Church Authority: Argument 3


Accuracy, Authority, and the Visibility of the Church

In this post, I will argue that (1) There are some reasons to think the Church’s leaders have intrinsic authority, (2) Saying our parents have intrinisic authority is compatible with questioning our parents once we incorporate the concept of “insanity” into our model of authority, (3) Authority and accuracy are two distinct things, and this is implicitly accepted by Protestants, (4) Jesus thought the Scribes and Pharisees had intrinsic authority, (5) The Church continues the visible leadership structure and intrinsic authority that the Scribes and Pharisees had.

This post is a response to a comment in a very long discussion that can be found here on the blog By Whose Authority? about private judgment in the interpretation of the Bible. David Nilsen has been arguing that the gift of the illumination of the Holy Spirit helps individuals to interpret the Bible, and that the Spirit’s infallibility can speak directly to the soul of a Christian, binding his or her conscience to believe an interpretation of the Bible. Much of the discussion has already happened on his blog, and may be good background for this post.

(1) There are some reasons to think the Church’s leaders have intrinsic authority.


You wrote:

“Sorry it took me so long to respond. It was a busy Christmas weekend.”

In terms of taking your sweet time, you, sir, have nothing to apologize about. If anyone suffers from response-lag here, its me. Don’t worry.

You wrote:

“I don’t believe that the church qua church has intrinsic authority. I believe that the Scripture as the Word of God has intrinsic authority. Elders of the Church are called by God and gifted by the HS to administer the Word of God, but the authority lies outside of themselves. This ties in with the 1 John and John 6 passages we’ve been discussing. It is God, the HS, who teaches us, not men. Men are the instruments, the HS illumines the believer to understand what the men are teaching. And likewise, when the believer hears false teaching, the HS will enable him/her to discern that.”

Do you think that the words that come out of Christ’s mouth are authoritative? Is that because he is a tool of God’s will? Or is it because the human verbal utterances he speaks are intrinsically authoritative?

If men are not teachers, then why are some called teachers? (Rom 12:7, Eph 4:11, 1 Tim 2:7, 2 Tim 1:11) Surely we wouldn’t say of an Apostle “well, its not that he’s intrinsically an Apostle; God just uses him as an Apostolic tool” would we?  Receiving the gift of teaching seems to imply that you actually have a quality imparted to you that legitimizes your teaching.

If men are just instruments, with no inherent authority, then why are they called rulers? (1 Cor 12:28, Romans 12:8) Why are we told to obey them in the very solemn warnings of Scripture? (1 Thess. 5:12-14, Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). Doesn’t that imply there is some kind of authority within them?

(2) Saying our parents have intrinisic authority is compatible with questioning our parents once we incorporate the concept of “insanity” into our model of authority

You wrote:

“I still stand by what I said about deferring to the judgment of the elders in certain cases, even when you might disagree with them. Earlier you brought up an analogy of a child being told to take out the trash and suggested that the only way for the parent to have any meaningful authority is if the child complies with the command to take out the trash without thinking about it, weighing the pros and cons, and deciding that it’s the best course of action. But surely you wouldn’t think that it was right for a child to obey his parent qua obey his parent in ANY circumstance (suppose his parents are Nazis and his neighbors are Jews…). Parents are fallible and capable of making mistakes, and a child ought to show some moral discernment in such matters. I’m sure you would agree. And yet it hardly seems that a recognition of these facts suddenly divests parents of all meaningful authority and makes the commands in the Bible to obey one’s parents meaningless.”

I did not say the child could not think about or question the command. However, there is a vast difference between saying “I obey my dad because he’s intellectually competent to weigh the pros and cons of doing some action” and “I obey my dad because he’s my dad”. I think the latter is the correct way of seeing things. This implies that he has some intrinsic authority; its not just a question of his intellectual competence.

I think this becomes clearer if we think of how we compare our reasons to obey our parents vs follow some other course of action. We don’t merely think “oh, my parents are really smart, so I will trust their judgment on such and such”. There are times when people smarter than our parents tell us to do things, but we should pick obedience to our parents in opposition to following through with what the smarter people tell us. So long as “so-and-so is my parent” (stripped of its intellectualist connotations) can serve as a reason that motivates action, we have to ascribe some degree of intrinsic authority to our parents.

