Authority is not a really popular concept, at least not in the United States, or in the churches that reside there. We’ll talk and read about leadership until the cows come home, but authority is rarely discussed.
I find myself often distressed by the lack of “higher authority” in most churches. what do I mean? I mean there seems to be nothing that can be appealed to as the standard. Sure, we all look to Scripture. But the way we interpret it varies greatly and depending on who is doing the interpreting. Even heretics appeal to scripture.
I think a lot of this authority-aversion comes from 2 sources. First, it is a carry-over from the Protestant Reformation. Papal authority was challenged on many fronts and declared invalid by most of the historical reforms. The Radical Reformation took this a step further and clung to the idea of sola scriptura in a manner that excluded all else in most cases. With these streams, we tend to knee-jerk against anything that would claim authority over our belief and practice.
Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, is the influence of modern thought, primarily the existentialists thought that appeared in the 19th century. This idea that I am the center of my universe (to over-simplify the movement to be sure) is at the core of much of American, and Western thought.
We do not submit to authority willingly. We pick and choose and want the ability to quit whenever we want. This very idea gives a lot of business to chaplains in basic training units, believe me. (“You signed a contract and swore and oath–you can’t quit.”)
In the church this causes issues as well. Who is the authority? Pastor? Deacons? Elders? Congregation? Mr. Jones? Bishop? It varied from denomination to denomination in what the “official” church government is. Variety is okay, but even within those models, the “real” authority is often different than the “attributed” authority.
On matters of belief and doctrine, what is the authority? Scripture, right, I got it. Who’s view of it? If we say we are an XYZ Church, what does that mean? (I would even question some groups using the word church at all…) What do we point to and say, “Here we stand”?
Is it negotiable? How much variance do we allow? I know Jesus spoke against the “polity police” of the Pharisees. I cannot help but think that in fear of that, we have allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way in many circles. Orthodoxy and orthopraxis are both important to the church. All we have to do is read the Pentateuch to realize God is concerned with the way we believe and the way we worship.
We do not have as clear-cut guidelines in the New Testament. Obviously.
But, I think there is something to be said for saying “We believe this is the best way to do it, we believe this statement of faith and doctrine.” And sticking to it. How else can we know what we are joining and aligning ourselves with? I don’t know that we have to nail every last possible item down. But having our “core doctrine” as a non-negotiable certainly seems like a good place to start.
Without a firm authority to appeal to, we are likely to be blown by the winds of change and culture, instead of being the rock in the midst of these otherwise shifting sands.