The Other Side of the Coin: Authority

I’ve been in church since I was fifteen years old. When I first started going to church, I heard weekly in Sunday school, worship, youth, and Wednesday night bible study how everyone, except our church, had it wrong. Not only did they have it wrong, but most of them were going to hell for it. While that church is the most extreme example of this kind of thinking, it is by no means the only place I have been where people took this kind of mindset. As I have moved through various places of worship and served in various places of worship, I have found one of the constants is certain people, not all but some, feel that faith is an absolute, right-wrong, proposition where we are in and they, whoever they are, are out.

I engaged in this kind of thinking for a while until I met some people at work who were self-avowed, those people. It was a guy and two sisters who worked with me on a temporary job where we were making copies of legal documents. It was mindless work, mostly either putting labels on one piece of paper after another or running those labeled documents through a scanner for eight to ten hours a day. This left lots of time for conversation. We chatted about mundane things to start with but a couple of days into the job, I brought up the subject of religion. To my surprise, they were glad to talk. 

I can’t remember what church the young man went to, but I think two sisters were members of the Episcopal Church. The conversations were interesting for me because while I had spent plenty of time bashing those who must be going to hell for their ignorance and stubborn sinfulness, I had never talked to anyone. My first taste of this taught me two things: one, there are people who disagree with you who know more than you and two, my four years of walking with Jesus hadn’t gotten very far. 

One thing I think about now when I remember them, is this idea of two sides of the coin. While some people take faith as a full contact sport, others may be content to sit quietly and peacefully. While some may see God as one thing, their neighbor may see God as something else. It is the idea that people are not, nor have they ever been of one opinion on anything. There are always and have always been more than one way to look at anything, faith included. And that leads us to this sermon series, Two Sides of the Coin, and this our first lesson on Authority.

Authority is a funny thing in that it is something we give or acknowledge rather than something that innately belongs to someone or some group. In other words, we decide, by our actions and our response whether something is authoritative or not. For instance, if Church A makes a statement that allChristians must wear red sneakers to honor the crucifixion that doesn’t mean all Christians will wear red sneakers. They will only wear them if they recognize something authoritative about Church A. It’s like when Robert Strawbridge, one of the earliest Methodist lay preachers in America, decided to offer the sacraments to the rural peoples he served. Those rural farmers couldn’t get to the Anglican church where Methodists normally went for such things because it was too far from their farms. So, Robert decided to offer them the sacraments himself. Of course, the powers that be, Francis Asbury in this case, were less than thrilled. Strawbridge wasn’t ordained and those who weren’t ordained didn’t do these things. But to Strawbridge, there was need and it couldn’t be met any other way. Eventually, Strawbridge was made the equivalent of a modern day licensed local pastor. 

For modern Christians, at least the most vocal of them, authority comes from the bible. I put a search query into Google that had the search term “source of authority for Christians”. Most responses were the bible in some form. This idea has been part of the church since Martin Luther scribbled the words sola scriptura or ‘scripture only’ some five hundred years ago. This was a backlash against the idea of papal authority in the Catholic church and as we talked about last week and would eventually lead to tens of thousands of denominations within the greater Protestant Church. In the United Methodist Church, we regard the bible as an authority and our primary source for understanding how to live. We see the bible in four ways: as a library, a sacred scripture, as God speaking to us about salvation, and as guide to faith and life. We interpret it with the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.

Keith Berding at Talbot School of Theology writes, “The three sources of authority for the earliest Christians were: (1) the teachings of Jesus passed on orally by the apostles; (2) the instructions of the apostles (cf. Acts 2:42); and (3) the words of the prophets, that is, the Old Testament Scriptures. These three streams of authority were different from each other stream, but each of the three was binding on early Christians.”[1]

In the early church, many believed and acted on the Holy Spirit as authoritative. Consider the story of Peter and Cornelius. The Torah and the teachings of the elders (two of the main Jewish sources for authority) tell Peter not to be in the presence of Gentiles, considered ‘sinners’ by most Jewish authorities. Yet, God/the Holy Spirit came to Peter in a dream and told him the dietary laws need not get in the way of grace and as a result, Cornelius and his whole house became disciples. Personally, I think the idea of the Holy Spirit as the authority throughout the history of the church makes a lot of sense, since most people throughout the church base their actions on a leading from the Holy Spirit or the traditions of the church.

All thoughts aside, what is authority?

Authority is a decision. As I said in the beginning, authority is something we give or acknowledge rather than something that innately belongs to someone or some group. We decide, by our actions and our response whether something is authoritative or not. For those of us who agree to be United Methodists, “… General Conference is the only entity with the authority to speak on behalf of the entire United Methodist Church. The General Conference meets every four years to consider the business and mission of the church.”[2] “The General Book of Discipline reflects our Wesleyan way of serving Christ through doctrine and disciplined Christian life. We are a worldwide denomination united by doctrine, discipline, and mission through our connectional covenant. The General Book of Discipline expresses that unity.”[3]

Saying the bible is our authority sounds like an easy way to solve the problem. The truth is people have been saying that for years and here we are with 46,400 denominations across the spectrum of human experience and understanding. Our ideas on authority and how we interpret that authority are going to be mixed. 

With all that in mind, how do we try to find authoritative consensus on anything for the church to function?

First, find the common threads. No matter how much you disagree with people, there is always something you can connect with. I would be willing to say that while no two people agree on everything, any two people can find something they have in common, even if it only our shared humanity. The truth is, there’s probably more than that. Don’t get hung up on one or two issues but look for the things that offer connection with each other. Even if the common thread you can find is believing in God, grab that and hang on together. 

Second, accept the idea of diversity. Once you have those common threads, recognize that it’s not a bad thing to be different and have different ideas from those around you. The things they contribute are going to be different, but you may find they are complimentary in the grander scheme of the church and its mission. As Paul talks of the different parts of the body having differing functions, so do we. Celebrate and encourage those who can reach and minister people you may not be able to connect with.

Finally, never give up on testing and exploring your faith. Be willing to read dissenting interpretations from your own. Be willing to have conversation with people you disagree with. Be willing to test your own ideas and allow the Holy Spirit to correct those things in need of correction and embrace those things we may need to change. As I have said before, the things you test will either be proven true or disproven in the process. This may be a bit scary or uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of growth as a disciple. 

In other words, don’t seek authority, seek community. Instead of trying to find clobber verses and biblical interpretations to beat the other side, try to find the things that bring us together and allow us to hold each other in community. I think the greater goal for us is being in community and seeking to bring others into the community. The United Methodist Church has its authority structures and we who are members agree to abide by them. It gives us what Wesley would have called general rules: Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.” Beyond that, may the Holy Spirit guide us to mission fields where souls which are broken may come to find healing and wholeness in the Way of Jesus.