The Path of Denominationalism: Authority in the Church

Previously we examined the concept of a denomination as being an institution, or an organizational structure that exists independently of any individuals. We saw from the Scriptures that the church that Christ established was not to resemble such institutions but ought to remain simply the collective of Christians that exist (the “church universal”) or a collective of Christians that live in a specific geographical level (the “church local”). Let us now continue the discussion of the path of denomination where we left off and discuss the ways that authority is viewed within denominations and, if necessary, how to avoid such perceptions.

All denominations will certainly claim that their authority is derived from the Scriptures and that they are the church that is presented in them; the truth of the matter, however, is more often than not much different. They may use the Scriptures and quote Scriptures to demonstrate their belief, but are their beliefs actually from the Bible or are they placed upon the Bible by the ideas of men? In practice, we may see that many denominations will use one of two different sources for authority: for simplicity’s sake, let us call these two sources a “cult of personality” and “collective determination.”

We may define a “cult of personality” as the belief in the words of an individual or a collective of individuals that are believed to possess authority through an understanding that they may have received of through power supposedly granted by virtue of a position held. We see the first kind of a “cult of personality,” one or more who have received some form of understanding, in many groups that were founded by an individual or a group of individuals because of such ideas, like the Lutheran church or the many Calvinist churches that exist today. The members of these churches say that the Scriptures are their sole authority in their lives, yet the Lutherans consider the Book of Concord as authoritative, for example, and the Calvinists will often refer to the works of Calvin or other men like him for their belief system. The second kind of a “cult of personality,” involving power that supposedly is derived from a position held, is seen most clearly in groups with an “ecclesiastical hierarchy,” such as the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England. The “bishops” and other figures in these churches are seen as figures of authority, supposedly given the authority that was vested in Peter in Matthew 16:19:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Therefore, the members of these denominations look up to these individuals as those holding keys of authority and will believe and do whatever these individuals tell them to do.

We may define “collective determination” as the belief in the authority of a decision made when reached by a collective of individuals that represent the members of a denomination. This is seen especially in many Protestant denominations today, with “synods” of the “pastors” and other such individuals in a denomination meeting to make decisions and statements that are binding upon the whole denomination. Often times it will be said that these are not meetings of the denomination necessarily, but a meeting of the heads of individual “churches” that meet to determine what is truth, supposedly similar to the events of Acts 15. In reality, a meeting of the heads of various churches of a denomination to determine what is truth and a meeting of the heads of churches for the same reason is the exact same idea and really the exact same thing.

Now that we have examined our terms, do we see that the church ought to place its authority in a “cult of personality” or in a “collective determination?” Let us see if it is so.

Many may appeal to the account in Acts 15 about the meeting of the elders of Jerusalem and of the Apostles, yet this meeting was nothing like what goes on today: in Jerusalem, only the church of Jerusalem had representatives, and the decisions made in that meeting were not of the volition of the elders or the Apostles but of the Holy Spirit.

Others may point to 1 Timothy 3:15, especially in defense of “collective determination”:

but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.

It is argued that since the church is the pillar and support of the truth, the decisions made by the church are the truth. This verse says no such thing, however– it simply states that the church, the true collective of Christians that follow Christ and are known to Him, are the pillar and support of the truth. They do not receive the truth by being a part of the church, but are a part of the church because they have learned the truth and rejoice in it.

The Scriptures teach in Colossians 3:17 where the authority for the Christian lay:

Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

We are told further about where the authority for the Christian’s actions are in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

These truths are further exemplified by the attitude of Luke toward the Bereans in Acts 17:11:

Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.

We have seen that the Scriptures have spoken: we must not do any action while on Earth unless it is done by the authority of the Lord Jesus. We read about His will and desire for us in the Scriptures, and we must examine the Scriptures to confirm the words that we shall hear.

Unfortunately, Christians are always in danger of following after either a “cult of personality” or a “collective determination.” Many times we will look back and consider certain preachers or such men from the past with high esteem and will use his words almost as if they are authoritative because that individual spoke them. Some may even do this with individuals yet living, believing that a preacher or an elder perhaps is such a great Christian that whatever he says must be true. I have seen many times that Christians believe that a practice is justifiable because the elders of their local congregation have approved the action and therefore it must be okay. It is also very possible for Christians to believe something to be true or to believe that a practice ought not be done because every other Christian in their local area believes it. Brethren, we must constantly make sure that we do not walk down the path of denominationalism by following after the beliefs of an individual or believing something because everyone else believes it– if we are going to believe that something is true and right in the sight of God, we must do so because we have searched the Scriptures to see if it is so, and that we may perform the action in confidence that it is done properly in the name of our Lord.

ELDV

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