Angus Harley

Many decades ago, I heard an anecdotal story about Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great Welsh preacher called the ‘Doctor’ (yes, even before Dr. Who!). He was the assistant to the Queen’s physician or doctor. In other words, he was a protégé, and perhaps in line to take over from the Queen’s physician. He mixed with a lot of people of the highest status, and no doubt some were very powerful. He was asked one day if he was in awe of these aristocrats. He replied that when you are up close to them, they’re just ordinary people. There’s nothing special about them in regard to their humanity. This story was of great help to me as a young Christian. It helped orient me in the mindset that ‘big names’ and people of a higher status are, at the end of the day, mere humans. They are ‘ordinary’, not super-humans, and, in particular, they don’t know everything. 

The same lesson was re-taught to me years later in seminary. I went to see the principal to ask him about something. He was in the main office. The secretary was there, but so also was a professor. His name was E. David Cook. He was an Oxford don, and at that time he was Britain’s leading medical-ethicist. He was ‘the man’ of his day, in terms of medical ethics. He was also a bit of a theologian. When I walked into the office he was sitting on a chair, doing a crossword, picking his nose, speaking to someone over the phone, and holding a conversation with the principal- all at the same time! A light suddenly came on in my head, and I realized that this guy could not do everything, was spreading himself far too thin, and could not possibly do even what he was doing with any kind of quality. It was one of those moments: he was just a guy!  

Why am I saying these things? I write them because too many Christians out there are afraid of the ‘big names’, afraid to comment on them, disagree with them, even to raise a question about what they say or write. Unfortunately, this is sin! It is the fear of man, and is not healthy at all. It is one thing to have a ‘healthy’ fear and respect for those in authority, to submit to them, as well as for those who know far more than we do; but it is quite another to ‘fear’ them in the sense of thinking them super-human and ‘untouchable’. They are not ‘gods’!

Take the “noble” Berean Jews, for example. They were not afraid to put a question mark over the apostle Paul’s teaching, and to go off and do their own bible study. But- wait for it- they were not at that point Christians! Even then, it is only some of these “noble” Jews who did believe in the Gospel (Acts 17). The point being that, even the non-Christian Jews were ‘bold enough’ to actually question no less than the great apostle Paul! 

Of course, the key was that the Bereans went to God’s word. This is the only tool you need, my friend. And, unlike the Bereans, we Christians have the Holy Spirit as the blessing of the New Covenant. Do you believe in NCT teaching? Then listen to Jeremiah:

“No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.” (Jer.31:34)

With the Scripture and the Spirit you are fully equipped to study God’s word, and to come to conclusions. 

What about teachers and elders? Are they required? Yes, of course! Humility is a key fruit of the Spirit. We need teachers who are godly, of the Spirit, and mighty in the Scripture. The wonderful thing is that, if they are men of the Spirit, they ought not be offended if believers double-check against the Scripture to see if their views are correct. You do do this, right? 

Don’t be like a certain student I had. I was teaching in Nigeria; it was a course on ethics. I gave two points of view on a subject. A student stood up and announced that I had to tell the class which view to believe. I replied that I would do nothing of the sort, and that they ought to make their own minds up. He had to put on his ‘big boy pants’ and work out his own stance. 

Many Christians indulge in what I call intellectual plagiarism. They don’t think for themselves; others do the thinking for them. I don’t know how many Facebook posts I’ve read where someone responds to my post, or someone else’s, by an article written by someone else, or by a huge quote from someone else. In one sense this is innocent enough a method to utilize on FB. However, it is too often an excuse for a brother to avoid thinking his own thoughts, and putting them ‘down of paper’. I keep asking myself of these Christians if they really do understand the article that they present. Or are they just intellectual plagiarists? We will answer to God. Reisinger won’t answer for us, nor Moo, nor Schreiner, nor Carson! The ‘big names’ are not gods! Their writings are not Scripture! You do believe this, right? They might be the ‘royalty’ of theology, but they are mere human beings, and their theology is peppered with errors and mistakes. That’s a fact! 

It doesn’t matter whether you’re an aide, trashman, forklift driver, carpenter, analyst, secretary, laborer, fisherman, unemployed, lecturer, mother at home, prisoner, writer, stockbroker, lawyer, or doctor, you’re occupation and status is neither here nor there. Christ’s kingdom does not recognize Jew or Gentile, slave or free, etc.. So, why are you worried about your job and status in society? Do you think that you need to be a seminary student to study the bible and to comment on theology? 

I want to tell you a story. It is about a guy called ‘Jesus’. You might have heard of him. He had zero formal training, was a carpenter making ends meet, yet was mighty in the Scripture, for he submerged himself in them and was endued with the Spirit. He had around him disciples- fishermen, to be precise! Again, not a millimeter of formal study in Scripture between them, yet because they walked with Jesus and learned from him, and received the gift of the Spirit, they were set apart by Jesus to be the apostles of the assembly, its top ‘theologians’! Do you believe this? It’s fear that stops us from thinking we can think for ourselves according to the mind of God in Scripture. Its fear that stops us from disagreeing with, or questioning, a ‘big name’. It is fear that cripples us, for we think we’re not educated enough, or don’t have the proper background, or are not spiritual enough. But it was the love of God that set the twelve apostles free to be disciples of Jesus and to be servants of the assembly. That’s the only qualification you need, brother. Do you love God? Do you love his people, treasure his word, and believe the Spirit dwells in you? Then, you ARE equipped to learn, to teach (even if only on the most basic level), and to serve others. What are you waiting for, then? By all means use teachers, but also speak for yourself. Stand up and be counted!