What about cremation? table of contents
When a loved one passes away, the family has a few options on how to deal with the remains. Throughout Scripture, when approved death rituals are mentioned, burial was the most common. Since there are no commands on what should ultimately be done with the remains, it is evident that burial was a cultural custom of the time. This is true for both the Old and New Testaments.
The main reason people often give for believing that cremation is sinful is because of what we read concerning the resurrection on the last day.
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 NKJV
Some believe that we cannot be raised in this fashion if our remains are nothing but ashes. Some even claim that Jesus could not have been raised from the dead if He were cremated.
There are a few things God cannot do. For instance, though omnipotent, He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). But I serve a God who is powerful enough to restore a cremated body if that is what He wishes to do.
Those who believe that cremation is wrong fail to consider the natural decomposition that bodies undergo after death. In ancient times, embalming was not an Israelite practice, but an Egyptian one. Without it, it would not take long for one to become unrecognizable. It was prophesied that Jesus “whom God raised up saw no corruption,” referring to the decomposition that occurs after death (Acts 13:35-37; cf. Psalm 16:10). Cremation simply speeds up a natural process that would have occurred anyway.
At the resurrection, if my God can restore a buried body after thousands of years, then He can certainly restore a cremated one after only a few days. This is the hope of the resurrection that faithful Christians have. I leave you with the encouraging words Paul writes to the church in Corinth on this matter.
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.”
1 Corinthians 15:20-27a NKJV
Is God in control of everything? table of contents
Short answer: yes. But this question does not have so simple an answer when one considers the concept of free will. Do we have free will, or does God control all that we do? This is a question that has been debated back and forth for centuries, so we will not be able to cover it adequately here. That said, here are some passages and thoughts that may be helpful in understanding this complicated topic.
If there is no free will at all, then we are not responsible for our actions, including our sins. If we are not responsible, then this makes God responsible for them. So if “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) and God is our judge (James 4:12), then God is unjust for punishing us for something we had no control over. Worse, He becomes hypocritical since He is the one responsible for our sin. We know this to be untrue because “God is a just judge” (Psa. 7:11), and He decries hypocrisy (Matt. 23).
So, from this we conclude that some measure of free will must exist, enough for us to be held accountable for our actions. Some will contend that we have free will to choose the wrong, but not the right—which is nonsensical. In Moses’ final address to the Israelites, he urged them to “choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). What sense is there in offering a choice one cannot make?
If we have free will, how then can God be in control? First, let us acknowledge God’s great power as Job did: “I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You” (Job 42:2). What is even more amazing is that, despite the free will He has granted us, His purposes still get accomplished!
This is shown in the life of the prophet Jonah who had plans other than what God desired (Jonah 1:1-3). When he refused to go to Nineveh, God exercised His control to direct the prophet where He wanted him to go by sending a storm and preparing a great fish (Jonah 1:4, 17). Nineveh was going to hear the word of the Lord somehow.
Similarly, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon was exceedingly prideful, but God showed him he wasn’t as powerful as he thought he was. Daniel had previously told him that God “removes kings and raises up kings” (Dan. 2:21). The king exercised his free will to be prideful, saying, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). But God drove him mad for a period of time, which ended with the king stating: “Those who walk in pride He is able to put down” (Dan. 4:37).
While we have free will, God still has a way of controlling certain outcomes for His ends. Even in our democratic style of government, “the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom. 13:1). Certainly some of our choices make more of a difference than others, but those that make the most difference concern the destiny of our immortal souls. I urge you as Moses urged the Israelites, “choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.” Obey the gospel today!
How should we interpret the Bible? Part 1: Genre. table of contents
In previous entries, we have established that we should follow the Bible and the Bible alone in matters of faith and practice. The problem is many people believe that they do, but this cannot be true since we are still so divided along denominational lines (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-13). Whenever I ask people why we are so divided, they will often say that it’s because we interpret the Bible differently. Then they shrug their shoulders as if to say, “There’s nothing we can do.” Is there really nothing we can do? In the next few articles, we will be discussing a common sense way to interpret Scriptures so that we all might agree on what it says and apply it. Does that mean we will agree on everything? No. But it means we will agree on what’s important, particularly on matters of faith and practice.
