Biblical Authority and the Negative Concept of Law (Authority Part 1)

I fully affirm Biblical eldership and authority. When we make such statements, however, we must define our terms. “Authority” defined by one person may be Biblical, while to another the same definition may be tyrannical. Overly-simplistic statements such as “this angry person rejects authority” or “those ornery neo-Recons hate elders” are not only fallacious and foolish, they do little to further any meaningful conversation. Such haphazard statements are oftentimes slanderous when the words do not accurately represent the ideas of the person in question.

The topic of authority can be rather contentious. Everyone, especially the cantankerous and the overly-sensitive, should take a step back and ensure that they understand exactly what is being said. They should also make sure that anything they say, either initially or in response, is rational and well-defined as well.

To begin with, an examination of the meaning of Biblical authority is not a denial of authority. Neither is a criticism of other views of the topic or even popular views of it. As Christians, we should be willing to examine ideas and principles and refine what has been passed down to us. It is possible to over-correct, but it is also possible to cling stubbornly to erroneous traditions. As Martin Selbrede said,

The premise of semper reformanda is that the people of God are to be continually reforming and revising their viewpoints ever closer to the teachings of the Scriptures and away from unbiblical formulations and conceptions that have crept into both doctrine and practice. This is a process that could entail swinging the pendulum back, away from one extreme to another: the truth might possibly lie in the middle. Those who swing the pendulum away from an erroneous position do the church a service, even if they should swing it too far. They have at least opened up a crucial dialogue and ignited a reexamination of what may have been a long-closed matter.1

What do I mean by “authority”? This question has deep implications for how Christians view the Bride of Christ, civil government, and our families. This also greatly affects how we view submission. Submission is to an authority, so the nature of authority will greatly determine how Biblical submission operates.

All of Christianity is regulated. We are not free to do whatever we please. We do not have the liberty to sin against one another and we do not have the liberty to sin against God. We are not libertines or ecclesiological anarchists.  A Biblical view of authority within the context of the local and regular Christian fellowship must be one that is theonomic. Theonomic means that the authority of elders is according to and under God’s Law, and the life of the body is regulated according to God’s Law. In other words, ecclesiological governance is not anarchistic or antinomian. However, ecclesiological governance being theonomic also means that it is not based on the authority of man. The Bride of Christ cannot be ultimately ruled by both appointed elders and Christ. There is either theonomy or autonomy. The Bride of Christ and our local fellowships will either be ruled by the objective Law of God, or men will set up a system of ecclesiological autonomy wherein the authority of eldership lies within an earthly office and rule rather than in the Law of God. The flavors of this ecclesiological autonomy can differ but will either be theonomy or autonomy.

On a very foundational level, the argument over ecclesiological authority has to do with the nature of God’s Law. Rushdoony helps us better understand this point:

A negative concept of law confers a double benefit: first, it is practical, in that a negative concept of law deals realistically with a particular evil. It states, “Thou shalt not steal,” or, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” A negative statement thus deals with a particular evil directly and plainly: it prohibits it, makes it illegal. The law thus has a modest function; the law is limited, and therefore the state is limited. The state, as the enforcing agency, is limited to dealing with evil, not controlling all men.

Second, and directly related to this first point, a negative concept of law insures liberty: except for the prohibited areas, all of man’s life is beyond the law, and the law is of necessity indifferent to it. If the commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal,” it means that the law can only govern theft: it cannot govern or control honestly acquired property. When the law prohibits blasphemy and false witness, it guarantees that all other forms of speech have their liberty. The negativity of the law is the preservation of the positive life and freedom of man.

But, if the law is positive in its function, and if the health of the people is the highest law, then the state has total jurisdiction to compel the total health of the people. The immediate consequence is a double penalty on the people. First, an omnicompetent state is posited, and a totalitarian state results. Everything becomes a part of the state’s jurisdiction, because everything can potentially contribute to the health or the destruction of the people. Because the law is unlimited, the state is unlimited. It becomes the business of the state, not to control evil, but to control all men. Basic to every totalitarian regime is a positive concept of the function of law.

