the smallest acts of a humble vocation, to the stately acts of princes and presidents, humans shaping creation are authorities. Further, humans will not only order fields and streams, they are to order human life – which means exercising authority over one another. By creating Adam and Eve separately rather than simultaneously, God was symbolising an authority structure for the home. So far, nothing is fallen or cursed in any of these concepts.

The problem began in Genesis 3. There Adam and Eve sought a new kind of authority. They were pleased to be King and Queen over the Earth, but Satan suggested they be independent kings and queens, rulers in their own right, determining what was good and evil for themselves. The act of eating the fruit, as mundane and simple as it was, represented a high-handed break from God’s authority, a full-fledged declaration of independence from God, a revolt against the Author.

Every abuse of authority begins there. Every tyrannical king or president, every abusive husband, every cruel parent, every manipulative manager, every bullying pastor – and indeed, every act of rebellion to God-given authority – is a ripple from the Tree. God’s authority causes humans to flourish. All forms of its distortion, in small or great ways, bring some kind of death.

Authority is good, and it is permanent. Authority is no necessary evil, nor is it a temporary arrangement. God will always rule, and He will always mediate that rule. The imperfections and evils of authority will pass away with sin, sorrow, and death, but authority will endure forever.

Ten Mangled Words – “Authority” (1)

The popular consciousness has knee-jerk reflexes when it comes to authority. Play the word-association game with the average person, show him the flash-card “Authority” and ask him to blurt out the first word that comes to mind. I’ll wager that if you repeat the experiment across thousands of subjects, you’ll have a top-ten list pretty soon, and it’ll sound something like ‘domineering’; ‘exploitation’; ‘dictatorship’; ‘corrupt’; ‘power-grab’; ‘oppression’; ”bullying’; ‘force’; ‘abuse’; ‘self-serving’.

Of course, were you to do the same test with someone deeply saturated with Scripture and a Scriptural understanding of authority, the words would look completely different, perhaps something like: ‘order’; ‘safety’; ‘restraint’; ‘grace’; ‘delegation’; ‘service’; ‘honour’; ‘mediatorial’; ‘protection’; ‘roles’.

Unfortunately, the average church-goer has a fairly chronic (if not acute) case of secular culture-sickness. His cultural mentors have predominantly been movies, talk-show hosts, Facebook memes, and a few friends with similar influences. When this is shaping your cultural vocabulary, authority means something close to “the necessary evil of having someone in charge, who is usually a self-serving loser and needs to be watched extra carefully”. Mix this in with some phrases he has heard (“the consent of the governed”; “one man, one vote” “a government of the people, by the people, for the people”) and what results is the idea that authority is really the permission that those following give to their leaders. From this mangled idea, churches are frequently accused of authoritarianism, “brain-washing”, or spiritual abuse. Sometimes the charges are true; in some cases, even flawless leadership will be tarred with the same brush. Answering several questions may help us recover a biblical idea of authority.

First, what is authority? Where does it originate, and how does it propagate?

Second, what is authority’s purpose? If we understand its purpose, we will understand its lawful use, and conversely, easily recognise its abuse.

Third, how do we identify an authority, not only in church, but in wider society? Is there such a thing as expert opinion?

Fourth, what does lawful authority look like in that community of self-denying servants, the Church? Democracy? Populism? How do churches incarnate and extend God’s authority?

Judging Areas of Freedom (5)

Modern Christians are in the habit of labelling all sorts of things as ‘matters of Christian liberty’ or ‘areas of preference’. We do not doubt that these adiaphora (“indifferent things”) exist; Scripture explicitly deals with them in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. The question is, how do we identify them?

Genuine adiaphora can be identified by a process of elimination. Anything explicitly commanded or prohibited is clearly not an area of liberty. Further, anything forbidden or commanded by a more general principle cannot be an area of liberty either. If we can supply good and clear warrant for connecting a Scriptural principle to a practice, we no longer have an area where Christians may have opposite convictions and both be pleasing to Christ.

