A Summary of the Church Authority Convivium in Washington DC


By Joseph Minich

Western Christians find themselves forced to navigate many different quandaries in the modern world. This assertion is not generally considered to be controversial. Controversy quickly ensues, however, when Christians attempt to more finely identify and address these challenges. In recent times, one frequently discussed item has related to a presumed “crisis of authority” afflicting (especially) the American church. What is this crisis? And does a renewed emphasis on the authority of the institutional church help us navigate through it?

As a contribution to this larger conversation, The Davenant Institute recently co-sponsored an event on the meaning of church authority. Over the course of a Friday evening to a Saturday afternoon – involving one discussion, three talks, and one panel – the participants each presented their own distinctive case for how to navigate through these biblical, philosophical, and pastoral waters. You can hear audio of my discussion with Dr. Jonathan Leeman of 9 Marks Ministries below:

While some of the discussion revolved around matters related to church polity, most of the event’s conversation concerned the nature of the authority exercised by the church, independent of the polity consideration of who exercises it. Over the course of the event, at least three questions were brought up in more than one context:

  1. What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 16 and can they be misused?
  2. Is the ministry of the keys so tied to offices or congregations that it cannot be exercised outside of them by ordinary Christians?
  3. If an ordinary Christian, speaking as an ordinary Christian, has some relationship to the ministry of the keys – does this undo any justification for having ministers in the first place?

Rather than summarizing each of the talks, I will summarize and clarify The Davenant Institute’s general conviction regarding these matters. In so doing, I will briefly allude to each of the presented papers.

The Authority of the Keys

Concerning the first question, Dr. Jonathan Leeman argued that the keys of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 16 and 18 represent a specific authority of Christ – which deputizes congregations with Christ’s authority to affirm the who and the what of the gospel in Jesus’ name (analogous to the manner in which a person with power of attorney speaks in the name of the person whose “name” has been given to them). When pressed concerning whether or not a deputy could misrepresent Christ, Dr. Leeman noted that a poor exercise of authority is still an exercise of authority – and that such misrepresentation of Christ would be judged on the last day.

Now, of course, all parties agree that Christ can be misrepresented. The question concerns whether or not the distinctive power and authority given to the church (in Christ’s name), still continues when His authority is mis-represented. Dr. Matthew Tuininga’s paper on John Calvin showed that Calvin would have answered in the negative – limiting the authority of the church (as Calvin did) to only what is contained in the Word. Dr. Leeman and I have previously discussed this matter, and I have recently penned an alternative exegesis to the relevant passages in Matthew.

The Authority of the Keys and Church Office

Concerning the second question, Dr. Bradford Littlejohn’s paper elucidated the many dimensions of the church’s authority. We must distinguish political from spiritual authority, moral from prophetic authority, personal from official authority, etc. While Calvin clearly limited the authority of the church to the intrinsic authority of the word, it was not as clear from Calvin’s exposition (as mediated by Dr. Tuininga) how Calvin would relate that authority to the laity. Drawing upon authors as diverse as Luther, Richard Hooker, and Francis Turretin, Dr. Littlejohn noted that while the spiritual power and authority of an ordinary believer’s proclamation of the word might not have the external implications that a church’s leaders words do, the intrinsic authority of Christ nevertheless obtains wherever His words obtain.

The difference between church authorities and the laity is essentially political, and only accidentally spiritual. That is to say, no matter what church authorities decide, right or wrong (even blasphemous and damnable), their decision obtains for the congregation over whom authority is exercised. And even if a layperson speaks with the authority of Christ’s word into such a situation, this is to exercise only a spiritual and not a political power.

In our judgment, the answer to these two questions is pastorally urgent. We might put the matter this way. Paul assumes in Galatians 1 that if an apostle or an angel were attempting to lead the Galatians away from the gospel, this is something that ordinary Galatian Christians ought to be able to tell. On the one hand, all Protestants agree on this. On the other, to what extent do our ecclesiological theories cultivate Christians who are shaped into this kind of spiritual maturity and independence?

One of the problems of many recent ecclesiologies is that they treat the church as a solution to the problem of modern individualism – even sometimes encouraging the outsourcing of one’s judgment to church bodies or confessions (parodying a kind of Romanist “implicit faith”). A basic conviction of the Reformation, however, is that epistemic responsibility can never be ceded. We ought to say, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture or plain reason…” To the extent that we are unaware of our church’s teachings or their biblical/rational justifications, we cannot and should not be said to believe them. Knowledge is an essential element of faith. The antidote to modern individualism (which is really a thinly veiled collectivism) isn’t ecclesiastical authority. It is maturity. More on this below.

The Authority of the Keys and the Need for Pastors in the Church

This sets us up to consider the third question above. What do these emphases do to the ordinary word and sacrament ministry of the church? Do they render it superfluous? To invoke a Pauline phrase, “May it never be!” Following a Reformation thread from Luther to Hooker, we allow no “mediators” in the spiritual kingdom (which are not the same as “ordinary means”), but we do recognize an obvious diversity of gifts in the common life of the church. This includes a diversity of competence in knowing/interpreting the word – and of living it out in one’s character.

Basically, the logic is that of Ephesians 4 and of the Westminster of Faith (WCF) 25.2-3. Each assumes that the visible church is prior to the ministry, but that the ministry is “given to it” to make more fruitful its ordinary relation to the word (i.e. the general teaching office). This renders it fitting to train representatives to fulfill various official and liturgical functions – each of which require protection and ordering for the sake of edification. Similarly in Acts 6, the work of the diaconate was prior to the office. The work was already going on, but was confused and disordered. The office was added to organize and make the work more effective.

