Authority Clarified

Tony SigSeveral commenters on my last post indicated that they though me too hard on “Free churches.”  Wordiness, and not clarity, is sometimes a hallmark of my writing and I wish to clear up what I said and what I intended to communicate.

My post was made in the context of those in the blogosphere and bookosphere, involved with the so-called Emerging Church movement who feel that denominations are due for a systemic failure.  It is said that since we all have different interpretations, and we all can only interpret as our uncontrollable paradigm dictates, then a hierarchical structure only serves to oppress and control.  Foucalt would be proud.

My main point was a reaction to this.  It was not to denounce free-churchmanship as a theological and ontological truth, but to be at least one voice in the EC who thinks there are appropriate places in Christian life for the sort of fellowship and accountability which a group can offer.  I am not sold on the word “denomination.”  As a good post-modern I know that words only have the value which we determine to give them.  So call it a denomination, call it a fellowship, call it a Village; the point remains.  That organization needs to exist whereby those things which denominations have traditionally brought us can continue into posterity.

It is my contention that often it is a distatste for authority which manifests itself in assertions such as some have made, and not a truly thought out theological argument.

That being said I would like to point those concerned to an old post whereby I think I argued for a radially free-church ecclesiology in response to Reeds posts asking how source(s) of authority can be active in an incredibly diverse Christianity.

My ecclesiology in a nut-shell.

A person “becomes” a Christian by faith in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord.

When some Christians regularly get together to proclaim that Word, take the Eucharist, operate in the giftings and fruits of the Spirit, and live as disciples including compassion for the poor and abused etc… then that is The Church operating.  I do not suppose for one moment that a bishop or a prebytery or a president makes one more of a Church than another.

I hope that clears anything up, but we are always open to sustained debate here!



  1. At what point does church authority come into play within your theology? I am sorry, if I have misread your post, and I am certainly not being snide. I feel strongly that God may be calling me into the Episcopal church, so the issue of how tradition and authority as parsed by Christ to the apostles plays out in the modern church.



  2. I would point you to our varied posts on Authority in our Series first off. One thing to keep in mind is that I am not an Anglican theologian (yet!) and so my answers would likely be quite inadequate. What has traditionally held Episcopalians together is shared worship in the Book of Common Prayer, not uniform individual belief. The BCP is basically, for Anglicans, primary theological reflection on Scripture and revelation.

    So if you want to know how the Authorities interact in TEC, then get yourself a BCP or two; the ’79 and ’28 are the most influential; both based in various ways off of the 1662 edition.

    Ask your local priest for a coffee and feel free to ask honest questions. My journey started way back when I read C.S. Lewis, but took shape when I started attending an Episcopal church and spending time with my priest.


  3. I hope you’ll forgive me, if I don’t read all of those posts for the time being. I am wanting to know how the emergent church or a “free” church will solve the problems of faith and practice that require some form of authority or tradition to lend guidance.

    In response to your post, doesn’t the BCP constitute “Church authority”? In my brief encounters, it certainly seems to embody the appeals to tradition that I was referencing in my previous post.

    If this is too far off the topic of your post, then please feel free to disregard my post. I’ll check out the “Authority” series as I am able.


  4. Not at all, I just didn’t want to give you a reductionist response when I have tried to spell things out in a bit more detail elsewhere.

    As far as I am aware, the BCP is not looked at as an “authority” in the same way that, for instance, the Catholic Catechism is. One obvious way that this is seen is that most Provinces have their own modification of the BCP. So Tradition is always growing, adapting, as it should!

    Some conservatives are right now attempting to reduce authority to a rigid interpretation of the 1662 BCP and the 39 Articles of Religion. But this is a novel idea in Anglicanism, and one which is being rightfully rejected by most Anglicans.

    The way that the Anglican Communion is attempting to go forward is by way of “Covenant.” I would check out the many writings on this to get a grasp on what is being attempted. A “Covenant” is different in that it does not seek communion around a set of propositional truths, but on mutual relationship.


  5. “A person “becomes” a Christian by faith in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord”

    QB: I would disagree both from a scriptural and historical viewpoint on this one. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems in context your saying that the individual as a normal means comes to faith in Christ without the need of “the church” (whatever way one defines that term).

    IOW the norm as I see it is that Christ through the Spirit draws the individual to faith via His church. The individual does not come to faith exclusive of the church and then looks around to see what church fits their theological outlook. Even if this was considered a viable option, it wouldn’t be the norm.


  6. Hey QBA,

    I was hoping that you still checked out our site.

    My “formula” was admittedly oversimplified, but I think that it is consistent with “sola fide,” as explicated by Pope Benedict. Of course one needs to be baptized, educated by chatechism, etc… but the actual faith experience is not mediated by the Body Politic. Unless of course we want to say that Paul’s conversion was invalid!

    Consider this…in the earliest Church, there was extended debate as to what was needed for Gentiles to become Christians (understood at this time as the “true sect” of Judaism and not a separate religion). Do they need circumsision? Do they need to follow Torah?
    Peter and Paul’s answer was an emphatic no! Peter baptized on account of the obvious work of the Spirit ALREADY accomplished as manifested by the ecstatic experience of the Gentiles after the vision that he had.


