One of the big questions that Christian theologians of all generations have had to deal with is the question of spiritual, exegetical, and theological authority. I have already written about these subjects in other blogposts (see here, here, and here), but, have recently been thinking about the notion of authority in and of itself. Authority can appear to be a very nebulous term, for there are many different types of “authority”, and, one might say (in jest), they don’t all possess the same authority.

            If Socrates were asking the question, “what is authority?”, and he received the response, “there is church authority, and government authority, and parental authority, and academic authority, etc.”, he would certainly respond something like, “I am not wondering about the different types of authority, but wish to know what is common to all the types of authority.” In order to know what is common to each, we might begin by examining, and drawing out the characteristics of, some of the different types of authority. As usual, my blogposts are not to be taken as my final word on the subject, but, rather, as the expression of my thoughts at the moment, and as the building blocks for deeper and more developed thoughts on the subject. For my own purposes, I will begin by noting what the Bible has to say about the different types of authority (such as Ecclesial or Church Authority, Governmental Authority, Parental Authority, and Marital authority). We will begin our study with a post concerning Ecclesial Authority.

Ecclesial or Church Authorities

            In the Bible there are a number of different types of authority that are presented and characterized. We see, for example, what we might call Ecclesial or Church authorities. The New Testament explicitly discusses Ecclesial authority at a number of places, including Hebrew 13:17, 1 Peter 5:1-5, 1 Timothy 3:1-8, and Titus 1:3-8. We can also distinguish, based upon the New Testament, three forms of Ecclesial Authority: Scriptural (including the writings of the Prophets and the Apostles), Apostolic, and Pastoral. These thoughts will be necessarily brief.

Pastoral Ecclesial Authority

Their Character

            In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 Paul provides us with a list of characteristics, the possession of which allow us to identify those who are qualified to be considered true Ecclesial, or Local Church, Authorities. I have already commented on these notions elsewhere, so I will limit myself to a simple enumeration and summary of the characteristics. Paul says that in order to qualify as an Ecclesial authority one must be characterized as “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive…He must not be a recent convert…he must be well thought of by outsiders.”[1] Titus provides some qualifications of these qualifications, “above reproach, the husband of one wife [literally, “a one woman man”], and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination…he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”[2]

Their Attitude, Approach to Leading, and Authority

In 1 Peter 5:1-5 we are told that the elders are the spiritual leaders (spiritual authorities) in the local church, and that they are to lead the local church as a shepherd leads a flock. The image is important. Flocks do not choose their shepherds. Flocks are in total submission to their shepherds and follow their shepherds wherever their shepherds lead them. Shepherds look out for the safety and proper nourishment of their flocks, and are sometimes required to lead, forcefully, the flock (especially some of the more headstrong sheep). In this text Peter warns the local church authorities that they should take care of the flock that God has put in their care. Peter speaks to the motivation of the church authorities, saying that they should not lead in order to make money, but, rather, willingly and lovingly. Peter also speaks to the manner of leading, when he notes that church authorities should not lead as dictators, but, rather, as models.

In Hebrews 13:17 we are told that church members are to obey and submit themselves to the leaders that are in place in their church communities. The author to the Hebrews notes that those who are in a position of authority in the local church are responsible, before God, for taking care of those who are in their church community. These local church authorities will be judged by God.

How to become an Pastoral Ecclesial Authority

            The New Testament does not speak to this question as much as we would like, and I have already addressed this subject in another blog post (see here, and here. Both are written in French.). I will, therefore, keep this brief. The New Testament shows the first Pastor/Elders being put in place by the joint action of Paul and the Holy Spirit (Compare Acts 14:23 with Acts 20:28). Paul commissioned Timothy (1 Timothy 3:1-8) and Titus (Titus 1:5) so that they would put Pastor/Elders in place in Ephesus and in Crete. The basis upon which Elders were chosen were the qualifications mentioned above. Finally, Paul notes that it is a good thing to desire to be an Elder (1 Timothy 3:1). To become an elder one must, of course, be characterized according to the list of qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. There is no explanation as to how the elders of the Jerusalem church became elders, only that there were enough of them that they could be mentioned in the plural (Acts 15:6, 22, etc.). One final comment, Paul seems to provide us, in 1 Timothy 3:1-8, with what we might call “apostolic authority”, for the future “installation or naming” of Ecclesial authorities (“Elder/Pastors”). Paul, after listing the qualifications, tells Timothy that he has provided these instructions so that “if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.”[3] Conclusion? Ecclesial/Pastoral Church Authorities are not put in place by a vote of the assembly, but, rather, they are put in place by those who are already qualified as Elders, and because they aspire to the post and they are characterized by the list of qualifications that are found in 1 Timothy 3:1-8 and Titus 1:5-9.

