‘Under Authority’ Deuteronomy 16:18-17:13 September 20, 1992

Text Comments

v. 18  ‘Officials’ = policemen? Each town had its own legal system, though, as we shall see, there was likewise a central or national system. Judges are elders as in Deuteronomy 1.

v. 22 They have already been commanded in chapter 12 to tear down the Asherah poles at Canaanite centers of worship, when they enter the land; now they are told not to set up any of their own.

vv. 2-7 Closely related to 4:15-24; 13:1-8

v. 7  Such disloyalty to the covenant was equivalent to our ‘treason’ and undermined the security of the whole people. By casting the first stone the witnesses were laid under the onus of murder if they had testified falsely.

v. 8  It isn’t at all difficult to imagine what such difficulties might be, for they would be the same as we face today. A set of circumstances which the law doesn’t precisely address, complex circumstances which make motive much more difficult to assess — is it manslaughter or murder and questions of that type. No doubt, after a time, a body of precedents would be compiled to aid judges in adjudicating cases, just as is the case today.

I do not think we could find a passage of Holy Scripture which speaks any more directly to the circumstances of the contemporary Christian church in our land than this we have just read. And I do not think there is a prescription better suited to curing the cancer in modern Christianity than what is taught here. I am not saying, of course, that these things are as important as the gospel of Christ — of course they are not. But this chapter is all about whether our profession or any Christian’s profession of faith in Christ really means anything and how the church is to go about making sure that it does.

This passage we have read is about Christians living under the authority of the Lord, willingly submitting to his sovereign rule; it is about what must happen when Christians refuse to do so. When the story of our American church in this day comes to be written, looming large in any faithful account will be this damning fact, that as the years have passed, more and more Christians have been positively unwilling to do what God has said they must, and the church, in abject disloyalty to her King, looked the other way.

It is, of course, also true that the church herself and her leadership have often led the way in undermining the obedience of Christian people and their faithfulness to the will of God. But, the fact remains, that in multitudes of churches where the truth is still professed and the Lordship of Christ still proclaimed, many Christians disobey the Lord Christ with impunity. I wonder if there has ever been a day in church history like our day for the dismal and public indifference to God’s Word and Law on the part of those very people who profess to be of evangelical faith.

No one can mistake the importance of all of this who reads the Bible or who has eyes open to the world round about us today. And so no one should dispute that we are speaking about the most important things when we take up these verses and consider what they teach. The Lord is here saying that his people must be under his authority and that they must live their lives under that authority. These verses are about judges and trials and punishments, but that is all to the point that God requires that his will be done in the community of his people. All of this instruction is to that end and purpose.

First of all, we read here, that elders or judges, the government of the church, is appointed by the Lord precisely to ensure that his people remain faithful and obedient to Him. In our day there are a great many people in evangelical Christian churches who, as Samuel Rutherford once quaintly put it, wish to have Christ divided into two halves, so that they could take half of him only. They are happy to have him as Savior, but they haven’t nearly the same interest in honoring and obeying him as Lord.

Well, Christ does not come in halves. He comes whole as Lord and Savior, and a man or woman either takes him as both or can have him as neither. Such is the invariable teaching of the Scripture and such is the teaching here in the passage we have read. Real believers are those who are faithful to the covenant of God, who keep his commandments. They live under his authority and in submission to it. And that is why there are elders or judges over the church of God. It is essential that God’s people remain faithful to his covenant, and these officers are to see that they do. There will be judges precisely to ensure that God’s people remain an obedient and subject people.

Very often, of course, especially in our day, people will claim to be subject to the Lord but will be entirely unwilling to be subject to the church’s government and elders. But the Bible does not permit us to pit the one against the other. To submit to the church’s officers is to submit to the Lord himself. The whole reason there are such officers as elders in the church is to ensure that God, himself, is obeyed in the church. That is a point made repeatedly in the Bible and often in the New Testament and it is the point made directly here. In vv. 10-11 the command to obey the elders in their judgments is framed in exactly the same kind of language used elsewhere of the obedience we owe to Scripture and the law of God: ‘turn from it neither to the right nor to the left.’ And the point is made again in v. 12 in the reference to priests and judges as ministers of the Lord. A minister is precisely one who does not act for himself or in his own name, but carries the authority of another and speaks and acts in his name and with his authority. Such was the office of priest and elder and such is their office today.

