A couple of days ago, a reader (“Local Church Fan”) posted a comment that discussed the need to trust our God-ordained leaders and know that if they are men of integrity, and God is indeed sovereign, we don’t need to concern ourselves with their decisions.
LCF’s comment provoked a considerable amount of discussion, as you might imagine. One of the things it brought to my mind is a question I’ve had for as long as I’ve understood the way that Sovereign Grace Ministries operates, and what Sovereign Grace Ministries believes and teaches about the authority of its leaders and pastors. And that question is this:
How do we know a particular leader (or group of leaders) is God’s ordained authority over us?
Or, to put it another way,
Where does a leader’s authority come from?
As I thought about this yesterday, I wrote the following comment. It’s not very well-organized, but I was thinking it might be interesting for discussion purposes. Here it is:
You know, the whole “Trust God by trusting your leaders” admonition is worthy of more analysis.
The truth is that ultimately, in the modern Western world that we live in, we are the ones tasked with choosing our own leaders. Unless one is Roman Catholic, it’s not like “the church” is this monolithic entity ordained by God from the time of our birth until our death. The reality is that in our mobile society, there are all sorts of situations that require us to go out and select a new church from a myriad of Bible-believing, gospel-proclaiming options that are all “doing church right” to one degree or another. (Unless, of course, we harbor a secret belief that our own particular church is the only one that gets it exactly right. But that sort of belief would reveal an exclusionary, cultic mindset, so let’s assume that nobody secretly feels that way.)
We can look to the Bible to show us some basic principles. But Christians in the Bible were Christians in a different era, when there weren’t a dozen (or a hundred, or a thousand) choices. It’s different now. The Apostle Paul did not show up in my city (or yours) and evangelize and start a church…which is then THE church, the only option.
When you get right down to it, YOU make the choice about where you place your membership. And, contrary to how Josh Harris would like to portray things (in his Stop Dating The Church book), becoming a member of a particular church is NOT on par with getting married. There’s nothing in the Bible that portrays church membership as it exists today, in our 21st-century world, as a lifelong commitment akin to the marriage commitment, where we are somehow commanded to stick around “in sickness and in health,” through dysfunction or abuse.
Sure, there are those who believe that “God called them” to one church or another. But that’s highly subjective. People sense all the time that “God is calling them” to all sorts of things, and sometimes their “sensors” are not accurate – sometimes it’s NOT God. And of course, if you put enough stock into your sensors that you feel comfortable saying “God called” you to a particular church, you are almost forced to acknowledge that there can be occasions where God might be calling you somewhere else.
So ultimately, what church we end up in still boils down to subjectivity and personal preferences…AND, we have to say that there is nothing in the Bible that would demand that we remain at a church no matter what the leaders do and no matter what course the church takes.
(I mean, I think even CJ Mahaney himself would have to agree with that statement. Otherwise, he would have been in sin for leaving his Roman Catholic upbringing to start his own thing…and the entire premise of what eventually became SGM would be wrong. And, he’d be wrong now for running away from Covenant Life Church and joining up with Capitol Hill Baptist during his “season of reflection.”)
So, after certain doctrinal considerations, our church commitment is one that we control. We are in charge of where we park our loyalties. And there are no direct instructions in the Bible that demand that we remain loyal to a particular church no matter what happens or what the church’s leaders do.
Connected with this, of course, is the question of where pastors – particularly SGM pastors, since the SGM system provides no formal accountability to the congregation – obtain THEIR authority. Within SGM, although it’s not discussed in so many words, the assumption has been that authority is conferred upon pastors by other pastors above them in the leadership pyramid. This leadership pyramid goes all the way up to where CJ resides at the top.
I think a lot of SGMers assumed, without actually thinking about it in so many words, that CJ’s authority was bestowed upon him by God Himself through the Charismatic/Pentecostal concept of “anointing,” which works out to mean something like the guy was a dynamic speaker whom people wanted to follow…a guy who made them feel like he was God’s ordained leader over them.
So in SGM, you have these guys who expect to be regarded and trusted as God’s ordained authorities…but the reality is that their authority was ultimately bestowed upon them by a man who pretty much ordained himself, through his ability to attract followers…which in the end hinged upon decisions made by his followers.
I don’t feel like I’m laying this out as clearly and as logically as I’d like to, but what I’m trying to get at is that the admonition to “Trust your leaders, and thus demonstrate your trust in God” doesn’t actually have any real traction, because the reality is that anyone can be your leader, if YOU decide he is.
That’s how CJ obtained his authority and then went on to hand out authority to those whom he and his underlings believed should have it.
Additionally, your own obligation to SGM is NOT actually the same as your obligation to your husband or wife. The Bible never says that church membership is on par with the marriage relationship. To get to that place, one has to do a great deal of extrapolation.
So, it’s pretty weak to abdicate one’s responsibility to exercise discernment and ask questions of one’s leaders. One’s leaders are only one’s leaders because one has chosen them and one continues to choose to remain in that relationship with them.
One could just as easily take one’s church membership elsewhere…and not necessarily be out of God’s will or be sinning. There’s nothing actually keeping or holding you to a place or to a group of leaders, if those leaders are not proving worthy of your trust.
In the end, the responsibility of who (and what) your leaders are is – YOURS.
A little later, I added the following:
And, what’s so fascinating to me in all of this is that the concept of the priesthood of all believers, and the notion that ordinary members have the right and the responsiblity to discern truth for themselves and have a say in what their leaders do – well, that’s one of the foundational principles of the Reformation.
Isn’t it crazy that the guys who claim to be Reformed are now wanting to take on the very kind of unquestioned, unquestionable authority that the actual Reformers rejected?