Doctrine of the Church: Authority in History, the Reformation, and Today

Introduction

Authority has been a discussion in church history throughout the years. Early churches were often regional with the bishop of the region having a vast amount of power. Later the church became more centralized until the clergy oversaw and had authority over every aspect of the spiritual and sometimes governmental aspects of the laity’s lives. The reformation at its core was a change in these power structures. The disruption of a centralized power resulted in war and blood in the streets. Out of the chaos, denominationalism grew into the primary expression of Christianity in the world today. Each denomination handles the issue of authority differently; however, they all share, even the Roman Church, marks of the decentralization of power that happened in the reformation: local autonomous churches most of all bear this reformation mark.

Major Theological Components of Authority

The topic of authority is indeed a very early subject in the church. Ignatius, of the earliest writers, says, the “bishop [is] one who beyond all others possesses all power and authority”[1] and to oppose the bishop makes one “utterly without God, an impious man who despises Christ.”[2] In Ignatius’ time, the canon was not fully understood, so the bishop would outline the expected texts for his people, authorize who could administer the ordnances, and be the final authority on membership. Fast forward about 300 years, and Augustine, responding to Faustus, gives a glimpse of how he views the authority of the scripture and the church together. Augustine says, “you forthwith deny that Matthew wrote the narrative, though this is affirmed by the continuous testimony of the whole Church.”[3] Augustine seems to view the church as complementary to the scriptural authority, or perhaps coequal. Near the same time Augustine is writing, the foundations of the Papacy were being laid by a man named Leo. Shelley explains, “Leo [in] his entrance into office he extolled the “glory of the blessed Apostle Peter … in whose chair his power lives on and his authority shines forth.”[4] Patterson agrees with that “Leo I launched the medieval papacy.”[5] Throughout the middle ages “the hierarchical government of the Western church imitated secular imperial structures.”[6] The clergy, overseen by the pope, were the supreme authority in all matters of faith for the laity. Aquinas gives a picture of how doctrine worked in this time, “just as the Pope is said to absolve a man when he gives absolution by means of someone else: [the priest].”[7] At this point the church claims all authority over the laity, even the power to forgive sins, and sole authority to interpret scripture.

Components of Reformation and Modern Denominations

The authority to forgive sins and how that authority was used was a spark in the heart of a German monk, soon to turn reformer, Martin Luther. The 95 Theses that Luther nailed to the church door is dominated by the idea of indulgences. Not a new topic in Luther’s day, but one that the reformer Luther addressed. Luther’s primary issue can be summed up as, who can forgive sins but God, and when did God sell that forgiveness? Just four years after nailing the theses to the door Luther is excommunicated from the church. Geoffrey gets right at the heart of the reformation stating, “it quickly became apparent that the protest involved a drastic rethinking of the way in which Christ’s authority is exercised.”[8] The fact that the reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Tyndale, immediately began translating the Bible into the vernacular shows they believed the authority was on the scripture for each person to see. The visible argument of the reformation might have been justification, but the true separation between Rome and the Reformers was the issue of authority. Luther attacked the church’s power structures themselves, removing the divide between the clergy and the laity, declaring all Christians priests, and removing 5 of the 7 sacraments, keeping two, Baptism and the Eucharist. The only two sacraments instituted in scripture. In some ways, this freedom that came was a disaster. The reformers fought over what and how the scripture prescribed the sacraments and all of Europe ended up in what is called the 30-year war, Christians killing each other in the streets. The war can be attributed to the issue of authority. The reformer’s ideas left a power vacuum. Even as late as the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s, the Christians were still enforcing worship with governmental authority. But it was the sons of the pietists that won in the end. The congressionalist took the pietist’s principles of separation of church and state and founded independent congregations all over Europe and the new colonies. Slowly distilled into the world, the denominations emerged, each with slightly different authority cultures. State churches like the Anglicans, some with presbyteries like the Presbyterians, and some fiercely independent like the Baptists. Even the Roman Church evolved, allowing its members to access scripture and removing its anathematization of the other groups.

Major Theological Components in Ministry

Baptists fiercely guard their independence, even within the Baptist community. Each church is usually autonomous and a member of the coalition by its own choice. This means that while there are shared principals each church has its own distinctives. Theologically a church must be ready to define its own theology and, or, accept a historical confession. For example, a Reformed Baptist church might hold primarily to the 1689 London Baptist Confession (LBC), while a more traditional Baptist church might use the Baptist Faith and Message. There are also different leadership models, single pastor, a multiplicity of elders, elders and deacons, ETC. In almost all cases, pastors, elders, deacons require approval by the congregation. Each church will have bylaws that define how the approval process works. In the case of this Reformed Baptist, the leadership model is a plurality of elders. The elders are selected by the congregation. These elders administer the church membership, ordinances, and care for the flock. Theological distinctives are confessed in the LBC.

Conclusion

The LBC says, “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.”[9] Indeed, throughout history, no matter how humans organized their church, the church of God has relied on the scriptures as authoritative matters of faith. The reformations primary impact was freeing the biblical text from the church and giving it to the reader. No place more exemplifies this freeing than the local church, where arguments happen, people see one thing or another, and doctrinal distinctives are rediscovered with every generation. The people of God will always be able to move forward because of the power and authority contained in holy scripture.

 

References:

[1]. Ignatius of Antioch, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 69.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Augustine of Hippo, “Reply to Faustus the Manichæan,” in St. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Richard Stothert, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 325.

[4]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 137.

[5]. Kendell H. Easley and Christopher W. Morgan, eds. 2013. The Community of Jesus: A Theology of the Church. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic. 163.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Saint Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, ed. Mortimer J. Adler, Philip W. Goetz, and Daniel J. Sullivan, trans. Laurence Shapcote, Second Edition., vol. 17, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago; Auckland; Geneva; London; Madrid; Manila; Paris; Rome; Seoul; Sydney; Tokyo; Toronto: Robert P. Gwinn; Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 574.

[8]. G. W. Bromiley, “Authority,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 367.

[9]. R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 2478.

 

Bibliography

Bromiley, Geoffrey W., ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988.

Easley, Kendell H, and Christopher W. Morgan, eds. 2013. The Community of Jesus: A Theology of the Church. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic.

Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Vol. 1. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.

Schaff, Philip, ed. St. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists. Vol. 4. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887.

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Updated 2nd ed. Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995.

Sproul, R. C., ed. The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015.

 

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