April 30, 2021

The Authority of the Church

Revisiting authority in a time of social change.

Loron Wade

Well, Mario, it seems they have put you out of the church here on earth; but don’t worry, you are not out in heaven.” The kind woman spoke these words with a trembling voice and eyes brimming with tears. She was suffering, as all of us were, because we had just voted to disfellowship¹ this young man whom we all loved.

Church Authority: Engaging the Question

Our pastor called her over. He said: “I know you have good intentions, but I am really concerned about what you said to Mario. Remember what Jesus said: ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 18:18].”²

In anguish she responded, “Yes, Pastor, but I have known this boy since he was born. He grew up in the church. I can’t believe God is going to reject him now just because of what the church voted.”

“We all love Mario, and you know better than anyone how we tried to work with him, and how much patience we have had.”

“Yes, Pastor, I know, but we are all sinners. I just don’t see how human beings could actually have the right to shut the doors of heaven on anyone.”

“So how do you think we should interpret Jesus’ words?”

She turned and, still weeping, left quickly.

Church Authority: In and Out

What light can we find in the Bible on this matter of church authority?

Jesus compared the church to a sheepfold. He was concerned because some of His sheep were still not in the fold. He said, “I must bring them also” (John 10:16). The walls of the sheepfold, the standards and doctrines of the church, stand as barriers against the floodtide of  evil—violence, pornography, drugs, political corruption—coming on the world today.

The sheepfold is also for identification. Its walls help put an end to fuzziness, marking a clear difference between inside and out. A sheep may be in the fold, accepting and living by church beliefs and principles, or it may not.

In Jesus’ name and by His authority, the church invites sinners to enter the fold. The church is His voice in the world, and people will have to answer in the day of judgment for how they respond. Furthermore, the church, exercising that same authority, has, with great sorrow, to separate itself from those who refuse to listen to the Shepherd’s voice, rejecting His teachings and trampling on His principles.

Church Authority: An Urgent Matter

The church at Corinth was facing a crisis: one of its members was sleeping with his father’s wife. Other members, aware of it, were troubled, but didn’t seem to know how to respond (1 Cor. 5:5). Emboldened by their silence, this individual believed he could enjoy the blessings of salvation while continuing to live in sin. Paul warned the members that their passivity made them accomplices. They needed to take a stand and exercise their God-given authority.

“When you are assembled, . . . and the power of our Lord Jesus is present” (verse 4): “power” here means “authority,” the church’s authority—not just its bishops or elders, but the church members themselves—to act in Jesus’ name when it is “assembled.”

“Hand this man over to Satan” (verse 5):Our “enemy the devil [Satan] prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). This man, in his false sense of security, was in danger of being devoured. Being put out of the fold, losing the church’s approval and protecting shelter, could awaken him to his danger and produce in him a healthy sense of terror.

“For the destruction of the flesh” (continuing verse 5):This refers to the destruction of that blind pride, that fatal assurance, that had brought him to the condition he was in. The church’s vote and rebuke would be an alarm call that could awaken him to his terrible danger.

“So that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (verse 5): The highest purpose of church discipline is the salvation of sinners.

A second purpose Paul mentions for church discipline is to keep one person’s confusion and defiance from spreading like a deadly virus to the whole church—“a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” (verse 6). Others infected by his presence might catch his deadly disease.

It is a process that begins with love and ends with mercy. From beginning to end, its purpose is redemptive.

Church authority also protects the church’s reputation and public image. Paul noted that “even pagans do not tolerate” such a sin (1 Cor. 5:1). “Pagans” have a sense of right and wrong. They expect to see a higher standard of conduct in the church. When they don’t, they “blaspheme,” or speak evil of God’s name (Rom. 2:24); they feel justified in rejecting Christianity. Therefore the church must clearly repudiate this type of behavior.

Church Authority: Jesus’ Method

As the dear church mother said, we are all sinners. How can sinners judge sinners? To answer, we consider Matthew’s record of Jesus’ method: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matt. 18:15). The foundation principle of Jesus’ plan for church authority is love: “Love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Love leads the lover to overlook defects and interpret the loved one’s actions in the best light possible. “Love is patient, love is kind. . . . It is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. . . . [Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes” (1 Cor. 13:4-7). Love is the first principle of our dealing with others.

