In the previous installment of this series, we discovered that the rejection of Christ’s authority was the central issue that sparked the entire Great Controversy. It was the root cause of Lucifer’s rebellion with one-third of the angels and it has bled into our world’s history. Our individual destinies will be determined by our attitude and relationship toward authority, and the gospel is the antidote to bring us back into right relation with God, our ultimate authority.
In this follow-up article, we will investigate what submission to Christ’s authority looks like practically in our Christian walk today.
When discussing the angels’ submission to Christ in heaven, there was little question regarding the practicality of how that worked since they were in physical proximity to Christ. However, Jesus does not walk the earth today and we do not reside in heaven, so how do we actually submit to Christ as our Lord?
Simply, by accepting His Word as our highest authority and doing what it says.
And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? (Luke 6:46 KJV)
The Bible is God’s most direct means of communicating His will to us, thus obedience to His Word is obedience to Him. The rallying cry of the Protestant Reformers, Sola Scriptura, placed the Bible in its rightful place as the final authority in the Christian’s life. The Bible’s self-declaration about its authority is unambiguous:
Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. (John 17:17 KJV)
To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it isbecause there isno light in them. (Isaiah 8:20 KJV)
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: (2 Timothy 3:16 KJV)
If there is any doubt as to the Holy Scriptures’ place as the highest source of authority for the Christian, this statement makes it crystal clear:
But God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standardof all doctrines and the basis of all reforms.The opinions of learned men, the deductions of science, the creeds or decisions of ecclesiastical councils, as numerous and discordant as are the churches which they represent, the voice of the majority—not one nor all of these should be regarded as evidence for or against any point of religious faith. Before accepting any doctrine or precept,we should demand a plain “Thus saith the Lord” in its support. (GC 595.1, Emphasis supplied)
God Has Representatives with Delegated Authority
Because restoring our relationship with God as our authority is so vital in the redemption plan, God has identified through His Word representatives on the earth that model how submission to His authority should work. Similar to an ambassador who represents a monarch or state, these representatives have no innate authority in and of themselves, but they have delegated authority because God has invested them with it. So how we relate to these delegated representatives reflect how we relate to God.
We will look at three of these delegated sources of authority.
God Himself, who has placed upon them a responsibility for the souls committed to their charge, has ordained that during the earlier years of life, parents shall stand in the place of God to their children. And he who rejects the rightful authority of his parents is rejecting the authority of God.(PP 308.2, emphasis supplied)
Contempt for parental authority will soon lead to contempt for the authority of God.Hence Satan’s efforts to lessen the obligation of the fifth commandment. (PP 337.1, emphasis supplied)
God gave us earthly parents to model how we ought to relate to Him as our Heavenly Father. This relationship, particularly that of a young child with his parents, is a helpful illustration of our relationship with God. Just as little children lack the ability to comprehend the bigger picture, yet must submit in obedience to their parents, so we too as fallen, finite humanity ought to recognize our inability to always grasp the reasons for God’s will for us—and to surrender to Him nonetheless.
However, in our fallen world, parental authority has often been abused where a very inaccurate picture of God has been foisted upon many. The Bible gives no allowance for the abuse of parental authority as stated by Paul in Ephesians.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.(Ephesians 6:1-3 KJV, emphasis supplied)
Since parental authority is only delegated from God, it is still subservient to God’s authority as revealed in His Word. So honoring our parents “in the Lord” means that we are to defer to their authority only insofar as it does not conflict with God’s Word, for we ought to obey God rather than man. Parents have an obligation to not misrepresent God to their children.
The next type of earthly institution to which God has delegated authority as His representative is civil authority.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.For he is God’s ministerto you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister,an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. (Romans 13:1-6 NKJV, emphasis supplied)
Earthly governments are delegated authority by God as His representatives to help model God’s authority as our heavenly Head of State. When we live in heaven, we will become citizens in God’s government and how we respond to government here reveals how we’ll respond to His government there. After all, Satan’s revolution in heaven focused its attacks on God’s government.
Perhaps for those of us who live in societies with free and representative forms of government, it bears mentioning that this passage doesn’t say to be subject only to “good” governments. The government spoken of by Paul in this passage was none other than the pagan Roman Empire—a dreaded, oppressive, and cruel government that was an antithesis to Christianity. Yet, it was called “God’s minister” that believers ought to submit to “for conscience’s sake”. So likewise today, it’s easy to grow jaded and cynical when we see the corruption and injustice within our earthly governments, but that does not negate our duty to remain good citizens.
