“Authority for the Conflict” by Jack Miller

“Authority for the Conflict” by Jack Miller

From “A New Life” Booklet

We … who are reformers are often part of the problem. We are in the position of trying to clean up others with hands that are dirty. [T]o recover ourselves and model renewal for others in the local church, we must begin by humbling ourselves. We do this by identifying ourselves first of all as a living member of Christ’s body, the people of God. We are one with the people of God. As such we have Christ’s promise as the ascended Lord to enable us and others to do “greater works” than He did during His public ministry on earth. As we pray and claim His promises, the Spirit enables us to live out our mission in the local church which is to function in the world as Christ’s missionary instrument.

Now comes the hard part. [T]he supreme concern of the ascended Lord is the Great Commission. His master purpose for the local church is for its members to go with the gospel to the lost … We shall be looking at Christ’s imperial vision for conquering the nations through His ambassadors taking the message to them. The intention is to relate this to the life of the pacesetter and the life of the congregation to which he or she belongs. Here we are going to talk about authority for the conflict.

Why is authority so important? Simply because of the intensity of the conflict. In the world outside the church proclamation of the gospel meets with active resistance. In the local church itself the gospel command meets passive resistance, the indifference of the comfortable and self-sufficient.

Active resistance to the gospel in the world can take the form of a raised eyebrow, outright mockery and ridicule, slander, or worse. A pastor friend of mine was actually thrown out the front door of a home by a man who eventually became a Christian. According to Jesus, the mission of the church in the world is always conducted by His “sheep in the midst of wolves.” He says bluntly to His disciples: “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”

Sometimes hatred of the gospel can be equally bitter within the church, but ordinarily opposition from within to grace takes much more subtle forms and can be harder to handle emotionally. Either way the idealist reformer is likely to be crushed by opposition from within and without.

He is also exposed to the temptation to fight evil with evil. He meets opposition from human wills and he struggles against this opposition by asserting his will. One of the most obvious ways this happens is through gossip. You are attacked and misrepresented. Evil motivation is attributed to you. You defend yourself in the same spirit and manner. You spread your own opinions about the opposition in the heat of the moment and in the agony of your suffering. It all seems so justified. And it is not hard to end up being roasted in the very bon-fire you yourself touched off or at least the one you added some fuel to.

For this reason we need to think through the nature of Jesus’s authority and how it relates to us and the conflict which always lies before us. What we want to concentrate on here is the exercising of authority in the local church by the person who wants to see it obedient to the Lord’s command to go with the gospel to the world.

An example will help to give the problem a sharp edge and outline. A young man who had a leadership position in a Sunday school came to me and said something like this: “In our church there is a problem that is very upsetting. This couple won’t speak to me. I don’t know what to do about it and I don’t think our pastor does either.” Pain was written all over the face of this young man. He loved the Lord and it really hurt him to see this particular middle-aged couple oppose any attempt to change the program and now to be alienated from him personally.

In name they were evangelical Christians, but they seemed to have a bias against doing anything toward reaching the lost. So his emotions were really mixed. On the one hand, he wanted to have an attitude of love toward them but on the other hand he found himself resenting them for their antipathy to outreach. What was worse, much of the real authority in the church was in their hands. They contributed handsomely to the church budget each month. The wife had great influence in the Sunday school by virtue of her having been active in its program for many years, and the husband had equally great influence on the board of elders because of his age and his prominence in the community as a successful businessman.

As I listened I could have drawn my own portrait of this couple, or at least a variation of it bearing a remarkable resemblance. Let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus Jones. They are in their middle fifties. Typically Mrs. Jones dominates the Sunday school or some other favorite program of hers. She is the prevailing negative voice on the Christian education committee. When a new idea surfaces at a committee meeting, her face turns cold. As she listens her whole body forms into a stiff angular position. Her voice acquires an edge to it as she states her case against the new proposal. Her defense doesn’t need preparation. It’s always the same. “It’s about time we remember,” she says with chill emphasis, “what happened when we permitted the junior high class to have breakfasts in the church. You can remember, don’t you?” The question is purely rhetorical. Everyone remembers. She has never let them forget. Crumbs were left in the kitchen, ants followed. It’s not so much the familiar facts that intimidate the other committee members. It’s her vision of Indians about to attack, her genuine fear that there are barbarian types “out there” who are ready to desecrate all that is holy.

