Authority in Religion

By Cecil Willis

“And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one question, which if ye tell me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven or from men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why then did ye not believe him? But if we shall say, From men; we fear the multitude; for all hold John as a prophet. And they answered Jesus, and said, We know not. He also said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things” (Matt. 21:23ff). No lesson is religiously more fundamental, or more direly needed than one on “Authority in Religion.” These Jews were questioning the authority of Christ.

Authority is necessary for all realms of activity. Without authority there is anarchy and chaos. Think about the confusion there would be if our civil governments were abolished. Suppose there were no traffic laws. Imagine the confusion there would be at a downtown intersection if there were no traffic lights or signals of any kind to indicate who has the right of way. If we had no authority, there would be nothing to keep any one who chooses to do so from driving on the left side of the street.

If there were no authority, then one could give either a small or a large piece of meat to a customer who asked for a pound. Or, one might receive a peck or a truck load of coal when he asked for a ton. Without authority, money would not be uniform. So authority is necessary in every realm. Peace, safety, and harmony, prevail when there is authority, and it is properly respected and obeyed.

There also has to be authority in religion. If there is no authority to be followed in religion, one could eat pop-corn instead of bread and the fruit of the vine in partaking of the Lord’s Supper; or he could read comic books instead o# the Scriptures. But there are rules to be followed in Christianity. Paul said, “only, whereunto ye have attained, by that same rule let us walk” (Phil. 3:16). People sometimes object to one’s referring to the rules to be followed in Christianity. But Paul said to walk by the “same rule.” Again he said, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:1,2). There is a law in Christ Jesus. James speaks of the “perfect law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25). And if there is no authority, Paul gave an impossible command in 1 Cor. 1:10. He said, “Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there is no divisions among you; but that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgement.” How could we all speak the same things if there is no authority to which all that we say must conform? It would be impossible. But why do not all speak the same thing? It is because all do not conform to the standard, the law of Christianity.

Unsafe Rules

Rather than accept the law of God, men have turned to unsafe guides as their authority in religion. (1) For years men have said that their feelings were a safe guide. Quite often I have seen people, when asked if they were a Christian, pat their hand across their chest, and say “I know I am saved, for I feel it right here!” But we know that feelings are not a safe guide in other realms. Suppose you started to buy a pound of meat, and the butcher should say, “Well, this feels like a pound. That will be $2.00, please.” You would insist that he put the meat on the scales, would you not? Can one’s state of health always be determined by his feeling? Many people have died, who only a few moments before were feeling all right. In Gen. 37 we read of a scheme of Jacob’s sons against their brother, Joseph, and their father. Joseph’s coat was dipped in blood, and it was insinuated to Jacob that he had been killed. But he had not been. Yet Jacob felt that he had, and thus sorrowed exceedingly. His feelings were not a safe guide. They were wrong. We need to learn that forgiveness of sins, or pardon is something that takes place in heaven, and not inside man. A person may feel himself pardoned when he has not been. Would a prisoner be released simply because he felt he had been pardoned by the governor? Paul said, “The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). It is only when the teaching of the Spirit of God, found recorded in the Bible, joins with our spirit in saying `you have done what God said do: thus you are pardoned’ that we can be sure. We must have it in words from God, the great Forgiver. You must be able to show from the Scriptures that you have done what God has said to do to be forgiven.

(2) Others turn to another guide which is unsafe. Often we hear people advise “just follow your conscience and you will be all right.” But is conscience a safe guide in religion? Saul, later called the apostle Paul, followed his conscience. He said, “Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day” (Acts 23:1). Paul had lived according to his conscience. But his conscience had been misguided. For he said, “I verily though with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9). His conscience told him he ought to persecute those that wore the name of Christ, and all the while he followed his misguided conscience, he himself said he was a chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). A misinformed conscience cannot direct one correctly. So the conscience has to be guided by the infallibly safe guide to safely direct one.

To illustrate the fact that all of us admit that conscience, in some instances is not a safe guide, let us consider those in other lands who are guided by their consciences. The Hindu woman is so devout in her belief that she has faith enough to cast her new-born child to the crocodiles in an effort to appease the rivergod. Is this woman going to heaven simply because she has followed the dictates of her conscience? Is this what I should do if my conscience should so dictate? Some time ago I read of a man who slew his family, stating that he was compelled to do so by religious conviction. The Aztec Indians of Mexico used to cut the heart out of a human being as a part of their worship of the Sun god. They were following their consciences; but this did not make it right. In each of these instances, conscience led these people to become murderers. But their conscience simply misguided them. If their conscience can be misguided, so can yours and mine. So, conscience is not a safe guide.

