The word “authority” is often thrown around pejoratively, but have we thought much about the term’s meaning? In many ways, Christianity is an “authoritarian” religion, where authority ultimately resides outside of and above the individual. Indeed, on careful examination, the Bible delineates several authority structures within which the Christian life is lived. For our purposes, we can define “authority” as a relationship between persons where one party has obligations to the other. Authority involves obligation or oughtness, namely, that the one under authority must in some sense obey the one in authority.
Perhaps this is most immediately clear in the relationship between a child and their parent. A child ought to obey their parents, and there are, in most cases, consequences for a child’s disobedience. In this case, the parent is in a position of authority over the child. This authority derives from God, and he takes the responsibilities of a child to their parent very seriously (cf. Exod 20:12; Eph 6:1-4). Now, there are clearly degrees of authority, the highest of which is absolute authority, meaning unrestricted oughtness or obligation. Only God possesses absolute authority; thus, all other authorities have restricted and derivative authority. Their authority is limited because humans are ultimately obligated to God, so no earthly authority can posture itself over against God’s authority: it is only authoritative in as much as it is in line with God’s authority. Thus, their authority is a derivative authority granted, if only for a season, by God himself.
We can picture various relations of authority as “structures.” An authority structure describes a framework within which persons exist in subordinated relationships, implying restrictions on these authoritative relationships. That is, a structure implies both the relationship between the one in authority and their subordinates and between the one in authority and their superior, by whom their authority is restricted. These cases, with explicit subordination and restriction, are “vertical” relationships of authority. However, not all authority is “vertical”; there are situations where a horizontal relationship obtains, where two persons who are each accountable to the same authority are empowered to keep one another accountable in their submission. We may call the vertical relationship “authority” and the horizontal “accountability,” though both are relationships of authority in the above sense. Looking at these authority structures has important implications for the Christian. Notably, as I hope to show, it has significant consequences for thinking about Christian ministry in the Western World. In this article, I want to look at four authority structures described in the New Testament, from which we may draw some implications concerning the training or educating of Christian leaders. Before attending to each one individually, it may be helpful to picture their relationship.
Authority Structures in the New Testament
Structure 1 – All Christians Are Under God’s Authority through the Bible
However we envision authority in the created order, God is on top. To him belongs all authority and power, forever and ever, amen. Scripture is the primary means by which God exercises this authority on earth. However, it is not proper to envision Scripture below God, as if it is under God’s authority. Instead, the Bible presents itself as God’s very words: its authority is God’s authority. Thus, Scripture is over us not as a restricted authority, something under a higher authority, but as the instrument by which God’s absolute authority is exercised over his people. The Scriptures “cannot be broken” (John 10:35; Matt 5:17-18); they are utterly “true” (John 17:17; Ps 19:9). Indeed, they are perfect, right, and pure (Ps 19:7-8). The Scriptures are “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16-17), the Lord’s very words: who can call them a liar? In this way, every Christian is equally under the authority of God expressed through the Scriptures.
Structure 2 – All Christians Are Accountable to One Another
Because we are all equally under Scripture’s authority, we are accountable to one another. A king and peasant are equally obligated to God through Scripture, so the latter may call the former to account before Scripture (though this has not always been well received…). Among other places we see this in Scripture, this mutual subordination is expressed in Acts 17:11. Here, we are told that certain Jews commendably checked what they received against Scripture “to see if these things were so.” Elsewhere, false teachers are condemned as such because they teach the things of God falsely: they fall short of the teaching authoritatively expressed in God’s word (1 Tim 5:3-6). Furthermore, an elder, a recognized leader in the local church (a pastor or minister), may be rebuked for his sin, a transgression of God’s will as it is revealed in Scripture. Anyone with sufficient evidence may bring such a charge (1 Tim 5:19-20). The many “one another” statements in Scripture often imply this same horizontal accountability (Rom 15:14; Col 3:16; Heb 3:13).
Structure 3 – All Christians Are Under the Authority of Local Church Leaders
However, the mutual accountability of all Christians to one another is not the whole story. Every Christian who is part of a local church and not an elder (i.e. recognized leader) in the local church is under their elders’ authority. Thus, all Christians are accountable to elders or local church leaders (1 Tim 4:11-13; 5:7; 5:17; 5:20-22; 6:2; 2 Tim 2:14-15, 4:2; Titus 1:9, 11; 2:15; 3:8; 1 Pet 5:1-5). God gives these leaders authority as teachers of Scripture and shepherds. They have God-given authority to teach the truth, censure falsehood, and rebuke sin. The teaching role means that the elder has special jurisdiction to guide God’s people in the right understanding of Scripture (Eph 4:11-14; 1 Tim 1:3-7; 3:2). This implies that Christians should trust their elders unless they have reason to do otherwise. Therefore, Structure 2 gives the Christian authority to hold their leaders to account, not a license for suspicion.
