The question of authority has been, since time immemorial, the central issue confronting mankind. In human society, as in the jungle, the strong and/or the clever rule. Throughout the "civilized" world we see the clash of selfish interests and the attempt to lord it over others. This universal contest for dominion often employs brute force, as in the bloody ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet Republics; in the savage violence between Serbs and Croats; in the ruthless suppression of all opposition by Saddam Hussein or the rulers of Red China.
The continuing struggle for supremacy manifests itself in a thousand more subtle ways. We see it as Republicans and Democrats exchange charges and countercharges and maneuver for votes in their fight for control of Congress, Senate, White House, nation. The same conflict rages everywhere: in city and county and even church politics; between pastors and deacon or elder boards; between husbands and wives at home and in divorce courts; between parents and children. It ends only with the grave––or the Cross.
All of humanity's seemingly diverse conflicts can be traced back to Lucifer's rebellion against God and from there to the Garden of Eden—and from Adam and Eve to each of us. Mark well the root of evil! Where God's authority is not acknowledged as supreme and obeyed, there can be no order in society, the home or the heart. Self rules, egos clash and false gods abound.
Two dissimilar evils result: 1) as we've already seen, those who disobey God compete for supremacy among themselves, selfishly and often cruelly; and/or 2) they submit blindly to some earthly authority (secular or religious), in order to escape moral accountability to God. Yet there is no such escape. Wrongdoing is not excused because it was commissioned by a lawful authority.
It is true that we are commanded to "submit...to every ordinance of man," to "king [and] governors" (1 Pt 2:13-14). Yes, Christians are required even to obey godless secular officials (Rom:13:1-7)—but only as they administer righteousness. No ruler has the right to command others except as God's representative. "There is no power but of God: the [civil] powers that be are ordained of God" to be His "minister[s]" (Rom:13:1).
If a ruler commands what is morally wrong he must be disobeyed. That was what the Nuremberg war crimes trials were all about. No one was to be exonerated of a crime because it was ordered by Hitler, Himmler or a military officer. God is the supreme authority. His moral law engraved on every conscience must always be obeyed, even when to do so means disobeying legitimate human authority.
Thus it was not only right but required of the Hebrew midwives to disobey Pharaoh's edict and thus save newborn males alive (Ex 1:17). It was and still is right to smuggle Bibles into communist lands, and for Christians in China or Muslim countries to evangelize in defiance of godless laws. Were that not so, Jesus would have had to remain in the grave. By rising from the dead, He disobeyed the religious and civil authorities who had put Him to death and secured His tomb with the official Roman government seal.
As for church authorities, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves..." (Heb:13:17). Yet the same rule must hold: One is no more free to disobey God when ordered to do so by religious leaders than when commanded by secular rulers. The disciples preached Christ, though forbidden to do so by Israel's religious authorities. Arrested, Peter boldly declared, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts:5:29). So ought we.
Here is a universal principle: No authority, secular or religious, is to be obeyed except as it administers God's Word. Who is to decide? That is the crux of the issue. The individual, who will be held accountable by God, must decide for himself/herself on the basis of God's Word. All teaching, whether by evangelist, pastor, priest or pope, must be judged and rejected by each individual if not in agreement with God's Word.
Is that not what it means to be a Berean? "These [in Berea] were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (Acts:17:11). The Bereans checked the great Apostle Paul's teaching against the Old Testament (all they had) to see whether he was biblical. Each Berean was personally responsible to make that judgment and act upon it.
It's likely that some Bereans discussed the matter together. There is not a hint, however, that a "committee" of Bereans or some spiritual hierarchy decided for the rest whether Paul's teachings were biblical. Note that Paul's authority as the chief apostle who wrote most of the epistles did not procure automatic acceptance of what he taught. Nor did he direct the Bereans to some church authority in Jerusalem or in Rome that would decide for them.
