What is the Christian church supposed to look like? What kind of authority does the Christian church possess? What are the limits of the church’s authority?
Everyone has a problem with authority. Every person, no matter who they are, enjoys the freedom to do their own thing without interference from others. Teenagers like to be free from parental oversight. Wives don’t like it when their husbands tell them what to do. Citizens often prefer a government that keeps its hands out of personal affairs. No one wants to stop when the policeman pulls us over. Yes, it’s true, human beings have a problem with authority. We love to exercise authority, but we hate to have to obey it. Every organization from the nuclear family to corporations to governments wield some kind of authority over others. Authority is necessary for society to be ordered and stable. We recognize that authority is necessary and good, but that doesn’t stop us from resisting authority from time to time. That’s because human beings want to live life according to their own authority, and on one else’s—not even God’s. Man, by nature, is rebellious.
The Bible is a book of authority, and the Christian church is also an organization that carries authority from its founder, Jesus Christ. The authority of the church is derived from God, and as such, it exercises its authority under certain conditions.
Before we look at the authority of the church, let’s examine the authority that Paul had as an Apostle and see how he exercised his authority with the Corinthian church. Paul is an example of godly, spiritual authority. In I Corinthians Paul exercised his authority as an Apostle to order corrective measures in the Corinthian church. Paul wrote about the church’s approval of immorality, their abuse of the Lord’s Supper, their wild and out of control church services. He even gave orders regarding marriage, divorce, and the conduct of women. Paul’s scope of authority touched upon everything in the life of the church, yet unlike many in the world who hold authority, he did not issue orders that were designed to bring him personal benefit. Rather, Paul’s exercise of authority was designed to benefit his readers instead of himself. “[I am] not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved” - (I Corinthians 10:33).
In I Corinthians there were two ways that Paul exercised his authority. First, he exercised his authority in a fatherly way. Second, he exercised his authority firmly, with conviction, and did not compromise what was right. Let’s look at these two practices individually.
• Paul exercised his authority in a fatherly way. “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel. Therefore, I exhort you, be imitators of me” - (I Corinthians 4:15).
Like any loving father to his children, Paul admonished the Corinthians as someone who wanted to see them succeed. A loving father expresses love and mercy to his children. This is the same way that God the Father acts toward us. God first seeks our good, even if we may be in rebellion against him. That is grace. “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” - (Matthew 5:44-45).
“While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” - (Romans 5:10).
Paul’s exercise of fatherly authority is an example of God’s care for us. God is patient and longs for those who don’t know him to come to faith in him. His exercise of fatherly qualities is designed to bring those who don’t know him into a right relationship with him, through the expression of his love. Most importantly, it was Paul’s expressions of fatherly love that would lead the Corinthian church to make the corrections they needed to reform their church.
• Another way Paul exercised his authority? He exercised his authority firmly, and with conviction, and did not compromise what was right.
Paul had serious issues to address with the Corinthian church. One of the most surprising was a man in the church who was involved sexually with his step-mother. “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst…Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” - (I Corinthians 5:1-2,13).
This sin of family incest was very shocking to Paul. Corinthian society had no shortage of immorality in the community, but incestuous relationships were frowned upon even by the most immoral of Corinthian society. That a church member would be engaged in such a terrible sin—with the church body in approval—was a terrible sign of how bad things in the church had deteriorated. Paul, while trying to be fatherly in his approach to the Corinthians, had to stand firm where morality was concerned. There could be no compromise with sin in the church.
Christians today should also have the attitude of Paul. Yes, it is important to approach one another with love and kindness. But it is also necessary that we make no compromise where sin is concerned. If a confrontation must happen it should be done not only in a loving and patient manner, but should be clear and direct—sin should not be tolerated in the church body.
As another example, Paul confronted the Corinthians about their habit of suing fellow believers in the secular court system—something the scripture forbids for believers. “Does any one of you, when he has a case before his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints?…Is it so that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brothers, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers? Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another” - (I Corinthians 6:1,5-7).
When it came to the reputation of the church, because of the sin of its members, Paul did not compromise. He was firmly convicted that the Corinthian’s behavior brought shame to the Gospel, even telling the Corinthians, “I say this to your shame.”
When it comes to divisions in the church, Paul urged forgiveness rather than revenge. Paul recognized that such lawsuits between believers were exercises in unforgiveness and revenge, which are not supposed to be marks of the Christian church. Paul told his readers, “Why not rather be wronged?” It was better, in Paul’s view, to be taken advantage of and forgive it, than to file a lawsuit against a fellow Christian and damage their reputation and witness before unbelievers.
So far we’ve seen authority exercised in a fatherly way, and with firmness and conviction. Now let’s look at one kind of authority that is supposed to be a picture of our relationship with Jesus Christ.
In I Corinthians 7 Paul addressed problems related to marriage. The Corinthians lived in a society where marriage was not highly regarded. The sanctity of the marriage relationship was not very developed. Yet marriage, as God originally designed it, was to be a picture of Christ and the church. Even the authority that was exercised by the husband and wife in their sexual relationship was to be a type for Christ and the church. “The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer” - (I Corinthians 7:3-5).
Elsewhere in the scripture Paul elaborated further on the authority structure within a marriage. “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” - (Ephesians 5:22-25,28).
Paul’s meaning is very clear. The husband and wife are both equals in their relationship, but the husband possesses authority in the relationship. However, he cannot simply issue orders like a master to a slave or an employer to an employee. Rather, God has designed that the husband exercise his authority in a sacrificial and loving way—the same way that Christ exercises his authority over the church.