Some “Negative” comments

            Based upon the verses that we have already seen, and 1 Timothy 5:19-25, those who are Pastoral Ecclesial Authorities are not free from sin, nor are they inerrant in their teachings. Rather, they are fellow sinners-saved-by-grace. It is entirely possible for a Pastoral Ecclesial Authority to sin such that he must be placed under church discipline (1 Timothy 5:19-25), and it is possible for a Pastoral Ecclesial Authority to become disqualified (if, for example, during the the course of their lives they become characterized by something that is expressly forbidden by 1 Timothy 3:1-8 or Titus 1:5-9).

The character of Pastoral Ecclesial Authority

            Let us summarize what we have seen here. A Pastoral Ecclesial Authority is a fallible man who is a sinner-saved-by-grace. His authority to lead the members of his local church is given to him based upon his character (1 Tim. 3:1-8, Tit. 1:5-9) as recognized by already existing Pastoral Ecclesial Authorities (Acts 14:23). This authority is also given to him by the Holy Spirit who has placed him in that role of authority (Acts 20:28), and by Jesus-Christ who has put the Elder/Pastor in charge of a local flock (1 Pet. 5:1-5). The authority of the Pastor/Elder is to be exercised with Grace and unfailing love (1 Pet. 5:2-5), but also with firmness and theological rigidity based upon a proper theological training (Tit. 1:9). Members of the local church are to be fully submitted to his leadership in both spiritual and doctrinal matters (Heb. 13:17), not blindly (Acts 17:11), but joyfully (Heb. 13:17). A Pastoral Ecclesial Authority may err, but, his authority is to be recognized by church members, who are to gracefully, supportively, and prayerfully, follow his lead.

Apostolic Authority

            Precious little is said, in the New Testament, about Apostolic Authority. The notion is, however, clearly present. In Galatians 1-2, for example, Paul defends his apostolic authority against those who were questioning it. These chapters are, in fact, important for helping us understand Apostolic Authority, as are Matthew 16:17-20, John 21:15-24, Acts 1:21-22, Acts 6: 1-7, Ephesians 2:19-21, Ephesians 3:1-9, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Peter 5:1, 2 Peter 3:15-16, and many others. Some of what I will say below is debatable, and it is best to not base a fundamental distinguishing doctrine on a debatable interpretation of Holy Scriptures. In what follow I will offer a couple comments on each of the verses that I have mentioned above.

New Testament Teachings

Catholics will probably complain about my interpretation of Matthew 16:17-20 that it is too “Protestant”. That may be true, however, if I am to be entirely open about how I interpret this verse, I have to admit that when I eventually came to struggle with the meaning of this verse I was actually somewhat inclined to honestly consider whether or not I should become Catholic. At this time in my spiritual journey I studied these verses and concluded that these verses clearly teach that Peter had correctly concluded that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God (Mt. 16:17), but that it was God the Father who had made Peter aware of this fact, and not Peter’s intellectual brilliance (Mt. 16:17). The “rock” (petra, GR; petram, LT) to which Jesus refers is not Peter (Petros, GR; Petrus, LT), but, rather, the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God (Mt. 16:18). This is the interpretation that makes the best sense of the context, both of this chapter and of the larger context of the New Testament, and the Apostolic mission to proclaim Jesus the Son of God. As for the “Keys of the Kingdom”, which were given to Peter, to bind or to loose (Mt. 16:19). These same abilities seem to be promised, in Matthew 18:18-20, to all believers through prayer, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”  I know that this passage is highly debated, but, as I said above, it seems unwise to base a key divisive doctrine on a passage that is so open to exegetical debate. I conclude that these verses provide us with no information concerning Apostolic Authority.

