Authority The Church's Biblical & Historical Claims
by John Pacheco
Authority. It is an idea that many in our society have come to embrace with less than great enthusiasm. Most people accept authority not so much because they want to, but because they have to. Without authority, society starts to crumble since its functioning depends on recognizing lawful authority and submitting to it. Without authority, courts could not function, police could not enforce, teachers could not teach, managers could not manage. In short, the erosion of authority leads to the erosion of civilization, and so, when we see the plain results of this erosion today, we need not look any further for the cause of this erosion than in the obfuscation of authority. The erosion began first with the attacks on religious truth and the authority of the Catholic Church, and then later to challenge the traditional authority of the family.
As a society, we are in a state of denial. We do not admit that authority is being perniciously stripped from the social fabric. The authority of the state still remains intact, but it is essentially illusory in substance since the underlying foundation of it has already been long eroded, and it is only a matter of time before the illusion disappears. The foundation of society is, of course, the Church and the traditional family. The irony of this circumstance, however, should not be overlooked. It has been shown repeatedly throughout the course of human affairs that once the state turns its back on the Church and the traditional family, her existing establishment soon crumbles and another takes its place. The authority of the State then is tied to the authority of the Church and by extension the human family - all having their genesis in God Himself.
The Authority of The Church
The authority of the Catholic Church, of course, rests on the identity of Jesus Christ. If Jesus is God, then the authority of the Catholic Church cannot be denied either biblically, historically, or "ecclesiologically". On the other hand, it does not take an exceptional mind to recognize that when the divinity of Jesus is attacked, the authority of the Catholic Church "falls" as well. My purpose in this piece, however, is not to explore the question of Christ's divinity, but rather to examine the authority of the Catholic church in the belief that Jesus was God.
There are a multitude of passages in the bible which indisputably point to the divine foundation of the Catholic Church and the authority delegated to her. Here are a few examples:
Speaking to the Apostles, Jesus says, "all authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:16). One main feature of the concept of authority is that some people have it and others do not. If that were not the case, and everyone had equal authority, the logical conclusion is that NO ONE has actual authority. Hence, Jesus is speaking to the Apostles and giving them the authority to 'teach them'. Who are 'them'? The other disciples of course. Jesus does not give any other group the authority to teach independently of the Apostles. Furthermore, He promises to be with the Apostles to ensure that they do not teach error (Cf. John 14:26).
In fact, the Scriptures are saturated with the proof for an hierarchical, unified, and authoritative church (Cf. Matthew 10:1-5, Luke 10:16, Mark 3:14, 1 Timothy 3:15, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:5, Acts 5:12-13, Acts 20:28, 1 Corinthians 1:10, 1 Corinthians 12:25, Titus 2:15). Furthermore, the fact that Christ chose twelve Apostles is no coincidence when one considers the direct parallel to the Old Testament. The Apostles form the foundation and patriarchs of the New Israel, as the twelve sons of Jacob were the patriarchs of the Israel of the Old Law (Cf. Exodus 1:1-5).
Jesus is speaking to the Apostles, giving them His authority. He promises to be with them to the "end of the age." Now since Jesus wanted His apostles to "go and make disciples of all nations", and since the first apostles would not be physically present on earth forever, the next logical question is: what next? If Jesus' words were not meant eternally and were to be understood simply in His time, then the authority of the Apostles which Christ instituted would have died with the last Apostle. This would leave the Church without leadership and in total confusion when serious doctrinal questions and problems occurred, which, inevitably, they did. The other option, the much more likely one and more consistent with God's eternal plan and Holy Scripture, is that the Apostles would choose successors, passing on to them what they learned from the Lord, and in turn giving them the authority to teach. This is, in fact, what the early church did, and has continued to do ever since Her beginning.
Continuity of the Authority
When the time had come to replace Judas Iscariot, Peter asks God to fill the place of Judas Iscariot. If Christ had not intended the Apostolic Community to be maintained, then why did He choose Matthias to replace Judas? The fact that the Apostles chose a successor indicates clearly that Christ wanted this structure to continue as it has to this day. "For it is written in the Book of Psalms: 'Let his encampment become desolate, and man no one dwell in it.' And 'May another take his office'. Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us, become with us a witness to his resurrection. So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justin, and Matthias. Then they prayed, 'You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.' Then they gave lots to them, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles." (Acts 1:20-26)
In Matthew 18:15-18, Christ gives the Church the power to 'cut-off' obstinate members through the Apostles, "And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer." The Apostles have been given the power, therefore, to excommunicate heretics from the Church. The reference to 'binding and loosing' gives to the Church the power which was given to Peter in Matthew 16:19. The power and authority which Peter exercises in his own person are the power and authority given by Christ to his Apostolic community. Both passages in Matthew (Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 18:15-18) support the Catholic interpretation that when the bishops of the world, as successors to the Apostles are united with the Pope, the successor of St. Peter and the Bishop of Rome, they cannot err in matters of faith and morals. The first explicit example of this is found in Acts 15, when the Apostles united with Peter make a formal teaching on a question (i.e. Gentile circumcision) which was binding on all believers.
