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Volume 10, Issue 1: Presbyterion

Church Authority

Douglas Wilson

Any study of church history, and particularly any study of the great periods of revival or reawakening, demonstrates above everything else just this one fact: that the Christian Church during all such periods has spoken with authority.
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The Word of God speaks with authority. Whenever men abandon that Word, they frequently want the Church to speak authoritatively in her own voice, supplanting the Word with the traditions of men. But this does not make Church authority suspect, for when the Church is governed by the authority of the Word, the Church speaks authoritatively as well . . . but not like the scribes. God in His Word always speaks a sure word to us in a slippery place. When we are mastered by that word, we will learn to speak the same way as well. "The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master" (Luke 6:40).

But in the modern world, authority of any kind is a dirty word. True authority is written off as arrogance, but this simply shows how the arrogance of individualism dislikes any organized competition. Authority is built into the world. In any given situation, someone is going to wield authority; someone is going to make the call. Our concern should be to place that authority in the place where Scripture places it, which is to say, in a faithful Church.
Confronted with the authority of the confessions, or the authority of the Church in discipline, a man can sound very noble if he phrases his objection this way: "Who do these men think they are? " Of course, if all such authoritative voices are stopped, then who is left to wield the authority? The objector, but he was wise enough to disguise his objection as a plea for individual liberty, not individual tyranny. Because he is interested in camouflaging his own deep desire to run the show, he selects his examples carefully. For example, the objection to Church authority has the most prima facie plausibility when it comes to issues surrounding the canon of Scripture and the text of Scripture.
Now the position of historic Protestants is that the Word of God is self-authenticating. This means that it does not need the Church to authenticate it. "The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God" (WCF/I/iv). But if this is the case then what does it mean to say that the Church has declared certain books canonical, or that the Church has declared a certain textual family to be the one which God preserved throughout history? To many it appears that such confessional Protestants are trying to suck and blow at the same time. They want the Bible to be self-authenticating, and yet they want to be able to tell people authoritatively what books are in the Bible. So which will it be?
The question springs from a misunderstanding of the nature of Church authority. The Church must claim no authority of any kind over the text of Scripture itself, and yet the Church must acknowledge the canon of Scripture and the text of Scripture—which, incidentally, should be the textus receptus. But how is this possible?
Authority is being exercised, but it is not authority over the self-authenticating text of Scripture. The authority is being exercised in the household of God and over spurious writings. Consider the latter case of spurious writings first. If someone claims that the Book of Mormon, for example, is the Word of God, the true Church of Christ has the full authority to reject it as a merely human composition. To authoritatively reject that which is not Scripture is the necessary counterpart of submissively accepting that which is Scripture.
The Church also has authority in the teaching of her ministers, and in the lives of the people. The Bible grants authority to the Church, an authority which must maintain godly discipline within the ranks of the ministry/eldership. If a pastor begins to claim that 2 Peter was written by a pious fraud in the second century, when the Church removes him from his position, she is not exercising authority over 2 Peter. The authority is being exercised over a man, and the standard being used is a recognized canon which provides the standard (kanon) for discipline.
When it comes to church authority, moderns are trained to be immediately suspicious—any exercise of authority must be a creeping tyranny. In many churches, this distrust of authority is so far advanced that effective church discipline has become impossible. While true authority refuses to "lord it" over God's people, true authority will nevertheless speak without stuttering. "This is the Word of God, and that is not." Does this pronouncement make something the Word of God? Certainly not—to use Luther's example, when John the Baptist pointed to the Lamb of God, and testified, he was not making Jesus the Lamb of God. He was simply recognizing the truth.
But the modern evangelical church does not want a voice of authority. The modern evangelical church wants the doctrinal structure of an inner tube, wants the stability of a bowl of pudding.

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