The Authority of the Church

Wm. E. Wallace
Indianapolis, Indiana

Less than a year after this rock I will build Jesus said "Upon my church" (Mt. 16: 18) he was buried' he arose, he ascended to heaven and the church was established. Nearly two thousand years have passed since these historical events occurred and the foremost question for Christendom today concerns the means by which genuine authority is expressed to govern the identity, the nature, the purposes and the function of Christ's church.

The question is posed by a theologian as follows:

"What is the source of Christian knowledge and the authoritative foundation of Christian doctrine? What is the ultimate seat of authority to which Christian theology makes its appeal?''

Bernard Ramm, Director of Graduate Studies in Religion, Baylor University, observes:

"The Key-Problem in religious authority is to find the central principle of authority and the pattern through which it expresses itself concretely and practically." 2

Dr. Ramm quite adequately defines authority as follows:

"Authority itself means that right or power to command action or compliance, or to determine belief or custom, expecting obedience from those under authority, and in turn giving responsible account for the claim to right or power."3

Certainly God is the source, the seat of all authority. His divine prerogatives and his creative purposes hold for him all power and all authority. He "worketh all things after the counsel of his own will," "according to the good pleasure of his own will" (Ephesians 1:11, 5).

Concerning the Bible use of the idea of authority it is observed,

"The focus of biblical usage is in the authority which belongs to God alone, all other authority being subordinate and derivative. This same divine authority was exercised by Jesus and claimed by him for the church."

Three Attitudes

Before we examine teaching as to the authority "exercised by Jesus and claimed by him for the church," we consider the three general attitudes toward religious authority. First, there is "the authority of the Church, a visible, hierarchical institution, which is the divinely commissioned vehicle and guarantee of the truth." This is the position of the Roman Catholic Church. This is the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. "The magisterium is the official teaching body of the Church whose spokesman is the pope." Secondly, the historic Protestant principle emphasizes the sole authority of the Bible, but the principle is often obscured by denominational creeds, organisms and traditions. A third attitude toward authority is the "inward feeling," the "inner light" within the pious. The Quaker classic, Barclay's Apology, states,

"The divine inward revelations ....are not to be subjected to the test either of the outward testimony of the Scriptures or of the natural reason of man . . . for this divine revelation and inward illumination is that which is evident and clear of itself."

Thus in Christendom there are those who rely on what the Church says, others who accept authoritative interpretations of denominational bodies as to what the "sole authority" teaches, and still others who rely on the directions of inward feelings.

There have been varying ideas about authority by those who presume to accept the Bible as the sole authority. Martin Luther's defense of infant baptism was based on the proposition, "What therefore is not against Scripture, is for Scripture and Scripture for it." W. K. Pendleton saved the American Christian Missionary Society, according to Earl West, by a speech in which he contended that the silence of the scripture is not prohibitory. Today many innovations are defended on the basis of biblical silence. Those who argue from the silence of the scriptures seem unaware of the nature of the principles of general and specific authority. Some things are authorized by the one, though not expressly mentioned; some things are forbidden by the other though not expressly mentioned.

An Array of Scripture

The authority of God is in his revelation. God's authority is revealed in Jesus Christ (Mt. 11:27), and loyalty to Christ is synonymous with loyalty to God (John 5:23). The authority of God through or in Christ is expressed by the apostles of Christ to whom the Lord gave a binding an] loosing authority in the church (Mt. 16:19, 28:20, John 13: 20, Luke 10: 16, I John 4: 16). The authority of the apostles in the church is expressed in terms of (1) keys (Mt. 16:18; 18:18, (2) thrones (Mt. 19:28), and (3) ambassadors (II Cor. 5:20, Eph. 6:20). With this authority the apostles gave (1) decrees (Acts 16: 4), (2) commands (II Thess. 3:6, 10,12), and (3) examples (Phil. 4:9, 3:17, I Cor. 11:1).

God speaks and reveals through Christ (Heb. 1:1-2, John 1:17, Mt. 11:27, John 5:26-21), who in turn executes his power through the apostles (Mt. 19:27-28, Mt. 28:18-20, Mt. 16-17-19, John 20: 22-23, II Cor. 5:18-20, I John 4:6). These apostles were overshadowed, protected, convicted, and guided by the Holy Spirit in their expression of heaven's will (John 14: 16-17, 26; 16:7-15, Luke 24:49).

The work of the apostles was finished, completed, finalized and perfected and there exists a written record of their work, which is the authority of the church (II Pet. 1:2-3, II Tim. 3:14-17, Jude 3). This is to say that during the age of the apostles definite doctrinal standards and identifying features were set and written to which the church was then obligated and is obligated to subscribe (II John 9).

The authority of Christ is deposited by the apostles in the New Testament scriptures.