Now, of course, the elder and the priest must rule according to the will of God. That point is made at the beginning in 16:19-20. They are to enact justice, which is to say, they are to enforce the laws and commandments of God and those only. That is why, in v. 9 of chapter 17, we read that certain cases must be submitted to priests for judgment. It is because the priest’s comprehensive knowledge of the Scripture will better ensure that the judgment rendered is, in fact, according to God’s Word. The Bible has terrible things to say about the judgment which God reserves for the officers of his church who subvert God’s Word and rule by their own opinions and speak and do what is contrary to God’s law and lead others to do the same. But, that is not the main point in the passage, and so it shall not be my main point today.

God is calling upon us to obey him by obeying his officers, those entrusted to rule on his behalf and in his name. You will not live long in the Christian church today before you run into church people who make a great show of their submission to the Lord and their zeal to keep his commandments, but who won’t heed or obey any particular church government or any particular group of elders. Such people always find something to quibble at in that church’s government, something which disqualifies those elders from having authority over their lives. These people are defying the Word of God in this unwillingness to submit to the church’s officers. And their claim to be submissive to God himself is, in this way, demonstrated to be so much pretense and hypocrisy.

Brothers and sisters, you can be very grateful for the rulers God has given you in this church. They are spiritual men and are wise men and know the Word of God and intend to be faithful to it in all things. Let me tell you now that if they judge you to be in disobedience to God, if they require you, God forbid, for your correction and restoration, to receive some spiritual punishment for your sin and disloyalty to the covenant — which, as the Scripture here and everywhere says will happen from time to time in the life of Christian people — you will have no just cause not to be careful to do everything they direct you to do, as we read in v. 10. You will just be deceiving yourself and every wise person will know it, if you seek to escape their judgment but still claim to be a faithful and loyal Christian. You will be a betrayer of the covenant and a traitor to it, nothing less.

Over the years in this church the elders have had to pass judgment against a number of people and finally cast some of them out of the church. Their offenses were not small. They were such things as writing bad checks, or marrying outside of the Christian faith, or divorcing a spouse against God’s law, all of which are flagrant and scandalous violations of God’s covenant and acts of great dishonor to the Lord. In every case these people had entered the membership by promising both obedience to the Word of God and that, should they be found delinquent in doctrine or life, they would meekly and obediently heed the discipline of the elders. But, when the time came, they did not and in refusing to do so they revealed that they had no true loyalty to Christ either.

Living under the authority of the church’s elders is, by God’s appointment, one of the chief ways that one lives under the authority of God himself. Showing contempt for them is to show contempt for God.

Second, we are taught here that when God’s people refuse to live in submission to God’s authority terrible consequences ensue. It is not as if the church can be careless of the obedience of her members and still survive. If unfaithfulness is allowed to flourish, if it continues unchecked and unpunished, both individual Christians and the church as a whole will suffer great harm and eventually fall under God’s wrath.In 16:20 this is the clear implication. If by the faithful exercise of their office, the judges ensure that God’s people are living according to God’s Word the people of God will live and prosper in the land. Contrarily, if they do not, as we read often enough in Deuteronomy, they will lose both God’s blessing and the land.

And it happens, this disintegration of the happy state of God’s people occurs in two ways.

First, when sin is tolerated and wickedness goes unpunished, many in the church are personally victimized. It is a principle long established in Scripture and in human life that he who spares the guilty harms the good. When justice is perverted someone always suffers loss. In the church, it is very often women, whose husbands desert them or mistreat them or ignore them or make merchandise of them and are never confronted by the elders of the church. It was precisely because of the faithful practice of church discipline in the church of Geneva during the days of John Calvin, a discipline which often was exercised against men who were failing to do their Christian duty to their wives, that the city became known as ‘le paradis des femmes.’

And remember Ambrose’s discipline of the Emperor Theodosius I in A.D. 390. In what is perhaps the most memorable case of church discipline in Christian history, the saintly bishop of Milan met the powerful and theologically orthodox emperor in the narthex of the church and refused him permission to enter or to participate in the worship or Lord’s Supper. There had been a riot in Thessalonica, and in a fit of rage the emperor had ordered the citizenry punished and some 7,000 men, women, and children had been cut down by imperial troops. Eight months later Ambrose readmitted the emperor to the fellowship of the church, but only after his public repentance for this sin and after securing from him a new law according to which the death penalty could not be executed for thirty days after it had been pronounced, so that there might be time to revoke it if necessary and to ensure that justice and not temper lay behind it. The Lord only knows how many thousands of innocent people were spared cruel and unjust punishments as a consequence of Ambrose faithful and courageous correction of a Christian man.

But it is not only to protect the innocent from injustices that the elders of the church are to act decisively and biblically to ensure the obedience of the people of God.

