Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10
Rev David Murray
(From the February 2006 Free Church Witness. Used with kind permission.)
There are various authorities in our lives which make claims upon us. Parents have authority over children, husbands have authority over wives, employers have authority over employees, the state has authority over its citizens, the church has authority over its members and Scripture has authority over Christians. Wherever there is authority there is the right to command and the duty to submit. However, as we all know, life is complicated. There are occasions when two or more authorities make claims upon us, and even times when these claims contradict each other. What do you do in such circumstances? What do you do when your teacher tells you that it is perfectly acceptable for a man and woman to live together before marriage, while your parents tell you it is wrong? Whose authority do you submit to? What do you do when your husband tells you to sign a fraudulent insurance claim, while your church tells you it is dishonest and you shouldn't? Who should you obey?
Before we can answer these questions we need to set the claims of these various authorities in order of priority and importance, so that we know to whom we are most accountable. While it may seem a difficult question, the answer is really very simple, though admittedly it is often difficult to implement. In the words of the apostles, 'We ought to obey God rather than men' (Acts 5:29). The Word of God is the supreme authority. Its decision is final and binding. As the Westminster Confession of Faith says: 'The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture' (1.10). Let us look at this principle and then how to put it into practice.
I. THE PRINCIPLE
The United States has a 'Supreme Court' with its own 'Supreme Court Judges'. These are the highest earthly judges in the USA. Once the Supreme Court Judges make a decision the matter rests and the case cannot go any higher or further on this earth. It is the final word in all legal controversies. The Christians' 'Supreme Court Judge' on this earth is the Bible. The words of Scripture are the final word in all spiritual, moral, and religious controversies. Every other claim upon us is subordinate to this highest of claims, and when subordinate claims contradict Scripture, 'We ought to obey God rather than men'.
This means that there is no person or group of persons 'qualified or authorised to interpret the Scriptures or to apply their teachings to the decision of particular questions in a sense binding upon their fellow-Christians' (A A Hodge). Why then do we need ministers, kirk sessions, books and sermons? They can all guide us in the interpretation of Scripture, but their pronouncements do not and cannot bind us unless they are demonstrably consistent with Scripture. And if they are not, 'We ought to obey God rather than men'.
Some say that this is a recipe for anarchy and lawlessness. However, while this principle diminishes our responsibility to submit to authority in some situations, it increases it in others. We must admit that our duty to submit to human authority, when contrary to God's Word, is diminished by our duty to submit to the supreme authority of Scripture. However, our duty to submit to the supreme authority of Scripture increases our responsibility to submit to all authority ordained by God and operating in accordance with His Word. God requires submission and obedience to parents, employers, church and state, even when contrary to our desires and wishes, as long as their demands are not contrary to His Word. Furthermore, our responsibility to read, study, and understand God's Word greatly increases. If we are to obey God rather than men, then we must know what God requires of us. The Bible itself commands study of its contents (Jn.5:39) and promises the help of the Holy Spirit to guide such students into the truth (1Jn.2:20,27).
II. THE PRACTICE
But what does that mean in practice? Let us look at some examples.
1. God or the church?
In Acts 5 the apostles were accusing the religious authorities in the Jewish church of the sin of crucifying Christ. These religious leaders did not like this of course and demanded that the apostles cease from these accusations and respect their authority. 'Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us' (5:28). What did the Apostles do? Did they submit to the church's authority and stop pointing out the sin in their midst? Listen to Peter's reply: 'We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree'. The church has been given much authority by God, but it is an authority limited by the Word of God. 'Although the church or her ministers are the official guardians of the Scriptures, and although it belongs to them to explain and enforce the doctrines and laws contained in the Word of God, yet their authority is only ministerial, and their interpretations and decisions are binding on the conscience only in so far as they accord with the mind of the Spirit in the Scriptures' (Robert Shaw). As soon as the church crosses that line and says something is wrong which God says is right and vice versa, or says something is true which God says is false or vice versa, its authority is no longer binding. We ought, we must, and we shall obey God rather than men - whether they be Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Free Church.
