God’s People and Authority

     It was a beautiful summer day in 1692 in rural Switzerland. The little house in the trees overlooked some of the world’s most beautiful scenery—yellow fields of ripening grain, bordered by green forests reaching far up the slopes of the towering, snow capped Swiss Alps. In fact, to an onlooker, the whole picture was an eye-catching panorama of beauty and tranquility.
      But the meeting taking place inside the house reflected little of the serenity of its natural setting.
     Inside the house, grim looking men sat on hard chairs placed in a circle around the walls of a plain parlor. The meeting, apparently, had not been a pleasant one. They didn’t know it, but the aftermath of that day’s discussion would impact the lives of thousands of people over the next centuries. In fact, only eternity will reveal how many people in the past 300 years have been lost because of what came out of that meeting.
      It shouldn’t have turned out that way. You see, these men were ministers—leaders of Anabaptist congregations gathered in common concern for their people. The meeting had been intended to be about the apostasy and drift of the Swiss churches, but the focus had become authority.
      Since this scenario has been replayed dozens of times in the intervening years, we want to examine this meeting and its context a little closer.

      All eyes were on the austere man who earnestly addressed the group. Everyone present knew that the small group of visitors he represented had a genuine concern. Things were not quite as they should have been in the Swiss churches, and they all knew it. Most of the men present would have liked to do something about it. However, they had a problem.

     First of all, the bishop addressing them was a visitor, with no authority in the local setting. He had not been invited, but had come on his own accord to share his concerns. Secondly, the local bishop had refused to come to the meeting, which had been called by the visitors. Perhaps, he resented the intrusion into his territory. Perhaps, he didn’t fully agree with their concerns and this was the easiest way to avoid a conflict. Or, perhaps he was just too busy with his farm work to come to the meeting—at least this was what he told the messenger they sent to beg him to join them.
     This was one reason for the grim looks on everyone’s face. The visiting bishop insisted that the group needed to take disciplinary action against the local bishop for refusing to come to the meeting. Apparently he had anticipated that this would happen because he pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket, on which he had written an indictment of excommunication against his fellow bishop.
     This alone would have caused the grim faces, but the visitor didn’t stop there. He went around the circle of leaders and asked them one by one whether they supported his action. Undoubtedly many of the men faced with this ultimatum wished they had done as their bishop had, and stayed home to harvest their fields. But the visitor was inexorable in his purpose. He would break down the rebellion in these Swiss congregations and he would start at the very top. This was a no-holds-barred battle. If any leader refused to support the action, or even if he just asked for more time to consider it, the visitor excommunicated him on the spot.
     Naturally the room pulsated with tension and consternation, but one man was brave enough to raise the real issue. “I can’t make this decision,” he said. “I have to bring this to my congregation.”
     You’re a liar,” sneered the visitor. And he excommunicated him on the spot.

     The visitor was not satisfied with this. He called for every member of every congregation in that part of Switzerland to meet with him and give assent to the action taken. Any who refused or did not agree with him were summarily dealt with. 
     All in the name of Christ, who had given the visitor both the authority and the duty to deal with sin in the Church.

     The question at the heart of the above scenario was not sin in the church. It had nothing to do with apostasy and drift in the church. Rather the question was one of authority. The visiting bishop was the final authority in his group of congregations. He had the right to handle such situations according to his personal inclination, since he was God’s representative on earth.
     It is possible that he didn’t know that the Swiss congregations did not give this kind of authority to their leaders. The minister who spoke up and said he needed to take the issue to his congregation was right, even though the visitor called him a liar (this is documented history). The Swiss congregations placed the final authority for such decisions in the hands of the congregation, not in the hands of a bishop or group of ministers. According to the writings of the time, the minister who faced this dilemma actually sympathized with the concerns brought by the visitor, and would have gladly worked with him to bring about a solution. It is possible that his congregation would have agreed with him in this situation.
     This, of course, is an extreme illustration. But the question has been debated ever since by Anabaptists. Who is the final authority in church life? Is it the bishop? Is it a group of bishops? Is it a local bishop, along with the ministers? Or is it the entire local body of believers, the local body of Christ?
     Most conservative groups would be quick to tell you that God is the authority in their congregations. Then they would add that the Bible is final authority because it is God’s revelation. Probably they would also add that the Holy Spirit is part of this because He interprets the Bible to us. Probably most would also say that they take questions to their congregations to discuss. But finally the question still exists: When it all comes down to deciding what God wants in a given situation, and there is no direct Biblical precedent, who decides? Where is the authority vested?[i]