"The power of binding and loosing was always claimed by the Pharisees. Under Queen Alexandra the Pharisees, says Josephus (War of the Jews 1:5:2), 'became the administrators of all public affairs so as to be empowered to banish and readmit whom they pleased, as well as to loose and bind.'The various schools had the power to 'bind and loose'; that is, to forbid and to permit (Talmud: Ta'anit 12a). This power and authority vested in the rabbinical body of each age or in the Sanhedrin, received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of justice (Sifna, Emor, ix; Talmud: Makkot 23b).' In this sense Jesus, when appointing his successors, he used the familiar formula (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). By these words he virtually invested them with the same authority as that which he found belonging to the scribes and Pharisees who 'bind heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but will not move them with one of their fingers'; that is, 'loose them,' as they have the power to do (Matthew 23:2-4)" - David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), p.56-57.
Supporting Tradition and Teaching
The biblical case for the authority of the Church is, therefore, an extremely compelling one. However, what 'cements' the Catholic Church's claim is the unanimous testimony of the early Christians. Here are a few excerpts from their writings. Let the reader judge for himself or herself:
"Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier... Our Apostles know through Our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry." (Pope St. Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians 42:4-5, 44:1-3 [80 A.D.])
"Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ was subject to the Father, and the Apostles were subject to Christ and to the Father; so that there may be unity in both body and spirit" (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians, A.D.110, [13,1])
"Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishops presiding in the place of God and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the Apostles." (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians, A.D. 110, [6,1])
"Those, indeed, who belong to God and to Jesus Christ - they are with the bishop. Do not err, my brethren: if anyone follow a schismatic; he will not inherit the kingdom of God." (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians, A.D. 110, [3,2])
"You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the Apostles. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, A.D. 110, [8,1])
"Indeed, when you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living in the manner not in the manner of men but as Jesus Christ, who died for us, that through faith in His death you might escape dying. It is necessary, therefore, - and such is your practice, that you do nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the presbytery, as to the Apostles of Jesus Christ our hope." (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Traillians, A.D. 110, [2,1])
"And of the elect, he was one indeed, the wonderful martyr Polycarp, who in our days was an apostolic and prophetic teacher, bishop of the Catholic Church in Smyrna. Every word which came forth from his mouth was fulfilled and will be fulfilled." (Martyrdom of Polycarp 16:2, [155 A.D.])
"Although he [Paul] writes to the Corinthians and to the Thessalonians for their correction, nevertheless it is shown that there is one Church spread abroad though the whole world." (Muratorian Fragment, [155 A.D.])
"Let us be careful, then, if we should be submissive to God, not to oppose the bishop." (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, A.D. 180, [5,3])
"And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times: men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about." (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, A.D. 180, [3,3,1])
"The blessed Apostles [Peter and Paul], having founded and built up the Church [of Rome], they handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus. Paul makes mention of this Linus in the Epistle to Timothy. To him succeeded Anencletus; and after him, in the third place from the Apostles, Clement was chosen from the episcopate. He had seen the blessed Apostles and was acquainted with them. It might be said that He still heard the echoes of the preaching of the Apostles, and had their traditions before his eyes. And not only he, for there were many still remaining who had been instructed by the Apostles. In the time of Clement, no small dissension having arisen among the brethren in Corinth, the Church in Rome sent a very strong letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace and renewing their faith. To this Clement, Evaristus succeeded; and Alexander succeeded Evaristus. Then, sixth after the Apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telesphorus, who also was gloriously martyred. Then Hyginus; after him, Pius; and after him, Anicetus. Soter succeeded Anicetus, and now, in the twelfth place after the Apostles, the lot of the episcopate has fallen to Eleutherus. In this order, and by the teaching of the Apostles handed down in the Church, the preaching of the truth has come down to us." (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, A.D. 180, [3,3,3])
"It is necessary to obey those who are the presbyters in the Church, those who as we have shown, have succession from the Apostles; those who have received, with the succession of the episcopate, the sure charism of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father. But the rest, who have no part in the primitive succession and assemble wheresoever they will, must be held in suspicion." (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, A.D. 180, [4,26,2])
"For all these [heretics] are of much later date than are the bishops to whom the Apostles handed over the Churches; and this fact I pointed out most carefully in the third book. It is of necessity, then, that these aforementioned heretics, because they are blind to the truth, walk in various devious paths; and on this account the vestiges of their doctrine are scattered about without agreement or connection. The path of these, however, who belong to the Church, goes around the whole world; for it has the firm tradition of the Apostles, enabling us to see that the faith of all is one and the same" (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, A.D. 180, [5,20,1]).
