The Source of Authority

Bible

It is important that we have the proper source of authority in religion. If we do not, the result is apostasy. Disobedience is when we do not do everything “in word or deed…in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17) but by other standards of authority as well. Division comes when we do not “all speak the same thing” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

We see this problem when we look at “church history.” When I use this term (church history), I am not referring to the history of the Lord’s church from its establishment on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) to the present day. I am using it as most use it – as the history of denominations that claim or have claimed to follow Christ. Throughout this history, apostasy came as the result of people not following the proper source of authority.

Catholicism

Many see the Catholic Church as having progressed from the first century church. In a sense it has through gradual changes over time. But this does not mean they were/are right. The Holy Spirit warned of some who would progress to such a point that they had fallen away from the faith (1 Timothy 4:1). This was what happened with the Catholic Church. They have progressed to such a point that they are now nothing like the church established by our Lord.

Where did they go wrong? They did not follow the proper source of authority. In Catholicism, there are three sources of authority: the word of God, decrees of the pope, and church tradition.

Any Catholic will tell you that they follow and believe the Bible. They do, however, place greater emphasis on the gospels, particularly the words of Jesus Himself, as if they are more important. This is not to say that they reject the rest of the Bible outright. But they see it as being of the same importance as the decrees of the pope and church tradition. But Paul had something to say about this idea. He did not believe his teachings were inferior at all to the gospels. He told the Corinthians, “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (1 Corinthians 14:37). The rest of the New Testament carries just as much weight as the gospels.

The Catholic Church also follows the decrees of the pope. This stems from two misconceptions – that Peter was the first pope and that he and his successors had legislative authority. These both come from a misapplication of Jesus’ words to Peter: “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). The rock (petra, a mass of rock) upon which the church would be founded was not Peter (petros, a detached stone or boulder), but it was the fact that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). Peter was never appointed as head of the Lord’s church. Jesus then said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). This did not mean that Peter (or any would-be successors) had legislative authority – if he made a rule, God was obligated to uphold it. It meant that the things he would teach would have already been established in heaven. Peter had no authority to make additional rules. This passage does not establish a precedent that permits a man who calls himself the pope to act as head of the church on earth.

Catholics also look to church tradition to establish authority for the things that they do. We are certainly to follow the apostles’ traditions (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6), but that is something very different than the concept of church tradition. The apostles’ traditions were passed on “by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). In passing on these traditions, the apostles were not acting on their own, but were “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). They were simply revealing His laws. There is only one Lawgiver (James 4:12). That Lawgiver is Christ, not the church. The church cannot legislate. Just as the wife must show respect to her husband by submitting to him (Ephesians 5:22-24, 33), the church must humbly submit to the will of the Christ (Ephesians 5:32).

Protestantism

In the 1500’s, there was an attempt to reform the (Catholic) church. This is commonly called the Reformation period. Several tried to correct the problems they saw in the Catholic Church. Martin Luther was one of the well-known men who spoke out during this time. While it may have been a noble endeavor to attempt to correct the wrongs and errors or the Catholic Church, those involved in this movement went too far in the other direction and did not end up following the ways of God.

The Reformation movement planted the seed of Protestantism. Most denominations today began as a result of this movement. Ironically, these denominations started in protest to the Catholic Church, yet they essentially use the same three sources of authority that we find in Catholicism – the word of God, the word of man, and the tradition of man.

All Protestant churches will claim to follow the Bible. Yet they all teach and practice different, often conflicting, things. What is the problem? We know the fault does not lie with God. He is “not a God of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33). He has revealed His word in a way that we can understand His will (Ephesians 3:4). The fault for the confusion and division lies with men who have failed to follow the Bible as their sole source of authority in matters of faith and practice.

Protestantism arose as a rejection of the pope and his decrees. But each denomination follows its own creed, discipline, or manual to distinguish itself from others. For all practical purposes, the problem is the same. People and churches are submitting themselves to the teachings of men. Peter said, “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11, KJV). This means that when we speak on spiritual matters, we must speak the things that have come from God. If we do this, with nothing more or less, a creed is completely unnecessary.

While those in Protestantism do not follow the traditions of the Catholic Church, they have made their own traditions. Some traditions involve practices that are sinful like the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus condemned. He told them, “You yourselves transgress the commandment of God,” and “You invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:3, 6). Other traditions may involve something that is not wrong in itself, but becomes wrong when man tries to require others to submit to the particular tradition. This is what some of the Jewish Christians were guilty of when they taught, “Unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). There was nothing wrong with the practice of circumcision. Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). But it was wrong to impose that upon others. We must not follow the traditions and teachings of men.

The True Disciples of Christ

Speaking of true disciples can potentially get one into trouble. By speaking of true disciples, one implies there are false disciples. It is not popular in the religious world today to say that not everyone who claims to believe in and follow Christ is truly His disciple. Yet Jesus used this type of language: “So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine’” (John 8:31). Jesus spoke of true disciples, thus implying that there would be false disciples. This is a conditional “if-then” statement. We are true disciples if we continue in His word.

True disciples recognize there is only one source of authority – the word of God. All authority has been given to Christ (Matthew 28:18). His will has been revealed in His word (John 14:26; 16:13; 1 Corinthians 14:37). As true disciples, we must not look to the teachings and traditions of men for our authority. We must strive to do those things that have been authorized in God’s word.

Why Protestantism Failed

Protestantism came from an attempt to correct the problems of Catholicism. While Protestant churches differ from the Catholic Church in doctrines and practices, they did not fix anything. Protestantism failed because it did not address the root problem – multiple sources of authority. They took away the decrees of the pope and traditions of the Catholic Church, but did not remove the mentality of needing the words and traditions of men to supplement the inspired word of God. So they replaced the decrees of the pope with the creeds of men. They discarded Catholic tradition and embraced their own. Despite whatever good intentions may have existed by those who wanted to reform the Catholic Church, Protestant denominations are no better than the institution they were protesting.

It is not enough simply to break away from that which is false. We must follow what is right. Let us learn a lesson from the failings of denominationalism. We must follow the word of God as our only source of authority in all spiritual matters. Let us not turn to our own opinions and traditions, thus becoming like the denominations. “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17).


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