Course: A Guide to Christian Theology
Lecture 31: Authority
This is the 31th lecture in the online series of lectures on a Guide to Christian Theology by Dr Breshears. Recommended Reading includes: Biblical References from the Course and Study Guides 1 – 39.
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I. The Basis of Church Authority
Let’s look at the basis of authority within the Christian church. It is made up of people under apostolic authority and thus authority comes from Scripture, the Bible. But how is this? The basic principles in regards to authority: First, the Bible is the final authority for faith and practice. This is opposed to the Bible being the only authority and the Bible being an authority. If we say that the Bible is the only authority, then there is nothing else that can give us any guidance. The Bible is an authority; it is good and wise but there are other good and wise authorities. There are some instances where church decide on things that even contradict the Bible. This comes up in ordaining gay pastors and such. In the Bible being the final authority, it is what the Bible teaches can’t be changed. It does teach prescribed authority. Look at Matthew 28:18 where it says that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ So we need to be working in the culture making disciples of Jesus Christ. That means evangelism, edification, community involvement, etc. This is a command from Scripture.
II. A Case Study in Church Leadership
We have commands from Ephesians 4:3 to protect the unity of the church which says that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. The essence of civilization is unity around Jesus Christ. The nature and function of the church are described within Scripture and taught prescriptively. So what the Bible teaches, we do. But there are many aspects of form that are described but you don’t have to do it that way. Scripture provides illustrations of how things are done and we should follow these as closely as possible. We see in Acts 6:1 a case study of this. It talks about the number of Hellenistic Christians increasing and the widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. First of all this is a case study in leadership and how you solve problems. It is also a case study on how you select leaders. It came to the twelve in Acts 6:2 saying ‘and the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, it is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom, who we will appoint to this duty.’ There is no one person who is in charge though we know that Peter is the unquestioned leader at this point. So I think the Scripture here describes multiple-leadership; it is a group effort. They met with all the disciples. Thus they decided on the principle of who was to do what. The whole group of disciples, the church, is approving the plan. Then the twelve told the disciples to choose, no nominations or creating a committee, no elders came together and made a decision and no senior pastors telling them what to do. How they decided is not told here. So the seven people were chosen and the apostles prayed and appointed them. I think this is how we should do leadership; it is a team effort in my judgement. It is how we should do church discussions. So this is a case study on several things, specifically in how to manage and elect officials. It is very rare to see a church following this pattern.
III. The Bible is Silent on Certain Issues
The final point in regards to this; there are a lot of areas that are just not addressed where we just don’t know. My judgement is that the Bible is purposely silent on these issues. There is nothing on how long a service should be or how long a sermon should be or even who should do baptism. There is only one example and that was with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. I think that Bible is purposely silent on these kinds of issues to give us the freedom to be wise and spirit lead to accomplish the prescriptions of the church. How we accomplish these depend on the culture, the size of the church, and the leadership of the church. Today as the elders and leadership decide something, they have the authority to do that. Recently we changed the nature of our worship service in our church. We had a group of fifteen vocalists coming in at different times but decided to change it to something that worked better. The changes were not easy; in fact it was very painful. But we submit to the leadership and follow Jesus’ pattern of submission as shown in Mark 14:32-36 that involves feelings, desires and trust. So things that are clearly described in the Bible, we should follow as closely as possible but in regards to things that the Bible is silent on, we should be free to be wise and Spirit led.
IV. Church Denominationalism
Another level of authority in regards to denominations takes in three basic approaches: the Episcopal form where there are bishops and superintendents that look over matters of the churches within the denominations. The superintendents help with directing pastors, sometimes with authority and sometimes as advisory position. The Presbyterian form of worship is done by elected assembly, like a republican form of government. So representative leadership makes decisions on doctrine and practice; for example the Presbyterian Church of the USA has just decided to allow practicing homosexual pastors to be ordained in their church. They say that they have the authority of decide this as an assembly as voted on by the church. This is causing all kinds of problems and churches who disagree are expected to come in line with their decision. This is the Presbyterian form of church government. Another form is called congregational where each congregation makes its own decision but there is an association between them and accountability is directly to God and his Word. The church family that I represent follows closer to this line of association. Even though we work together on community involvement and have a very close partnership, there is no authoritative relationship. The down side to this is when a church gets into trouble; there is no one to turn to authoritatively to deal with theological difficulties. So the church could go heretical where the pastor starts to teach things that are not Biblical.
V. Church Government
What is the internal organization of a church? One approach is having a senior pastor and this is called the Moses model. Moses goes up the mountain and gets a Word from God and comes down and tells the people what to do. This is where there is an anointed person at the top and they have the final decision on anything that is going on. A strong leader in this position can be very positive but burn out is very high. Another level is where the church can have a group called elders who make decisions together and then the third level is congregational where it is the congregation as a whole that make those decisions. The key is where does the central authority lie; either with a central pastor or a leadership board or with a whole congregation. We also need to understand the interaction between the leaders and the congregation. One option is called the pastoral rule where the pastor makes all the decisions for the direction of the church. He has veto power over everything that happens and delegates downward to the people under him with various responsibilities. Another level would be elder rule and thus the leadership with the Board of Elders and they may be called something else other than elders. It is the board who make decisions and they give those decisions to others in the church. The idea is that the church is about ministry; they should not be about direction or authority. So you get a group of gifted leaders and they make the decisions for the rest of the church and deliver these to the church. The advantage is that it saves the pastor from getting burned out or over worked. With a board, you have a diversity of personalities and gifts that can be very advantageous to the church. The disadvantage is getting the whole board to agree on something as this can be a real challenge. Another level would be what I would call elder lead decision making. I think this is what we have in Acts chapter 6. The Apostles proposed an action and the church interacts and approves. Yet, another level would be the congregational where everything is done by congregational vote after decision.
An example of this within our church; we established certain financial reference points to show us how the church was doing financially. This was to help us decide cut backs if needed to help the church. This helps with cutting back on spending and even to discontinue with the employment of people. So the leadership board had to make a decision as to what staff member would be let go. We had good people on the staff but had to tell someone that we would let them go and no longer employ them. So the decision was done as a board with no individual decision. Well, the church actually financially picked up and we didn’t have to let anyone go. This was an elder rule type of decision. Some pastors and church leadership doesn’t agree with this method while again others do agree with it. So it must be decided what kind of leadership authority a church will have; there are advantages and disadvantages to different kinds.