Where Are We Going – With Authority?

Once again, Rev. Peter De Jong, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Michigan, writes one of his discerning and informative Where Are We Going? articles. Of the time of the Judges, Scripture tells us: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Also in our time, it is of the utmost importance to make sure that we have twenty-twenty vision as to what authority really is and why it is to be observed.

“In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Judges 17:6, 21:25.

This little remark appears twice in the book of Judges, once after the accounts of foreign invasions which the Lord had brought upon Israel because of their unfaithfulness to Hi m; and a second time after the story of the civil war in which one of their tribes was almost destroyed for the same reason. In the last instance it is the telling, terse conclusion of the whole book.


This remark might also be used to describe one of the outstanding characteristics of our time—a crisis of authority that exists in the church as well as in the world. We ought not to be surprised at its coming, and that in religion as well as in politics. The New Testament teaches us to expect life in the end-time to be dominated by “the man of sin,” “the lawless one,” “that opposeth and exalteth himself against all that is called God or that is worshipped; so that he sitteth in the temple of God, setting himself forth as God” (II Thess. 2:3, 4, 8).

Many present developments fall into this pattern of setting man’s effort to “be his own boss” (“autonomy” or “self-rule”) in the place of the rule or authority of God. The primary meaning of the word “authority” is “legal or rightful power, a right to command or act.” One notices in many of these developments a tendency to get away from this original and essential meaning of the word and to either recognize only secondary, more subjective usages of it, or to deny the principle of authority altogether. Isn’t this what man has been doing ever since the Fall?

In the February issue of THE OUTLOOK 1 traced the way in which Abraham Kuyper’s institutions set up “Pro Rege” (“For the King”), as he expressed it, to fight for the rule of Christ in Church, School, and State, have been surrendering to the Liberalism against which Kuyper himself fought. In a following article in the March issue, I pointed out how this tragic development came, in at least one respect, through a curious change in Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty.” In his later writing, and even more so in the works of his followers, there was a tum from acknowledging the rule of God in every area of life into a movement (and even a whole philosophy) which acknowledged the sovereignty of “spheres” and of men in those spheres, whose “sovereignty” included “the right, duty, and the power to break and to avenge any resistance it encounters.” The devastating results that are following from this shift from humble obedience to God to proud assertion of the rights of men and their “spheres” are not unlike those which Israel experienced in the days of the Judges.


Seen as part of this over-all authority crisis, the CRC’s recent discussions and decisions about “the Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority” become both more easily understandable and more disturbing than if they are regarded as dealing with a separate problem.

In the 1971 and 1972 Reports (“36/44”) the Christian Reformed Churches faced the question whether the authority of the Bible must be simply acknowledged as that of God because He claims it as His word to man, or whether it must be qualified as that of its “content and purpose as saving revelation of God in Christ.” The question was not whether the Bible was given to make us “wise unto salvation through faith . . . in Christ” (II Tim. 3:15). No one was questioning that. The question was whether its authority or rule over us must simply be acknowledged as God’s or whether it should be qualified as depending on its saving purpose (and, in effect, usefulness to us). Notice the shift we have already observed from acknowledging “authority” in the primary sense as “right to command” to reducing that to something more relative and subjective.

The Netherlands churches in whose beginnings Abraham Kuyper took an important part, but which have been surrendering to Liberalism, were urging us to accept the second “qualified” view of the Bible’s authority. The CRC, wishing to keep peace with them as well with as our own members with such inclinations (unlike the Missouri Synod Lutherans who were willing to 6ght against such qualifications) decided to compromise. While still affirming the Bible’s authority as God’s Word the CRC made concessions to those who want to make that authority depend on its saving purpose and therefore something other and less than God’s right to reveal, to rule, and to command.


Another report referred to our Christian Reformed churches for general study brings up the same basic question of authority. That is the 1973 Report on “Ecclesiastical Office and Ordination” (Acts 1973, pp. 635–716). Four years in preparation, this Report reveals an impressive amount of study of the Bible and church history, including extensive analysis of words used in the Bible. Instead of simply assuming that “offices” in the church should be regarded as we and other Christians have for centuries become accustomed to regarding them, the report attempts to show that the Bible does not support a number of our longstanding assumptions.