The first thing we must do is consider the genre. As music has various genres (e.g. country, pop), so does literature. The Bible is a library of books, 66 to be exact, and not all of them are of the same genre—and many books are not even the same genre all the way through. The biblical literary genres are: historical/narrative, poetry/wisdom, prophetic/apocalyptic, and letters/teaching. Knowing this will help us to determine what the original authors of each book meant.
Generally speaking, we can categorize each book into various categories, though there may be elements found in each. The books of the historical/narrative genre are telling a true story, meant to be taken literally. This includes Genesis through Esther in the Old Testament, and Matthew through Acts in the New. There are certainly elements of poetry and prophecy in all of these books, but generally speaking, they are historical. Much of Exodus through Deuteronomy also contain many laws that the Israelites were to keep. Typically in modern Bibles, this genre is shown in block text (e.g. Gen. 1).
Additional: Some consider the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) to be a separate genre altogether. They will say it is because the authors had a particular purpose in mind while writing them, to teach and to persuade. Though they certainly contain wisdom, prophecy, and teaching especially in parables, it is all under the backdrop of history. So I place them in the historical genre.
The books of poetry/wisdom are in the middle of Scripture, from Job to the Song of Solomon (AKA Song of Songs). These books express strong emotion with flowery language and imagery. As a result, they cannot always be taken literally. Interpretations taken from these texts must be compared to more literal passages before gleaning any doctrine. For instance, a word fitly spoken is not literally apples of gold in settings of silver, but such words are still so valuable (Prov. 25:11). Such poetry is often depicted in verse (e.g. Psa. 1).
The prophetic books, generally speaking are from Isaiah to Malachi in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New. Sometimes it is in block text, other times in verse. These prophecies are allegorical or symbolic descriptions of events to come. These can be difficult to interpret because much is left to opinion, but it is clear that the vast majority of biblical prophecies have been fulfilled by the end of the first century. These prophecies cannot always be taken literally. For instance there will not be nor was there ever a literal woman sitting on a literal seven-headed beast (Rev. 17:4). [The trick is trying to interpret it to find out what it is talking about.] This type of language is called apocalyptic, and can be found in other places in Scripture, too (e.g. Matt. 24).
Lastly we have letters and teaching. These make up the majority of the New Testament books, from Romans to Jude. They teach us truths about the Christian faith and practice. [In order to interpret them properly, we must always consider the context of a verse or passage before coming to any conclusions.] Next time we will consider the importance of such context.
How should we interpret the Bible? Part 2: Context. table of contents
In our on-going series on how to interpret the Bible, last time we considered the genre of the text. This time we will consider the context. Before we go on, it should be noted that the genre of the text is often seen as part of the context, but I felt it deserved its own article.
Ignoring context, one can defend just about anything from the Bible. We are not to defend our beliefs with the Bible for that very reason. No, we need to derive our beliefs from the Bible. The former reads our thoughts into the text; the latter takes our doctrines from the text. There are three types of context we need to consider: textual, immediate, and global. Textual looks at the area directly around the text. Immediate looks at the information on the book in question. Global considers the Bible as a whole. There are also several questions we need to ask ourselves concerning each type of context.
Who wrote/spoke it? We know that the Scriptures are directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, so the ultimate Author of the Bible is God. But “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). So God used each writer’s language, vocabulary, and personality while composing Scripture, but we do not always know who the author is. While knowing the author can be helpful, it is not always necessary. We should also consider the individuals who are speaking in any given text. For example, Satan makes several statements in Scripture, but they cannot be trusted (e.g. Luke 4:7).
Who is listening or who is the primary audience? The people in the primary audience are those to whom the writer originally wrote. This can be an important consideration when understanding the text. When Paul is speaking to the Athenians, he cites “some of [their] own poets” (Acts 17:28). This does not make sense unless we realize Paul is speaking to Greeks and about Greek poets.
