The Nature of Church Authority
The idea of church authority is a mystifying one for Protestants. We know we don’t want to say a church has the authority actually to make or unmake a Christian, whether through the ordinances or in some other fashion. We also have a strong conviction that the individual Christian must finally heed his or her conscience over and against a church should a church ever defy Scripture. Each believer will give an individual account to King Jesus on Judgment Day, and so each believer must, in the final analysis, decide for him- or herself what biblical obedience requires.
What room is left, therefore, for a church’s authority?
If you go back and read what the early Protestants wrote about the church, you will discover they took the idea of church authority for granted. It didn’t scare them. This was true among the high church Anglicans and the low church Baptists alike. Most evangelicals today, however, don’t know how to think about the concept. What categories or language do we use? Or worse, might church authority just be an idea that power-loving shepherds use to lord over the sheep?
CHURCH AUTHORITY = AGREEMENT
In fact, I don’t think the idea of church authority needs to mystify or scare us. It’s really quite simple. To strip off all the layers and whittle it down to its barest minimum, church authority is nothing more or less than two or three people agreeing about the gospel.
Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matt. 18:19–20)
Suppose you and dozen other people are living on a desert island. You find a Bible, read it, and become convinced of the truths of Christianity. You repent and believe. You’re now a Christian, or at least you say you are. You share the gospel with two others. They, too, repent and believe. The three of you can now gather in Jesus’ name, because it’s no longer just you saying you’re a Christian; they’re saying it, too.
The authority of your church of three consists entirely in your agreement with one another about Jesus and about each other.1
WHAT IT MEANS TO GATHER IN JESUS’ NAME
Let me unpack this a bit more. What does it mean to gather in Jesus’ name? It means not only that each of you believes the good news about Jesus, it means that each of you agree with each other’s professions about the good news of Jesus.
Person 1: “I believe that Jesus was fully God, fully man, lived a perfect life, died on the cross for sins, and rose again so that all who repent and believe can be forgiven. Is that what you believe?”
Person 2: “Yes, that’s what I believe, too! And you?”
Person 3: “Yes, me three!”
The ability to gather in Jesus’ name presupposes (i) an agreement with one another about the good news of Jesus, (ii) as well as an agreement that the other two persons possess genuine faith in the good news about Jesus. And right there, in those two points of agreement, we find the very heart and substance of church authority. It’s two or three or three-thousand agreeing that we’re talking about the same good news; agreeing that we’re all his followers.
HOW CHURCH AUTHORITY SHOWS ITSELF
Church authority shows itself (becomes evident) when a fourth person walks up to our group of three and says, “Hey, I’m a Jesus’ follower, too. He’s my favorite rabbi.” And we say, “But is Jesus your Savior and Lord?” When the person replies, “No, not a savior, just a great teacher,” we know we cannot gather in Christ’s name with this person, at least not in the sense described in Matthew 18:20. We will not name him or her as one of us—Christ followers—through baptism (28:19).
The authority of our little church of three also shows itself if two of us have to exclude the third for hypocrisy or heresy, as the larger context of Matthew 18:15–18 teaches.
A POLITICAL OR GROUP-ORGANIZING AUTHORITY
In other words, church authority, at its heart, is a political or group-organizing authority. It allows the people of an invisible new covenant to become corporately visible. It enables Christians to “go public” together.
In that sense, church authority is just like the authority of every kind of group on the planet, formal or informal. From the chess club, to an actor’s guild, to the cool kids’ clique, it’s the authority to say “You’re one of us” or “You’re not one of us,” based on certain agreed-upon beliefs.
That kind of language might sound too exclusive to our contemporary ears, but doing away with it is nonsensical. Without it, there’s no baptism, no Lord’s Supper, no visible church on earth. Administering a baptism requires two or three people to agree. Enjoying the Supper requires two or three people to agree. Being a visible “assembly” (which is what “church” means) requires two or three people to agree. And the authority of a church, once again, is that agreement. Without church authority there is no group; there’s just a bunch of self-defining individuals.
Which means, by definition, an individual Christian cannot possess church authority, because church authority requires the agreement of two or three. Agreeing with yourself doesn’t do much to build a church.
Those who adhere to episcopalian, presbyterian, and congregational forms of church government will disagree about who must join the individual applicant in exercising the agreement. Does the professing Christian need the bishop, the session, or the whole congregation’s agreement? Our traditions offer different answers to that question. But the core is always the same: we agree on who Jesus is and that we’re each qualified to gather together in his name.
JESUS’ OWN AUTHORIZATION
One more thing: church authority is not simply born of the sociological necessity for how groups must form, i.e. through agreeing with one another that they are a group.
Rather, Jesus puts his own authorization behind the agreement in two ways. First, by referring to the agreement of “two or three” in Matthew 18:20 (as in verse 16), Jesus invokes a Jewish courtroom principle from Deuteronomy 19 that says two or three witnesses must agree in order to bring a legally binding charge. Yet now Jesus puts that old principle to new work. These two or three who agree now “legally” bind one another from the standpoint of his kingdom. They are “covenanted” together, as we sometimes say. The Old Testament judicial glue finds a fresh use: binding a church together.
Second, Jesus seals that agreement with the promise of his own presence. “Where this happens, I’m there. They have my seal of approval. They raise my flag. They represent me, just as the temple once represented God’s authority and presence.”
Church authority does not make or unmake a Christian. And church authority, when in error, must be contradicted by the individual. Jesus alone is the final, final judge, after all.
Still, church authority is what allows for the church on earth to become visible—to go public. It’s how a group of individual Christians speaks in unison to the nations, “Here we are, a new nation and race. We represent Jesus and we have good news for you!”
1 In other publications, I have described church authority as an interpretive judgment (or the power of the keys). The “agreement” I am highlighting here involves that interpretive judgment. The two or three are agreeing upon an interpretive judgment of what the good news about Jesus is, and who is a genuine follower of Jesus. See, for instance, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (IVP, 2016), ch. 16.