Cyrus may seem kinder than his wife. Yet he is a super conservative when it comes to the development of the work of God’s Kingdom. He is nice to the pastor, gives him a $200 check each year for Christmas and is courteous to others. She looks more like the “bad” cop who can lose her temper on command; he is more like the “good” cop who tries to smooth things over and tone down any conflicts. One of his favorite remarks when tensions build between him and other leaders is that: “We don’t really mean to leave the church unless things get out of hand.” By “things getting out of hand” he means the introduction of any program which would bring strangers into the fellowship in significant numbers. Since he may contribute something like $400 monthly to the church budget, this remark has authority all its own.

What the young man needs is to see that people like the Jones’s couple have an authority based upon their own vision of what is the church and its purpose. One perceptive observer of the Christian church has called their church “religiousness within a secular framework.” It means that people participate actively in their church ritual and subscribe to its creed, but take their working point of view from the world and not from Scripture. They have a worldly theology.

In Mrs. Jones’s theological outlook, she views the church as the building located at the corner of 22nd Street and Pine. The people who file in for worship around eleven o’clock each Sunday morning are primarily guests. Since the building and not the people are the “church,” she treats the church building with great respect and the people with bare courtesy. She has no concept whatsoever that they are “the people of God” and “the body of Christ.”

Cyrus has essentially the same point of view. But his focus falls more on the organization of congregational life. His supreme concern is to keep the church institution from being overrun by “strangers.” It was his efforts which last year blocked the hiring of a pastoral assistant to do evangelism. He said, “We just couldn’t afford it.” Yet what he meant was: “We want to protect our own little church life and keep our social club pure from upsetting contacts with people who are different.”

What the young man has before him is a conflict between authorities based upon two different visions about the church and its role in the world. Folks like the Jones’s have a secular faith concealed under a garb of religiousness. Their secularism has many features. First, what it leaves out. It is a point of view completely out of touch with Christ’s lordship over history and the mandate of Christ to conquer all nations by the power of the gospel in reliance upon the Holy Spirit. Its adherents have little practical sense of the purpose that Christ has given the church to evangelize the lost. Into this vacuum such religious secularists put the forms, structures, and habits of Christianity without any awareness of the power of a living Christ over worship and life.

A central figure in this worldly theology is the pastor. [H]is role is that of nice men. But he is also expected to be more than that. He is also a primary source of comfort for those who want a little of Christ but not too much. As a preacher, he is expected to be intellectually stimulating, perhaps even biblical, but never to go so far into the prophetic role as to give offense. He must not create conflicts of a foundational sort in preaching or counseling just because his supreme responsibility is to console. As chief consoler he is to baptize, teach, comfort, marry, and bury. In a word, his priestly task is largely to meet the emotional needs of those who have lost virtually all practical touch with God and His purpose for the church.

Since I have applied the word “religious” to this point of view, it is appropriate to ask exactly how this approach warrants such a name. Isn’t it simply secularism disguised as Christianity? Since secularism is simply the widespread suppression by people of the consciousness of God, we must agree that this is secularism. But it is secularism with a twist; a devilish one. It is really religious sentimentalism, a kind of idolatry of the emotions in which the person puts his faith in the forms and practices of the church institution rather that in the Kingship of Christ. In this sense it is intensely religious. The knowledge of God is being suppressed by the use of religious forms and practices. The forms themselves become a substitute for the knowledge of the Most High.

The inner nature of this “religiousness within a secular framework” is made apparent by conflicts that I have observed in churches both conservative and liberal. For example, I know of a highly conservative congregation where the pastor made what seemed to him to be a small change in the liturgy. He changed the title in the bulletin of the main prayer in the morning worship service. He substituted the title “Congregational Prayer” for the wording “Pastoral Prayer.”

To his amazement and chagrin, he discovered one of the leading members of the congregation bearing down on him with all the inevitability of a circular saw cutting through soft wood. Because of this change he was accused of grave error in thought and practice. Immediate repentance was expected of the reeling pastoral victim.

I have chosen this example because the circumstances are so trivial. I could have cited any one of the countless battles over more important changes in worship forms in conservative churches that I know about. But this one illustrates the point that I want to make. It is that any change no matter how small is a threat to many conservative religious people, because their faith is practically summed up by emotional attachment to visible forms of worship and traditional practices in administering the life of the church. My fear is that the defender of the faith in this case had so lost touch with the Kingship of Christ that all loyalty of heart was being given to the visible expressions of worship. The real Lord of that life seems to have become the fixed order of the worship, not the ascended Lord of the Great Commission who overturns all our little human empires.

