Authority Is Not The Issue
Nov 22, 2010 by Craig Blomberg | 0 Comments
“’By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you authority to do this?’” (Mark 11:28; updated NIV)
It sometimes takes reading the Bible under new circumstances to see what should have been painfully obvious applications. Weekend before last, I heard a sermon at an evangelical church in Utah that included this passage. The preacher took his sermon in a very different direction; the following thoughts are what came to my mind instead.
As I have participated in Evangelical-Mormon dialogues of various kinds over the past eighteen years, it has become ever clearer that, after all the fascinating similarities and differences between our faith communities, the nub of the whole debate boils down to authority. If Joseph Smith truly was a prophet of God, if he truly received the restored keys to the kingdom, then all of official Latter-day Saint doctrine necessarily follows. If he did not, then it does not.
To a certain degree, something similar is true of official Roman Catholicism. If there is an unbroken succession of distinctive apostolic authority that has been passed down from Peter, the first bishop of Rome, to his successor, Linus, and so on, throughout what would later be called the papacy all the way to Benedict XVI today, then Catholicism is the truest form of Christianity. Or perhaps it is to be found in Eastern Orthodoxy via the succession of patriarchs or, at least after the Reformation, in Anglicanism via the succession of Archbishops of Canterbury.
Jesus has just entered Jerusalem riding the donkey and receiving messianic accolades. He has made a mess of at least one corner of the temple precincts, berating the Jewish leaders for turning the temple into a den of robbers. Little wonder that the local authorities would ask this pair of questions. Jesus was not a member of anyone of the leadership parties or sects of Israel. He had no formal rabbinic training, no ordination, no credentialing or commissioning of any kind that might have explained his behavior. It must actually be a tribute to the power of his character and reputation that he wasn’t simply arrested on the spot. Could he give any credible explanation for his behavior?
Even if Jesus was no formal, duly authorized rabbi, he certainly taught using many of their same methods, including the use of a question to answer the question. Here he asks his interrogators about the authority of John the Baptist, who had been very popular. The logic is that both Jesus and John were prophets accredited by God, though Jesus of course was much more. John, like Jesus, was a divinely appointed spokesman who had no earthly credentials or institutional commissioning.
Historically, groups like the Orthodox, Catholic and LDS have appealed to the concept of apostolic succession to justify their dogma. The disciples replace Judas with Matthias in Acts 1, keeping the leadership of the fledgling church twelve in number. But when James, the brother of John and son of Zebedee, is martyred in Acts 12, not a word is uttered about keeping the number at twelve once again. Nor does any other New Testament text even remotely hint at either Peter by himself, or the twelve apostles as a whole, passing on their apostolic offices to successors.
In the Old Testament, priests had to be from the tribe of Levi and descendants of Aaron. But the New Testament sets up no comparable priesthood, or any other leadership role for that matter, that must be passed along, from family to family or individual to individual by some religious ritual or ceremony. True, Jesus promised Peter the keys to the kingdom and explained that he was the Rock on which the church would be built (Matt. 16:16-19). But if we use Scripture to interpret Scripture, the only things that Peter does to set him apart from the other apostles, in the first twelve chapters of Acts is to take the initiative to check up on new groups of people apparently coming to Christ, or to personally go to new people and places himself, and to recognize when someone truly has become a Jesus-follower and on occasion when they still need more information or a different kind of response before they can qualify for that label. The term priesthood is applied to all believers, especially when they are together as the worshipping community (1 Peter 2:5).
It comes as no surprise then that Orthodox and Catholics still call certain leaders “priests,” as do many Anglicans. The LDS have two separate kinds of “priesthood.” At this juncture, all these groups are following Old Testament models without adequately perceiving how the New Testament altered things. There simply are no ongoing keys to the kingdom that must be passed on from generation to generation. The churches in upstate New York in Joseph Smith’s adolescent years seem to have had numerous problems but lacking some kind of duly transmitted authority was not one of them. Nor is it legitimate for Catholics or Orthodox to demean Protestant ordination by alleging that it does not stem from adequate or proper authority.
By what authority do truly Bible-following Christians minister? By the very authority of God who calls, commissions and equips. We need no human authority to mediate if God has truly acted in this way. But we are also fallible and need others to confirm, encourage and support any such perceptions of authority. I am not arguing against education, ordination processes, or the accountability of local churches and larger denominational structures. But when we think that we absolutely must have their imprimatur for legitimacy or that those who do have such authorization must of necessity be following God’s will, we have, consciously or unconsciously played the role that the Jewish authorities did in this episode during the last week of Jesus’ life and we thus put ourselves in place of fighting against God and his will!