This means, second, that no area of liberty can exist for man; there is then no area of things indifferent, of actions, concerns, and thoughts which the state cannot govern in the name of public health. To credit the state with ability to minister to the general welfare, to govern for the general and total health of the people, is to assume an omnicompetent state, and to assume an all-competent state is to assume an incompetent people. The state then becomes a nursemaid to a citizenry whose basic character is childish and immature. The theory that law must have a positive function assumes thus that the people are essentially childish.”2

Although Rushdoony is addressing the civil realm in this particular quotation, the implications in regards to ecclesiology are eye-opening. The ideas are rooted in the nature of God’s Law, not the specific sphere of governance. Scripture does not grant unlimited authority to offices and office holders. The authority of elders is regulated, just like the authority of parents and of civil magistrates. Surely God would not prescribe regulations on familial authority and civil authority, but allow nearly unlimited authority to ecclesiological authority. The limitations on ecclesiological authority are bound up in God’s Law. The question, then, is not “what office does this man hold?,” but rather “is this man proclaiming the truth of Scripture?” This does not mean that the righteous elder has no authority. This knee jerk response to the mere statement of fact that the bounds of authority are proscribed is in itself troubling. Elders certainly do possess real authority.. But the authority is only legitimate insofar as he is properly wielding that delegated authority. Simply put, all authority in all realms comes from and is regulated by God. To reapply Rushdoony’s statement, “The elder session, as the enforcing agency, is limited to dealing with evil, not controlling all men.”

One way of viewing authority within local Christian fellowships today is that commands made by the elder must be obeyed until the command is to sin. This is positivism applied to ecclesiastical authority. This leaves nearly all commands from the elder ethically legitimate, including the detailed regulating of the family. If the elder demands that all families attend a Tuesday night study, then all families better make time, or else they are usurping the authority of the elders, and oftentimes according to these elders, usurping the authority of Christ. Of course, many elders are not this clearly tyrannical. Tyrannical or not, the principle of near-unbridled ecclesiastical authority should be corrected. The principle is tyrannical even when the particular officeholders may be really nice guys, and who do not even use such power, let alone regularly abuse it. Benevolence and/or personal character do not justify a view of authority that is still left often, judicially (and too often not hypothetical), to abuse and ecclesiastical tyranny.

To be clear, there are also many who hold the positive view of ecclesiastical authority who draw a line before commands to sin. They draw the line, however, as a vague point based on the private discretion of the elder session. Such a line is largely arbitrary and indefensible. The standard is thus the autonomy of the elders, even if many elders are not as radical.

Biblical ecclesiastical authority is from God and delegated as judicial authority as opposed to executive authority. The elder may use his authority to censure sin, not to regulate all of life and to restrain non-sins. This is the negativity of the Law at work within the Body of Christ. The power of the elder is “judicial” in that it is limited to arbitrating disputes, correcting heresy, and facilitating church discipline. It is not “executive” in that congregants must first obtain permission or oversight to act well within their Christian liberty. Furthermore, their power is not “executive” in that all information must first flow through their hands and no others may teach, correct, rebuke, exhort, etc. Such a view of executive power flows forth from a positive view of law, which is not found in God’s Law. In such a perspective, the duty and rights of ecclesiastical authority are nearly unlimited in that their end involves broad and undefined powers under terms like “order” and “sanctification” and the “life and health” of the local church. I do not make light of those good ideas, but the right and duty to discipline should be restricted to actual definable sins. Rushdoony answered a relevant question posed after the original lecture quoted above:

First of all, we have to proclaim the whole Word of God, and the implications of the faith. We cannot, of course, force it on anyone, but we have to teach it, and make it known, and then leave it to the work of the Holy Spirit to introduce it into the hearts and minds of peoples. What we cannot do, God can do. But we do have the responsibility for the instruction of people.3

If the Christian is not in sin, the elder can and oftentimes should attempt to persuade the believer. The elder, however, cannot force the Christian to act or think in accordance to even firmly held views. If the private Christian’s actions and/or views are allegedly sinful, the ecclesiastical authority has the obligation to make a sound Biblical case, not simply assert raw judicial power. The Christian is innocent until proven guilty, and the liberty of the Christian is protected until proven sinful.

