Having looked recently at the nature of leadership, established by Christ for His kingdom, we saw how the authority of the Pharisees and scribes was limited insofar as they were representing Moses faithfully, or we might say teaching faithfully the Law of Moses. This principle of limitation on authority is not isolated to Jesus’ rebuke of the Jewish religious leaders of the day, but may also be subtly seen in His ‘Great Commission’, “teaching them all I have commanded you” as it likewise provides boundaries on the nature of authority.
In keeping with this principle, the Apostle Paul, writing to the troubled community of believers in Galatia**, rebukes them for quickly deserting the word of the gospel that was preached to them and, similarly, provides the guardrails of authority. After introducing the letter by establishing the divine source of his apostleship, Paul turns toward the central thesis of his writing
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
In this passage we find the motivation of the rebuke in verse 6, that the Galatians were turning away from the true gospel to another gospel (as though there was another gospel) and that there had arisen among them those who claimed to be teachers of this false, distorted gospel. As the letter unfolds, we gain clarity and insight into the nature of this false gospel and find that it is a works-based gospel resting on works of the law, most notably circumcision.
In his rebuke, instead of staking a claim on the exclusivity of his apostolic authority, the Apostle places the emphasis on the authority of the true gospel
8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.
Here we see that neither an apostolic messenger, nor a messenger from heaven holds authority, rather the authority is from the Gospel itself, the good news that God has proclaimed. For emphasis, Paul reiterates this point in verse 9 to make sure that his purpose has been delivered with clarity, “if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received.” Again, the authority is placed on the message of revelation, not the messenger, while the wisdom needed to discern a false gospel from the true gospel is placed in the hands of the people. In practice, this is precisely what we find taking place in Acts 17:11, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
This brings up some important questions on the nature of authority within the ekklesia(s) (churches) of Christ, particularly in light of the kingdom leadership paradigm that we recently looked and the limits of authority that our Lord has established.
- Why doesn’t the Apostle, under divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, appeal to the authority of his own office? He introduced his letter by establishing his apostleship from God, yet we do not see him defer to it in the rebuke, i.e. listen to my message because I am an apostle.
- Why doesn’t he defer to the ecclesiastical church officers, i.e. elders, pastors, bishops, of Galatia and instruct the people to simply submit to their authority and rule?
- More pointedly, why isn’t the letter addressed to the ‘leaders’ of the Galatian congregations with the message to straighten out the people?
The answer is really quite simple. Authority does not rest in man, either by position or status. All authority is Christ’s (Matt. 28:18) and He mediates that authority through His Word, the very revelation of God. When one believer speaks truth to another believer, whether for correction, rebuke, training, or exhortation, the limits of that truth are confined to God’s Word. Certainly we may take human wisdom into consideration, particularly as God has gifted men and women with levels of faith, maturity, and discernment, and has placed them in various contexts where they can communicate that wisdom. But human wisdom is by nature fallible and the communication of it is not binding or authoritative, rather it is subordinate to the Word of God, indeed it must be derived as well as always point back to God’s Word.
Aware that perhaps those who had been teaching or preaching this distorted Gospel might object on the basis of their self-assumed, human authority, the Apostle defends his bold statements by revealing his motives as seeking the approval of God.
10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
One has to ask here, why would the approval of man vs. God enter into the equation? Why would Paul even assert this as a question? It seems reasonable to conclude that because Paul is elevating the message above the messenger that their would naturally be push-back. Their could be those, either claiming positional authority or claiming relational authority, as though being from Jerusalem gave them authority. Whatever the case may be, clearly Paul is uninterested in pleasing man, but all the more interested in pleasing God.
Barnes comments on this passage, “The great system of salvation had been taught; and no other was to be admitted, no matter who preached it; no matter what the character or rank of the preacher: and no matter with what imposing claims he came. It follows from this, that the mere rank, character, talent, eloquence, or piety of a preacher does not of necessity give his doctrine a claim to our belief, or prove that his gospel is true. Great talents may be prostituted; and great sanctity of manner, and even holiness of character, may be in error; and no matter what may be the rank, and talents, and eloquence, and piety of the preacher, if he does not accord with the gospel which was first preached, he is to be held accursed.”
In concluding this introduction, before he moves towards expounding this thesis, the Apostle concludes with a word on the gospel that he preached
11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Again, this places the authority of the message above man, resting it squarely upon God.
Stepping outside the bounds of Scripture’s authority always leads to abuse. The abuses of authority have been the cause of many reformations throughout history and of course, the central cause of THE Reformation from the 16th century. Let this be a reminder to us in our day. The moment we begin to accept assumed authority, is the moment we begin retracing the steps to Rome. All authority belongs to Christ and He has chosen to mediate that authority through His written word – Sola Scriptura
**It should be noted that most translations use the phrase, “to the churches of Galatia” in Galatians 1:2. There were multiple gatherings in Galatia, and these are the audience; not elders/pastors and not a general, universal concept of church.