Tim Enloe and I are continuing our conversation. Not much of an exciting conversation, because I agree with what he has posted here. But he does raise a question worth considering. “Pastor Wilson has said in his earlier post that the solution to abusive lay discussions is not a simple gag order. I agree, and so I would like to ask what Wilson’s alternative to the gag order is.” The answer to this would have to depend on the nature of the “abusive lay discussions.” Some of them constitute sins against charity, but not against truth. Others are sins against the truth, and not against charitity. Some are sins against both, because each sin will eventually necessitate the other. Throw some other variables in, and you soon have a really interesting stew.
I would divide the possible responses up accordingly, but I would begin with with effective refutations of false teachers who are being taken seriously by some of the sheep (for whatever reason). It is not necessary to refute “everything out there” because some errors should not be taken seriously, and are not being taken seriously at a general level at all. So if a cult with three members and one prophet announces that the moon is going to fall into Lake Michigan next week, the Church does not have to marshall its forces in order to respond. Don’t put out fires that haven’t started. Some people are whacked out, and all you need to do is withdraw from such, as St. Paul would say. Other people, equally whacked out, are running oil-rich countries with aspiring nuclear weapons programs, and so you do need to deal with what they are saying. Others have the wherewithal to make their Dah Vinchee movies, and it is appropriate for Christian leaders to assemble and coordinate a response — because a lot of people are going to be affected. The decision to respond or not respond is not made on the basis of the falsehood involved, but rather on the basis of the threat involved. You attack the wolf with a sheep in its jaws, not the wolf at home who is making grrr noises at himself while posing in front of the mirror.
In order to do this, authority is absolutely necessary. But there is more than one kind of authority. Jesus taught with authority, and not as the scribes. But Jesus recognized that the scribes did have some kind of authority, after their fashion. They sat in Moses’ seat, after all. So I agree with Tim completely that godly laymen should respect the man who holds the office of pastor, simply because the office is held by him. As they say in the military, you “salute the uniform.” But I also believe that the oaths taken by ministers require them to function in their office with spiritual and moral authority, and not just what we might call an institutional authority (even if the institution, like the Sanhedrin, is grounded in Scripture). When a church is requiring the laity to salute the uniform, simply because it is a uniform, that church is about to assume room temperature, and is inviting glib demagogues to come and take all their people away.
If a man’s papers are in order, he is authorized to preach and teach, and this should be respected by the people. In our egalitarian age, it is not respected nearly enough. But if all he has are papers (the better to shuffle with), and he does not have the empowering of the Holy Spirit, then he is inviting disaster to his church. When the disaster comes, those populists who bring it are not thereby justified. Sleepy and boring shepherds provide no justification for the wolves. But they do provide an opportunity for the wolves. So I would include dryasdust clericalism as one of the central contributors to this unhappy state of affairs that we find ourselves in.
This is why there is no substitute for genuine reformation in the Church. We must pray that God raises up men who preach like Knox, teach like Calvin, and administer sacraments like Bucer. In the meantime, we need to pray that God would prevent glib counterfeits of such men from leading the people astray. We should further pray that our institutional leaders (who would not touch someone like John the Baptist with a barge pole) would come to see and recognize the need of the hour.