Seen from the angle of authority, this shift from the worship of the triumphant Lord to the worship of ritual means that Christ is being denied the right to make any changes as the King of the church—not just in worship forms but in the lives caught up in an idolatrous devotion to things that may be good in themselves.

I have encountered the same mind-set in liberal churches. Sometimes they are intrigued by hearing reports of the work of God under my preaching and witnessing and invite me to conduct a series of meetings, sometimes even agreeing that the purpose should be expressly evangelistic. In one instance in a nearby liberal church I was invited to give a series of three lectures on successive Sunday evenings on the subject of the gospel and our modern culture. Through the presentation I developed the theme that modern man was, at bottom, given over to hopelessness. By contrast, I said that the gospel could change the most hopeless appearing person if that one believed it. I underscored that it didn’t matter who that person was or what that person had done. My presupposition was the active Kingship of Christ as risen Lord who used His gospel message to change any believer’s fundamental relationships.

What happened at the end of the third lecture was a bit of an uproar generated by the pastor of the church coming to his feet and saying he did not believe Christ could change everyone. I believe his words were: “Christ cannot change just anyone. Some people have medical problems and are so mentally disturbed that only the medical experts can help them.”

What impressed me was his candor and the candor of the people in the congregation. In the hub-bub that followed people started arguing with one another. Some said Christ simply couldn’t change just anyone who believed. Others said—especially the younger ones—that they weren’t so certain that He couldn’t.

The question here seems to be different from that in the conservative church where tradition became a kind of religious lockstep for everyone. But beneath the surface, I think there are some striking parallels.

What these folks in the liberal church wanted to avoid was a supernatural Christ who has the kind of ongoing power to touch a life here and now and begin to make that life over in a radical manner. In a sense, you might say that in the typical liberal church the people have gone on strike and locked out the Owner of the church.

I know something of the same happens in conservative churches, though it is more covert. It seems to me that in many conservative and liberal churches the question of whether Christ is really there as risen Lord has been passed over. What has been substituted is a love of church music, of lovely church buildings, and habitual associations that are more sentimental than genuinely spiritual.

The proof is found in the lack of confidence in the transforming power of the message of atonement given in the gospel. This unbelief is shared by many people in conservative congregations. Practical atheists abound in conservative churches as well as liberal ones. These folks attend church and honor the Bible not because they are there to submit everything to the authority of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ but because of the emotional need that is met by traditional religious order and moral structure. One man put it to me like this: “Even if I didn’t believe God existed, I’d fight for Him all the way. I’d never miss church and would always insist that my family come too. We need religion in our lives. Otherwise the bottom will fall out of everything.”

So our problem is to get the conflict clear and to disentangle our feet from involvement with the secularist and sentimental view of Christ and the church. The difficulty facing the young leader in the Sunday school and his pastor was that they were in some measure accepting the secularist and sentimentalist view of the church which dominated the thinking of the middle-aged couple who resisted any and all outreach.

The pastor, for instance, if he is typical of Protestant clergy, may refer to the church building as “the house of the Lord” and act as though the “sanctuary” had some vague connections with the Old Testament temple. Thus holiness is not something inherent in the people, but in “holy” material things associated with worship. He is also pretty blind to the fact that emotionally he is for many people the head of the church and has taken Christ’s role as the priest of the church. He has not taught from the pulpit and elsewhere that the supreme concern of Christ for His church is obedience to the Great Commission. He is not even sure that “going with the gospel” is Jesus’s overarching priority for the church in the world. He sees gospel proclamation as one spoke in a wheel with many other spokes and has not understood the message of forgiveness is the rim which binds all the separate parts into one. He has therefore not attempted to arouse the “laity” from their passive stance toward worldwide evangelism and the accompanying good deeds which authenticate the gospel.

The result is that his conflict with people like the Jones couple is piecemeal and inconsistent and is all too likely to degenerate into a personality conflict centered around a clash of human wills. In summary his teaching lacks comprehensiveness and confidence because his own vision of Christ’s purpose in the world is clouded.

You cannot expect to have a part in seeing the church renewed unless you see that the heart of the biblical program for the church and the world is Christ’s authority and that by virtue of that authority He has constituted His church as His own special missionary agency in the world. I don’t see how you can challenge people like the Jones couple and others like them to give up their ingrowness unless someone much bigger than you disapproves of it and has another purpose for us.