Second, when sin is tolerated and wickedness goes unpunished the commitment of the whole church to the law of God and the life of obedience is undermined. This is the point the Lord is making in 17:13. The fruit of faithful discipline and correction and, if necessary, even the most extreme punishments, is precisely that the obedience and faithfulness of others will be preserved and fostered. Our natures are such that if a sinful and unfaithful life is tolerated in the church, we will be much less inclined to that difficult work which true holiness requires. If unfaithfulness is tolerated in the church, very soon it will become the normal life of Christian people. That is God’s warning here and that is why he is so severe in his demand for the punishment and the correction of such conduct among his people.

Who can possibly deny that we are seeing that very state of affairs which God is warning us against here coming to pass in the church in our own day? The church is filling up with people who are living in overt covenantal unfaithfulness but remain unmolested in the church, members in good standing. We are treated today over and again to the astonishing spectacle of professedly evangelical churches which include among their membership men and women who are abandoning their spouses and sometimes precisely so as to take up with someone else. We have heard of an abortionist in good standing in the membership of an evangelical church and the news reported a similar situation in Wichita, Kansas, at the time of Operation Rescue’s activity there a year ago. That is not all. You can find folk who are dishonest in their business dealings and who have a reputation for that in the community sitting comfortably in their usual pew on a Sunday morning. Or you can find men who are cruel to their wives and children, or philanderers at work.

Charles Simeon, when first he undertook the pastorate of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, England, was beset in every Sunday’s service by trouble-making college students who thought it a great game to disrupt the worship and the sermon. That is, until one such young man was caught and made publicly to repent of his sin before the whole church. It was that act of discipline, that punishment which broke the back of the disturbers of the church’s peace. Once they knew that they would be punished, they stopped at once. And some of them eventually became some of Simeon’s most eager listeners and faithful members. But they never would have had discipline not shook them loose from the habits of irreverence which controlled them at first. And it is a very sad thing to see in the church all around so many Christians who might be so much more than they are and might never have settled in such deep ruts of sin if, all along, the church had made it clear to them that such behavior would never be tolerated in a Christian.

The question posed by v. 13 then is this: is it any wonder that in such a situation, where unfaithfulness to the Lord goes unremarked and unpunished and uncorrected and where every impression is left that it is possible to be a Christian and to live in these utterly unfaithful ways, is it any wonder that the church’s membership is becoming more and more unfaithful all the while? Why, scarcely an issue of Christianity Today appears that does not announce the divorce of some prominent Christian or the discovery of their sexual infidelity or financial malfeasance. The issue which arrived this past week had three separate such reports regarding evangelical people in the limelight.

Discipline, the requiring of covenantal faithfulness, alone will ensure the safety of the church and the faithfulness of its members to the Lord. As Calvin put it: ‘for to hold together, the body of Christ must be bound together by discipline as with sinews.’ God’s people as a whole and as a rule will live as Christians must only if discipline is faithfully practiced by the church’s elders. Only if the church absolutely requires her people to live faithful lives, will they do so. That is what Moses is telling us here.

Let me conclude by applying our text to your own situation brothers and sisters, your situation here in this church.

And, let me do so by way of another account from church history.

Samuel Annesley, Susannah Wesley’s father, was a godly Anglican minister and he was, at one point in his ministry, assigned by his bishop to the parish of Cliffe in Kent. He was sent to replace a minister who had been scandalous but also very popular. The people of the parish deeply resented Annesley’s coming to replace their former minister and they refused to welcome him, some even went so far as to attack him by throwing stones. He even received a death threat. In response to this hostile welcome, Annesley promised the parish that he would leave them just as soon as they were ready to accept another minister of his own spiritual type.

Well, the Lord honored his ministry and it wasn’t so long before the people were greatly changed and reformed and many had been brought to living faith in Christ. The church folk now wanted him to stay and pied with him to stay, but he left them anyway. He had given his word that he would leave when they were ready for another pastor of his stripe, and he felt strongly that any lack of seriousness on his part about a promise he had made, might undermine the faith and the faithfulness of his new converts. There are Christians still today like that, who keep their promise even when it hurts and who prove faithful to the Lord through thick and thin. You must be such Christians yourselves.

Most of you are members of this church. When you joined you promised to remain faithful to the Lord and, if you should ever stumble, to receive and heed the correction of your elders. If you love God, and love holiness, and love the church of Jesus Christ, you will keep that promise. And if you keep it, and you keep it, and you keep it, many others, including our children, will be greatly helped to keep it too.