The Authority of the Church in the World: A New Testament Perspective

Authority in General
[1] The term “authority” has many possible meanings.1 In regard to our topic here, however, the list of possibilities is relatively short. When a person speaks of the authority of the church in the world (as distinct from the church’s authority among its own members), he or she is likely to be speaking of its “power to influence the conduct and actions of others,” its “power to influence the opinions of others,” and/or its “power to inspire belief.”2

[2] Max Weber suggested that there are three (ideal) types of authority-each with its own legitimization. The first of these is the traditionalist type, whose grounding is in the “elder” (prince, patron, etc.) of a social unit, who maintains what has been. The second is the charismatic type, in which an extraordinary person (prophet, leader) acts with inspiration and conviction, gathering a following. The third is the legal type, which is administered by bureaucratic structures, and that is typical of modern societies.3

[3] A review of the history of the church would no doubt show that each of these types has been manifest at different times and places. As one moves back behind the fourth century (the time of Constantine, during and after which the church became established under law), however, the third type seems to recede and disappear. The church of the New Testament era would not have had legal authority in the world. That means that the traditionalist and charismatic types of authority (and their legitimization) remain as helpful for analysis of the authority of the church in the world according to the New Testament.

Authority in the New Testament: The Terminology
[4] The Greek word translated as “authority” in English is exousia. The Greek word and its Hebrew counterpart both denote, at the very least, the ability of one party to exert its influence or will upon another and to expect a positive response. Within the Bible, as in all other times and places, it is presupposed that the one who exercises authority has an inherent, evident, and morally justifiable right to do so. Without that, the exertion of one party’s will upon another is a violation of ethical behavior, an abuse of power.

Authority in the Ministry of the Earthly Jesus
[5] Authority in the days of Jesus and the New Testament in general was exercised by both political and religious authorities. In addition to Roman authority, which was very much felt in Palestine, authority was exercised by the Sanhedrin as a body in Jerusalem, by synagogue councils in the diaspora, and by scribes as individuals.

[6] It can be said that the authority of the scribes, as well as that of later rabbinic masters, was a “derived authority.” That is to say, the scribe (or rabbi) had no authority intrinsic to himself. His authority was vested in his ability to interpret the Scriptures of Israel and the authoritative oral traditions transmitted to him. But Jesus’ manner of teaching was different. It did not consist simply of the interpretation of an authoritatively given sacred text, not even when he quoted words from Scripture. Günther Bornkamm has expressed the matter succinctly: “The reality of God and the authority of his will are always directly present and are fulfilled in [Jesus]. There is nothing in contemporary Judaism which corresponds to the immediacy with which he teaches.”4

[7] So it was said about Jesus that he “taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22), and he cast out demons by the power of God (Matt 12:28//Luke 11:20; Luke 4:36). He taught by means of parables as free-standing messages, not as expositions of Scripture.5 Furthermore, he exercised divine authority in forgiving sins (Mark 2:1-12//Matt 9:1-8//Luke 5:17-26). All this shows Jesus to have been one who spoke and acted with charismatic authority (which had long been rejected by the scribes of his day). To be sure, Jesus can be shown to have acted with traditionalist authority insofar as he carried on disputes with the scribes and Pharisees on matters of scriptural interpretation. But the impression is not the whole of the matter. For in those cases he seeks to get at the heart of the matter in Scripture, dispensing with the received, traditional authority, and freely stating his own interpretation (cf. Mark 7:1-7; 12:28-31, 35-37).

[8] Charismatic authorities were tolerated, followed, and/or persecuted in the ancient world. Once they had passed from the scene, their followers tended to drift away. In the case of Jesus, it is important to ask how his claims to authority were received. The answer from the New Testament perspective is that, in spite of his rejection and crucifixion, Jesus-and so his words and deeds-was vindicated through resurrection from the dead on Easter. It is the risen Christ who could then say that all authority in heaven and earth had been given to him (Matt 28:18; cf. Rev 12:10). The resurrection of Jesus can be called an eschatological verification of the authority of Jesus in the world.

The Authority of the Church in the World
[9] One looks in vain for the phrase “the authority of the church” within the writings of the New Testament. Moreover, it is difficult to find and describe images of the church that demonstrate its authority in the world. It is much easier to describe its witness, mission, and service in the world than it is to describe its authority-or even any possible sense of its having authority in the world. Nevertheless, there are materials in the New Testament that stand out as ingredients for a discussion of the topic. Five are discussed here.

I. Authority to Forgive Sins.
[10] Already in Matthew’s version of the Healing of the Paralytic (9:1-8) the account contains words in addition to those in Mark’s version (2:1-10) at two places: (1) Matthew has additional words so that 9:6 reads: “the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” and (2) Matthew’s entire account ends with the additional words concerning the crowds: “they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings” (9:8). As commentators have often pointed out, this is Matthew’s way of saying obliquely that the authority to forgive sins was not given by God to Jesus alone, but to the church as well. That corresponds to the Johannine scene of the risen Jesus who grants to his disciples the authority to forgive sins (20:23) and, in part, to the Matthean scene on the powerof the keys (:19).6

[11] Although for the church to have authority to forgive sins on earth seems at first to be an entirely “internal” or “pastoral” matter (authority “in” the church), it actually has implications for the authority of the church in the world. That is so in two respects.

