If you were here last week you'll have heard me making – some frankly outrageous claims for church. If the bible didn't say it, no way I could come to it myself… but following Hebrews 12, Deuteronomy 4 and Exodus 19 we said that church is God gathering his people to hear his voice. Right back in Exodus when God gathered the at Sinai and came down in a terrifying cloud with fire and lightning and spoke with a voice like thunder that shook the very earth and terrified his people he was setting a pattern for church – and today when we meet together God gathers us just as he did then to hear him speak. Only more so – they met around a mountain on earth, today God gathers his people in heaven! So when we meet and preach the pure word of God, God speaks to us today, here in this moment.
Those are big, big claims for church and if you missed it you really should make the time to listen again on our website – even better check out the talks from our 2013 church weekend away where we explored those ideas over three talks, they're on the website too.
Now big claims like that need to be thought through in all sorts of ways, especially to guard against abuse… One of the big questions last week raises is 'what is the limit of the churches power, or authority?'; a related question is 'what is the source of the churches power or authority?'
A very high view of church – God gathering his people to hear God's voice – can lead even abuse of power can't it? – this is the problem s of cults: they see the glory of the church and use it to bully and manipulate; and enslave and exploit. And it's not just cults. The Roman Catholic church at the time of the reformation, when the 39 articles were written, claimed the power and authority to add new teaching to the bible – saying the church was the mother of the bible, claiming secret extra teachings from which they were drawing all sort of non-biblical notions…
But is that right?? Can that be sustained or defended or even made to fit with the bible? How do the church and the bible relate – does the leader of the church speak for God? Or does the bible speak for God and the leaders need to listen? Can the bible speak for itself, or does it need a special interpreter? And who gets the last word – the Pope or the bible? These were the big questions in the reformation – life and death questions. No one's being burnt at the stake in Gateshead that I know of, but this question of authority still confronts us. And all the more as the church again claims to have new teaching from God that goes against the bible.
So today we address the question of the limits and nature of the authority of the church. And the big idea is this – the church does have some authority from God to regulate worship – but only under the Word of God. The church does have some authority from God to regulate worship – but only under the word of God.
That is to say the church is not the mediator of God's voice, God speaks for himself, the church is under the authority of the word of God (as already stated in article 6).
One – the Church has some authority, but it sits under the authority of the Bible
Two – the Church discerns the mind of God by study of scripture, not by looking elsewhere
The Church has some authority, but it sits under the authority of the Bible
Turn up Galatians chapter 1 if you're not there already. Notice how Paul insists right at the very beginning that he has been sent from God, and, verse 11 the gospel he shares is not something that man made up – Paul received it from God, not from any man (or woman). This is so important that we must not mess with it. Look at vs 6-9.
To change it – to add to it or take from it – is to pervert it into no gospel at all. And anyone who does so – any great leader or teacher, even a very angel of God, must be rejected, in fact Paul condemns them to hell!
So who then has authority to change the message? Who has the power to add new bits to it, or to take away bits we don't like? – No one, not even Paul or one of the other apostles, not even a very angel from God, certainly not me or you, no council or synod or anyone else.
Lest we think Paul was exaggerating we see in 2v11 following that Paul put this into practice when Peter began subtly distorting the gospel – Peter the leader of the apostles verses Paul who had been an enemy of the gospel. How could Paul possibly oppose Peter? Yet what does he say – when Peter came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong – before certain men came from James he used to eat with the gentiles, but when they arrived he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles - Paul corrected him because he was accidentally adding to the gospel – to be really saved meant to be a Jew, but that's not the gospel, that's gospel plus, that's a distorted gospel, that's no gospel at all.
So Paul publicly corrected Peter the leader of the Apostles.
This is the authority of the bible – the authority of the gospel – it is God's word and even the apostles had to submit to it, how much more so the church who follow in their footsteps.
I want to labour this point because it's very important for us to see it and to see it clearly. Paul is adamant that the message remain unchanged – because only the true gospel of trust in the Lord Jesus Christ saves. Similarly Jesus – in Revelation 21 – is frankly scary when he warns us not to add or to take away from his word – because adding extra to the gospel makes it a different gospel, taking bits out makes it a different gospel – makes it no gospel at all!
All this flows directly out of the character of this gospel message – it is God's word, it comes with Gods' full authority. If it was a philosophy arrived at through careful thought we'd expect to improve on it over time –but if it's the word of God then we'are never going to think better thoughts. The word of God was powerful to create the universe; it's powerful to save. God never lies, all he says is always true. The gospel is Gods final word (see Hebrews 11-4) it needs no additions, no correction, no help from us. God's word is God's instrument of rule: he spoke and creation sprang to being; his word remains eternally active, and he rules through it.
So claims that the church can over-rule scripture – wherever they come from, however authoritative they appear to be – are dangerously false and need to be rejected strongly. No church in any form can re-write, edit out, correct or deny scripture. This is why 39 articles, Apostles creed etc. have authority only in so far as they reflect what the bible teaches us; this is why the reformation overturned hundreds of years of claims to authority on the part of the church, and why they appealed to what the scriptures said.
So what is left of the authority of the church? Article 20 says that the church can organise details of the worship service and the ceremonies. The bible doesn't give us an order of service, it's not a prayer book; we have principles and some things are ruled out, but within those guidelines there is freedom – provided we meet to hear God's word preached and the sacraments duly administered, as we heard last week.
