Friday, April 21, 2017

The Authority of the (Local) Church, Part 1

The assertion that churches or church leaders carry authority is common among today's Reformedigelical establishment, and, interestingly, is used in much the same way as papist* and conciliarist** plebeians and their overlords/hierarchs to support their claims and counter-claims of ecclesiastical ascendancy. For as much noise as modern Western Reformedigelicals like to make about the Protestant Reformation, their incessant references to "the authority of the (local) church" and "the authority of the elders" when poked in just the right spot and when divorced from a context of engaging in apologetics against papists and conciliarists can be very disturbing, as in doing so they much resemble papist and conciliarist opponents of the Reformation. Are these claims to "authority" and such biblically justified?

In assessing this question, two important questions must be dealt with:
1) Does the Bible employ the word "authority", and if so, how?
2) Does the Bible employ the concept of authority, and if so, how?

The intent of this article is to examine the first question mostly and the second in some ways, leaving more of the second for a later time. Let us examine the words and their contexts that are translated using "authority" or similar words, or which are claimed to express the teaching that "authority" rests in elders/churches and should be exercised in the way that it is claimed they can and should exercise it. Let us begin our examination in this article with Strong's number 1849 - exousia (ἐξουσία). The word is used over 100 times in the New Testament and the KJV translates it with "power" in two-thirds of its occurrences. During my own survey of each occurrence in its context, my classification is that the words are used to express the following ideas:
  1. Apostles have authority to cast out demons
  2. Authority in a confusing sense (from 1 Corinthians 11:10)
  3. Authority in a general sense
  4. Authority in a household, slaves
  5. Authority in the sense of rulers
  6. Become children of God
  7. God has authority
  8. Jesus has authority
  9. Liberty
  10. Military/governmental authority
  11. Paul has authority to build up
  12. Power in a general sense
  13. Power of apostles to impart the Holy Spirit
  14. Power of darkness
  15. Right in a general sense
It is outside the scope of this article to attempt to forward more specific details than these about this word. Suffice it to say that G1849 is actually never used in reference to anything remotely related to church or so-called church officers possessing "authority". The closest categories to this concept would seem to be the fact that the apostles possessed authority/power to impart the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:19, the only NT occurrence in this category) and the fact that the Apostle Paul possessed authority to build up believers (2 Corinthians 10:8, 13:10). This latter point is of course useless to the modern authoritarian unless paired with a robust doctrine of apostolic succession whereby Paul's authority transfers through the generations to 21st-century church officers.

Thus "exousia" gives no support whatsoever to the concept of "church authority" but this is merely the end of the beginning. Let us move now to other NT words that use the same root and deal in similar ideas.

Don't Be Like the Rulers of the Gentiles: Matthew and Mark

Matthew 20:25-28 -
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it (G2634 - katakyrieuō, κατακυριεύω) over them, and their great men exercise authority (G2715 - katexousiazō, κατεξουσιάζω) over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Mark 10:42-45 -
Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it (G2634 - katakyrieuō, κατακυριεύω) over them; and their great men exercise authority (G2715 - katexousiazō, κατεξουσιάζω) over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Note how the second word (2715) of interest in this pericope has as its root exousia. Here, in the context of inter-Christian relationship, the Lord Jesus instructs His apostles that their posture toward each other is not to be like that of the Gentile rulers, who lord it over and exercise authority over the peons. This is a very important point. Whatever these words mean, they characterise the precise opposite of the way in which Christians are to act toward each other.

Given that, the first word (2634) enriches our understanding even more, as the other two NT occurrences are Acts 19:17 and 1 Peter 5:3.
In Acts 19:17, the possessed man engages in katakyrieuō against (the NASB renders this "subdued") the seven sons of Sceva.
1 Peter 5:1-4 is even more interesting:
Therefore, I exhort the elders older men among you, as your fellow elder (older man) and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over (katakyrieuō) those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders older men; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble".
First, a note on the way I have rendered the passage using "elders older men": the NASB like other translations is inconsistent in its treatment of the Greek word used there, and interestingly translates it with more honesty in 1 Timothy 5:1, where, just as here in 1 Peter 5, the author is drawing a parallel between how those of differing ages ought to act with respect to each other, rather than indicating some sort of ecclesiastical official relationship. The NASB correctly indicates the fact that the passage is referring to older men vs younger men and older women vs younger women. 1 Peter 5 likewise mentions younger men, and with no other contextual mandate to change the translation, the English rendering ought to be consistent; thus "older men".

This passage is often appealed to, however, by authoritarians as a prooftext for the authority of elders. They point to words like "shepherd" and "oversight", which deserve attention at some later point in time. For now, though, let us note that in this passage supposedly about "elder authority", Peter specifically declines to bolster such a notion, reminding the reader about how the Lord Jesus told him and the other eleven that "it is not this way among you". They do not exercise authority among Christians. So whatever "oversight" and "shepherd" mean in this context, if anyone should assert that they have anything to do with "authority", they have all their work in front of them. Peter uses the very word that Jesus used and which carries a strong relation to the word most clearly translatable into English as "authority", and denies that is what anyone ought to be doing. As a helpful reminder, he drops an Old Testament quote, commanding all to be humble rather than proud, for allocating oneself authority is most unquestionably an exercise in pride, especially when Jesus kept saying stuff like "serve others", "don't take the best seats", "it is better to serve than to be served", and "don't call other people 'Father'".