An earthly civil power does not need the prerequisite of being righteous before being deemed worthy of our submission. Furthermore, agreement in all particulars is no prerequisite for the Christian to submit either. Whether we voted for a particular president, whether we agree with a piece of legislation, and whether we understand all the particulars of a bill does not affect our obligation to remain in submission to the civil authorities. But of course, there are limits to the authority of the state in God’s eyes.
We are to recognize human government as an ordinance of divine appointment, and teach obedience to it as a sacred duty, within its legitimate sphere. But when its claims conflict with the claims of God, we must obey God rather than men.God’s word must be recognized as above all human legislation. A “Thus saith the Lord” is not to be set aside for a “Thus saith the church” or a “Thus saith the state.” The crown of Christ is to be lifted above the diadems of earthly potentates. (AA 68.2)
Insomuch as obeying the laws of the land is in harmony with the Word of God, we are to remain in subjection to the civil powers. But if human laws conflict with God’s laws, we ought to obey God rather than man. Of course, we understand from Bible prophecy that the final crisis at the end of time will be precipitated by human governments usurping God’s authority by passing legislation that compel men to violate God’s law. But until that day, let us not borrow trouble before it comes.
In the spiritual realm, God has given us the church as His representative with delegated authority.
God has invested His church with special authority and powerwhich no one can be justified in disregarding and despising, for he who does this despises the voice of God. (AA 163.2, emphasis supplied)
God has bestowed the highest power under heaven upon His church. It is the voice of God in His united people in church capacity which is to be respected. (3T 450.3, emphasis supplied)
Not only does the church have special authority and power in representing the voice of God, it is actually the highest and final court of appeals to settle spiritual and moral matters on earth. In the familiar passage regarding the resolution of moral matters between brethren in Matthew 18, we frequently emphasize the first step in the reconciliation process of going to an erring person one-to-one. But following the second step of bringing one or two others, the final step in the process is to take the matter before the church.
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:17-18 KJV, emphasis supplied)
Should the church discipline or disfellowship a member for moral concerns, there is no higher level on earth to which to appeal. Even the civil courts of the state have no jurisdiction over such matters. We see that, in a real sense, God has invested in the church greater authority than any other representative. But within the church, there is a specific body in which God had expressly invested the highest authority.
I have often been instructed by the Lord that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any other one man. Never should the mind of one man or the minds of a few men be regarded as sufficient in wisdom and power to control the work and to say what plans shall be followed. But when, in a General Conference, the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body. (9T 260.1, emphasis supplied)
At times, when a small group of men entrusted with the general management of the work have, in the name of the General Conference, sought to carry out unwise plans and to restrict God’s work, I have said that I could no longer regard the voice of the General Conference, represented by these few men, as the voice of God. But this is not saying that the decisions of a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field should not be respected. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority.(9T 260.2, emphasis supplied)
To the General Conference in session (the GC), where delegates representing the entire world field of God’s Remnant Church are gathered together to make decisions, has been invested the highest authority by God.
A Biblical Template: The Jerusalem Council
This concept didn’t originate with Adventism, of course, as it is modeled after the template of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. When conflict over the issue of circumcision threatened to rend asunder the fledgling Christian movement, the matter was settled by a conference of representatives of the then world church. Their decision had universal authority and became binding policy upon local churches in all regions of the world field.
The entire body of Christians was not called to vote upon the question. The “apostles and elders,” men of influence and judgment, framed and issued the decree, which was thereupon generally accepted by the Christian churches. Not all, however, were pleased with the decision; there was a faction of ambitious and self-confident brethren who disagreed with it. These men assumed to engage in the work on their own responsibility. They indulged in much murmuring and faultfinding, proposing new plans and seeking to pull down the work of the men whom God had ordained to teach the gospel message. From the first the church has had such obstacles to meet and ever will have till the close of time.(AA 196.2)
A Gentle Reminder
The last sentence in this quote serves as a gentle reminder that the challenge of people disagreeing with decisions made by the church, has been and ever will be an obstacle to expect until the close of time. In fact, the previous statements regarding church authority was penned by Ellen White within the apparent context of this spirit of dissent.
There have ever been in the church those who are constantly inclined toward individual independence. They seem unable to realize that independence of spirit is liable to lead the human agent to have too much confidence in himself and to trust in his own judgment rather than to respect the counsel and highly esteem the judgment of his brethren, especially of those in the offices that God has appointed for the leadership of His people. God has invested His church with special authority and power which no one can be justified in disregarding and despising, for he who does this despises the voice of God. (AA 163.2, emphasis supplied)
The spirit of pulling away from fellow laborers, the spirit of disorganization, is in the very air we breathe. By some, all efforts to establish order are regarded as dangerous—as a restriction of personal liberty, and hence to be feared as popery. These deceived souls regard it a virtue to boast of their freedom to think and act independently. They declare that they will not take any man’s say-so, that they are amenable to no man. I have been instructed that it is Satan’s special effort to lead men to feel that God is pleased to have them choose their own course independent of the counsel of their brethren. (9T 257.2, emphasis supplied)
But when, in a General Conference, the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body. (9T 260.1, emphasis supplied)
It seems, seeing she addresses how some see it a virtue to maintain their position contrary to the decisions of the body, she understood that some even felt compelled to maintain their position out of conscience. Yet despite clearly acknowledging this challenge, in no uncertain terms, Ellen White pointedly appeals for private and independent judgments to be surrendered when the GC makes decisions that don’t square with our personal views.
