Ask any non-Catholic Christian about authority and you will probably get an answer similar to the following quote from pastor John Piper, “Submission to a pastor or a group of elders does not mean the pastor is infallible or the pastor is the ultimate authority. The Bible is the ultimate authority and infallible, not the pastor and not the elders.”
But immediately we encounter problems with a statement like this. In the first place, if we look in the bible, we see that nowhere do the Scriptures claim to be the “ultimate authority” in the life of the believer. In fact, in his instructions to Timothy on how to select bishops and deacons, the Apostle Paul states that he is, “writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”1 In other words, his letter to Timothy is simply meant to instruct him on procedures within the Church. It is the Church herself which is the foundation of the truth.
Of course, if the bible is the inspired Word of God, then it is also a source of divine truth, and without question authoritative. But the “ultimate authority?” Our only authority? Our only foundation for truth? Not according to the Scriptures themselves.
Also, the question is often asked, “Why should I trust that the bible is the inspired Word of God in the first place? How do I know that the books which it contains are the right ones?” Martin Luther the father of the Protestant Reformation admits this very problem when he says,“We are compelled to concede to the Papists that they have the Word of God, that we have received It from them, and that without them we should have no knowledge of It at all.”2 Or, as Augustine himself put it, “I would not believe in the Gospels were it not for the authority of the Catholic Church.”3
The Role of the Church’s Authority
In both cases we see a recognition of an authority outside of the Scriptures, an authority upon which the Scriptures themselves rest. It is indeed only through the authority of the Catholic Church that we can trust in the canon and ultimately the authority of the Sacred Scriptures. But, what is the nature and scope of the Church’s authority? Is it unlimited? Are the popes and bishops infallible in all that they say and do? The answer, actually, is far from it.
Briefly, the scope of this authority concerns the official teachings of the Church on matters of faith, morals, and worship (liturgy & sacraments). It is because of Christ’s continued presence and guarantee,4 that His Church cannot lead people astray with its official teachings – which are distinct from the individual failings and opinions of its members, priests, bishops, and Popes.
The Catechism states it this way, “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.”5
The Source of the Church’s Authority
But, is the Church’s claim to authority biblical or simply a one made by power-hungry men? First, it should be recognized that Christ Himself is the source of the Church’s authority. As a matter of fact, when Christ provides a method for the transmission of the Christian faith, it is through His Church – not through written accounts. Christ Himself never committed any of His teachings to writing, nor did He commanded His disciples to do so. Rather, He commissioned them saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”6
This brief passage contains several critical points about Church authority:
- Jesus tells the Apostles that the authority He is giving them derives from His own, divine authority. (“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” – “Go therefore”)
- The Apostles’ authority and mission comes directly from Christ Himself.
- The nature of this mission is to lead or govern (“make disciples”), sanctify (“baptizing them”), and teach (“teaching them to observe”).
- Christ promises to remain present with them always in support of this mission (“I am with you always”).
This then is the means by which Christ intends for the Christian faith to be spread. Christ’s Apostles are to lead others in the process of discipleship, lead others in the process of sanctification, and teach others to obey all that Christ commands. In these efforts they will be aided by the head of the body, Christ Himself, who will also empower them in their mission with the Holy Spirit.
The Formation of the Church
“But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”7 As Christ forms His Church, He asks the question, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” “Our Lord expects more from his companions and pupils, but it is only Peter who makes the decisive and immediate reply acknowledging his Messiahship.”8 It is to Peter that He gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven9 and the ability to bind and loose as he sees fit – both on earth and in heaven.
It is hard to fathom the unbelievable authority which Christ bestows on His Church through Peter. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. But this authority is entirely in keeping with the fact that the Church is to be the very body of Christ – synonymous with Him. Look at these twin passages from Matthew and Luke’s gospels:
“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.”10 and “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”11
Notice that to receive the Apostles was to receive Christ Himself. To hear the words that they spoke was to hear Christ Himself. And to reject the teaching of the Apostles was to reject not only Christ, but also God the Father who had sent Him.
The Authority of the Church
Two chapters later, Jesus again confirms on his disciples the authority to bind and loose anything on earth and in heaven.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”12
Notice that when a brother sins we are not to take them to Scripture to show them the error of their ways, but to the Church! What Church? The Church which Christ formed through Peter two chapters earlier and promised the same binding and loosing authority to.
