Arthur Pink, July, 1950
"But you, do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren." Matthew 23:8
In every generation, there are those of an officious spirit who aspire to leadership, demanding deference from their fellows. Such men especially when they are endowed with natural gifts above the average are the kind who become the founders of new sects and parties, and insist upon unqualified subjection from their followers. Their interpretation of the Scriptures must not be challenged, their dictates are final. They must be owned as "rabbis" and submitted to as "fathers." Everyone must believe precisely what they teach, and order all the details of his life by the rules of conduct which they prescribe or else be branded as a heretic, and denounced as a gratifier of the lusts of the flesh.
There have been, and still are, many such self-elevated little popes in Christendom, who deem themselves to be entitled to implicit credence and obedience, whose decisions must be accepted without question. They are nothing but arrogant usurpers, for Christ alone is the Rabbi or Master of Christians; and since all of His disciples are "brethren," they possess equal rights and privileges.
"Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in Heaven." (Mat 23:9). This dehortation has ever been needed by God's people, for they are the most part simple and unsophisticated, trustful and easily imposed upon. In those verses, the Lord Jesus was enforcing the duty of private judgment, bidding believers allow none to be the dictators of their faith, or lords of their lives. No man is to be heeded in spiritual matters, any further than he can produce a plain and decisive, "Thus says the LORD" as the foundation of his appeal. To be in subjection to any ecclesiastical authority that is not warranted by Holy Writ, or to comply with the whims of men, is to renounce your Christian freedom. Allow none to have dominion over your mind and conscience. Be regulated only by the teaching of God's Word, and firmly refuse to be brought into bondage to "the commandments and doctrines of men," with their "Touch not; taste not; handle not" (Col 2:21-22). Instead, "Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made us free" (Gal 5:1); yet "not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God" (1 Peter 2:16) yielding unreservedly to His authority alone. Rather than conform to the rules of the Pharisees, Christ was willing to be regarded as a Sabbath-breaker!
"Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith you stand" (2 Corinthians 1:24). Weigh well those words, my reader, and remember they were written by one who "was not a whit behind the very chief apostles" (2 Corinthians 11:5); and here he declaims all authority over the faith of these saints! In the previous verse, he had spoken of "sparing" them; and here, "Lest it should be thought that he and his fellow ministers assumed to themselves any tyrannical power over the churches, or lorded it over God's heritage, these words are subjoined" John Gill (1697-1771).
The word "faith" may be understood here as either the grace of faith or the object thereof. Take it of the former: ministers of the Gospel can neither originate, stimulate, nor dominate it the Holy Spirit is the Author, Increaser, and Lord of it. Take it as the object of faith, that which is believed: ministers have no divine warrant to devise any new articles of faith, nor to demand assent to anything which is not plainly taught in the Bible. "If any man speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God" (1 Peter 4:11), neither withholding anything revealed therein, nor adding anything of his own thereto.
Paul's work was to instruct and persuade, not to lord it over his converts and compel their belief. He had written his first letter to the saints in answer to the queries they had sent him; and at the beginning of this second epistle explains why he had deferred a further visit to them, stating that he was prepared to stay away until such time as they had corrected the evils which existed in their assembly. He refused to oppress them.
"Faith rests not on the testimony of man, but on the testimony of God. When we believe the Scriptures, it is not man, but God whom we believe. Therefore, faith is subject not to man, but to God alone...The apostles were but the organs of the Holy Spirit; what they spoke as such, they could not recall or modify. They were not the lords, so to speak, of the Gospel...Paul therefore places himself alongside of his brethren, not over them as a lord, but as a joint believer with them in the Gospel which he preached, and a helper of their joy, cooperating with them in the promotion of their spiritual welfare" Charles Hodge (1797-1878). If Paul would not, then how absurd for any man to attempt to exercise a spiritual dominion in matters of faith or practice!
