The Authority For The Church

By Mike Willis

The morning paper announced that the Indianapolis laity would meet with the Roman Catholic pope during his visit to the United States. Separated in a box for emphasis was this quotation from Valerie Dillon, director for the archdiocese’s Family Life Office: “Lay people are interested in a church that’s honest but still is adapting to a changing culture. ” The quotation pinpoints the conflict between the Papacy and American Catholics. American Catholics include many who are calling for change in the Catholic Church’s stance on birth control, ordination of women, and divorce whereas the Papacy is trying to maintain its doctrinal adherence to historic positions.

The conflict brings to the forefront the issue of how one determines what doctrines and practices shall be accepted by a church. There have been a number of answers given to this question through the years.

The Authority For Roman Catholicism

In Catholic doctrine, the authority for the church has been systematically developed through the centuries. Catholics believe that one determines right and wrong based on these evidences: (a) The Bible as translated in the Latin Vulgate; (b) The Apocryphal Books; (c) The living voice of the church as manifested through the various church councils; (d) Tradition from the fathers as depicted in the writings of the church fathers; (e) The voice of the pope when he speaks ex cathedra. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia contains this expression of the Catholic position:

We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is essential to salvation that every human creature subject himself to the Roman Pontif . . . . The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra. . . has that infallibility, with which the Divine Redeemer endowed His church, in defining a doctrine of faith and morals. . . . This authority of the pope extends over all questions of knowledge and conduct, of discipline and government in the whole church (p. 338).

Based on this concept, the church has authority to pronounce that eating of meats on Friday is sinful or not sinful and, whatever is decided becomes binding upon every Catholic.

The Protestant Concept of Authority

Expressing the concept of authority which Protestants hold is more difficult because of the greater diversity in Protestantism. Early reformation churches posited authority in the Bible rather than in the pope.

When Protestants sought an external authority, they posited the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, and the whole Christian faith was founded upon that dogma. . . . Protestants found it necessary to interpret Scripture, and to define doctrines in synods and councils, but their decisions had authority only because they were supposed to be exposition of Scripture, and in that sense, the expressions of God’s mind (ISBE, p. 339).

Nevertheless in nineteenth century thought, the creed became as authoritative as the Bible.

Gospel preachers opposed the creeds of Protestantism saying, “If a creed contains more than the Bible, it contains too much (1 Cor. 4:6). If it contains less than the Bible, it does not contain enough (Rev. 22:18-19). If the creed contains the same as the Bible it is not needed because we already have the Bible.” Surely fallible man could not expect to speak more plainly than the infallible Bible! Proof that the creeds were no more easily understood than the Bible was evident by the commentaries which were written to explain the creeds. Only the more conservative, fundamental Protestants give much allegiance to creeds today.

The Modernist Concept of Authority

Within the framework of the Protestant denominations a movement grew which denied the inspiration of the Bible. Modernism rejected the miracles of the Bible. (Such a generalization does not take into account those modernists who pick and choose which miracles to reject.) As the modernists rejected the Bible and the papacy as their standard of authority, they were left without a chart or compass to direct their course. Subjectivism ruled. The quest for the historic Jesus resulted in making Jesus in the image of the modernist concepts in vogue at that period of time. The modernists began teaching, “It doesn’t matter what doctrine you believe so long as you believe the gospel.” Soon the “gospel” became too confining, so modernists recognized the validity of the common religious experience of all religions. In the realm of morality, an absolute standard of right and wrong was rejected. The result is a church which must adjust and adapt itself to the culture in which it exists. Such denominations meet to decide by popular vote whether or not to ordain women, homosexuals, etc. Belief and practice depend upon the vote of the latest session of the heirarchy of the denomination.

The Pentecostal Concept of Authority

Early in the twentieth century, the Pentecostal movement blossomed in America. Whereas the Pentecostals can be characterized as “Bible-believing” in contrast to the modernists who deny the inspiration of the Bible, they cannot be described as men who confine the word of God to the Bible. They believe that God speaks directly to man separate and apart from the Bible. The modern Pentecostal preacher relates his experience in which God communicated directly to him, which communication he passes down, as the prophets of the Bible, to the congregation. Oral Roberts has stated that God expressly told him to build the City of Faith hospital. Jim Bakker related that God wanted him to build Heritage, U.S.A. Jimmy Swaggart reveals God’s special word to his audience. None of these men confine God’s word to the Bible. Consequently, Pentecostalism is full of latterday revelations, women preachers, and unique beliefs contrary to the Bible.

A Biblical View of Authority?

Does the Bible direct us in how to determine right and wrong? What is the standard by which the church is to determine morality, dogma, and practice?

The Bible begins with the statement that God is the Lord of all because he is the Creator (Jn. 10:29; 14:28). Even the incarnate Son of God submitted himself to the Father’s will (Jn. 4:34). Consequently, every man must submit himself to the authority God the Creator.

The Father committed all authority to the hands of the resurrected Christ (Matt. 28:18). To him every knee shall bow (Phil. 2:8-9). He is the head over all things to the church (Eph. 1:21-23).

The will of the Lord Jesus Christ was revealed to the apostles and prophets by the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:26; 16:13). Because they were the instruments through whom the will of God was revealed to men, whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:18; 18:18). The revelation which God gave to men through the apostles and prophets was communicated both orally and in writing. The written word was as much the voice of God speaking to man as was the oral word (1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:14). This revelation was completely communicated to man and confirmed by miracles (Mk. 16:20). Through reading the certified word of God, one can know what God wants him to do in order to obtain life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3-4). The Scriptures are adequate and all-sufficient to reveal God’s will to mankind (2 Tim. 3:16-17).


Consequently, the church looks to the inspired word of God as its standard by which to determine right and wrong. What is approved by God in the Bible is right and what is disapproved by him is wrong. The church is not an organization which should be changed and shaped to fit the mold of the culture in which it lives; rather, the church is to conform itself to the revelation given by God in the Bible. The Bible – not the church Fathers, church councils, papacy, creed book, subjective judgment, or later revelation – is the authority for the church.

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 19, pp. 578, 598
October 1, 1987