A Little Summary on the Authority of the Church

Pamela Sue Williams (July, 1999)

All of you know about the Matthew 18: 15-18 passage telling believers how to handle disputes among us. (Confront the person in private. Bring others with you. Take the matter to the Church). So, what is the final authority? The Church is. The Church has the final say, not man’s opinions. Matthew 18 doesn’t say, search the scripture about this matter, because the dispute many times is over scripture itself and what it means, what it teaches. Likewise, we know that when 2 or 3 are gathered in Christ’s name, He is there in the midst of us. But what if the 2 or 3 disagree? Matthew 18 does not say if you disagree, start your own church (as 26,000 denominations have done). It says take it to the Church! And whoever does not listen to the Church’s decision should be cast out of the Christian community/the Church.

All of you know that Protestant believers hold that Scripture alone is where we derive Truth from God (Sola Scriptura). When we believe that, we often go church hopping. (Maybe some of you have been there. I have.) Why do we do that? Because we are looking for a church that agrees with us. So, what is the final authority? We are. But our intellect cannot be the final authority on God. "Oh," but you say, "it’s not me alone. It’s the Holy Spirit leading me into all truth, as the scripture says." (I’ve said it myself in defense of Sola Scriptura). But does scripture say that we (you and I) have the final say? No, it says that the Church has the final say; the Church that Christ established and gave authority to through Peter and the Apostles. Again, if we say that we and scripture alone are the final authority (with the Holy Spirit) we end up having to try to find a church that agrees with us, and I never found one I agreed with on every doctrine, so does that tell me I should start a church of my own and make that 26,001?or stay in a church I agree with on the majority of doctrines and ignore the ones I don’t agree with? (I did that a lot). Or do I investigate the Church Christ established and discover what it really teaches? I was encouraged by Stan to do the latter, and may I please tell you one thing I learned that clears up 1,000 other issues for me about the Church? It has to do with the authority of the Church.

When the first heresy came up in the early Church (Acts 15) what did they do? This was when a deacon [according to writings of the early Church Fathers, his name was Nicholas, who is mentioned in the original list of deacons in Acts 6 as a convert to Judaism] at Antioch was teaching that Gentiles who became Christians had to be obedient to Old Testament law and be circumcised! They followed the steps of Matthew 18! The matter had been brought to Paul and Barnabas, but they could not resolve it, so they brought it to the Church, the apostles and elders in Jerusalem at that time. There was much debate over the issue until Peter stood up and declared his answer, and then the whole crowd fell silent, held their peace, they shut up. The rest of the discourse is the other leaders (Paul, Barnabas, and James) echoing Peter’s decision and/or implementing the decision made. Peter’s word settled the dispute, and circumcision was never brought up again.

Also, in Acts 11:18 after hearing Peter on the issue of the gospel being taken to the Gentiles, the leaders of the Church held their peace, stopped objecting, and glorified God. The dispute was settled.

Later, in 451 AD, when heresy arose that Christ had only a divine nature, the matter was brought to the Church. When Pope Leo the Great declared that the teaching of the Church was Christ is one person with two natures, wholly human and wholly divine, the Fathers of the Council erupted with joy and said, "Peter has spoken through Leo, the question is settled," because Peter spoke for Christ… and I’ll bet you never knew where that particular doctrine that Protestants still hold (and many others, including the Trinity, that are not explicitly spelled out in scripture) came from…. from decisions over heretical teachings that the Church with its authority from Christ, had to take a stand on to declare what was Truth.

That’s the true meaning of the scripture "…and the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth."…the way Christ established it should be done, that is through the Authority of the Church. In Acts 15:28, when the Early Church communicated its decision on circumcision, their statement was, "It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us (the Apostles/the magesterium of the Church)…" And so, even today, the Holy Spirit speaks through the magesterium of the Church, because the Pope (with the Council of Bishops--like Peter and the Apostles) speaks with the authority of Christ.

Now, really, like in 451 AD, if someone had come to you with the question about Jesus’ divinity and humanity (before you knew the answer of the Holy Spirit), what would you have said? And even if you did have the right answer, why should anyone listen to you or to me? We were not given authority by Christ to say what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church. The Keys of authority were given uniquely to Peter, just like a king would delegate authority to his Prime Minister! We know that Jesus is the King (Rev. 2:4). And we know that He delegated His authority to carry on His work to His Church… and uniquely to Peter (Matt. 16:15-18--You, referring to Peter, is used 7 times in this passage, and it is the personal pronoun being used, not collective). So, Peter is Christ’s Prime Minister or Pope, and on matters of Church doctrine/Truth, he is infallible, because he speaks for Christ.

When I believe that, the rest is easy, because if I believe that Christ delegated his authority to Peter and the Apostles, and upon them He built His Church, then when the Church speaks, it is the Word of God on the matter. My intellect is now in submission to the authority of Jesus Christ as established in His Church. I am no longer looking for a church to agree with me. I am seeking to agree with His Church! As a Catholic, I am not free to disagree with even one of the disciplines of the Church just because I do not like them. The Church has the Word of Christ on all matters of faith and morals, so I can happily obey, and there is freedom and peace/resolution in this kind of obedience. There is also humility to think that I don’t have all the proper interpretation on scripture that I thought I once had and that I must become like a little child and learn. …But isn’t that what Christ asks us to become to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?