Does the Church carry more authority than the Bible?
A few months ago I received an email from one of our church members asking for my insight into the issue of Biblical authority versus the authority of the church. The question had initial come to my friend from an atheistic thinker whom he had been witnessing to. The atheist was curious as to why we as evangelicals would elevate the Bible as authoritative above the church, since – in his opinion – the Bible (in the passages which I address below) states that the church carries more authority. Here is my response…
When we begin to tackle the issue of truth we cannot launch forward with a defense for the church or the Bible without first establishing the source of all truth. Scripture is nothing more than a book of strange stories, moral statements, and ridiculous claims, and the church is nothing more than a collection of misguided misfits if the God that the former points to and the latter adores is not, in fact, the great God of truth.
As Christians it is imperative that we never seek to defend Scripture/the Bible without underscoring and constantly reminding ourselves that it is the Word of God. The reason we hold it high as our final authority for all faith and conduct is for no other reason than that it was verbally, breathed out by God Himself – the perfect Lord speaking into holy writ the perfect Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Peter 1:21). If there is no God, then the Bible is a fine (or frivolous) collection of literature but nothing more. However, if there is a God – a great God of glory and truth – and He has authored the Scriptures, as we claim, then we would take our stand with what He has declared, for a God of absolute truth verbally establishes only that which is true. To understand the Gospel, which is the power of God to save (Romans 1:16), we must not turn to opinions of the created, but the word of the Creator (Ephesians 1:13-14).
If I may, I will give an analogy to illustrate this point. Imagine that we have a kingdom with a very powerful and glorious King. The King desires for the people to know more about His person, His power, His kingdom, and their citizenship; so he issues a document describing these things and inviting all citizens to become members of the royal court. The King realizes that no common man can pen this story for then would enter the opinions of paupers who knew little or nothing of the King. For a time he considers having his loving and loyal friends compose this work, but though this would ensure greater accuracy, still his friends would be inclined to their bias and opinion and truth may be lost. So, fueled by his desire for the people of his realm to truly have an absolutely accurate description of his person, his power, his justice, his grace, his love, and his might, He decides to pen the work himself. He uses stories, poems, history, prophecy, biographies, and explanatory epistles in his manuscript, and once it is complete he sends it out throughout his kingdom. Now the questions arises…would anyone receiving this work, knowing that it was from the King’s own hand, really pose the question: “Is this accurate?” Surely not. The query may indeed be leveled if someone doubted that the king himself had written the book; but no logical citizen would raise such a question if they actually believed it was from the hand of the king. They may scoff his justice, laugh at his love, and reject his invitation, but they would never deny it as truth.
You see, the root problem is not that people do not embrace the Bible as truth. It is rather that most people – even some so-called Christians – do not believe that the Bible was actually authored by the King. It would be preposterous for any single person to emphatically claim faith in Scripture as the final authority for all faith, conduct, and truth unless they actually believed that God Himself had spoken this word. The reason we hold the Bible high, defending it, loving it, and declaring it as truth is because it is the word of the great God of Gods, and King and Kings, the One who rules and reigns in absolute perfect holiness, and therefore this word is a perfect account of His Person, His might, His glory, His justice, His grace, His love, and His invitation to all men to join Him in His kingdom. Make no mistake about it, though Scripture does claim to be truth (check out Psalm 119:160; John 17:17; and James 1:18), the primary reason that I trust the Bible, and the foremost reason that the Puritans, Reformers, confessors, and church fathers trusted this sacred writing, is that it is what 2 Timothy and 1 Peter claim it to be – the God-breathed Word.
Now we come to the issue of the church and the passages that might indicate that the church itself holds higher authority that do the Scriptures. Biblically, there are two concepts behind the Greek word “ekklesia.”
The first is the truth of one grand universal body of believers in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. This understanding of the universal church reaches into the past and stretches into the future. All those who have ever trusted in Christ and all who ever will are ushered into this glorious church, having no spot or blemish, because every individual in the universal body is covered by the atoning blood of Jesus.
The second Biblical understanding of “ekklesia” is that of the local church. All true believers in Christ Jesus are commanded to joyfully enter into loving fellowship with a local assembly of brothers and sisters in the faith. In New Testament times this was typically a small gathering of Christians who diligently studied and proclaimed the Word (of course, at that time they would have only had the Torah), lived in Christian friendship together, and boldly declared the gospel to others. As time has gone by, many local “Christian” churches have, of course, become polluted, ignoring the Bible and watering down the Gospel. Therefore, there are many within local churches today who are in no way a true part of the universal church of Jesus Christ.
Whenever Scripture speaks of “the church” we must be careful to identify which concept it is referring to: universal or local.
Also, before we dive into these texts we must further understand that there are two different aspects of authority in the Scripture. There is the authority to establish truth; and there is the authority to enforce this truth. As we have already stated, God is the authority that has established truth. Apart from God there is no absolute, moral code of conduct, and everything eventually falls into relativism. God, as the King, desired that we know Him and His truth, so He gave us in written form the Scriptures which are our final authority for established truth. However, the church – commissioned with a great many tasks in service to our King – must understand Biblically that one of those tasks is to protect the established truth, and as the representatives of Christ, to use the authority given to every Biblically true local church, to enforce truth, particularly in instances of sin, as we see in Matthew 18. So, with these understandings of the church and authority we can now unpack these passages.
“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 18:17 ESV).
The claim that has been made it that Jesus is here indicating that the final authority in Christianity resides within the church (in this passage specific local churches). This is why it is crucial to understand the difference between established authority (Scripture) and enforced authority (the local church). Christ begins the process of describing church discipline in verse 15 by declaring “if your brother sins against you…” Now how do you discern what it means to sin? The answer is simple. You go to the established authority of the Word of God to determine what sin is. How does the church decide on whether the sin constitutes this form of discipline or not? By referring to the ultimate established authority of Scripture. In fact, it is Scripture itself, recording the words of Jesus, that relate this story, and tell of the importance of and the need for discipline. Here we see plainly that established authority – spoken by God in flesh and recorded in His Word – is calling for enforced authority to uphold the integrity of the established authority. Jesus is in no way saying that the local church gets to arbitrarily choose what is and is not truth; rather He is commanding the church to protect and enforce the truth that has already been established.
“…if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 ESV).
Once again, Paul is writing to Timothy regarding the local church, probably in Ephesus. Each local church is to be a pillar (in the Gr: to uphold the structure) and buttress (in Gr: mainstay or constant) of the truth. Interpreting this normatively we would come away understanding that Paul is stating that the local church belongs to God (it is His), and that the local church must uphold, support, and remain steadfast in the truth. I see nothing here which implies that the church is the final authority for establishing the truth; though I do see, once again, a hefty responsibility placed upon the church for determining truth from error (with already established, authoritative truth).
Your friend does bring up a good point when it comes to interpretation. Peter states that Scripture is of no private interpretation, so it is therefore open for everyone to interpret. However, while there are many applications of Scripture, there is only one accurate interpretation of Scripture. That is why pastors, scholars, and the church are so important in helping to assist believers in understanding, interpreting, and applying the Word of God.
I would go further, as there is much to unpack from your friend’s queries but I must wrap this up for now. Obviously, the truth of positional, imputed righteousness (which is what Ephesians 5:27 is referring to) versus practical, progressive righteousness is an issue which needs to be explained to your friend, hopefully helping him to understand the difference between being declared spotless, as God would see us, and actually being sinless.
I will certainly continue to pray for you as you deal out the Gospel in the face of adversity and if I can ever be of assistance please let me know. I hope these jumbled ideas, tethered to the truth of Scripture will shed a little light on this subject.