The Curse of Church Authority
There is a huge difference between “Scriptural Authority” and what people today call “Church Authority.” The first phrase refers to the authority that pertains to humans written in the Word of God. The second phrase is that authority invested by members of church organizations in a man or a group of men to rule over Christians on earth. Some people claim that Christ Himself gave authority to certain men to govern the members of His divine assembly or congregation that in Greek is called the Ekklesia. As an example, the apostles were given extensive powers in the early history of Christianity (they could even forgive sins in certain cases). But were the powers of the apostles to be carried down to us today? Yes, we still have apostolic authority today, but their authority is now found written in the New Testament and not in any so-called human successors.
We need to understand just what authority pertains to Christians today and we should heed it to the full. But to say that the authority of God lies within the leaders of certain churches is to vastly misunderstand the real teaching of the Holy Scriptures on this matter. While Christ certainly advocated “Scriptural Authority,” we find that what men call “Church Authority” is not a principle derived from Christ. “Church Authority” clearly demonstrates the rule and practices of the Antichrist. We need to comprehend where divine authority now rests for the Christian. When we do, we discover that church hierarchies who administer their powers with a rod of iron are using The Curse of Church Authority.
When the apostles began to teach the Gospel of Christ Jesus, they were given a great deal of personal power and authority to accomplish the task. They were told by Christ that they had control even over the determination of what represented sin and what did not in God’s eyes (Matthew 16:19; John 20:23). As an example of their comprehensive powers to establish doctrine and discipline within the early Ekklesia, the apostle Paul made the dogmatic statement that the teachings he was giving to Christians in Corinth represented nothing less than commandments of God (1 Corinthians 14:37). This shows that the apostles had a great deal of personal authority to teach the Gospel to the world. But once the Gospel was fully revealed and recorded in the New Testament, it was not necessary for those apostolic powers to be transferred to men in the future who would rule the assembly of Christians from the top down in a hierarchical form of government.
It ought to be self-evident why the early apostles were given such extensive powers. They had the responsibility of writing the New Testament and sanctifying it for use by Christians for all future time (2 Peter 1:12–16). Those authorized words of the apostles which were recorded in the books that make up the New Testament represent a
“more sure word of prophecy [statements from God]; whereunto you do well that you take heed, as unto a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawn [the Second Advent of Christ], and the day star arise in your hearts.”
2 Peter 1:19
Yes, Christians are to heed the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. This represents an accommodation to “Scriptural Authority.”
Peter went on to say that no prophecy [statement] of scripture is inspired by private interpretation or opinion of men, and this included the personal opinions of the apostles (verse 20). In other words, when the apostles wrote the words that now make up our New Testament, they knew they were being inspired to write the very commandments of God that were to become the essential part of the New Testament. For this task they needed personal authority from the Father and Christ, and such powers were consequently dispatched to them in order for them to perform their job.
But were these far-reaching and expansive powers given to anyone except the original apostles? Was such an authority to be retained with the successors of the apostles? The answer is NO. Only a special group of people was selected by Christ to be apostles and assume such awesome and vast powers to establish the doctrines and prophecies of Christendom and formulate the body of writings that came to be the New Testament.
Even to become an apostle in the first place required particular credentials. For one, an apostle had to have been baptized by John the Baptist and to have seen Jesus Christ in His resurrected state (Acts 1:21–22; 1 Corinthians 9:1). They also had to have many extraordinary signs and miracles associated with their ministries (2 Corinthians 12:12).
All the early apostles (including the apostle Paul) met these essential qualifications for the position of an apostle, but no man of succeeding generations could meet them. As a matter of fact, when Christ’s original human apostles died, there was only one apostle left who continued to live with the same extensive powers that the earlier apostles had and met all the credentials of apostleship. That person is our Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. And in Hebrews 3:1, Christ is called “the apostle.” 1 It is evident that no human could possibly have the rank and authority of an apostle today since it is impossible for modern man to meet the needed credentials recorded in the New Testament.
