Authority In The Church

Introduction I want to dot around a bit this evening but 1 Corinthians 1.18 - 2.5 will be our home passage. You might find it useful also to turn to the back of the service sheet where you will find my outline for this evening. You could use that space to jot down other references as we go, if you would like to do that. It has been a remarkable few days, I'm sure you will agree. We have seen a massive shift in the location of political power in this country. A generation of Conservative governments has been swept away under the avalanche of Labour victories. John Major, one day negotiating the future of Europe, is the next day watching cricket at the Oval. Tony Blair, almost of my generation, which makes me feel very old, assumes the mantle of Prime Minister. During the campaign, one of the underlying questions was this: In each of the parties, where does authority really lie? The Tories were under scrutiny: Can John Major control his party? Is Ken Clarke calling the shots behind the scenes? Which faction will dominate in the end: euro-enthusiasts or euro-sceptics? New Labour was under scrutiny: What power do the Unions have behind the scenes? Do the forces of New Labour hold sway over those of Old Labour? Where does the authority really lie? Would Tony Blair in 10 Downing St have the same authority over the Labour party as Tony Blair fighting for election? The Liberal Democrats were under scrutiny: Would there be enough of them to have any authority at all? Where does the authority really lie? It is a crucial issue, because of course where the authority rests decides what you get. After Thursday, we have certainly been reminded of one thing: at least once every five years, power rests with the people as a whole. I couldn't help but be moved as we saw dozens of political careers ending, even as dozens more began. In a democracy the principle is clear. Power does rest ultimately with the people. But what of the church? Where does authority lie in the church? Who or what has the power to decide what is right? Who or what has the power to change what people do? In the political sphere, those of us of a certain age all made up our minds and put our cross where we believed authority should lie. Whether we recognise it or not, we all end up having to make up our minds in the same kind of way in relation to our faith and the life of the church. To which of the possible sources of authority in the church should we give our allegiance? Where does ultimate power really lie? Who decides? Different answers to those questions were the source of all the aggro that was around in the church in Corinth at the time Paul wrote his letter. So he says is 1.11-12 :

My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas "; still another, "I follow Christ."

Some were giving their particular allegiance to one of the leaders of the church, some to another. Some were claiming to be above it all. But the apostle Paul sees through the posturing, and makes clear that the real battleground of authority is at a deeper level. Now what are the candidates for authority over the lives of Christians and the life of the church? I have to tell you that I have found the most useful aid to clear thinking on this issue has to do with a delicious soft cheese to which I am very partial. Brie. B R I E. Each of those four letters is the initial of one of the four main possible sources of authority in the church. B: the Bible. R: Reason. I: the Institution. That is to say, the church, but using C would spoil the cheese. And E: Experience. The Bible; reason; the institution; and experience. Now I have said that those are the four main sources of authority. But there is another one, which is in fact so closely related to the Bible as to be inseparable from it. And it is this authority that Paul majors on in 1.18 - 2.5. It is the Gospel, or, as he puts it here, the message of the cross. It is the Gospel which is the real power in the church. Where lies the truth? It is in the Gospel. Where can you find the power to change people's lives? It is in the Gospel. Look at verses 17-18:

For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel - not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The gospel is the power of God. It is therefore the supreme power and authority. But how does the authority of the Gospel work out in practice in relation to the four cheesy sources of authority? Only when we are clear about the alternatives can we really understand where we should place our own cross, and under which authority we should live. That is what I want us to look at under my four headings on the outline. First: THE GOSPEL AND THE BIBLE What is the Gospel? It is the message of the cross. It is the good news about Jesus, that he is both the Saviour of those who believe in him and the Lord of all, because on the cross he died for our sins and rose from death to the right hand of God. As Paul says in Galatians 1.12 :

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

The message of the cross that Paul preached and taught in his letters in the New Testament was not the result of insightful contemplation on what he had heard about Jesus. It did not originate with him. A.N.Wilson in his recent book on Paul is the latest in a very long line of people that goes right back into the lifetime of the Apostle who accuse him of distorting the significance of Jesus, and making up his gospel without any help from God. But Paul is clear that the source of his gospel is God. The entire Christian faith disintegrates if this is not true. He says it again in Romans 1.1 where he describes himself as "called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God." And he goes on in v16:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes

The message of the cross is God's message. Therefore, it is powerful. So back in our home passage, Paul goes on in 2.4-5 :

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.

