Does the Church Have Real Authority?


Church, Leadership, and the World: Internal Authority for External Influence

In a talk I recently heard, a Christian leader claimed that the “new authority” for our skeptical age is personal experience over against institutional claims of authority.  Her suggestion was that the church should focus on the influence that comes from personal experience rather than rely on “the institution as authority.”  Of course, she’s right that the church-as-institution has precious little weight today in our secular society

But it’s always been true that effective leadership requires more than mere institutional authority.  It requires actual influence.  After all, not all “official” authority translates into real world impact (think of the hall monitors in 7th grade). Of course the reverse is also true: influence can be exercised without actual authority.  Influence over time typically results in a kind of recognized status that some refer to as “authority” (e.g., an expert, or “authority on a matter”), though this does not equate to an official or objective authority.

Furthermore, influence must be wielded in a respectable manner if it is to last. Obviously, influence can be exercised in underhanded and destructive ways, as can authority.  Before long, such influence will be widely resented.  Leadership then, whether it be authority-based or merely influence-based, must command respect to have a long-term impact.  And all Christians agree that the church should exercise an influence – among its own constituency and in the world – that is respectable.  But what about authority?

Does the Church Have Real Authority? Does It Need It?

Does the church have authority outside of its own claims or pretensions?  Or is it an invention of the clergy?  Moreover, is such authority even necessary?  Isn’t simply seeking influence enough?

Last Sunday we introduced our new series on 1Timothy 1-3, Pillar and Foundation of the Truth, by considering the sacred charge entrusted to the church through the apostles (1Timothy 1:5, 18; see also 1Thessalonians 4:2). This “apostolic charge,” we saw, entails both an authority – to preach, ordain, and discipline – as well as a tradition or “pattern of sound words” – to preserve and transmit.  With this charge, then, the church is entrusted with a substantial authority, handed from God and Christ to the apostles themselves, transmitted from the apostles to their assistants and team members, and, finally, from such “apostolic men” to the local leadership of the individual congregations.  Subsequently, the whole church is collectively responsible to guard this “good deposit.”  For more on this critical point, see below (Our Sacred Charge).

However, such authority is peculiarly ecclesiastical.  That is, it pertains to the organization and doctrine of the church itself as “the household of the living God.”  This authority is not then recognized by the world – though it is exercised in the world. However, as we read through the Pastoral Epistles (1Timothy, 2Timothy and Titus), we find that the church’s “internal authority,” if you will, is intended for the ordering of the church as “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1Tim.3:14-15) in the world, with a view toward a definite, external impact:

    • “be thought well of by outsiders,”
    • “to give the adversary no occasion for slander,”
    • “so that the teaching and name of God might not be maligned,”
    • “that the word of God might not be reviled,”
    • “be above reproach,”
    • “so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us,”
    • “…so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.”

As Mark Dever writes, “The point of leadership in the church is to bring glory to God by commending the truth to outsiders.”  And though this begins with the leadership, and is to be promoted under their direction, the task of “commending the truth to outsiders” belongs to the whole church as it lives faithfully under the apostolic charge.  As the church does so, leading “a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way,” (1Tim.2:2), “ready for every good work…gentle and [showing] courtesy toward all people,” (Titus 3:1-2), etc., we further the purpose of God: “For this is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” (1Tim.2:3-4).

After all, it is the “aim of our charge” to produce people of love and integrity among us (1Tim.1:5).  And it is the goal of our redemption that, being saved by grace, we might become “a people zealous for good works,” (Titus 2:11-14), thereby publically displaying the truth, beauty, and goodness of God in Christ before a watching world.

To build this kind of morally beautiful church, we need a divine influence, which in turn is rooted in a divine authority – the charge that has been entrusted to us.  As Paul wrote to Timothy:

As for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learnd it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim.3:14-17)

Through the witness and transmission of faithful men and women, this charge has now been handed on to us (2Tim.2:1-2).  The authority needed has been provided in “the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints,” (Jude 3) – as (infallibly) embodied in Scripture and (fallibly) exercised by the leadership Jesus has gifted the church (Ephesians 4:11-12).  Are you ready then to build this kind of community?  Then roll up your sleeves – your hands will get dirty – and build with us … for the glory of God and the advance of the gospel!