Three things are clear: 1) each Berean studied the Bible for himself; 2) each Berean was capable, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of understanding the Bible; and 3) on the basis of whether he or she believed it to be biblical, each Berean made a personal decision to accept or reject Paul's teaching—and was commended for doing so. We must be Bereans in our day.
Then what is the purpose of authority if it is not to be obeyed? Not to be obeyed? Of course lawful authority is to be obeyed––but only in harmony with God's Word. And for that limitation to apply, each individual must decide for himself. It cannot be otherwise.
Doesn't the Bible speak critically of a tragic time in Israel's history when "every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judg 17:6; 21:25)? Yes, but understand the problem. It was not that everyone individually obeyed God. Not at all. They did what was "right in their own eyes." In contrast, we must do what is right in God's eyes, and each of us must determine what that is.
Suppose a pastor or elder teaches something that I am convinced is unbiblical? In love and humility I need to discuss the issue with him from Scripture. It may be that I misunderstood his position. Or my position may be wrong. I have no license to start a revolution. It may ultimately be necessary to leave the church, but only as a last resort and in view of serious false doctrine that persists.
Let us not write off a brother for a few minor errors. No one is perfect. C. S. Lewis's books, for example, contain many valuable insights, but they also present some false views. The error, however, is not a major part or pillar of his writings. There is a difference between teaching which may contain some peripheral error and popular contemporary writers and speakers who push the error as a major distinctive of their ministry, and who refuse to repent or even to discuss their deviant doctrines.
Bereans don't belong to cults. No cult can endure their insistence upon checking everything out for themselves from Scripture. It is by denying individual accountability to God that cults keep their members in bondage. Mormons may not question the dictates of their hierarchy in Salt Lake City; nor may Jehovah's Witnesses question the teachings of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in Brooklyn. Likewise, Roman Catholics must accept unquestioningly the dogmas of their "infallible" Church. Rome makes no secret that it denies the individual's direct moral responsibility to God.
Take, for example, Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," approved by the members of the Council and signed by Pope Paul VI, November 18, 1965. It declares, "The duty of interpreting God's word...has been entrusted exclusively to the teaching office of the Church (often called the magisterium). This teaching office is exercised by the pope and the bishops...[for] all interpretations of Scripture...." (Bold emphasis added)
Roman Catholics stoutly defend this cultic denial of the individual's right and duty to know and interpret the Bible for himself. They blame the multiplication of Protestant denominations upon individual interpretation and claim that only through submission to the pope can unity be reestablished among all Christians.
In fact, we are to "keep the unity of the Spirit" (Eph:4:3) which God has already established. Conformity to the interpretation of a central authority brings the uniformity of death. The leading and empowering of each individual by the Holy Spirit produces the dynamic unity of a living organism rather than an organization.
It is claimed that the Roman Catholic hierarchy "gave us the Bible," and therefore that the magisterium alone has the right to interpret it. Karl Keating states Rome's position: "...we conclude [that] an infallible church was founded. Then we take the word of that infallible Church that the Bible is inspired...and that same Church has the authority to interpret the inspired text....As Augustine said, 'I would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.'"
What a tragic admission (if indeed Augustine said this) that God's Word by the Holy Spirit's impelling did not in itself speak convincingly to his heart. Yet God said, "For as the rain cometh down...[and] watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud....So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall...accomplish that which I please..." (Isa:55:10-11). Of course! "The word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword" (Heb:4:12). It needs neither endorsement nor official interpretation to speak to every heart and conscience!
Rome lacks confidence not only in the power of God's Word but in its accuracy. The same "Dogmatic Constitution" declares, "Hence the Bible is free from error in what pertains to religious truth...[but] not necessarily free from error in other matters (e.g., natural science)." Doesn't God know science? Yes, but the magisterium doesn't, and its official interpretation would be exposed as not so "infallible" as science advanced—so the Bible is blamed. Remember, it was once an infallible dogma of Roman Catholicism that the sun revolved around the earth. Galileo was forced to kneel before the Inquisition and recant. Ah, no problem: The Church is only infallible regarding faith and morals.