What’s the principle underlying this counsel?
God Leads “Us” More Reliably than He Leads Just “Me”
Why would God ask godly individuals in the church to surrender matters to which they hold so dearly when a vote of the church differs with them, when the scriptures and sacred history both show how highly God values individual freedom and conscience?
It’s because God leads “us” more reliably than He leads just “me.”
God saves us each individually, but He chooses to accomplish the work of salvation through the agency of the church—that means us, collectively. There is safety in numbers and that is why there is wisdom in weighing the collective voice of the church carefully above our own personal judgment.
Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety. (Proverbs 11:14 KJV)
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:20 KJV)
If we claim this promise when only two or three of us show up for prayer meeting, should we not then have even greater confidence that Jesus is present to lead and guide when two or three thousand delegates are gathered prayerfully to make decisions for God’s church? No matter how godly, well-studied, prayerful, or otherwise holy a person is, it is impossible for any single individual or small group of individuals to be entirely free of biases, presuppositions, or blind spots that taint their perspective. When we gather together collectively as a world church, we become stronger through our mutual cooperation because Satan has less leverage over all of us together than each of us individually; and we can mitigate each other’s weaknesses by acting in concert while guided by the Holy Spirit.
Once the body makes a decision, it is crucial then that all members respect that decision by accepting it and moving forward together—that’s how we submit to the church’s authority and that’s how we remain as one unified body. Especially if we are in a position of leadership or influence and we find ourselves unable to conscientiously uphold the voted decisions of the body, we can still show our respect for the authority of the church by stepping aside to let someone else assume that role. The Lord never forces any individual’s conscience in the church, yet as an organization where members voluntarily choose to join, individual consciences cannot supersede the collective conscience of everyone else as revealed in jointly voted decisions by the church. The church is a body, and “in order that the Lord’s work may advance healthfully and solidly, His people must draw together.” (9T 258.1)
In this matter, we need a healthy measure of humility and self-distrust to recognize that God is ceaselessly at work within His church, even when it may not look like it. Perhaps at a later time, the Lord will see it fit to make clear to me why things transpired in the way they did—and in that day, I’m sure I will acknowledge that the Lord’s way was still the best way.
What if the Church is Wrong?
But can’t the GC make mistakes?
As a body comprised of fallen human beings, of course it’s possible that mistakes be made. The Lord has granted the church spiritual authority, not infallibility! Nevertheless, submission of members to the decisions of the body has never been conditional upon the perfection of the body. Just like with any other earthly representatives to whom we have been instructed to yield our submission, none will ever be perfect. And if we truly believe that this church is the Remnant Church of Bible prophecy, the final movement before Jesus comes from which there will not be another “coming out from this people of a purer, holier people” (LDE 51.1), then we must trust that God is still in control—that He is able to work in spite of the weakness of His people.
This is why faith is needed. Faith that God is leading us collectively even if I don’t fully understand it, and faith that He will not leave His church to flounder. This is why humility is needed. Humility to accept that no matter how passionately convicted I am about a matter that may be contrary to decisions made by the world church, perhaps there’s something I don’t yet understand; and until then, I’m going to choose to submit because I respect God’s Word and His chosen representatives. This is why patience is needed. Patience that God, in His time, will make plain why I was wrong, or patience that God will lead His church back if it had made a mistake. Perhaps beyond merely the rightness or wrongness of a decision, God cares even more for a righteous spirit and character in His people.
There is no need to doubt, to be fearful that the work will not succeed. God is at the head of the work, and He will set everything in order. If matters need adjusting at the head of the work God will attend to that, and work to right every wrong. Let us have faith that God is going to carry the noble ship which bears the people of God safely into port. (LDE 52.1, emphasis supplied)
Satan’s Problem with God’s Representative
While we are on the subject of the authority of God’s representatives, an interesting nuance in Lucifer’s rebellion is that at one point he claimed willingness to submit to the Father’s authority but just not the authority of Christ, whom he viewed as possessing mere delegated authority from the Father.
