Authority in the church

The local congregation is the most visible manifestation of the body of Christ, and the church is the depository of authority."

C. E. Bradford is vice-president of the General Conference for North America.


The purpose of Christ's first coming was to reestablish the authority of God on a rebel planet. The church of God on earth is simply an extension of the kingdom, a colony of heaven. Ellen White has described the church as "His own fortress, which He holds in a sin-stricken, revolted world; and He in tended that no authority should be known in it, no laws be acknowledged by it, but His own." —Testimonies to Ministers, p. 16.

The Son demonstrated His power to act by establishing a community and endowing it with authority. " 'And on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven'" (Matt. 16:18, 19, R.S.V.).

The church of God on earth, there fore, is the locus of spiritual authority. It is here that the Supreme Bearer of authority has His residence. " 'For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them' " (chap. 18:20, R.S.V.). What makes the church the church, says P. T. Forsyth, is not "Christ as its Founder, but as its tenant, as its life, as its power, the Christ living in the faith of its members in general, and of its ministers in particular." —Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, p. 63.

The local congregation

The local congregation is the most visible manifestation of the body of Christ, and the church gathered in a specific place is the depository of authority. The local church is the basic unit, the building block, the vital cell. It is here that renewal takes place, that gifts are exercised and developed. The will of God is made known, and the saints are nurtured, comforted, disciplined, and corrected. Here the believers experience progressive sanctification as they make their way toward the consummation. "The local congregation is no less the church than the whole collection of congregations." —The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, p. 194.

Ellen White points out that "on the church has been conferred the power to act in Christ's stead" (Gospel Workers, p. 501). This authority, derived from Jesus Christ, is not given to individuals to be exercised privately; it is conferred on the total community. " 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,' " the Saviour declares (Matt. 28:18, R.S.V.). But the authority He thus confers on the church is never exercised apart from Him. "Without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:5). "For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you" (1 Cor. 11:23). This authority is exercised in preaching, teaching, and administering discipline in Christ's name. "Whatever the church does that is in accordance with the directions given in God's word, will be ratified in heaven." —Ibid., p. 502. Great, then, is the authority of the congregation the church gathered. A classic example is the role of the church—through its members—in Saul's conversion experience. The future apostle to the world, already chosen to be the greatest teacher save the Master Him self, was told, " 'Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do' " (Acts 9:6, R.S.V.).

Although Saul was brought into a direct encounter with Christ, the Lord directed him to His church in order to learn God's will concerning him. The Lord did not bypass the authority He Himself had vested in His church.

Ellen White explains the reason for this: "The marvelous light that illumined the darkness of Saul was the work of the Lord; but there was also a work that was to be done for him by the disciples. Christ had performed the work of revelation and conviction; and now the penitent was in a condition to learn from those whom God had ordained to teach His truth. . . . Thus Jesus gave sanction to the authority of His organized church and placed Saul in connection with His appointed agencies on earth. Christ had now a church as His representative on earth, and to it belonged the work of directing the repentant sinner in the way of life." —The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 121, 122.

To be in harmony with the authority of Christ is, therefore, to submit to the authority of His church. In a real sense, then, the church can be thought of as the port of entry into the kingdom of God.

Function of New Testament churches

The New Testament record indicates that those whom the Master left behind to direct and nurture His work recognized the spiritual authority given to His church. We find the local churches exercising the highest ecclesiastical functions.

Control of membership. Even before His return to heaven, the Saviour, by anticipation, lodged final action in the sphere of spiritual discipline with the church (see Matt, 18:17). The apostle Paul chided the members at Corinth for resorting to legal courts of unbelievers in settling disputes between members, asking them somewhat pointedly why they were unable to judge trivial cases when they expected to sit in judgment on the world itself! (see 1 Cor. 6:1-8). He exhorted the church to take decided and swift action against one who had defamed the church by gross immorality (see chap. 5:1-5). It is interesting to note that he instructed them that such judgment was to be rendered ''when you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:4). Thus the authority of the church is not a responsibility to be assumed by individual members, but a judgment arrived at in consultation with the assembled congregation. In referring later to this case, the apostle indicated that the action taken was by the majority; he counseled restoration (see 2 Cor. 2:6, 7). Thus the authority of the local congregation in New Testament times is clearly illustrated.

Selection of officers. Such references as Acts 6:3-6; 15:22; 1 Corinthians 16:3; and Philippians 2:25 demonstrate that the local churches assumed the responsibility of appointing their own officers and other servants. It is true that in other texts (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5) Paul and Barnabas are said to have "appointed" elders in the churches they raised up. However, according to the International Bible Encyclopedia, some scholars feel that the elders "appointed" by the apostles were first elected by the local congregation. They point out that the word translated "appoint" in Titus 1:5 may be understood to mean ordination rather than selection.

