Obedience to Leadership
in the Local Congregation
NCW 70, February - April 2001
Q. I belong to a cell church in the Philippines and our cell leader says that those who are in his cell must obey him unquestioningly. If I want to go to some place I have to ask him first, and if he says 'no' I am not allowed to go. I feel something is wrong. Can you help me with scriptures?
A. There is most definitely something wrong! For one thing, there is no such office as a "cell leader" in the New Testament. Since the office has no NT authority or area of stewardship, how can a member if the congregation know what his obligations to the leader are, or the leader know what his duties are? The NT recognises Elders and Deacons only, the Elders being the senior members of the congregation (mature Christians) of which the Pastor is the head. The Deacons (literally servants) are primarily involved with the temporal affairs of the congegation.
Leadership in the New Tesatment Church is primarily an appeal to CONSCIENCE. The apostles, who had the highest authority in the Church, never demanded unquestioning obedience, but always appealed (a) to the Word, and (b) to the believers' consciences. Paul said: "we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor.4:1). The obligation of the lay membership to their leaders - and especially to the Pastor - is to "respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you" (1 Thess.5:12). The word "admonish" means to "reprove firmly but not harshly, to warn or caution" and does not carry quite the same meaning as to "command".
It is God who commands and it is God whom man is to obey. And principally we are to obey His commandments (Mt.19:17). We are to obey those set over us (a) in righteousness and (b) in the Lord - these are the two qualifiers to obedience to men. And the Lord lists many exceptions in scripture. Christ recognised that sometimss there would be unrighteous and hypocritical leaders and says of them: "So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach" (Mt.23:3). But it must be remembered that this scripture was a reference to the Mosaic system since these were Pharisees and Torah-Teachers (Scribes) operating out of the authority of the "seat of Moses". This authority was subsequently transferred to the Apostles so this passage cannot be used as a proof text by those in authority in the Christian Church today. The Pharisee was a theocratic judge (cp. Elder) and the Scribe was a Torah-Teacher (cp. modern Teacher). All judgment and scriptural interpretation was limited by what the Word said, however, and was not a matter of "private interpretation" (2 Pet.1:20). Whatever a Church leader demands of his congregation must be provable conclusively from the Scriptures. We are told not to trust in the arm of flesh (2 Chr.32:8). In other words, the Pastor, Elder or teacher is accountable to the Word.
A Christian is therefore to obey his Pastor when what he says harmonises with the Word of God. If a Pastor says that a Christian should not swear or commit adultery, he must be obeyed, because he is speaking the Word of God. But nowhere does Scripture teach that a Pastor or other local leader has the right to command a member of the congregation to do whatever he (the Pastor) wants. Peter said "we ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29) if there is ever a conflict between the Scriptures and another authority, whether civil or ecclesiastical.
There is a major qualitative and practical difference between the Old Covenant and the New. The Old Covenant was applied through externally imposed commandment through the Levitical priestly system. It started on the outside and was forced inwards, as it were. But the New Covenant is the complete opposite. Yah'shua (Jesus) said that he would "draw all men unto Me" (Jn.12:32), the operative word being "draw" which means to "attract". Attraction is not compulsion. "A man convinced against his will remains unconvinced still", the proverb goes.
Notice how Paul "appeals" rather than "commands". For example: "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Cor.1:10; cp. 2 Cor.5:20; 13:11) - "By the meekness and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you..." (2 Cor.10:1). And if there is any doubt, Paul says: "I appeal to you on the basis of love" (Phil.1:9). And Peter did exactly the same (1 Pet.5:1).
So how is the New Covenant different from the Old? Even that is made plain in the OT: ""The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. "This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (Jer.31:31-34, NIV).
Notice that the New Covenant begins in the individual's MIND and HEART - it starts inside and works outwards into obedient deeds. In otherwords, the mind and heart must first be convinced that a matter if from God before a person is expected to obey. Blind obedience is not a part of the New Covenant. The Gospel works out from a man's CONSCIENCE, and there are dozens of references in the NT to prove it. If a man denies his conscience, he SINS AGAINST CHRIST (1 Cor.8:12). If your Pastor, an Elder, Deacon, cell leader or anyone else tells you to do something you believe is wrong, then he is sinning against Christ.