In the next verses Peter clarifies with Christ how often forgiveness is to be extended, “As many as seven times?” to which Jesus replies, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” ((Matthew 18:21-22)) This is an important lesson for Peter and the other Apostles, for when Christ appears to them after the resurrection it is to breathe on them and say, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”13 Again, this is unbelievable authority which Christ bestows on them. Scripture tells us that only God can forgive sins, but the Apostles have been given Christ’s own authority. They speak with His voice. They forgive and retain sins in His name.
The Authority of the Church in the New Testament
In the Acts of the Apostles chapter 15, we see the very first ecumenical council take place in Jerusalem when Paul and Barnabas are dispatched to have Peter and the other Apostles rule on an issue regarding Gentile converts.
“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoeni′cia and Samar′ia, reporting the conversion of the Gentiles, and they gave great joy to all the brethren. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them… The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, ‘Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.'”14
After discussing the matter they send a delegation back with their decision, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.”15 Notice that the Apostles recognize that they speak with divine authority (“He who hears you hears me”) and don’t hesitate to exercise their authority to override the ritual law of the Old Covenant! Again, the authority that they exercise here is truly amazing!
Our Call to Submit to the Church’s Authority
Scripture is clear in its exhortation to believers to submit to the authority placed over them in the Church.
“Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account.”16
“But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.”17
The earliest Church fathers understood this submission to Church authority very well indeed! Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John, wrote in AD 110 – probably around 10 years after St. John’s death, “Indeed, when you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men but as Jesus Christ, who died for us, that through faith in his death you might escape dying. It is necessary, therefore—and such is your practice that you do nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope, in whom we shall be found, if we live in him. It is necessary also that the deacons, the dispensers of the mysteries [sacraments] of Jesus Christ, be in every way pleasing to all men. For they are not the deacons of food and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They must therefore guard against blame as against fire”18 And again,“In like manner let everyone respect the deacons as they would respect Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and college of the apostles. Without these, it cannot be called a church. I am confident that you accept this, for I have received the exemplar of your love and have it with me in the person of your bishop. His very demeanor is a great lesson and his meekness is his strength. I believe that even the godless do respect him”19
In contrast to this, Martin Luther wrote that, “God once spoke through the mouth of an ass. I will tell you straight what I think. I am a Christian theologian and I am bound not only to assert, but to defend the truth with my blood and death. I want to believe freely and be a slave to the authority of no one, of a council, a university, or pope. I will confidently confess what appears to me to be true whether it has been asserted by a Catholic or a heretic, whether it has been approved or reproved by a council.”20
But this absolute freedom of the individual has come at a stiff price indeed! The utter division of Protestant churches into 40,000 + denominations, can be traced 500 years back through history to the time of the great protest against Church authority (the Protestant Revolt) and to a doctrine which asserts that each individual Christian is free to interpret Scripture as they see fit – free from any outside authority. The problem is, this isn’t what Christ had in mind.
Christ established a Church.
He established a method for the transmission of the faith through the leadership and teaching of His Apostles.
He gave His Apostles and their successors His very own authority.
And, He expects us to submit to His Church and her leaders in obedience to Him.
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1 Timothy 3:14b-15 ↩
Martin Luther, Commentary on St. John ↩
Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation” 5:6 ↩
Matthew 16:18b “On this rock, I will build My Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” & 28:20 “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” ↩
CCC 85,86 ↩
Matthew 28:18-20 ↩
Matthew 16:15b-19 ↩
Jones, A. (1953). The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to St Matthew. In B. Orchard & E. F. Sutcliffe (Eds.), A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (p. 881). Toronto;New York;Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson. ↩
“I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” Isaiah 22:21-22 ↩
Matthew 10:40 ↩
Luke 10:16 ↩
Matthew 18:15-18 ↩
John 20:22b-23 ↩
Acts 15:1-4 & 6-11 ↩
Acts 15:28 ↩
Hebrews 13:17a ↩
1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 ↩
Letter to the Trallians 2:1–3 [A.D. 110] ↩
ibid., 3:1–2 ↩
Martin Luther, Here I Stand ↩