After this process of elimination, what will remain are those matters where multiple principles, of equal weight, seem to apply, some of which seem to point in opposite directions. In these cases, no Scriptural principle will clearly take precedence over another. Further, the information we obtain from the world to understand this practice may have meaning on various levels. Here is where careful judgement must take over. Among the questions we will ask are:

1) How is this thing typically used? What activities, actions and ends is it used for?
2) Does it make provision for the flesh (Ro 13:14)? Are you fleeing from sin and lust by doing this? (2 Tim 2:22)?
3) Does it open an area of temptation or possible accusation which Satan could exploit (Eph 4:27)? Are you taking the way of escape from temptation by doing this (1 Cor 10:13)?
4) Is there a chance of enslavement, or addiction (1 Cor 6:12)?
5) Does it spiritually numb you, and feed the flesh or worldliness within (Ro 6:12-13)?
6) Does it edify you (1 Cor 10:23)?
7) With what is this thing or activity associated? Does it have the appearance of evil (1 Thes 5:22)? Does it adorn the Gospel (Tis 2:10)?
8) Could an unbeliever or another believer easily misunderstand your action? Does it lend itself to misunderstandings (Ro 14:16)?
9) Could your action embolden a Christian with unsettled convictions to fall back into sin (1 Cor 8:7-13)?
10) Could your action cause an unbeliever confusion over the Gospel or Christian living (1 Cor 10:27-28)?

If two Christians seeking to please God could answer the above questions honestly and yet differently, we have a genuine area of liberty.

But notice, we have not here been agnostic of meaning. Instead, since the area is neither explicitly commanded or prohibited, we have been especially scrupulous with meaning. The example which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 8-10 shows us that the focus for adiaphora is not the preference of the person, but the meaning of the situation. Paul teaches that the solution for adiaphora is a careful judgement of meaning. These are not areas of freedom to do whatever appeals to you. These are areas in which all Christians have the freedom to judge carefully, and then obey that judgement (I Cor 10:25, Rom 14:20, 22-23).

Having been careful with our inner judgement, we are then to be charitable with others who have followed the same process and come to different conclusions. In particular, Romans 14 calls on believers to neither despise or judge one another when we come to opposite conclusions. Further, the strong are to bear with the weak, Paul instructs. Who then are the weak?

The weaker brother is not always the ‘stricter’ brother. By this logic, every move towards permissiveness would be a move toward maturity. To abstain from some practices hardly makes one weak in conscience. Someone strong in faith may have a particularly ‘strict’ conviction, relative to another believer.
The weaker brother is not the more easily offended brother. This brother is simply the crabbier brother. He is a brother who takes personal offence where he should not, and needs to be discipled in the virtues of forbearance and patience.

The weaker brother is the brother whose conscience has not settled, who is prone to falling back into a pattern of sin. He is tossed to and fro in his understanding of the adiaphora. He may find refuge in extreme denials and abstinences, but he will just as quickly fall back into foolish indulgence. His weakness is not his abstinence, nor his thin skin. His weakness is his lack of stability in judgement, and the volatility of his conscience. This brother, whose conscience is wobbly and unstable, is to be carefully guided by those Christians whose consciences have settled. They are to limit themselves, sometimes denying their own freedoms, to protect the believer from unwise or foolish choices while he cements his convictions.

Matters of Conscience and Freedom (4)

Scripture devotes two sections of the New Testament to explain how certain choices in the Christian life are not explicitly or implicitly forbidden or prescribed: explicitly by commands or prohibitions, or implicitly by a very clear application of general Scriptural principles. These two sections are Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 8 to 10. Here we meet matters sometimes called adiaphora (‘indifferent things’). Specifically given as examples of adiaphora are eating food offered to idols, and the observance of days. Modern Christians have, perhaps without warrant, classed many other things as examples of adiaphora: entertainment, dress, recreation, drugs and alcohol, language, and even sexual purity. Since, in the minds of some, these then become examples of ‘liberty’, and any questioning of them becomes some form of legalism, bondage, or narrowness, it is worth debunking some evangelical haziness about adiaphora.

