Authority of the Church:
Definition of Terms:
The Authority of the Church refers to the power and jurisdiction held by the visible hierarchy of the Church, given to it by Christ, to make decisions, enforce doctrine, administer sacraments, and guide the beliefs and practices of it’s members. The Church, in its infancy, spread the Gospel and taught its earliest converts in person. Christians looked to the firsthand accounts of the apostles and “elders” as the authority on Christ and His teachings. As Christianity spread, it became necessary for the Apostles and Elders to appoint leaders in the various communities in order to uphold orthodoxy. The Gospels would not be written for another 40 years and a complete New Testament in the form of a Bible would not exist for another 300 years, therefore, it was necessary for these individuals to be well-instructed in the faith. It was understood by the laity that those who had been given leadership were not given authority simply by the Apostles, but by Christ Himself. Just as Christ had been given authority by God the Father;
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…”. -Matthew 28:18-19
so too, Christ would give authority to His disciples;
Jesus said to them, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’” -John 20:21.
God the Father sent His Son with full authority and in turn, Jesus sends out the Apostles with this very same authority. The title of “Apostle” means “messenger” or “one who has been sent”, or “ambassador”, giving it the context in which the one who has been sent is given the authority of the one who sent. It is with this authority that the Apostles speak on matters of faith and morals and a rejection of that authority is a rejection of Christ Himself;
“He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects Him who sent me.” -Luke 10:16
St. Paul tells us the Church is “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and it was built on “the foundation of the apostles” (Eph. 2:20) and that we are to respect and obey this authority (1 Thess. 5:12, Hebrews 13:17). When a decision is made by the Church regarding the faith and practice of it’s members, this decision is binding on all Christians, as Christ Himself said;
“If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” -Matt. 18:17-18
The phrase “binding and loosening” was a legal term referring to the Sanhedrin’s capacity to establish halakah (rules of conduct) for the Hebrew people (Sifra, Emor, 9; Talmud: Makkot 23b). Christ acknowledged this authority as long as the Pharisees sat on the “Chair of Moses” (Matt. 23:1-4) However, Christ uses this formula of binding and loosening to show that this authority to teach, govern, and discipline has been transferred over to the Chair of St. Peter and the apostles (Matt. 16:19; 18:19; Luke 22:29-32).
This teaching authority would be necessary in order to resolve disputes that would arise in the Church that were never definitively taught by Christ or Scripture. The first example we find of this is the Judaizers in Acts chapter 15. Because the issue of circumcision was never formally addressed by Christ, the early Church held the Council of Jerusalem in order to reason out what they had been taught so that they could infallibly define Christ’s implicit teaching. This scenario would play out repeatedly throughout history as various heresies sprung up, resulting in a Church Council being called to resolve the conflict by formally defining a doctrine of belief. Many beliefs that modern Protestants consider “orthodox”, such as the nature and substance of Christ’s divinity, were defined only after centuries of theological debates resulting in Church Councils authoritatively declaring a doctrine. By accepting these doctrines as orthodox, one is inadvertently accepting the teaching authority of the Church.
The Apostles were able to teach on faith and morals without error because they were guided by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Himself gave assurance that this authority would continue after His Ascension and that it would continue to be protected from error;
“When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth…” John 16:13
“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” -John 14:26
“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Paraclete, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of Truth…” -John 14:16-17
It was through this guidance by the Holy Spirit that Christ could ensure His Church could teach infallibly the message He wanted to send. Christ gave this assurance of infallibility to the Apostles -as well as their successors –not the Bible. It was only by the authority given by Christ that the Church could even author Scripture in the first place, so naturally it would also be by this authority that the Church could later determine which books belonged in the Bible. This is why the Bible could be infallibly written by the Church and the Church could infallibly determine which books belong in the Bible. In other words, by accepting the current Biblical canon, one necessarily must accept the teaching authority of the Church.
The Infallibility of the Church refers only to the teaching authority given to it by Christ on matters of faith and morals. God will protect the Church from error through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Infallibility does not mean that individuals within the Church are not capable of sin, or personal mistakes, or lapses in prudential decision making, or having errors in judgment, or even personally hold heretical views. It only refers to those truths that are taught universally and dogmatically as binding on all Christians. The teaching authority of the Catholic Church’s magisterium is only rarely expressed in the solemn form of an ex cathedra papal declaration;
“when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, [the Bishop of Rome] defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church,” -Pius IX Vatican I
Throughout history, God has always chosen leaders to act as an authority for his people. Sometimes those leaders were morally questionable; Moses was a murderer, King David was an adulterer and murderer, Peter denied knowing Jesus, Thomas lacked faith, Paul martyred Christians, and Judas betrayed Jesus to His death –but this did not prevent God from working through them. Despite their personal faults, some went on to write divinely inspired Scripture, protected from error by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13). God made sure that, despite their faults, what these men taught about the faith would be safeguarded from error (e.g., 1 Cor. 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). It is God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit that makes their teachings authoritative, not some perceived human perfection.