"The elders who are among you, I exhort Feed the flock of God which is among you not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:1-3). These are part of the instructions given unto ministers of the Gospel as to how they are to conduct themselves in the discharge of their holy office, and we would earnestly commend them to the attention of every pastor who reads this article. They are divinely forbidden to abuse their position and assume an absolute authority or rule imperiously over the saints. Their task is to preach the truth and enjoin obedience to Christ, and not unto themselves. They are not to act arbitrarily or in a domineering spirit, for though they are set over believers in the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:12) and are to "rule" and therefore to be submitted unto in their lawful administration of the Word and the ordinances (Heb 13:17) yet they are not to arrogate to themselves dominion over the consciences of men, nor impose any of their own inventions; but instead, teach their flock "to observe all things whatever [Christ has] commanded" (Mat 28:20).
The minister of the Gospel has no right to dictate unto others, or insist in a dogmatic manner that people must receive what he says on his bare assertion. Such a spirit is contrary to the genius of Christianity, unsuited to the relation which he sustains to his flock, and quite unfitting to a follower of Christ. No arbitrary control has been committed to any cleric. True ministerial authority or church rule, is not a dictatorial one, but is a spiritual administration under Christ. Instead of lording it over God's heritage, preachers are to be "examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:3): personal patterns of good works, holiness, and self-sacrifice; models of piety, humility, and charity.
How vastly different from the conduct enjoined by Peter has been the arrogance, intolerance, and tyrannical spirit of his self-styled successors! Nor are they the only ones guilty thereof. Love of power has been as common a sin in the pulpit, as love of money, and many of the worst evils which have befallen Christendom, have issued from a lusting after dominion and ecclesiastical honors. Such is poor human nature, that good men find it hard to keep from being puffed up and misusing any measure of authority when it is committed unto them, and from not doing more harm than good with the same.
Even James and John so far forgot themselves that, on one occasion, they asked Christ to grant them the two principal seats of power and honor in the day of His glory (Mar 10:35-37). Mark well this part of His reply: "You know that those who are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them" (verse 42) they love to bear sway, and, like Haman, have everybody truckle to them. "But so shall it not be among you" says Christ to His ministers eschew any spirit of domineering, mortify the love of being flattered and held in honor because of your office. "But whoever will be great among you, shall be your servant. And whoever of you will be the chief, shall be slave of all" (verses 43-44).
Those who are to be accounted the greatest in Christ's spiritual kingdom, are the ones characterized by a meek and lowly heart, and those who will receive a crown of glory in the day to come, are those who most sought the good of others. "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (verse 45) then make self-abnegation and not self-exaltation your constant aim.
"Prove all things: hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). This is yet another verse that, by clear and necessary implication, teaches the privilege and right of private judgment, and makes known the duty and extent to which it is to is exercised. Linking it with what has been before us in the preceding paragraphs, it shows that if it is unwarrantable for the servants of Christ to usurp an absolute power it is equally wrong for those committed to their care to submit thereto. Church government and discipline are indeed necessary and scriptural; yet not a lordly authority, but a rule of holiness and love, wherein a spirit of mutual forbearance predominates.
God does not require the minds and consciences of His children to be enslaved by any ecclesiastical dominion. Each one has the right to exercise his own judgment and have a say and vote upon all matters pertaining to his local assembly; and if he does not, then he fails in the discharge of his responsibility. Well did one of the old divines say on Psalm 110:1, "Christ is Lord to employ, to command, whom and what He will.' To Him only must we say, 'Lord, what will You have me to do?' (Act 9:6). To Him only must we go for instruction 'You have the words of eternal life' (John 6:68)."
It scarcely needs to be said that the right of private judgment certainly does not mean that we are at liberty to bring the Word of God to the bar of human reason and sentiment, so that we may reject whatever does not commend itself to our intelligence, or appeal to our inclinations. The Bible does not submit itself unto our opinion, or give us the option of picking and choosing from its contents; rather is it our critic (Heb 4:12). "The law of the LORD is perfect" (Psalm 19:7), and, the best of us being very imperfect, it is madness to criticize it.
But when we hear preaching from it, we must test what is said, whether or not it accords with the Word, and whether the interpretation is valid or strained.
It is a fundamental truth that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15); yet even in the days of the apostles there were those who, while acknowledging Him as the only Savior, taught that there was no salvation apart from circumcision. Accordingly, the church met at Jerusalem "to consider of this matter" (Act 15:4-11). So must we "consider" all we hear and read, whether it agrees with the divine Rule, taking nothing for granted.