To help crystallize this idea, David Chilton once used a helpful metaphor. The US Government is constitutionally allowed to print currency and it certainly has done that. That, constitutionally, is a legitimate use of authority. However, the US Government took that constitutional power and set up a number of highly tyrannical regulatory agencies, boards, and laws that, in detail, regulate the entirety of the economy and the money supply. That would not be a legitimate use of that same authority. The Constitution gave an inch, and the Federal Government took a mile.Church governance has worked the same way in many cases. The vested legitimate authority God has given His elders has been used as an excuse to arrogate all powers not specifically prohibited, as opposed to limiting (submitting) themselves to powers specifically prescribed.

There really are only two consistent options. There will be stressing of and teaching of a tyrannical “Regulative Principle of Life,” in which any meaningful liberty is destroyed and leaves Christians as children; or we will have a “Regulative Principle of Authority,” in which all authority is regulated to its prescribed purpose. The power to rule will be unbridled and the liberty of the individual will be tightly bound, or the power to rule will be bound and the individual will have great liberty.

I fully affirm the authority of Biblical elders. However, this authority is not rooted in office and the autonomy of man. It is rooted in objective ethical substance which is not based on who the person is but based on the objective Law of God. Authority is not subjective, and vesting authority in an undefined, unlimited office is necessarily the baptizing of subjectivity. Authority is not based in office, age, seminary degree, or ordination. All ecclesiastical authority, much like civil authority, is delegated authority given by God for certain purposes.

Some may object to this view of authority by claiming that this leaves too much power in the hands of the individual Christian. Yes, these views do leave much power in many areas of life to discern truth from falsehood in the hands of the individual. Ultimately, we all believe this. It is easy to just say “submit to an elder,” but it is the individual Christian that chooses which elder to submit to and when, finally, not to submit. Private judgment is a duty and one that we cannot pass off as a church officer’s to assume for us. We all have a personal responsibility before God to honor truth and those that faithfully teach the truth.

To be very clear, it is good for ecclesiastical bodies to recognize a God-ordained elder as an elder and set him apart for that task. But it is God who makes an elder an elder. And being that it is God and not man behind any and all authority, that authority is directly and irrevocably tied to those men carrying out their duty according to God’s Law. If they do not do so, all they have is an office placard and a special place in the church bulletin. Maybe even a special parking place in front of their building.

Of course, in Presbyterian circles, and some others, we have multiple levels of courts in which to appeal specific disputes of such nature. In such circles, we have an obligation to work within the system before we knee-jerk to private determinations and accuse authority across the board. One of the beauties of Presbyterian government is just that: in theory, Christian liberty can be protected from a tyrannical elder or even a rogue session. In Baptistic circles, this is more of a challenge. In all cases, however, the underlying point stands: authority is not unlimited, but ought to be limited in scope and nature by the nature of the law of God as described above.

Most Reconstructionists have rightly applied the negativism of the law to combat statism. When critiquing the leviathan state and its messianic character, Christian Reconstructionists should consider if they are selectively applying the nature of God’s Law to only certain spheres of governance. On one front, most Reconstructions fight the positivism of statism, but on another front, some embrace the positivism of ecclesiastical tyranny. The negative concept of God’s Law does not change depending on which institutional power you’re addressing. Either God’s Law is positive and tyranny is allowed within the home, the state, and the church, or God’s Law is negative and those in positions of authority are limited with liberty being preserved for those not in authority.

(To be continued. . . .)

Notes:

  1. Martin G. Selbrede, “Reforming or Deforming”, available at https://chalcedon.edu/magazine/reforming-or-deforming
  2. RJ Rushdoony, “The Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume 1”, chapter 3, (Chalcedon 1972), available audio at https://chalcedon.edu/resources/audio/negativism-and-the-law, available text at https://chalcedon.edu/resources/books/the-institutes-of-biblical-law-volume-1
  3. audio and transcript available at http://www.pocketcollege.com/beta/index.php?title=Negativism_and_the_Law_-_RR130H15
  4. See David Chilton, “The Work of the Ecclesiastical Megalomania”, lecture at the Third International Conference on Christian Reconstruction, audio available at http://www.wordmp3.com/details.aspx?id=181

Originally published on Jul 5, 2017 at The American Vision.

Authority Part 1

Authority Part 2

Authority Part 3

Authority Part 4

Authority Part 5

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