*Our Sacred Charge

The charge (παραγγελία) with which Paul was entrusted, by the “command” (ἐπιταγῆς) of God in his apostleship (1Timothy 1:1) and message (Titus 1:1), consists of both the authority to “charge” or “command” (παραγγέλλω) others (1Timothy 1:3; 4:11; 5:7; 6:13, 17), and the content of those commands or instructions (e.g., 1Timothy 4:1-15; Titus 2).  This content can be variously described as “sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I [Paul] have been entrusted,” 1:10, “the mystery of the faith,” 3:8, “the mystery of our religion,” 3:16,  “the words of the faith and of the good doctrine,” (4:6), “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness,” (6:3) “the truth, which accords with godliness,” (Titus 1:1), etc., etc. – all summarized by the apostle as “the deposit” entrusted to his assistants (1Timothy 6:20; 2Timothy 1:14).

The Content of the Charge

This “deposit” constitutes the core tradition,[i] handed down from the apostles (see also 2Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6; 1Corinthians 11:2; 15:3ff.) as “the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me,” 2Timothy 1:13 (see also 2:2), sourced in the “dominical instructions” of Jesus himself (e.g., 1Tim.6:3; 1Thess.4:2; cf. 1Cor.7:6, 10) and his direct revelation (e.g., Galatians 1:11-17; Ephesians 3:1-5).  Moreover, this pattern of sound words is itself rooted in, and therefore fully accords with, the Jewish Scriptures, a.k.a., the Old Testament (see 2Tim.3:14-4:3; e.g., 1Tim.1:9-11).

In a word, “the pattern of sound words” is grounded in the Law and the Prophets, on the one hand, and embodied in the teachings of the apostles, on the other (e.g., Romans 16:25-26).[ii]

So the content of our charge consists of the inspired words of Holy Scripture[iii] – Old and New Testaments – and what may be summarized or deduced from them “by good and necessary consequence,” as the Westminster Confession famously puts it.  This then is the common ground of every, major Christian tradition in history.  It is the foundation of our common charter, our common creed and our common authority as the worldwide church (see Ephesians 2:19-21).  Let us teach, lead, and, where necessary, debate standing on this solid ground together.

Continuing the Charge

In entrusting this charge to his assistants, Paul authorizes these men to exercise authority in the church in accordance to the apostle’s “sound doctrine” (e.g., “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority,” Titus 2:15; see also 1Tim.4:11; 5:7; 6:17).  But their role within these particular congregations was temporary.  Theirs was an interim position, if you will, functioning on behalf of the apostle himself to “put what remained into order,” (1:5).  Namely, they were working to establish sound doctrine in the midst of false teachers who were “upsetting whole households by teaching what they ought not to teach,” (1:11) and to install local leadership who could continue to carry out the charge of instructing, correcting, encouraging, and otherwise managing “the household of God.”  These local leaders were vested with such authority as to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it,” (1:9), even “silencing” false teachers (1:11).  But notice, just as for the apostle and his assistants themselves, in order to exercise the authority of this charge, these local “overseers” must prove faithful to the content of their charge:

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Hence, Paul says to Timothy:

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

These “faithful men” hold to the “trustworthy word as taught” by the apostles themselves, both directly and through their assistants, in turn “teach others also.”  In this way, the apostolic charge would be passed on through the ages among the churches.[iv]  In this succession of authority, we find both established leaders (such as Timothy and Titus) and congregations[v] installing “overseers” to guard and advance the apostles’ “sound words” among them.

Whose Authority Is It?

But here we see the answer to a second important question – one we raised Sunday.  Namely, if the church does exercise authority from God, does such authority subsist in the church itself?  That is, is the authority inherent in the institution of the church or the office of its official leadership (i.e., the presbytery or episcopacy)?  Or does the authority consist in something that transcends the institution of the church – something outside of it, operative not only within it and through it, as is the ideal, but sometimes despite it … and even sometimes against the institution and office (in judgment)?

In other words, does the authority belong to the church, or does the church belong to this authority?  As we’ve seen, the charge entrusted to the leadership of the local church – whatever their ecclesiastical titles – entails both authority and content.  But there can be no valid authority to exercise the apostolic charge without faithfulness to its content.  This includes not only maintaining the “pattern of sound words” in public teaching, but also publicly practicing “the pattern” of the apostles’ way of life (see Phil.3:17;2Thess.3:9; cf. 1Cor.4:16-17; 11:1; etc.) as an example to the flock (e.g., 1Tim.4:12; Titus 2:7; 1Pet.5:3).