The Roman Catholic position is of faith. Obviously "the Church" did not give us the Old Testament. Christ quoted from it as a settled document before the church came into existence: "Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself....Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures" (Lk 24:27,45). These are the same Scriptures which the Bereans searched centuries before Roman Catholicism claims to have given us the Bible. Bereans do the same today without any help from Rome!
As for the New Testament, the early Christians knew which books were inspired of God and belonged in the canon of Scripture the same way we do today––by the leading of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, "He that is of God heareth [recognizes, understands, hearkens to] God's words...My sheep hear [recognize and obey] my voice, and I know them, and they follow me....Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice" (Jn:8:47; 10:27; 18:37). Paul wrote, "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" (1 Cor:14:37). The Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of Scripture inspires born-again readers to know it is of God. Those deaf to the Spirit listen instead to cultic authorities.
It was the Third Council of Carthage in a.d.397 that made the first official declaration that the 27 books we now have comprised the canon of the New Testament. Were the Christians prior to that time unable to use the New Testament because they didn't know which books were included? What absurdity!
How did the "fruitful man" of Psalm 1 know enough to "meditate day and night" in God's law thousands of years before Roman Catholicism "gave us the Bible" and insisted that no one could know it was inspired unless Rome said so? How could a "young man" (not a bishop or pope) possibly "[take] heed" [i.e., understand and obey] God's Word and thereby "cleanse his way" (Ps:119:9) at least 2,000 years before the Roman Catholic magisterium (which alone can interpret the Bible) came into existence? How could the Old Testament prophets, from Moses to Malachi, call upon Israel to "hear the word of God" when the Roman Catholic hierarchy hadn't yet defined it and the magisterium wasn't there to interpret it? God's Word is alive!
It is ludicrous to suggest that one must first prove to a native in the jungle or a derelict on skid row or an accident victim dying in the wreckage of a car that an "infallible Church" exists which says the gospel is true––and only on that basis will the gospel be believed. It is blasphemous to suggest that the Holy Spirit cannot convict the lost of the truth of the gospel and that the gospel itself has no power unless a Church headquartered in Rome says so. Jesus said, "When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he (Jn:16:13) will convince the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment to come" (Jn:16:8)—and He said it long before there was any self-appointed magisterium in Rome. "The gospel [itself] is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes [it]" (Rom:1:16).
"How do you know which books ought to be in the canon?" is a favorite question of those who defend Roman Catholicism. The answer is very simple: God's Word is the life-giving food of those born of the Spirit. The Apocrypha (11 extra books in the Roman Catholic canon) lack that life-giving inspiration. Moses wrote 3,500 years ago (and Jesus quoted it), "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Dt 8:3; Mt 4:4). Peter put it this way: "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby..." (1 Pt 2:2).
A Christian recognizes God's Word the same way a baby recognizes milk: by its taste and by the fact that it satisfies our spiritual hunger. The newest-born Christian no more needs the Roman Catholic hierarchy to tell him which books belong in the canon than a newborn babe needs Rome to tell it that mother's milk is life-giving.
Rome claims that only priests, bishops, cardinals, popes are led of the Holy Spirit. But the Bible says, "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his" (Rom:8:9) and "as many as are led of the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God" (Rom:8:14). To be led of the Spirit loses any meaning if the Holy Spirit who inspired it can't interpret the Bible to the individual. but one must blindly accept the interpretation of some magisterium.
The rejection of God's authority and resulting lack of unity began with Satan's rebellion against God. The chaos on this planet cannot be remedied through some religious hierarchy telling the rest of us what to believe. Individuals must be restored to a living, dynamic, personal relationship with God by which His Holy Spirit, through Christ indwelling each heart, brings loving submission to His perfect will. That's the "unity of the Spirit" which God establishes in His truth and which each of us is to guard. TBC