The cases in which it is legitimate to disregard the normative force of what our parents say are when they are obviously being prevented from acting *as parents*. We can describe these as cases of “insanity”, which means severe malfunction of a person that clearly prevents them from properly using the powers vested in them by nature (such as with our biological parents) or grace (as with our spiritual parents). If someone who is an authority seems to be going insane (like if my dad had a mad and wrathful look in his eyes, and picked up a baseball bat and told me to come over to him, and I knew he has a history of violent outbursts) we are really rejecting their judgment based on the fact that they cannot personally fulfill the role they have. Disregarding the normative force of what our parents say in emergencies should not be based on the fact that they are not intellectually perfect; it should be based on clear indications that they are *insane*. In those situations, “my dad said I should do x” should not count as a reason to motivate following through with action x, because my dad simply is *not being my dad*.

By analogy with the Church, to say it has authority would require us to believe that its statements have normative weight of some kind. The cases where discounting the normative force of its statements would be legitimate are cases of insanity. If you see obvious signs of insanity in a presbyter, then you should not consider their instructions to have intrinsic normative force. This isn’t because his presbytership doesn’t entail that “this presbyter said x” should serve as a motivating reason to believe that x. Its because he’s bonkers, and is *not being a presbyter*.

But lets say we recognize who the leaders of the Church are, and virtually all of them get together and pronounce a judgment about what we ought to believe, and there are no signs of insanity. They appeal to earlier Church leaders and point out that the greatest teachers of the Church all agreed with the doctrine they are telling us we’re obligated to believe (call it “x”). From what we can tell, they are functioning in their roles and exercising the powers vested in them by grace. In *this situation*, should we obey them? Does the fact that I can tell with a considerable degree of confidence that “the Church said x is true” serve as a motivating reason to believe that x? I think the instructions about Church obedience in Paul’s epistles should be taken this way, even if we don’t grant the infallibility of the Church.

(3) Authority and accuracy are two distinct things, and this is implicitly accepted by Protestants

The model for adjudicating authoritative decisions presented above maps on perfectly to the distinction between accuracy and authority. Accuracy is an intellectual disposition where one tends to validly infer information from data (data could be deductive argument or sensory input or something else). To say that some mechanism for belief-formation is accurate is the same as saying the beliefs produced by this mechanism tend to be true. Similarly, to say that a person is accurate is to say that they tend to get things right.

Authority is a normative power. It is the ability to directly morally bind human consciences to believe and do certain things. To say that someone is an authority means that when they command that something ought to be done or believed, we ought to agree and follow through if possible.

On the contrary, to indirectly bind human conscience to believe or do something would involve a speaker using persuasion and appeals to reasons that the audience should accept. If someone who hears the speaker grasps the intellectual force of the appeals being made, then they might be bound to believe or do what the speaker suggests. But they are not bound to believe or do what the speaker said *based on the fact that it was the speaker talking*; in other words, they are not directly morally bound to believe or do something. Rather, they are bound because they had independent motivations (other than “the speaker says so”) that they accurately recognized as valid. The speaker just brought these motivations to mind. This is the difference between *suggestion* and *command*. Suggestion appeals to the accuracy of the hearer to discern the accuracy of the speaker and the verifiable validity of his reasons. Command appeals to the authority of the speaker as a reason.

So with respect to adjudicating authoritative decisions, we might say that it is our obligation to accurately discern where authority is. And when we discern it, we ought to obey it. If we accurately discern that someone who normally would be an authority is unable to act in that capacity for some reason, then it is okay to disregard their commands as reasons to believe or do things.

Something similar happens with the Bible when we discover that textual criticism calls into question the accuracy of our translation of some passage. It is our obligation to discern which rendition of the passage is correct. We must be accurate. But once we discern the most likely correct rendition of the passage, we are obligated to believe and obey. The authority of the Bible then comes into play.

(4) Jesus thought the Scribes and Pharisees had intrinsic authority.

Here’s something interesting to think about. Jesus tells us (Matthew 23:1-4) to be in submission to the Scribes and Pharisees. He says “The Scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do.” This seems to be Jesus telling us that the teachers of Israel have authority. They can bind human consciences to believe and do certain things. Its not just that they’re smart, or even that they’re good, for we ought not “do according to their works; for they say and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” The Scribes and Pharisees seem to be intrinsically authoritative, and their interpretations of the Scriptures are binding on Israel to believe.

This seems to be a counterexample to the idea that “It is God, the HS, who teaches us, not men. Men are the instruments, the HS illumines the believer to understand what the men are teaching.” For surely we wouldn’t say that the Scribes and Pharisees just had the ability to regurgitate what the Torah said. They had interpretive authority of some kind. Thus it seems the situation was different, at least in ancient Israel before the Christian Church.