Those who would lead without consistent fidelity to the substance of the charge entrusted to the whole church (Jude 3) are to be commanded, “not to teach any different doctrine,” and those who are without understanding in “either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions,” are to be “silenced.”  Those whose manner of life contradicts the pattern of the apostles’ are likewise to be exhorted, and, if they resist correction, rebuked publicly (1Tim.5:20).  If the obstinate continue in disobedience, they are even to be put out of fellowship (Titus 3:9-10), or as Paul puts it, “handed over to Satan,” (1Tim.1:20).  In other words, any authority they may have exercised – and some of these false teachers may have even been elders at one point (cf. Acts 20:29) – they forfeit in abandoning “the good deposit” in their manner of life and teaching (1Tim.4:16).

Not only individual leaders, but even whole congregations can be “removed” from their place in God’s economy if unfaithfulness to Christ and his teachings persist (e.g., Revelation 2:5).  Jesus himself threatens to remove them.

The authority of the church, then, belongs to Christ, the source of our charge, and he reigns in the church as her Head through the particular, local congregations of the people of God gathered under this charge.


[i] “παραγγελία, strictly, of passing on an announcement a proclaiming; in the NT (1) as a directive from an authoritative source order, command, charge (Ac.16.24); (2) as doctrinal teaching about right living instruction (1Th.4.2).  Derivative of παραγγέλλω, strictly, pass on an announcement; in the NT (1) as issuing a directive from an authoritative source command, give (strict) orders, direct, instruct (Mt.10.5),” TDNT.

[ii] This was the understanding of the ancient church as well.  J.N.D. Kelly writes, “For the early fathers, Christianity seems to have implied a complex of belief and practice (in Clement’s phrase, ‘the rule of our tradition’, or in Justin’s ‘following God and the teaching derived from Him’), which in the final resort went back to Christ Himself.  But if He was the supreme teacher, the immediately accessible authorities both for the facts about His Person and for His message were (a) the prophets, who had foreseen every detail His ministry, and (b) the apostles, who had worked with Him and whom He had commissioned.  This two-fold appeal to the united witness of the Old Testament and the apostles was characteristic of the age; it is aptly illustrated by Polycarp’s summons to the Philippians to accept as their standard Christ Himself along with ‘the apostles who preached the gospel to us and the prophets who announced our Lord’s coming in advance’,” (Early Christian Doctrines, Harper One, 1978, p.31)

[iii] Of course, this isn’t to deny the importance of tradition, as understood as distinct from Scripture.  As I wrote elsewhere, “as our corporate witness to the established ‘apostolic foundation’ and re-presentation of the ‘pattern of sound words,’ the unwritten tradition of the church is indispensable for our understanding ‘the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints.’”  The Protestant tradition holds to Sola Scriptura, not Nuda Scriptura.

[iv]Clement of Rome, the earliest so-called Church Father, of whom the 2nd century bishop, Irenaeus of Lyons, says, “saw the blessed Apostles and conversed with them, and had yet ringing in his ears the preaching of the Apostles and had their tradition before his eyes,” wrote the following: “So preaching everywhere in country and town, [the apostles] appointed their first fruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe …Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the bishop. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those ministers already mentioned [bishops and deacons], and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry,” (1Clement 42:4; 44).  This reflects the twofold structure we see in the New Testament itself (e.g., Phil.1:1; 1Tim.3:1-13). Of the two offices, it is the office of overseer/bishop (or elder – the terms on interchangeable in the New Testament and early second century church) that the task of preserving and advancing the apostle’s charge seems specifically entrusted.

[v]According to the Didache, an ancient Christian treatise dated between the late first and early second century, the congregation was responsible to ensure that proper leadership was in place: “Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers.” Even Cyprian of Carthage, who raised the episcopate to its most exalted position, notes that the people (laity) have this responsibility and authority: “On which account a people obedient to the Lord’s precepts, and fearing God, ought to separate themselves from a sinful prelate, and not to associate themselves with the sacrifices of a sacrilegious priest, especially since they themselves have the power either of choosing worthy priests, or of rejecting unworthy ones.”