"Prove all things." This is not optional, but obligatory: we are divinely commanded to do so. God's Word is the only standard of truth and duty, and everything we believe and do must be tested by it. Thousands have sought to evade this duty by joining Rome and allowing that system to determine everything for them. Nor are the majority of the members of non-popish churches much better, being too indolent to search and study the Bible for themselves, believing whatever their preachers tell them. Beware, my reader, of allowing any influence to come between your soul and God's Word. How early did the Holy Spirit have occasion to say to one of the primitive churches which had given way to a spirit of partisanship and bigotry, "Who then is Paul? And who is Apollos?" When the mind rests upon the human instrument, not only is spiritual progress in the truth immediately arrested, but the living power of what truth is already attained dies out of the enslaved heart, being displaced by dogmas received on human authority. Divine truth then degenerates into a party distinction, for which many zealously contend in naught but a sectarian spirit. The origin of all sectarianism is subjection to men: human authority supplanting the authority of God, the preacher becoming the dictator.
We must not allow any to arrogate the place and office of the Holy Spirit. No human system can feed the soul: it has to come into immediate and quickening contact with the living and powerful Word of God in order to be spiritually nourished. Even where real Christians are concerned, many had their religious beliefs formed before they were converted, receiving them from their parents or the churches they attended, and not directly from God and His Word. Therefore, they, too, need to heed this divine injunction: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Bring your beliefs to the test of the Scriptures, and you are likely to discover that it is much harder and more painful to unlearn some things than it is to learn new ones. Very few think for themselves, and fewer still are really willing to "buy the truth" (Pro 23:23) and set aside their former opinions, no matter what may be the cost. Much grace is needed for that! Since the eternal interests of our souls are involved, it is the height of folly for us to depend upon the judgment of others, for the ablest ministers are fallible and liable to err.
"These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (Act 17:11). Those Bereans sat in judgment upon the teaching of the apostles! They are commended for doing so! Not only was it their privilege and duty, but it is recorded to their honor. But mark how they discharged this duty. They brought all that they heard from the spoken discourse to the test of the written Word. They did not judge by their own preconceptions, views, prejudices, feelings, or partialities, but by God's Word. If what they heard was in accord therewith, they were bound to receive and submit to it; but if it was contrary thereto, they were equally bound to refuse and reject the ministry that taught it. That is recorded as an example to us! It reveals how we are to exercise this privilege of private judgment. The apostles claimed to be sent of God, but were they really preaching the truth? The Bereans gave them a ready hearing, but took the trouble to examine and try their teaching by the Scriptures, and searched them daily whether they were so. Do you likewise, and remember that Christ commended the Ephesian saints because they had tried those who said they were apostles and "found them liars" (Rev 2:2).
The right of private judgment does not mean that each Christian may be a law unto himself, and still less lord over himself. We must beware of allowing liberty to degenerate into license! No, it means the right to form our own views from Scriptures, to be in bondage to no ecclesiastical authority, and to be subject unto God alone. Two extremes are to be guarded against:
1. slavery to human authority and tradition, and
2. the spirit of self-will and pride.
On the one hand, we are to avoid blind credulity; on the other hand, an affectation of independence or the love of novelty, which disdains what others believe in order to obtain a cheap notoriety of originality.
Private judgment does not mean private imagination, but a deliberate conviction based on Holy Writ! Though I must not resign my mind and conscience to others, or deliver my reason and faith over blindfold to any church yet I ought to be very slow in rejecting the approved judgment of God's true servants. There is a happy medium between limiting myself to what the Puritans and others taught and disdaining the help they can afford me. Self-conceit is to be rigidly restrained. Private judgment is to be exercised humbly, soberly, and impartially, with a willingness to receive light from any quarter.
Ponder the Word for yourself; but mortify the spirit of haughty self-sufficiency, and be ready to avail yourself of anything likely to afford you a better understanding of the truth. Above all, daily beg the Holy Spirit to be your teacher. "Prove all things" when listening to your favorite preacher, or reading these articles! And always accord your brethren the same right and privilege which you claim for yourself.