Adiaphora are not “externals”. This is a quick-‘n-easy term for lazy minds who prefer to abbreviate judgement into split-second intuitions. Nothing about adiaphora makes them clearly something external as opposed to internal, whatever the proponents might actually mean by that vague categorisation. This unfortunate and unhelpful dichotomy probably comes from misinterpreting Christ’s words in Mark 7:14-23, where He explains that the defiling matter is not the food that goes into the body, but the sin that emerges from the heart. I once heard a theological dabbler tell a room full of people involved in Christian radio that this Scripture means that the music that goes in our ears can never defile us; only our hearts’ reactions can defile us. I wanted to ask if that holds with watching pornography, but all the heads nodding around the room told me that a lot of ears were getting a pleasant scratch at that moment, and my interruption would hardly go down well. Clearly, the point of Christ’s words is not that anything we take into our eyes or ears is incapable of defiling us. The point was to teach some Pharisees that foods declared unclean were not intrinsically evil, and the far greater moral danger lay within. At any rate, if we are to keep this ridiculous external/internal method of dividing up the Christian life, there is very little that I cannot happily lump with the less important “externals”: what I watch, listen to, wear, eat, drink, where I go, what I buy, how I spend leisure time. Pretty soon, what is genuinely “internal” is conveniently a closely guarded-secret: my thoughts about God, or my Gospel-centred meditations.

What’s going on here is that a generation of Fundamentalists made lists of rules regarding dress, makeup, theatres, haircuts, beards, and rock music, and the children of those Fundamentalists are now responding with their much shorter two-column list. As silly as some of those lists might have been, and as ridiculous as it was to dictate to everyone’s conscience, this does not mean all of previous Fundamentalism was ‘external’ and the prodigious present generation have newly discovered ‘internal’ Christianity. Rather, what we should hope to say is that while the previous generation often attempted to define the boundaries of their movement by dictating what the conscience should believe, the present generation is attempting to teach sound judgement for the conscience. That might be wildly optimistic, but it’s a better articulation of the issue than this silly and unhelpful internal/external dichotomy.

Adiaphora are not meaningless. It is common for people free-wheeling in their thoughts about matters of liberty to say that adiaphora refer to matters without any meaning or moral significance. They like to say that these matters are ‘morally-neutral’. But this is impossible, because in God’s universe, everything that exists has a meaning. And since it is meaning-laden, it is not amoral. In a personal, moral universe, there is a sense in which molecules, galaxies, sound waves and scents are moral. In a second sense, objects or potential actions which are not clearly morally defiling or edifying can become instruments of moral action by humans. What Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 to 10 teach us is that some objects or actions do not have a fixed, intrinsic morality pertaining to their use. In other words, while there is a command, “You shall not steal”, there is no command, “You shall not eat food offered to idols.” Instead, the action of eating food offered to idols requires careful judgement. In some circumstances, it is wise and permitted; in others, it is unwise or even forbidden. It can be used both ways, but once used, the action is either sinful or obedient. It is certainly not meaningless.

Adiaphora are not always unimportant. Though the Greek term adiaphora (“indifferent things”) might lead us into thinking we can be indifferent to their importance, this is not the meaning of the term. In Greek philosophy, the adiaphora were those matters that could not be differentiated into either good or evil. This did not make them unimportant, merely difficult to classify or judge. Some Christians infer that clear prescription or prohibition in Scripture indicates a priority to God, while an apparent silence proves an indifference, or lack of concern, on God’s part. While it is fair to say that what is essential will be communicated in the Bible, and what is non-essential will not, this is a far cry from saying that a lack of explicit Scripture on a topic indicates it is of little import. This reasoning would make most ethical matters (abortion, bio-ethics, the environment, death penalty etc.) unimportant. Simply because a matter requires we use careful, critical judgement in the absence of explicit Scripture hardly makes a given matter unimportant.

