What is the power of the church, and the source of her authority? The church is the body and bride of Christ. He is her head, both organically and administratively. He is the source of her life, and He is her sovereign King. Such authority as the church has, she receives from Christ. He grants that authority through Scripture and in terms of Scripture. The church has no authority or power apart from the Word of God, and certainly no authority above the Word of God.
The church’s power is spiritual. She does not wield the sword or the rod. These belong to the state and the family respectively. The church wields spiritual weapons: the Word of God, the sacraments, and prayer. Any monies, properties, or technologies she may employ must serve her use of these spiritual weapons. We cannot make the church a political machine, a business corporation, or an entertainment enterprise. When we try, we actually vitiate her power.
Respect for church authority means humility and meekness. It means daring to think we can be wrong, that we might need help. Ultimately, it means obedience to Jesus Christ.
A Threefold Power
Theologians have described three facets or dimensions of church power — the prophetic, the kingly, and the priestly.
The church has been entrusted with the Word of God. She is to preserve it, teach it, and preach it. She is to tell the world what it means: to write creeds and confessions that accurately reflect the teaching of Scripture.1
The church has the authority to carry out Christ’s commandments with respect to her mission. She is to do what Jesus says. Where He has given only general commandments (worship on the Lord’s Day, for example), she is to settle any necessary details (times, location, and order of worship).
The church has judicial authority. Jesus granted His apostles the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the right to open and shut His Kingdom. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” describes the significance of lawful church discipline. The decisions and judgments of church officers, when they lawfully exercise their authority in accordance with God’s Word, have already been pronounced in heaven. Christ has made these officers a lawful tribunal for that purpose. This is why their decisions are valid, and must be obeyed in conscience.
The Royal Priesthood and Its Officers
This threefold power belongs to all of God’s people. Like Israel, the church is a “kingdom of priests.” She constitutes a “royal priesthood.” In the broader work of ministry and discipline, each of her members plays a vital role.
Nonetheless, Christ has given His church officers. Scripture speaks of the spiritual gifts of ruling and teaching, of governments and helps. It lists specific qualifications for two offices, elder (or bishop), and deacon.2
Elders are the shepherds and overseers of Christ’s church. Their authority is ministerial. Peter warns elders not to act as “lords over God’s heritage.” Though the elders receive their office through the consent of the local congregation, their authority comes directly from Christ. They are His ambassadors, His agents.
Christians are to take the authority of their elders as seriously as they do that of the civil magistrate. Hebrews charges us: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls….” Those words obey and submit do not go down well in post-modern America, but the words are God’s.
The Church and God’s Other Governments
The church, then, is a government. It is distinct from the other governments God has ordained, but its authority and responsibilities coordinate with theirs. The church’s power reaches beyond Sunday morning, and her elders will often work closely with the family and the state.
Such an understanding of the church naturally raises questions. Here are three:
1) Shouldn’t the authority of the church assume liberty of conscience in light of the principle of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)? That depends. Conscience is hardly infallible, and sola Scriptura, at least in the Reformed tradition, does not involve a rejection of legitimate human authority.3 The man who glibly ignores his pastor’s sermon with the protest, “That’s only his opinion,” is not thinking Biblically. Neither is the woman who writes off her church’s confession with the excuse, “Those are only man’s words.”4
The church, primarily through her officers, does have the authority to tell her members and the world what the Bible says. And while the church may err, we are to be slow and careful in challenging her decisions — particularly where we have sworn to submit to her confessions.
“God does not call His people to be schismatics, rending the church apart on account of every issue of private judgment.”5 Our consciences are bound to the Word of God, but the Word that speaks so clearly to us has spoken just as clearly to the rest of the church…and for a lot longer.
2) Doesn’t the training and nurture of covenant children belong to the family rather than the church? This is a false dilemma. Of course, the church has no business administering spankings or micromanaging family devotions. The father is the head of the home, and he with his wife is responsible for the nurture and discipline of their children.
But the children are also members of Christ’s church. The church has a responsibility to teach and preach God’s Word to them as well as to their parents. It also has the responsibility to decide, within the absolutes of Scripture, how it can do that most effectively. If the children partake of the Lord’s Supper, they fall even more immediately under the jurisdiction of the elders. The elders, not the parents, oversee the Table.
We can’t have it both ways — insist on the sacraments, but reject the church’s instruction and discipline.
3) Should pastors and elders meddle in political matters? If this means, “Should the institutional church run the civil government?” No. But the church is bound to declare the whole Word of God, and quite a bit of it deals with civil government. David, Paul, and John the Baptist spoke God’s Word before kings without apology. The civil magistrate is God’s minister. Both as a private citizen and public official, he needs to hear what God requires of him. If this is meddling, the church needs to make the most of it.
1. Greg Uttinger, “Creedal Christianity” and “The Nicene Creed,” Christianity 101: The Theology of the Ancient Creeds in the Chalcedon web page archive.
2. Deacons are the elders’ assistants and, in harmony with Acts 6:2-4, are usually entrusted with the church’s works of mercy and charity.
3. Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001).
4. Of course, these excuses are silly as well as unbiblical: the man and woman here are giving us their own opinions and using man’s words to do so.
5. Mathison, 272.