The Authority of the Church
by Dan Gatlin
What is your attitude toward the church? For many sectarians, a foundational belief is that the church has all authority. Whatever the church says to believe and practice, that is what must be done without question. This is the basic attitude of the vast majority of Roman Catholics. They are taught that the church “is not the child of the Bible, as many non-Catholics imagine, but its mother. She derives neither her existence nor her teaching authority from the New Testament. She had both before the New Testament was born: she secured her being, her teachings, her authority directly from Jesus Christ" (The Faith of Millions, John O’ Brien, p. 146). Their belief is that authority lies within the Catholic church and its traditions, not the New Testament. What is further implied in this statement is the idea that the New Testament is a product of the Catholic church. Devotion to the scriptures is secondary to devotion to the church.
In a recent article in the Mountain Sun (Kerrville, TX), Al Shultz (preacher for the Motley Hills Baptist Church) wrote, “We must never forget that we are under the authority of the church that we belong to. For example, if I teach in a Southern Baptist Church then I am obligated and responsible to teach Southern Baptist doctrine. If I am in the Methodist Church, then obviously I am obligated to teach Methodist doctrine. I am responsible to my church to teach the truth according to what my church teaches me.” Mr. Shultz further explains, “If I am a teacher in the Lord’s church, and let us break this down to another level, as a teacher in one of the Lord’s churches, then I must ensure that I teach by the authority of the church. I must teach within the rules and regulations, so to speak, of the church that I belong to and have agreed to serve in the capacity of a teacher of the church.” This philosophy is the same as the Catholic’s: the Bible must be interpreted in the light of what the church (denomination) teaches. Sadly, most of the religious world believes this.
The New Testament Is Not the Product of the Church But of God
There is no doubt that the existence of the Lord’s church preceded the completion of the New Testament. Both the church and the Scriptures derive their existence from heaven. The word of God was given to be the church’s guidebook. Consider what He had to say on the matter: “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come” (John 16:13), “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26). The apostle Paul adds, “But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (I Corinthians 2:10-13). And Peter adds, “for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21). The New Testament message was preached before it was written, and there was no conflict between the spoken and written word for those who were inspired. It should also be pointed out that before the 3000 were added to the church (Acts 2:41, 47), they heard the gospel (Acts 2:14-36). So, the word of God as preached by Peter preceded the church.
Catholics place the Bible on the same authoritative level as tradition (the writings of the “church fathers”) so that their doctrines can be changed from time to time. Sectarians teach that the Bible is a “living document” (Hebrews 4:12?) that is subject to change from generation to generation. But if we understand that the Bible is the product of God and that God tells us not to add to nor take from it (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32; Proverbs 30:6; Matthew 5:18; Galatians 1:8-9; Revelation 22:18), we will respect the authority of God’s Word above all.
Jesus Did Not Give Legislative Authority to the Church
Surely, all recognize that Jesus has all authority (Matthew 28:18). But the question is whether Jesus delegated some His legislative authority to the church. If He did, what passage teaches it? Some claim church authorization from Matthew 16:18-19: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The problem is that the verbs (dedemenon, lelumenon) in verse 19 are perfect passive particles. A more accurate reading would be something like “whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” The perfect tense describes completed action with a lasting effect. The passive voice means that the subject is the recipient of the action. That places authority not on earth with Peter, but in heaven. Peter would bind and loose based on what God had already decided.
The New Testament clearly teaches that Jesus retains all legislative authority. “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day” (John 12:48). He does not say we will be judged by the words of a church or denomination, but by His words. “There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?” (James 4:12).
Individuals Obligated to Follow Bible Teaching Not Church Tradition
The modern ecumenical mindset emphasizes “church teaching” and diminishes Bible teaching. Should a church’s teaching be different from Bible teaching? According to some, whatever a church teaches is approved by God since God has given authority to the church. Therefore, it is not possible for a church’s doctrine to be displeasing to Him. In speaking to the elders of Ephesus Paul said, “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29-30). Clearly, God does not approve of everything that a church decides to do. “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.” (Revelation 2:14). Clearly, God does not approve of every doctrine that man decides to believe. We must believe only what is revealed in the word of God without adding to it or taking from it (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Throughout the Scriptures, the word of God is put forward as authoritative while the traditions and commandments of men bring condemnation. Jesus said, “And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9; Mark 7:7). Paul warned, “Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:18-23). In the light of these statements, how can one cling to denominational traditions?
Denominations Do Not Come from God
Mr. Shultz states, “I must teach within the rules and regulations, so to speak, of the church that I belong to and have agreed to serve in the capacity of a teacher of the church.” The presupposition behind that statement is that all of the denominations are God-given. But God hates religious division (I Corinthians 1:10-13). Unity is derived from a mutual understanding of God’s word (Ephesians 3:4), not a false unity based on the unscriptural concept of “agreeing to disagree.” While Jesus prayed for the unity of His disciples (John 17:20-23), He also expressed that unity must be based in truth: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” (John 17:17).
The church does not have primary authority, only that which is delegated by God. God has not authorized the church to make its own laws, rather the church is to teach and practice the laws given by God through the Scriptures.