Laymen and Scripture

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An interesting thread broke out after a recent post I made about N.T. Wright and the need to bring genuine discipline to academic debate. The thread (to use shorthand) revolved around private judgment, the priesthood of believers, sola Scriptura, and the ministerium of the Church. How’s that for a summary? I thought I would add a few comments of my own here, and invite Tim Enloe to respond to them on his blog, and I will link to them. I am doing this, not because I differ with Tim’s basic position, but simply to make the issues more clear, and perhaps to highlight some differences in emphases.

The underlying culprit in all these discussions is egalitarianism. Many modern Protestants (and Catholics too, for that matter) assume that the Church has no genuine teaching authority that must be obeyed, and when it comes to doctrinal finality it is “every man to his tents, O Israel.” For Protestants, the doctrine of sola Scriptura is twisted into a “just me and my Bible” solo Scriptura, and the priesthood of the believer is turned into a demand that the rest of your fellows, that holy nation of priests, go mind their own beeswax. Private judgment is absolutized, and the idea that we are created and designed to think and believe in community is rejected. So far the problem.

So, then, here we are. What are we to do about it? Here is the problem. Because of the functional fragmentation of the Church, we have church officers in one communion disciplining members for maintaining (with their open Bible) doctrines that church officers (equally ordained) in another denomination are sworn to uphold. In other words, a Calvinist layman in a Calvary Chapel, who leads a home Bible study, is in the same structural position as an Arminian layman doing the same thing in the OPC. But one is right and the other is wrong. One set of elders is resisting false teaching, and the other is resisting the truth. Strange concepts, I know, but no getting around it.

But I don’t think the first step should be to get the unordained layman to shut up about what he believes the Bible says — rather, I think we should learn to distingish discussion about scriptural teaching and authoritative proclamation. In other words, the place to begin establishing this principle is not so much around Burt Layman’s right to speak as it is in our right to refuse to pay him the slightest attention. He can speak if he wants. We don’t have to listen. When the church speaks (even when the church is in error), the church is speaking authoritatively. It is the difference between a seven-year-old saying to his six-year-old sister, “It is 8 o’clock. We need to go in,” and mom at the back door saying, “It is 8 o’clock. You need to come in.” This difference in genuine authority remains even if mom is mistaken and it is only 7:30.

Now if teaching is occurring that could reasonably be construed as representing the church, then the ordained leadership of the church should sign off on it. For example, my wife periodically leads a women’s study in our congregation. Whenever she does this, she sends a request to the elders, asking for permission to lead the study. Any teaching that someone might construe as being the “position of the church” (and a study by the pastor’s wife fits this description) is something the elders need to give their blessing to. But if two teenagers are talking about the sermon in the church parking lot, they do not need to take care lest one of them be able to point to the other one and declare, “You exposited!”

But what about a teacher who is semi-educated, and not in line with the doctrine of the church, but he is not self-evidently an idiot. He is glib and persuasive. What then? Shutting him down by fiat is counterproductive. An ecclesiastical gag is not a refuation, and everybody knows it. One of the scriptural requirements for the minister is that he needs to be able to refute those who contradict (2 Tim. 2:23-26). The “jury” that observes this refutation is of course the congregation of God’s people, led by her ordained ministers — it is not the headstrong false teacher, for obvious reasons.

There is not a problem with refuting a person, having him refuse to acknowledge it, and then withdrawing from him. “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself” (1 Tim. 6:3-5). It is appropriate to refute someone, have them not recognize it at all, and then simply walk away. These guys are the ecclesiastical equivalent of that knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “It’s just a flesh wound!”

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