A friend of mine has begun to attend a small new church plant, led by a young man who has been ordained through an independent and charismatic revivalist network. This young man, and a few other speakers that have visited the church plant, have talked about God’s divine judgment upon individuals who are not in submission to the Lord’s word or plan. They have shared that they believe the Lord is bringing back divine judgment as a means to discipline the church, as in the NT story of Ananias and Sapphira.

As part of this attempt to establish very clear (and rigid) authority – in the face of, let’s admit – a deep and destructive individualism – they are sharing testimonies of how individuals in the flock have been bitter or angry with the ‘sent one’ or ‘set man.’ And then illness, trouble, even death have fallen upon the individual not in submission. However, when the “apostle” prayed for restoration after repentance, the illness was healed. One example offered was a pastor whose estranged daughter was led into rebellion to his church. The couple began speaking against the father (pastor) and the church. After attempts at discipline (not sure what these were or how it was handled) the Pastor had to ‘turn them over’. Within several weeks his daughter was dead of a mysterious illness.

As you read this I’m sure the alarm bells are ringing!

But what about the Ananias and Saphira story?

How do we establish biblical authority in our day, when the center seems not to hold? And where or in whom does it reside?

Is divine judgment like this to be expected or sought in our day? If so, who administers it and under what conditions?

Interesting, my friend, who has a teaching gift, remarks that he did not like the presentation by the two speakers. Neither were teachers. Both used anecdotal experiences and only shared a few passages from scripture. It was as though the speakers were relying upon the ‘prophetic’ gift, and they did not spend quality time in opening up the scriptures.

Matthew 18 is a good place to begin.

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Notice the process and the outcome. The process is a communal process. Why is this?

Because the Spirit indwells the Body. This is a more fundamental basis of authority than any one gift (including apostle or prophet). There is wisdom in the counsel of many. But note this only works where the five Ephesians 4 gifts are on an equal footing. If we place apostle at the top of a pyramid this all falls apart.

Second the outcome is decisive but not what we expect. Remember who authored this letter. Matthew was a tax collector! He experienced the radical grace of God. To be treated by Jesus “as a tax collector” is to experience tender love and mercy. Judgment does not mean shunning; remember that Jesus rejoiced in the 99 but went after the one!

Much depends on what we do with Ephesians 4. Does it describe a hierarchy or a new kind of team leadership? Based on what the NT says about the body, even the honor given the lesser parts, I believe we have a new kind of team, with true deference toward one another and true humility. If this is so, then the teaching and pastoral gifts are just as critical as the prophetic and apostolic. It’s obvious from my friends experience that this is not the case in this church plant. If anything, the opposite is true. The prophetic and apostolic — the sign gifts and Spirit gifts – are being raised over the Word gifts. To oppose the Spirit and the Word will result in error and distortions in authority, of the kind my friend is observing. No one individual has all the gifts except Jesus.

What about the question of judgment? Is divine judgment active today?

I think the answer is yes, but it’s “divine” judgment that is active. For men and women to take that role is to usurp that which is God’s domain. And I think Luke 4 clues us to something else critical here.

In launching his ministry, Jesus reads from the targum of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth. Here are his words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And here is the actual passage in Isaiah 61 —

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God —

Notice the line Jesus left out. Why?

Because we are living in the age of grace. John 1:17 says something very similar:

“For the law was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

God is not judging our sin in these days. A judgment day will come. But it is not yet. This is the age of grace. It’s that spirit that the church must live into.

How many times should we forgive an erring brother or sister?

I’m sympathetic to groups and movements that are trying to find an expression of biblical authority and biblical unity. I’m doubtful about groups that attempt this through heavy handed tactics “in the name of love.” But Jesus used his power not to oppress but to lift others up. Note: he could have claimed and used ALL authority. Everyone would have bowed to him. No one would have dared to speak against him. He chose another course, according to Paul: weakness and suffering. Why?

Similarly, Paul almost never issued a command. Why not? There are several reasons. Relational authority, the authority of service, is the most powerful form because it is transforming and reaches the heart w/o bending the will. And every part in the Body has rich dignity. We damage that dignity when we command conformity. Rather, we need to help people connect more richly to the Head so that they receive their “go” from God.

It’s difficult for us. We don’t know how to use power rightly. And in these uncertain times there is appeal in rigid authority structures. It’s one reason we see today’s renewal of right wing movements. As Heifetz put it,

“in a crisis, we call for someone with answers, decision, strength, and a map of the future — in short, someone who can make hard problems simple.. Instead of looking for saviours, we should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions — problems that require us to learn new ways.” (Leadership Without Easy Answers, 21)

Freedom is a heavy burden. There will always be those who want to give it away to someone else.

But the Lord has given us a different spirit – and the one whom he sets free is free indeed! May we know his heart and live into the discernment he gives. Above all, may we learn to love one another!

See also “Equipping the Saints

2 Comments on apostles and authority

  1. Marshall says:

    So, what about the Ananias and Sapphira story? What I don’t understand is why everybody uncritically accepts Peter’s pastoral activity, that it was all about God’s judgement just as he said, and that great fear is a good thing to come over a congregation. I say, look what happened to Peter’s church, and it didn’t take very long either.