"The New Testament is given by inspiration (II Tim. 3:16; John 16:13; I Cor. 2:12-13; 14:37), is perfect and complete, therefore sufficient (II Tim. 3:16-17; II Pet. 1:3, Jude 3). The word of God is truth (John 17:17; I Thess. 2:13) and we are charged to build all things according to the pattern of truth (Heb. 8:2, 5; Phil. 3:16-19; 4:9; I Cor. 4:16-17; I Thess. 4:17; Acts 2:42; II Tim. 1: 13). We must walk by faith, by faith in God's word (II Cor. 5:7; Rom. 10: 17), speaking "the same things" (I Cor. 1: 10; I Pet. 4:11). We are forbidden to go beyond (I Cor. 4:6 (ASV), Gal. 1:6-8).''

Authority for the Church

The church is to be as Christ intends. It is his body (Eph. 1:22-23). He is its head. "The church is the organic manifestation of Christ's character and purpose on earth as the human body expresses the personality of its owner." The authority, which Christ placed in the apostles, belongs to no other. The authority represented in the Bible does not provide for the perpetuation of the apostolic office. Church leaders who have professed to be successors of apostles have made of churches something different than that which the apostles made.

Revelation of all truth took place in the days of the apostles and nothing was left for councils to decide. Apostolic counsel in the New Testament thoroughly furnishes the church with the guidance it needs. Church councils are convened by authority other than apostolic, or biblical, or divine. What authority church councils and ecclesiastical bodies possess is assumed by men, not granted by God. The divinely ordained authority of the church is neither in supposed successors of apostles nor in hierarchal assemblies. There is no biblical warrant for such arrangements. To officially define orthodoxy and direct church convictions result in ecumenical, denominational and sectarian creeds. The creed is the authority of the body, which subscribes to it. While a creed may express Bible truth, it is produced by theologians, or hierarchy, or organization, and thus those who subscribe to it are accepting authority other than, or in addition to the Bible. Creeds are produced by men, amended by men, and are usually in contradiction with creeds written by other men and accepted by other bodies. They are not and cannot be on par with scripture given by the inspiration of God. The church you read about in the Bible has no authority, no creed but the inspired scripture we call the Bible. "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God" (I Pet. 4:11).

When there is respect for the autonomy and independence of every local congregation as provided by apostolic authority in New Testament teaching, then there is less danger of believers in Christ being subjected to unscriptural, non-authoritative and antibiblical doctrine, organization and function. In New Testament times no local congregation had authoritative preeminence over another, or over others. No action of a local congregation was authoritative over another. No local congregation was granted responsibility to represent the beliefs or work of the whole church. Each congregation had local rulerselders or bishopswhose authority over people began and ended with the local congregation where they served. The authority under which these men served was Christ whose authority was executed in the preaching and teaching of the apostles. Elders or bishops are not on par with apostles. Today such local elders serve under the authority of the same Word, the same Word in written formthe authority of the church, the New Testament. The authority of elders in a local church is that of a steward (Titus 1:7). They take care of the local flock (I Tim. 3:5), but they have no creed-making authority, no arbitrary lordship (I Pet. 5: 1-5) they rule locally by steering the church with wise, biblically inspired counsel, looking after and overseeing God's interests in Christ's flock as outlined in the inspired scriptures. Their work as elders begins and ends with the spiritual and numerical affairs of the local flock.

The Authority the Church Has

The authority the church has is local. There is no scriptural organization for the whole church and the whole church cannot scripturally operate through a local church. So whatever authority the church has, it is local authority limited to the numerical and spiritual needs of the local membership. This is not to say it cannot financially support functions other than its local work, but this is to say it has authority only to those things pertaining to the local membership.

This authority is disciplinary (Mt. 18:17, I Cor. 5:1-1(), Rom. 16:17). It is authority to function (I Cor. 16:3, Phil. 4:14-17). The local church acts as the Holy Spirit directs through the Bible. Thus the Holy Spirit speaks through the Bible, and not through the church. The church has no legislative authority.


A major difference between the Lord's church today and the denominations is in the area of authority. The Bible congregation today  independent of the controls and pressures of extra-congregational organization, detached from the creed and councils of men, owing allegiance to no ecclesiastical bodyseeks to be simply a sound, autonomous and loyal church of Christ. The Bible serves as the charter, the by-laws, the creed, and the directive in every phase of congregational interest.


1. J. S. Whale, Christian Doctrine (Fontana Books, Collins Clear-type Press, London 1960), pg. 14.

2. The Pattern of Authority (Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1957) pg. 18

3. Ibid, pg. 10.

4. J. March, Art. "Authority" The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. I, pg. 319.

5. J. S. Whale, Op. Cit., pg. 14.

6. Carl Michalson, Handbook of Christian Theology (Meridian Books, World Publishing Co., Cleveland, 1958) pg. 25. ..

7. Barclay's Apology, Prop. 11, pg. 16, quoted by Whale.

8. A. H. Newman, A History of Anti-Pedobaptism (American Baptist Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1897) pg. 73.

9. The Gospel Guardian, Art. "Learning a Lesson From History," Vol. I, No. 4, pg 3.

10. Hubert A. Moss, Jr. Outlines: A Study of Current Problems.

11. Merrill C. Tenny, New Testament Times (Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1965) pg. 299.

October 1966