The church can also exercise discipline over it's members. This is reflected in article 33 – which speaks of excommunication – and implied in article 19 when it says sacraments are to be celebrated as duly instituted by Jesus, implies that the church is to restrict access to sacraments to believer who are walking rightly with the Lord – otherwise we eat and drink judgment on ourselves. Article 33 says that the church can excommunicate people, and such people are to be avoided by the members of the church. This sounds harsh today, but it's not a matter of shamming only, but an attempt to help people to turn back to Jesus – by helping them to see the implications of sin – sin cuts us off from God.
So for us – we might well want to change some teaching of scripture because its unpopular and it might get us into trouble – but we simply cannot, because God has spoken.
We each individually must come to the bible humbly, looking to listen to it and do what it says – with humility and willingness to listen and intention to do as it says. This is right and pleasing to God Isaiah 66.2 "This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.
And as a church we come to God's word just the same – to learn from it and obey it, so we listen to preaching carefully, prayerfully, being diligent to make sure what is being said flows out of what is written.
Finally, or perhaps firstly (!?!) we must reject claims to greater authority from churches that overreach and their authority must be challenged and even rejected – that was what launched the reformation, and what keeps us from full communion with the church of England at the present time. This included the Roman Catholic church, and all those who teach that we can minimise or side-line aspects of God's word.
It's worth us exploring what it means to sit under the authority of scripture a little more, point two.
The Church Discerns the Mind of God by Study of Scripture, Not by Looking Elsewhere
See how Paul and Peter settled their differences in Galatians – by going back to ask how the gospel tells us to live. The 39 articles pick this up in article 20 which talks about how to make sure that you are actually teaching what the scripture is teaching – by listening carefully to the text and not using it as a pretext or a proof-text, but by carefully allowing the scripture to teach us – so we only teach what is in accord with the whole scripture: don't try and make scripture say something different than what it says and don't teach any one passage in such a way that it contradicts with other passages.
Again this flows out of the Bible being God's word, all of it written by the same God: God is not divided, he doesn't say one thing here and another there. By contrast Mohammad's claimed revelations were all over the place – first one thing, then something completely contradictory, so he had to specify a doctrine of abrogation – that is new revelations trump or replace old ones… so God can take back what was revealed and replace it with contrary teaching) – but God is consistent in all he does, he works from the beginning to the end to the same plan and his morality is not developing, his character is settled and does not change… therefore the whole of scripture teaches the same thing and if we find one bit contradicting another we need to work out how they are reconciled in the mind of God, because they must be, there is one God behind it all.
So the claim of the Roman Catholic church to a repository of secret teachings from which they draw out new things, things that contradict clear teaching of scripture –we must reject it, these things have no authority and if they add to or take away from the gospel, they must be soundly rejected. Today the Roman Catholic church officially proclaims Mary as Co-redemptrix, Co- mediatrix, co ruler of heaven, without sin and able to answer our prayers and help us out of suffering for sin; They still offer Indulgences – a free pass out of suffering for sin; the pointy end of a whole system of unbiblical doctrines about purgatory and the extra goodness of saints that completely undermine the gospel Paul taught so clearly.
Likewise many churches claim to have new teaching from the Holy Spirit – especially on the issue of godly sexuality; many say that they are coming to see that the bible's teaching on sex is just wrong. But God is not changing his mind, we don't discern the voice of God by looking inwards to what we want, or outwards to what everyone else wants us to say. We need to take God at his word, his living, active, unchanging word.
For example, the family members who get into a terrible fight over the distribution of the deceased estate – we all have an opinion on what the person who is no longer here might have wanted… but so often our opinion is subtly influenced (or not so subtly) by what is good for us – they would have wanted me to have it! – but argument should cease when the will is produced. How much more so when we know that this word was written by God who could actually foresee all circumstances and who continues speaking through it today so that it is a living and active word.
So what is the application of this for us
- Discernment: this calls for the sort of discernment implied in the end of article 19 – some churches have erred and fallen into error… this includes the Roman Catholic church, and we need to be vigilant in our own age to see where the churches are going so that we don't fall into error with them. We as Anglicans watch the meeting of the primates very closely – is the Anglican church falling into error, or are they acting within the bounds of the authority of the bible, as prescribed by the churches founding documents?
- Faithfulness – not just for 'churches' in the sense of denomination, but also for each individual congregation – we need to be vigilant to maintain the faithfulness of our witness here – not doing what we want, but submitting ourselves to the scriptures and to the wider Anglican church, as the church submits to the scriptures (and no further!)
The church has a measure of authority because the institutional church, the church as a body, as Jesus' body, has a role in enabling God's voice to be heard and in encouraging Christians to live in accordance with it. Therefore churches are free to set orders of service and determine how best to honour God in our meetings, and even to help encourage purity by keeping those in sin from partaking in sacraments and so bringing judgement on themselves. The church can even express in some measure the judgment of God by excommunicating that who hold to and teach false teaching.
But the authority of the church is not absolute. No church, no teacher, no pastor or minister or bishop or pope has authority to interpret the bible for the rest of us. No council or group, no watchtower or papal enclave or any other group has authority to reject or to correct the bible. All authority under it's authority. So where churches or other groups claim to speak with authority all needs to be judged by the bible. And that is not just one bit of the bible, but the teaching of the bible as a whole, the big story of the bible, and each bit of it understood in the light of all the other bits.