Authority and Evangelical Churches

During a recent ministry conference I was attending, I was listening to a well-known (and one I respect) leader in men’s ministries.  He was explaining to a pastor why women leading Sunday School classes didn’t work.  His explanation?  “Men won’t accept the authority of a woman.”  He went on to extend this argument, saying that women in his area ended up only pastoring churches that no one else wanted.

Regular visitors to this site are well familiar with my opinion of women in ministry, whether it be in a fictional/Anglican context (At The Inlet) or as they relate to the church I’m presently a part of.   But my friend has brought up this issue in the context that most Evangelicals do when they object to women in ministry: the issue of authority, that it is not right for a woman to be in authority over a man.  Implicit in his statement is the concept that the church has some kind of authority and that authority is exercised in the teaching and pastoral roles.

In spite of the fact that all we hear people talk about is freedom, the issue of authority is one that interests everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.  Even an atheist like Philip Pullman of Golden Compass fame can be characterised almost as anti-authoritarian as he is anti-theistic.  The evil kingdom in the movie is called “Magisterium,” and not by accident.  Evangelicals may miss it, but Roman Catholics will not: magisterium is the idea of Catholicism that the church has authority invested in it by God to make authoritative pronouncements on matters of faith and morals, and in the all-inclusive concept of Roman Catholicism that means just about everything.  That kind of assertion invites rebellion, and rebellion is something that the Catholic church continues to experience a great deal of, be it Continental Masonry, Pullman or Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

So where to Evangelical churches fit into this?  The honest truth is that every Evangelical church–without exception–is the result of an act of rebellion from constituted ecclesiastical authority. That trend started with Protestant churches in general, although most of these complicated the issue by their alliance with the state.  But look where it went from there.  The Methodists seceded from the Anglicans, the holiness and Pentecostal churches in their turn seceded from the Methodists, and the Baptists simply seceded from everybody including themselves.  The multitude of denominations is a testament of one secession from another, of one rebellion against existing authority after another.  As noted in Taming the Rowdies, in the US the rebel churches not only succeeded in rebelling against constituted secular authority (the British) but then turned around and, with the connivance of the Freemasons, managed to get the established churches booted out of their places in all of the colonies!

So how can this endless cycle of rebellion and fragmentation be justified?  There is only one way: those churches and people that have taken their leave from the ecclesiastical authority they were under have done so because they first put the authority of God himself above that of whatever institution they were a part of.  They wanted to be, to use a phrase that has taken on new meaning lately, closer to God, either doctrinally, in their form of church government, or their method (or lack thereof) of worship.  Part and parcel with that is a rejection of the concept of magisterium.  The only way that any church under these conditions can claim any kind of authority is in a purely derivative sense.  They can only say, “We are right because God has said this in his Word and we are following it.”  Implicit in that is the idea that, should they in their turn stray from the truth, that others have the right to go off and start the process of purification and renewal all over again.

Authoritarianism, however, hasn’t gone away from Evangelical Christianity, even in the face of this endless cycle of rebellion.  I bring up Bill Gothard’s name up frequently, but he and his disciples have moulded a generation of Boomer pastors and church leaders with a very authoritarian, top-down model of life order.  (The Boomers didn’t need much encouragement in this regard.)   The problem with these people–and the men’s leader I cited at the front of this article is among them–is that they are attempting to superimpose a concept of authority on a church structure that wasn’t designed to execute it, and the result is confusion, confusion that is helping to make transmitting the Gospel to the next generation more difficult.

Now I’m not one to spend all of my time in a local church plotting against the pastor or even the big-bucks in the church (although the Bible doesn’t sanction any authority to them, actually quite the opposite.)  If you have an organisation, you have, well, organisation, which implies lines of authority just to keep things together.  Your pastor, elders, Sunday School teachers and the like should be at a level of maturity and Biblical knowledge that earns your respect.  But to invest evangelical churches and the people there with authority that approaches magisterium is simply unwarranted by both history and the express purpose of evangelical churches to start with.  If the whole idea is to emphasise the authority of God, than his authority should be the governing one.  Put another way, in Evangelical churches, people should be seeing less of us and more of Jesus.

The day I come to the conclusion that submission to a human authority structure is the ne plus ultra of the Christian life is the day I return to Roman Catholicism, because the Roman Catholic Church is the only Christian church with a consistent theory (if not always practice) of authority.  The Gothardian ideal of a Christian under an umbrella of protection without holes or tears in his or her church can only be realised in the Catholic church.  Non-believers like Pullman and Brown implicitly understand this, which is why their main target is Roman Catholicism.

Evangelicals would do well to grasp these truths and apply them constructively to their own churches.  If they did, they would not only be more consistent to their own heritage, they would make their churches more attractive to the new generation, which has been micromanaged enough.

14 thoughts on “Authority and Evangelical Churches”

  1. Yes, but how does the Church of God fit into any of this? One can make a case for the ecclesia anglicana, it does after all in some form date back to the 2nd C. But the Church of God? Please inform me…

  2. Abu Daoud: The point of my piece, I suppose, is that it doesn’t.

    Evangelical churches, without necessarily claiming magisterium, nevertheless spend a lot of time talking about “the authority of the church” in the same breath as they talk about the God-given authority of the state and the family. My point is that, given the origins of Evangelical churches, this claim of authority isn’t as strong as its proponents might think.

    That conclusion is only clear when one compares them to, say, the Roman Catholic Church, which can justifiably claim continuity. But the problem with the RCC lies in how it’s used the authority it’s been given, both on a doctrinal and a systemic level.

    With this Anglicanism is, like so many things, ambiguous. It holds the apostolic succession but seceded from its mother church, and now has to deal with the rickety chandelier called the Anglican Communion.

    So that’s why I say that my claims in this piece are a result of hanging around Anglican, RCC and Orthodox people. Evangelicals generally don’t like to think about things like this.

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