The role of preference in adiaphora must be properly defined. Proponents of this phraseology, “preference-issue” or “matters of preference” suggest that matters of conscience are determined by the internal likes or dislikes of the Christian in question. Now, it is true that when we have eliminated the forbidden and the unwise, and remain uncertain on the best or wisest choice, we must do what we think is best. But by this definition, preference is simply good judgement – thoughtfully parsing meaning so as to glorify God. If this is how we define ‘preference’, well and good – let preference guide. But what some people mean when they tout preference is that we should determine these matters merely by what we arbitrarily like, what tickles our fancy, what amuses or pleases us, and that such pleasure or displeasure has no moral significance, like choosing between red and blue. But this misses the real point: why does something please you, and should it please you? If you bother answering those questions, then you mean preference in the first, good sense: good judgement. If you don’t ask those questions, then what you mean by preference could be defined as prejudice, whimsical inclinations, or merely appetites. And I hardly think Paul would summarise Romans 14 or 1 Corinthians 8-10 with the words, “Look, in these areas, just do what feels good, you know?”

Freedom and Churches (3)

A church is a voluntary society. Baptists believe that people join churches by choice, not by birth. People freely associate, and can freely disassociate. Voluntary societies cannot use force or coercion on their members; they can only persuade.

Having said that, a number of things need to be said to overturn the muddled thinking about liberty in Christ and ‘legalistic’ churches. A voluntary organization or society can define the rules of association as narrowly as it wants to. Depending on the nature of the organization or institution, it may not be wise to make those rules of association extremely rigid. But as long as people freely associate or disassociate, no one’s freedom has been harmed. Anyone who joins an intensely narrow church does so under no compulsion. If you voluntarily join a church or attend an institution which contains practices or beliefs that you know will violate your conscience, you cannot then claim that you have been oppressed or had your freedoms removed.

Voluntary societies do not have to tolerate what secular society tolerates. Because everyone is freely joining, voluntary societies can exclude plenty of behaviours and beliefs which they find intolerable, and include others they find desirable, or even essential. They can make intolerable behaviour unacceptable in written rules (however many they wish – hundreds, perhaps), they can form a church covenant to which members vow to pursue faithfulness, they can form a simple or detailed statement of faith and insist that members believe every sentence, or agree with it in spirit. They can remove people from their membership (so long as the due process is followed) for failing in these practices or dissenting in belief. What they cannot do is break the law of the land (insofar as it is consonant with God’s law), or go about such removal in a way that violates other Scriptures. None of this, in principle, violates anyone’s freedom. We might critique a church or institution for being overly rigid, unnecessarily exacting, or extremely narrow in its tolerance. We could equally critique the individual voluntarily submitting to such a church. But if people can freely join and freely leave, no one can accuse that church of being tyrannical or of bringing people into bondage.

With that in mind, we can refute a number of calumnies commonly thrown at conservative churches.

It is not coercive authority to teach God’s Word with well-warranted application, however detailed or practical it might get. Working God’s Word into areas of music, dress, entertainment, leisure, alcohol, use of technology and ethical matters is no violation of anyone’s freedom. Issues of conscience are not off-limits to the pulpit, as long as the teacher makes it clear that such is what they are.

It is not coercive authority for a church to discipline someone for verified, unrepentant sin, nor is it coercive to discipline someone who has left. Surely, the objector argues, there is no reason to discipline someone who no longer attends? This objection misunderstands what church discipline is for. It is not to ‘get someone out’, though the removal of a divisive person may be one of its forms (Tis 3:10). Church discipline’s primary function is to rescind the church’s acknowledgement of a person’s faith and baptism, and end its covenant with that person. This may take place even when the person continues to attend, and certainly takes place if he or she has left. No one is ‘controlling’ the individual in question – he or she is free to disassociate. But it is a spoilt child mentality to insist that churches must not discipline those who have left. Indeed, this would be curtailing a legitimate freedom of the local church – to receive and remove members.

Assuming that sin leads people into deeper bondage, faithful preaching and discipleship is not coercive, but liberating. What then would be genuine coercion and tyrannical leadership in the church?

