Texts: Jeremiah 21:11-14, Matthew 23:1-13
Five hundred years ago, a theology professor, Martin Luther, got into an argument with a popular preacher named Johann Tetzel. Tetzel was preaching that a person could reduce their punishment in the after life by giving money to the church. Luther argued that what mattered with God was the inward work of faith and repentance. Luther summarized his views in a document listing 95 statements. The document is called The 95 Theses. Legend has it that he posted these statements on the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517.
The argument escalated. Church officials and rich and powerful lay people got involved. Eventually Luther, the theologian was called before a grand council of the church, interviewed and then ordered to recant. Take it all back. Submit to the authority of the General Conference in Session.
And western Christendom split between his defenders and accusers. This split is called the Reformation. It was the beginning of Protestant churches.
Adventists have seen ourselves as the spiritual heirs of the great figures of the Reformation. We celebrate the courage of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Huss, and Jerome. Theologians who were true to their reading of the Bible instead of submitting to the church-approved interpretations of the Bible.
Now, a hundred fifty years plus into our own church history, Seventh-day Adventists confront the inevitable questions that arise when a group sees itself as the descendant of protesters. How shall we respond to people within our own denomination who believe that some element of our belief or practice is wrong?
Another way to ask the question is: what is the nature of church authority?
Today’s Old Testament and New Testament readings highlight the complexity of the question. Let’s begin with Jeremiah
“Say to the royal family of Judah, ‘Listen to this message from the LORD! 12 This is what the LORD says to the dynasty of David: “‘Give justice each morning to the people you judge! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Otherwise, my anger will burn like an unquenchable fire because of all your sins. 13 I will personally fight against the people in Jerusalem, that mighty fortress–the people who boast, “No one can touch us here. No one can break in here.” 14 And I myself will punish you for your sinfulness, says the LORD. I will light a fire in your forests that will burn up everything around you.'” Jeremiah 21:11-14
A central conviction of the Jewish people was that God had chosen the family of David as the royal family for all time. And that God had chosen Jerusalem as the Holy City, the holiest place on earth. Their dream of the grand climax of all things—the end of the world—was the day when all nations would pay obeisance to Jerusalem. Jerusalem and the Temple would be acknowledged as the capitol of all nations.
Then we read the words of Jeremiah.
Give justice each morning to the people you judge! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Otherwise, my anger will burn like an unquenchable fire because of all your sins.
The privileges God had given were not automatic. They were not unconditionally guaranteed. In the eyes of God, royal authority was dependent on royal character. And the primary measure of royal character was how the royal family used its power to help the little people, people with meager resources.
In the Adventist Church the “royalty” are the clergy. In our system clergy have the most power. Traditionally, like Catholics and the Church of Christ and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and many other denominations, we have claimed that our church is the one true church. Further, we have argued that truth is determined by the vote of the clergy. No matter what you think, the final court of appeal is the vote of the assembled clergy at our General Conference session.
Which brings us to our New Testament reading.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. 5 “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. 6 And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. 7 They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’ 8 “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. 9 And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. 10 And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be a servant. 12 But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. 13 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. Matthew 23:1-13 NLT (Accessed through Blue Letter Bible.org)
This passage highlights the importance of careful interpretation. Note the opening words
“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you,
It sounds like Jesus is endorsing the absolute authority of the teachings of religious officials. “They are the official interpreters, so do whatever they tell you.” I can see the clergy looking at each other and smiling. Elbowing each other and whispering. “Did you hear that?” They are all thinking, this Jesus fellow is not so bad. He’s right. We do have the correct interpretation. It is rebellion to contradict us or disobey us.
Then Jesus continues,
but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.
They crush people with unbearable demands. Wait. Are we really supposed to obey “unbearable demands?” No. These words echo the words of Peter in Acts 15, when the church leaders were debating how much of Jewish tradition to impose on Gentile believers. Peter said, “Why would we even think of imposing on our Gentile brothers and sisters a burden we ourselves were unable to bear? Enough already!” Acts 15:10.
When clergy impose unbearable burdens, we are free to ignore them. Sometimes, like Martin Luther of old, we are obliged to actively resist them.
Jesus goes further.
8 “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. 9 And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. 10 And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be a servant.
We could fixate on specific terms here. “Rabbi,” “Father,” “Teacher.” But that would obviously miss the point. The point of these titles is status and authority. We can be tempted to yield to the assertions and claims of people with titles–Rabbi, Father, Teacher, president, professor—without subjecting those claims to the tests of truth and love.
In the kingdom of heaven formal authority yields to the higher authority of truth and love.
It is tempting for us to use our status as a substitute for persuasion and honesty. When someone in authority agrees with us, it is tempting to use their status as a substitute for doing our own careful thinking and research.
Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of his day because they imagined their status as a platform for the exercise of power. Then Jesus pointed to the right use of status: The greatest among you must be a servant.
The enduring legacy of the Reformation is not a list of theological propositions. Rather it is an open door to the ever relevant challenge of Jesus: What are we doing with the power God has placed in our hands? Are we committed to the preservation of our church documents–”the 28” or “The Church Manual”–even when they imposed unbearable burdens? Or will we join Jesus in bending every resource toward serving those with less—less power, less orthodoxy, less money, less health, less status?
Greatness, in the kingdom of heaven, is measured in units of service not in units of orthodoxy.
Application: Consider the recent attempts to require a loyalty oath and the recent letter by Jim Pederson, president of the Northern California Conference, which cited church authority alone as reason to exclude some people from church membership.