  7. Just a clarification on the definition of a free church. Technically, a “free church” is one that is free of state control. Thus, in a sense all American churches are free churches.

    But, in general the free church tradition has been inclusive of those churches that are non-hierarchical. Thus, Baptist, Congregational, Stone-Campbell, churches fall into this category.

    Non-denominational or community churches is another category altogether!


  8. Well perhaps I’m the one unclear then. The term you used is “Faith experience” which is subjective at best to me. If you meant that God can & does use grace in some extraordinary ways then yes. Certainly St. Pauls conversion fits the discription, but recall that he was blinded and it was actually Ananias who placed his hands on Saul Acts 9 “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

    So even in the extraordinary case of St. Paul I would still say that God chose to act through his ministers in the church. Note especially that after the experience on the road he was still refered to as Saul not Paul. Name changes are significant Abram to Abraham, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul as a change in mission. Also Saul would had excelled instruction in the Jewish religion (Gal 1:14), so he knowledge/concept of God was also given via that tradition prior to the start of Christ’s ministry. I also believe that St. Stephen’s martyrdom was a grace event laying the seed for him, but naturally I can’t confirm that one. I don’t think one today would hold the position that they received the gospel directly from God without instruction from the church as St. Paul, if for no other reason then the church preserved the scriptures the past 2000 years for the individual to read it.

    “Peter baptized on account of the obvious work of the Spirit ALREADY accomplished as manifested by the ecstatic experience of the Gentiles after the vision that he had.”

    Certainly the work of the Holy Spirit is the primary/essential requirement. I take would be that the Holy Spirit worked through St. Peter prior to the Spirits falls upon them. St. Peter preached the Gospel to them Act 10:34-43 THEN the Spirit descends on them. hence the church through the ministry of St. Peter still appears to me to be effective. So their faith seems to have come to them by the Spirit through the preaching of St. Peter and confirmed in baptism. Of course one could also say that Cornelius & his family were already on the way as a God-fearer.


  9. I think I’m with quickbeam on this one—at least, partially.

    I don’t see how one can come to fullness of communion with Christ without the Church. Be it through teaching, the preservation of Scripture, or coming together for Eucharist, a Christian simply cannot avoid it.

    (I should note that as a non-Catholic, Quickbeam and I probably operate on different definitions of just what makes up “The Church.”)

    I’ll agree that one can experience “grace events” or “God moments” or whatever we want to call them, but these are not the same as “becoming Christian.”

    Becoming Christian is self-action and process, not a received phenomenon or stand-alone event.


  10. I think there are several “lenses” of the term church. Whatever lenses one uses to focus on (family, friends, local, regional, national,global,structure or universal) they all have to be tied into the Body of Christ.

    The fact that the relationship between the believer and God does not require the church at all times,does not detract from the fact that the church is the primary (thou not the exclusive) means God uses to draw & sustain the individual in that faith. I think many confuse the experience of starting a relationship with God as something that came about exclusive of what occured in their life. Such a view has aa cracked lense, because they aren’t mature enough to see all the people that influenced their life up to the point of conversion.
    Without this understanding the Gospel concepts of one sows seed and the other harvests doesn’t make any sense to me.


  11. Quick Beam,

    I was looking back over my post and I realized that I never actually indicated how a person would be provided the faculties to “become a Christian.” So, while I stand by a belief that the act of one putting faith in Jesus Christ is not “dependent” on the Church, I agree with you completely that it is the Church who proclaims the Gospel, who teaches the faith, and who sustains the community; in that way it does provide the normative “access” if you will, to the “experience” of faith in Christ.

    Speak up more often, I really crave a Roman Catholic perspective sometimes.


  12. Do you think that the individual experience of faith with God has such a large emphasis because of being American?

    I think after all this we can agree that God gives the grace to the individual to hold faith. Is it possible that the individual can receive faith exclusive of the church I agree its possible but I think it remote in western civilization. Such an individual would have to have no exposure to other christians and no access to a bible.

    Example Algeria has less then 1% Christians, but its likely that 30% have internet access to scripture and ability to “speak’ with christians even us;>) Other less westernized muslim nations may fit your requirement.

    Perhaps the root question would be does God permit the church to mediate His grace to the individual? The catholic would say yes although God is certainly not restricted to this method, but is the norm.

    I would think the Lutherian and Anglican traditions would agree. The other protestant traditions would like disagree.


  13. I think perhaps we agree more than you realize. The primary error (in my opinion of course) that I am trying to avoid is that the Church is the one who hands out, distributes, or verifies salvation. I believe that it is the grace of God by his Holy Spirit which arouses faith and that salvation is something accomplished by Jesus Christ and him alone.

    Certainly, it is the Church which guards our faith, who proclaims the Gospel, who instructs in the faith and who baptizes. So I agree, it is the norm that one grows into a deeper faith by the Church, but the Church does not hand out salvation.


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