That is, the power of his preaching did not lie in its eloquence, its wit, its smoothness, its technique, its style. Its power was in its content - the message about Jesus which the Spirit of God speaks and uses to convict people of their sin and to call them to into the arms of Christ. Now the Bible is the gospel in book form, or in the form of a small library. The Bible is God's message about Jesus. It is his Word. Because it is God's Word it is true. It is powerful. When Jesus appeared alive again to two disciples on the road to Emmaus

He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

The whole Bible is about Christ. It is the message of the cross in book form. All of it. Jesus says in Matthew 5.17:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

And in 2 Timothy 3.15-16 Paul reminds Timothy of the power source of his life and ministry:

how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The Bible, the gospel in book form, is not merely a human document. It is God-breathed. It is divinely inspired. It is trustworthy, and true, and full of Christ. It is powerful like the Word of God that created the universe, and being God's Word, it has the authority of God. Supreme authority. Not that its authority goes unchallenged. The rival authorities to the Bible are of course the other three which we found in the soft cheese. We will consider each of them in relation to the gospel. So secondly: THE GOSPEL AND REASON What I mean by reason here is our capacity to think things through and come to a conclusion about what is true, what is right, and what is wrong. It is characteristic of rebellious mankind to exalt reason above the Word of God. That is to say, what I think takes precedence over what God says. In fact, that is pretty close to being the essence of sin. Satan in the form of the serpent tempted Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that "you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3.5). They wanted to decide for themselves what was right and what was wrong rather than trust God to tell them truly. Using our reason sounds so reasonable. But when we put what we think on a higher plane than what God says, we are heading for catastrophe. To be a Christian is to repent of that exaltation of human reason above the Word of God, and to submit to Christ as the one who is true and who has the right to tell us what is true without contradiction. But within every Christian this side of heaven there is a continuing conflict between the new Spirit-filled nature and the old sinful nature. Part of us does not want to let go of what we consider our right to sit in judgement over God. Not that we would put it as starkly as that. We dress up the tendency in all kinds of smooth and of course reasonable words. Do you remember the debate between Jesus and the Sadducees, when they questioned him about the resurrection, trying to make both Jesus and the whole idea of resurrection seem ridiculous. Jesus replies to them in Matthew 22.29 with these words: "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God." Of course, in one sense they did know the Scriptures. They were experts. No doubt they knew loads of the Bible off by heart. But they missed the whole point because of their pursuit of what they considered reasonable. The tendency is present in all of us. When it becomes institutionalised in Christian thinking and teaching, it is known as Liberalism. Liberalism either explicitly puts reason above the Bible, or theoretically gives them equal authority. But in practice that amounts to the same thing, because when there is a conflict between these two apparently equal authorities, how is it resolved? Reason decides between them. Therefore reason is supreme. But the Gospel humbles reason. 1 Corinthians 1.19-21:

For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

And again in 3.18-19:

Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight.

Don't get this wrong. It is not that reason has no place. Properly channelled and in submission to the Word of God, our capacity to think things through is a God given faculty which we should work hard at using to our utmost. We are to strive after wisdom. So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1.30 that Christ "has become for us wisdom from God" and in 2.6 he goes on : "we do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature" But the proviso is that we remember the trouble that the independent use of reason got us into in relation to God. We very easily deceive ourselves. We are not as clever as we think. If we keep the message of the cross constantly in mind, we will not be able to forget that. By way of light relief let my add here that we do have to be careful about what we consider reasonable. Try this newspaper story for size:

Fishermen are sunk by falling cow.

A Japanese fishing boat has been sunk off eastern Russia by a cow. News of the accident reached Western Europe by a fax to the German foreign ministry in Bonn from its embassy in Moscow. Russian soldiers had apparently used a transport plane to steal a herd of cattle. But once airborne, the cattle moved about the aircraft, throwing it off balance. To avoid crashing, the crew drove them out of the large loading bay at the tail of the aircraft. One of the falling animals hit the fishing boat. The fishermen were not hurt, but were arrested because nobody believed their story. However, the Russian authorities found that it was true. The use of reason requires great care! The third possible source of authority is what for the sake of our Brie mnemonic we called the Institution, but perhaps to call it the church makes it more clear what we are talking about. So my third heading is: THE GOSPEL AND THE CHURCH The authority of the church can operate in two ways. It can operate as the authority of tradition, and it can work as the authority of the leadership of the church. Both the tradition of the church and the leadership of the church today can be used to usurp the rightful authority of the Word of God. Put simply, tradition in this sense is the teaching of the church in the past. The abuse of tradition is nothing new. In the time of Jesus, just as the Sadducees exalted reason, so the Pharisees exalted tradition. In theory they took the whole Bible (what for Christians is the Old Testament) with the utmost seriousness as the Word of God. The knew it inside out and believed that it was the Word of God. But in practice they so fenced it around with traditional teaching that had accumulated over the years that they lost sight of the plain sense of the Bible behind the tangled mass of tradition, and the missed the heart of the message, the gospel of salvation by faith in the trustworthy promises of God. We are all prone to fossilise aspects of our traditions to detriment of clear Biblical and gospel teaching. But as the institutionalised form of taking reason as the supreme authority is Liberalism, so for instance, just to earth this, one of the institutionalised forms of taking Tradition as the supreme authority is the Roman Catholic church. The formal position of Catholicism is that there are two parallel sources of divine authority in the church. There is the Bible, and there is Tradition with a capital T. But the effect of this is in practice to exalt Tradition above the Bible, because it is the church that decides what the Bible teaches, and supplements or amends the teaching of the Bible where necessary. Present leadership usurps the authority of the Word of the God when its effects is to damage the cause of the gospel. This is what was happening in Corinth. The church was dividing into factions following different leadership and the cause of the gospel, and even the message of the gospel, were being forgotten. The Gospel judges both tradition and leadership. So for instance in Mark 7 Jesus attacks the Pharisees on their abuse of tradition. Three times he repeats his charge against them when he is asked the question "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders?" Verse 8: "You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." Verse 9: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!" Verse 13: "Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that." All tradition and all current leadership must be tested against the word of God. Again, don't get this wrong. Both tradition and leadership have a God given and valuable role as long as they are in submission to the word of God. Paul says in 2 Timothy 2.2:

