IN SEARCH OF AUTHORITY
When we speak of Bible authority in matters of faith, we must be careful. If we are not, we will be binding laws—our laws—where God has not made any law. If we are honest, we will wake up one day and see our own inconsistencies, and then discover that we have been behaving hypocritically. At the same time, however, if we do not use the Bible as our sole authority in matters of faith, then we manifest our disrespect for the word of God, if not our rejection of its teaching, which thing the religious leaders of Jesus’ day did. He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God so that you may keep your own tradition” (Mk 7:9). Therefore, though there are many areas of freedom in which we have the right to determine how we can carry out the mandates of God, our source for obedience in matters of faith must always be the word of God.
Everyone has a reason for their religious beliefs and behavior. We believe and do according to that for which we have authority. We seek authority from God for our beliefs and behavior simply because we want to do what we feel God wants us to believe and behave. There are several sources of authority that religious people use as the foundation upon which they establish their beliefs and behavior. Each of the following sources of authority are not rooted in the word of God, and thus, they are sources of authority that lead one away from God. They do so because they are authorities that seek to have priority over anything that is revealed in the word of God. One may have the Bible in his religiosity, but if the Bible is not consulted as a reference for determining final authority, then one is led away from God by that which he considers to have priority in his life.
I. Subjective authority:
Subjectivism in the realm of religion is when one considers his emotions or feelings as validation for his religious beliefs. In other words, “if it feels right, then it must be right.” One may firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is directing his feelings, and thus, he assumes that the Spirit is validating his religiosity by a direct manipulation of his emotions. Take the Holy Spirit out of the religious experience, or one’s claim to believe in Jesus, and thus in the “non-Christian” world, subjectivism would be the authority for witches and sorcerers. Through emotional incantations, such people have subdued themselves and others to what can be conjured up in the mind. And by doing such, they have sought to impose their beliefs and behavior upon their followers. When Paul and Barnabas passed through the island of Cyprus, they encountered such a person. “They found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus” (At 13:6). Philip also encountered a subjectivist in the city of Samaria by the name of Simon. Simon “practiced magic and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he was someone great” (At 8:9). As a result, Simon became the authority of their religiosity. “They all, from the least to the greatest, gave heed to him, saying, ‘This man is the great power of God’” (At 8:10).
Religious authority that is based on the subjective feelings and emotions of man is one of the most difficult systems of authority to change in reference to our subjection to the mandates of the word of God. Subjectivism is narcissistic in that man is the center of reference for one’s religious faith as opposed to the influence of God through His word.
Inevitably, subjectivism leads to religious anarchy and division among fellow subjectivists. It produces religious chaos in that everyone seeks to do that which is right in his own eyes. It is the same religious chaos that is pictured in Judges 17:6: “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did what was right in his own eyes.” When Israel initially went into the land of promise, God warned them concerning this religious behavior. “You will not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (Dt 12:8). In order to guard them against moving into subjective religiosity, God condemned the practices of divination, spiritism, witches and similar practices among the Israelites (See Ex 20:4,5; Lv 19:26,31; Dt 4:15-19; 18:9-14).
The reason subjectivism is not a valid authority in matters of faith is that it is simply “not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jr 10:23). Those who would subject themselves to their own emotions in reference to religious authority, will certainly lead themselves astray from God (See 2 Tm 4:3). If one would serve God, then he must seek that which is from God. For this reason, the will of God was written in order that we have a validation for our faith that is above and beyond our own selves.
II. Autistic authority:
The dictionary defines “autistic” as “a state of mind characterized by daydreaming, hallucinations, and disregard of external reality.” In reference to the reality of what the Bible says, the autistic individual continues to believe exactly what he wants to believe, regardless of what the Bible says. This tendency to see, hear and believe what we want is to some degree characteristic with everyone. If one has little regard for the Bible, then the autistic thinking of the individual is out of control in reference to any authority that comes from God through His word. Autistic authority places man at the center of his source of authority.