He [Satan] declares he cannot submit to be under Christ’s command, that God’s commands alone will he obey. Good angels weep to hear the words of Satan, and to see how he despises to follow the direction of Christ, their exalted and loving Commander. (7BC 973.6, emphasis supplied)
So just like the rebellion in heaven, no harmony can be restored until all willingly subject themselves under, not only the authority of God Himself, but also the representative authorities on earth that He has delegated. Disregarding them is as disregarding the voice of God Himself.
Living in a sinful world, we must recognize that no earthly representative of God’s authority will ever represent Him perfectly. Thus, Satan’s masterplan is to compromise and tarnish these representatives to upend our trust in them, thus making it far more difficult for us to submit to God’s divine authority. And he has done a spectacular job.
The family unit has eroded to the point where dysfunctional homes are now the norm, and entire generations are brought up with a distorted image of our Heavenly Father. Abuse of power, injustice, and corruption in governments cause men to be disillusioned with any civil authorities. Hypocrisy, politics, and pride in the church lead many to become disenchanted and disheartened at all levels of the church. Satan has masterfully woven his trap around us where it has become easy to distrust and disregard the authorities in our lives.
But two wrongs don’t make a right.
While it is true that we may have suffered under the influence of unjust or even abusive authorities in our lives, that doesn’t excuse us from casting off God’s rightful authority over us. Certainly, we must do what we can to protect the vulnerable and to rectify the misuse of human authority, but with the cognition that it is Satan’s intent to undermine our submission to these earthly authorities in order to calcify us against God’s divine authority. He wants us to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so he can plant the same seed of rebellion within us that he possessed—to infect us with his incurable disease. But praise God, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Heart of Our Message
As stated at the outset, this issue of authority forms the core of the Great Controversy and our relation to it will determine our eternal destiny. Is it any wonder then, that at the very heart of the final warning message granted to the Remnant to take to the world is the call to restore God to His rightful place of authority in our lives?
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospelto preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship himthat made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters. (Revelation 14:6-7 KJV, emphasis supplied)
We discussed in the previous part of this series that the gospel is the antidote for rebellion, that accepting Christ as both Savior and Lord of our lives places us in an appropriate state of surrender to Him. Here, the everlasting gospel as proclaimed by the first angel clearly echoes the same sentiments with a command to “Fear God”, to place Him in the position of highest authority in our lives again. It is followed by the declaration that “the hour of his judgment is come” meaning that as the highest authority in our lives, we are accountable to Him. And finally, we ought to “worship him” because He is the Creator; and as Creator, He is the ultimate authority and the only Being worthy of our worship.
The Three Angels’ Message, the everlasting gospel, is the final message that prepares the world for Jesus to come, and an integral portion of that message is restoring God’s rightful place as the highest authority in our lives.
Fulfilling Our Mission
If our message drives our mission, then our mission is inextricably bound up with restoring God’s authority in people’s lives. But how can we do that if we are not properly modeling the right type of authority to those under our influence? How can we fulfill this mission if we are not submissive to the rightful authorities God has placed in our own lives? A profession of love and dedication to our mission must be substantiated by a life lived in harmony with the message that drives that mission.
If we are serious about proclaiming a message that leads others to place God in His rightful place of authority in their lives, then through our words and actions, we must reveal the right image of who God is; to demonstrate to the world that God is not a tyrant to be feared as Satan accused, but rather a just and merciful Heavenly Father in whom we delight to surrender. We ought to manifest accurately the character of God to counteract the misrepresentation that is so prevalent in our world today.
Moreover, if we are serious about fulfilling our mission, then we also must dispel the myth that submission to authority is weakness and a capitulation of our individuality and free will. We do this through our own submission to God’s Word, by making it our rule of faith and practice. Furthermore, we must demonstrate in our own lives a proper relation to God’s delegated authorities on the earth—to model the faith and humility needed to choose to submit even when it’s not easy.
Every Tongue Will Confess
The Great Controversy began when Lucifer chose to reject Christ’s authority, and the Great Controversy will end with Satan acknowledging Christ’s authority once more. Although it will be a constrained acknowledgement from an unrepentant heart, even the archrebel will be convinced of the folly of disputing God’s authority. I pray you and I may learn that lesson before it’s too late.
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11 KJV, emphasis supplied)
 See Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 19, “Jew and Gentile”
 See AA 9.1
 See 1 Corinthians 12:12-27
 Ellen White held to this optimistic view of the church until the end of her life as reflected by these comments by WC White to Lida Scott just prior to his mother’s death: “I told her [Lida Scott] how Mother regarded the experience of the remnant church, and of her positive teaching that God would not permit this denomination to so fully apostatize that there would be the coming out of another church.” (LDE 56.4)
 See GC 670