"After the death of the tyrant, the [Apostle John] came back again to Ephesus from the Island of Patmos; and, upon being invited, he went even to the neighbouring cities of the pagans, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, and there to ordain to the clerical state such as were designated by the Spirit" (St. Clement of Alexandria, Who is the rich man that is saved?, 190 A.D. [42,2]).
"Moreover, if there be any [heresies] bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, so that they might seem to have been handed down by the Apostles because they were from the time of the Apostles, we can say to them: let them show the origins of their Churches, let them unroll the order of their bishops, running down in succession from the beginning, so that their first bishop shall have for author and predecessor some of one of the Apostles or of the apostolic men who continued steadfast with the Apostles. For this is the way in which the apostolic Churches transmit their lists: like the Church of the Smyrnaeans, which records that Polycarp was placed there by John; like the Church of the Romans where Clement was ordained by Peter. In just the same way the other Churches display those whom they have as sprouts from the apostolic seed, having been established in the episcopate by the Apostles" (Tertullian, The Demurrer Against the Heretics, A.D. 200, [32,1]).
"Even here in the Church the gradations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons happen to be imitations, in my opinion, of the angelic glory and of that arrangement which, the Scriptures say, awaits those who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles and who have lived in complete righteousness according to the gospel." (St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 6:13:107:2, [207 A.D.])
"From what has been said, then, it seems clear to me that the true Church, that which is really ancient, is one.We say, therefore, that in substance, in concept, in origin, and in eminence, the ancient and Catholic Church is alone." (St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7:17:107:3-5, [207 A.D.])
"Our Lord, whose commands we ought to fear and observe, says in the Gospel, by way of assigning the Episcopal dignity and settling the plan of His Church. From that time the ordination of bishops and the plan of the Church flows on through the changes of the times and successions; for the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers." (St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letter without heading, of Cyprian to the Lapsed, A.D. 250, [33,27,1]).
"They alone have remained outside [the Church] who, were they within, would have to be ejected. There [in John 6:68-69] speaks Peter, upon whom the Church would be built, teaching in the name of the Church and showing that even if a stubborn and proud multitude withdraws because it does not wish to obey, yet the Church does not withdraw from Christ. The people joined to the priest, the flock clinging to their shepherd in the Church. You ought to know, then, that the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishops, and if someone is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church. They vainly flatter themselves who creep up, not having peace with the priest of God, believing that they are secretly in communion with certain individuals. The Church, which is one and Catholic is not split or divided, but is indeed united and joined by the cement of priests who adhere to one another." (St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 66(67):8, [254 A.D.])
"The power of forgiving sins was given to the apostles and the churches which these men, sent by Christ, established and to the bishops who succeeded them by being ordained in their place." (Firmilian, Epistle to Cyprian 75:16, [255 A.D])
"And if you ever are visiting in cities, do not inquire simply where the house of the Lord is - for the others, sects of impious, attempt to call their dens 'houses of the Lord' - nor ask merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church, for this is the name peculiar to this holy Church, the Mother of us all, which is the Spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God." (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Cathechetical Lectures 18:26, [350 A.D.])
"We believe in the holy Church, that is, the Catholic Church, for heretics and schismatics call their own congregations churches. But heretics violate the faith itself by a false opinion about God; schismatics, however, withdraw from fraternal love by hostile separations, although they believe the same things we do. Consequently, neither heretics nor schismatics belong to the Catholic Church; not heretics, because the Church loves God, and not schismatics, because the Church loves neighbour." (St. Augustine, Faith and Creed 10:21, [393 A.D.])
"If you should find someone who does not yet believe in the gospel, what would you answer him when he says, 'I do not believe?' Indeed, I would not believe in the gospels myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so." (St. Augustine, Against the Letter of Mani called 'The Foundation' 4:5, [397 A.D.])
"That is why, when writing to Timothy, he says, 'Fulfill your diaconate' [2 Tim 4:5], although Timothy was then a bishop. That he was in fact a bishop is clear when Paul says to him, 'Lay hands on no man lightly' (1 Tim 5:22), and again, 'Which was given you with the laying on of hands of the presbytery' [1 Tim 4:14], and presbyters would have ordained a bishop." (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle to the Phillippians 1:1, [398 A.D.])
"What then will a Catholic Christian do if a small portion of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal faith? What, surely, but prefer the soundness of the whole body do the unsoundness of a pestilent and corrupt members?" (Vincent of Lerins, Notebooks 3:5, [434 A.D.])
"Certainly, it is now the bishops who hold their [apostles] place in the Church. They receive the authority of binding and loosing, who have as their lot a degree of governing. It is a magnificent honour, but that honour carries with it a heavy burden." (Pope Gregory I, Homilies on the Gospels, 2:26:4, [590 A.D.])
Return to Articles Page.