What people perceive to be reality, or that which they accept as the authority for their faith, depends a great deal on their spiritual and emotional needs. It is for this reason that reality is often masked by what one wants to see and hear. This is a particular problem in reference to the preceding point concerning emotional subjectivism. If one concludes that his emotional experiences are directly caused by the Holy Spirit, then it is almost impossible for that person to have an objective understanding of any statements of Scripture that might contradict either his beliefs or behavior. The subjectivist is often autistic in that he rejects scriptural reality for the sake of emotion, or allows emotion to override reality.
What usually occurs is that the autistic interpreter submits his understanding of Scripture to that which he seeks in order to fulfill personal needs. If the Scriptures state something that is contrary to his desires at the time, then he concludes that he is not properly understanding a particular passage. Since the authority of his faith is based on what he personally desires, then he sees only that which conforms to his desires. He will often randomly open the Bible at any location, and from reading a random passage, conclude that the Scriptures were speaking directly to him concerning his need at the time. What often happens in this case, is that he will twist the passage to conform to his desires or needs at the time of reading.
The autistic interpreter inherently twists the Scriptures. This would be the interpreter about whom Peter wrote concerning things that Paul wrote “in his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which those who are untaught and unstable distort to their own destruction, as they do also the other Scriptures” (2 Pt 3:16). Autistic interpreters always find the Bible hard to understand, and thus, they continually twist the Scriptures. The Bible is difficult for them to understand simply because that which they desire is often not plainly taught in the Scriptures. When one approaches the word of God with the desire to find a solution for his own problems, then certainly he will often read into a passage that which a particular passage may never have stated. The autistic interpreter simply reads into the Bible what he wants to know. He is not objectively reading the Bible in order to discover solutions for his situation. He comes to the Bible with preconceived conclusions without allowing the Bible to reveal God’s conclusions. He speaks for the Bible instead of allowing the Bible to speak for itself.
When a particular statement of Scripture is pointed out that contradicts the beliefs of the autistic interpreter, he will often respond to the one who points out the correct understanding, by saying, “Are you saying ….” The autistic interpreter seeks to dodge what he wants a scripture to state by assuming that the correct teaching of the scripture has originated from the one who pointed out the inconsistent interpretation. It is very difficult for the autistic interpreter to allow the Bible to mean what it says and say what it means. His first source of authority for what the Bible says is his own self-seeking beliefs and desires.
III. Traditional authority:
We seek to show our respect for our fathers by keeping the traditions of their faith. This is only natural. In fact, the authority of the traditions of our fathers is almost always stronger in our faith than any mandates of the word of God. This is certainly true when those of any religious persuasion stop studying their Bibles. Or, it is true when the adherents of a particular religion turn their knowledge of the Bible over to the clergy of the group whom they have programmed through seminary training to maintain the traditions of the fathers.
This was the problem that the disciples of Jesus encountered with the religious leaders of the Jews. On one occasion, the Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus, complaining, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders …” (Mk 7:5). What the disciples had failed to do was wash their hands before they ate. Jesus used the occasion to judge the authority of the religious leaders’ beliefs and behavior. He first identified the authority of their religion by saying, “In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mk 7:7). The problem with teaching “as doctrines the commandments of men” is that the doctrines of men almost always override the doctrines of God. Listen to what Jesus said: “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men …” (Mk 7:8). This system of religious authority does not stop with the binding of the authority of the fathers. Jesus continued, “All too well you reject the commandment of God so that you may keep your own tradition” (Mk 7:9).
The Jewish religious leaders manifested their disrespect for the word of God by elevating the religious traditions of their fathers over the word of God. The traditions became doctrine, and then the doctrine of men led them to reject the commandment of God. It was at this time in their digression from the authority of the word of God that Paul referred to their faith as the “Jew’s religion,” (Judaism) a religion in which he excelled before he came to Jesus (See Gl 1:13,14). When men allow the traditions of the fathers to become the doctrines of men, then they can no longer claim that they are of Christianity, for the validation of their faith is not the word of Christ, but the word of the fathers.