We hear it in Matthew’s words: “just between the two of you.” If I love you, the last thing I want is for other people to know about your mistake. But love also leads me to say and do what is necessary to rescue you from danger when your salvation or someone’s welfare is at risk. Note God’s warning: “When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood” (Eze. 3:18). Love helps me find the right words and the right time to speak, in order to “restore [others] gently,” remembering that we are all subject to temptation (Gal. 6:1).

The initial conversation may (1) clarify the situation, showing that no wrongdoing is actually involved; or (2) help the member to change their behavior; or (3) produce an impasse that necessitates going to the next level of Jesus’ plan: “If they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’ ” (Matt. 18:16)I may need to express my concern to “one or two others,” including, perhaps, the church pastor, and ask if they will go with me. At this point they may tell me that my ideas about the problem are not right, and that I need to back off. If so, that is another way the matter can come to a happy conclusion.

If those I invite agree to accompany me, the erring person may then realize that what I said was not simply my opinion. Confrontation, intervention by a small group, can bring the person to a sense of reality. It can lead them to overcome their pride, and reason correctly about the problem.

“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (verse 17).The words “if they still refuse to listen” show that the purpose of presenting the matter “to the church” is not simply to take the final vote and remove a name from t
he church books. They show that the church as a whole is still appealing to the sinner for repentance and reconciliation.

The church not only needs to rebuke and counsel. We also need to listen: “Members have a fundamental right to prior notification of the disciplinary meeting and the right to be heard in their own defense, introduce evidence, and produce witnesses. No church should vote to discipline a member under circumstances that deprive the member of these rights.”³

All of these measures are designed to safeguard the church from errors and help it come to the right decision in this process. Furthermore, they make it clear that the main purpose always, always, is to bring people to salvation through grace and forgiveness. If at any stage the process has its desired effect, this is a cause for great rejoicing.

Church Authority: Basis and Nature

Matthew 18:18-20 is sometimes cited out of context and applied incorrectly. But read correctly, the passage thoroughly clarifies the issue of the church’s divine authority: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

This passage contains two amazing declarations. In addition to the statement about binding and loosing, it says that whatever we ask for we will get. Does that mean that if I ask for a yacht and a private jet, I will get them? The passage itself gives us the answer. Jesus said: “For . . . there am I with them.”

Jesus is present through His Holy Spirit. When the Spirit guides our prayers, we will not ask selfishly for things to spend on our “pleasures” (James 4:3). The Spirit-filled person will ask according to God’s will, and “this is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14).

This insight also applies to what takes place when the church gathers to deal with difficult cases. Jesus, through His Holy Spirit, is present. The church, therefore, is guided by the Spirit and by Scripture that was inspired by the same Spirit. Then when the church says to the sinner, “You are loosed”­—you are separated from grace, you are excluded from salvation—it is true.  But it is not true because the church has decided. It is true because Heaven has decided. The church is telling the sinner what God the Holy Spirit has revealed through His holy Word. God does not obey the church. The church does not wield executive authority. Its authority is that of a spokesperson who has listened and then faithfully transmits what the Spirit of Christ has given it to understand.

Church Authority: All Love, All Mercy

Paul wrote to the Corinthians with “many tears” (2 Cor. 2:4), and after sending off the letter he passed days of anxiety. How he rejoiced when Titus came back with news of the deep repentance of the Corinthian believers (2 Cor. 7:11, 12)!

After he received this good news, he sat down and wrote a second letter, expressing his joy. As he wrote, he thought of the man who had received the rebuke, and added: “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” “in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Cor. 2:6-8, 11).

This is how the church must use its authority. It is a process that begins with love and ends with mercy. From beginning to end, its purpose is redemptive.

To practice discipline in harmony with these principles is not easy, but it can be a blessing for the church and those who may be in need of help.

  1. To “disfellowship” is to withdraw a person’s membership from the church, to dismiss an individual from church membership for cause.
  2. Bible quotations are from the New International Version. Correctly understanding this statement is a major concern of this article
  3. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2016), p. 65.

Loron Wade, is a former dean and professor of the School of Theology at Montemorelos University in Mexico.