Structure 4 – Those Leaders are Accountable to One Another
Fourth, all elders are mutually accountable to one another. In some churches, this involves greater denominational structures, but I have in mind the local church. The New Testament repeatedly describes elders, in the plural, over churches. These elders oversee mutual discipline (1 Tim 5:20) and are entrusted with appointing their peers (1 Tim 5:22; Titus 1:5). Thus, through their vetting and disciplinary powers, elders wield mutual authority over one another.
From these authority structures, I conclude that no Christian is ever to be outside of accountability and authority. Furthermore, there are multiple layers to a person’s responsibility. Even an elder is accountable to all Christians before Scripture, and he is accountable to his peers regarding their role in the local church.
If this accurately describes the normative picture of the New Testament, three reflections are due. First, no Christian is an island to him or herself. The idea that a Christian is to read the Bible and come to their own conclusions independent of the church (local and universal) is contrary to the authority structures that govern their growth in the Christian life, including their understanding of Scripture.
Second, no minister is above reproach. On the one hand, they are accountable to God and, under God, they are accountable to their brothers and sisters in their handling of Scripture. On the other, they need to be accountable to their peers, so some system (a plurality of elders or denominational checks) must be in place by which this accountability is expressed.
Third, the biggest flaw in our collegiate system may very well be the way it undermines these authorities. This line of thought will take some unpacking.
The Hidden Curriculum of Many Seminaries
Consider a modern seminary and the general atmosphere it fosters; I do not intend what follows is to be taken as pejorative (some of these things are genuinely good). However, the hidden curriculum that emerges when taken as a whole may be more sinister than it first appears. Faculty are often addressed by their first names, and often build a successful rapport with their students, engaging in extracurricular activities and sharing a coffee. This coheres with the most influential pedagogical methods in modern education, which posture the teacher as a co-learner, examining the evidence alongside his or her students. (See for example To Know as We Are Known, by Parker Palmer.) Through readings, writing assignments, and discussion, students are encouraged to arrive at their own conclusions, engage the data critically, and go where it leads. To pursue such education, students are usually required to travel some distance and so enter a new church environment. Some schools encourage their students to serve at multiple churches during their education. In addition, many students get internship-like positions in churches, where they are part of the leadership team and learn skills for church leadership.
There are reasons for all of this, and many are very good. However, when looked at from the perspective of NT authority structures, the primary structures in which a seminary student finds themselves are horizontal. Moreover, these may be best described as malformed structures. That is, the primary accountability a student has in their Christian maturation is peer-oriented: they are accountable to their teachers and fellow students in the college setting. In an internship, they are accountable as peers with their fellow leaders. I describe these relationships as “malformed” because they are artificially separated from the regular church life and the ideal circumstances for accountability. These relationships, occurring at the most formative point in a Christian leader’s life, are fresh, without the depth of life lived together. Furthermore, they are, for the most part, short-lived. These relationships are not regularly built within the context of the local church’s inward and outward focus but within the artificial constraints of the college atmosphere. Lastly, many of their student peers will be at a similar maturity level, without the variety in experience and faith found in the local church. What is missing is the elder’s vertical authority structure over the parishioner, in which the former wields authority over the latter to see them grow spiritually and in their knowledge of Scripture.
Thus, the hidden curriculum regarding authority structures is that the learner is at the top of the pecking order, so far as human oversight goes. Pair this with two other factors in contemporary Christian education, and the result may very well be devastating. First, most of our students are raised in a generally anti-authoritarian culture, where age does not equal wisdom and where everybody is on an equal playing field, with a right to be heard. Indeed, the dominant force in the practical epistemology of the Western person is “emotivism,” the dominance of desire. (Cf. After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre.) Second, our teaching hardly supports our claims to Biblical clarity and sufficiency. Students are shown a vast range of data (itself ambiguous) necessary to interpret Scripture and are exposed to dozens of differing opinions from intelligent sources. Given the questions concerning the appropriate method and the complexities of actually employing that method, let alone moving from a right understanding of Scripture to the right application, it almost appears that the Bible has become our peer. It does not appear to be over us but beside us as we dialogue with it and dozens of other sources to arrive at a true or liveable position. (cf. The Gift of Knowing; The Gift of Reading – Part 1 & Part 2.)
In these ways, the classroom’s hidden curriculum, its explicit curriculum, and the culture merge on the very same point. The only verbal authority structure that exists is horizontal. Indeed, it is ultimately up to us to weigh the opinions and perspectives of our teachers, peers, pastors, and sources in order to figure out what we believe and how we will do ministry. Is it a wonder that we have so many pastors falling away for moral failings or that we witness the assimilation of our cultures radical, individual autonomy into the functioning paradigms of our ministers? If this analysis is correct, then our teaching methods are reinforcing the very crisis at the heart of western civilization, the lack of authority (see further, The Gift of Knowing). No simple solution presents itself, but it would seem that we need to rethink our education strategies to preserve vertical authority within the local church and our curriculum to maintain the Bible’s vertical authority.
This article is part of the Training Initiative, read more here or find related posts here.