Authority in the Church: Biblical Evidence (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

This is the second part of my examination of what the Bible has to say about authority in the church. Read part 1 here to see my method and conclusions thus far.

The remaining questions we have to address are:

  • How are leaders in the church chosen?
  • What gives leaders authority?
  • Are there circumstances in which a leader’s authority can be abrogated?
  • Who has authority to interpret the Scriptures?
  • How can we know true from false teachers?

Leadership in the Church

In part 1, I said that though the office of apostle does not continue that the apostles did appoint elders to care for the church and to teach and that these elders would in turn appoint others and so on. The authority of these church leaders (who may variously be called elders, bishops, overseers or presbyters, depending on one’s denomination) is then from above in that it comes from the previous leaders of the church and is conveyed through he laying on of hands.

In his pastoral epistles (his letters to Timothy and Titus) Paul gives qualifications for elders. These include both tests of ability (can they teach?) and morality (are they sober? are they good family men?). The implication is that these are the criteria which Timothy and Titus (and others) should use in choosing elders.

The question then arises: Can such authority be lost? If there are  qualifications for an elder, it makes sense to say that one who fails to live up to such criteria might be disqualified. I am not going to spend a lot of time arguing this point because it seems that all Christian churches agree that a church leader can be deposed. Even the Roman Catholic church, which believes that a pope (the bishop of Rome) cannot lose his authority, will depose a bishop. The only real question then is not whether a leader’s authority can be abrogated, but if the pope has special status in this regard which gets back to whether the bishop of Rome has special status at all, an issue I addressed in my previous post. I will only say in this regard that we are told that false teachers will be within the church (Acts 20:29-30; 2 Pet. 2:1) and that Paul says that he even he himself were to come with a different message that his audience should reject his message (Gal. 1:6-9).

The Legacy of the Apostles

There is one more big issue before us which is how the human successors of the apostles relate to the Scriptures of the New Testament, which we might think of as the apostles’ written successors. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches give the people authority over the word. Both say that the Scriptures (Old and New Testaments) can only be rightly interpreted by the successors of the apostles, thus giving the people power to say what the written word means. Protestants take the opposite view, saying that the word is the primary legacy of the apostles and that once Christ’s message was written down that the human authority became less important and must always be ruled by the written word.

To begin to get at this issue, I’d like to look at a use of the word apostle which we haven’t addressed yet. A number of passages speak of “the prophets and the apostles.” As we look at these occurrences, we must understand that the word “prophet” in the Old Testament has a broader meaning than we usually associate with it. A prophet is not just one who tells the future but one who speaks for God. The Hebrew Bible has traditionally been divided into three sections: the Torah (the five books aka the books of Moses or the Pentateuch), the Prophets, and the Writings. The Writings are those books we may also call Wisdom Literature including Psalms and Proverbs among others. The Prophets include not just those books we think of as prophetic but also the historical books, known in Hebrew tradition as “the Former Prophets.” If we consider that Moses, the traditionally ascribed author of the Torah, was also a prophet himself, we can see that most of the Old Testament could be called “prophetic.”

We first find the phrase “the Prophets and the Apostles” in the book of Luke in which Jesus says,

“Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute.'” (Luke 22:49)

While the people are clearly here in mind, the association with Wisdom makes me think that it is the human authors of God’s written word who are in view here.

Paul in Ephesians tells us that:

“In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” (Eph. 3:5)

And from Peter:

“. . . that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles.” (2 Pet. 3:2)

Note the emphasis on words here. The words spoken through the prophets correspond to the OT and the commandment of the Lord through the apostles to the New.

And then Peter speaks of Paul’s epistles specifically, equating them with “the other Scriptures”:

“So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability.” (2 Pet. 3:15-17)

I don’t think anyone really disputes this point, but I cite these passages to show that the apostles’ legacy include not just human successors but also the written word, which we now call the New Testament, and which stands beside the Prophets, that is the Old Testament.

The real question is not whether we have the written word of the apostles but how their written legacy relates to their human one. In the quote above from 2 Peter we see that Peter says that Paul’s writings are at times hard to understand and can be twisted by lawless men. Though Peter’s immediate conclusion is only that his readers should be forewarned and not be led astray, he does say in his earlier epistle that “you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders” (1 Pet. 5:5). I think it is reasonable to conclude that one way to keep from being led astray is to listen to one’s elders (elders in the technical sense of the church leaders called elders) but Peter stops short of connecting the dots and saying that only the elders may then interpret Scripture.

