How a Roman Catholic View of Church Authority Compares to a Protestant View
Overheard in a conversation between a devout Catholic and a Protestant: “At least we Catholics know who’s in charge of our Church! And our Church has lots of authority. You Protestants are like tribes without a chief, like ships without a rudder. ‘The Bible, and the Bible only!’ is your cry, but look where that’s landed you: Anglicans. Presbyterians. Methodists. Lutherans. Baptists. Want me to continue? Having no authority leads to the chaos you’re in!”
This conversation is typical when it comes to the topic of church authority, and it underscores one of the great differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism: their respective views of authority. In the following, I will outline both views of authority, then I will assess the Catholic position and suggest application for the Protestant position.
ROMAN CATHOLIC AUTHORITY
The Roman Catholic view of church authority can be envisioned as a three-legged stool: Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. One leg is Scripture, the inspired Word of God in written form. (Remember that the Catholic Old Testament, which contains the Apocrypha, is different from that of Protestants.)
Another leg of the stool, Tradition, consists of the teachings that Jesus orally communicated to his apostles, who in turn orally communicated those teachings to their successors, the bishops. This Tradition is maintained in the Catholic Church and, at times, is proclaimed as official doctrine (for example, the Immaculate Conception of Mary , and the Bodily Assumption of Mary ).
Importantly, Scripture and Tradition “are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move toward the same goal” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 80). Thus, Scripture and Tradition together make up authoritative divine revelation for the Catholic Church.
This divine revelation must be interpreted, and “the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone” (CCC 85). This third leg of the stool is this office, the Magisterium, consisting of the pope and the bishops with him. Their role is to provide the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, to proclaim Tradition and authoritatively interpret it, and to exercise authority as leaders over the entire Church and as the priesthood that administers grace through its seven sacraments. At the head of the Church is the Pope, who is the vicar (representative) of Christ on earth and the successor of the apostle Peter; according to Roman Catholic tradition, the Pope stands in apostolic succession (an unbroken line of authoritative leaders) with Peter and all the popes following him.
In summary, the authority structure in the Roman Catholic Church is like a three-legged stool, with Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. Each of the three, and the three together, are necessary and work seamlessly together as the authority for the Church.
The Protestant view of church authority centers on authoritative divine revelation, which is Scripture. The Protestant formal principle of sola Scriptura—Scripture alone—means that Scripture is the ultimate authority in the church, which contradicts the Catholic position of Scripture plus Tradition.
This principle of Scripture alone does not mean Protestants ignore all other input. Wisdom from the past forms a small-t tradition, as exemplified in the early church creeds, the historic Protestant confessions of faith, and evangelical affirmations. These guides provide Protestants with much counsel and insight. But it’s necessary to note that they function in a ministerial (serving) capacity, not in a magisterial (leading) role. In Protestant churches, ultimate authority belongs to Scripture alone.
This commitment is the ground for the Protestant emphasis on the Word of God’s relationship to preaching, teaching, discipling, counseling, worshiping, leading, praying, translating, distributing, and more. Because Scripture is the Word of God, to obey Scripture is to obey God himself. To disobey Scripture is to disobey God himself. This is not to equate Scripture with God, but it does emphasize how the authority of God is expressed through his authoritative Word.
According to, and under, this authoritative Scripture, a local church is governed by qualified leaders called pastors or elders. They have the God-ordained responsibility and authority (1) to teach Scripture and communicate sound doctrine; (2) to lead under the Lordship of Christ; (3) to pray (especially for the sick); and (4) to shepherd the church by providing stellar (yet still sinful) examples of Christ-likeness and thus protecting the church from heresy and sin through preaching, discipling, and exercising discipline.
According to some Protestant denominations, authoritative governing structures exist above the local church level. For example, in episcopalian churches, bishops exercise an authoritative role over churches in their jurisdiction. In presbyterian churches, elders from local sessions exercise an authoritative role over churches in their presbytery, synod, and general assembly. Whether organized in a congregational, episcopalian, or presbyterian manner, Protestant church authority has nothing resembling the Catholic Church’s Magisterium: no Pope, no apostolic succession, no church/papal infallibility, no authority on par with Scripture.
ASSESSMENT OF ROMAN CATHOLIC VIEW OF CHURCH AUTHORITY
The first critique of the Roman Catholic view of authority focuses on Scripture plus Tradition. Such a view finds no biblical basis. Not to mention, it’s a late development in church history, and it’s associated with the claim that the Church/Pope is infallibly led by the Holy Spirit. It is an inherently unstable position, as seen when Scripture and Tradition are in conflict (of course, the Catholic Church would say that such a conflict can never happen).
The Scripture plus Tradition formula also contradicts two other important Protestant doctrines: the sufficiency of Scripture (Scripture is all the church needs to please God fully) and the necessity of Scripture (the church would lose its way if Scripture would disappear).
The second critique centers on the authoritative role ascribed to the Church, especially its Magisterium. This role is grounded on the principle of the Christ-Church interconnection: the Roman Catholic Church self-identifies as the ongoing incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is present in the Church in his totality—divine nature, human nature, and body—through the Church’s members, especially its hierarchy. This notion of a prolonged, continuous incarnation has no biblical support. Furthermore, it wreaks havoc with the ascension, the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the future return of Jesus. According to Scripture and orthodox Christology, Christ in his human nature has been exalted to the glorious heavenly realm. He has sent the Holy Spirit to take his place as another Comforter. He will return bodily one day. That is, Jesus is not here now. To affirm that the whole Christ is continuously present in the Catholic Church is to wreak havoc with these realities so integral to the Christian faith.
In summary, the Catholic view of authority as consisting of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium is wrong.
APPLYING THE PROTESTANT VIEW OF CHURCH AUTHORITY
The Protestant view of authority is lived out concretely in many ways, three of which will be mentioned here.
First, Protestants are attentive to Scripture—ready to obey, trust, be warned, offer praise, and other applications as they understand it.
Second, Protestants focus on Scripture in every aspect of church life and ministry: preaching, teaching, worshiping, discipling, and other activities. And as communities of the Word, they joyfully submit to and trust Scripture.
Third, Protestants obey and respect their divinely-appointed, qualified leaders. From them, members receive the Word of God as it is preached and taught, and find help from their pastors in living out Scripture. Members are also instructed and exhorted by Scripture to engage in ministry under the direction of their gifted leaders, so they “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15–16).