Church Authority

The Church, in it’s infancy, spread the Gospel and taught its earliest converts in person.  There were no written Gospels yet, let alone a complete Bible, so teaching authority depended upon the firsthand accounts of the apostles and “elders”.  With what authority would the early Church depend upon for it’s teaching?  With what authority would it later claim divine inspiration for it’s writings?  With what authority would it determine who was authorized to write Scripture in the first place?  How was the later Church able to authoritatively say which books were inspired and thus authoritatively speak to which books would be included in the Bible, when the Bible itself does not give any list as to what books are inspired?…  It was only by the authority given by Christ that the Church could 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.  In other words, by accepting the current Biblical canon, one necessarily must accept the teaching authority of the Church.

This authority was given to the Apostles by Jesus Christ, who was Himself given authority by God the Father. In Mt 28:18-19, Jesus said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…”. Then, in Jn 20:21, Jesus said to them, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’” So, in Matthew 28, all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus and, in John 20, Jesus sends the Apostles out just as the Father has sent Him. In other words, God the Father sent His Son with full authority and in turn, Jesus sends out the Apostles with this very same authority. It is with this authority that the Apostles speak on matters of faith and morals: Jesus says in Lk 10:16, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects Him who sent me.”  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). 

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 a council in order to reason out what they had been taught so that they could infallibly define Christ’s implicit teaching.  When the Council came to a decision based on Peter’s advice, this decision was binding on all Christians, for 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).  This scenario would play out again and again throughout history as first a heresy would spring up, such as Docetism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, or Monothelitism, followed by a Church council 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, was only defined 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 in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth…” and in John 14:26; “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” and in John 14:16-17; “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Paraclete, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of Truth…”.  In other words, the teachings of the Apostles, as well as their successors, were infallible, whether they were written or oral.  Infallible does not mean they would be without sin or that they would always speak out on moral issues when they should, or that they would never make personal mistakes or hold wrong opinions or be able to teach mathematics or physics. Infallible only means that, when teaching authoritatively on faith and morals, God will protect the Church from error through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.   This is why the Bible could be infallibly written and the Church could infallibly determine which books belong in the Bible. Throughout history, God has always chosen leaders to act as an authority  for his people.  Sometimes those leaders were morally questionable -for example, 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).

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.

The Historical Evidence of the Church’s Authority:

Bible Verses:

Matthew 18:15-18

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.

Matthew  10:40

“If they receive you they receive me; if they reject you, they reject me”

Hebrews 13:7–9

“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”

Hebrews 13:17

“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”

Ephesians 3:10

“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.”

Ephesians 4:11-12

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 

“Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached; and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty: for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier” (Epistle to the Corinthians 42:4-5 [A.D. 80]). 

 

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.”] 

Didache 

“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]). 

Apostolic Constitutions 

“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]).

Non-Catholic Quotes:

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).