First, if pastors lead through force, and not persuasion, this is coercive behaviour. Peter describes this behaviour as the opposite of leading through servantlike example and teaching, but by acting as overlords who dominate through the sheer force of their position and personality (1 Pet 5:3). Diotrephes is certainly an example of this (3 Jo 9-11). If members are removed by the fiat authority of the pastor, if a bully-pulpit shames and intimidates, if emotionally childish games of shunning and chumming train the members to comply, this falls short of the freedom of a local church.
Second, if the church’s statement of faith, covenant or constitution is altered without the consent of the church, this is coercive behaviour. Since these are the basis of the voluntary association, to alter them without congregational consent is to lord it over the people of God. If a pastor begins to disagree with these statements, he ought to offer his resignation. If the membership request that he remain and teach his dissenting views, they can then decide whether to accept his resignation or change their founding documents.
Third, if the pulpit stealthily extends what is fundamental to the voluntary association of the church, this is coercive behaviour. It is inevitable that the pulpit must teach more than what is contained in the church’s founding documents. But this is simply the teaching ministry of the church, where the pastor will seek to persuade through the force of sound exegesis and clear reason. However, if the church does not embrace such teachings or practices, it is a matter of failed persuasion – not a matter of a member violating the church covenant . The pastor cannot enforce additional beliefs or practices as essential to church membership; to use the measures mentioned above is tyrannical.
Fourth, if matters of conscience are taught as if they are clear commands or prohibitions, the freedom to judge has been curtailed, and this is coercive behaviour. These matters of conscience deserve a full post.

Freedom (2) – Societal and Individual

Liberty is the absence of unwarranted coercion, leaving the human open to persuasion and his own agency to choose what he ought. Freedom does not, and never can, mean an unlimited amount of choices. The freedom of a man should be limited in two ways.

Externally, he is not free to harm the common good, as decided by that society. When a man screams about his ‘rights’ and his ‘freedoms’ when his actions are regarded as illegal by the law is head-butting the rock face of Reality. Freedom does not mean complete permission to perform every thing that comes into your head. In the Western idea, it means freedom to own property, travel, assemble, trade, vote, defend oneself, worship, and express opinion without coercion or fear of prosecution, within the bounds of the law. Those freedoms, established by centuries of statecraft and jurisprudence, constitute his freedom in society.

Counter-intuitively, at this level of human life, these freedoms are protected by force. The policeman’s gun, the judge’s gavel, and the prison-warden’s keys insist that humans use their freedoms within the boundaries established by law. This coercion is not tyrannical, as long as it is upheld by the rule of law, limited government, and fair courts. Government is established by God for the health of a society, and the closer the government represents those ideals, the freer the society. In such a society, a man who crosses the boundaries of his legal freedom forfeits his freedom. He will be coerced into paying some kind of penalty. But wailing that his freedom has been violated when he is led off to prison after the due process of the courts is mangling the meaning of freedom.

But that is not the end of it, for a second consideration should limit a man’s freedoms. Internally, he should be constrained by devotion to God – by the pursuit of an upright conscience. In a society, that means plenty of choices are externally ‘legal’, while being morally wrong. On the other hand, a healthy society can only survive when the external order is built upon the internal moral order of its citizens. Citizens who pursue what is impure, wasteful, destructive, or defiling, simply because it is not forbidden to society, are enslaving themselves, and contributing to the overall loss of freedom for society.

A Christian must reckon his range of choices to be those belonging to newness of life, and reckon himself dead to sinful choices. Of course, he can exercise his free agency to sin, but this means he is re-entering the tyranny of sin. To maintain liberty, he must restrict himself to all those choices found in the will of God. So ironically, the freest man is the one who limits himself to the will of God and the law of the land (assuming those laws are just, and the government is not tyrannical). By limiting his range of choices to what is tolerated by his society, and further, what is pleasing to God, he is the freest man of all.

Why then do we hear so many people yelping about their freedoms being denied, and quoting Galatians 5:1 out of context? With their vague view of liberty, just about any annoyance can be construed as infringing on one’s freedom. What then constitutes genuine loss of legitimate freedom?

On the external, societal level, when a government legislates matters that should be left to private choice, liberty is curtailed. The restrictiveness of the the laws, and the severity the punishments for breaking them is the measure of the oppressiveness of the society, but any move in this direction is a movement towards tyranny. Conversely, the society that does not uphold the rule of law, that permits bribery and corruption, or allows wanton wastage and destruction of natural resources is headed for the opposite bondage of anarchy. These represent genuine losses of freedom.