[12] First, in a world that is very unforgiving and where revenge is commonplace, the church defies the ways and powers of this world by its own teaching and exercise of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not simply an idea proposed; it is an act carried out “on earth.” As a provocative act, it becomes an authoritative intrusion of the church into the world. That intrusion has led to further actions in the public sphere. For example, the church does not doubt that it is empowered to call for amnesty or for alternative, more just and humane treatment of those who have caused offense to others (prisoners of war, persons on death row, political refugees, impoverished persons and countries, and others). And there have been “secular” versions of forgiveness inspired by Christian claims (e.g., the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa).

[13] Second, the authority of the church to forgive sins on earth has implications for its relationship to persons who do not normally receive forgiveness, but who nevertheless assess their lives and find them lacking in self-worth as a consequence. Such persons may feel that they lack the “righteousness” that is required of them to be acceptable persons in society. Some know themselves as despised. But if and when the church stands by, defends, and lifts up such persons (cf. the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1:46-55), it injects a new impulse into society and hopefully provides inspiration for such persons, even if they do not share the theological convictions of the church itself. While the church may not be able to pronounce absolution to such persons (as non-members), it is operating on a parallel track (parallel to its own acts of forgiveness of sins) when it calls upon people to respect all persons, regardless of any standards of “righteousness” that prevail. One might say that this is a secular version of the “justification of the ungodly” (cf. Romans 4:5). As the church calls for compassion for those who do not measure up to respectable standards, or even calls for forgiving the failings of others, it exerts its authority in the world. And that is consistent with its own self-understanding of its place in the world.

II. Authority to Create and Promote Life in Community.
[14] A common theme in the New Testament is that the church is, or can be, a model community for the world. The New Testament writings themselves were composed within communities of faith and were addressed to communities of faith. Insofar as they illustrate concerns within the early church, they demonstrate that the formation of communities was a central task.

[15] Jesus of Nazareth called people into community, even if that meant the breaking of natural (family) ties (Mark 3:31-35; Matt 19:29; Luke 12:53; 14:26). Community, as envisioned by his calling of disciples, was possible for persons who differed from one another in remarkable ways: women, men, and children; fishermen, tax-collectors, former disciples of John the Baptist, and persons regarded as “sinners.”

[16] Various New Testament writers express the concern that Christians and Christian communities serve as models for people outside on how to get along with one another. That is evident especially in the Pauline (1 Thess 4:12) and deutero-Pauline letters (Col 4:5; 1 Tim 3:7). In the communities of faith people were called upon to set demographic differences (gender, ethnicity, and class) aside in order to create community.

[17] The natural tendency of human beings, ancient or modern, is to draw circles around their own groups, defined by ethnicity, nationality, or socio-economic class. It has been observed that, in general, religious associations and cult groups in pagan antiquity had an “inward focus,” but that the Christian communities had an “international scope” from the outset.7

[18] Too often the church of the modern era is divided by matters of ethnicity, nationality, and socio-economic class. Yet there is within the church the affirmation of its own oneness, which is a gift and task. The church’s self-understanding calls for community and trans-national fellowships, all the while respecting differences. The modeling that the church does can carry moral weight in the world, challenging the tendencies toward individualism and fragmentation.

III. Moral Authority.
[19] It goes without saying that the New Testament envisions the church as a moral force in the world. In the gospels Jesus tells his followers to be lights in the world (Matt 5:14-16) and to be persons who produce good fruits (Matt 7:16-20). Needless to say, various New Testament writers affirm that Christians conduct themselves, or ought to, in exemplary ways out in the world (2 Cor 1:12; Phil 2:15; Col 1:6; Titus 2:12; James 1:27).

[20] To be sure, it can be maintained that the church has moral authority only among its own members, i.e., those who share in the theological presuppositions of the Christian faith. Yet that is not the end of the matter. Disciples of Christ are to live in public in ways that are consistent with their Christian confession. The result is a positive moral force in the world.

IV. Authority to Relativize All Earthly Authorities.
[21] The message of the church relativizes all earthly authorities. That claim is rooted already in the ministry of Jesus where he declares that a person is to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mark 12:17//Matt 22:21//Luke 20:25). Perhaps the best known passage on earthly authority is Romans 13:1-7. In that passage Paul exhorts Christians to be subject to the governing authorities (forms of exousia are used four times in the passage). At the same time, however, he divests the emperor and any other rulers of divine status; such persons are to be servants of God (13:4) for human welfare. Paul, the Deutero-Pauline writers, and the author of 1 Peter declare that the risen Christ reigns above all earthly powers (1 Cor 15:24; Eph 1:21; Col 2:10; 1 Peter 3:22), which again serves to relativize the authority of the earthly powers. A related emphasis can be found in Paul’s claims that the dominant social forms and cultural values of this world are doomed to pass away (1 Cor 7:29-31; cf. 1 John 2:17). The book of Revelation goes further than any other New Testament writing by envisioning the authority of Rome as demonic (13:1-18).

