Authority and Priesthood
NCW 23, September 1995
Q. By what authority does your Church claim to hold Priesthood? The Catholic and Lutheran/Anglican/Presbyterian Churches can show a direct line of apostolic succession. Can you?
Churches see priesthood authority in many different ways. Catholics claim an unbroken clain of apostolic authority. Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians and the Reformed Church claim the same line of succession from the Catholic Church from whom they broke away. The Orthodox Church (Russian, Greek, etc.) claim the same line but from an earlier time when they broke with Rome. Mormons claim the chain of apostolic succession was broken by apostacy and that that authority had to be restored by angels. The Protestant "Free Churches" (Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc.) claim no direct apostolic chain of succession but say that the Priesthood is entirely spiritual and that authority is entirely spiritual too -- whoever is born-again possessed "Royal Priesthood". Others, like Jehovah's Witnesses, the Worldwide Church of God, Seventh Day Adventists claim authority on the basis of teaching correct doctrine. So on what does one base authority? I presume, from your question, you are inferring that authority is conferred successionally by the laying on of hands.
Interestingly enough the Lutheran Church in Denmark does not have this lineal authority because at one point in its history it deposed a bishop who had lineal qualifications and installed one of its own who did not. So to this day the Danish Lutheran Church does not have apostolic authority. This caused somewhat of a problem when recently the Church of England and the Lutheran Church held a series of meetings to open up Communion to each other as part of a drive to unify the main Protestant Denominations in the European Union. So a Lutheran can now freely partake of an Anglican Communion and an Anglican of a Lutheran Communion. Because of doctrinal differences the Anglican and Lutheran Churches have not united but sharing communion is undoubtedly the penultimate step to union. What happened with regard to the "Danish problem"? It was apparently glossed over and the conference decided after all that apostolic succession was a secondary issue.
Throughout history the reformed Churches have schizmatised so that break-off groups can still claim apostolic succcession. The Anabaptists were one such group. If apostolic succession were enough to claim priesthood authority then clearly we would not be able to distinguish between Catholic and Lutheran, for example. Neither, however, recognises the authority of the other, and claims that each is heretical. Clearly authority rests on more than apostolic succession (assuming that is valid). Catholics and Lutherans would rightly claim that authority also is based on teaching apostolic doctrine. But even here we have problems. What is the apostolic doctrine? There are many Protestant Churches all teaching different doctrines though variously grouped together around certain core teachings, like the evangelical and charismatic movements, for example.
The evangelical movement includes Baptists, Pentecostals, and Evangelical Anglicans. By contrast, the charismatic movement excludes the Baptists but includes charismatic Catholics! There are, indeed, so many different groupings within churches that one is reminded of the logo of the olympics -- various circles interlacing each other, but some circles having nothing to do with some of the other circles. There are different kinds of Baptists, different kinds of Pentecostals, and different kinds of Anglicans and Lutherans. There are liberal and conservative Lutherans. Even in the Catholic Church, despite being one organisation, there is a world of difference between a Bavarian Catholic Church and a Mexican Indian one which is a mixture of paganism and Catholicism. There are "quiet" Pentecostals and "noisy" Pentecostals; there are Pentecostals who worship holding snakes, others who drink poisons. There is every shade and colour imaginable in both Protestantism and Catholicsm. There are Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics, Armenian Catholics and Syrian Catholics. In America there are white Baptist and black Baptist Churches.
Even the Mormon world, with its unique claim to authoity, is multi-coloured. There are over 100 Latter-day Saint denominations, with two large ones (the "Catholic" Utah Mormons and the "Protestant" Missouri Mormons), both of whom claim priesthood authority. There are conservative Utah Mormons and liberal Utah Mormons, conservative Missouri Mormons (Reorganized Latter Day Saint) and liberal Missouri Mormons (RLDS).
In terms of doctrine, there have been shifts in every single church denomination on the face of the earth. No denomination is constant. If authority is to be based on true, consistent teachings, then no church in the world qualifies.
Which brings us to the third position -- the authority of the Holy Spirit. This is even more difficult to measure because so many people, groups and churches claim to have the anointing of the Holy Spirit and yet all are bringing forth radically different doctrines of salvation.
You will search in vain to establish the authority of any church or group or individual because all are in constant FLUX. People and churches change. You won't even find unity within a single congregation because people perceive things differently.
So what is the answer to your question? I can tell you what authority is but I cannot point in one direction and say: "There you have full, comprehensive authority in the matter of doctrine, practice, apostolic succession and the anointing of the Spirit." To say that you can is a complete delusion. It is like asking: "Describe the River Rhine to me" or "Point to the River Rhine." The River Rhine can be described in thousands of way. It is very different at its sourse in Switzerland than its estuary in Holland. It passes through several countries. It is constantly changing in shape as land is both eroded and created by deposition. Sometimes it is more polluted than at other times. Sometimes it floods. Sometimes the river level is low. Sometimes it is warm, sometimes it is cold. Like all physical things, it changes. Human beings and institutions change also. They never remain constant.
That does not, of course, mean that the River Rhine does not exist, any more than authority does not exist. It means that authority is as complex as the River Rhine! It is composed of many things. Sometimes authority is related to circumstances. Jesus said that the Pharisees had authority in His day, but do their successors have authority today?