In the report we are told that the word for “office” in the Greek New Testament is DIAKONIA, meaning “service”—the word from which “deacon” is derived. This service is really that of all Christians in the “office of believers.” Some in the church are given special duties in order to help the rest of the church’s members carry out their “service” more effectively (Eph. 4:11, 12). But what distinguishes such “special offices” from the service of all the rest is simply a difference of work or “function,” not of “status, dominance, or privilege.” In line with this basic conclusion the report also observes that the Bible gives no reason why anyone who brings the Word of God should not administer sacraments, or why the laying on of hands should take place only in the ordination of a pastor, and it leaves the church free to “adapt or modify” “special ministries” in whatever ways it thinks will help the service of Christ.

While this whole presentation has the merit of stressing what has been largely neglected through the churches’ history. the “office of believers,” and of correcting twisted notions of office as special status and honor rather than as work that must be done, in reducing the whole idea of “office” and its authority to nothing but “service” (“defined in terms of love and service” are its words, p. 713), it virtually destroys all real authority. If permitted to control our practice this view will reduce the church to anarchy. Applied in the family, it gives any child the right to say to his parent, “I don’t have to listen to you; the only authority you have is the right to serve me!”


The CRC Synod of 1972, confronted by this report and observing its radical implications, referred it back to the committee with instructions to study further especially this matter of authority—whether Christ has delegated it to the whole church, to special offices or to both; and what the nature of authority of special office is in relation to the “office of all believers.” Grounds for this action were that “a. The relationship between ‘service’ and ‘authority’ has not been sufficiently dealt with in the report” and “b. Conclusions of a report with far-reaching consequences for the life of the church of Christ ought to be firmly established before they are adopted” (Acts 1972, p. 95).

The twenty-two page addition to the report which the new instructions produced (Acts 1973, pp. 691–713) did not contain the more adequate treatment of this subject which the Synod had desired. Instead it simply contained more biblical and word-study attempting to prove that “the nature of the authority of the special offices of ministries is best described by the term service.” “The nature of the authority of the special ministries therefore, is none other than the nature of the authority of the Lord—the authority of the supreme servant” (p. 707).

The Synod of 1973, obviously impressed with the amount of scholarly labor in the report, but still uneasy about its radical conclusions especially on this critical point of authority, accepted the report’s conclusions but with some significant additions. To the second conclusion regarding the ministry of the church as a whole it added the statement that “as Christ’s ministry it functions with tile power ane! authority of Christ the Lord.” To the fifth conclusion on particular ministries it added (in place of the statement “The authority which is associated with the special ministries is an authority defined in terms of love and service.”) “These ministries function with Christ’s power and authority, a power and authority rooted in obedience to his Word and expressed in loving service. In turn, those who are served are to respond with obedience and respect” (Italics mine).

Also significant is the fact that the 1973 Synod appointed a new committee to study the implications of the decisions it had accepted and to report to Synod in 1974. One readily senses the Synod’s uneasiness about the disappearance of the whole notion of authority from the view of special offices in the church, but it appears very questionable whether the improvised addition of four or five lines to an 80-page report will be very effective in correcting the blindness to the real principle of authority in the view given by the whole report whose recommendations arc now accepted. Perhaps the new committee will have better vision.


Someone might interject, “Doesn’t this scholarly report prove that the Bible’s teaching about church office lacks this notion of authority as rule and that we as Reformed or Bible-believing Christians therefore ought to discard it?” The report does nothing of the kind. Although one can appreciate the valuable correctives that it makes to such old weaknesses or abuses as neglect of the believers’ office and tyrannical misuse of special offices, the report is, despite its impressive research, a thoroughly slanted study, a reaction from one extreme into an opposite. It reflects and promotes the anti-authority prejudices common in our modern world instead of trying to expose the errors of these prejudices and to counteract them.

