Major religious thought today, at least in the Christian faith, regards man as a rational being, responsible for making his own decisions regarding religious matters. Does God agree with this reasoning, or is there a final authority that man can live by?
"After years of study and prayer, Mr. Armstrong has come to see that this is binding on us today," I said to Mr. Brown. "The Bible reveals it, and as Christians we must obey." "Well, here's the way I look at it," he began, and then continued to give his personal opinion based on human reason with little knowledge of the Bible to guide him. As a minister of Jesus Christ, I was trying to show him, not my will, but God's will. I proved my points right out of God's Word. I mentioned the opinion and belief of Herbert Armstrong to show that a more experienced servant of the true God was persuaded of this same truth. Was Mr. Brown impressed? Not at all. On the contrary, he proceeded to put his human reason and feeling on the same plane as our studied belief in God's Word. In his own mind, Mr. Brown reasoned that his opinion was just as good as our opinion. But was it a matter of two differing opinions of equal value? Or do God's true ministers carry authority to speak in His name? If so, how much is that authority to be respected? These are questions that every true Christian should understand. Mr. Brown was supposed to be converted. Is such an attitude as his the mark of a truly converted person?
Authority of ministers
In Matthew 16:15-20, we read the account of Christ bestowing on Peter the "keys of the kingdom of heaven." Nearly all commentaries agree the principal meaning of these keys includes the way of salvation that the apostles were to proclaim to the world. Jesus has shown in dozens of places that all decisions must be conformed to God's will and His law (Matt. 5:17-19). Christ's example when He said, "I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because] seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me" (John 5:30) was to be followed. God's true ministers will be yielded and submissive to God's will. They will seek His will in diligent study and earnest prayer. In every way, they will seek God's will and His guidance through the Holy Spirit. When the Israelites refused to hearken to God's servant Samuel, God said, "They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them" (I Sam. 8:7).
Be sure of ministers
All of your respect to any minister should be based upon the fact that you have first proved to yourself that he really is a true servant of God. Jesus continually warned: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:15-16). You need to look. at the "fruit," the results in proclaiming the true Gospel, in leading the flock into the truth and ways of God, in healing the sick — the accomplishments in the work of the ministry, carrying out the commission of Christ. Notice that Jesus went on to say (Matt. 7:21-23) that many would profess to do good works in His name, but He told them, "Depart from me, ye that work iniquity," or lawlessness. The word iniquity is more correctly translated lawlessness. Jesus was showing that professing ministers who break God's law are not His ministers at all! "I never knew you," Jesus will tell them. And God's Word shows that these lawbreaking ministers never really knew Christ either (I John 2:4). Satan and his ministers appear as "angels of light" (II Cor. 11:14). But they teach that you are free to disobey God's law. Another way to examine their fruit is to see if they are willing to "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (II Pet. 3:18). Some "Christians" even some who profess to be in the Church of God — refuse to grow into more truth! Jesus told the disciples that the Holy Spirit "will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13). Spiritual change, growth and development is one of the important signs that a person is guided by God's Spirit. No man gains all of God's truth at once. We must all grow in knowledge. Some churches and some ministers have known a portion of God's truth. But when they became unwilling to grow into more truth through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they soon began to twist and pervert what little truth they had and to spiritually rot away and die! To prove whether or not a man is truly God's servant, look to the fruits of submission to all of God's commands, of a real understanding of God's Word, of a willingness to grow in grace and knowledge, of the underlying motive of love behind every thought and deed. Once you know who God's true ministers are, should you respect them and the office in which God has set them? Yes, you should!
Once God has revealed to you by the fruits who His true servants are, you should recognize the responsibilities and duties God has given them. They do not have the right to exercise that authority according to their own human reason. Jesus Christ is the living Head of the true Church of God, the Body of Christ (Col. 1:18). It is God's responsibility to chasten His servants if they abuse their authority. You can't read their hearts. But God can! Their authority came from Him, not from some board of men. God sets or appoints the true ministers and teachers to guide and rule His Church (I Cor. 12:28). He alone has the power to remove them from office. Remember that even though Samuel's sons were abusing their office (I Sam. 8:1-7), the people had no right whatsoever to put them out! It was up to God to decide if, when and how this was to be done. In taking this authority in their own hands, the people rejected the rule of God — the Kingdom of God! If you plan to enter that Kingdom, learn now to obey those whom God sets in authority.