When Jesus was on earth, He gave His apostles directions on how Christians should be governed within a society in which all Christians were a part. It was to be a fellowship or association of equals. All members of the group were represented as being “in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3) and their only head was Christ himself (Ephesians 5:23–24). All were identified intimately and personally with Christ who was reckoned by the Father to be the firstborn of God (Colossians 1:15). And since all Christians are united to the firstborn Son of God, all are also reckoned “firstborn ones.” Note Hebrews 12:23 where the word “firstborn” is plural in the Greek. Indeed, there were to be no human or angelic mediators existing between the collective group of Christians and the Father — except Christ. “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). No one is to rule between you and Christ.
The government to rule this Christian society of equals was what we call today a “congregational” type and certainly not a hierarchical kind with rulership from the top down. To show this, Christ gave the illustration of a man who suffered from the trespass of another member of the group. Christ said the injured person should go to that brother alone and try diligently to work out the problem with him. If that procedure failed to bring the erring brother to repentance, then take two or three other witnesses who would have been privy to the trespass and let them also try to resolve the difficulty. If that course of action failed to evoke the brother’s repentance, then Christ said to take the matter to the Ekklesia (wrongly translated “church” in the King James Version). See Matthew 18:15–17.
Ekklesia is a Greek word that means “assembly, group, or congregation.” Christ said to take the matter to all those in the group (not to a select hierarchy ruling the group) and let the whole of that Christian assembly or congregation make a final decision on the affair. If the one who trespassed failed to heed the direction of the assembled body of Christians in the area in which he lived, then Christ said he should be considered a heathen and publican as far as that society is concerned (Matthew 18:17). In this case, the whole of the Ekklesia (made up of many people) were collectively given power and authority to excommunicate (that is, disfellowship) such an unrepentant brother. Christ said their collective sentence would be seen by God as legitimate (Matthew 18:18–20).
This example given by Christ Jesus showed that the type of Ekklesia He envisioned for His Christian community was made up of local centers to handle the affairs of societal government among His people. Note that Christ showed and allowed that only a few governmental controls or actions were needed in the Ekklesia. His classic illustration of ecclesiastical rule started at the lowest level of participation — the resolution and reconciliation of an argument between two individuals. He then expanded it to two or three others becoming involved and finally the whole of the Ekklesia itself becoming part of any final decision. Christ saw no need for appeals beyond that of the local Ekklesia. Referring the case to the totality of the Ekklesia obviously meant that Christ limited His society of government to a local congregation and not to a large regional, national or international body of members. The buck stopped, so to speak, with the local group of Christians that would know the personal circumstances of the situation between the two parties. There was no appeal beyond the local group.
This congregational type of local rule is clearly shown in the New Testament and early history of Christianity. Note the historical examples of early Ekklesias in the New Testament. It was normal for Christians to assemble in the private homes of people (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19 and see Acts 21:8). Only when the various Ekklesias had regional meetings at set times of the year, do we find groups assembling together for celebration and teaching (1 Corinthians 14:23). And after the New Testament age, history shows without doubt that for the period from the 1st century and on through the whole of the 2nd century, Christians met in individual homes for worship and teaching. 2 Surely, Ekklesias meeting in the private homes of prominent people shows that little governmental force was exercised to rule the members. There was a “family style” environment with the members all being adult and mature Christians meeting among themselves for fellowship, teaching and worship. There was no need for any rule from the top down with a rod of iron.
Each of these Ekklesias represented in homes of prominent Christian leaders usually had one overseer with a few deacons and certain women who helped in social matters involving the members of the group (1 Timothy chapters 3 and 5). None of the Ekklesias in the various homes of Christian leaders sent all their moneys for operation to a central headquarters (be it Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Corinth, etc.). Nor did they collect donations to give to an apostle or apostles sent to teach them, though the apostles and other Christian teachers had a right to be supported by the Ekklesias (Philippians 4:15–19; 2 Thessalonians 3:8–9; Titus 3:13). Each Ekklesia raised its own finances with which to function and no one had to send contributions to Jerusalem or Rome or receive back from some “headquarters” the funds to operate. All commands that Paul gave in his letters to individual Ekklesias, were directed solely to govern local affairs of those groups.
