Self-elevated Little Popes

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Biographer Iain Murray has said of evangelist and scholar A.W. Pink that “the widespread circulation of his writings after his death made him one of the most influential evangelical authors in the second half of the twentieth century.” The teachings of Pink led to an increase in expository preaching and appeals for holy living for those who have been saved by Christ.

In an article entitled, “Private Judgment,” Pink warns against those ministers of the gospel who would seek to usurp the authority of Christ, imposing upon their congregations their own dictates rather than, or in addition to, the commands of Scripture.

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.” (Matt. 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 Pet. 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 Cor. 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 Cor. 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 Pet. 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 Pet. 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 Thess. 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” (Matt. 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 Pet. 5:3): personal patterns of good works, holiness, and self-sacrifice; models of piety, humility, and charity.

Arthur W. Pink, “Private Judgment.”