The issue is that simple. Christ constituted His church in the world by His own supreme kingly authority as the instrument of His missionary enterprise. That’s why we are here. That’s our reason for being, not for our comfort, but for us to risk everything including life in order as soldiers of the gospel to fulfill His marching orders.

For that reason I invite you to look more closely at the biblical authority for a courageous faith which is strong enough to take on a passively resistant church and an actively resistant world. Otherwise your faith will be quickly damped down by the unbelief that you meet both inside the congregation and outside in the world.

[I]n the summer of 1970 my family and I spent the summer in Barcelona, where I spent a good deal of time meditating on the Scriptural promises. I don’t want to romanticize that time. The study was hard work. Hour after hour I labored over the Scriptures and then tried to reduce my thoughts to written form. I also took long walks for the purpose of pondering over the nature and character of these promises. I talked little with anyone, including my wife. I needed to be silent before God so that He could teach me. My central problem was too much awareness of people. I was far too easily intimidated by people like the Jones couple and often had my zeal quenched by them. Furthermore, I was often ashamed of the gospel in the face of strong opposition which I met sometimes in the church and sometimes outside. I needed in the words of Isaiah to learn to “cease from man whose breath is in his nostrils” and learn to obey God without question as a ready servant.

Gradually through systemic meditation, a new mind-set began to form in me. From Isaiah my faith fed on the theme of the nations spontaneously flowing to Jerusalem at the appearing of the Messiah. In the same book I encountered a vision of a Servant whose “law” went forth to distant “coastlands” and “isles.” His innocent life was offered as a guilt offering “for the sins of many.” From Isaiah, Joel, and Zechariah I learned about the “outpouring” of the Spirit of grace like a flood transforming water in the new age. In Ezekiel I discovered that this river of grace comes from a new temple. In the Gospel of John, I saw that many of these Messianic themes converge in Christ’s incarnation, completed work of suffering, and resurrection.

Prodded by Johannes Blauw’s insights in his The Missionary Nature of the Church, I came more and more to see the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20 as the keystone which brings together the whole structure of new covenant fulfillment under the supreme authority of the risen Lord. As Blauw says, Jesus’s claim to supreme authority is intended to alert us to His standing as the Son of Man in fulfillment of the great Messianic prediction of Daniel 7:13–14.

A look at Daniel 7:13–14 confronts us with a vision of absolute power being given over to one who is “like the son of man” by “the Ancient of Days” (God in His eternal being and sovereign authority). The text adds that this supreme master—“ a son of man”—will rule over every nation of the earth. Verse 14 says specifically that the proclamation of His authority is to include “all peoples, nations, and languages.” They shall serve Him. No part of the earth is excluded from His empire. The latter part of verse 14 further explains that this rule is permanent: “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall never pass away.”

The heart of this new supremacy is kindness. This absolute Lord joins authority over the whole earth with a kindly humanity. Beasts arise from the sea to terrorize the earth. These worldly rulers govern with a fierceness like that of the lion, the leopard, the bear, and an unnamed monster beast which devours with “great iron teeth.” They are inhumane cruel dominators of mankind. By contrast, this “son of man” is not “like” them in their cruel imperialism. He is “like” a human being, a kindred spirit ruling over men for their good. His authority is supreme and never ending, yet it is not maintained by any armed might or oppression.

Spelled out in the light of new covenant fulfillment, this absolute but human authority is seen to consist in the conquest of sinners by the gospel message of forgiveness preached under Christ’s kingly authority. In the Great Commission the Lord Jesus announces that just such a loving authority has been placed in His hands. There is no maybe to it. No perhaps. He has it, and He must be obeyed. To disobey Him is to go against the supreme power in the universe and to reject His master purpose for the local church. He says, “All authority in heaven and earth is given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations …”

The Ancient of Days has acted. All authority is given to the Son in His mediatorial office as the Messiah or Christ. The “therefore” of the following verse ties this authority to going with the gospel. The idea is: Christ has been enthroned over the universe by the victory of victories. Therefore take the gospel to all mankind. Go and conquer them for Christ.

When soldiers receive orders before going into battle, their responsibility is to listen to those orders, to understand them, and to obey them to the fullest detail. Their task is not to argue. They are silenced by the authority and wisdom of those over them. So it is with Christ. We are His soldiers. We are silenced by His commands. Anyone who resists His authority must give account to the King.