So the relation of the ministry to the word, then, is that the minister is ordinarily more innately competent, trained, and is (in fact) paid/set apart to go study the word so that the word can burn more brightly. It is not that he possesses a different fire with different potentialities (a small fire can burn down a building just as a larger one can). It is rather that learning, investment, competency, intelligence, training, etc – are all (as it were) “kindling” on the fire that is possessed in common by all believers. If I were to extend this image, we might say that every torch of the church adds a bit of its own kindling in the representative minister – whose relation to the word then ordinarily burns more brightly. But this is precisely so that the resultant flame of the word can be passed back to the torches of the community. And indeed, this makes the community dangerous when the minister goes off track.

This gives an ordinary (and obvious) warrant for the ministry that nevertheless accounts (without being ad hoc) for why we can still speak of the same intrinsic spiritual power that persists among all believers. Unlike the anabaptists, we’re not interested in a democratization of teaching or the enthusiast surrogate for competence in the word (i.e. which is another form of avoiding one’s epistemic responsibility). These emphases camp out on basic Reformation principles, and perhaps even resolve tensions in its own articulation of the the manner in which offices work – an issue about which the Magisterial Protestant tradition and their step-children were not uniform.

In our judgment, the alternative to our answers to these three questions requires a visible church which functions (whatever it’s theology of itself is) as a “mediator” of Christ. Christ is immediately possessed through faith in the word of promise, and that word is communicated (in part) through the ministry of the institutional church. But it is not bound by that ministry.

To the extent that we declare it so, the church functionally becomes a “mediator.” Luther, Calvin, and others charged Rome and the Anabaptists with possessing some version of the same error – to wit – that they conflated the visible church with particular institutions, ordinarily rendered persons dependent upon a functional clerocracy, etc. The anabaptists just did this smaller-scale than the Roman Catholics – but the authoritarian nature of their communities was testimony that they basically just exchanged large papacies for smaller ones (or legal ones for enthusiast ones). In principle, the Reformed community resolved this theologically by limiting the authority of the church to the authority of the Word. But the word is also independent of any particular church founded on it.

Of course, the Word must still be interpreted and applied. And the complexity of such application is substantially the same for pastors and elders trying to apply the word to a congregation, for parents trying to apply it to children, or believers trying to apply it to themselves and/or others whom they seek to edify. Some of the Reformed were, ironically, often charged with the anabaptist error precisely by cultivating communities that made such interpretation/application entirely dependent on a clerical class.

This would, of course, have perhaps been a perennial temptation (an alternative only theoretical) in a historical context where knowledge of the Bible was appallingly bad, and the clergy were often the only biblically literature and the most educated persons in their communities. Nevertheless, the occasional failure to imagine situations without these dynamics is worthy of note. What if, for instance, the laity were biblically literate – and even exceptionally so? It is one thing to have the regulative principle as a theory. It is quite another to ask how it is applied in actual church life – and what it cultivates in congregations.

Calvin clearly refuses to make spiritual power reside as a sort of “standing thing” in the ministry as such. The spiritual kingdom becomes visible only at the moment when the word is truthfully declared (or Spirit-empowered love truly exercised), and ceases to be so otherwise. Still, there is no magic to discern when  ministers or elders slip between one and the other. The only frame of reference for determining this is the word itself. And if the word and its interpretation are even functionally reduced to the purview of a clerical class, one has a “functional” anabaptism (or crypto-romanism) – it being difficult to conceive of a difference between the visible and invisible church except in the most technical sense (As Rome does). Functionally, one becomes dependent on ministers as mediators (rather than ordinary but not exclusive means) of the word.

None of the above, of course, suggests that the ordinary believer ought to be suspiciously picking apart a sermon each Sunday – or even skeptical of those bits of our confessional tradition about which we lack knowledge. I think the relation here is more that of a faithful parent to a child. To the extent that a parent demonstrates their wisdom and care in the essential things, and even in some of the accidental things in ways that are obvious to me – so I will be cultivated to have a kind of trust in their judgment. The key point is that this is not in the sense of Romanist “implicit faith” – but in the sense of trusting their character and non-arbitrariness in their ways.

For instance, it is clear to me that there is no phrase in the WCF that is not carefully thought out. And if I have an eyebrow-raising moment in a particular section, my first reaction is not to be cynical and dismiss it – but to consider what their reasoning was. Why? Because the WCF itself and everything I’ve seen in the community that produced it demonstrates a group of men whose character was oriented to the word and meticulous in their attempt to communicate it systematically.

In short, it would be “unwise” – or, more bluntly- “stupid” to act otherwise in respect of this tradition. What we cannot do is have an “implicit faith” in these documents or in our ministers – any more than we can in our parents. We do not take their words as intrinsically authoritative (or “divine unless I figure out otherwise”). We take them as guides in our task of attunement to a common reality – but without ever outsourcing individual prudence or judgment as such. But this does not, any more than it does in our parents, preclude an ordinary healthy relation of trust, wisdom, careful weighing, and deference that exists in any ordinary human relationship with good leaders and edified led. Indeed, the ideal (as in Moses and the New Testament) is that we all grow into maturity and pass it on in our own appropriate ways.

In our judgment, therefore, it is pastorally urgent and perfectly reasonable to expect that mature Christians who refuse to outsource their judgment are nevertheless submissive and a blessing to their church leaders – showing deference to their gifts and callings. What is more, it seems to us that what we describe above is just a commonsensical reading of Scripture which maps neatly onto the actual practices of ministers and laity whom we would all want to emulate. In short, in our judgment, what we are describing here is simply the reality that healthy Christians and church communities already live.

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