Christians must be alert to, the prophecy that even from among their leaders some would arise speaking perverse things — twisting God's Word (Acts 20:29-31). In order to recognize perverse teachings, and in order to "grow in grace and knowledge," you need to pray and study God's Word continually. If you do this intelligently you will never be deceived. Remember, the important test Christ gave us was to examine the fruits in a minister's life and work. A false minister simply cannot produce the fruits — people converted in obedience to God's law and His way. So respect and obey God's true ministers, but constantly study to acquire the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5) and to perceive a deceiver who might arise. The apostle James tells Christian believers to "receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls" (Jas. 1:21). Once God reveals to you who His true ministers are, listen respectfully and with open minds to their instruction. Then you need to "study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (II Tim. 2:15). The more you study, the more you will understand and agree with the instructions of God's true servants. You shouldn't, of course, go to the. Bible with the idea of refuting what they have taught or of justifying your own ideas. The respect to God's ministers is respect to God Himself who calls any true minister to that office, and it is respect to the Holy Spirit through which God will inspire and direct His servants.
Unity in the Church
Many of you brethren have had to come out of this Babylonish system and its churches. You have been regarded — and perhaps have regarded yourself — as an independent or radical in matters of belief. Many of you, having been disillusioned by false ministers, have come to feel that you could place no reliance on anyone or anything except yourself. You have been in the habit of studying the Bible and accepting your conclusion as final. It was between you and God alone. "Me and God," said the German kaiser. That is the way some of you have felt and acted — perhaps without realizing it. But should you be an independent Christian? Didn't Jesus build a Church that will endure forever? Haven't we just shown you that God's true ministers, whom He sets in His Church, speak in His name with authority? If you have really been converted, you have been baptized or put into God's Church by receiving His Spirit. You are then no longer an independent, but a member of the true Church of God, the Body of Christ. "God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints" (l Cor. 14:33). Even though you may be separated from church fellowship, you belong to God's Church, which has order and government in it, not confusion. The apostle Paul commands us to be humble. "Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). Some ministers quote this text to persuade their congregation to blindly follow them in a false unity, not of the Spirit. The unity of God's Spirit is that mutual harmony and love that it produces because we will all be seeking God's will. It is not a unity based on man's reasoning swayed by the devil! God gave some individuals positions of preaching and teaching. "Till we all come in the unity of the faith" (Eph. 4:11-3). His ministers are responsible for teaching and guiding the flock in the right way as God's Spirit reveals, until they come into the "unity of the faith." We are still human and have a lot of growing to do. We won't all see eye to eye on every point of doctrine at first. But God has set His ministers in the Church to preserve order and to teach and instruct the brethren with authority so that each one may finally come to have "the mind of Christ" (Phil. 2:5).
The final authority
In Hebrews 13:17, Paul gives an inspired command to, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you." Here, and in verse 7, God is commanding obedience to His ministers. It is they who "must give account." And He. holds them responsible for seeking His will! This, of course, applies only to those whom you know by the fruits are God's true ministers. And even then, if there is ever a case when you have a real conviction that one of God's ministers is teaching something contrary to His will, you ought to "obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). But knowing that any true minister of God will be honest in •seeking the truth, be sure to discuss the matter privately with him. Remember that you are not to rebuke an elder or minister, "but entreat him as a father" (I Tim. 5:1). Then, any true minister of God will study and pray over the matter, and in due time will either show you your error, or he will confess his mistake and be thankful to find and teach the truth. God Himself has chosen ministers who are still quite human. But His ministers will remain yielded to Him and be willing to grow. It is His responsibility to remove them if they don't. In all matters, then, it's God's opinion that really counts! He is the final authority! God has specially called His ministers to act as His spokesmen — teaching the people His will. Christ set the example (Matt. 7:29) when He astonished the people by teaching with authority. That authority is to be respected! It is not respect to the man, but to the office and to God who placed him in the office. God's ministers need your prayers and your love and cooperation in carrying on this great Work He has committed to all of us. Mr. Armstrong has set a wonderful example by his love, humility, wisdom, zeal and his constant willingness to grow into more truth as God reveals it. To accomplish our mission successfully, we need to practice the way of order and Church government that God has commanded. This way of God will be a great blessing to us and to the millions who will hear the true Gospel because we have been willing to set aside our selfish interests and to work together in harmony, under God's guidance, in carrying out His great Work. Let us all submit ourselves to God's government in His Church and in His Kingdom to come. As the true Church. of God, let us go forward together with love and unity, guided by divine wisdom and inspired by a contagious zeal to carry out with God's power and authority the great Work of proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom as a witness to all nations before Christ's soon return as King of kings.