Saturday, August 18, 2007

Is There Authority Or Not Within The Church?

Here's an answer I wrote to this some time ago.

1) Is there authority or not within the church? Can a human establishment, inherently sinful, make determinations on morals and doctrine? And if so, are the determinations of such an establishment binding on individuals, or can each individual do as he sees fit? I believe and posit that the church must inherently have authority. Imagine Christ’s church without an authoritative norm, when taken to the absurd. Such a world would be hopelessly lost to relativism. It was a sad time for God’s people when, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit (Judges 21:25, NIV).” But we now have a King and High Priest in the presence of Christ Jesus, who warned that, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Mat 7:21, NIV).” If the church lacks authority to articulate the will of the Father as revealed to man, then who can? Surely it is either the church or the individual – one authoritarian extreme or the other. A theory claiming that each individual can distinguish moral norms falls flat on its face when viewed in practice. Too voluminous would be the examples of opposing individual convictions of morality and doctrine, even when allegedly under submission to the Bible alone as a ‘normative’ source for authority. To list but a few: never divorce vs. divorce under specific conditions vs. divorce openly; women may lead in church unconditionally vs. women may lead in specific roles in church vs. women may not lead in church; masturbation is forbidden vs. masturbation is a divine provision; Christ is the elements of communion vs. Christ is present with the elements of communion vs. Christ is memorialized by the elements of communion; Trinitarianism vs. Tritheism vs. Unitarianism; and so on and so forth. Clearly reasonable minds have taken these positions in opposition to other reasonable minds. The individual, therefore, is de facto an unreliable norm for morality and doctrine, so the church must have authority.

Now what is the church? Common teachings hold that it is either 1) the spiritual collective of all saved believers or 2) one visible establishment, a supernatural society formed of living men. These are, of course, the typical definitions given by Protestantism, and Catholicism and Orthodoxy respectively. If conservative Protestantism holds that the church does have teaching authority, they mean that the Bible has authority, with the church imperfectly articulating that authority. Ruled outside of the authoritative envelope are those denominations failing to confess to the “Bible alone as the infallible Word of God” theorem.

To be continued...

5 comments:

Adam Roe said...

Thos,

You've thought much more than I have on this issue, so I'll preface my observations with a question. Is it possible that people can attempt to submit to the authority of the church even as they seek reform? I have difficulty seeing that the reformers denied authority, for most of their doctrine flowed from sources that they believed were the foundations of orthodoxy. As such, I think it's possible that the reformers approached the church in a manner similar to that of Paul. We see in Galatians a mutual submission between the evangelist/theologian and the apostles. After three years Paul went to the apostles to have his doctrine examined. Some time later he rebuked Peter when his practice toward the Gentiles was found wanting. Each needed the other, for Paul's ministry could not exist as a personal crusade minus the clarification offered by the apostles. Likewise, the apostles could not practice purely without the reminder of Paul.

If I'm on to something, two questions come to my mind: First, when we look at Paul and the apostles, do we see primarily a hierarchical relationship or a complimentary relationship based on mutual humility? If so, then I think we can say that the reformers and Rome both failed miserably to model that attribute.

Second, was the leadership and practice of Rome in such disarray that to have not confronted the errors would have been tantamount to Paul casting a blind eye to Peter's incorrect practices? I can't help but wonder on this, for while I can see in theory the Roman Catholic appeals to authority, I have a tough time wrapping my mind around the idea that the reformers were all wet on some of the finer doctrinal details. They seem to have taken hold too quickly to be completely without merit.

At any rate, you've got me thinking now. :-)

Adam

Thos said...

Adam, Many good points, I hope I don't miss any:

1) Submit while seeking reform? The Catholic would here tout "semper reformanda" and say yes (as would I), those in the church should always seek reform. But when some reform we (individually) think is needed is not accomplished, are we still bound to submit to the discipline of someone in the church? If not, we are our own authority - our idea of what's right reigns supreme.

2) Your Paul analysis is interesting. [Note: I'm reluctant to sound teachy on the following point as I'm not ordained and no teacher, so take this in a spirit of Christian dialogue while we talk this out.] My understanding is that Paul was an Apostle of equal rank (if you will) with the others (cf. 1 Cor 15:8-9, Gal 1:11-12). To be an Apostle, one had to be appointed directly by Christ. The oddity with Paul is that he never met Christ during his life. Paul met him on the Road to Damascus in a vision. It is odd to me that he taught before being examined. Calvin stresses this point in his institutes, as well as the point that Paul rebuked Peter. Calvin uses this as proof that Peter did not enjoy Kingly Primacy. At any rate, I don't see the issue as "Paul and the Apostles", but more "Paul as an Apostle." In this light, it is clearly a complimentary (vice hierarchical) relationship. There is more room for humility in the church, but also more room for rebuke (as Paul was not shy to do!). One who rebukes needs authority to do so.

3) Luther not saying "Hear I Stand" would not be tantamount to Paul casting a blind eye to Peter's improper practice with the Jews, in my opinion. I see your analogy, and note that it is practice not hard doctrine in dispute in both cases. But Luther was a monk and Paul an Apostle. We don't know the nature of Paul's commission directly from Christ, but we know as a member of the Apostolate, it was special, something that is not repeated in time. Calvin called Luther "an apostle", and I don't like that one bit. Luther was not an Apostle, and had even vowed his monkly submission. At any rate, I believe (personally) that God has used the Reformation for (among many other things) the great good of ending simony, at least reforming the practice of indulgences (can't be for money now), etc. As for the Reformed doctrines catching on, to play devil's advocate (!), I note that Gnosticism once seemed to catch on quickly too, and even appeared as if it would ecclipse Christianity. Again my belief is that the Reformers were quite brilliant theologians, but I'm concerned with casting off the yoke of church authority so quickly.