Another passage from 2 Peter is often used to show that individuals may not interpret Scripture for themselves. It reads as follows:

“20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (1 Pet. 1:20-21)

Usually the first verse above (v. 20) is taken to mean that individuals may not interpret Scripture for themselves. I think, however, that, in context with v. 21, this is not what Peter is saying. He is not making a point about who may interpret Scripture but about how Scripture itself came to be. In v. 21 he tells us that the human authors of Scripture were not speaking on their own authority but that their message comes from God. His point in v. 20, then, is that the Prophets and Apostles were not giving their individual interpretations but were speaking as God led them. This is the same point Paul makes in 2 Timothy when he says, as the NIV translates, that Scripture is “God-breathed.”

In fact, if we look at the entire context of this passage from 2 Timothy, we find that Paul presents the Scriptures to Timothy as the antidote to both persecution and deception:

12 Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is[b] useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:12-17)

Though Timothy to whom the letter is addressed is an elder, Paul does say that “everyone who belongs to God” should be equipped by Scripture.

Personally, I don’t see any indication that Scripture is to be interpreted only by the leaders of the church. On the contrary, Scripture is good for everyone and is to be treasured by all:

 This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.” (Josh. 1:8)

 The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.

(Ps. 19:7-11; I know I said I would not get into the OT, but I couldn’t resist these quotes.)

Conclusions and More Questions

To bring it all together, I’d like to return to the nine questions I posed at the beginning of my first post. Here they are again, with the conclusions I have come to:

  • Who were the apostles? What makes one an apostle? There were 13 apostles, Christ’s 11 closest followers (Judas having been lost) plus Matthias and Paul. Others may be spoken of as apostles as well though these references are not as clear. An apostle is one who has seen Christ in the flesh and has gotten his authority directly from God.
  • Is there a continuing apostolic authority or apostolic succession? The office of apostle does not continue but the apostles appoint elders who continue their ministry though their work is not backed up by signs and wonders as the apostles’ was. These elders in turn appoint other elders and so on.
  • What is Peter’s role relative to the other apostles? Does he have greater authority? Peter is a leader among the apostles and is prominent in the earliest days of the church, as depicted in Acts 1-12, but there is no evidence that he has authority above and beyond that of the other apostles.
  • If Peter does have any greater role, does he pass this on to his successors? Even if Peter did have more authority, there is no evidence within the NT that Peter passes this authority on to anyone.
  • How are leaders in the church chosen? Elders are appointed first by the apostles and then by other elders. Authority is conferred through the laying on of hands. Lists of qualifications for elders, both having to do with their abilities and their character are given.
  • What gives leaders authority? See above.
  • Are there circumstances in which a leader’s authority can be abrogated? Yes. With the exception of the Roman Catholic view of the popes, all agree that a leader can lose his authority through doctrinal or moral error. This seems to be a reasonable conclusion based on the lists of qualifications given.
  • Who has authority to interpret the Scriptures? Scripture can be misused and twisted and we must be on our guard against these things. Christians are urged to listen to their elders and to respect their authority. However, I see no evidence that the interpretation of Scripture is the exclusive prerogative of the church leadership, rather, we are told that Scripture is “for everyone,” that it is a delight and a help to the believer.
  • How can we know true from false teachers? I didn’t really touch on this but I will say, briefly, that false teachers may be known both by their fruits, that is their deeds and morality (Matt. 7:15-20; Matt. 12:33; Luke 6:43-44), and by their teachings, whether their message (2 Cor. 11:3-4; Gal. 1:6-9; 1 John 4:1-3).

If these things are true, then I think the Roman Catholic Church, whose authority depends upon that of its popes, has gone astray and is in a very dangerous position. On the other hand, most, if not all, Protestant churches, including my own, also have to answer the question of where their leaders’ authority comes from. If it cannot be traced back to the apostles is it valid? The Eastern Orthodox may cheer at these conclusions, but I cannot fully support their position either. They, like the Catholics, exalt the church leadership (and Tradition, but that’s another issue) above the Scriptures, and I do not see that this is biblical either. I don’t honestly think that there is a perfect answer or a perfect system. This should not surprise us, perhaps, since we are not perfect people. I have been going round and round in my own head and though there are certain aspects of my own chosen tradition which I am not completely comfortable with, I am no more comfortable with the others. In the end, I come back to where I began — I would rather have a choose the church with a written standard as my ultimate guide than one that relies upon men to tell me what that standard says. Part of the controversy comes down to whether we are even able to understand Scripture without outside interpretations and it may be others look at what I have written and see all my biases and preconceptions and reject my conclusions. But for myself I feel like I have gone back to the biblical text, I have tried to approach it honestly and not to read into it what I want it to say, and it has not let me down. It speaks pretty clearly, I think, on most of these issues. And, beyond that, the more I study the Scriptures themselves, the more I am impressed with them and even love them. I have no desire to choose otherwise.

Nebby

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