Harvey A. Childress
We need authority to know what is true or false, right or wrong. Authority tells us what to believe and what to do. What we believe and do depend upon our concept of authority. We can quote the Bible all day to a person who doesn’t accept it as a standard of authority, and he merely shrugs his shoulders and says, “So what?” The authority of the Bible must be established before people will accept its statements.
Reason is not the basis of the edicts of authority. The basis of its edicts is desire. If authority orders, the subject must obey, for authority has been defined as a rule of action laid down by a superior for an inferior to obey.
Since God is self-existent, He is the ultimate authority. All truth inheres in Him and issues from Him.
The Christians Concept Of Authority
This study is primarily for those who accept God as the final authority in all matters for the soul. In order to understand His will, we need to understand the Christian’s concept of authority.
Hebrews 1:1-2 summarizes God’s authority and its functions for us. “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.”
God first issued His will in times past through the prophets. The prophets spoke for God as He moved them by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). What God spoke through the prophets has as much authority as if God had spoken directly to the people.
Now God speaks through His Son. Christ brought God’s word to us (John 12:49), and what Christ says in the New Testament has as much authority for you and me as it would if God spoke directly to us. From this, we understand the authority Christ exercised while He was on earth. He taught with authority (Matt. 7:29), He had authority to work miracles (Mark 1:27), and to forgive sins (Mark 2:10).
God gave all authority unto the Son. “These things spake Jesus; and lifting up his eyes to heaven, he said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that the Son may glorify thee: even as thou gavest him authority over all flesh” (John 17:1-2). A few days after this prayer, the resurrected Jesus meets with his disciples in Galilee where He gives them this charge: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations… Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature…” (Matt: 28:19; Mark 16:15). On what authority can He give such a commission? Upon His own authority, because God has committed all authority into His hands (Matt. 28:18). Since God, by right of His own existence, gives all authority unto Christ, then Christ determines what is true or false, right or wrong in the realm of religion.
There was little authority given by Jesus Christ to any individual. He gave authority to the apostles, and Paul said that authority was from Christ (2 Cor. 13:10), for the purpose of building up the church.
While Jesus addressed Peter and the other apostles, he said they were to bind and loose on earth (Matt. 16:19). Again, He told them they were to forgive and retain sins (John 20:22-23). But such binding and loosing, forgiving and retaining could only be done by them as they were moved by the Holy Spirit to reveal all truth (John 16:13). The expressions used in both passages of the Greek language say, “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
By this, we know that the binding and loosing took place in heaven and was revealed under the direction of the Holy Spirit. The apostles merely revealed to man what those terms of Christ were which the Holy Spirit gave them (1 Cor. 2:13). The apostles had no arbitrary authority of their own to make decisions, rules, or edicts of their own that would be binding on the church. Neither could they forgive or retain sins of their own, but only as Christ revealed His will to them through the Holy Spirit. The apostles never passed on any succession of authority to other men when they died. Their work was finished before their deaths and they have no successors on earth today.
Some mention the authority of evangelists. In Titus 2:15, the evangelist is told to speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. But such speaking, exhorting, and reproving can be done only according to the word of God (1 Pet. 4:11). If the evangelist doesn’t give a “thus saith the Lord” for his speech, he is speaking without authority.
The elders of the local congregation have authority to tend the flock, exercising the oversight thereof (1 Pet. 5:2), and to rule that congregation (Heb. 13:17). But, like the evangelist, they can only enforce the word of God. They can neither add their own teachings to it, nor take any teachings from it. Christ has absolute legislative, executive, and judicial authority. Man’s authority derives only from the word of God as Christ has expressed it.
The apostles were strictly forbidden to exercise authority over one another as civil authorities were doing (Mark 10:42-43). But this is the very kind of authority many churches exercise over their members in this present day.
Christians in the New Testament realized they left the rule or authority of Satan to come under the reign of Christ (Col. 1:13). They recognized Christ as Lord of all, and that what He authorized was delivered by inspiration to the church by Holy Spirit-inspired apostles and prophets.
Post-Apostolic Departure From That Concept
In the two centuries following the deaths of the apostles, there was a noticeable departure from this concept of authority. Councils of bishops began to meet and define the faith and practice of Christians. In this manner, these councils of bishops gradually became the organ of authority.
The scriptures were venerated in word, but they were subordinated to the decisions of the bishops. Their decisions became an outline of a common creed that was accepted, and their power continued to increase.
From the fourth century to the middle ages, the authority of those councils grew to the extent that anyone not obeying them was excommunicated. While the councils claimed only to define the teaching of Christ, they invested themselves and their decisions with authority over man and usurped Christ’s authority.
In the middle ages, Christ and His word were totally eclipsed by the absolute authority of what was by that time an apostate church. The Church of Rome concentrated in its episcopacy all the authority of tradition, bishops, councils, and whatever else held sway over the minds of men in religion. Scripture was ignored and the Bishop of Rome took upon himself the plenary authority of God over men’s minds and lives.
In the Reformation Movement, internal authority sprang up. Men thought that what they felt about religion had as much authority as what God said. Many times they stamped their feet on the Bible, declaring, I had rather have what I feel in my heart than ten thousand Bibles. Such leads only to the worst confusion. Nothing can bring a uniformity out of all the confusion that exists in religion but the one inward fitness of one supreme revelation to the common needs of humanity.
Return To The Original Position
There is one supreme revelation that fits that need — the Bible. The Bible and the Bible alone can bring us out of confusion into peace and progress in the faith. Lets go back to the original position of New Testament Christians regarding authority.
We have to choose between human and Divine authority. Human authority resides in church councils, pontiffs, creeds, conferences, conventions, and church covenants. Divine authority rests in Christ and His law expressed in the New Testament (Heb. 1:1-2).
Why do men want human authority today? The answer is simple. They desire to practice things in religion Christ never authorized. They want to glorify themselves more than Bible authority allows. They want to change the Bible with their creeds and ideas because it condemns so many things they practice.
But Jesus said, “…my words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). Christ’s word is permanent—eternal (Heb. 13:20). The same word you read in your Bible will meet you in the day of judgment (John 12:48). Remember, you can change yourself, but you cannot change God’s word.
Truth never varies. It is always consistent with itself. It always tells the same story. The apostles were guided into all truth that saves our souls (John 16:13). We have that truth in the New Testament. We don’t need any more.
If you have trouble making up your mind which authority you will accept—God’s or man’s—then ask yourself these questions: Will church authorities judge me in the last day? Will the decrees of councils, creeds, conferences, conventions, or synods be the criteria by which I am judged? The answer to both questions is obviously no. None of those things will judge you. The word of Christ will be the standard by which your life will be measured and by which you will be judged (John 12:48; Rev. 20:12). Your record will be weighed in the light of God’s word, not the decrees of men.
Then, we breathe this prayer: “Lord, hasten the day when people will go back to the Bible to justify their faith and practice.” Christ alone is King, and His word our only law (Matt. 17:5; 28:18).