[22] The relativizing of all earthly authorities remains an important function of the church in the world. The “authorities” are political, economic, military, and cultural (to name but four). These “authorities” tend to take on an ultimacy that corresponds to claims for divine authority in the world of the New Testament. The church is given the authority to challenge, unmask, and thereby relativize them.

V. Authority to Engage the World.
[23] The authority to relativize all earthly authorities is not the end of the matter. Writers of the New Testament understand the church to be apostolic, i.e., sent forth to engage the world in proclamation and service. In order to engage the world, the church must understand itself first of all as disengaged from it, a people called out of the world. Disengaged (or disentangled), the church can then become engaged in the affairs of the world.

[24] If it is true that the earliest communities of faith were highly apocalyptic in outlook and very unconcerned about their relationship to the world, that outlook did not last long. The church had to settle down and think of this world as its own dwelling place. Its apostolic mission took on a “secular” or “worldly” character. Communities of faith (house churches, congregations) gathered for word and sacrament regardless of the politically or culturally sanctioned religious systems and cults in the larger community. That very activity was an over-against-ness that challenged local worldviews. It was a means of engaging the world. Furthermore, when the communities of faith were not gathered for worship, they engaged the larger world through their members. Living out the life of Christian faith in the world is itself apostolic mission and engaging the world. From the very beginnings of the Christian movement, it has been taken for granted that the church has the authority to do so in the world.

[25] Specific ways in which Christians or the church as a whole have sought to engage the world have differed in history, as indicated by the following paragraph:

The relation between faith and ethics has been seen differently during the course of Christian history. For some, the question of service to the world is an integral part of the proclamation and living of the apostolic faith itself. Others distinguish between the specifically Christian ethics (i.e. the sermon on the Mount) and the ethical code given to all human beings in which Christians also participate insofar as they are a part of humanity For those holding the latter position, this distinction has been considered as liberating in that it enables Christians to join with others of goodwill in addressing issues of society. Yet, also in this latter group, ethical stances can be viewed to have such serious implications that they require a declaration of status confessionis.8

The Authority of the Church in the World in Light of the Cross, Resurrection, and Parousia
[26] Jesus of Nazareth assumed authority and exercised it on behalf of God in his earthly ministry. Nevertheless, and in fact because of his exercise of authority, he was crucified. He was vindicated in the sight of his apostles on Easter. But he will be vindicated to the world only at his parousia.

[27] The life, death, resurrection, and future destiny of Jesus is paradigmatic for the church. The authority of the church in the world cannot be measured and assessed fully during the church’s time on earth. Certainly that was true for the church of the apostolic era. The church of that time and place could not have thought of itself in Constantinian terms when its authority in the world became more visible. Instead it discovered very soon that its message would be opposed, and its members persecuted.

[28] Insofar as authority, if it is to be real, must have validation, the authority of the church will not be considered valid universally or consistently in its historical existence. The church lives between the “already” of Easter and the “not yet” of the coming kingdom.

[29] How then can one speak of the authority of the church in the world at all? Is there ever a time that it can be validated? From the point of view of the New Testament, one must wait in hope for eschatological verification. Jesus tells his followers not to fear, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom (Luke 12:32). He tells parables that speak of little seeds and leaven (Mark 4:26-29; 4:30-32//Matt 13:31-32//Luke 13:18-19; Matt 13:33//Luke 13:20-21)-parables that give assurances that the kingdom will finally come in its fullness in spite of all that seems otherwise. The writers of the New Testament look to the future as the time of the vindication of Christ and his message before the world (1 Cor 15:24; 1 Thess 4:16; Col 3:4; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 3:11-13).

[30] That means that the church’s authority in the world may not be obvious to the world, and it might not always be apparent even to the church’s own members. It will be challenged in the world as one voice among many. It will be opposed by some. It will even be misrepresented and misunderstood both inside and outside. Insofar as the church seeks to exert its authority in the world, it also runs the risk of being shortsighted (or just plain “wrong” in normal parlance). In this respect, the church collectively and its members individually have to bear in mind that for now one sees through a glass darkly; only then-at the coming of Christ and his kingdom-will one see clearly. For its time on earth, the church has no power to enforce its authority except its own collective consensus that its mission will be vindicated. Its authority remains penultimate, awaiting testing and validation only at the end of history.

* This essay is slightly revised from a paper delivered at a meeting of the Faith and Order Commission, National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, Evanston, Illinois, March 15, 2002.

End Notes

1 There are eleven entries listed under “authority” in The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, 20 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 1:798.

2 Ibid.

3 Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (New York: The Free Press, 1947), 324-85.

4 Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), 57.

5 The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is spoken, however, in response to the lawyer’s question about a scriptural text.

6 Interpreters disagree whether the “power of the keys” has to do with absolution (forgiveness of sins), teaching authority, or both.

7 Cf. S. G. Barton and G. H. R. Horsley, “A Hellenistic Cult Group and the New Testament Churches,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 24 (1981): 28-29.

8 Quoted from The Nature and Purpose of the Church, Faith and Order Paper No. 181 (Geneva: WCC/Faith and Order, 1998), 58.