When was this book written? This can help to answer what issues each writer is addressing in his book. For instance, 1 Peter was likely written in the early 60s A.D. and addresses the coming persecution that the Christians of that time would soon face under Emperor Nero.
Another important question is: What is the theme or purpose of this book or section? For instance, Ecclesiastes says a lot of distressing things, such as, “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind” (Eccl. 1:14). In other words, he writes that everything in this life is pointless. Looking at the overall theme of the book, however, proves that the author is considering a perspective apart from God. In other words, everything is pointless without God in our lives (Eccl. 12:13-14).
In order to answer some of these questions, many Bibles have an introduction to each book that helps. Keep in mind, of course, that such introductions are not inspired by God, but they are often a good starting place for understanding a book or passage. Reliable commentaries may help with this as well. Next time, we will look at the differences between the Old and New Testaments.
Additional: Truth be told, most of these questions are not absolutely necessary in understanding the text, but they certainly help. We do not always know who wrote a book, who they originally wrote it to, or when it was written. But we can always learn the theme and purpose of the book. That is extremely valuable in understanding it.
Additional: Commentaries can be rather tricky. There needs to be a way to get the “meat from the bones,” as it were. Some more liberal scholars will claim Isaiah had two to three authors, for instance. But the main reason they make this claim is because they don’t believe in Bible prophecy. So it’s always important to consider the authors of your commentaries and what bias they might bring to the discussion. One that I might recommend that is free and online is by J. Burton Coffman. Click here to take a look.
How should we interpret the Bible? Part 3: The Whole Truth. table of contents
This principle is shown in the verse quoted at the top of every one of these articles: “The entirety of Your word is truth” (Psa. 119:160a). Unless we have considered all the passages that address a particular matter, we do not have the whole truth on that matter.
There are some resources that can help us find out everywhere a particular word is used in the Bible. First, there is a concordance. An exhaustive concordance contains every word found in the Bible and where each is located. If you do not have one, there are plenty of online resources where you can search for particular words. I use Bible Gateway to help me search for various words in English. If you are interested in the words from the original languages of the Bible (primarily Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament), then I recommend Blue Letter Better (BLB). This resource can be used as a concordance for the original words. BLB also has many other study resources that are very useful for your understanding of God’s Word.
Let us consider baptism as an example. First, the Greek word for baptism means “immersion, submersion” (BLB). This is evident in passages like Acts 8:38-39 where Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch by taking him down into the water.
Now would be a good time for you to scan and jot down all the Bible references made after this point, read them, and see what the Bible teaches about baptism yourself before reading further. You may even look up passages that are not referenced below.
Looking at all the examples of those who were baptized in the Bible, we note that only people capable of belief are baptized (e.g. Acts 16:30-33). We also see that baptism is the “answer of a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21). This rules out infants because they cannot understand enough to believe nor do they know right from wrong in order to possess a conscience, let alone one that needs to be repaired.
Now let us consider the purpose of baptism. It is necessary for the “forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38 ESV) and for salvation (Mark 16:16; 1 Pet. 3:21). It is the point at which your sins are washed away (Acts 22:16). It puts you into Christ where every spiritual blessing including salvation can be found (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:10). It mirrors the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and is the point at which we have buried the old man of sin and God raises up a new man in us (Rom. 6:3-6).
What about being baptized again? Twelve people did this in Acts 19:1-5. They were initially baptized “into John’s baptism.” They were not baptized into Christ as we are told we must be. They were baptized into the wrong name for the wrong reason. If you failed to be baptized in the way the Bible tells us for the reasons the Bible tells us, you may need to be baptized or baptized again.
Surely we cannot cover every passage in such a short space, but the basics of the whole truth are here. For a fuller discussion, consider the sermon linked here. Let us know if you would like to obey this gospel command to be saved!