Results…

     It is true that we are more interested in being Biblical than we are in results, since bad results are not always the result of bad choices. Yet, in the long run, results do tell us something. And we have some very good prototypes to look at in church history when we think about the subject of authority in the church.

     The Dutch Anabaptists were very similar to the illustration above. For instance, it is said that most Dutch Mennonites of the 16th and 17th centuries were excommunicated three or four times in their lifetime, generally through no fault of their own. Leaders had the habit of excommunicating entire neighboring congregations when disagreements arose. Menno Simons tended to be less harsh in his leadership than some, but his fellow bishops, Leonard Boewens and Dirk Philips, were very stringent in their use (and abuse) of excommunication. They ended up locking horns themselves, and Leonard silenced Dirk. When Leonard died, Menno Simons reinstated Dirk.
     Due for the most part to such leadership tendencies, the Dutch church splintered into various groups. Most of these divisions were caused by disagreements about unimportant interpretations of various biblical principles. The deep hurts caused by them led to years of bitterness in the church experience of many innocent people. Eventually, in spite of all the strong leaders who stood strong to the end on their personal beliefs, almost all of the Dutch churches fell into apostasy. In fact they fell away much quicker than their neighbors, the Swiss Brethren.
     Most of the remnant groups that laid the foundations for the American Mennonite churches came from the Swiss Brethren congregations which we mentioned earlier. These congregations faced bitter persecution for years, and eventually died out as well. But they laid the groundwork for many remnant congregations. They did this in spite of their lack of strong administrative authority and discipline, such as the Dutch practiced. They did this in spite of their lack of church districts and conference structure, which were also very important to the Dutch. They did this in spite of their belief that the entire congregation was part of the administrative authority in the church, which the Dutch did not practice.
     We are often told that strong leadership authority and strong church structure, as practiced by the Dutch churches, is the only hope for the survival of our churches. According to this, the Swiss should have apostatized much sooner than the Dutch. Yet when you look at history, you see the opposite.[ii]

What Place Does Authority Have?

     The intent of this article is to speak against the wrong use of authority, not to denigrate all authority. The Bible is clear that God’s people need leaders, and that they must lead in order to perform their duty. But it is very easy for leaders to become powerful and lose their way. That is my concern.

     God’s people are the church. And even the leaders of God’s people ignore the church at their own peril. It is true that a godly leader should obey God in all things. But if He finds himself standing alone on issue after issue, then something has gone sadly amiss. Any group kept from drifting by sheer authority has already lost its way.
     In fact, I would suggest that probably it would be better for a leader to temporarily allow some things in his congregation that he is not happy with, and retain the congregation’s cooperation than to become a dictator. This will give him time to share his concerns, to teach them, and to help the congregation regain conviction. As a dictator he may temporarily win the battle, but he will do so at loss of his spiritual respect.
     In general, a well taught congregation that respects its leaders will honor the convictions of its leaders. If it doesn’t the leader should probably check his own heart. The problem may well start there. If he lays open his own heart to his brethren, and asks for their help in dealing first with his own problems, and then with the group’s problems, things will begin to happen.


[i]  This is not the complete story, as one reviewer told me. The point of this article is not to evaluate the Amish division. Rather, I have simply used this as an illustration of the wrong use of authority. The Amish, including Jacob Amman (the bishop above) later admitted this in writing, in a letter of apology.
[ii]  As someone noted when reading this manuscript, this could be an oversimplification. The German / Russian Mennonite groups had Dutch background. But they basically kept their form rather than their spirituality. The Hutterites survived longer, but it was their emphasis on brotherhood and evangelism, rather than an authority emphasis, that was at the root of their survival. The Swiss Mennonites and a few Amish groups were basically the only groups who survived into the 20th century as spiritual groups.