            John 21:15-24 is the final verses of the Gospel of John. In these verses Jesus takes Peter aside and tells him to take care of the flock of God (John 21:15-19). These verses need to be read in the context of 1 Peter 5:1 where Peter says “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed.” John 21 does not show Jesus placing Peter in a special position over the other leaders of the church, but, rather, commissioning Peter for the Pastoral mission that he was to accomplish. Indeed, the final verses of John 21, as well as the commissioning of Paul to the apostolate, reinforces the notion that though Jesus had called 12 apostles, to whom he gave his authority to preach the gospel in all the world (Mt. 28:19-20), Jesus did not place one of the apostles in charge of the others.

Acts 1:21-22 seems to teach that in order to be considered as an authoritative apostle, one must have been an eyewitness of the life, teaching, and resurrection of Jesus-Christ. This is not contradicted by the apostolate of Paul, who was a witness of the resurrection of Jesus-Christ, quite possibly taught by Jesus himself for a period of 3 years, and who was explicitly commissioned by Jesus Christ (cf. Galatians 1).

Acts 6: 1-7 shows that though the primary role of the Apostles was to pray and teach, they also engaged, periodically, in tasks that are related to the physical well-being of the church. Deacons were elected in order to allow the Apostles to dedicate their time to prayer and teaching.

 Galatians 1-2 provides a defense of the apostolate and message of the Apostle Paul. Here we learn that he was specifically chosen by Jesus-Christ, and commissioned to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. His apostolate and his message come directly come God and not from men (Gal. 1:1, 12). Apostolic Authority is not given by other men, it is not based upon qualifications, it is given by Jesus-Christ himself. Galatians 1 is important because Paul notes that Apostle’s are not necessarily, by virtue of being Apostles and possessing Apostolic Authority, doctrinally inerrant, rather, he warns that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”[4] Galatians 2 is important for our understanding of Apostolic Authority, as it shows: (1) That Apostle’s are not, as Apostles, infallible, inerrant, or above reproach. Paul explains who Peter erred publicly concerning a moral question (Gal. 2:11-12), and led other believers into the same error (Gal. 2:13). (2) That Peter did not possess an authority that was superior to that of the other apostles. Indeed, Paul rebuked Peter publicly for his grievous moral failing (Gal. 2:11, 14-16). So, Apostolic Authority is not, by nature, free from either doctrinal or moral error. Apostle’s could err,[5] and those who verified their teachings where declared more honorable than those who didn’t (Acts 17:11).

Ephesians 2:19-21 teaches that God specifically built the church on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. The image of a building is of the utmost important. Apostles, and their apostolic authority, are found only in the foundation; not in the walls, not in the roof, nor in the doors or windows. The building (the rest of believers) is founded upon, built upon, the apostles and prophets. This verse is also important because we are again reminded of the source of apostolic authority—God. Ephesians 4:11 teaches the same truths.

In Ephesians 3:1-9 Paul explains that God specifically commissioned himself, and the other Apostles, to spread the gospel, and to make known the mystery which is the church. It is to the Apostles that God revealed the mystery of the church (Eph. 3:3, 5), and it is God that commissioned the Apostles to teach it (Eph. 3:7-11).

2 Peter 3:15-16 tells us, from the pen of one apostle, that the writings of Paul are inspired by God and, therefore, authoritative. But, they are not easy to understand, and our interpretations of them are not inspired. Rather, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction as they do the other scriptures.”[6]

Some Concluding Remarks

First of all, only those who were apostles possessed apostolic authority. Secondly, the apostles are the foundation of the church, and the foundation was laid in the first century. Thirdly, Apostle’s, in virtue of being Apostle’s, were not, therefore, doctrinally inerrant or morally infallible. They could both err and sin, and did so. Their word, however, was authoritative over all church polity, doctrine, and practice; unless it explicitly contradicted the gospel of Jesus-Christ (Gal. 1:8). In spite of their authority over the church, they did not present themselves as dictators in a hierarchical kingdom, but as fellow workers with the elders (cf. Acts 15, 1 Peter 5:1).

There are no clear and undeniable statements that imply that apostolic authority can be transferred from the Apostles to their disciples. Rather, though Paul frequently recommends that the churches listen to, and respect the word of, Timothy,[7] he never once states that Timothy is an apostle, or has the same calling as himself. Timothy did not receive any apostolic authority from Paul, nor in virtue of being the disciple of Paul. Rather, Apostolic authority is bestowed upon a person by direct mediation of Jesus-Christ himself, and, there is no scriptural justification for the idea that it can be transferred to another. The only words that we still possess from the apostles are their written works. As such, the only things that could be said to possess “apostolic authority” today are their written works—the New Testament.