(5) The Church continues the visible leadership structure that the Scribes and Pharisees had.

But Jesus teaches us in a parable that the leaders of Israel forfeited their authority (Matthew 21:33-45). The tenets killed the Son that the Master of the vineyard of Israel sent, saying “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.” And Jesus asks the crowd what will happen to these tenets, and they respond “[The Master] will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus affirms this, saying “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.”

Who are the new vinedressers? Is it not most likely the 12 Apostles, and whoever else may acquire authority in the Church? We know that the 12 had some kind of special authoritative power above that of normal Christians. In the eschaton, at the regeneration of all things, they have authority to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). That might seem like a distant future kind of thing. But when we think of it in terms of realized eschatology, it gets awfully suspicious. It seems like the 12 should have a foretaste of this power of the age to come in the present. Whatever authority they have in the afterlife, they should have some of it now.

Also, what are we to make of the servants who are in charge of other servants (Matthew 24:45-51)? They have higher responsibility for wrongdoings and failures; surely this means they have some kind of power that is more dangerous and has greater bearing on the way the world turns out than the average Christian. After all, these fellows are appointed as “rulers over his household, to give them food in due season.” The most obvious referent for “them” is “other servants” (24:49). (Also, one might wonder if the food given in due season is perhaps, just maybe, the Eucharist?). They are even said to have “rule over all [the Master’s] goods.” Surely in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, the goods of the Kingdom of God include the power to bind and loose men from their sins (Matthew 16:18-19) and to teach authoritatively (Matthew 23:1-4).

If the 12 (and anyone who gets office in the Church after them) are the new vinedressers, it seems like we should view the place that the leaders of Israel (scribes, pharisees, chief priests) had as authorities as a model for Church authority. But then we must say that the Church is intrinsically authoritative. It seems like, just as Jesus taught there was a hierarchical structure of relationships in ancient Israel, similarly there will be a hierarchical structure in the Church. There is the vineyard, and then the vinedressers. There are servants, and then there are servants over other servants. There is the throne of Christ, and then the thrones of the Apostles.


3 Responses to “Church Authority: Argument 3”

  1. JNORM888 Says:


    “David Nilsen has been arguing that the gift of the illumination of the Holy Spirit helps individuals to interpret the Bible, and that the Spirit’s infallibility can speak directly to the soul of a Christian, binding his or her conscience to believe an interpretation of the Bible.”

    I wonder why David refuse to believe this for the Holy Spirit guiding the Church to interpret the Bible correctly.?

    “”while in Orthodoxy no need for, or necessity of, such a security was ever felt for the simple reason that the living Truth is its own criterion.” This, of course, is the exact point made by Khomiakov, that in Orthodoxy the criterion of truth is not external or dogmatic, a speaking to the church, but internal and pneumatic, a living Lord within the church.
    Positively, we might say that the only ultimate theological criterion to which Orthodoxy appeals is the living presence of God himself, who safeguards the church and promises through his Spirit to lead us and guide us into all truth (John 14:25-26; 16:13). This was the pattern established by the original church in council at Jerusalem, which based its decisions on the charismatic criterion: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). Thus the Orthodox appeal to Irenaeus: “Where theChurch is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is Truth.” [1]

    Great post!!!


    [1] page 107, from the book “Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A western perspective” by Daniel B. Clendenin. Baker Academic 1994, 2003

  2. MG Says:


    Thanks for your kind words.

    With respect to your comments about security and “speaking to the Church”, well said. I think I agree, but I have some questions about what you mean.

    I wonder if there are certain signs that help us to identify when the Church as a whole has spoken (when its Catholicity is authoritatively manifest). It seems like this would be analogous with any other organization: when a significant majority (leaders and normal members, perhaps by representation) weigh in their opinion in a policy decision (whether implicitly or explicitly) it seems like it becomes the official policy of the organization. Could we maybe say the same of the Church–that a hint at the authority of its decisions can be found in a broad consensus in official decisions (ie. ecumenical council)?

    Do you think the above suggestion relates to the canon of St. Vincent?

    I am aware of alleged counterexamples to this way of recognizing the Church’s authority (times when it wasn’t obvious whether the Church’s teachers were Orthodox or not) and I have a response to that objection that I’d like to try out. But I want to hear your reaction to these ideas first. Tell me if I’m disagreeing with you and just not realizing it.

  3. Church Authority, Argument 4: Sola Scriptura vs. Prima Scriptura and Icons « The Well of Questions Says:

    […] For the distinction between inherent and relative authority, see here, in section (2) on the inherent authority of our […]

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