In the three areas of authority that we have looked at so far we have seen how Paul exercised his authority with the Corinthian church. Paul, however, did not want to exercise this authority alone. Part of his purpose was to model for the Corinthians how they should exercise their authority as a church. They were to imitate him by exercising authority in a fatherly way, with firmness and conviction. If the church would hold fast to God’s word, God’s standards, then they would see growth and blessing from God. The church of Jesus Christ has been given some basic areas of authority that should be exercised regularly. So now let’s look at four areas of authority that the church possesses.
Generally speaking, there are four areas of authority that God has granted to the Christian church. Each local church body has each of the four. These areas of authority are all derived from God, through the exercise of the standards laid out in the Bible.
• The church has the authority to teach God’s Word.
This is not a light matter. God requires that those who teach his word handle it carefully and truthfully. This authority was established when God gifted certain people as pastors and teachers to instruct the church in his word. Because God has given this authority to the church, the church is likewise given gifts, including special understanding of God’s word, in order to properly teach it. “We have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” - (I Corinthians 2:12-13).
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” - (II Timothy 2:15).
The second area of authority?
• The church has authority to share the Gospel.
This authority was given to the church in Matthew 28, when Jesus spoke of the great commission for his disciples to take the Gospel to the whole world. “Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” - (Matthew 28:19). The church of Jesus Christ is entrusted with the most important and life-changing news in all of history. God became a man, died on man’s behalf to pay the penalty for our sins, and rose again from the dead, never to die again, that we might be justified and enjoy eternal life with him. What other message can possibly be more important? There is none.
• The church has the authority to disciple its members.
This right is also part of Matthew 28, when Jesus commanded his disciples to “make disciples” of all nations. We might also look at this as an extenuation of the authority to preach the Gospel. Simply receiving Christ as Savior is not the end of becoming a Christian. It is only the beginning. As Paul modeled for others the necessity of teaching others God's word, so too we are commissioned with the same task—discipleship.
• The church has the authority to discipline its members
This is a difficult area of authority. Members who may be publicly disciplined may avail themselves of legal rights to sue in court if embarrassed. Yet regardless of what could happen, there are those occasions when church discipline must take place. Jesus’ outlined the procedure for it in the book of Matthew. “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” - (Matthew 18:15-17).
While these three areas of authority are all relevant for us today, there are other areas where the church has not been granted authority. These are areas where mistakes have been made in the past, or the church has pushed itself too far into areas where it does not belong because here is no biblical mandate. What does the church NOT have the authority to do?
• The church does not have the authority to make laws or rules on par with the scripture.
About a century before Christ the priests and pharisees were creating regulations in addition to the Mosaic law that were designed to guide the Jews in keeping the law. The problem was that the leaders regarded these man-made rules on the level of scripture.
• The church does not have the authority to force conversion through coercion.
Receiving Christ as savior can only be done voluntarily. It is not possible to become a Christian “by birth,” or through political or other force. No one should ever be forced, physically, emotionally, or mentally, into receiving Christ. Such attempts never yield true conversions and only end up driving someone farther away from Christ. As in all things, receiving Christ must be voluntary on the part of the one receiving him.
• The church does not have political authority.
Church members are citizens like every other citizen of a country. But the church, as an organization, is not endowed with political authority. Christians may run for political office but they must never use their political authority to force Christ upon anyone. They may persuade but never force. The spiritual and political spheres are two separate and distinct things. Remember what Jesus told Pilate? He said that his kingdom was “not of this world.”
Instead of political authority the church best serves as a conscience for a society. It stands upon moral issues of right and wrong and helps to influence society in that way, but it is not charged by God with political authority. We should take our cues about our society by applying this admonition from the prophet Jeremiah. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare” - (Jeremiah 29:7).
Let’s recap the main points we’ve learned. What are our examples in the scripture for using our authority as believers?
1.) The Apostle Paul exercised his authority in a fatherly way
2.) Paul exercised his authority firmly, and with conviction. Paul refused to compromise the truth even to cultural considerations.
With these in mind, what kind of authority has been given to the church of Jesus Christ?
1.) The church has the authority to teach God’s Word
2.) The church has authority to share the Gospel—to evangelize others in his name
3.) The church has the authority to disciple its members
4.) The church has the authority to discipline its members—disciplining means to rebuke, shun, or excommunicate its sinning members
Knowing that the church has been granted authority to perform certain functions on the Lord’s behalf, what are the things that God has NOT given the church the authority to do—what is the church, as an organization, limited or forbidden from doing?
1.) The church does not have the authority to make laws or rules on par with the scripture.
Scripture is the Christian’s highest authority on Earth. No person can or should attempt to make laws or rules to govern the Christian life that exceed the scripture’s authority.
2.) The church does not have the authority to force conversion through coercion.
Other religions, such as Islam, may carry out conversions this way, but this must never be done by the Christian church. Entrance into the kingdom of God is voluntary.
3.) The church does not have political authority.
Interestingly, Jesus said that ALL authority in Heaven and Earth had been given to him. Yet he chose not to pass political authority to the church as an organization. The kingdom of God, therefore, remains spiritual until the Lord returns to Earth to exercise his rule. Until that time a Christian may be involved in the political processes of his country, but the church, as an organization, must not attempt to wield power apart from exercising a godly moral influence.