How should we interpret the Bible? Part 4: Testaments. table of contents
The next in our series on Bible interpretation considers the differences between the Old and New Testaments. Today we will apply some concepts we discussed earlier such as context. Since there exists a New Testament (NT), what should we do with the Old Testament (OT) today?
This is where we might consider who the primary audience of a particular book is. Recall in a past issue, we discussed who wrote a book and who he was writing to. The primary audience is the first group of people that would have read the book. For instance, Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy to the Israelites who had recently fled Egypt. Deuteronomy specifically was written to the generation that came after the group who had originally escaped Egyptian slavery. In fact, we can see this just before the Ten Commandments had been repeated.
And Moses called all Israel, and said to them: “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your hearing today, that you may learn and be careful to observe them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive.”
Deuteronomy 5:1-3 NKJV
What we have underlined above shows who these things, including the Ten Commandments, were originally written and applied to. This is, in fact, true of the entire OT, since the vast majority of it was written to the Israelites. Consider also how the NT writers viewed the OT Law (cf. Heb. 8:6-13; Jer. 31:31-34).
Therefore the [OT] law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
Galatians 3:24-25 NKJV
We no longer need the tutor whose primary job was to bring us to Christ because now we have Christ. We can look at the NT as Jesus’ Last Will and Testament which supersedes the one that came before (OT – Heb. 9:15-17).
Since the OT is now “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13), does this mean the OT does not apply to us at all? In fact, it does apply to us in principle, if not in particulars. There is much to be learned by what happened in the OT, especially in OT Laws that are repeated in the NT (e.g. Rom. 13:8-10).
For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4 NKJV
Now all these things happened to them [Israelites] as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
1 Corinthians 10:11 NKJV
We also need to read and study the OT to understand many references to OT events and people (e.g. James 5:11, 17-18). The greatest need is to learn about the origin of sin and why we need a Savior (Gen. 3). But we do not need to go to the OT to find out how to be saved—we need to go to Jesus (John 3:16; Luke 13:3; Matt. 10:32; Mark 16:16). This NT gospel applies to all men everywhere today (Rom. 1:16; Acts 17:30). Contact us if you want to know more! Next time we will consider the concept of authority in the NT.
How should we interpret the Bible? Part 5: Authority. table of contents
In our series on interpreting the Bible, we have considered genre, context, the whole truth, and the difference between the testaments. This time we will answer the question on authority and how the Bible tells us what to do. There are three primary ways in which the Bible does this: direct command, approved example, and necessary implication.
Direct command. When we read the Bible, we are, in effect, reading someone else’s mail. This means that technically there are no direct commands to us today. But there are statements that directly state things that do apply to us. A great example is found in Galatians 5:19-23 concerning the “works of the flesh” and “fruit of the Spirit.”
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you … that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.
Galatians 5:19-23 NKJV
We may need to define some of these things, but it is clear here what is forbidden and what is commanded.
Approved example. There are many examples of actions in the Bible, some of which are good but many that are bad. As we discussed last time, we are meant to use the Old Testament to give us examples to follow or to avoid (1 Cor. 10:11). But this is also true for all of Scriptures. The day on which we are to gather together to worship is authorized by example, something we will go into more detail on next time.
Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight.
Acts 20:7 NKJV
Here we see them partaking of the Lord’s Supper (“break bread”) and listening to the preaching of Paul on the first day of the week. We call this day Sunday. They likely sang and took up a collection, too (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26; 16:2).
Necessary implication. This is perhaps one of the least understood methods, but it is vitally important. It relies on the principle that if a specific command is given, it excludes all others. For instance, in the Lord’s Supper, only two elements are mentioned: the bread and the fruit of the vine (Matt. 26:26-29). Specific elements are mentioned, but we are never told not to include anything else. So why not add something tasty like ice cream to it? Because two things are mentioned—all else is excluded. When we consider general commands, however, it is left to our judgment how to carry it out. In partaking of the Lord’s Supper, do we use individual cups or one cup for the fruit of the vine? Do we pass a tray around with the elements, or do we line up to partake at the front? These are not specified, so we have the freedom to choose what works best for us.
