Commenting on 1 Peter 5:3, where the apostle Peter charges the elders to exercise their ministry by “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock,” Ed Clowney writes,

The elder has authority; he is called to exercise a shepherd’s oversight. Christ the Chief Shepherd (5:4) has called him to exercise a shepherd’s care. But the undershepherd is not a stand-in for the Lord. He presents the word of the Lord, not his own decree; he enforces the revealed will of the Lord, not his own wishes. For that reason, any undermining of the authority of Scripture turns church government into spiritual tyranny. If church governors add to or subtract from the word of God, they make themselves lords over the consciences of others. (The Message of First Peter, 202)

Clowney’s words are not only applicable to the Reformers’ grievances against the Roman Catholic Church (a point he makes in the footnote to that paragraph in his commentary) but also to some current expressions of church government.

Today the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a resolution to allow for the ordination of those “in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”  What is this but the exaltation of one’s own decree above the word of the Lord, the elevation of one’s own wishes before the revealed will of the Lord?

Sadly, the tyranny of the church over the consciences of others is not limited to those traditions that seem to be most cavalier in their treatment of Holy Scripture.  Even traditional and conservative denominations are apt to find ways to speak beyond what the Bible speaks and thereby become “lords over the consciences of others.”

  • The Southern Baptist Convention is reviewing motions made at this summer’s assembly to sever all ties with Mark Driscoll and the Acts 29 church planting network he began. The reasons? According to an article in Christianity Today, its Driscoll’s “history of using risqué language, and the fact that he drinks alcohol and talks about sex.” A separate motion would ban “any speaker who cusses or drinks.”
  • Among conservative Presbyterians, the general assemblies of both the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church have taken up the issue of women in military combat with the PCA receiving the study committee report as advice and the OPC adopting the resolution against women in combat.

From the Left, the church tyrannizes the sheep by neglecting the revealed word for their own misguided sense of social justice.  From the Right, the church tyrannizes the sheep by going beyond what Scripture says to uphold their own social conventions.  One side subtracts from the word and the other adds to it, but both are guilty of exercising authority beyond that with which they have been entrusted.