The only moneys and commodities sent to Jerusalem were for the poor Christians who found it difficult to survive adequately when Sabbatical Years were in evidence in Israel (1 Corinthians 16:1–3). These donations were alms, not funds for the operations of the Ekklesia in all areas of the world. And though Paul said that elders who ruled well should be counted worthy of “double honor” (and the context shows this means finances or support), the extra “honor” these local elders were to receive was for what we call “business expenses” in operating the affairs of the group (1 Timothy 5:17). Paul did not mean that elders should have “double salaries” from what ordinary working members received in order to live “high on the hog.” The elders needed extra money to buy teaching tools such as scrolls and books in order to be proper servants in tending the needs of the people.
The fact is, every illustration given by the apostles in their letters about conducting the affairs of the Ekklesias is within the context of describing local assemblies which had governmental functions and financial affairs conducted in the congregational manner Christ demanded in Matthew 18:15–17. This procedure was to prevent the emergence of a hierarchical form of government from the top down that would rule in all ecclesiastical matters involving members of the Christian faith.
In the first chapter of the Book of Revelation we are told of seven Ekklesias (Revelation 1:11–20) each of which received a letter from the apostle John that came directly from Jesus Christ (Revelation chapters 2 & 3). These Ekklesias were all contemporaneous congregations that existed within the last decade of the 1st century. In a prophetic sense, however, the seven Ekklesias will symbolically be in existence in the generation just before the Second Advent of Christ because each is given a warning about the imminence of Christ’s return. These do not represent seven eras of time from the 1st century to our time today as some people falsely imagine. After all, Christ is shown dwelling in the midst of them all together (Revelation 1:13).
The New Testament description shows that these seven Ekklesias existed contemporaneously. As a matter of fact, they were all located within a geographical circle about a hundred fifty miles radius in scope. It has been said they were all on a single mail route that went from Ephesus successively through the area of each Ekklesia and then back to the starting point at Ephesus. Being close to one another, these seven Ekklesias would have known the other’s beliefs and practices. This is an important point in recognizing if the seven churches had a hierarchical rule.
What does this show in regard to the type of government that ruled the early Ekklesias in the New Testament period? Each description given in the text of these seven Ekklesias shows that they had some different doctrinal beliefs, different prophetic beliefs, different personalities ruling them (mostly for ill), different levels of spiritual growth, different rewards promised to them in the Kingdom, etc. No central government ruled over them. Each Ekklesia seemed to be doing their own thing and it appears they were not overly concerned with what was happening in the other Ekklesias within their limited area.
Some might suggest that if the seven Ekklesias had a strong central government ruling over them, they would not have had the multiple differences that the Bible shows they had. True, but what if that strong central government was the Ephesus Ekklesia? All would have been lacking their first love and putting up with the teachings of false prophets that plagued the Ephesian congregation. This is not the solution to retaining doctrinal and moral purity within a group of Ekklesias. The fact is, in the hierarchical type of government, if the headquarters group goes to a divergent apostasy, then it will lead the rest of the Ekklesias into the same erroneous ways. Of course, if the headquarters group remains pure in its doctrinal teachings, then the rest of the Ekklesias will likely be pure in doctrine too. But what do we have with the seven Ekklesias in the Book of Revelation? There was corruption in some of the main ones and some of the deviations from the truth were serious apostasies from the simple teachings of the Gospel.
What this illustration of the seven Ekklesias in Revelation shows is that each congregation was quite independent of the others, though they knew of each other and no doubt considered all members of the seven Ekklesias as brethren in Christ. These seven Ekklesias of God and Christ in the main went astray from the pristine truths of Christian teaching even as early as the 1st century. Truthfully, it was better for the Ekklesias to be independent because it left some of them the opportunity of staying closer to Christ (like in Smyrna and Philadelphia) rather than the whole group going astray by adopting the “top down rule” of a single Ekklesia as a headquarters slipping into apostasy. Hierarchical church groups ruled from the top down almost always follow the teachings of the so-called headquarters church and will adopt the errors of the top church, like the idolatry and false doctrines that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church embraced in the 4th century. But independent Ekklesias can retain more of the truth among themselves. And in the New Testament we see examples of Ekklesias that show them to be independent from a central headquarters.