Community of congregations

As the work grew, organization on a wider scale became necessary if the church was to move forward unitedly. Even in New Testament times cooperative relations were entered into by the churches. An example of this cooperation between churches may be found in Romans 15:26, 27, where Paul says that all the churches made contributions for the poor in Jerusalem. The concept of community can also be found in the salutations used by New Testament writers. Paul wrote "unto the churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:2), a large Roman province. Peter wrote "to the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (1 Peter 1:1, R.S.V.), an even larger geographical area. James wrote simply "to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion" (James 1:1, R.S.V.), which included Christians everywhere.

Although each local church had vested in it great authority, the apostles re minded them constantly that they did not stand alone as isolated units, but sustained a relationship to each other and to what later came to be termed "the church universal."

As the word spread and churches multiplied—beginning at Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, finally to the utter most parts of the earth—unity of faith and action was maintained. This movement was not to be a loose accumulation of churches scattered throughout the world but the same church manifested in many places. The body of Christ was to be one, with many members transcending all barriers and lines of distinction.

Administrative structure

The authority given by Christ to His church has been transmitted from the New Testament to the present. The various levels of the church structure (conference, union, division, General Conference) derive their authority from local congregations. Their existence is made legitimate only by their relevance and service to the total fellowship. In this instance authority flows up, not down; it is granted, not imposed. In speaking of the representative system of government used by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ellen White concluded that "by this arrangement, every conference, every institution, every church, and every individual, either directly or through representatives, has a voice in the election of the men who bear the chief responsibilities in the General Conference" (Testimonies, vol. 8, pp. 236, 237).

The Jerusalem Council is the first re corded instance of a general church council. The occasion was a difference of opinion regarding church policy. It is significant to note that this council was a delegated meeting. "The council which decided this case was composed of apostles and teachers who had been prominent in raising up Jewish and Gen tile Christian churches, with chosen delegates from various places. Elders from Jerusalem and deputies from Antioch were present, and the most influential churches were represented." —The Acts of the Apostles, p. 196.

The whole church was involved through the representatives they had sent. Ellen White continues: "The entire body of Christians was not called to vote upon the question. The 'apostles and elders,' men of influence and judgment, framed and issued the decree, which was thereupon generally accepted by the Christian churches." —Ibid.

The exercise of authority was collegial and fraternal, not arbitrary. The apostles could say, "It seemed good ... to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things" (Acts 15:28). Authority operates best in the setting of representative church government, where the appointed delegates and leaders of the church come together as equals, laborers together with God.

The recommendations of the Jerusalem council were few. It seems that the apostles consciously kept them to a minimum. The apostles continually held before the believers the Word of God as the supreme authority and indeed the basis for their authority. As a result there emerged in New Testament times what might be termed a pluriform church, rich and varied. Some wished to observe the ceremonial law and even practice circumcision. Others felt no ob ligation to keep the law of Moses. But all recognized the necessity for Obedience in faith to gospel truth. The apostles did not feel challenged by this variety in the church; they were keenly aware that the Holy Spirit was the supreme administrator and that He dwelt in the church universal. There was no desire for exact uniformity.

Apostolic authority

The proclamation of the gospel, the good news of God's saving grace, is the most important exercise of ecclesiastical authority that has come down to us from apostolic times. Through the preaching of the gospel the exousia of Jesus is extended. The church continues the saving activity of her Lord, and the preachers of the gospel are logically in the forefront of this activity. In fact, the men who are commissioned to preach the gospel in a special way are His ambassadors with authority to speak and act on His behalf (see 2 Cor. 5:20). Modern bearers of such authority must be closely associated with the risen Lord, who gives them this exousia in which they work.

When the church militant comes to the full possession of her power, she will go forth conquering and to conquer, planting the Lord's banner even in the midst of the enemy's camp. Territory after territory will be taken for the Master. The earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, and the exousia of God and of Christ will be unchallenged in every part of this one rebel planet.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
C. E. Bradford is vice-president of the General Conference for North America.

October 1979

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Preaching from Job

This book has been apotheosized, crystalized, and mummified——but deep insights await the one who is willing to dig for the treasures buried there.

Is Jesus a friend or a doctrine?

No matter how carefully formulated, propositional truth is at best a cold, lifeless corpse without the quickening spirit of a personal relationship.

2, 000 Baptized!

Laymen and ministers in El Salvador unite in the most productive evangelistic effort in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

How to be yourself and a pastor

A pastor needs the personal confidence to say, "I can do a number of jobs well, but God has called me to the ministry and humbly I accept the challenge."

The Royal Touch

"The greatest honor a man can receive is conferred by a touch on the heart."

Seeds in the air

James David Chase and Jere Wallack take a second look at local radio evangelism, examining some of the reasons pastors are not on the air.

From the Editor

Response and Reaction to Elder Wilson's "Open Letter." MINISTRY summarizes comments from readers and analyzes them.

Health and Religion

Making the Five-Day Plan Evangelistic. Don't abandon your graduates! Use a follow-up plan to win them to Christ.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - SermonView - Medium Rect (300x250)

Recent issues

See All