The opposition to the idea of authority running through this report at some points surfaces in a way that is unmistakable. A few examples will show this clearly:

Describing the Old Testament office of King, the report states that “The true king is not a leech who drains his people dry, but one who builds his nation by serving his people. Isaiah sees the fulfillment of the ideal king in the Servant of the Lord who will serve God by being of service to men” (p. 652). While this is true, one looks in vain in the report for any hint that this messianic King would just as certainly “break” the hostile nations “with a rod of iron” and “dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps. 2:9). Christ the King, while “meek and lowly” is no Gilbert and Sullivan caricature who has been robbed of all real power! (Matt. 28:18). Can one do justice to His office as “King” while so pointedly ignoring His power?

Again the report observes that the word for “herald” or “preacher” (“keerux”) is rarely used in the New Testament, “probably because the word . . . was commonly used in Greek literature to describe a kind of elevated personage who was inviolable because he was under divine protection” (p. 662). One questions the validity of that conjecture when he observes later, on the same page, that the corresponding verb “keerussein” (which Thayer says also “always” suggests “an authority which must be listened to and obeyed”) is used “about 61 times in the New Testament.” If the rarity of the noun suggests to the committee that this word implying exaltation is inappropriate, why doesn’t the frequency of the corresponding verb suggest the opposite? Obviously the committee saw only what it wanted to see, and it did not want to see anything that suggested authority as more than “service.”

This prejudice, observed by the CRC Synods of 1972 and 1973, surfaces even more c1carly in the additions to the report in reply to the questions of the 1972 Synod. We are told, for example, that “The authority of the special ministries, like the authority of the office of all believers, is correctly exercised only when it is used for the benefit of those over whom it is exercised” (p. 693). Let’s recognize that that is a primary purpose, but is that the only purpose? When discipline has to be exercised to the paint of excommunication of an unbeliever, is this exclusively for his benefit? Is it not (whether or not he is converted through it) also for the benefit of the church and its testimony to the Lord’s gospel? (I Cor. 5:6, 13; Rev. 2:14–16, 20, 26, 27). In this narrow preoccupation with service to man, God’s honor gets no recognition at all!

The report states that the 1972 advisory commit· tec on this matter “was of the opinion that the question of the authority of special office in the church had not been adequately dealt with” in this report. “It was felt by them that the ‘clement of authority in I Thess. 5:1–13, Hebrews 13:17, and similar passages had not received sufficient attention . . .” (pp. 700ff.) (Italics, mine).

The report tried to meet this criticism by more word study. It observed that the word in I Thessalonians 5:12, 13 translated to be “over” in the Lord (proistamenous) means: “to preside” or “lead” or could even be translated “to care for.” In I Timothy 3:4, 5 and 5:17 where another form of the same word is commonly translated “rule” the committee again labored to reduce the meaning of the word to “care for” or “serve.” So partisan did its argument become at this point that we were told that “ruling” one’s own house in the case of elders should not be understood as “ruling” (3:4) because the same qualification was later applied to deacons (verse 12) who were only “servants.” The argument conveniently overlooked the fact that the “rule” in verse 4 involved “subjection.” The fact that deacons as well as elders should show themselves capable of exercising discipline in their own homes by no means proved that the elders’ “rule” therefore included no other work or authority than that of deacons! Such arguments only show to what lengths the committee was prepared to go to eliminate the notion of authority.

Hebrews 13:17 received similar treatment. This time the word in older versions translated “rule” or “rulers” (heegoumenos) was also retranslated “leaders,” thereby reducing the authoritarian idea. This permissible translation does not remove from the text, however, the injunction that these “leaders” must be “obeyed”! In the case of these passages, as in others, an effort was made to remove the idea of rule or obedience because Christ said that He came to serve (Luke 22:26) and because Christians were all commanded to “subject” themselves “one to another” (Eph. 5:21) and “to serve one another” (I Peter 6:5). But the fact that the Bible repeatedly gives us this necessary warning against the ever-present temptations to pride and misuse of power, should not be misinterpreted to reduce all authority to service and all special offices to diaconate!

Children were commanded to “obey” their parents “in the Lord,” to literally “put themselves under” them and “listen to” them. The committee in attempting to remove this authority even from parent—child relationships seemed to be assuming a home relationship on the permissive, “Dr. Spock” model instead of that so clearly delineated in the Scriptures. There the loving “care” of parents doesn’t mean mere attachment or subservience, but even includes using “the rod” when it is necessary (Prov. 13:24; 19:18; 22:15, 23:13, 14; 29:15, 17).