The apostle Paul showed clearly that he was independent of all ecclesiastical authority and that included the chief apostles at the Ekklesia in Jerusalem. Notice how vigorous and adamant he was about this matter in the Book of Galatians. He resolutely stated that his apostleship, obtained from Christ to go to the Gentiles, was “not from man, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Galatians 1:10). And when Paul said “not from man,” he made it plain in the context that he meant the men who were the apostles that had been selected by Christ himself. Paul went on to say in his narrative that even the top apostles in Jerusalem had nothing to do with ordaining him to the commission that the Father and Christ gave him. Paul called the Gospel he taught to the Gentiles, “my Gospel” (Romans 2:16; 2 Timothy 2:8). And then he stated:
“But I certify you, brethren, that the Gospel which was preached of me is not after men. For I neither received it of men, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation [a spiritual encounter] of Jesus Christ.”
Paul did not go to Jerusalem to the chief apostles for three years after that revelation, and then he saw only Peter and James, the Lord’s brother, for a short time (Galatians 1:17–20). At no time did those apostles ordain him or give him a charge from their “headquarters.”
As a matter of fact, Paul did not return to Jerusalem in an official way for fourteen years (some seventeen years after Paul had his special calling from the Father and Christ). When he did return he still was not ordained or commissioned by the chief apostles to preach the Gospel that Paul taught the Gentiles.
“When they saw that the Gospel of the uncircumcision was committed [by God] unto me ... they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we [were committed to go] to the Gentiles, and they unto the circumcision.”
Galatians 2:7, 9
All the chief apostles did was to recognize the fact that Paul had been given his commission already from the Father and Christ. They simply acknowledged it. When the apostle Paul and Barnabas were in Jerusalem for this second official meeting (as he made clear to the Galatians) that he did not get any ordination or commission from the chief apostles in Jerusalem in any manner whatsoever. The chief apostles agreed that God the Father and Christ had done the selecting of Paul; and the original apostles simply acknowledged that fact. The apostle Paul never recognized Jerusalem (or any other area) as a “headquarters” Ekklesia for humans.
Even the representatives from James, the Lord’s brother and head of the Ekklesia in Jerusalem, were rebuked by Paul (as well as Peter and Barnabas who followed their erroneous manner) when they objected to the eating habits of the Gentiles which Paul allowed them to practice (Galatians 2:11–14). This action by Paul would have been a transgression of the highest order had a top down hierarchical authority been in operation within the early Christian community. But Paul was not insubordinate. He was simply maintaining the doctrinal purity of the Gospel he was teaching among the Gentiles, which was not under the control of the chief apostles at Jerusalem. This is the precise teaching that Paul was trying to show the Galatians.
Confrontations with the authority of the chief apostles at Jerusalem were not confined to this one instance recorded in the Book of Galatians. The same thing happened several years later in the city of Corinth. Paul complained vociferously that certain people bearing letters of authority from the chief apostles came into Paul’s territory of Corinth and were teaching a form of Gospel that Paul had not taught them. These men indeed taught a Gospel that contained a message about Jesus and His salvation, but it was not the same message that Paul taught.
These men taught a Gospel message that was bringing the Corinthian Gentiles into bondage, was devouring them, was demeaning to them and they were rebuked (2 Corinthians 11:20). The men doing these things to the Corinthians claimed to be high-born Hebrews, top Israelites in social and religious standing (verse 22). But Paul called these Israelites who were encroaching into the territory under his responsibility a bunch of fools (verse 18). Indeed, he called them more than that. He called them nothing less than ministers of Satan the Devil (verses 13–16). Note this. He even said these men were “false apostles and deceitful workers” (verse 13), were wrongly teaching “another Jesus whom we have not preached” (verse 4). And who were these men? They were from “the very chiefest apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11).
