We live at a time when there is constant emphasis on equality – particularly by the ideologues, such as the gender brigade: there must be just as many women in the boards of businesses as there are men, just as many women in government, in positions of power, etc. Likewise, the LGBT proponents want equal rights for homosexuals and equal recognition through so-called ‘gay-marriage’.
This emphasis on equality is not new. The French Revolution’s catch-cry of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ reflected it as an ideal more than 200 years ago. Later, communism was built on the same ideology; no one is to have more material prosperity than another. But as George Orwell showed in his book Animal Farm, which satirises communism, inevitably some end up being “more equal than others”. Christians trace the problem back to Paradise when Adam and Eve—tempted by Satan, the father of lies—sought to be ‘like God’. Only through the Truth, God’s Word, do we get the right perspective on equality.
Lamentably the culture of the world often impacts on the way people in the church view things. The result is that we no longer show respect to differences the Lord has placed in society and church, no longer respect those whom the Lord has placed in authority over us. In this regard, we should head the proclamation of God’s Word as Rev. M Retief explained it in a sermon on 1 Thess. 5: 12, 13: “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.”
Rev. Retief said we must respect the office bearers because Christ appointed them to administer His Word to us. That means, of course, that they may not bring their own word, or their own ideas; they must administer nothing but Christ’s Word. After all, they speak on behalf of Christ. Hence, to acknowledge these office bearers is to acknowledge Christ. It is the will of God to govern and to feed and to guide us by their ministry. And the above Bible text exhorts us to recognise these office bearers who administer Christ’s Word to us. Here is part of what Rev Retief said (subheadings mine JN):
“When these offices, and these office bearers, are no longer recognised as such, the church comes to ruin. We see this also in church history. It was especially the neglect of these offices which caused the great deformation that led to the Dark Middle Ages. The office of elder did not function anymore, and ministers of the Word were no longer ministers of the Word. Instead, a manmade hierarchy replaced the office bearers which were instituted by Christ. Priests, bishops, arch bishops, and a pope came in its place. Christ was no longer regarded as the only Head of the church, who governs us by His Word, through the offices which He instituted.
Scriptural offices under attack
Also in our own time these offices, as instituted by Christ, are, in many churches, no longer regarded as special offices appointed by Christ. Everything that Scripture teaches us about the offices in the church is today under attack. We live in a time of egalitarianism. It is said that all men are equal. Also in the church. Any distinction is viewed as discrimination. We are all equal, they say. And we are all special, why should there be special offices only for some, they ask.
Equality—one of the slogans of the French revolution—is an equality that denies the authorities God has placed over us. When God Himself is not acknowledged, when the very existence of God is denied, man no longer acknowledges any authority above himself. Each man is a god to himself and equal to all.
That revolution continues today. It is not limited to a struggle between rich and poor, or between elite and labour class; it spreads to every sphere of society and affects every relationship in society. It has an aggressive agenda to remove all distinctions in society. No distinctions may be made between male and female, between bisexual or homosexual; no distinction between races, no distinction between religions – all and everyone must be equal and be equalised.
This mind-frame of the world and age in which we are living, has also entered many churches. You will be aware that our sister churches in the Netherlands have now decided to allow women to be ordained as deacons, elders and ministers. It is the spirit of the time. All must be equal. No discrimination.
In order to allow this, they not only twisted and reinterpreted Scripture with a new hermeneutics – until Scripture had to say the very opposite of what is clearly written – but they also questioned the very existence of special offices. With reference to Lord’s Day 12, where we confess that Christians are all anointed as kings, priests and prophets, they suggest that it might be an error to have the offices of minister, elder and deacon in distinction from the office of all believers. We all have the Spirit. All of us – male and female, old and young – we are all anointed as kings: that is the ruling office!
And we are all anointed as priests, serving as deacons. And we are all anointed by the Spirit as prophets – that is the office of minister of the Word, isn’t it? So why do we still have special offices above the office of all believers. The deputies report that served the synod of our sister churches in the Netherlands suggests that the special offices as we know it, the office of elder, minister and deacon, is only a cultural choice, and not instituted on Christ’s command.