2. God or the State?
This principle must also be practised in relation to the state, whether it be right or left wing. God has given the state considerable authority, though not as much as it now assumes in certain cases in the 21st Century. The state has the authority to wield the sword (in defending its citizens and in punishing evildoers), and to collect taxes for proper uses. However it has no authority to call good evil and evil good. And it certainly has no authority to reward evil and punish the good. That is why we must protest when the state promotes sodomy under the guise of 'equality and diversity' training, and brands all opposition to this as bigotry and intolerance. That is why we must disobey when the state commands us to treat perverse relationships with the same respect as pure and holy matrimony. That is why we must say 'No' when the state says that we can preach Christ as a Saviour but that we must not insist He is the only Saviour, the only Truth, the only Way to the Father. Also when the State forbids the loving physical chastisement of our children required by the Word of God, we will put the law of the land under our feet and submit to the supreme authority of Scripture rather than to any Parliament. In the face of an increasingly hostile state let us make crystal clear that when faced with the choice, we will obey God rather than men.
3. God or teachers?
Children are being increasingly faced with moral and spiritual dilemmas in the classroom. They are frequently taught that evolution is a fact and creation is a myth; that immorality before marriage is acceptable as long as it is 'safe', and that chastity before marriage and loyalty within it is old-fashioned and outdated; that drink and drugs may be safely experimented with, and that abstinence is a practical impossibility; that everyone is right, and none is wrong. What are our children to do? If possible they should disagree and tell the truth. They must obey God rather than men and we must help and encourage them so to do, or take whatever steps necessary to prevent our children being taught these dangerous and God-dishonouring ideas.
4. God or parents?
What a blessing to be brought up in a Christian home! Sadly, such homes are becoming few in number. When young people are converted now, their home will often be unsympathetic to the Gospel. Indeed, if they come from a Jewish, or a Muslim, or a Hindu home, they will come under great pressure to give up at least some Christian truths or practices, and perhaps to continue some Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or other non-Christian practices. Sometimes, the demand to conform will be 'for the sake of your family', or 'for cultural reasons'. Sometimes the continuation of family relations and friendships will be threatened. The temptation to compromise in order to maintain these natural relations, or in order to maintain an opportunity for later witness will be immense. But the Bible does not say 'We ought to maintain natural relations at all costs'. It says, 'We ought to obey God rather than men'.
5. God or husband/wife?
What does a Christian woman do when her unconverted husband tries to involve her in defrauding an insurance company or the tax man? What does a Christian man do when his wife turns on the TV in the home on the Lord's Day? What does a Christian woman do when her husband attacks Christianity in front of her children? What does a Christian man do when his wife demands that he go with her to a dance or a pub? The precise actions taken will differ according to individual circumstances, but the principle behind every action must not be 'I ought to keep the peace', but 'I ought to obey God rather than men'.
6. God or reason/feeling?
Sometimes we might come across a Scriptural truth or duty which we find hard to believe or do. It may conflict with what we consider to be reasonable and logical, or it may conflict with what we desire and want. For example, we may not be able to reconcile God's sovereignty and man's responsibility with our reason. What will we give up? We must obey God rather than reason. In another situation, a young man and a young woman are 'courting' or 'going out together'. Their feelings for one another are running so high that the biblical borders of modesty are being threatened when they are together. What should they obey, God's Word or their own feelings and hormones? They must obey God rather than their feelings.
1. The Supreme Practice
The greatest example of putting this principle into practice is found in the Lord Jesus Christ. On the one hand against Him were ranged the church of His day, the Roman State, His relations, His friends, His human feelings - all of which, at one time or another, to one degree or another, suggested reasons to obey them rather than God. But, for the glory of God and the good of sinners, He remained undeterred and undiverted. He obeyed God rather than men.
2. The Supreme Heavenly Judge
While the prayerful study of Scripture does not lead to division, but to unity with the company of the faithful in all ages, there are many religious and spiritual controversies which will not be resolved here in this world. There can be true Christians on both sides of a controversy and both make genuine appeals to Scripture and both genuinely claim to know what Scripture says. And yet both come to different and even opposite conclusions. Time, providence, and the Holy Spirit may make some of these things clear eventually. But some matters will remain unresolved and leave the Christian looking beyond the supreme earthly court and the supreme earthly judge towards the Supreme Heavenly Court and the Supreme Heavenly Judge, for He, the Judge of all the earth knows right and will do right. What a comfort it is for Christians to know that all wrongs will be put right, that all lies will be corrected, and all truth will be ultimately vindicated! And what a terror for the wicked and the hypocrite!
3. The Supreme Tragedy
Sadly, there are many who have compromised, and are still compromising, and will die compromising. There are many who know what they ought to do and yet don't do it. When they appear in that last great heavenly court, what will be on their lips? 'We should have obeyed God rather than men'. And what is the cry of hell, 'We should have obeyed God rather than men'.
Rev. David Murray is minister of Stornoway Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).