Paul pointed out that his “service” in Christ’s church necessarily involved the same kind of firm discipline in the church “What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod . . . ?” (I Cor. 4:21; cf. II Cor. 13:2, 10). The Lord Himself uses the rod of correction (Heb. 12:6); and we, in the responsibilities of family and church must not neglect to follow His injunctions in this respect, however much these may be deplored as outdated in our undisciplined age. This four-year study. despite its virtues, as Synods of 1972 and 1973 have observed, does not do justice to the subject of “authority.” In that respect it reveals and promotes the anti-authoritarian, anti-Christian spirit of our age rather than the sovereign claims of the Lord.


Another voice speaking on this subject is heard in a little 46-page book entitled Insight, Authority and Power: A Biblical Appraisal by Peter A. Schouls, published by Wedge Publishing Foundation of Toronto in 1972. The writer is chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Alberta. The little book contains the contents of his lectures at conferences of the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship (AACS) of whose Institute he is a recently appointed “Fellow.” In other words, this comes to us as another effort of this “reformational” movement to enlighten us regarding this problem of authority.

The relationship that Dr. Schouls would have us see between the three concepts mentioned in his title may be simply stated: Authority is the characteristic of the man who has insight in a given field so that he should be given power in it. Dr. Schouls stated his thesis in this way: “To the extent that a person gains or possesses insight, to that extent he obtains or possesses authority. And to the extent that a man possesses authority, he ought to be given the opportunity to act out this authority. Acted-out authority is power.”

Schouls went on to observe that “power is exercised legitimately only by people possessing authority because of insight” and also to define “insight” as meaning for him basically: “hearing (heeding) the Word of the Lord!” (pp. 12, 13). Now, in this connection he observed that “‘office’ (the ‘office’ of parent, teacher, pastor, etc.)” ought not to be considered as “static” as it often is, but as “dynamic.” (We might say, not as position but action.) Instead, therefore, of saying that the man in office (parent, teacher, pastor) must be acknowledged as such because the office was God-given, he said, “I would like to argue that having been placed in office does not automatically give one authority.”


To this view of the matter Schouls tried to give a biblical basis by appealing to the example of Christ. “Christ qualifies for . . . authority because he fully knows and does the Father’s will” (p. 17 ). The way in which Jesus’ opponents questioned his authority by confronting him with questions regarding the law, Schouls pronounced as “formally speaking, entirely correct” (p. 21). And he went on to argue that Jesus denied their authority by exposing their lack of understanding. From the story of the twelve-year old Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41–42; pp. 25, 26) he concluded that “Obedience to his parents is not called for when the parents act without understanding; and parental power asserted on the basis of ignorance of the will of God is power illegitimately used, hence without authority, and without the right of being heeded.”


The practical significance of this view of Dr. Schouls comes out in the latter part of the book where he applied it to church, home, and school. In the church he saw this as meaning that the churches’ “power” was “power of service rather than of dominion.” (Notice the parallel to the Synod report.)

Turning to the home, Schouls’ view means that, unless parents understand God’s Word, “they cannot possibly bring up their children in the fear of the Lord. Then they have no authority as parents.” Furthermore, “to the extent that . . . children are exposed to powerful Christian service in the church community . . . and in the school they attend, children may through these channels obtain far more insight into the meaning of the Word of God for their developing lives than their parents ever had. Obedience to parents then becomes a concept that in many instances simply doesn’t apply. It will never do any good (in fact, it is evil) to tell children to obey their parents when counseling families where severe conflicts arise in this kind of context. For obedience is submission to power exercised legitimately, and parents without insight into what the Word of God means for the maturing of their children simply don’t possess the authority to exercise this power.”

To justify this view Schouls appealed to Jesus’ remarks about houses being divided because of Him (Matt. 10:34ff.; Luke 12:49; 14; 25). He appealed also to James Olthuis’ statements that: “If parents in either an authoritarian or permissive way do not have the vision of the coming Kingdom, if they do not lead the children with this in mind, then they can no longer legitimately demand that their children obey . . . . ” If the parents are leading astray in regard to the central direction of one’s life, there is no necessity to obey; much rather there is a call to ‘disobey’” (p. 36). (We ought to observe that “the vision of the . . . Kingdom” and the “central direction of their lives” are standard AACS terms used to describe their peculiar views, so that this advice may be understood as an instruction to children to disobey their parents if those parents do not share the AACS vision. Since in most cases they don’t. this is a call for a general uprising. And even where they do, this makes children the judges, which is hardly “obedience.”)

