Who’s Your Authority?
By Dr. Brad Cole
“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth” – Albert Einstein
Several years ago we were in a small group Bible study when the question was asked, “What would you do if someone came and performed undeniable miracles, claiming to represent God? How could you tell if the person was from God or Satan?” Two of the individuals in our group said that their first action would be to ask what their pastor thought.
Of course, it isn’t wrong to ask a pastor’s opinion, but this reflects a dangerous attitude of placing one’s trust primarily in a human authority. History reveals countless examples in every generation of pastors and priests leading people away from God. This is not to say that spiritual leaders, pastors and mentors are necessarily wrong. The main point is that our relationship, trust, and knowledge of God must be personal, individualized, and not based on what someone else knows or says about God.
Every individual soul has a responsibility before God, and is not to be arbitrarily instructed by men as to what he shall do, what he shall say, and where he shall go. We are not to put confidence in the counsel of men and assent to all they shall say unless we have evidence that they are under the influence of the Spirit of God. (Review and Herald, July 1, 1909)
My nine year old son innocently said to me the other day, “I know the whole Bible, Dad. I’ve heard those stories like a thousand times.” I tried to explain that there is a depth in Bible study that is limitless. The real problem is that many adults also assume that they essentially know it all and that there really isn’t much more to be learned beyond what they pick up in church. This is not how it supposed to be!
When we prayerfully read the Bible we are actively engaged with the mind of God. In this process, the Holy Spirit leads us on a journey that gradually unfolds and we come closer and closer to “truth” and to the heart of God. A superficial reading of the Bible has the tendency to lead us to merely seek to confirm what we already believe to be true. Rather than searching for new and deeper insights, we keep the blinders on and progress no further than what was synthesized by pastors and theologians from the 18th and 19th century until our spiritual life gradually wastes away.
It is not safe for us as reformers to repeat the history of the Reformers in every particular; for after those to whom God gave light advanced to a certain knowledge, many of them ceased to be reformers. We must not for a moment think that there is no more light and truth to be given us, and become careless, and let the sanctifying power of the truth leak out of our hearts by our attitude of satisfaction in what we have already attained…The people of God have educated themselves in such a way that they have come to look to those in positions of trust as guardians of truth, and have placed men where God should be. When perplexities have come upon them, instead of seeking God, they have gone to human sources for help, and have received only such help as man can give. (Review and Herald, Aug. 7, 1894)
Our spiritual lives are not meant to be stagnant but rather on a continuous journey that evolves and discovers fresh truth that is relevant for each time and culture. This walk with God involves internalizing the old and in some cases doing away with the old. Jesus did away with many things: “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye’ but now I tell you…” (Matthew 5:38,39). By stripping away the old system that was designed for a different time, Jesus brought new meaning to our relationship with God and others, bringing us closer to the way God’s kingdom works. We also need to be careful not to uphold old teaching merely because our church fathers did. When we imply, for example, that “It is a shameful thing for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:35), we may unintentionally stand in the way of God’s plan that we consider all people, regardless of their race, country of origin, socioeconomic status or gender as His children (Gal 3:28).
To some this view sounds scary and can leave the impression, “This means you will just pick and choose what you want to believe.” Not at all. As Christians, our authority is always Jesus, and every belief about God must be seen through the lens of Jesus’ life and death. Every belief that seems contrary to what Jesus revealed about God deserves a long hard second look. Reading the Bible in the light of the Cross illuminates the truth and allows us to leave the baggage of misconception behind. In fact, it’s “scary” to discover that we are not always advancing in our understanding of certain Christian beliefs and that we have become stagnant in our relationship with God:
But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s word and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative and seek to avoid discussion. The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God’s people should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what. Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 706,707 (1889)
Many of the “old” teachings are just as true for us today, but we are to build on the old and to freshly apply it for our time. This is what Jesus was referring to when He said:
“Every teacher of religious law who becomes a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a homeowner who brings from his storeroom new gems of truth as well as old” (Matthew 13:52 NLT).
Many in our church like to discuss the “historic” beliefs of the church founders and suggest that we should return to the “roots” of our faith. Yet the writings of these individuals encourage us to grow and to progress beyond what was believed 150 years ago. Here is Ellen White’s interpretation of the parable in Matthew 13:52:
The great storehouse of truth is the word of God–the written word, the book of nature, and the book of experience in God’s dealing with human life. Here are the treasures from which Christ’s workers are to draw. In the search after truth they are to depend upon God, not upon human intelligences, the great men whose wisdom is foolishness with God. Through His own appointed channels the Lord will impart a knowledge of Himself to every seeker…. But it is in the written word that a knowledge of God is most clearly revealed to fallen man. This is the treasure house of the unsearchable riches of Christ.