Eager to hear your view...

Adam Roe said...

Thos,

Yours are also very good points. I've learned more about this issue in the last three or four days than at any other point and, though mentally exhausting, I know it will be worth the effort in the end. :-)

But when some reform we (individually) think is needed is not accomplished, are we still bound to submit to the discipline of someone in the church? If not, we are our own authority - our idea of what's right reigns supreme.

My initial reaction is that we have to distinguish between individual and shared reform. If Adam Roe declares that Trinitarian doctrine is fallacious, then it could be demonstrably proven that I am in conflict with Scripture, the church fathers, and the authority that comes from continuous line of orthodox thought. On the other hand, if a large group of people were to organize opposition to doctrines and practices that are currently in place then I think we have to give it some consideration. That still leaves the question, who has ultimate authority and how do we ultimately distinguish between orthodox and heterodox thought?

This is just "off the top of my head" stuff, but I would argue that apostolic succession should be given the benefit of the doubt. As such, it would have to be reasonably shown that 1). particular doctrines and practices are of relatively recent origin and, 2). that foundational understandings of the faith have been overthrown as the result of those developments. Put another way, the practices must be shown to subvert salvation.

At any rate, I don't see the issue as "Paul and the Apostles", but more "Paul as an Apostle." In this light, it is clearly a complimentary (vice hierarchical) relationship. There is more room for humility in the church, but also more room for rebuke (as Paul was not shy to do!). One who rebukes needs authority to do so.

Yes, I can see your point. I can also see that my thoughts could lead one to assume that the hierarchy within the church is an unlearned class of individuals and that you have theologians/evangelists doing the down and dirty work of the church. One of the unfortunate things to have come out of the reformation is the presumption of an uninformed hierarchy within the Roman Catholic (primarily) and Orthodox communions.

That said, when we look at Paul I think we see a person who argues that whatever apostolic authority he holds comes from the revelation he has received. I just don't get the impression that he puts as much weight on succession as the communions in consideration, but perhaps this is my Lutheran bias. I think he was Paul the apostle because he was chosen for such a role and because he remained committed to the pure teaching that comes with that role. The difficulty is, of course, the presumption that Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians have not remained committed to the same. At the very least it should be shown that even if they were committed that they erred at some point.

That said, I don't see Paul's mandate as a strike against authority, but more a vision of what authority properly received looks like. As you mentioned in your reply, though, this position isn't foreign to the RC/Orthodox communion; at least not as we see it in the early church. Is it a foreign concept, though, in later doctrinal developments? I don't know.

But Luther was a monk and Paul an Apostle. We don't know the nature of Paul's commission directly from Christ, but we know as a member of the Apostolate, it was special, something that is not repeated in time.

True enough, but Luther wasn't alone. If it had just been Luther then I would have to argue that there was very little to no authority. What made Luther and the reformers unique though, was that nearly all were New Testament scholars who had been trained in the Roman Catholic school of thought. I know it's more an appeal to common sense than a hard fact, but I just can't shake the idea that there were all these exceptionally learned people making the same conclusions at the same time (though admittedly to different degrees and flavors).

I note that Gnosticism once seemed to catch on quickly too, and even appeared as if it would ecclipse Christianity. Again my belief is that the Reformers were quite brilliant theologians, but I'm concerned with casting off the yoke of church authority so quickly.

I hear you on authority, but I'm not sure if the comparison between the gnostic situation and the reformation situations works. The gnostics were adding to the message of salvation to such an extent that it was more a philosophy than anything that resembled orthodox Christian thought. If the reformers erred, they erred in the opposite direction. Whereas the gnostics were adding, the reformers were subtracting out of fear that the practices within Rome and Constantinople were subverting the gospel. Can this belief be validated? I suppose finding out is my next task.

I've concluded that I need to do more studying on how the reformers dealt with the shared histories of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy and whether there really was such a reliance upon works-righteousness that Christ was lost.
Thank you again for the great dialog. By the way, I noticed on your profile that you are a law student. I've been considering law school and would be interested in hearing the good, the bad, and the ugly as it relates to both the schooling and the issue of raising a family in such a circumstance. Please feel free to respond via email if you get a chance.

Blessings to you,
Adam

Thos said...

My quest about authority has been very painful at times, but I keep believing that God will guide me to truth if I seek his Face in earnest. Take the question in bite sizes, and take breaks when you need to!

Your point on individual vs. shared reform is valid, but what's the difference between reform and rebellion? A large group of people left upstate New York with Joseph Smith because they were persecuted for their collective beliefs; I believe the Mormons were heterodox and not reforming. Less brashly stated, a large group of people at the reformation saw the Lord's Supper as a mere memorial feast (Zwingli) - was he reforming Luther's view?

I think you're saying that Christians should be able to reform (or even have what could be called "rebellion") if foundational understandings or matters of salvation are perverted. BRIEFLY: I note how things have played out. The freedom granted by the reformation has led to altar calls and simplistic prayers guaranteeing salvation no matter how one lives. I read James 2:14 ff., and think that sola fide oversimplified the equation - and when I think that, the next logical conclusion is horrifying: what if all these people go to hell even when they've been assured that their sinner's prayer (which is so often not taken to heart and lived out) was enough? Who perverted Christianity's fundamental soteriology (salvation teaching), us or them?

I wrote you about law school by e-mail - always happy to share - we need more thinking Christians in the legal profession!

Adam Roe said...

Thos,

The issues you mention compel me to want to write more, but I'll have to hang it up for now and look things over with fresh eyes in a day or two. God bless you! I look forward to reading the email tonight.

In Christ,
Adam