There would only be a handful of times throughout the first 1500 years of Church history that a group of Christians would deny this authority and give way to a lasting schism. It would not be until the Protestant Reformation that the authority of the Church would be cast aside by a large number of Christians, who would instead turn to the Bible as their sole teaching authority (an authority which the Bible never claims for itself) and give way to innumerable fracturing and splitting within the Church over disagreements in interpretation and an inability to resolve disputes.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
“If they receive you they receive me; if they reject you, they reject me”
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited their adherents”
“Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you”
1 Thessalonians 2:13
“And we thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.”
1 Tim. 3:15
“you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
2 Pet. 1:20-21
“First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God”
2 Peter 2:1
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions.”
2 Pet. 3:16
“There are some things in them [Paul’s letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures”
“so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”
Church Father Quotes:
Clement of Rome
“Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.
“As for these, then, who were appointed by them, or who were afterwards appointed by other illustrious men with the consent of the whole Church, and who have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame . . . we consider it unjust that they be removed from the ministry” (Epistle to the Corinthians 44:1-3 [A.D. 80]).
Ignatius of Antioch
“Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me.” (Epistle to the Magnesians 6:1 [A.D. 110]).
“Take care, therefore, to be confirmed in the decrees of the Lord and of the apostles, in order that in everything you do, you may prosper in body and soul, in faith and love, in Son and in Father and in Spirit, in beginning and in end, together with your most reverend bishop; and with that fittingly woven spiritual crown, the presbytery; and with the deacons, men of God. Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ was subject to the Father, and the apostles were subject to Christ and to the Father, so that there may be unity in both body and spirit” (Epistle to the Magnesians 13:1-2 [A.D. 110]).
“Indeed, when you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men but as Jesus Christ, who died for us, that through faith in his death you might escape dying. It is necessary, therefore–and such is your practice–that you do nothing without the bishop and that you be subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope, in whom we shall be found if we live with him” (Epistle to the Trallians 2:1-3 [A.D. 110]).
“You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop.
“Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2 [A.D. 110]).
[Note: This is the earliest known use of the title “Catholic Church.”]
“Elect for yourselves, therefore, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, humble men and not lovers of money, truthful and proven; for they also serve you in the ministry of the prophets and teachers. Do not, therefore, despise them for they are honorable men.” (15:1 [A.D. 140, possibly as early at A.D. 70]).
St. Irenaeus of Lyons
“It is necessary to obey those who are the presbyters in the Church, those who, as we have shown, have succession from the apostles; those who have received, with the succession of the episcopate, the sure charism of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father. But the rest, who have no part in the primitive succession and assemble wheresoever they will, must be held in suspicion” (Against Heresies 4:26 [A.D. 180]).
St. Hippolytus of Rome
“Let the bishop be ordained after he has been chosen by all the people. When someone pleasing to all has been named, let the people assemble on the Lord’s Day with the presbyters and with such bishops as may be present. All giving assent, the bishops shall impose hands on him and the presbyters shall stand by in silence. Indeed, all shall remain silent, praying in their hearts for the descent of the Spirit” (The Apostolic Tradition 2:1 [A.D. 215]).
St. Clement of Alexandria
“After the death of the tyrant, [the apostle John] came back again to Ephesus from the Island of Patmos; and, upon being invited, he went even to the neighboring cities of the pagans, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole churches, and there to ordain to the clerical state such as were designated by the Spirit” (Who Is the Rich Man That Is Saved? 42:2 [A.D. 190]).
St. Gregory of Nyssa
“The bread again is at first common bread; but when the mystery [the Eucharistic prayer] sanctifies it, it is called and actually becomes the Body of Christ. So too the mystical oil, so too the wine;…after their sanctification by the Spirit each of them has their superior operation.
“This same power of the word also makes the priest venerable and honorable, separated from the generality of men by the new blessing bestowed upon him. Yesterday he was but one of the multitude, one of the people; suddenly he is made a guide, a president, a teacher of piety, an instructor in hidden mysteries” (Sermon on the Day of Lights [A.D. 383]).
“Grant to him [the bishop], almighty master, through your Christ, possession of the Holy Spirit, so that he may have, according to your mandate, the power to remit sins, to confer [holy] orders according to your precept, and to dissolve every bond, according to the power which you gave to your apostles” (Invocation in the Ordination of Bishops 8:5-7 [A.D. 341]).
Augustine of Hippo
“Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichæus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichæus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you—If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichæus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel;— Again, if you say, You were right in believing the Catholics when they praised the gospel, but wrong in believing their vituperation of Manichæus: do you think me such a fool as to believe or not to believe as you like or dislike, without any reason?” -Augustine of Hippo, Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, Chapter 5
The Jewish Encyclopedia
“The power of binding and loosing was always claimed by the Pharisees. Under Queen Alexandra, the Pharisees, says Josephus (Wars of the Jews 1:5:2), ‘became the administrators of all public affairs so as to be empowered to banish and readmit whom they pleased, as well as to loose and to bind.’ . . . The various schools had the power ‘to bind and to loose’; that is, to forbid and to permit (Talmud: Chagigah 3b); and they could also bind any day by declaring it a fast day (Talmud: Ta’anit 12a). . . . This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age of the Sanhedrin, received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of justice (Sifra, Emor, 9; Talmud: Makkot 23b).(Jewish Encyclopedia 3:215).