Authority, Easter, Church

I don’t worry about authority in the church so much.

I know that this is a big deal to a lot of people. I know folks who have converted to Roman Catholicism from various Protestant traditions largely because the unseemly mess of Protestant opinion seems to spring directly from the lack of authority.

How will we know what it is to speak for God if we do not have an authority on earth to make that known? Should we not look to those who have gathered and said, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us?” Should we not look to the vice-regent that Jesus has installed on Rome, his holy hill?

Protestantism is, surely, a mess.

And evangelical Protestantism is a magnification of this messiness, manifested in the proliferation of churches and denominations and non-denominations.

Or, if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till the mess gets here.

Without centralized authority, it seems that we are reliving the ignoble era of the judges: there was no king, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

But I don’t think that the answer is the establishment of an authority here on earth. I don’t worry about the lack of an earthly authority for one reason: Jesus was raised from the dead.

If there is one confession that truly unites all Christians in all times and places it is this: “Jesus is Lord.”

Or, as Jesus indicates in Matthew 28, something changed with the resurrection. The authority that Jesus had begun to exercise while on earth has now been fully given to him:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

There it is.

The authority is Christ’s, and we shouldn’t attempt to take it for ourselves. Nor should we seek to give it to another person on earth.

I know, I know. Practically, this doesn’t help. We are, in fact, called to speak “authoritatively,” to speak for Christ, to exercise an ambassadorial function of those sent from the King to the distant kingdom in order to make our sovereign’s wishes known.

But that task is always one fraught with uncertainty. Locating Jesus’ voice in a person or a council only focuses the inevitable mistakes in the work a few rather than diffusing the mistakes more broadly.

And I suppose, that’s the point. By giving control to a group or a person we can eliminate diversity, but we cannot ensure even then that what we are doing is right.

We cannot turn our groping along toward the light into a full-fledged walking in the day simply by taking hold of the shoulders of the person who is groping along ahead of us.

Leadership is still important, but it will have to be much different leadership than the authority of a Tradition or Council if it is to function well in the story of the crucified and risen Christ.

If Jesus is risen from the dead, then “Jesus is Lord” must, in the end, be enough for us.

16 thoughts on “Authority, Easter, Church”

  1. Daniel,

    How do you read the Peter as a Rock scripture? It’s a barrier that Protestants have given up on nowadays. Thoughts on Matthew 16:18?


  2. I think that even if we were to say that Peter is indeed the “rock” rather than his confession this doesn’t establish a papacy. It doesn’t say anything about generations of bishops receiving the baton of his authority.

  3. Thanks for the cogent post. When we attempt to “speak for God’ with authority without the input of the church and Scripture we take on the role of the “authority of Christ” often without recognizing we have an established papacy, even in the evangelical world.

  4. Rod, I think that Brian points in the direction I might go. What might it look like to build on Peter, or, perhaps, his confession? Who gets keys for doing what?

    I did read the passage as, in some ways, reining in my “no authority” thrust: the keys and binding and loosing is strong language.

    But does this mean a Peter must exist always? In one person?

    I also find it interesting that Matthew sets what could be an interesting trajectory for the unfolding story of the church, but from what we see in the rest of the NT Peter really does not play this role. Of course, Matthew is witness to a particular reality as well and we shouldn’t down-play that.

    How important is it that at the end of Mt, all 11 are commissioned to go and speak for the Resurrected One? I’m wondering if the keys and the like is more diffuse than one mediator upon the earth.

  5. Also, off the top of my head, may there be intentional vagueness? Maybe the language isn’t supposed to be about Peter OR the confession made, but maybe the two are connected? If so, what does this say about Peter? about the confession?

  6. The LORD told Samuel explicitly that in seeking a king they were rejecting God as king. Apparently people doing what is right in their own eyes was a good thing. Seems to me the problem in Judges was that people made excuses for themselves and took short cuts. I think all would be well if people would really look at what they were doing and really be guided by what, after study, prayer, and consideration, they found to be righteous. John 14:16-17. “I ain’t the Preacher, I’m the Preacher’s Son … ”

    … Calling somebody a Rock is at least a two-edged compliment. Peter was not noted for subtlety.

  7. 1. Props on the post, J.R.! Excellent!

    2. I’m reaching way back for this one, but aren’t the words for Peter’s new name and Rock different? I always thought that “Peter” was more of a rock you could pick up and hold, while “rock” (“petros”?) meant something closer to “boulder.” So that Jesus wasn’t building his church on a person, but on the boulder of the confession.

    Like I say, I’m reaching way back, and that thought may have been tainted by some bias.

  8. the first councils established that the Scriptures we now have are the inspired Scriptures.
    We, christians, don’t believe that the Bible is a kind of Kuran directly given by God, but that the process started with inspiration, and was led by the Spirit, with the church, until completion of the canon.

    We cannot reject the first councils… or if we do, we reject the canon.

    Maybe a way of resolving the problem would be to think “narativly” … and see that the counsils were right about the creeds and the canon, … but when it came to Trente, or the immaculate conception of the virgin, they got terribly wrong, not discerning what the Spirit was doing in the reformation.

    Because, if we take the first counsil as a model, … councils are to be simply the church recognizing what the Spirit is doing, and giving ourselves a common language to describe it.

  9. we could not have got protestantism/evangelicalism way of seeing christianity without catholicism, and we could not have got post-liberal thinking and narative theology without the dead-ends of protestantism/evangelicalism.

    do this make historic christianity traditional explanations and ways of doing things irrelevant? Was it a mistake to have what we got during middle-age in Europe? Could have it been different?

  10. While I think scripture does not endorse a papacy, I find this notion of no human authority foreign to it. Authority is clearly exercised in Acts 15, and obviously in a way that is not contradictory to the reality of Jesus’ reign. I believe we can, in fact, have communities of authority where authority is reciprocal and held in common (such as Anabaptist conceptions), or even, possibly episcopal and conciliar authority. All of those have clear biblical precedent.

    1. Brad, I’ve been nudged in this direction through the conversations today. I’m working on nailing down what it was I was on about, what I’m reacting to, and whether it’s undone by these counter-points or whether there’s something to it that I just haven’t found the right way to say, yet…

    2. We can have leadership without “authority” in the sense of a demand for unconditional obedience. Certainly we need individuals who can form a center and prophets who can show the way we are going, for good or evil, like the Judges or the Jerusalem Council. What can’t be allowed IMO is taking ownership of God as if my Holy Spirit is Holier that yours. What is demanded is willing submission, forced obedience is not an acceptable substitute. Our Pastor likes to say that God gave humans dominon over the animals and so on, not over other humans.

      (Spellcheck changed “prophets” to “preheats”. I sort of like that. …never mind.)

  11. the first councils were the sayings of a persecuted church.
    the later were the sayings of a powerful (and paranoid?) church.

    it makes all the difference in the world.

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