Biblical Authority — The Authority Given to the Apostles

In my last post I covered the difference between being a disciple, and being an apostle.  While all apostles are disciples, not all disciples are apostles.  Nor are all disciples given the authority Christ shares with his apostles.   As we begin to review the passages that provide an understanding of true Biblical authority, for reasons outlined in that post I will consistently interpret references to Christ’s disciples in the Gospels as referring to the twelve apostles unless there is a clear indication otherwise.

If you search the Bible for the word “authority” you will find more than a hundred references.   The Bible speaks a great deal about authority.  But not one time does the Bible associate the word “authority” with itself.  Not once.  When the Bible speaks of authority, it is always associated with people.  There are references to those people who have been placed in positions of secular authority, the authority within a household, and especially those God places in authority over His people.  

To be fair, some who hold to a position of sola-Scriptura most certainly recognize the role of authority in those God places in authority over his people.   Others do not.  But the premise of sola-Scriptura is Scripture is the only infallible authority, and any authority found in the Church is secondary and can be in error.   From the Catholic perspective the Bible does not teach this, and a review of the most common passages Protestants used to support this doctrine can be found here

In his book “Catholic and Christian,” Alan Schreck outlines well the Catholic understanding of what the Bible teaches about authority.   God’s way of revealing Himself and leading his people over the centuries is to choose certain people for the task.   In the Old Testament we see patriarchs, prophets, judges and kings.   In the New Testament we see apostles, prophets, teachers and bishops.   Throughout history God has continued to select certain people to lead his people and teach with authority.

From the Catholic perspective this understanding is not intended to deny or minimize the importance of the Bible.  Rather, we desire to recognize and value all the ways God instructs and directs the Church.   And we also recognize without this God-ordained leadership, the Bible’s value is diminished because conflicts over its meaning and intent lead to schism and division among God’s people.   The most heartfelt prayer of Christ at the Last Supper was for his people to be one —  “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word,  that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent meThe glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,  I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.”  (John 17:20-23)

Christ’s heart is very much exposed to us in this prayer and shows us what was heavily on his mind leading up to his death.  In this prayer, we understand he knew the battle the Church would have with divisions.  This is already at play with the betrayal of Judas that would happen that very night.  We see signs of it in the New Testament when Paul and Barnabas part ways over a disagreement (Acts 15:36-41), and when there is a division in thought regarding whether Gentile converts need to follow the Mosaic law. 

At the Last Supper Christ shows an understanding that in order for the world to believe in him, his followers need to be one.  It is always a profoundly sad experience for me to visit a Christian internet message board and witness the lack of charity that is often on display as Christians debate each other over important issues of doctrine.  How can we evangelize the world if we are constantly bickering and infighting, and have varying professions of “truth?”

Christ chose to eat this last meal with the twelve, his chosen apostles (Matthew 26:20, Mark 14:17, Luke 22:14).  He shares with them many things that evening that are recorded in John’s Gospel to include his prayer that we may be one.   And in his prayer, Christ also tells us how he is going to ensure that we will indeed be one.  “The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them that they may be one even as we are one. (John 17:11) Before this prayer he has already told the apostles that “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)  He has also told them that “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” (John 13:20)

Christ’s intent is clear that his full authority is to be left with his apostles, who become the foundation of his Church (Ephesians 2:20).   It is also clear they are in a special way to be guided by the Holy Spirit.  And we see throughout his time with them that he has been setting the stage for this moment.   Throughout his ministry he associated his apostles with himself and his authority.  His statement at the Last Supper echoes what he told the twelve when he sent them out for ministry during his life – “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40).  He sends the twelve out to preach (Mark 3:14).  He gives them authority over unclean spirits, to heal, and to expel demons (Mark 6:7-13, Luke 9:1-2).  

And he gives them the authority to “bind and loose.”  “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  (Matthew 18:18)  He already gave this authority in a unique way to Peter alone (Matthew 16:19).  While Matthew 18:18 is one of the verses where it’s not explicitly clear he is speaking only to the twelve, as mentioned above the consistent way to interpret Scripture would be to understand this authority is given only to the twelve.   It’s an extension of the authority he gives to Peter that is shared through Peter with the rest of the apostles.  And in context, to try to interpret this as authority given to all believers is most problematic, as in reality it would become no genuine authority at all.

And before he ascends into heaven, he gives them the authority to forgive sins.  He reminds them once again “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”  (John 20:21)   And then he breathes on them, and tells them “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23).  You can find a more complete study of the authority to forgive sins here

After Christ’s ascension into heaven and the sending of the Holy Spirit, we see the apostles truly become leaders of the Church, fully endowed with the authority Christ gives them and those they ordain into Church leadership.   In Acts 20 we see Paul giving these instructions to the elders at Ephesus – “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood.I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:28-30).  In speaking of the apostles, Paul sees them as being “set apart” to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of those called to belong to Christ (Romans 1:5-6). 

The apostles have an expectation that those they send to the various churches they have established are to be received with respect, even with “fear and trembling” as Paul says about Titus (2 Corinthians 7:14-15).   And they command and expect obedience from their followers:

“And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things which we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing.  If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:4-15)

Paul also speaks quite strongly to the authority the apostles have been given to discipline, and even goes so far to tell them Christ is speaking in him —   “I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them— since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me…..I write this while I am away from you, in order that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority which the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.” (2 Corinthians 13:2-3,10)

St. Peter writes to his fellow elders “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3), and he writes to those in their charge “This is now the second letter that I have written to you, beloved, and in both of them I have aroused your sincere mind by way of reminder; that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles.” (2 Peter 3:1-2).

And in the book of Hebrews, the faithful are given these instructions “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17)

The apostles very clearly understand what has been given to Christ has been declared to them, and that this authority is so we all “may be one” just as Christ prayed (John 17:20-23).  But even during the time of the apostles, we see there are those who reject their authority.  St. John writes “I have written something to the church; but Diot′rephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge my authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, prating against me with evil words. And not content with that, he refuses himself to welcome the brethren, and also stops those who want to welcome them and puts them out of the church.” (3 John 1:9-10). 

My next post will continue to look at the authority given to the apostles, and most specifically at the authority given to them to be authentic teachers of the faith.  

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