Part 12 in the Series:
Questioning Church Authority
By Don Enevoldsen
A good leader will answer your questions. If you don’t understand something that is taught or preached, ask. If the purpose for a church policy seems inappropriate, question it. If your concerns cannot be addressed, there is probably something wrong. Good leaders are not threatened by questions. Leaders who operate from less than godly motives dodge challenges and try to keep things quiet.
The most effective way to avoid answering your questions is to attempt to turn the challenges back onto you. In my experience, two accusations are leveled at those who make waves: you are rebellious and you are creating division. Submissive congregants do not question or challenge or disturb the peace and unity of the body of Christ.
As we have seen, however, the members of the early church were actively involved in questioning and testing. It was recognized that there were some people who were rebellious and others who did create division, and safeguards were utilized to prevent harm by those people, but that did not preclude regular questioning of those in authority.
The Didache, written in the last half of the first century, outlines a balanced approach to being a healthy member of a church congregation.
“Receive everyone who comes in the name of the Lord, but then, test them and use your discretion.” (Didache 12:1)
These words primarily concerned itinerant ministries, but the tone of the rest of this early church document suggests a balanced approach that incorporated both ready acceptance and pointed examination. People were expected to be part of the process. They were instructed to, “appoint bishops for yourselves” (Didache 15:1) and “reprove one another, not in anger, but in peace” (15:3).
The method of testing leaders gave them the benefit of the doubt. Accept them at face value:
“Do not despise them, after all, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers.” (Didache 15:2)
But in spite of ready acceptance, examine their motives and their behavior:
“If he who comes is a transient, assist him as far as you are able; but he should not remain with you more than two or three days, if need be. If he wants to stay with you, and is a craftsman, let him work for his living. But if he has no trade, use your judgment in providing for him; for a Christian should not live idle in your midst.” (Didache 12:2-4)
Personal profit seems to be a constant factor in the abuse of authority in the church. Genuine teachers, prophets and apostles ought to be supported in their work, but they should prove themselves first. If a man doesn’t like being questioned, he is a “Christ peddler.”
If he is dissatisfied with this sort of an arrangement, he is a Christ peddler. Watch that you keep away from such people.” (Didache 12:5)
The New Testament confirms this basic approach. Leaders should be given the benefit of the doubt:
“Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.” (1 Timothy 5:19)
Leaders are to be honored.
“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” (1 Timothy 5:17)
“Obey [have confidence in] them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
However, leaders are also to be tested.
“Consider the outcome of their way of life.” (Hebrews 13: 7)
The criteria for discerning bad leaders inevitably gets to money, specifically those “who think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:5). I sat in many church board meetings and staff meetings at LWBC where we were told that church is a business. Any service or program that didn’t bring in money was canceled. I suspect that Living Word is not the only church that pursues money over ministry.
Those who fail the test are not to be ignored or submitted to quietly while waiting for God to correct them:
“Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” (1 Timothy 5:20)
I would summarize biblical submission to church leaders in a few simple guidelines:
1. As a member of a congregation, you are part of a ministry, a team of people working together for the sake of the Gospel. As such, it is wise to be helpful rather than disruptive. A lot more gets done that way.
2. Keep your eyes open and use discernment. If a leader is unwilling to answer questions, is controlling and self-serving, is focused more on money than ministry or manipulates with guilt and intimidation of any kind to maintain control, threatening people with losing the blessings of God if they get out of line, there is likely something out of order.
3. The criteria for a leader is given in both 1 Timothy and Titus. It includes quite a few characteristics, among which are that he is not overbearing, self-controlled, not given to greed, and he must “encourage others” (Titus 1:9), which is very different than keeping them under control through fear of ostracism or shame.
In a single word, be a team player but question everything. No leader is exempt from examination.
Next, Part 13: Creflo Dollar and the Cult Culture
Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.