John Twisleton gives a gentle introduction to the often vexed question of authority within the Church of Christ
BY what authority do Christians believe? To ■ answer ‘God in Christ’ is sufficient at one level because the Christian faith is kept going by its Author disclosed to people through encounter with Jesus. Christianity though is more than the one-to-one encounter of individuals with God. ‘We are the body of Christ,’ St Paul says, ‘by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’ [1 Cor. 12.12-13]. The faith of Christians is therefore sustained within a body formed and authorized by God. This means Christians exist in a community promised authoritative guidance in its task of bringing the whole world to the praise and service of God.
Where is this authority? It lies in the whole body of Christians and their consensus of faith assisted by ‘the Spirit of truth…who leads into all truth’ [John 16.13] and by the promise of Christ ‘that the gates of Hades will not prevail against [his church]’ (Matt. 16.18]. In the Acts of the Apostles the first church council authorized ‘what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to [the apostles and elders]’ [15.28]. The apostles and elders had received authority from their Lord after his resurrection. As the Father has sent me, so I send you… Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven’ [John 20.21-23].
In the course of time a three-fold order of bishops, priests and deacons came to serve the essential ministries of preaching, teaching, pastoral care and celebration of the sacraments. To this day ordained ministers carry authority to articulate the faith of the Church as a whole from one generation to another. They do so with regard to Scripture and its interpretation by teachers of the Christian faith throughout the centuries.
Authority in Christianity lies with the individual Christian as, for example, in Christ’s authorization of individual believers to pray, witness, heal and deliver from evil. Whenever there is a disputed issue of faith or order it is the building up of a common view, or consensus, from individuals in dialogue, under the leadership of the ordained that leads to an authoritative settlement. In ordination services there is much stress on the responsibility of those ordained to hold their congregations to the Christian consensus of faith and to challenge false teaching with authority.
As they do so their own adherence in faith and morals to Christian teaching is a key requirement much underlined in the New Testament. ‘If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed’ [1 Tim. 4.6].
So where is this consensus to be found? The Scriptures, creeds and early church councils upholding the Trinity and the two natures of Christ are recognized across major denominations as the authoritative basis of Christian faith. This is the basis from which the contemporary teaching office and the faith and rea-
soning of the people of God as a whole are exercised.
Different denominations give different degrees of authority to the Bible, to Christian tradition, to bishops or popes, and to inspired reasoning. Within Eastern Orthodoxy the liturgy, part of Christian tradition, holds particular authority. Among Roman Catholics the successor of St Peter is held to possess a char-ism when he acts with Catholic bishops to formulate the truth of Christian revelation. Among Anglicans Scripture, creeds, sacraments and episcopacy make up an authoritative ‘quadrilateral’.
Christianity struggles across all denominations to exercise authority appropriately so as to form the consciences of church members. Moral teaching is ideally presented to individuals with an authority that is clear on principle and yet caring towards them and their own struggle. A pastoral approach seeking to challenge those who need challenging, without discouraging those who struggle, is a vital part of promoting allegiance to authoritative teaching. This is the genius of Jesus himself who convinced so many as one who taught with authority [Matt. 7.29].
In recent years human development has been a severe test of authority within Christianity. There has been polarisation among and within denominations between traditionalists and revisionists on issues such as contraception, women’s ordination and same sex relationships. These debates have challenged those in authority within the Church to be both courageously counter-cultural and prudent, discerning what the Spirit maybe saying through Christian experience on issues of the day.
The different cultures of the world challenge authoritative church teaching from different directions and this makes the recovery of universal Christian consensus the more urgent. The Anglican Communion is discovering the need for some sort of universal referee to help it keep together, as the diverse practices over women’s ordination and the sanctioning of same-sex genital relationships tax the authorities of that church. There is some apparent movement in two directions: broadening papal and episcopal ‘monarchical’ authority and reining in ‘democratic’ synodical authority in reformed denominational streams.
In Christianity authority comes from God through the Church. Though Christians divide on some questions they agree on the need to welcome the gift of authority from God as his provision to keep his Church on track in the mission he has given her. The misuse of authority in the Church over the centuries has served to multiply Christian division and a loss of integrity of faith.
As Christians recover universal consensus it will be the servant-hearted exercise of authority that will best accomplish its Author’s mission ‘to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’ [Ephes. 1.10].