(3) Others turn to any number of different so-called lager-day direct revelations. Many have claimed that God has spoken to them directly, and revealed to them some altogether new truths. Many cults would today be non-existent were it not for the claims of some of their founders to a latter revelation. But latter revelations cancel themselves out as reliable authority by the very fact that each of these pseudo-revelations has led to the establishment of churches mutually opposed, and is the foundation upon which contradictory doctrines are taught. The writer Jude commanded us to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Notice he spoke of “the faith” not “faiths.” It is referred to in the singular. And in Eph. 4:5 Paul said there is “one faith.” So if there is but one faith, I know that this one faith cannot consist of the Bible and the latter revelations. It is an either-or proposition. The “one faith” is either the Bible or latter revelations. We cannot accept both. We must make a choice. But when I read in the Bible that the word of God furnishes one unto every good work (2 Tim. 3:16,17), and that through the knowledge of Christ we are granted all things that pertain to life and to godliness, I find it difficult to see any need whatsoever for latter revelations. Paul said, “but though we or an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel unto you, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8). If these latter revelations contain more than the Bible, they contain too much. If they contain less than the Bible, they do not contain enough. If they contain exactly what the Bible contains, they are unnecessary. So one cannot look to the modern revelations of men or women, and supposedly there have been both, for his authority in religion.

(4) Others are willing to let father or mother guide them in religion. They say “If it was good enough for father or mother, it is good enough for me.” But friends, the religion of your ancestors is not criterion for your faith. Remember we each have two parents, but quite often they differ religiously. Which of them shall be your standard? We each have four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great, great grandparents, and so on. Certainly all of them have not agreed religiously. Which ancestor should we follow? We must follow the one that followed the word of God, and if we find that none of them followed God’s word, we must still follow the teachings of the Bible.

Paul was one who had to admit that the religion of his ancestors was inadequate. His parents must have been very devout, for they had their son instructed at the feet of the greatest teacher of their time. Perhaps they had great hopes for their Jewish boy. But Paul was met by the Lord on the road to Damascus, and saw that both he and his parents were wrong. Paul had to change. There is nothing wrong with changing. In fact, one must change if he learns he is wrong, and he who will not change when he knows he is wrong is not honest. I have four children and I want to think that I am going to be able to give them the proper start in their study of the Bible, so that in their lifetime they will be able to know the Bible more perfectly than I will ever be able to know it. But, I would be a most disappointed parent if I should then learn that my child refused to do what he found God commanded him to do just because his father had failed to do it. Remember our religion is not to be inherited. It has been said that the church grows more by generation than by regeneration. But this must not be. The Bible and the Bible alone must be our religious standard.

(5) Others have the mistaken idea that because the majority of the people believe a thing, it must be so. They think there is safety in numbers. Some pride themselves in the fact that there are so many millions in their religious group. But if there should be a billion in a certain denomination, that might just prove one thing; that is, that a billion people were wrong. Suppose Noah had said he was going to stay with the majority. He would have drowned in the flood waters just as the multitude did. Remember the majority failed to reach the Promised Land. Jesus said, “Enter ye in by the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many are they that enter in thereby. For narrow is the gate, and straitened the way, that leadeth unto life, and few are they that find it” (Matt. 7:13,14). Jesus taught that the majority will be lost.

But why do people think the majority’s believing a thing to be true can make it true? Why do people want to be in the majority? Because it then becomes the path of least resistance. But the majority cannot decide the truth, for the majority may not always be the same group. Where people are anything religiously, in Utah the majority of people are Mormons; in Georgia the majority are Baptists; in Maryland the majority are Catholics; in Palestine the majority are Jews; in India the majority are Hindus. If I should move from one place to the other my religion would have to change accordingly, if the majority determines the truth.


One thing must determine my stand religiously. Jesus said: “sanctify them in truth; Thy word is truth” (Jno. 17:17). This word must be my only authority. Martin Luther said, in speaking of the Bible, “Here I stand so help me God.” We must let God; not the majority, not father or mother, noi- our feelings or conscience, not some mystic who claims a special revelation, I repeat, we must let God’s word, and His word alone be our standard, our authority its all matters of religion!

Truth Magazine, XX:16, p. 3-6
April 15, 1976