Proceeding to the school Schouls maintained that “to the extent that the teacher has insight he has authority and ought to be able to exercise this in terms of power; and to the extent that the student has insight he, too, has authority which he ought to he able to exercise in terms of power.” “If the teacher has insight greater that the student, he is the one with authority and the balance of power should he on the teacher’s side. If the student’s insight exceeds that of the teacher, the student possesses authority and power should be on his side. If there is a situation or an aspect of a situation in which students really have insight greater than that of their teachers, and if in such a situation we want to maintain the educational process, we can do so only by making the students teachers and the teachers students in that instance.”

Addressing himself to the student revolt Schouls said, “Among the rebels are some of the best students. They are the best students if they demand power because they rebel against the system of non-education.” “And because the best students want education, want to get to know what life is all about, and want to learn how to contribute to it, they want to exercise power. Someone had better concede their authority.” Lest anyone think that he had in view only the secular situation, he added, “We can certainly expect the phenomenon of student power in our Christian high schools and, even more so, in our Christian college” (pp. 40–44).


Not much needs to be said to expose Schouls’ view of authority as the total distortion of the Bible’s teachings (which it is), or to point out the anarchy which applying it must produce; and, perhaps we should say, is producing in practice. Dr. Schouls’ little book helps us to understand the demoralizing effects being attributed to the AACS teachings in homes, churches, and schools.

“Authority,” as we have observed, is defined by the dictionary as meaning essentially “legal or rightful power; a right to command or act: as exercised in government.” Only secondarily does it come to be used in a more subjective, relative way, the only way in which Dr. Schouls would acknowledge it, “as power due to opinion or esteem; influence of character, station, mental or moral superiority, or the like” (Webster). It is obvious that neither in the teaching of our Lord nor more broadly in the Scriptures do we find any hint of Schouls’ denial of authority in the original sense of legal or rightful power.

Consider how in the case of the Roman officer, Jesus commended and endorsed as applicable to Himself the kind of military authority to which the centurion referred: “Say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a mall set under authority, having under myself soldiers: and I say to this one Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh: and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it” (Luke 7:7, 8). The kind of questioning approach which makes authority depend upon one’s opinion of the individual officer’s “insight” is not a more profound understanding of it. It is mutiny!

Of course, men’s insight should be considered in determining their suitability for office, but when they are in office, their authority, unless it plainly contradicts a command of the Lord (Acts 4:19, 20; 5:29), must be obeyed without first passing judgment on the insight manifested in the command. Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” {Matt. 22:21); and the New Testament goes on to order all Christians: “Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power withstandeth the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment” (Rom. 13:1, 2). “Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as sent by him . . .” And notice particularly that this is not made conditional on the authority demonstrating that it has “insight” because it “understands God’s Word.” The Caesars, including Nero, were hardly so qualified!

Peter explicitly added, “For so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men”; and, “Servants, be in subjection to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward” (harsh) (I Peter 2:13ff.). The Word of God also says plainly, “Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord” (Col. 3:20; cf. Eph. 6;1). Even our Lord was “subject to” Joseph and Mary! (Luke 2:51).

The teaching of Dr. Schouls in these AACS lectures really assigns to any child the right to defy his parents saying, “I don’t have to obey you because I don’t agree with your insight.” Despite its Christian intentions this view is not the teaching of Christ at all but the doctrine of Anti-Christ, the “lawless one” who the Bible says will rule in the end-time and whose attacks on all God-given authority are beginning to appear everywhere, not only in the world but also in our homes, churches and schools. Unless we identify and oppose these attacks instead of being taken in by them, we will fall under the divine judgments which these demonic doctrines are bringing into the world. Only as we return resolutely to humble faith in and obedience to the Lord and His authority in every area of our lives will we share in and help others to share in the deliverance He brings from them.