May we still make any distinction between the so-called “office of all believers” – as we confess it in Lord’s Day 12 – and the so-called “special offices” of minister, elder and deacon? Should we not rather all be equal in the church without distinction?
Yes, the very idea of office is being redefined, so that all offices in the church are void of any authority, and becomes merely a task – a task that can be done by all who have the spiritual gifts and ability. And then they make this sound very pious. They say: Christ is the only Head in the church, therefore He is the only one who holds a position of authority in the church. The rest of us are all brothers and sisters; all equal!
And so, the whole mind-frame of egalitarianism is at work, to equalise all church members, even stating that the office of elder is not a ruling office with authority. We are all equal. No one has authority over another in the church, they reckon.
But God’s Word speaks differently. God’s Word speaks against the culture of our day. And hence you also see the relevance of our text. For here in our text we are exhorted to recognise those whom the Lord has placed over us, also in the church, and to esteem them very highly.
Korah, Dathan and Abiram
Now, while this is indeed a word also for us, in our day, it is at the same time no new matter in the church. Think of Numbers 16 – the history of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. They were Levites, but they were not the sons of Aaron. Korah, Dathan and Abiram were, therefore, not allowed to serve as priests. God did not call and appoint them to the office of priest. The office of priest was reserved only for the sons of Aaron.
But, Korah, Dathan and Abiram were egalitarian. They said: We, the whole assembly, we are all holy; who are you, Aaron and Moses, to elevate yourself above us? They did not acknowledge the special calling and office as God appointed it. In the language of our text, they did not recognise those who laboured among them, who were over them in the Lord; and they did not esteem them very highly.
Each of us need to know his own place, and has to serve according to his own calling. Today the same spirit of Korah, Dathan and Abiram has entered many churches. They don’t want to hear about the special offices of minister, elder and deacon anymore, or fail to make a clear distinction between the task and calling of those in office, and those who are not.
Almost the exact words of Korah, Dathan and Abiram are repeated in our day. They said to Moses and Aaron:
“You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” – Num. 16: 3.
Does that not sound familiar? We are all kings, priests and prophets. We are all anointed with the Spirit, every one of us, the whole congregation, why then should some be placed over others?
And it almost sounds Scriptural. Is it not true that the whole congregation of Israel was holy – each one of them? Did God not expressly say to them: “…you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”? – Ex. 19: 6. Yes, the whole congregation of Israel was a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, separated for the Lord’s service. Did God not tell them that they are a nation of kings, priests and prophets?
Yes, He did. And yet, God still called only some to the special offices which He appointed. When Korah, Dathan and Abiram dared to take on themselves the task of the priests, the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up. They went down alive into the pit; and the earth closed its mouth above them (Num. 16: 33). And then, also the 250 men, elders of Israel, who followed Korah, Dathan and Abiram, were consumed with fire from heaven (Num. 16: 35).
And then, when the whole gathering of Israel complained about this, objected to the terrible fate of these men, the wrath of the Lord devoured another 14 700 of them (Num. 16: 49)! The Lord made a memorable example of them. He wiped out every man who dared to touch the offices as He instituted them. He destroyed all who did not esteem those whom He appointed over them.
Office bearers as New Testament gifts
Such examples do not belong to the Old Testament only. Also in the New Testament, Christ gave only some to be pastors and teachers (Eph. 4: 11). He called only some men to be deacons, and only some to be elders, and some to be ministers of His Word. We cannot expect that God’s reaction will now be different than in the days of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, or that their error will now have better results for the kingdom.
When the offices, as Christ instituted them, are no longer recognised, Christ Himself is pushed aside and despised. Such an error also results in an unruly and disorderly congregation – as in the days of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. That is why the apostle adds to this exhortation, the command: be at peace among yourselves.”
Therefore it is imperative that we are governed not by worldly notions of equality where God has not ordained equality but by respect for our office bearers – those appointed over us and who speak the Word of the Lord—recognising their God-given authority, and honouring them, and in this way promoting peace among ourselves. For Christ Himself is shepherding us by their hand.