Christ in His teaching presented old truths of which He Himself was the originator, truths which He had spoken through patriarchs and prophets; but He now shed upon them a new light. How different appeared their meaning! A flood of light and spirituality was brought in by His explanation. And He promised that the Holy Spirit should enlighten the disciples, that the word of God should be ever unfolding to them. They would be able to present its truths in new beauty. Ever since the first promise of redemption was spoken in Eden, the life, the character, and the mediatorial work of Christ have been the study of human minds. Yet every mind through whom the Holy Spirit has worked has presented these themes in a light that is fresh and new. The truths of redemption are capable of constant development and expansion. Though old, they are ever new, constantly revealing to the seeker for truth a greater glory and a mightier power.
In every age there is a new development of truth, a message of God to the people of that generation. Truth in Christ and through Christ is measureless. The student of Scripture looks, as it were, into a fountain that deepens and broadens as he gazes into its depths…it is possible for us to see all that we can bear of the divine compassion. This is unfolded to the humble, contrite soul…
…If we keep the Lord ever before us, allowing our hearts to go out in thanksgiving and praise to Him, we shall have a continual freshness in our religious life. Our prayers will take the form of a conversation with God as we would talk with a friend. He will speak His mysteries to us personally. Often there will come to us a sweet joyful sense of the presence of Jesus. Often our hearts will burn within us as He draws nigh to commune with us as He did with Enoch.
…This experience gives every teacher of truth the very qualifications that will make him a representative of Christ. The spirit of Christ’s teaching will give a force and directness to his communications and to his prayers. His witness to Christ will not be a narrow, lifeless testimony. The minister will not preach over and over the same set discourses. His mind will be open to the constant illumination of the Holy Spirit….
The words of truth will grow in importance, and assume a breadth and fullness of meaning of which we have never dreamed. The beauty and riches of the word have a transforming influence on mind and character. The light of heavenly love will fall upon the heart as an inspiration. The appreciation of the Bible grows with its study. Whichever way the student may turn, he will find displayed the infinite wisdom and love of God. (Christ Object Lessons, pg 124-139)
Our close walk with the God revealed in Jesus will enable us to discern the truth for our time today. When we are confronted with new ideas (which may or may not be true), or when we face miraculous signs or wonders (which may or may not be of God), rather than blindly turning to others for their opinion, we will turn to the One that we have been in conversation with all along. Our gold standard that will help us discern the truth is always our knowledge of God as revealed by Jesus.
Just as Jesus brought new meaning to God’s words in the Old Testament, we would be wise to acknowledge that the words of our church fathers and perhaps even of our prophet may need to be filled with new meaning relevant for our time. Had Ellen White lived for another 100 years, she would most certainly not have maintained exactly the same interpretation in every detail. Her views and opinions changed during her lifetime and she encouraged others to study things for themselves and to progress in knowledge:
There is no excuse for any one in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation.” Review and Herald, Dec. 20, 1892
Let’s be eager to study the atonement and to find an even greater clarity than the one our church fathers (and mothers) found over a century ago. Let’s be eager to prayerfully study highly relevant topics such as the presence of suffering or the destruction of the wicked, unafraid to find new light, new understanding. Does the Holy Spirit of truth really want us to “sit tight” and to merely reflect the 19th century view of reality?
Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator–individuality, power to think and to do. The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought. . . Instead of educated weaklings, institutions of learning may send forth men strong to think and to act, men who are masters and not slaves of circumstances, men who possess breadth of mind, clearness of thought, and the courage of their convictions. Education 17 (1903)
We must study the truth for ourselves. No man should be relied upon to think for us. No matter who he is, or in what position he may be placed, we are not to look upon any man as a criterion for us. We are to counsel together, and to be subject one to another; but at the same time we are to exercise the ability God has given us, in order to learn what is truth. Each one of us must look to God for divine enlightenment. We must individually develop a character that will stand the test in the day of God.” Testimonies to Ministers 109,110
Satan is constantly endeavoring to attract attention to man in the place of God. He leads the people to look to bishops, to pastors, to professors of theology, as their guides, instead of searching the Scriptures to learn their duty for themselves. . . . (RC 369)
There are today thousands of professors of religion who can give no other reason for points of faith which they hold than that they were so instructed by their religious leaders. They pass by the Saviour’s teachings almost unnoticed, and place implicit confidence in the words of the ministers. But are ministers infallible? How can we trust our souls to their guidance unless we know from God’s word that they are light bearers? 4SP 413-415 (1884)
All whom God has blessed with reasoning powers are to become intellectual Christians. They are not requested to believe without evidence; therefore Jesus has enjoined upon all to search the Scriptures. Let the ingenious inquirer, and the one who would know for himself what is truth, exert his mental powers to search out the truth as it is in Jesus. Any neglect here is at the peril of the soul. We must know individually the prescribed conditions of entering into eternal life. . . . We cannot allow these questions to be settled for us by another’s mind, or another’s judgment. . . . We cannot trust the salvation of our souls to ministers, to idle traditions, to human authorities, or to pretentions. . . . The Lord positively demands of every Christian an intelligent knowledge of the Scriptures. Review and Herald, March 8, 1887