But a word of caution: do not assume that a man's conscience is pure. It isn't. Scripture teaches that conscience itself is defiled (Tit.1:15). Our conscience must be trained to respond to what is good, and the only way it can do that is if it is taught correctly. And the only way it can be taught to do that is by saturating it with God's definitions of good and evil as found in the Bible.
Which brings us back to the beginning. Our yardsticks for obedience are the Word and our conscience. Even if a man's conscience is defiled and in error, he must obey it because the New Covenant Law must first be written in his mind and heart! Though a defiled conscience may deceive because it has been trained wrong, it must still be upheld because it is through this medium that God speaks to us by His Spirit. Crush the conscience and you no longer have a free, independent human being. It is better to be in error and have a conscience than to be right and have none at all, because a person without a conscience is spiritually dead.
All false religion and cults operate by crushing the conscience. Buddhism, Hinduism and the New Age seek to destroy conscience, which is the source of feelings and compassion. Satan wants mindless automatons - he wants blind obedience. Christ wishes us to be independent and free, learning to be obedient joyfully and of our own free will.
None of this is a licence to rebellion or anarchy in the Christian community. There must be order in the Church, no question of that, but each individual must have the space and freedom to make his own decisions in a pure conscience. If he wants to voluntarily place himself under the authority of Church leadership, confident that the leadership is being true to the Word, then that is the ideal, of course, but he must never assume that leadership is infallible in all things. Even Paul had to correct Peter (Gal.2:11). It is very dangerous to assume that a leader is infallible, and any leader who thinks he is shouldn't be one. Leadership requires much humility and confession. Leaders are not a superman class for they too struggle with the same sinful nature as everyone else. They need praying for and sustaining too. They should be respected not because they are men but because of their calling, for that is holy.
Of course, it is important to know that they actually have been called of God. Every leader must be tested (1 Tim.3) and if the Church is doing its job properly, he will be examined at least once a year by someone in authority over him. The Elders are to be "temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance" (Tit.2:2). Indeed, all leaders should themselves be under constant training and be accountable to someone above them. And they must be accountable to the Word and receive it no matter who points it out to them. Thus if a leader maintains a doctrinal position which is clearly contradicted by the Word, then a Church member must obey the Word and his conscience before the leader - always. But let the member, if he is forced to, correct the leader in love, mildness, and loving-kindness, not being rude or disrespectful, being mindful of the leader's God-ordained office, and certainly not in a way that will humiliate him before others. Best to take him aside in private first, and if he will not yield, to take it to his superior (e.g. the Pastor). If all resist the plain truth of Scripture, then - and only then - is it your duty to speak to others about the matter and, if necessary, bring the matter to a point of confrontation. This must only be a last resort, though, for the commandment is not to sow division in God's people (1 Cor.12:25). Sometimes, though, this is necessary, but only as a last resort, after considerable prayer, and with the permission of the Spirit. If that Church leadership persists in teaching non-scriptural doctrines and practices, then it is time to separate yourself from them or to use whatever legitimate means that are available to change the leadership.
Do not led a leader misquote Rom.13:3: "For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you" for this concerns the civil authority in its administration of justice.
I believe this pretty well covers this subject. Your leader has no right to command you where you should or should not go. Of course, if you intend to go to a whore house or a gambling cassino or a pornography shop or a bar, your leader has every right to strictly warn you not to, but you are still a free agent to do whatever you wish. You must act according to your conscience and the Word. If you are in open rebellion against the Word then, of course, your soul is in serious jeapordy. The final decision must be yours. The leader has the right to admonish you in the truth but he cannot bind you hand and foot. He is not your dictator. Only God is your absolute Sovereign. If you step outside Scripturally acceptable bounds (e.g. theft, adultery, sexual immorality, blasphemy, etc.), then be warned that he has a God-ordained right and duty to bring you before the Elders and, if you do not repent, excomunicate you.
This page was created on 20 March 2001
Last updated on 1 January 2008
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