Don't Be Like the Rulers of the Gentiles: Luke

Luke 22:25-27 -
(Jesus) said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over (G2961 - kyrieuō, κυριεύω) them; and those who have authority over (G1850 - exousiazō, ἐξουσιάζω) them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves."
Note basically the same words are used in this passage, in a slightly different form. They are used elsewhere in the NT, though, so let us take a look.

2961 is used in the following texts:
  • Romans 6:14 - For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
  • Romans 7:1 - Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives?
  • Romans 14:9 - For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
  • 2 Corinthians 1:24 - Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm.
  • 1 Timothy 6:15 - which He will bring about at the proper time—He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords...
1850 (reminder: the same root word as 1849, exousia) is used in:
  • 1Co 6:12 - All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.
    1 Co 7:4 - The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
What do we see from this passage in Luke 22? Whatever it looks like to be mastered by sin, to be under the jurisdiction of the law, to be under the Lord Jesus, and whatever it looks like to have authority over the body of one's spouse is the opposite of how any Christian ought to relate to any other Christian, according to Luke 22. Note also how 2 Corinthians 1:24 contains Paul's explicit denial that he would act this way toward anyone else - Paul, an apostle of the Lord who wrote half the New Testament.

Note also Jesus' reference to the disingenuous way in which Gentile overlords demand to be addressed. He says they insist on being called "Benefactors", just like authoritarians insist on disingenuously referring to their ideas of elders/pastors as "servant leaders" and simultaneously demanding that all acknowledge the authority of the same to tell the Christians under them how to believe and how to act.

"With All (Commandment)" - Titus 2

Another candidate for the distinction of authoritarian prooftext is Titus 2:15, which verse the NASB renders thus:
These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority (G2003 - epitagē, ἐπιταγή). Let no one disregard you.
Let us examine the way the NASB renders the other NT occurrences of this Greek word.
  • Romans 16:26 - but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith;
  • 1 Corinthians 7:6 - But this I say by way of concession, not of command.
  • 1 Corinthians 7:25 - Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.
  • 2 Corinthians 8:8 - I am not speaking this as a command, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity of your love also.
  • 1 Timothy 1:1 - Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope,
  • Titus 1:3 - but at the proper time manifested, even His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the commandment of God our Savior,
  • Titus 2:15 - These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
It is unclear how such a verse buttresses the position against which we are arguing here. Notice first how Titus is specially designated for the task in Crete by the Apostle Paul because of a specific situation - a domination of false teachers and widespread confusion about the actual content of the apostolic message. Titus was given particular authority --yes, authority-- for this mission, by a guy who actually has authority (and yet still disdained using it to lord it over people - see above comments on 2 Corinthians 1:24) by virtue of being a legitimate prophet of God during a time when people were receiving prophetic revelation to write Scripture. But nobody's pastor today was given authority by a prophet, very few modern situations are particularly analogous to Titus' in Crete, and even if they are, the argument still falls apart because Titus was supposed to correct doctrine with the tool of the apostolic message, not make stuff up from his own "authority" - delegated authority to repeat what God has already said. Thus the authority crucially rests in the message, not the messenger.

Further, "with all authority" is a pretty questionable way to render a word that six other times was translated as "command(ment)". It is even more questionable when one remembers that the same word is translated "commandment" in Titus 1:5. The problem is not that there is some enormous difference between the concept of "commandment" and "authority" or that "authority" wouldn't also fit in Titus 1:5. The problem is that the idea the word expresses is not what the modern ecclesiastical authoritarians mean when they say "church authority". Thus a misleading translation leads to poor conclusions that actually contradict other passages that are not poorly translated.


Thus upon biblical examination, we find the phrases "church authority", "authority of the local church" (which local church, by the way? I always wonder that), and "authority of the pastor(s)/elder(s)" to be without biblical support. The last stands for the authoritarians would seem to be Hebrews 13:17, which passage is covered in detail here and found to be of no help to the authoritarian position, and 1 Thessalonians 5:13, which uses the word proïstēmi (προΐστημι). I intend to examine this word and its usage in a later article. In the meantime, please stop using those phrases and stick to biblical terminology when discussing these matters. They are too important to either make up terms out of thin air or to use language loaded with such heavy baggage. Ad fontes!

*Also known as Roman Catholics, but of course they are not catholic. "Papist" or "Romanist" is a preferable general appellation.
**Also known as Eastern Orthodox, but of course they are not orthodox. "Conciliarist" or "oriental/eastern conciliarist" is a preferable general appellation.