The Obedience of Churches to their Pastors Explained and Enforced
”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.”—Heb. 13:17.
It is not usual, I believe, for ministers in their ordinary labours to dwell upon the obligations of the people of their charge towards them. They feel, probably, that on such a subject they might be suspected of partiality to themselves; and if such a suspicion were indulged, however just and proper their admonitions might be, they would be but of little use, and might operate to their disadvantage. Nor is it a subject that a humble and holy man would ordinarily choose, even though there were no danger of misconstruction; he had rather inspire in his people the love of Christ and of one another, hoping that if this prevailed, it would constrain them to whatever was proper towards himself. It does not follow, however, that this species of Christian duty ought never to be insisted on; the glory of God, the success of the church, and the spiritual advantage of individuals will be found to be involved in it. No man could more strenuously renounce an undue assumption of power than the apostle Paul; in many instances, he forbore to insist upon the authority that Christ had given him; yet, when addressing the churches in the behalf of others, he uniformly insists upon the treatment which private members owe to their pastors, as well as upon other relative duties. To this I may add, if there be any one time in which an exhortation on this subject is peculiarly seasonable, it is when the relation between pastor and people is publicly solemnized. I shall therefore proceed to explain and enforce the exhortation which I have read to you.
I. Let us endeavour to ascertain wherein consists that obedience and submission which is required of a people towards their pastor. The very terms rule, obey, and submit may be grating in the ears of some; and true it is that there have been great abuses of these things; a great deal of priestly domination has been exercised in the name of Christ. Yet there must be rule in the church of Christ as well as in other societies. Without this, it would not be a body, growing up unto him in all things which is the Head, even Christ; but a number of scattered bones. Or, if all aspired to rule and guidance, the question of the apostle would here be applicable—“If the whole were an eye, where were the hearing? But now hath God set the members, every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.” Christian ministers are called overseers, as having the oversight of the flock, and the principal direction of its concerns.
The church of Christ, however, is not subject to a despotic government. Ministers are forbidden to “lord it over God’s heritage.” The power that was given them, and all other officers, ordinary or extraordinary, was for edification, and not for destruction. There are three things which are necessary in order that the authority of a pastor be legitimate and unobjectionable; namely, that he be freely chosen by the church; that the standard by which he rules be not his own will, but the will of Christ; and that the things which he urges on others be equally binding on himself.
First, It is necessary that your pastor be freely chosen by you to his sacred office. If he had been imposed upon you by any human authority, against or without your own consent, I should not be able to prove, from the Scriptures, that you were bound to obey or submit to him. Should it be alleged that pastors are represented as the “gifts of God,” and such as the “Holy Spirit hath made overseers;” I should answer, True; but the Holy Spirit performs this work, not immediately, but mediately, by inclining the hearts of his people to choose them. No one, indeed, pretends that it is done immediately. Human choice is, in all cases, concerned; and the only question is, whether it be by that of the people, or of some one, or more, that shall choose on their behalf. The primitive churches elected their own officers. The apostles ordained them; but it was by the suffrage of the people. The power of election was with them; and with them it continued during the purest ages of the church. If the primitive pastors had been chosen by the apostles, it had also been their province to have rejected or silenced them, as occasion should require; but when false teachers arose among the Corinthians and the Galatians, we do not find these churches, not even the purest part of them, applying to the apostle, but the apostle to them, for their removal. The false teachers of the primitive times ingratiated themselves with the people, and despised the apostles; an incontestable proof this, to every one acquainted with human nature, where the powers of election and rejection lay. If your pastor, I say again, had been imposed upon you by any human authority, against or without your own consent, I should not be able to prove, from the Scriptures, that you were bound to obey, or submit to him. But it is not so. You have heard him and known him; and from an observation of his spirit and conduct, and an experience of the advantages of his ministry, you have chosen him to watch over you in the Lord.
Secondly, The rule to which you are required to yield obedience and subjection is not his will, but the will of Christ. Pastors are that to a church which the executive powers, or magistrates, of a free country are to the state—the organs of the law. Submission to them is submission to the law. If your pastor teach any other doctrine, or inculcate any other duties, than what Christ has left on record, obey him not; but while urging these, it is at your peril to resist him; for, resisting him, you resist him that sent him. It is in this view, as teaching Divine truth and enforcing Divine commands, that the servants of God, in all ages, have been invested with Divine authority. Of the sons of Levi, it was said, they shall teach Jacob “thy judgments,” and Israel “thy law;” and, upon this ground, it was added, “Bless, Lord, his substance, and accept the work of his hands; smite through the loins of them that rise against him, and of them that hate him, that they rise not again.” Here lay the sin of Korah and his company, of Elymas the sorcerer, and of Alexander the coppersmith: they each, by resisting the servants of God in the proper execution of their work, resisted God, and brought upon themselves the sorest of judgments.
Thirdly, The things which he urges upon you are equally binding upon himself. When he exhibits to you the only name given under heaven, among men, by which you can be saved, and charges you, on pain of eternal damnation, not to neglect it, remember his own soul also is at stake. And, when he exhorts and warns you, if he himself should privately pursue a contrary course, he seals his own destruction.
There are, it is true, those who lade men with heavy burdens, grievous to be borne, to which they themselves will not put one of their fingers; these, however, are not the commands of Christ. Instead of being the commands of Christ, which are not grievous, except to unholy men, these are merely human traditions; but though they were allowed to be otherwise, the inconsistent conduct of ministers would not exempt either them or you from obligation. Should we enforce the will of Christ upon you, while living in the neglect of it ourselves, woe be unto us! Yet this will fall upon our own heads. If we be wicked, depose us from our office; but while we are in it, let not the word of the Lord be disregarded on our account.
Excerpt from: “The Obedience of Churchs to their Pastors Explained and Enforced,” a sermon delivered to the Baptist Church at Cannon Street, Birmingham, at the ordination of Rev. Thomas Morgan to the Pastoral Office. June 23, 1802.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 196–198). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.