It is important to realize that Paul was not identifying these false apostles with the chief apostles themselves. No, it was not the chief apostles in the Jerusalem Ekklesia who were in Corinth teaching the Gentiles who were Paul’s responsibility. But representatives of the chief apostles were taking too much authority to themselves and were encroaching into the territory and responsibility of the apostle Paul. He would have none of it. Paul already said in the previous chapter (2 Corinthians 10:13–18) that he had never gone beyond the measure of geographical and ethnic responsibility given to him by the Father and Christ. He always stayed within the “measure” (that is, the geographical limits) agreed to by all the apostles at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:4–9).
Paul’s geographical assignment was to teach the Gentiles in all of Asia Minor, Greece, Macedonia (Northern Greece), Dalmatia (modern Bosnia-Herzegovina), Italy, Southern Gaul (modern France) and Spain (2 Corinthians 10:16; Romans 15:24, 28). Interestingly, there is considerable historical evidence that the Pudens and Claudia mentioned by Paul in 2 Timothy 4:21 were married and that Claudia was the daughter of the king of Britain known as Cogidubnus. If this is so, then Paul was also teaching the British royal household in his capacity of being the apostle to the Gentiles and that his official responsibility from the Father and Christ reached even to the British Isles. 3
Paul properly boasted that he never stepped outside his geographical limits (measure) assigned to him for teaching what he called “my Gospel” (2 Corinthians 10:15–16). But these “fools,” as Paul called those mentioned in the next chapter, were invading his territory and teaching a “Jesus” to the Gentiles that Paul had not taught them. These men from Judaea were no doubt carrying letters of commendation (like Paul mentioned in 2 Corinthians 3:1 and see Acts 9:2) from the very chiefest of apostles. But Paul said these men were “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13). The Jews fully recognized that a person carrying letters of authority from a person of dignity exercised the same authority as the dignity himself. “A man’s agent is as himself” (Jewish Mishnah Berekoth 5:5). And for their stepping out of the line that was agreed between Paul and the apostles at Jerusalem, Paul called these men “false apostles” and ministers of Satan (verse 15).
Simply put, these men from Jerusalem were teaching outside their jurisdiction. The chief apostles themselves (James, Peter, and John) did not err in this manner. As a matter of fact, the apostle John mentioned that while he sent his representatives into Gentile territories to teach the Jewish brethren, he did not take any support from Gentile Christians because they were at that time outside his jurisdiction (3 John 5–7). The Gentiles belonged to Paul and his group of executives, not to the chief apostles working within the jurisdiction of Jerusalem. It was only in the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (who wanted an imperial type of government in his church) that the concept of government from the top down began within the Christian community. This is the manner in which the Gentile kingdoms ruled.
The Christian Ekklesia should not be ruled with a hierarchical government from a central headquarters. Christ gave no example of this form of government in the Ekklesias. Even with the apostles having extensive powers to establish a proper doctrinal and prophetic basis for Christianity, they were told how they were to rule in their various offices. Christ’s instructions to them are as valid today for leaders in congregations as they ever were. Note what Christ actually taught Christian administrators to do in regard to the exercise of government within a Christian community. It is found in Luke 22:24–30. Christ utterly forbade the hierarchical form of government like the Gentiles were accustomed to using. In Christ’s kind of rule, the greatest ruler was the one who served (or ministered) the most.
Notice how Christ will rule as king over the world when He establishes His kingdom. At first, He will use the authority of a rod of iron in order to put down hostile and rebellious nations (Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). But once the people of the nations become peaceful (as God’s Ekklesia is supposed to be), Christ will not then rule with a rod of iron.
There are many people, however, who believe that Christ is severe in His rule and always governs with a rod of iron. They think that the Kingdom of God is one in which Christ sits on His throne with various underlings around Him who rule like civil servants and military chiefs of the various Gentile nations in the world. Some feel that Christ no longer acts like the humble and contrite person He was on most occasions while on earth, but that in the Kingdom He will always exercise power and authority with the rod of iron and a severity that will make everyone obedient and faithful to Him. In a word, many think that instead of entering Jerusalem on a donkey as in the days of His humiliation, He will always be riding His white horse with resplendent power and authority continually in evidence.