If you want me to point at something which never changes, which has absolulute authority, then there is only one thing: GOD. God is unchanging in His moral attributes, in His righteousness, in His holiness. God is authority. And He has delegated that authority to One who is equally righteous and holy, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, in His turn, delegates authority to individuals to perform different tasks. That authority, however, is not necessarily permanent, and may not necesarily be passed down from one man to another. It was done in this way in the Law of Moses, the Priesthood being passed from father to son in one particular tribe, but this is not the way of the law of Christ. God calls every individual to do a particulay task, and that is his authority. The Reformation changed the world. Lutherans would rightly claim that Luther was called by God to reform the corrupt and apostate Catholic Church. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the Lutheran church organization has the authority that Martin Luther held. Methodists would rightly claim that the Wesleys were called to reform the corrupt established Church of England. But that doesn't mean that the Methodist Church organization has the same authority as the Wesleys had. The modern Lutheran Church has changed beyond all recognition, as has the Methodist. The modern Lutheran Church openly breaks the commandments, and the modern Methodist Church no longer has the fire and power of the Holy Spirit that the first Methodists had. Both have changed, as have all churches.
God is interested in everyone and will not leave any Church trying to follow Him without any guidance. He will call men who earnestly want to do His will and give them the authority, through the Holy Spirit, to carry out their mission. And so it was with the prophets of old. They were called and commissioned, did their job and, once they had done their job, were decommissioned. Their authority was for as long as their calling lasted.
All organisations, in order to preserve order, have lines of authority and methods by which its members are commissioned to leadership positions. Thus a Baptist convention may select and authorise a man to be its pastor, just as conclaves of cardinals select popes in the Catholic Church. Mormon Stake High Councils select Bishops and Branch Presidents just as higher bodies of the Jehovahs Witness organisation select overseers. Without this form of external authorisation organisations would disintegrate into chaos. Of course, from time to time, they split into other denominations in which case the authorities of the parent organisations are no longer recognised.
All of this may be termed OUTER AUTHORITY or LEGAL AUTHORITY. It is all visible. God's conferral of authority is largely invisible, bypassing as it does things like ordination by the laying on of hands, democratic voting, the issuance of certificates, etc.. The problem with this kind of authority is that human beings cannot agree on it because they cannot discern the Spirit. It is for this reason that schizmatisation takes place.
So what is a seeker after truth to do faced with so many competing claims by the churches? Shall he be purely legalistic and follow the Catholics and Mormons because they supposedly have legal authority (either by apostollic succession or by the ordination of angels, respectively) or shall they judge by the spiritual fruits of each Church?
The truth of the matter is that most people are attracted to particular churches because of what might be called chemical attraction -- the individual and Church just happen to believe in the same sort of things. Many Christians move from church to church as they try to find a spiritual "match". Most remain in the Churches they were brought up in our of shere tradition, and nothing else. Their allegiance is purely tribal.
New Covenant Christians believe that truth is authority. They believe it because this was the authority that Jesus claimed. Though Himself a legally ordained Rabbi, and thus possessing the outer authority to teach to the Jewish Church, His teachings were nevertheless regarded as "apostate" and "heretical" by the established Church of His day which was run by Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes. Jesus obey the Law of the Church, as recorded in the Scriptures, scrupulously but rejected all their man-made traditions. Though Himself the Son of God and a direct descendant of David with the right to claim the throne of Israel He did not attempt to do so. He did not wish to be a "pope" or a "prophet-president" over the Israelite nation. His authority was in the purity of His teaching, His faultless deeds, and the power of the Holy Spirit which He demonstrated in changing hearts, healing the sick and raising the dead. He never once claimed priesthood authority as a Catholic or a Mormon might.
The whole Catholic-Protestant line of apostollic succession is in any case flawed. Catholics make their claims on the basis that Peter was the first apostle of the Roman church (which gained political ascendancy) but there is no evidence that Peter was ever the bishop (overseer/pastor) of the Roman church. Indeed, all the evidence points to a man called Linus as being the first Bishop of Rome.
Mormons claim that the resurrected Peter, James and John visited Joseph Smith to confer the Melchizedek Priesthood upon the young prophet but there is no evidence that such a visitation ever took place. Rather, the evidence points to the fact that this "visit" was invented to bolster emerging Mormon doctrines on the Priesthood. (See our pamphlets, New Covenant Christians, Latter-day Saints, and the Priesthood of God and The Prophets with No Priesthood).
In the view of New Covenant Christians there are no valid claims for apostolic succession and outer priesthood authority in any existing church and we, ourselves, claim none. The basis of the New Covenant is, in any case, inward, as the prophet Jeremiah testified (Jer.31:31ff). The fact that any church claims outward, legalistic authority to be the sole representatives of God automatically disqualifies them because they are out of harmony with scripture.
This leaves us only with the following criteria for spiritual authority:
It follows that every church will have different admixtures of these at any one time. They will be in constant flux. Such a realisation may be a little disarming for a person seeking the omfort of an absolute vindication by God of a particular church, but it is necessary. Fortunately, we are not left to grapple aimlessly as we try to discover where our place in the Body (Christian Church) is because God will lead the earnest seeker after truth by revelation and tell him/her where he/she is to be.
1. Correct doctrine (e.g. the person and work of Christ)
2. Correct practice (e.g. correct form of baptism)
3. Moral and ethical purity (holiness) (fruits of the spirit)
4. The power of the Holy Spirit (fruits of the spirit)
Like most Churches, New Covenant Christians believe that they have the most correct doctrine and practice, are striving to be a holy people and to act in the power of the Holy Spirit. We simply invite people to come and explore and find out whether they are called to this body or not.
The Priesthood of God is conferred by the Holy Spirit inwardly and is confirmed outwardly by Church ordination. This Priesthood is called the Melchizedek Priesthood and Jesus Christ is our High Priest (Heb.5-7).
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