The authority of the church is for some a touchy issue. The reformation of Luther’s day took place in response to the Catholic church’s control over Christianity. The five ‘solas’ (only or alone) were given in response to papal authority: by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, for the Glory of God alone. As a result, many Christians have neglected the other roles of authority in the life of a believer and it is important to note the authority of the church.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:18-19 esv
“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven… where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matthew 18:18-20 esv
When Jesus named the church in Matthew 16 he also states that authority is given to this new institution. Understand this, that God has always placed authorities in His dealings with mankind throughout every dispensation. There were patriarchs, prophets, judges, and kings. In each way, God worked distinctively with humanity through different means. The error of the Catholic church was that they assumed a continuation of singular authorities such as patriarchs, prophets, judges, kings, and now apostles. They looked at Matthew 16 as Jesus giving authority to Peter. They therefore set up there papacy as following after Peter touting that he was the first pope and each pope subsequently carried the same authority. The problem with this argument is that they don’t take into consideration Matthew 18 which says the exact same thing, but it not talking about Peter but church discipline. It seems very clear that when you include the second passage that the more accurate teaching is the authority rests not in a single person, but in the collective body.
Many errors in theology and doctrine have been a result of verses being taken out of context or simply an inconsistency with the rest of Scripture. So as not to perpetuate bad exegesis (critical analysis) it is important to see if this model is consistent both theologically and practically.
I have already stated before that there are several authorities that a believer must answer to. This is not to discredit the aspect of ‘Sola Scritura’ (by Scripture alone) but to build onto it two other authorities that are consistent with God’s Word: the Holy Spirit and the Church.
Throughout each dispensation God has communicated with His creation. God walked in the garden with Adam and Eve, God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, and Israel understood that the presence of God rested at His temple right inside the Holy of Hollies. At the beginning of the Church age God represented Himself over the heads of the Apostles as flames of fire on the day of Pentecost and every day since as the indwelling Comforter in the hearts of all believers. Since then, the Holy Spirit has remained a personal authority in the life of all Christians. Discerning the Spirit is always in accordance with the Word of God, but it is still a unique authority.
So why is it necessary to talk about the role of the Holy Spirit when discussing the authority of the church? Because this is the foundation the church is built upon. If every member of the church is accountable to the Scriptures, they have common ground. If every member is blessed with the same measure of the Holy Spirit, they are all equals. Therefore, the church is given authority to function in accordance with the Will of God because it is filled with the unifying Spirit and built upon the teaching of Scripture.
So what authority does the church have? For starters, it has the authority to discipline a member. It also was given authority for accomplishing God’s will here on earth. Too many Christians are attempting to establish their own objectives without submitting to the authority of a Church. They think that they can circumvent the Church’s role and go off to do their own ministry without answering to any authority. This is not only reckless, but it is outside of the will of God. God has established His Church as the institution for accomplishing His directives. Outside of that authority, a believer is outside of the will of God. (Disclamer: This does not mean that all para-church organizations are outside of God’s will. Though it could be a test to show how some are clearly wrong. Furthermore, it is not a defense of any cult or wayward church that would suggest they are authoritative. The church must answer to the final authority of the Word of God. Many churches do not follow a biblical model of church polity.)
But does this work out practically? Reading through the book of Acts is the clearest evidence that the Church is authoritative. People that suggest the biblical forms and practices are impractical are saying that the Bible is not authoritative because the Bible clearly places authority with Churches. God’s ways may not seem to make sense all of the time, which is why Church discipline is rarely practiced correctly, but that does not mean it isn’t the best way. God’s ways are always higher than our ways. Though we may not understand them, by practicing them we will find that they are good. By submitting to a church you are committing your life to a group of people with flaws and abrasions, but the beauty of the Body of Christ is that we cannot function without each other.
It’s not too much of a stretch to point out that we have the written Word of God, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the expression of the Body of Christ as authorities in our life. That is the work of the trinity. If we are going to have an ecclesiastical reformation, we need to come back to a proper understanding of the role of the church in our lives. If we are not submitted to a Church, we are basically functioning as free agents in the world, outside of God’s blessing and will. This just reinforces how necessary it is to build and cultivate a healthy Church.