Yes, Christ will indeed have all majesty of power and authority that should be invested in a great King. But we need to ask how will Christ demonstrate His authority once He puts down the rebellious nations with the rod of iron at the beginning of His rule? Actually, Christ will display His absolute and divine authority in a very different way than most people imagine.
This can easily be shown. King David explained God’s rule very well. David said that God as his shepherd will prepare a table full of good food and drink, and God will then dine with him in the presence of David’s enemies (Psalm 23:5). Christ gave the same type of illustration but elaborated on it even more. Christ said He also will come down from His throne, prepare a table of good food for His people and then He will serve them. This is precisely what Christ said to His apostles:
“I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father has appointed unto me; that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.”
But who will serve the food and the drink at Christ’s table? Christ said in the same context: “I am among you as one that serves” (verse 27). Notice that in Christ’s society or in His Kingdom, the King himself will do the serving to those at His table. We will not serve Him. He will serve us. That is how much He loves and cares for each of us.
Note carefully. It was this manner of rulership that Christ commanded his apostles to perform for those who would be under their care (Luke 22:24–30). The one who serves the most will be the greatest in rank and authority. This is the kind of rule that should be in all Ekklesias of God and Christ. Christ demands it!
Christ will set a table for David and serve him. Christ will set a table for the apostles and serve them. Christ will set a table for you and me (alone or together) and serve us. Christ will set a table for the whole world and serve them. That is how the great King of the universe rules His people. He rules by serving them! And we will obey Him by appreciating Him and serving each other.
This is the kind of Kingdom and rule that Jesus Christ will establish. Whereas in Gentile kingdoms, the people serve the king, in God’s Kingdom the King serves the people. This, said Christ, is the kind of rule that must be established in the Ekklesia of God and in God’s Kingdom. It IS NOT rule from the top down, IT IS service from the top down.
When Constantine the Emperor first established the rule in his church from the top down, he modeled it after the imperial government of Rome. He instituted a church government very unlike that commanded by Christ. Constantine simply followed the ways of the Gentiles that Christ abhorred (Luke 22:25). He always believed he was creating a type of Kingdom of God on earth with himself at the head and God’s church alongside ruling the spiritual aspect of that Kingdom. Constantine surmised that Christ was no longer the son of a carpenter who rode on a donkey into Jerusalem, but was a great King and Ruler. Constantine with the help of His church had been selected to rule over Christ’s Kingdom on earth as he imagined Christ now ruled the heavens (with a rod of iron). Constantine forgot Luke 22:24–30. Constantine considered himself the “Vicar of Christ.” The word “Vicar” meant in Latin to be a “Substitute,” to be “in the place of.” In a word, it meant to reign in the place of Christ, while Christ remained in heaven with God.
Now, what does the word “Antichrist” signify in its usage in the New Testament (1 John 2:18; 4:3; 2 John 7)? Though the prefix “anti” can mean “against” (and the future Antichrist will certainly be “against” the teachings of Christ), the prefix actually denotes one who acts as a Vicar of Christ — in the place of Christ. In matters of rule, the term can be applied to anyone who rules on the earth as a Substitute for Christ. This is what Constantine imagined he and his church were doing. So, “Church Authority” became the norm in Christendom (not “Scriptural Authority”) and it became a great curse to mankind. But I hope that we can release mankind from “The Curse of Church Authority,” and return the world to the proper “Scriptural Authority” for all mankind.
1 The Greek has the definite article — “the Apostle.” ELM
2 For clear historical references that show this, see Robert J. Banks, Paul's Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting (Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.,p 1994); Vincent P. Branick, The House Church in the Writings of Paul, Zacchaeus Studies, New Testament (Glazier, 1989); and Philip A. and Phoebe Anderson, The House Church (Abingdon, 1975). ELM
3 See The Pulpit Commentary, vol. XXI, under 2 Timothy 4:21 for more details. This historical information has direct bearing on whether the British people are Gentiles or “lost Israelites.” ELM
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