“Where is your authority?” Have you ever been asked this question by a member of the Churches of Christ? Growing up in the conservative Churches of Christ, this was a question that was often asked when discussing pretty much any belief or practice. As a former preacher, most of my sermons included the concept of “authority” and the condemnation of those who, I believed, were guilty of practicing and teaching beliefs that lacked biblical authority.
The typical passage usually cited when teaching about Bible authority is Colossians 3:17 (See also: 1 Corinthians 10:31). Paul says, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” The point usually made from this verse is that we must do everything in the name of Jesus. Doing something in “the name” of someone signifies doing something by their authority (see: Acts 4:7). Since Jesus has all authority (Mt. 28:18) and since authority means the power or permission to act, the conclusion is that in everything we do, we must have God’s power or permission to act.
Of course, this idea is not just taught in Colossians 3:17. This concept is seen throughout all of Scripture, including verses emphasizing doing His will and meeting His approval (See: Mt. 7:21; 1 Thess. 5:21; Rom. 12:1-2; Phil. 1:10; etc.). Therefore, when someone accuses you for practicing without God’s authority, they are in essence accusing you of acting without God’s permission. But what I began to see is that the issue really wasn’t the issue. After all, every sincere person attempting to follow God is wanting to act by His power and permission. The real issue is not must we act by God’s authority, but how do we know if we are acting by God’s authority?
We can know that we are acting by God’s authority as long as we are not willfully and rebelliously violating His law (Rom. 6:1-2; Heb. 10:26; Gal. 2:18-21). In Romans 4, Paul is discussing the difference between faith and law. He states a universal truth when he says, “where there is no law, there is no sin” (Rom. 4:15). In order for there to be sin, there must be a violation of law for “sin is transgression of the law” (1 Jn. 3:4). Law can be given either explicitly (Jn. 13:34; e.g., Do this/Don’t do this-States in an explicit way) or implicitly (Num. 3:11-13; Heb. 7:14; e.g., Specifying a speed limit of 50 would implicitly exclude any speed over 50). Sin entered the world because God gave a law and Adam and Eve violated that law (Gen. 3:11). Not only is this a biblical teaching, but this is also a practical teaching. If a city didn’t have a speed limit, then there would be no speeding tickets. Authority or permission is intrinsic in the absence of law.
When properly applied, the teaching of authority is unanimously agreed upon. We should all seek God’s permission, and abstain from violating God’s laws. But the problem arises when the concept of authority is not properly applied and defined. In most conservative Churches of Christ, the concept of authority is abused and is not properly defined or applied. There are at least three problems of how the conservative Churches of Christ misapply biblical authority.
The first problem is the presupposition that a law has already been violated. This is a grave mistake. When you condemn someone for not having authority, you are assuming they are violating a law. In the conservative Churches of Christ, the first question is typically, “Where is your authority?” Whereas the first question should be, “Where is the law?” The next time that someone condemns you because they accuse you of lacking authority for a practice, ask them what law you are violating? You can’t be guilty of lacking authority if there is no law you are violating.
Someone cannot properly accuse you of lacking authority until they have proven that you are violating a law. This brings us to the next problem.
The second problem I found is that this misapplied view of authority is very abstract and undefined. When one begins with an abstract belief, then any practice can be “authorized” or “unauthorized” at one’s own subjective choosing. Let me illustrate exactly what I mean. All of the examples below are from preachers of the Churches of Christ.
Those in the Churches of Christ who believe that it is a sin to use multiple containers for the Lord’s Supper do so because they claim that there is no authority. In an article by Andrew Richardson, he begins by asking, “What authority do men have to use multiple cups of fruit of the vine during their congregation’s observance of the Lord’s supper?” Their conclusion? There is no authority. But then, using the same reasoning, Wayne Jackson teaches that there is authority for multiple containers for the Lord’s Supper.
Professor of Freed Hardeman University, Dr. Ralph Gilmore, believes that one is authorized to hand clap in worship (Freed Hardman University, Lectureship: Open Forum 2007). Dr. Dave Miller believes that one does not have the authority to clap in worship.
Wayne Jackson believes that one has the authority to pray directly to Jesus. Gary W. Summers does not believe that we have the authority to pray to Jesus and must pray directly to God the Father.
These examples could be endlessly multiplied. You have those in the Churches of Christ who believe there is no authority to have a kitchen in the church building. You even have those in the Churches of Christ who argue that there is no authority to support an orphans home out of a “church treasury.”
It is not my intent in this article to demean or condemn any of these men. My intent is to simply show the inconsistency and to illustrate how some of these men are justifying practices under the guise of authority while others are condemning the same practice under the guise of authority, even though they are all supposedly using the exact same alleged reasoning (namely, that there is no authority). This is what happens when you use an abstract, undefined false presupposition. This brings me to the third problem with this belief.
The third problem is the division, ignorance and strife this belief has caused. Flippantly condemning others by presupposing that there is no authority for a practice has turned into a hobby for many preachers and has become the shallow answer for members of the conservative Churches of Christ when they don’t really have an answer. Aside from the illustrations above, I have personally heard preachers claim that there is no authority for power point during sermons, pitch pipes during worship and even chewing gum for recreational purposes since we shouldn’t be spending money on superfluous things. Of course, as stated before, the list could literally be endless.
Here is the point: Seeking God’s permission is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. However, we must first understand that if there is no law being violated, then there can be no sin. Furthermore, having your own convictions through your personal study is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. However, we should not condemn others and divide lines of fellowship where there is no law. Until we let go of shallow answers and turn to the depths of God’s truth, unnecessary division will keep occurring and confusion will continue to reign king.
– Kevin Pendergrass