Wisdom From Our Church Fathers

The Danger of Centralized Authority


 This concept of authority as something that causes another person to “do what you want him to do” is reflected in most definitions. For instance, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language speaks of authority as “a power or right to direct the actions or thoughts of others. Authority is a power or right, usually because of rank or office, to issue commands and to punish for violations.” Again, the root idea seems to be control or direction of the actions of others.

We see this same idea even in sophisticated examinations of authority. For instance, William Oncken, Jr., in a 1970 Colorado Institute of Technology Journal, gives an analysis of authority that suggests it is composed of four elements, but for the purpose of brevity, we will only include one.

The Authority of Position: This component gives you the right to tell someone, “Do it or else.” It has teeth. “The boss wants it” is a bugle call that can snap many an office or shop into action. -William Oncken, Jr., Colorado Institute of Technology Journal 22, July 1970, p. 273.

The second wall that Luther attacks in his 1520 Letter to the Christian Nobility deal with the issue of authority.  In Luther’s words, “The second wall is still more flimsy and worthless. They wish to be the only Masters of The Holy Scriptures, even though in all their lives they learn nothing from them. They assume for themselves sole authority, and with the insolent juggling of words they would persuade us that the pope, whether he is a bad man or a good man, cannot err in matters of faith, and yet they cannot prove a single letter of it.”

Luther’s argument: Quoting from St. Paul in I Corinthians 14:30: “If to anyone something better is revealed, though he be sitting and listening to another in God’s Word, then the first, who is speaking, shall hold his peace and give place.” What would be the use of this commandment if we were only to believe him who does the talking or who has the highest seat? Christ also says in John 6:45 that all Christians shall be taught of God. Thus, it may well happen that the pope and his followers are wicked men, and no true Christians, not taught of God, not having true understanding. On the other hand, an ordinary man may have true understanding; why then should we not follow him? Has not the pope erred many times? Who would help Christendom when the pope errs if we were not to believe another, who had the Scriptures on his side, more than the pope?  Therefore, it is a wickedly invented fable, and they cannot produce a letter in defense of it, that the interpretation of Scripture or the confirmation of its interpretation belongs to the pope alone.

There is a real and present danger when anyone pastor or church leader believe they are without error.  And it is very tempting in life to surround ourselves with people who will agree with our every decision.  No one likes conflict, nor naysayers, nor people who refuse to follow our lead, but the danger of not having people around who will correct our errors is that we may lead people right out of the arms of grace and into a life of rules and requirements.  Paul expressed that concern in Galatians 3:1-4, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?”

To keep the masses in line a leader will impose man-made rules that lead people away from God’s amazing grace.  Leaders need people around them to hold them accountable, not just to do what is right and wrong but to the truth of God’s word. So, to one whom God has given the responsibility to care for His flock, be watchful of the lure of supreme authority.  Only God is without error, cling to His Word, and allow the truth of Scripture to be your guide.



Wisdom From Our Church Fathers

Is the Church’s Authority Over​ the State?

Gavel and Justice.
Wooden gavel and American flag with room for your type.

This series is based on the work of Dr. Martin Luther in a 1520 Letter to the Christian nobility.  In that pamphlet, Luther warns of dangers of church leadership that has so much power and influence it is above reproach and reform.  You may have seen this in your church or your church body.  A charismatic leader rises to power, or a small group of leaders reaches a point where they have gained influence of the masses and then claim supreme authority.  The Roman Catholic church in Luther’s time had achieved this point.  In 1500 the Roman Catholic Church was all powerful in western Europe. There was no legal alternative. Having reached this point, the Catholic Church oppressively guarded its position and anybody who they deemed a threat to the Church was labeled a heretic and burnt at stake. The Catholic Church did not tolerate any deviance from its teachings as any appearance of ‘compromise’ might have been interpreted as a sign of weakness which would be exploited.

To address this dangerous culture Luther attack the church on three fronts.  In this post, we will study the first one.

Luther’s First Attack: The secular authorities have made decrees saying that the temporal power has no jurisdiction over the church, but, nor is the spiritual above the temporal power.

Luther’s argument: It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests, and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy.  To make it still clearer. If a little group of pious Christian laymen were taken captive and set down in a wilderness, and had among them no priest consecrated by a bishop, and if there in the wilderness they were to agree in choosing one of themselves, married or unmarried, and were to charge him with the office of baptizing, saying mass, absolving and preaching, such a man would be as truly a priest as though all bishops and popes had consecrated him. That is why in cases of necessity anyone can baptize and give absolution, which would be impossible unless we were all priests.

Luther’s point was that the Pope, priests, and bishops who called themselves “spiritual” as a way to place themselves above the ordinary people in the pews did not differ from other Christians. Their calling, their vocation did not make them superior to the people they were called to serve.  The only distinction is they were charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office.  Their work while vital is not a higher work than the farmer, or the banker, or the school teacher, or the mechanic.  Each person has a vocation, a mission, that must benefit and serve the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community.

Luther quotes these verses from Paul and Peter.  Roman 13:1, 4 “Let every soul (I take that to mean the pope’s soul also) be subject unto the higher powers; for they bear not the sword in vain, but are the ministers of God for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.” 1 Peter 2:13, 15 “Submit yourselves unto every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, for so is the will of God.”

Each of us is called, as members of one body, to serve one another, none is above the other, but we all have an important role in the body of Christ.