IV. Apostolic succession authority:
This source of authority supposes that Jesus gave personal authority to the apostles, particularly Peter. This personal authority was then passed on from the apostles to those the apostles personally chose. These chosen men personally passed on the authority from generation to generation through the ordained officials of the church. The church, and the officials thereof, became the authority for belief and behavior of the members.
The supposed authority that was given to the apostles by Jesus was passed on to their successors, and eventually, it has arrived in our day as the authority of the church. This is a similar principle of religious authority as the preceding point, wherein the religious leaders of the Jews established authority according to the traditions of the fathers. But the added emphasis of apostolic succession authority is that the living officials of the church have the right to establish mandates for the church today. What the officials of the church teach according to their majority vote, therefore, becomes the official mandate for obedience by the church. This means that the teachings of the church can change throughout history as circumstances and culture change.
The fallacy of the teaching that authority is established by the church lies in the fact that the Bible can never be a final authority. The faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints must change (See Jd 3). Those who promote this teaching suppose that church officials today have a right to change the word of God. In fact, this system of religious authority places the Bible in a time warp wherein its principles are not applicable outside their relevance in the first century. A good example of this is revealed in the change from immersion to sprinkling in reference to the mode of baptism. Cardinal Gibbons, in his book, Faith of Our Fathers, wrote,
For several centuries after the establishment of Christianity, Baptism was usually conferred by immersion; but since the twelfth century the practice of Baptizing by infusion [sprinkling] has prevailed in the Catholic Church, as this manner is attended with less inconvenience than Baptism by immersion.
What happened was that the Catholic Church assumed the authority to change the mode of baptism to sprinkling. And since the officials of the church are supposedly functioning from “authority by succession” from the apostles, then they have the right to change the mandates of the Bible.
Before anyone becomes somewhat irritated with this system of establishing authority, he should look around and make a note of all the traditional practices and particular names of various churches that are commonly accepted among the networks of churches that adhere to common doctrines and names of men. If one sought to change something that is commonly practiced among a particular denomination, the statement could be made, “That is just not the way it has been done.” This too, is a system of allowing the majority of “the church” to have the right to establish authority in matters of belief and behavior.
V. Autocratic authority:
This system of establishing authority is centered around either an individual or group of individuals. It is usually oriented around one specific group. Peter explained in 1 Peter 5 the origin of this system of authority that would arise among the people of God. He exhorted the shepherds not to be “lords over those entrusted to you …” (1 Pt 5:3). This is a system of authority of which Paul spoke to the shepherds of Ephesus during his final visit with them. “Also from your own selves will men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (At 20:30).
Individuals who assume authority over a particular group of disciples are behaving autocratically. Such was the autocratic behavior of Diotrephes who loved to be first among the disciples (3 Jn 9). In order to maintain his position of authority, he slandered those whom he thought would be in competition with him (3 Jn 10). In fact, he threatened to excommunicate from the fellowship of the disciples those who would not submit to his authority. Those over whom he had assumed authority, therefore, submitted to his authority in fear of being disfellowshipped from the body. When one rules with autocratic authority, he steals away from the people their total submission to God.
When any system of authority is brought into the church from the world, and bound on the disciples, then the disciples are headed into apostasy, if not already there. Since religious authority that originates from man is determined by man, then those who submit to such authority are headed in the direction to which the group of men are going, or in the case of a single person, the people are moving in the direction of that one person. Notice that this was behind the words of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:1 when he was speaking to a group of disciples who had allowed themselves to be brought under the influence of some arrogant leaders: “Be imitators of me even as I also am of Christ.”
The fact that we do not call ourselves Paulites today proves that Paul was successful in directing the minds of the disciples in the direction of Jesus Christ. We know numerous churches today who are called after the man who originated the group. Some even identify a particular group to be, for example, “Pastor John’s church.” But when preachers allow others to call themselves after them, then they have failed to be leaders for Jesus.
We must keep in mind that when men start following the authority of men, then the followers are on their way away from God. It was for this reason that Jesus mandated one very important principle when it came to establishing the leadership of His disciples. We respect the word of Jesus because we do not overlook this point.
You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them. And their great ones exercise authority over them. But it will not be so among you (Mk 10:42,43).