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.

Apostolic, Biblical teaching should be handed down from generation to generation. We do not and should not come at the Bible without help from faithful teachers. But that is the test. Faithfulness to the Gospel that Paul and the other apostles taught. With regard to leadership, Hebrews 13.7 says:

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.

Then in 13.17 the writer continues the theme:

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Leaders do have authority, but note this. The basis of that authority is the word of God. Leaders are accountable to God, and they are accountable to his word. So the 39 Articles of the Church of England recognise that the church does have authority but add: "And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." In other words, don't contradict the Bible, or misinterpret it so that you make one passage mean the opposite of another. But we must move on to the fourth source of authority and my fourth heading: THE GOSPEL AND EXPERIENCE Quite often nowadays Christian seem to regard spiritual experience as something separate from the gospel, that is to say separate from the Bible's teaching, as if they were in different compartments. This becomes a special spiritual danger when it is experience rather than the gospel that is seen as having the power to transform people. Such an approach to the Bible leads to a great longing for spiritual experiences with little reference to the Word of God. Again, there is nothing new under the sun. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 1.22: "Jews demand miraculous signs" But he goes on in 2.2: "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." The foundational spiritual experience of Christian living is faith-experience of the Gospel, in other words believing and obeying the Word of God. That is what is life transforming from the perspective of eternity. Experience apart from the Word of God is nowadays often used in another way as well. It is used as the measure of what is true. To put this way of thinking rather crudely: if it feels good, not only should you do it, but it must be right. Not so. As Christians, our interpretation of experience, whether our own or that of others, must be derived from the Word of God and tested by the Word of God. The Word of God must not be discarded after a superficial glance as inadequate to our experience in the modern world. Well, the long and the short of it is this. Reason, the institution of the church in the form of either tradition or leadership, and experience all have their place. They are not to be discarded as irrelevant. But they must be submitted to the supreme authority of the Bible. Many conflicts among Christians hang on this issue. One such issue has the potential to trigger major divisions within mainline Western denominations such as the Church of England. It is the question of whether homosexual sex can ever be right. It is an unavoidable issue, whatever we might wish. It is a crucial issue, not so much in itself but precisely because it hangs on the more fundamental issue of the supreme and permanent authority of the Bible. Let me contrast two recent statements on this subject, by way of a short case study in authority in the church. The first statement comes from Lord Habgood, until recently Archbishop of York. He wrote recently:

no clear answer can be given to the question of whether permanent homosexual relationships are morally permissible for Christians or not. The evidence from Scripture, tradition, reason and experience points in different directions.

In other words, the Bible along with 2000 years of church tradition says one thing. Reason and experience say another. Equal weight is given to both. Therefore we cannot decide. The clarity of what the Bible says is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the authority of the Bible. We weigh what the Bible says in the balance. We do not submit to it. Compare that with another recent statement from many Southern hemisphere Anglican bishops amongst others. They express their awareness of their own vulnerability to sexual sin, and say that that they find no conflict between clear biblical teaching and sensitive pastoral care. Then they go on:

We are deeply concerned that the setting aside of biblical teaching in such actions as the ordination of practising homosexuals and the blessing of same sex unions calls into question the authority of the Holy Scriptures. This is totally unacceptable to us.

The Bible is the gospel in book form. It is God's Word written. It is truth. It stands in judgement over all other possible sources of authority. If we call ourselves evangelicals, it ought to be because we live by that principle. The power and authority of God lies in the Gospel. It lies in his Word. No doubt evangelicals very often fail to live up to what they believe. But let that be our intention, and our constant aim.

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