On an internal level, as we have said, moves towards sin are moves to both the anarchy of sin and the tyranny of the flesh, the world and the Devil. These represent a self-chosen loss of freedom.

What is left is to consider when internal matters of conscience become matters of coercion, rather than persuasion. This what most people are talking about when they say they are ‘free in Christ’ or that their legalistic church is busy enslaving people. What does a loss of legitimate freedom look like in the church, that voluntary organisation that is to respect the individual conscience? That deserves a post of its own.

Ten Mangled Words – “Freedom” (1)

Freedom is another word that the disingenuous enjoy. Just as the Tolerazis cry ‘intolerance’ and pose as victims even while they terrorise and bully others, so similar people shout freedom while insisting that others submit to their choices, or at least abdicate legitimate authority over them.

Freedom has a nice ring to our ears. Restraint and submission do not – at least on this side of the Garden. Freedom comes to our ears with almost unquestioned innocence – as if freedom is always the better part that the wise and enlightened choose.

For those who prefer darkness over light, defining freedom is an annoyance. They would prefer a sentimental attachment to a vague notion. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we will quickly see that freedom is related to something outside itself. If you are free, you are free from something, and free to do or be something. So, when people tout their freedom, the first question to ask them is, “what have been freed from?”, followed by, “what have you been released to do?”

Most have not thought of free as a word requiring modification. For them, it means something like, “any sense of burdensome restraint has been lifted from me”, “permission to do all I want” similar to their definition of love, which would be “giving me permission to do what I want without judging me”.

The same inchoate, garbled articulations of freedom are found in the church. They emerge in defences of pet sins: “I’m free in Christ; you can’t bring me back into bondage!” They appear as attempted excuses for rebellion: “I don’t have to live under the bondage of this authoritarian, mind-controlling legalism. Grace has set me free!” They even posture as theological: “We are not under the Law anymore! We must enjoy our liberty!” These represent nothing more than a Christian adoption of the secular idea of freedom, giving it a (tacky) theological gloss.

Freedom or liberty might be properly defined as freely choosing to do what one ought. The various kinds of freedom – religious liberty, political liberty, individual liberty – are various applications of this idea. This definition is inescapably grounded in a transcendental view of reality. Liberty, in its complete sense, is composed of two parts: the free choice, and what the free choice is for – how it ought to be used. Oughtness can only be defined by an appeal to human nature, which is an appeal to natural law, and divine revelation. What we ought to do, is what is good for human flourishing, what is in accord with our created nature, what corresponds to the Divine intention of man – these can only be defined by appealing to the court of Design: what man is, and what he was made for.

Defining what we ought to do based on modern bureaucrat-speak in an exercise in circular definition or nonce-speak. Progress, communitybuilding, interests of society, healthy societies, harmony are all words that attempt to hide the essential need for values to rest on ultimate ideas. Progress towards what? What should a community, when properly built, look like? What exactly is in the interest of society? What constitutes health in a society, and what does the diagnosis of societal sickness contain? Around what kind of unity should society’s members harmonise? Of course, secular bureaucrats and educationists will never attempt to answer these questions, for it would impale them upon the sharp edges of some religious definition of reality, which they scrupulously avoid. But unless we define what man ought to do, we cannot define what he should freely choose. Liberty is inextricably linked to human nature.

According to this definition, freely choosing to do what one ought not to do is a move towards tyranny or anarchy. Freely choosing sin or evil may be an exercise of one side of liberty, but is an abuse of liberty, and therefore an incremental surrender of liberty. In the created order, abuse of liberty cannot go on indefinitely without enslaving the one abusing it. This is Paul’s point in Romans 6: whatever we freely yield to becomes our master. The tyrannical master of sin curtails our liberties until we find ourselves unable to freely choose anything but sin. The anarchical nature of depraved human nature means that the liberty of sin is a nightmarish nihilism, a torturous chaos, a quicksand of corrosive pleasures. “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage.” (2 Pet. 2:19).

Mastery by Christ brings the liberty of continued submission: “I love my master; I will not go out free”. (Ex 21:5)