Friday, July 26, 2019

Authority in the Church

1. “The Authority of the Word”
To the Church, and to the world through the proclamation of the Church, Scripture bears witness to Jesus Christ. Scripture does this by the power of the Holy Spirit. By his power, those who hear Scripture hear Jesus Christ and those who hear Jesus Christ do so by listening to Scripture.

God’s revelation became objectively real when the divine Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. God’s revelation becomes subjectively real by the outpouring of God’s Spirit. The reality of the Bible as God’s Word is like this. Objectively the Bible, as the Word of God by the Spirit of God, is the concrete authority which is the source, center, and goal of all authority in the Church. Subjectively the Bible is the concrete freedom which is the source, center, and goal of the freedom of the Church. It is because of this authority and freedom of the Bible that the Church comes to have authority and freedom under the Bible.

The Church is Church only in daily and faithful obedience to Jesus Christ. The prophets of Israel lived like this in relation to Yahweh, as did the apostles in relation to Jesus Christ. But their relationship was uniquely direct. Our time differs from their time in this respect. To stand in the same relationship of obedience to the Word of God as they did, we need to obey Scripture as the Word of God for us. Any attempts on our part to bypass Scripture and appeal directly to the Holy Spirit are false.

The Church only exists as Church when it willingly submits to the authority of the Bible. It usurps this authority whenever it subjects the Bible to its own teaching authority, to its own historical consciousness, or to personal experience.

Jesus Christ, however, spoke to his prophets and apostles, called and enabled them to be his witnesses through their written words, and through them confronts his Church with a concrete authority that as such cannot be absorbed by it. We relate obediently to our Lord, then, when we listen to the prophetic and apostolic witness which he himself commissioned. In the 1500s, reformation meant a return to Scripture as the ultimate norm for the Church’s talk about God. In our day, a return to Scripture would likewise mean a commitment to reform the Church. This points to the final significance of our recognition of the authority of Scripture: it is our acknowledgment that we do not live without God and without hope in the world but that God is both with us and for us in full concrete authority.

2. “Authority under the Word”
Under Scripture, the Church exercises humble yet genuine authority. Its authority is humble, not claiming to speak directly for Jesus Christ or by direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit but hopefully in conformity with the biblical witness to Jesus Christ. Its authority is genuine, following the commandment that we should honor our father and mother, as a sign of the Church’s subordination to God’s Word and as a reflection of God’s authority over all human authorities.

The Church is established as Church through our common obedience to the Word of God. This Word is not spoken to individuals in isolation but to individual members of the Church for the sake of the Church. Confession is the act by which we acknowledge our common hearing and receiving of God’s Word in the Church through Scripture. In confession we share and debate with the Church our resulting understanding of faith in Jesus Christ. We are responsible for doing this and the Church is responsible for hearing us and responding.

Before sharing and debating, we are responsible for listening to the confession of the Church, for listening respectfully to those before us and beside us in the Church. In this responsibility we recognize the relative superiority and genuine authority of the Church. In this way the Church is a sign and reflection of Christ’s authority which we honor when we honor the sign of it. Of course, Christ is Lord among sinners. So Church confession may well contain mistakes. But we may first trust and respect the people of the Church because we first trust and respect the Lord who saves both them and us from sin and in doing so is the foundation of all faith.

The life of the Church under Scripture is an ongoing debate, a mutual accountability, concerning the Word of God we proclaim. Unity in proclamation requires a shared confession of our faith. This confession is our provisional agreement with others on points critical to the life of the Church. The authority of the Church varies with the truth of its documented confessions. A confession of the Church is always a documented agreement in matters of faith, believed to be made in obedience to Scripture, which both expresses and demands a decision.

Copyright © 2019 by Steven Farsaci.

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