In a word, the ingrown church has no right to exist. Sentimental and secularized religion with all its self-centeredness has no right to exist. Our reason for being is summed up in the words “go and make disciples.” The church has been constituted as a missionary church by Jesus’s ascension to royal rule. He as a “life giving Spirit” has sent the Spirit into the church to accomplish this task through going with us “until the end of the age.” Our marching orders are as permanent as His authority and the promise of His presence.

In entering into conflict we often precipitate a wrong kind of battle by our fears. The young leader from the Sunday school confessed that he and the pastor agreed that the middle-aged couple were wrong and unchristian in their attitudes. “The truth is,” I added, “You are also afraid of them.”

I know all about it. Many times I’ve had the same fears. These inward tremors then immobilize you and people like them sense it. You are acting like you had no authority for teaching Christ’s vision of the harvest and no right as a believer to discipline people who oppose the outreach of the gospel. I think you and your pastor may be like me. I don’t like to suffer, so I let situations like this one drift. But you shouldn’t permit them to choose the ground for the conflict. I know they have opposed a particular program of outreach that you and other leaders favor. But you need to get down to your philosophy of ministry and their philosophy of the church as well. Have you and the pastor really taught them Christ’s vision for the harvest and His authority standing behind it? Have you challenged their view of the purpose and the nature of the church and presented Christ’s vision of its reason for being?”

What I urged upon him, and through him upon his pastor, was the necessity of systematic teaching in the congregation both from the pulpit and in the Sunday school about the missionary nature of the church. This teaching must be done with the authority of heaven and earth. I also counseled him to exercise the authority which he had as a member of the body of Christ in going to this alienated couple in the manner indicated in Matthew 18:15–17. Here Christ’s pattern is for going first in private when you have been sinned against, and then if your appeal for repentance is rejected, going with two or three more.

In going you are to seek to explain to them your deepest motivation for wanting outreach—which is nothing less than obedience to the Son of Man. You also want them to understand that this motivation is tied with Christ’s master purpose of the church which is to harvest the lost. Often what is said in a sermon lives in a special category until someone hears it explained close up on how it influences a life and personal conduct.

I think people like the Jones couple also deserve something more. They need systematic teaching done with Holy Spirit anointed authority. They need personal interaction, including loving and tender confrontation with their rejection of Christ’s authority over the church. But they also need to see the pacesetter act on the message. They need to see us silenced and awed first by the authority of Christ over all things.

[The pacesetter] needs to demonstrate in his life and ministry that the gospel message is supremely powerful because of its content dealing with man’s deepest problem—the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God through Christ. Let him expect that the Spirit of Christ is a missionary Spirit and will apply it savingly to human hearts. Christ is alive and I must act on it. I must live it, love it, obey it, and take the risks of such an adventure—which always includes suffering. Soldiers must not expect that battles are fought without pain and dying. Courage in witness must flow from such a commitment.

It was in late May of 1971 when I finished my series of lectures in that nearby liberal church. That Sunday evening I went home and bowed my knees to Christ’s authority in a new way after some painful heart searching. I prayed something like this: “Heavenly Father, I am not sure that in my heart of hearts I really believed what I said tonight about your message being able to change anyone. But now I confess my unbelief and repent of it. I commit myself now to believe your gospel can change anyone. I will act on that commitment with confidence that you will glorify yourself by changing people who appear to be beyond hope.”

In a short time after that commitment our lives were filled up with people that you might think only medical experts could change. In most instances that we know the “medical experts” had tried and failed. So some of these people actually began to live with us in our rather large home in Jenkintown, Pa. One of them was a strapping young woman who came from Building Ten of Norristown State Hospital, where one of the members of the nearby liberal church committed suicide. It had been decided by the medical authorities that the only way to control this young woman was to perform the equivalent of a modified lobotomy. But we took her in and can report after much agony on the part of many Christians, the gospel has proved to be a remarkable power in her life and ours. Today, more than a decade later, Christ has been glorified as supreme Lord in her life. She has never had the surgery. She has her problems, but she knows Christ as Savior. She holds a job, lives in her own apartment, and is a member of Mechanicsville Chapel. The woman psychiatrist who had her for a patient at Norristown State Hospital subsequently told me: “We really missed it with M_______. There is a power in faith that goes beyond anything we can do.”

C. John Miller, “Authority for the Conflict” (p. 14–25), Part 2 of “Building a Missionary Consciousness in the Local Church” (no date).

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