Our independent nature and affinity for democracy sometimes gets us Americans into trouble. It’s not that we don’t recognize authority; it’s not that we don’t respect duly appointed authority. It seems that sometimes we just don’t recognize authority that is not established by election or by some other mechanism of group consensus, such as rules or laws. Other times we seem to question authority when it impinges upon our own sense of independence or expression of it, such as when we try to justify what we consider to be an unimportant rule or law – “Speed limit? No, I didn’t see the sign….”
When it comes to our spiritual or religious lives, our independence roars. In our tradition of the Restoration Movement, historically a loosely affiliated group of independent Christian churches and churches of Christ, the senior minister (preacher, evangelist, sometimes “pastor”) typically doesn’t have a whole lot of authority within the local church, as opposed to most other traditions and denominations where the guy behind the pulpit is considered “the guy” who calls the shots. In our tradition, the leadership of the church is typically found among the elders (see 1 Timothy and Titus), but even that role of biblical leadership is usually determined by elections and implemented by consensus of a board and, often, the congregation. However, even when there is a strong leadership team of spiritually healthy elders, those men will automatically point to the Bible as the final authority for the life and practice of the church.
So when someone asks, “By what authority?” The answer ought to be, “The Scriptures say….” This is why I depend primarily upon the Scriptures as I preach and teach; this is why we expect our elders and teachers to be not only biblically literate but wholly dependent upon the Bible. Strong, healthy leaders in the church rely on the truth of 2 Timothy 3:16, 17:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Unfortunately, while the Bible is the final authority for the church – for its leaders and its members – the Bible is often only consulted by many in the church and far less often obeyed by fewer in the church.
This is likely the result of generations of decreasing biblical literacy among even those Christians who attend church services and Bible studies most often. The decades-long decline in Sunday school attendance is likely only overshadowed by the decline in personal daily Bible reading and study. As time in the Word of God diminishes, so does its authority in the hearts, minds, and lives of even Christians who claim to be “people of the Book,” as our tradition was once known.
As disheartening as this might be for those of us who remember Sunday school attendance that once rivaled the attendance of worship services or mid-week Bible studies that were just as important as Sunday services, it’s not as bad as its consequences. As we lose our regard for the authority of Scripture in our personal lives and in the life of the church, we begin to lose regard for the authority of the One who gave it.
Paul reminds us that “all Scripture is God-breathed.” Certainly we remember that the Bible is the Word of God, right? As much as we once had and should continue to regard the Bible as authoritative, we cannot forget that its authority is established by the one who gave it. Jesus said in Matthew 28:18-20, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and he continued, commanding his followers to teach people “to obey everything I have commanded you.” This is why the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Let us follow their example and continue to devote ourselves to the Scriptures and submit even our strongly independent selves to its authority.