I’ve been reflecting theologically on the problem of authority in the Church for a number of years now. It is a notoriously difficult topic. Disagreements over authority have been at the heart of many of the divisions in the Church since the Reformation, and questions of authority remain among the most difficult issues discussed in ecumenical dialogue.
I became interested in the topic mostly because my own tradition (Salvation Army) has such an extremely hierarchical authority structure, and it seemed to me that its hierarchical structure was out of line with the Army’s otherwise egalitarian view of redeemed humanity. For my master’s thesis I investigated the development of the SA’s governance, and found that it was supported by basically a utilitarian argument: there is no biblical model for church structure, therefore we can use whatever is most “effective,” and what could be more effective than organizing ourselves as an Army? I would suggest that the argument no longer holds even on its own terms (that is, that the military structure is no longer “effective” in the way it may have been in the 1880s), and also that the presupposition on which it is built (that we are free to use whatever is most effective) is questionable at best. If you want to know more about that I’ll be happy to send you my thesis.
The following theses are posted here as food for thought. They certainly aren’t comprehensive, but I offer them as some basic principles to be kept in mind when thinking about questions of authority in the Church. If you read between the lines you can see how my experiences with the Army’s structure are acting as an invisible foil for much of what I’m writing here. However, I’ve tried to formuate these ideas into constructive propositions which should be applicable in any ecclesial context.
- Authority in the Church is, first and foremost, a theological issue. As the people of God, we must always keep the Truine God in view as we think about our life together, whether we are addressing issues of faith or practice. The theological question of authority must provide the normative specification for the practice of excercising authority, i.e., the ins and outs of how authority is exercised in the church. We cannot bracket out theological questions in our discussion of authority, blindly adopting practices from the world of business or elsewhere, without measuring them against the character of God as the authority to which all other authorities must answer.
- Jesus Christ is the head of the church and the ultimate authority to which every Christian and the church as a whole must answer. We all answer to one Lord, who is the embodiment of truly human and truly divine authority. Christ, as truly God and truly human, shows us the character of God and the character of our new humanity as it is intended to be. His humanity is the standard towards which we strive. However, as we are all pilgrims moving towards the realization of this fully redeemed humanity, it must be absolutely maintained that Christ’s authority is unique. Jesus is the one head of the church, no one can presume to encroach upon his authority. In the Church, his voice must be allowed to speak in a singular way, and all nations, cultures, ideologies, and persons (including Church leaders) must place themselves under this authority.
- The Scriptures contain the authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, and as such must always be allowed to speak over and against human authorities in the Church. The Bible is the normative source of our knowledge of Christ, and the medium through which God has graciously chosen to preserve the record of his self-revealing acts in history. As such, the Scriptures are the uniquely inspired standard against which all claims concerning Jesus Christ – and therefore all claims regarding authority in the Church – must be measured. The place of Scripture, as the standard for Christian faith, must be maintained in any system of authority. All human authorities in the church must be answerable to the unique witness of Scripture.
- The structures of authority in the Church ought to reflect the character of the Christian life. It is not enough that leaders themselves display lives of holiness and integrity. The structures and processes of authority should also be marked off as different from the authority structures and processes of the world. Authority structures are not “neutral” tools that can be used for either good or evil ends, depending on the persons who are using them. The structures themselves should foster and reflect the new life of the Spirit that is ours through Christ. To take an extreme example, a totalitarian structure demeans the dignity of the persons who are subject to its authorities, such that even a benign dictator in a totalitarian system participates in something which is a counter-witness to the gospel.
- The Holy Spirit guides the whole community of believers in following Jesus Chist as Lord. The Spirit enlivens, guides, and empowers the church in every aspect of its existence. The Spirit was sent forth from the Father to the whole people of God, so that his people might have fellowship with him, as they are united in fellowship with one another. Through worship, prayer, and the reading of Scripture together, the people of God are taught by the Spirit. This gives the Church a fundamentally egalitarian character, but it does not mean that individual believers can disregard the voice of others. It is not an individualistic egalitarianism, but a communal egalitarianism, in which each member is dependent upon the others. Precisely because God speaks to all believers through the Spirit, we must be wary of ‘lone ranger’ discernments of the Spirit’s voice. Through their common fellowship of the Spirit, believers are able to test and determine what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
- Human authorities in the Church are guided by that same Spirit. Those set in positions of authority in the church are guided by this same Spirit, who is given to the whole Church. Leaders must never presume that they have special access to God’s voice. As they are enabled by the Spirit to lead the people, they must remember that they are part of the assembly that gathers before God’s throne to hear him speak. They do have a status that sets them apart from this assembly. This is not to say that there is no distinction whatsoever between members of the Church. However, it must always be remembered that the distinctions are matters of function, not status. Church leaders have specific roles to play in the life of the congregation, and not everyone can fill those roles. But they do not have a higher status in relation to their brothers and sisters.
- Human authority the Church must always be open to reform. The above should establish that human authorities in the church must approach their task with an attitude of humility and a constant openness to reform. As no leader can perfectly discern the voice of the Spirit, no leader can ever fulfil their role in isolation from the discernment and reception of the people. Neither can any body of Christians perfectly discern and embody God’s will on this side of the eschaton. There will always be need for reform in the Church, and authorities must bear that need in mind at all times, remaining open to challenge and critique.
- Human authority in the church is not an end in itself, but is ordered towards its goal – the mission of God. If authority in the church is primarily a function and not a status, then authorities must not presume that their authority is an end in itself – that simply protecting and preserving their authority is God’s work. Human authority in the Church is a means to an end, and the end is the furtherance of the mission of God. This is not the same as saying we should use “any means necessary,” because the means themselves are part of the Church’s witness to the gospel. Rather, in saying that authority in the Church is ordered toward the mission of God, we put authority in its proper place, among the people of God, serving the mission of God. An authority which sets itself up as an end in itself can become idolatrous.