4 thoughts on “God’s People and Authority

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  1. I would like to make at least one thing clear about my last blog. I do believe there is a place for culture, group consensus, and proper authority structures in the church, if they are kept in subjection to God. But they will only produce an outward conformity, if our hearts are not united by love for and devotion to Jesus. Its only as we are knit together by holding to the head, that we experience the unity of the Spirit. Col. 2:19 It is important to make sure our motives and basis for unity are of God. Crucifying Jesus was justified for unity's sake, “that the whole nation perish not,” John 11:50; and to, “gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad,” John 11:52. Satan will use extra-biblical versions of unity as a tool to promote his unjust and deceptive causes. Our ancestors were persecuted by the state church to maintain control and unity.Eugene Weaver

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  2. I say amen to your thoughts on authority and the lessons we should be learning from Mennonite history. Authority is a blessing to the church if it is handled carefully and kept in subjection to Christ. Church leaders are not the head of the church, as fathers are the head of the home. Christ is the head. If we only look to each other for direction and fail to look to Jesus there will be confusion. Imagine what it would be like if the members of our body would bypass the head for direction and look to each other. It wouldn't work. Likewise our communication with one another must be controlled and processed through Jesus, the head of the church. The first loyalty of every man should be to Christ. He is the head of every man (II Cor. 11:3) He that forsaketh not all to follow Him cannot be His disciple. Devotion to Christ will bring us to together. Being devoted to a culture, church structures, or group consensus will not unite us. Sometimes it is necessary to stop submitting to men to follow Christ. In Gal. 2, Peter, and others, failed to walk uprightly according to the truth of the gospel. Peter, as an apostle and pillar in the church, was not safe to follow. Paul withstood him to the face. Its easy to understand that unbridled authority persecuted our ancestors. In our churches milder versions of unbridled authority cause confusion. Many think as long as church rules do not require us to violate Bible principles they are safe. It subtly puts the church above needing to be accountable to the weightier matters of being just and merciful. And above the command to love and receive one another. Satan loves to take advantage of any authority he can. Its a very effective tool for promoting his devious purposes. There is nothing on earth that needs to be regulated more than authority. That is why our government has a constitution. The Word is our constitution. God help us, to rightly divide it and live by it in our churches, without twisting it to our own destruction. Eugene Weaver

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  3. I say amen to your thoughts on authority and the lessons we should be learning from Mennonite history. Authority is a blessing to the church if it is handled carefully and kept in subjection to Christ. Church leaders are not the head of the church, as fathers are the head of the home. Christ is the head. If we only look to each other for direction and fail to look to Jesus there will be confusion. Imagine what it would be like if the members of our body would bypass the head for direction and look to each other. It wouldn't work. Likewise our communication with one another must be controlled and processed through Jesus, the head of the church. The first loyalty of every man should be to Christ. He is the head of every man (II Cor. 11:3) He that forsaketh not all to follow Him cannot be His disciple. Devotion to Christ will bring us to together. Being devoted to a culture, church structures, or group consensus will not unite us. Sometimes it is necessary to stop submitting to men to follow Christ. In Gal. 2, Peter, and others, failed to walk uprightly according to the truth of the gospel. Peter, as an apostle and pillar in the church, was not safe to follow. Paul withstood him to the face. Its easy to understand that unbridled authority persecuted our ancestors. In our churches milder versions of unbridled authority cause confusion. Many think as long as church rules do not require us to violate Bible principles they are safe. It subtly puts the church above needing to be accountable to the weightier matters of being just and merciful. And above the command to love and receive one another. Satan loves to take advantage of any authority he can. Its a very effective tool for promoting his devious purposes. There is nothing on earth that needs to be regulated more than authority. That is why our government has a constitution. The Word is our constitution. God help us, to rightly divide it and live by it in our churches, without twisting it to our own destruction. Eugene Weaver

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  4. Another sad thing is that during the whole time of Amman's visit, the meetings were highly secretive and the venues constantly changed because they were all in high danger of capture and mistreatment by the authorities. It has been said that times of persecution would draw believers together, but that is not always the case.

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