Next time, we will use all of these methods to help us discover on what day of the week we ought to assemble together to worship.
On what day of the week should we gather to worship? table of contents
It is evident from the Old Testament that there is a command to honor God on a specific day: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exo. 20:8-11). This is, after all, one of the Ten Commandments where God issues a day on which to worship, the seventh day of the week. This was called the Sabbath Day (cf. Lev. 23:3). We call this day Saturday. So why do Christians worship on Sunday, the first day of the week? To answer this, we will employ some of the methods we have detailed in the last five issues.
Testaments. The command to remember the seventh day of the week is found in the Old Testament (OT). None of the particular laws in the OT are applicable today, not even the Ten Commandments (Gal. 3:24-25; Heb. 8:6-13). This does not mean we are free to murder and steal. Every one of the Ten Commandments is found in the New Testament (NT)—all except one. There is no command in the NT to remember the Sabbath Day.
Additional: There is the common idea that the Sabbath was changed from Saturday to Sunday, so any OT Laws that applied to the last day of the week now apply to the first. The truth is, there is no Scriptural evidence for this change. This means there is no command in the NT to cease from working, traveling, or doing any leisure activity on the first day of the week insofar as it does not interfere with the time we are to gather to worship. The Sabbath was and always has been a day of rest for the people of Israel on the last day of the week. The Christian does not have a specific day where he must rest, but he rests in a Person: Jesus Christ (Col. 2:16-17).
It is true that Jesus worshiped on the Sabbath Day (Mark 1:21). Do keep in mind, however, that He also lived under the OT Law (Gal. 4:4). The NT Law did not go into effect until the Holy Spirit came down to guide the Apostles into all truth (John 16:13; Acts 2). Additional: Paul also went into the synagogues on the Sabbath Day to preach the gospel to the Jews who had gathered to worship there. Paul took the opportunity to preach to all the devout Jews in the area at once so they may all hear the gospel. This was not a time for Christians to gather to worship, but for a Christian to evangelize to the Jews.
So the question we must ask ourselves is: when did these first century Christians gather together to worship? There are two NT passages that most clearly answer this question.
Authority. There are three primary ways in which authority is established in the NT: command, example, implication. There is a command on what day to take up a collection, there is an example on what day to take the Lord’s Supper, and there is an implication that these aspects of worship were only done on that day.
• Command: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches in Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.”
~1 Corinthians 16:1-2
Earlier in this letter, we read that the Corinthian Christians were supposed to be gathering together to worship by partaking of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34). It is here that Paul mentions when they were to gather together. It was also a convenient time for them to take up a collection, on the first day of the week.
• Example and Implication: “But we sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days joined them at Troas, where we stayed seven days. Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight.” ~Acts 20:6-7
The Apostle Paul and his companions stayed a week in Troas before gathering with the Christians there to worship. They did this on no other day than on the first day of the week. The purpose was to break bread or partake of the Lord’s Supper. Preaching was also involved. This was a worship service! So by example, we see they worshiped on the first day of the week, and by implication we find that the Lord’s Supper and the collection—acts of worship—need only be done on this day, too. We call this day Sunday.
Additional: There are many objections to this conclusion given by Sabbatarians (those who believe Christians ought to worship on the Sabbath). There is no way we can address them all, but the biblical evidence is clear: Christians ought to worship together on the first day of the week, Sunday.
What about women preachers? table of contents
There are many women in the Scriptures who are apparently in leadership roles, both in the Old and New Testaments. We find several prophetesses (Exo. 15:20; 2 Kings 22:14; Neh. 6:14; Isa. 8:3; Luke 2:36; Acts 21:9), a servant or “deaconess” (Rom. 16:1), and a judge (Judges 4–5). On top of that, we find that in Christ, there is “neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). Yet we find other passages that say, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says” (1 Cor. 14:34). So how can we reconcile these apparently disparate ideas where examples seem to contradict commands?
