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Simply Church: Authority

There’s no way around the necessity of authority in the church. There is, admittedly, a part of me wants to perform some rad, 10.0 deserving, theological tricks and stunts that show authority in the church to be superfluous. Those familiar with the blog know that I can’t do this. Although I often have unique perspectives which surely are wrong sometimes, I at least always try to be true to Scripture even if I fail in that regard. Authority is inextricable from a Jesus community.

This topic may also benefit from a family perspective. In my family, there are a lot of different roles invested with different types of authority. Greg is the authority on money. Jessica will figure out what to do when people are hanging out together and everyone else will go along with it. Jenn will use her power to keep the peace and seek the maintaining of relationships. I suppose I’m the one looked to for a cogent perspective on Scripture and politics, and if there’s a problem I’m going to bring it to the surface. Graci keeps things fun. Jared… I’m not quite sure what his role is, but he’s one of the first people I test out new perspectives on because he has a solid BS detector. The point is that in a nuclear family roles of authority often arise naturally. Church authority often does the same.

Paul is an example of someone who has a lot of authority in the New Testament. Based upon Paul’s letters as a whole, it seems to me that Paul does not think primarily as himself being one with authority. Rather Paul believes his message about Jesus is from God and therefore that message and its implications for life together as a family is authoritative. As any prophet or apostle would, Paul believes his role is to make sure that the people who are supposed to be the embodied proclaimers of this message are embodying the message well. His unyielding insistence that believers listen to his words is not the result of his belief in his own authority, but his belief in the authority of the gospel he proclaims.

The work Paul did in proclaiming the gospel around the world and starting churches through this proclamation gave him authority over churches. In 2 Corinthians, Paul indicates that his authority is from God given to him for building up the church in Corinth because Paul started the church in Corinth. Paul’s actual authority over Corinth, while given by God, is only effectual insofar as Corinth chooses to submit to Paul’s authority. Thus, although the authority is from God, it only works because of a mutual understanding between Paul and Corinth that he is an authority on certain topics. Regarding Paul, this organically grown authority characterizes many of his relationships with local churches across the Roman empire. Churches looked to Paul as an authority to help them solve their disputes and answer their questions and so Paul became the authority. Most of Paul’s letters to churches (all?) are a response to a query to Paul, from the church.

In Acts 6, there is a group of seven that are given authority over an important element within the Jesus community, the distribution of food. I love the way that they are given authority. The twelve tell all of those who follow Jesus to pick out seven men who are full of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, and have a strong reputation. Basically, the people who were going to be subject to those in authority chose people to be in charge of food distribution that they already deeply respected, whose relationship with Jesus they trusted, and who they trusted to make wise decisions. Everyone was pleased with this manner of choosing authority. I submit this process is a very natural way of formalizing authority.

In some of the epistles, we find descriptions of a similar way of assigning authority. A simplified paraphrase of the requirements for overseers in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is: “You know those followers who have been around for a while, no one has anything bad to say about, make good decisions, know Scripture well, are full of kindness, and everyone already has respect for? Yeah, those would be good choices for overseers.” Paul describes people who are already thinking, acting, and living like overseers should live and then says that these are the people who should have overseer authority.

The question I always ask is: If these people are already people who teach the word and stand up to those with false doctrines, if they are already people worthy of emulating, if they are already people who have respect in the community and are looked to as an authority, why does their need to be a formalization of authority? If a spade is a spade and most people pretty much understand it’s a spade, why do we need to call it that?

Formalizing roles helps maintain the integrity of the community. If there is no people set to decide what is the gospel and what isn’t or what the Jesus community should and shouldn’t be doing, then everyone has an equal say. If everyone has an equal say and everyone thinks something different, then no real decisions about anything will be made. If everyone in the community votes on something, then we are in danger of a mob-ruled Jesus community rather than a gospel-ruled gathering. When new believers enter the community, they don’t have to try to figure out who is the implicit authority regarding preaching or food or pastoring or prophesying because these people have been given explicit authority. It is recognized authority that allows the church can grow as fast as it wants while retaining its central purpose and focus. Making roles explicit and attributing amounts and areas of authority to those roles allows a community to function much more efficiently by maintaining consistency during growth, solving family problems quickly, and keeping the direction of the family consistent.

All authority in the church is deferential in nature. The Messiah is the head and we are the body. My elbow and shoulder largely determine where my hand is at all times, but it is my head that determines what the elbow and shoulder do. The elbow and shoulder have, in a sense, directing authority over the hand, but all three of them work together as peers to accomplish the purposes that the head determines.

If you want to read some interpretations that paint authority in a less positive light, see: Paul’s Conciliatory Ways With The Jerusalem Powers and “It would not be right for us… to wait on tables”

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  1. March 7, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    “Formalizing roles helps maintain the integrity of the community.”

    Clarity and accountability are essential.

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