Scriptural Authority

            We need not say too much in this section. The Scriptures clearly teach that they are the authoritative, inspired, words of God (2 Tim. 3:15-17, 2 Pet. 1:20-21); and that, as such, they are the final authority for the church on matters pertaining to personal sanctification, and those truths about God, man, and man’s relationship with God, that can only be known through divine revelation. The authority of scriptures passes to he who teaches the scriptures if and only if the teacher or preacher properly interprets scriptures. Fidelity to the clear teachings of scriptures, and the capacity to teach and defend their clear teachings, is a required qualification in order to be considered an Ecclesial Pastoral Authority (Tit. 1:9). The scriptures include the Old Testament and the writings of the Apostles (2 Peter 3:15-16). Finally, the written words of scripture are more trustworthy and authoritative than even the very words of God from heaven, or some revelation (by dream, vision, or thoughts) that purports to be from God (2 Peter 1:18-19).

Concluding Remarks on Ecclesial Authority

            There are three forms of Ecclesial Authority that are discussed in Scriptures: Apostolic/Prophetic, Scriptural, and Pastoral. All three still exist today, though one of them (Apostolic) is only available in the Scriptures. As such, Apostolic/Prophetic and Scriptural Authority may, today, be conflated into one category.

            It is to be noted that only one of these three forms of Ecclesial authority can be said to be inerrant or infallible: Scriptural authority. Apostolic and Pastoral forms of authority were both inclined towards both theological and moral error. As such, though Christians are consistently encouraged to follow joyfully, willfully, and confidently, those men who are endowed with Ecclesial Authority; Christians are also warned that all men err, and that even their Elders/Pastors may err in theology or in morality. This fact is not, however, supposed to incline church members to lose confidence in their Ecclesial Authorities, but, rather, to incline them towards grace, truth, love, respect, and willing submission towards those men who have earned the right, by the quality of their Godly character, to exercise authority over the church of God. Those men are called elders, pastors, shepherds of the flock of God. No one human person rules them; rather, they are submitted to Christ (1 Peter 5:1-5), the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), and the Word of God (Tit. 1:9). Those who are not submitted to Christ (by either leading poorly, 1 Pet. 5:2-5; or by being disqualified, 1 Tim. 5:19-25) are to be disciplined by the other Elders of the local church, and removed from their position of leadership.

            What is it, that in each of these cases, makes someone an authority? Is it infallibility? Inerrancy? Sinless perfection? No. None of these can be claimed of any but Jesus-Christ, and the written Word of God. What then? One might also think that we cannot draw upon apostolic authority, either, in order to learn what is meant by “authority” in general; for apostolic authority is given by Christ. There is, however, something that is common to each of these types of Ecclesial authority. We learn, from our brief study, that a person (or their writing) is considered authoritative when they are seen, in general, to be trustworthy in relation to that about which they claim to be an authority.

This is true of the Pastoral Ecclesial Authority. That is, Elders are authorities in the Local church for both Christian Doctrine and Christian Practice because (1) they demonstrate both the theological knowledge necessary (gained through the proper, and appropriate amount of, theological training) to be deemed trustworthy when they explain the scriptures, and (2) their lives, on the moral level, manifest a continual progression of personal sanctification such that they are characterized by the list of qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3:1-8 and Titus 1:5-9. If either 1 or 2 cannot be said of a man, then he should not be considered as an Ecclesial authority. This is true of Apostolic Authority. That is, though Apostolic Authority was endowed by Jesus-Christ on certain men (an extra qualification), the maintaining of that Authority was contingent on their continual teaching of truth (Gal. 1:8), and their continual demonstration of a continual progression of personal sanctification (Gal. 2). This is evidently true of the Scriptural Authority of Holy scriptures which (1) cannot err doctrinally, and (2) teach perfect morality. Exceeding the qualifications for authority means only that Holy Scriptures qualify as the highest authority for church doctrine and practice.

[1]1 Tim. 3:2-7.

[2]Tit. 1:6-9.

[3]1 Tim. 3:15.

[4]Gal. 1:8. Italics and bold are mine.

[5]Indeed, Paul’s constant prayer was that he be preserved from falling, and be allowed to finish the race (Phil. 3:7-16).

[6]2 Pet. 3:16.

[7]Cf. 1 Cor. 4:17, 16:10, Phil. 2:22, 1 Thess. 3:2-3

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