One argument for women preachers is based on the idea that cultural norms at the time the Bible was written would not permit women preachers, but our culture is more egalitarian today. What is forgotten is our own cultural lens through which we read these things. In our society, it is assumed that if men and women are equal, then they should be allowed the opportunity to do the same things. If they cannot, then they are somehow diminished. On the contrary, being equal in value, as Galatians 3:28 teaches, does not mean being equal in duty. At the same time, being a prophetess, a servant, or even a judge does not necessarily imply such activities are conducted during worship, as is the context of 1 Corinthians 14.
Let us consider this appropriate passage below:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
1 Timothy 2:11-14 NKJV
The context of 1 Timothy 2 is, again, a worship setting. Paul is writing to young Timothy about proper conduct in the church (1 Tim. 3:15). Paul states that a woman is not to have authority over a man in the church. Does a preacher hold a position of authority? Indeed he does, particularly while he is preaching (i.e. Titus 2:15).
So why does Paul give this command? Is it because of cultural concerns or is it something deeper? Well, Paul goes all the way back to Adam and Eve and the first sin in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3). Because of the events that occurred there that day, God pronounced several curses. Upon the woman, He said, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). While not every woman is married, what we find is a principle of male leadership. This does not make women any less capable or less spiritual than men, but it does indicate a divine order that we should not defy.
So what can women do in the church if not preach? Plenty! Far too much to be listed here. Phoebe worked hard as a servant (Rom. 16:1-2), Priscilla worked with her husband in evangelism and hosted the church in Rome (Acts 18:24-26; Rom. 16:3-5), Lydia hosted the church in Philippi (Acts 16:40), Tabitha made clothing (Acts 9:39), older women taught younger women (Titus 2:3-5), and so much more. Women are valued and invaluable! Next time we will consider such duties for men and women in the church.
How should we govern the church? Part 1: Organization table of contents
Looking at all the different churches that are out there, you will find almost as many ways to govern a church as there are denominations. So what does the Bible have to say about this? How is the church organized in the New Testament?
First and foremost, Christ is her head. The Scriptures reveal no earthly head of the church. The Bible clearly states, “And He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18). Despite this, many denominations have an earthly head, sometimes called an archbishop, a patriarch, a general overseer, or even a pope. Some have a legislative body that acts as a head for the whole denomination, such as a general conference or a council of bishops. Nowhere in the New Testament do we see anything like this. Some try to find authority for these things from Acts 15—the Jerusalem Council.
In Acts 15, the apostles and the elders gathered together to discuss the issue of Jewish Christians trying to enforce certain aspects of the Old Testament Law on the new Gentile converts. There is one major difference between what we see in Acts 15 and what we have today. The ones who made the decision were the Apostles, people who were given a great deal of authority by Jesus Himself (Matt. 16:18-19; John 16:13). No one alive today has that kind of authority.
One key passage provides a list of the officers and positions found within a church: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). Paul wrote a little earlier in the book that the first two of these, apostles and prophets, make up the foundation of the church, with Christ being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). Foundations are not meant to budge or change. That foundation was laid as “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). These are the Scriptures that we have today. The apostles and prophets guide the church through the Bible that they wrote.
So what we have left are evangelists, pastors, and teachers. We might also include deacons in this list since they are found elsewhere (1 Tim. 3:8). This leads us to the conclusion that there is no authority over the local congregation outside that of Christ, the Apostles, and the Scriptures. We call this congregational autonomy. While we are free to cooperate with other congregations on various matters, none ought to have authority over another. There should also be no individual or body outside of the local congregation that has any authority over a local congregation.
I have heard people complain that this is a recipe for false teaching to flourish in the local churches. In fact, according to history, it seems this was the reason why certain authority structures were set up. But this biblical structure actually insulates other churches from heresy. If a strong, central, earthly authority were to go astray, then the whole church goes astray. This must not be allowed to occur, yet it has many times.
We have considered the biblical basis for congregational autonomy. In this series, we will consider the roles of evangelist, pastor, teacher, and deacon as presented in Ephesians 4:11. Next time we will examine the role of the pastor.