Authority and the Church
There is a lot of confusion in the religious world regarding authority and the church. Different religious organizations have different structures and different views on authority. Some religious organizations believe that their leaders are the only ones who have the ability to interpret sacred texts and to make decisions as to what is true and what is false. Other organizations believe that the church as a whole has the ability to establish what is right and what is wrong. Many believe that only Christ has the ability to establish what is true.
About the only thing that the majority of people in “Christendom” can agree upon is that the Bible represents the revealed Word of God and is, if nothing else, at least a source of authority for Christian life and practice. What, then, does the Bible have to say about authority and the church?
The Bible is very clear that the church belongs to Jesus and He is its head. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus declares that He will build His church. Paul declares Jesus to be the head of the church in Ephesians 5:23 and Colossians 1:18. The Bible is equally clear in regards to the relationship of the church to Christ. Paul says in Ephesians 5:24 that the church is subject to Christ– she submits to Him. Just as the human body looks to the head for direction and guidance, so the church is to look to Jesus for direction and guidance.
If the Bible is so clear about the relationship between Jesus and His church, why are there so many different views in the religious world? Unfortunately, different ideas developed over time, often by well-intentioned but misguided people, that were not in line with God’s will for the church. God decreed that multiple elders should direct one local congregation by example (cf. Philippians 1:1, 1 Peter 5:1-4). That was soon changed from one bishop over many elders in a church to a bishop over many churches. They began to teach that they had received authority from Jesus through His delegated authority to the Apostles.
The Bible, however, taught none of these things. God established the role of the Apostles in the church to do their work (cf. Matthew 18:18, Ephesians 4:11-16), but that role was not transferred to “bishops,” “pastors,” or to anyone else. The Apostles, along with pastors, teachers, evangelists, and others, directed people to Christ and to look to Him as their authority, not themselves (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:13-17). We learn of the Apostles’ doctrine through what they and their associates recorded in the New Testament (Acts 2:42, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Neither the Apostles or the ones who worked directly with the Apostles ever indicated that their authority was given to anyone else.
Over time, as Christianity grew, the church began to be seen as an institution and not as the group of people as originally intended. Therefore, when some broke away from the idea that authority was vested in particular leadership roles in the church, they then taught that the authority was really vested in the church itself.
In the New Testament, however, “the church” is never spoken of as an entity somehow distinct or separate from the individual Christians who comprise it (cf. Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Individual Christians are to look to Christ for direction for what they do as individuals and as a collective group (Colossians 3:17, Ephesians 5:24).
As we have already seen, the New Testament says that the church submits to Christ in all things, and there is no indication given that the church is ever vested with its own authority (Ephesians 5:24). When an individual Christian or representative Christians of a local congregation speak with authority, the authority is not their own, but must be based in what God has revealed and spoken in His Word (1 Peter 4:11, 1 John 4:1-6).
Therefore, if we seek to follow God according to His will, we must recognize that the church must look to Jesus to understand what is true and what is false. Jesus has not given anyone in His church today the authority to declare on his or her own what is true (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10): instead, individual Christians must look to what God has said to derive authority for all that they say and do (cf. Colossians 3:17). Yes, God did establish that local congregations should be shepherded by a plurality of qualified men who serve as elders/pastors/bishops (cf. Acts 20:28, 1 Timothy 3:1-8, 1 Peter 5:1-4), but they are to lead by example and according to what God has already revealed, not according to their own whim. The same is true for those who proclaim God’s message as an evangelist– they are to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:1-2), not what they feel is right.
We encourage you to seek out a group of Christians who understand that the church that belongs to Christ is a collection of people, not an institution, and who look to Jesus for authority for what they say and do, and to join them in seeking to understand the Scriptures and to do His will and be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry