The Curse of Church Authority
by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., 1995
There is a big difference between the words "Scriptural Authority" and what people today call "Church Authority." The first phrase refers to the authority that pertains to humans which is written within 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. There are some people today who 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 in their words 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 what is 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" is one that 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 first 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 even had control over the determination of what represented sin and what did not in Godís 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 the Christians in Corinth represented nothing less than the commandments of God (I Corinthians 14:37). This shows that the apostles had a great deal of personal authority in order to teach the Gospel to the world. But once the Gospel was fully revealed and recorded in the New Testament, it was not necessary that those apostolic powers be transferred in the future to men who would rule the assembly of Christians from the top down in a hierarchical form of government.
It ought to be selfevident why the early apostles were given such extensive powers. They had the responsibility of writing the New Testament and sanctifying it for the use of Christians for all future time (II 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 ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn [the Second Advent of Christ], and the day star arise in your hearts" (II Peter 1:19). Yes, Christians are to take heed to 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 the 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 farreaching 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. Indeed, only a very special group of people were selected by Christ to be apostles who were to assume such awesome and vast powers in order to establish the doctrines and prophecies of Christendom and to formulate the body of writings that came to be called 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; I Corinthians 9:1). They also had to have many extraordinary signs and miracles associated with their ministries (II 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 Christís 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. It ought to be 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 which are 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 in the group 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 that their only head was Christ himself (Ephesians 5:23,24). All of them 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." See 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 but Christ. "There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (I Timothy 2:5). No one is to rule between you and Christ.
The government to rule this Christian society of equals was to be what we call today a "congregational" type, and certainly not an 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 to the injured person to 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 brotherís repentance, then Christ said to take the matter to the ekklesia (wrongly translated "church" in the King James Version). See Matthew 18:15-17.
The ekklesia which Christ referred to is a Greek word which 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 (which is 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 shows that the type of ekklesia that He envisioned for His Christian community was made up of local centers which would handle the affairs of societal government among His people. Note that Christ showed and allowed only a little governmental control or actions that were needed in the ekklesia. His classic illustration of ecclesiastical rule started at the lowest level of participation that any of us can witnessóthe reconciliation of an argument between two individuals. He then expanded it to two or three others becoming involved, and finally it was the whole of the ekklesia itself becoming a part of any final decision. Christ saw no need for any appeals beyond that of the local ekklesia. Obviously, by referring the case finally to the totality of the ekklesia means that Christ was limiting 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 not to be any appeal beyond the local group.
This congregational type of local rule is shown in a practical sense in the New Testament and in the early history of Christianity. We should bear in mind the historical examples of the early ekklesias that we have records about in the New Testament. Note that it was normal for Christians to assemble in the private homes of people (Romans 16:5; I 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 the groups assembling together for celebration and teaching (I Corinthians 14:23). And after the New Testament period, history shows without doubt that for the period from the first century and on through the whole of the second century, Christians met in individual homes for worship and teaching (for the historical references that show this, see "The House Church in the Writings of Paul," by Vincent Branick, Glazier, 1989 and "The House Church," Philip and Phoebe Anderson, Abingdon, 1975). Surely, ekklesias meeting in the private homes of prominent people shows that little governmental force was being exercised to rule the members. It was a type of "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 which was represented in the homes of prominent Christian leaders usually had one overseer with a few deacons and certain women who helped in social matters involving the membership (I 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 have to collect donations to give to an apostle or apostles who were sent to teach them, though the apostles and other Christian teachers had a right to be supported by the ekklesias (Philippians 4:15-19; II Thessalonians 3:8,9; Titus 3:13). Each ekklesia raised its own finances in which to function properly and no one had to send their contributions to Jerusalem or Rome and receive back from some socalled "headquarters" the funds to operate. All of the commands that Paul gave in his various letters to individual ekklesias, were directed solely to govern local affairs of those groups. Indeed, the only moneys and commodities that people sent to Jerusalem were for the poor Christians who found it difficult to survive adequately when Sabbatical Years were in evidence (I Corinthians 16:13). These donations were alms, not funds with which to operate the ekklesia in all areas of the world. And though Paul said that elders who ruled well should be counted as worthy of "double honor" (and the context shows this means finances or support), the extra "honor" which these local elders were to receive was for what we call "business expenses" in operating the affairs of the group (I Timothy 5:17). Paul did not mean that elders should have "double salaries" from what the ordinary working members received in order to live "high on the hog." The elders needed extra moneys 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 given within the context of describing local assemblies which had their governmental functions and financial affairs conducted in the congregational manner that Christ demanded in Matthew 18:15-17. This procedure would prevent the emergence of an hierarchical form of government from the top down that would rule in all ecclesiastical matters involving members of the Christian faith. And the New Testament shows this.
In the first chapter of the Book of Revelation we are told of seven ekklesias (Revelation 1:1120) each of which received a letter from the apostle John that had come directly from Jesus Christ (Revelation chapters 2 & 3). These ekklesias were all contemporaneous congregations that existed within the last decade of the first century. In a prophetic sense, the seven ekklesias will symbolically be in existence in the generation just before the Second Advent of Christ because each of them is given a warning about the imminence of Christís return. These do not represent seven eras of time from the first 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 were existing together in a contemporaneous way. 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. These seven ekklesias were all close to one another and they would have known the otherís beliefs and practices.
Now, what does this show in regard to the type of government that ruled the early ekklesias in the New Testament period? Each of the descriptions given in the text of these seven ekklesias shows that each of them 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. There was no central government ruling over them. Everyone of them seemed to be doing their own thing and it appears that they were not overly concerned with what was happening in the other ekklesias located within their limited area.
Some people might suggest that if the seven ekklesias had a strong central government ruling over them, then 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? Then all of them 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 into a divergent apostasy, then it will lead the rest of the ekklesias in its charge into the same erroneous ways. Of course, if the headquarters group remains pure in its doctrinal teachings, then the rest of the ekklesias under their charge will most likely be pure in doctrine too. But what do we have with the seven ekklesias in western Asia Minor that we find 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 the fact that each of the congregations was quite independent of the others, though they knew of each otherís existence and they no doubt considered all the members of the seven ekklesias as brethren in Christ. Indeed, these were seven ekklesias of God and Christ which in the main had gone astray from the pristine truths of Christian teaching even as early as the first century. Truthfully, it was better for the ekklesias to be independent because it left a few of them the opportunity of staying closer to Christ (like in Smyrna and Philadelphia) than having the whole group go astray by adopting the "top down rule" of a single ekklesia as a headquarters which had slipped into apostasy. Hierarchical church groups who rule from the top down almost always follow the teachings of the socalled headquarters church and they will adopt the errors of the top church, like the idolatry or false doctrines that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church embraced in the fourth century. But independent ekklesias can retain more of the truth among themselves. And in the New Testament, we see that the examples of the ekklesias show them to be independent from a central headquarters.
The apostle Paul made it abundantly clear 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 very matter in the Book of Galatians. He resolutely stated that his apostleship, which he 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 to him. Paul called the Gospel he taught to the Gentiles: "my Gospel" (Romans 2:16; II 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" (Galatians 1:11,12). Indeed, Paul said he never went to Jerusalem to the chief apostles for three years, and only then he saw Peter and James, the Lordís brother for a short time (Galatians 1:17-20). And even then, the chief apostles did not ordain him or give him a commission from their "headquarters."
As a matter of fact, even fourteen years later (some seventeen years after Paul had his special calling from the Father and Christ) did Paul return to Jerusalem in an official way, and when he did, he still was not ordained or commissioned by the chief apostles to preach the Gospel that Paul taught the Gentiles. All the chief apostles did was to recognize that Paul had in fact been given his commission already from the Father and Christ and they simply acknowledged it. "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).
When the apostle Paul and Barnabas were in Jerusalem for this second official meeting some seventeen years after Paulís conversion and commission from the Father and Christ, he was making it 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 simply agreed that God the Father and Christ had done the selecting of Paul and the original apostles were simply acknowledging this fact. The apostle Paul never recognized Jerusalem (or any other area) as a "headquarters" ekklesia for humans.
Even the representatives from James, the Lordís brother, who was head of the ekklesia in Jerusalem, were rebuked by Paul (as well as Peter and Barnabas who followed them in 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 caliber had there been a hierarchical authority from the top down in operation within the early Christian community. But Paul was not insubordinate. He was simply maintaining the doctrinal purity of the Gospel which he was teaching among the Gentiles and that Gospel was not under the control of the chief apostles at Jerusalem. This is the precise teaching that Paul is trying to show the Galatians. He was saying that he and the Gospel that he preached was not under the authority of James, Peter or any of the other chief apostles at the ekklesia in Jerusalem.
This confrontation with the authority of the chief apostles at Jerusalem was 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 had come into Paulís territory of Corinth and were teaching a form of Gospel that Paul had not taught them. These men were teaching a Gospel that contained a message about Jesus and his salvation, but it was not the same message that Paul had taught to the Corinthian Gentiles. These men were teaching a Gospel message to the Corinthian Gentiles that was bringing them into bondage, it was devouring them, it was demeaning to them, and they were being hit in the face with rebuke (II Corinthians 11:20). These 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 his territory and under his responsibility as a bunch of fools (verse 18). Indeed, he called them more than that. He called them nothing less than that they were ministers of Satan the Devil (verses 13-16). And note this. He even said that these men were "false apostles and deceitful workers" (verse 13) who were teaching "another Jesus whom we have not preached" (verse 4). And who were these men? They were representatives of "the very chiefest apostles" (II Corinthians 11:5; 12:11).
It is important to realize that Paul was not calling these false apostles the chief apostles themselves. No, it was not the chief apostles in the Jerusalem ekklesia who were in Corinth and teaching the Gentiles who were Paulís responsibility. But it was the representatives of the chief apostles who were taking too much authority unto themselves and they were encroaching into the territory and responsibility of the apostle Paul, and he would have none of it. He had already said in the previous chapter (II Corinthians 10:13-18) that Paul had never gone beyond the measure of geographical and ethnic responsibility that had been given to him by the Father and Christ. He always stayed within the "measure" (that is, the geographical limits) that was agreed to by all the apostles at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:49).
The geographical assignment that became Paulís was to teach the Gentiles in all of Asia Minor, Greece, Macedonia (Northern Greece), Dalmatia (modern BosniaHerzegovina), Italy, Southern Gaul (modern France) and Spain (II Corinthians 10:16; Romans 15:24,28). Interestingly, there is considerable historical evidence that the Pudens and Claudia mentioned by Paul in II Timothy 4:21 were married and that Claudia was the daughter of the king of Britain known as Cogidubnus. If this is so, and there is reason to believe that the historical records sustain it, 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 (see "The Pulpit Commentary," vol.XXI, under II Timothy 4:21 for more details). This historical information has a bearing on whether the British people are Gentiles or "lost Israelites."
Paul was properly boasting that he had never stepped outside his geographical limits (measure) assigned to him for the teaching of what he called "my Gospel" (II Corinthians 10:15,16). But these "fools" (as Paul called them) that Paul 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 II Corinthians 3:1 and see Acts 9:2) from the very chiefest of apostles. But Paul said these men were "false apostles" (II Corinthians 11:13). The Jews recognized that a person carrying letters of authority from a person of dignity exercised the same authority as the dignity himself. "A manís agent is as himself" (Jewish Mishnah Berekoth 5:5). And for their stepping out of line that was agreed between the apostles at Jerusalem and Paul, Paul simply called these men "false apostles." Indeed, he went further than that and called them 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 was sending 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 (III John 5:7). The Gentiles belonged to Paul and his group of executives, not to the chief apostles who were then working within the jurisdiction of Jerusalem.
It was only in the time of Constantine, the Roman Emperor (who wanted an imperial type of government in his church) that the concept of government from the top down got started within the Christian community. This is the manner in which the Gentile kingdoms ruled.
The Christian ekklesia should not be ruled with an hierarchical government from a central headquarters. Christ gave no example that this was the way the government in the ekklesia should function. Even with the apostles having extensive powers as they did to establish a proper doctrinal and prophetic basis for Christianity, they were told how they were to rule in their various offices. And believe me, Christís 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 Christís kind of rule, the greatest ruler was the one who served (or ministered) the most.
Let us notice how Christ will rule as the king over the world when He establishes His kingdom based on Luke 22:24-30. 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 Godís ekklesia is supposed to be at all times), Christ will not have to 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 the civil servants and military chiefs of the various Gentile nations that are in the world. Some people feel that Christ no longer acts like the humble and contrite person He was on most occasions while He was on earth, but that in the Kingdom He will always be exercising His power and authority with the rod of iron and with 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 the majesty of power and authority that should be invested in a great King such as He will be, but we need to ask how Christ will demonstrate His authority once He has put down the rebellious nations with the rod of an 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. David explained Godís 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 Davidís enemies (Psalm 23:5). Christ gave the same type of illustration but elaborated on it even more. Christ said that 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 hath appointed unto me; that ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom" (Luke 22:29,30). But who will do the serving of the food and the drink at Christís table? Christ said in the same context: "I am among you as one that serveth" (verse 27). Notice that in Christís 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 the care of the apostles (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 the 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 King and rule that Jesus Christ will establish in His Kingdom. Whereas in Gentile kingdoms, the people serve the king, in Godís 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 Godís 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 believed he was creating a type of Kingdom of God on earth with himself at the head and Godís church alongside ruling the spiritual aspect of that Kingdom. Constantine surmised that Christ was no longer the son of a carpenter and riding on a donkey into Jerusalem, but Christ was to Constantine a great King and Ruler and that Constantine with the help of His church had been selected to rule over Christís Kingdom on earth as he imagined Christ now ruled the heavens (with a rod of iron). Constantine forgot Luke 22:24-30. Indeed, 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 (I John 2:18; 4:3; II 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 Christóin the place of Christ. And 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.
Ernest L. Martin
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