The Crisis in Religious Authority – Dub McClish

Dub McClish

The challenges of recent years to authority in home, school, marketplace, and military were bound to have their parallels in religion. The very foundations of pontifical authority in Roman Catholicism have been jarred in recent years with unprecedented open debate between priests and pope over such matters as contraception and a celibate priesthood. A few years ago Italian legislators ignored the pope’s objections to a national divorce law and passed such a law. Among other results, many sources indicate that previously unheard of numbers of priests and nuns are deserting their orders. Some predict that within twenty years or less Catholicism will not be distinguishable from Protestantism. All of this is happening because, one by one, the legs are being knocked from under the pontifical chair, the seat of authority.

Protestantism has felt the effects of this challenge, too. Until two or three decades ago most Protestant churches claimed to believe in the Bible and its authority, but in the intervening years the seminaries have all but destroyed that faith by producing a constant stream of unbelieving pulpiteers. Many Protestants have quit in disgust, but many others have gladly embraced the non-authoritative approach. (The age-old Protestant slogans claiming that “one church is as good as another” and that “it makes no difference what you believe as long as you’re sincere” did a good job of preparing the soil for this liberalism.) Many Protestants seem to be bewilderedly hanging on to the only vestige of religion they know, sickened at what they see and hear on Sunday, but knowing of nothing better.

The crumbling and discarding of their traditional authorities has gone on long enough to produce an offsetting reaction among both segments of Christendom. Especially can this be seen in Protestantism. While the anything-goes liberals have occupied the headlines with their attempts at out blaspheming each other, there has been a quiet, but steady interest generated in conservative, Biblical study and teaching. This is visible in both pulpit and pew. Unfortunately, “fundamentalist” independent and holiness groups have profited most from this fallout. Widespread religious liberalism has served to accent the folly of a non-authoritative approach to religion! (This phenomenon is well documented in Dean M. Kelly’s book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.)

In the church of the Lord, the source of religious authority has never been in question on any large scale; it has been the Bible, particularly the New Testament. There have been some in every age since Pentecost who would not endure the sound doctrine and have turned away from the truth (2 Tim. 4:3-4), but upon exposure they have either been restored or have left the church entirely. In recent years the anti-authority approach has seriously invaded the Lord’s church. It now appears that the question of religious authority is an open issue, perhaps even a divisive issue, among us. Such statements as: “Not one of us can give chapter and verse for everything we do in our worship, nor do we need to,” and “The right spirit is more important than the right practice,” and “There is no one right way” are frightful indications. The attack that has been mounted against the authority of elders in the local church is also symptomatic. It is a sad fact that some brethren have decided they have outgrown the need for biblical authority. What a tragic irony that at the very time when many sincere religious people are taking a turn toward conservatism, many influential brethren have moved toward liberalism.

A Christian is distinguished from all other religionists and is constituted a Christian by virtue of his submission to the authority of Christ through the Scriptures. There is no such thing as a Christian without the Scriptures. Since a church is simply a body of Christians, it is evident that the church, by scriptural definition, cannot exist in the absence of scriptural authority. The seed of the kingdom is still the Word of God (Luke 8:11).

In the face of this incontrovertible principle, it becomes even more lamentable that there are those in the church (including teachers, preachers, and elders) who have lost their respect for the authority of God’s Word. Sadder yet is the fact that they feel comfortable, are tolerated, and repeatedly given a platform in many quarters. Some have fallen into the old error of conceiving of the church as merely a denomination. Some no longer have a conscience about instrumental music in worship or the observance of the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s day and only on the Lord’s day. This same loose attitude toward Scripture has set some up for embracing, or at least being tolerant toward, neo-Pentecostalism. An increasing number of our pulpits no longer ring with a distinctive, Scripture-filled, authoritative message. Some have a difficult time deciding what to tell people to do who want to become Christians. Many are moving the church into the entertainment field. More and more the local church is being pressured to assume the responsibilities of parents and home. Probably none of these people would openly attack the Scriptures, but the result of their efforts is the same. The disguised wolf is always more dangerous than the unmasked one (Mat. 7:15).

The church has weathered many stormy issues through the centuries. Some of the great issues of the first century involved Judaism (Acts 15), the coming of the Lord (2 Pet. 3) and incipient Gnosticism (1 Tim. 6:20-21; 1 John). These were all met with an appeal to authoritative preaching by inspired men. When their voices ceased to be heard, apostasy resulted and the church of Christ disappeared from history books for several centuries. In the last century and this one, all issues from the missionary society and the instrument to communion cups and orphan homes have been faced with an open Bible. Its authority has been appealed to in countless sermons, debates, articles, and books. Most brethren on both sides of these issues agreed on one point: the only court of appeal was the Word of God. Because of this appeal to God’s authority, the truth on these matters has shone forth to the majority of God’s people and one by one these issues have been decided and left behind.

The issue before us now is not so simple or singular as those before. It revolves around a certain type of “worldly wisdom.” It thrives upon what it considers to be intellectualism. Its proponents are loud on spirituality, as they define it, and are correspondingly soft on strict adherence to God’s Word, as though these were incompatible!

All saints should weep that the time has come in the kingdom when there are those who almost boastfully disregard the finality of Scriptural authority. It is now being preached that one cannot take a definite stand on any Scripture truth because what we “think” is truth may only be our “subjective interpretation.” If that be true, then that which by scriptural definition has been termed error may only be mere “subjective interpretation” and may in reality be truth! (Are those who are preaching this absolutely sure that their view is not merely their own “subjective interpretation?”) If this line be followed, there is no way to discern truth from error. Therefore, doctrine becomes altogether inconsequential. In such case, lines of fellowship cannot be drawn over whether one is Scripturally baptized, whether one is dedicated to the Lord’s teaching on worship or the divine pattern for the church, or any number of other issues. To these free brethren (as they picture themselves) such matters are “legalistic” and “traditional.” To contend for such things makes one “judgmental,” “intolerant,” and “Pharisaical.” To stand firmly upon God’s definition of a Christian and upon the terms by which the Lord adds one to His church is to “play God” or to be derisively called a “five-stepper” by those loose-thinkers.

If contending earnestly for “the faith once for all delivered” makes me a legalist, that is what the Lord wants me to be, for He gave that directive (Jude 3). If insisting that only those immersed for remission of sins following faith, repentance, and confession are in the Lord’s church means that one is an intolerant judge, then one is such with Heaven’s approval. Standing for the terms of spiritual fellowship demanded by the Scriptures is not playing God, it is obeying God (1 John 1:7). Like Paul in Ephesus (Acts 20:31), those who love the truth and the church it produces dare not “cease to admonish” or “warn” (KJV). The time seems to be fast approaching when those who desire their children to be a part of the simple church of Christ that they have known are going to have to by-pass brethren who are steadily working against this purpose. If the cancer of liberalism will not respond to the treatment of scriptural admonition, radical surgery is the only recourse. Otherwise, the cancer will devour the whole body. The issue we are fighting now embraces all other issues. Simply put, it is this: is the Bible our religious authority or can we teach and practice what we please?

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Author: Editor

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