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Wednesday, January 22, 2014 | Comments (6)

by John MacArthur

The headship of Christ over His church is surely one of the most assaulted and least understood doctrines in church history, including today. The doctrine itself has sailed down to us on a sea of blood, with the issue becoming a major point of conflict between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics insist the pope is the head of the church, and the Roman Church anathematizes those who deny that claim.  Many Reformers, particularly the Scottish Covenanters, lost their lives defending the belief that only Christ is head of the church.

Yet today, even the Protestant landscape is dotted with pastors who act as though they are the heads of their churches. Their mutiny against the true head of the church is seen most clearly in their deliberate de-emphasis of His Word among their congregations. By sidelining the Scriptures, they are, in essence, silencing the voice of God in the church. After all, to take the Bible out of the church is to revolt against the church’s one rightful head. Conversely, to bring the Word of Christ to His people is to facilitate and exalt the headship of Christ over His church.

John Huss was one of the earliest Reformers who lost his life over this issue. On July 6, 1415, he was taken from his cell and dressed in priestly garments, of which he was then stripped one by one. He was tied to a stake and asked one last time to recant. When he refused, he was burned alive. His dying prayer was this: “Lord Jesus, it is for thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray thee to have mercy on my enemies.” [1]Cited in Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, eds., 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 369–71. He literally died for the headship of Jesus Christ over the church.

Why did the Roman Catholic Church object to Huss’s teachings? There were basically three issues that Rome opposed. First, Huss taught that the church is made up of all predestined believers. That was in direct opposition to the Catholic view at the time, which was that the true church was embodied in the priesthood, and that the common people only communed with the church through the rite of communion.  Second, Huss believed that the authority of the Bible is higher than the authority of the church. And third, along that same line, he taught that Jesus Christ Himself is the head of the church, not the pope or the priests. So it was an issue of authority. Huss said that Christ and His Word are sovereign in the church. Rome disagreed. And Huss was killed.

A hundred years later, Martin Luther came across a volume of sermons by John Huss. In reflecting on those sermons, Luther wrote: “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.” [2]Ibid. Both Huss’s teaching and his life, particularly his unwillingness to compromise in the face of death, would become significant motivations for Luther and other later Reformers. Like Huss, they too would fight for the headship of Christ over His church. This was a key issue in the Reformation. And it is still a key issue today.

So who is the head of the church? It’s certainly not me. I’m not the head of my church. I cringe at entrepreneurial ministry. As undershepherds, pastors are responsible to serve the Chief Shepherd, not usurp His preeminence. When we preach the Word of God, we establish its authority over the mind and the soul, and thereby exalt the headship of Christ over His church. But to disregard Scripture is to disregard its author. And doing that is nothing short of treachery.

(Adapted from The Master’s Plan for the Church.)


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#1  Posted by Todd Farr  |  Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 3:32 PM

And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. Col 1:18

It's difficult to understand how any redeemed individual would ever desire to undermine His authority. A lack of appreciation for the authority of the Bible coincides with a lack of appreciation for the authority of Christ Jesus. Praise Him for the faithful shepherds around the world who exalt Him through His Word.

#2  Posted by Steve Carlton  |  Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 4:20 PM

What if two equally redeemed and equally scholarly people disagree over what the Word means? Does this mean that one of them has "a lack of appreciation for the authority of the Bible", and therefore "a lack of an appreciation of the authority of Christ Jesus"?

#3  Posted by Sterling Brown  |  Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 4:43 PM

Pastor MacArthur,

I am enjoying this series of blog posts, I certainly agree that the headship of Christ is still an issue. With that said I just wanted to share a quote from Charles Spurgeon, he said this:

"If God be glorified, does it really matter where we are? What becomes of us is of small consequence compared to bringing glory to His great name...The theology of the present aims at the deification of man, but the truth of all time magnifies God."

#4  Posted by Todd Farr  |  Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 9:13 PM

Hi Steve,

I guess it would probably take an example from one or more passages to really answer your question. Did you have one in mind? The way your first question is worded, it seems like you're referring to the Bible in its entirety and if that is the case, I would say that one person has been adopted into the family of God and the other has not. Because that would mean there were disagreements over core doctrines of Christianity i.e. The Person and work of Jesus Christ.

So, along the lines of your question and the particular verse that I referenced above (Col 1:18), if two people were to disagree over who the head of the Church is, I would certainly say one of them has rejected Biblical authority and in turn, Christ's authority.

#5  Posted by Rick White  |  Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 7:00 AM

Steve Carlton,

I believe it is possible for two equally redeemed and equally scholarly people to disagree on what the Bible says about a specific issue and neither one would be guilty of "a lack of appreciation for the authority of the Bible" or "a lack of an appreciation of the authority of Christ Jesus". They won't however be able to disagree on the gospel itself because that issue is so clearly defined in Scripture. To disagree on that particular subject would mean that one of them would have to be believing and therefore teaching a false gospel. In that instance the one teaching the false gospel would not be redeemed. So, I guess it all depends on what the issue is in which they disagree whether they are guilty of "a lack of appreciation for the authority of the Bible".

#6  Posted by Steve Carlton  |  Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 12:02 PM

Thank you Rick and Todd.

So I guess there is Biblical stuff that is central to the Gospel, and stuff in there that is not central to the Gospel. And two people could disagree about stuff not central to the Gospel, and neither would be denying the authority of the Bible or of Christ. Is that right?

As far as an example, the most obvious one I can think of is that whole "cessationist v continuationist" thing that came down after Strange Fire. Is that "central to the Gospel"? Why or why not?

Another one us the tongues thing, about which people vehemently disagree. Is that "central"?

There are other examples, usually having to do with specific verses. Like for example the verse about picking up your Cross daily. I have heard more than one explanation of what that verse means. Is this "central"?

Maybe we should be talking more about what exactly is central to the Gospel and what is not.