Essay / Theology

Desperate for Authority

I’ve been given many reasons lately to think about the nature of authority, specifically ecclesial authority. Having recently returned from leading twenty-two students to Rome, where I once again saw and heard Pope Benedict XVI, I have been wondering how did the church go from having apostles (where Peter was one of at least twelve others) to the concept of an infallible bishop of Rome? Oddly, as a church historian, I know the answer to my own question but that still doesn’t keep me from wondering how this happened. I mean, signs of papal authority are everywhere in Rome, from plaques on ancient monuments (such as the Colosseum) to papal insignia on trashcans in the Vatican Museum. In fact, it becomes a little hard to take and I wonder if the pope himself doesn’t even get a little tired of it at times! As well, one of the texts that I had the students read for Rome was the Rule of St. Benedict. This sixth-century monastic legislation is riddled with seemingly over-the-top statements about the abbot’s authority: the abbot “is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery;” the cellarer “shall do nothing without the order of the abbot; nor is it allowable to have anything which the abbot did not give or permit.” I love the Rule but it does seem to give the abbot an excessive amount of power and authority. Finally, as an Anglican who chooses to attend a parish of the Episcopal Church in the United States, where heresy and unholy behavior from the church’s bishops are most often tolerated by their fellow bishops, I am left wondering, why would anyone want to be under this man’s episcopal authority? All of this combined has caused me to do a lot of searching lately.

I have really come to think that there should be a clear authority structure in the church. Paul spends lots of space speaking about authority, and not only defensively. For example, in Galatians 1:1: “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” In Ephesians Paul says he’s an apostle by the “will of God” (1:1), and who wants to challenge the will of God? That is, Paul has authority and it comes from God so when you challenge Paul, you’re ultimately, I think, challenging God. Paul feels confident enough with his God-given authority to even challenge and correct Peter’s duplicitous behavior in Galatians 2:11-14. If Paul, and other apostles, are given such authority in the New Testament era, why would we expect that this kind of apostolic authority is still not available to us today? Shouldn’t we expect that this authority still governs the church today? The biblical example of this would be Timothy and Titus. It seems clear that Paul is advising Timothy to act against the heretics Hymenaeus and Alexander because he, Timothy, has the authority to do so. Explicitly, Paul says to Titus, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (2:15). Titus clearly has authority to act and it should be noticed that this is not just Paul empowering Titus, but rather God giving authority to Paul who then gives authority to Titus. Like Paul’s authority, Titus’ authority comes from God himself. This is not mere human authority but divine authority!

So where do I see this authority in today’s church? Well, I certainly think that pastors are given this authority since they are the one’s standing most surely in the place of the apostles. Of course, the wielding of this authority must not be abused but it seems most clearly to me that like Timothy and Titus (two first-century pastors), pastors are imbued by God with divine authority. For folks like me, then, who attend and are members of episcopal churches (that is, choosing to have a church structure that involves bishops who are essentially pastors of the pastors), this God-given authority is manifest at the local level in my pastor, at the diocesan level in the bishop, at the national level in the archbishop and at the international level, at least in my case, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Therefore, when asked, who your ecclesial authority is, I have at least four levels of persons to name. Church government aside, the important element to remember and the one that I think the Bible is clear about, is that each Christian is under the authority of God by way of those whom he calls to the pastoral ministry. Yet, such authority is regularly abused by those in pastoral ministry, the greatest and grossest example being the abuse of children by trusted pastors. That pastoral authority can (and is at times) abused does not mean that it is not biblical. Rather, how should the authority that is given by God to pastors be exercised? And how is this power given to a pastor and does he still have the authority if he lives in gross sin (such as child abuse) and/or teaches and preaches doctrines and theology that are clearly against God’s Word?

The exercise of the biblical and apostolic authority given to pastors seems to be put to use in some fairly straightforward ways:

  • “Preach the word…reprove, rebuke and exhort” (2 Timothy 4:2)
  • “Guard the deposit” (1 Timothy 6:20; cf. 1 Timothy 4:16 and 2 Timothy 1:14)
  • Hand heretics and false teachers “over to Satan” (1 Timothy 1:19-20)
  • Pray (1 Timothy 2:1); and
  • Be an example to others (1 Timothy 4:12).

More could be said but this seems to be a sufficient sampling. Again, it is clear in the Bible that this authority comes from God, yet how does God give this authority to his appointed pastors? It appears that this authority comes in some instances through the laying on of hands. Acts 8:18 says, “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money.” Though Simon’s action was a sin, the verse does say, in fact, that at times God the Holy Spirit comes upon/into a person through the act of the laying on of hands. This would also seem to be what is spoken of in 2 Timothy 1:6: “For this reason I remind you [pastor Timothy] to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” Yet, it must be borne in mind that there is no such reference to a laying on of hands in the book of Titus but Paul clearly says that Titus has authority as a minister of God (see Titus 2:15). So, instead of seeing a particular ceremony or action as being definitive for the transmission of authority (though the act of ordination would look to be the most likely ceremony in which to place such transmission), it seems more important to understand how one retains such authority.

To be brief, the Scriptures only speak of such authority in relation to those who are holy and orthodox. Timothy and Titus are both clearly holy and orthodox. They are both said to be guarding the deposit of the faith that they have received and the Scriptures certainly imply that though they may be young, they are holy men (see, for example, Titus 2:7). This is clear when one reads the books of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Contrary to these two men are individuals like Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus. Hymenaeus and Alexander “have made shipwreck of their faith” and are blasphemers (1 Timothy 1:19-20). The same Hymenaeus and one Philetus “have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened” (2 Timothy 2:17-18). Titus is tasked by Paul to “rebuke [the Cretans] sharply, that they may be sound in their faith” (Titus 1:13). In short, the Bible seems to be saying something fundamentally profound as well as something fundamentally simple: (1) God has given authority to his chosen pastors and ministers; (2) these men are chosen and set apart by God; (3) as holy and orthodox men they are given by God the right to exercise their God-given authority; (4) the authority of leaders/pastors who are not holy and orthodox is removed to the point that they are put out of the church and even given over to Satan; and (5) the church is to be obedient to these holy, orthodox and authoritative men.

In short, in a fallen world where there is rampant abuse of power in both the church and secular society, faithful Christians should crave appropriate biblical authority from their pastors. I for one will submit myself to God’s chosen pastor who is both holy and orthodox on any day of the week. Perhaps that is because I am desperate for authority! But shouldn’t all Christians be desperate for that which is given by God? I certainly think so. Do you?

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