At the Eastern Orthodox blog, The Well of Questions, blogger MG has been arguing for some time (most recently, here) that Protestants do not in fact believe that the church has any authority. Rather, we merely believe that the church has been right in those doctrines which it has affirmed at all times and in all places (the “catholic” faith) and that it is better to read the Bible in the light of tradition and the history of doctrine than in isolation. But, MG says, this only amounts to a belief that the church is accurate, not that it is authoritative. In order to be truly authoritative, MG contends that the church must have the inherent power to bind people’s consciences (in other words, an average Christian would be required to abide by the decisions of church councils and hierarchs, regardless of their personal opinion on the matter).
Why is this a problem for the Protestant? Well, frankly, for many Protestants it is no problem at all. Most evangelicals seem to assume that the “church” (which they rarely identify with any particular institution or denomination) has no authority whatsoever. The Pastor is equipped to teach his congregation because he usually knows more about the Bible (and therefore, in MG’s words, he would be more accurate in understanding it), but everyone’s opinion about Scripture is treated as equal. If a member of the congregation disagrees with the pastor there is little sense (if any) that he or she should submit to the Pastor’s judgment. And since so few evangelicals actually subscribe to any creed or confession, it becomes every person, Bible in hand, standing alone on equal interpretive ground.
Historic Protestants such as Lutheran and Reformed, however, would argue that the church does indeed have some measure of authority. Lutheran and Reformed denominations subscribe to creeds and confessions that all professing members must affirm. This is not because the creeds and confessions are believed to be infallible or on equal ground with the Bible. Rather, they are seen as binding because they were produced by official synods (or councils) of the church and are believed to accurately reflect what the Bible teaches. It is here that MG might point out my use of the word “accurately.” Indeed, we do believe that the church is accurate, but do we really believe, when the chips are down, that it has authority?
I would like to suggest that MG has set up something of a false dilemma here. It is true that Protestants do not believe that it is inherently a sin to disobey your pastor or synod, because we believe it possible that both could err. However, it does not follow from this that the church possesses no authority whatsoever. I would like to suggest that, in fact, accuracy produces authority. For example, a doctor is not inherently authoritative in medical matters because he is still human and can err in his diagnoses. However, his medical training makes him far more accurate at diagnosing, and with that accuracy comes a degree of authority over others who lack such training. We would be far wiser to accept the medical advice of a doctor over that of an accountant. This is not merely because the doctor is more accurate at diagnosing medical problems than the accountant, but because that accuracy grants the word of the doctor a level of authority that the accountant’s does not have.
This authority is a derivative authority, then, because it derives from the degree of accuracy that the church body has in interpreting Scripture (which means, of course, that the authority ultimately derives from Scripture). At this point the objection seems to be that the individual Christian is still granted a greater authority than the church, because he or she can simply choose to disobey the church if they feel that their own interpretation is better than the church’s. In such a case, however, I find it likely that the person does not truly believe that the church is accurate, let alone authoritative. If a person truly believes that his church (say, the PCA) is accurate in its interpretations of Scripture, then he ought to give her the benefit of the doubt and adopt an attitude of humility. This would be especially true for lay members of the congregation, who lack the theological training that their pastors and elders have. If a person’s conviction is unshakably strong and the issue is important enough, then they ought to concede that they do not truly believe that their church is on the whole accurate, and they should either find another church or continue to study and seek council from their elders. However, I’m confident that 99% of the time the issue can be resolved with humility. If a lay person (or even a clergyman) would simply adopt an attitude of humility and not immediately assume that they must always be right and everyone else (synod or not) be wrong, then there would be relatively few times in a person’s life where he or she would feel compelled to seriously disagree with their church.
The final question would seem to be, why should a Protestant ever adopt such a humble attitude? Why should a Protestant ever submit to a church’s decision on anything, when the church is not inherently more authoritative than the average lay person? Again, this question seems to presuppose that only an inherent authority can be real authority. But if indeed accuracy can bestow a derivative (and fallible) authority, and human beings are finite and fallen and therefore each individual cannot possibly know everything perfectly, it makes quite a lot of sense to speak of submitting to the church’s authority, even though that authority is neither inherent nor infallible.
If it is argued that the individual still has greater authority than the church because he or she can choose which church to follow and submit to in the first place, I would simply point out that the same is true for those who choose to follow either Rome or Constantinople.