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As Jesus ascended into heaven, He delegated His authority to the Apostles to make disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20a). This delegation of authority has typically served as the basis for thinking about the authority (or power) of the disciples gathered as the church. In other words, here Jesus grants authority to order worship (implied in baptism and teaching) and to declare doctrine (implied in teaching what Jesus commanded).
Because the church has authority to declare doctrine, it is the church that has authority to draw doctrinal lines and serve as the final judge on doctrinal issues. Scripture teaches us that the church serves as the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) by communicating the biblical witness faithfully to succeeding generations (2 Tim. 2:2), by defending it from attack (Jude 3–4), by presenting reasons for belief (1 Peter 3:15), and by witnessing to its truthfulness and power (2 Peter 1:19–21).
In our age, this understanding—that the church has Jesus’ authority to serve as the final judge on doctrinal matters— rubs us wrong for three reasons. First, it rubs us wrong because we are pronounced individualists. This is especially the case for contemporary American Christians, who have a built-in “democratic” bias to believe that the Bible’s theology is accessible to all well-meaning, thoughtful Christians. Because theological truth is democratically available to all, such individuals can stand toe to toe with ministerial “experts” or ecclesiastical courts and reject their authority. As one church leader said some years ago, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus can tell me what to believe.”
Perhaps it is this individualistic, democratic perspective that has led to the rise of websites and blogs in which theology is done in public by a range of folks who may or may not be appropriately trained and ordained for a public teaching role. While the Internet has served as a “free press” that has provided important watchdog functions for various organizations, there are two downsides of the new media, which ironically move in opposite directions. On the one side, the new media (blogs, websites, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter) allow everyone to be his own theologian and judge of doctrinal matters. But because everyone is shouting and judging, the ironic other side is that those who are the most well known and have the biggest blogs gain the most market share and actually become the doctrinal arbiters of our electronic age. In this new media world, the idea that the church as a corporate body actually has authority to declare doctrine and judge on doctrinal issues is anathema.
Next, believing that the church has authority to judge doctrinal matters rubs us wrong because we have a faulty understanding of “the church.” We have long been told that the church is not a building—it is the individuals in the building who make up the church. While that statement might be true when couched in a certain way, we should say that it is particularly when the church gathers under the Spirit of King Jesus that He promises to be with us. That is to say, it is when the church gathers as a “court” (defined as a formal meeting or reception presided over by a sovereign) that the church declares doctrine because that is the time when we trust that King Jesus is present and presiding (Matt. 18:19–20).
For some of us, again reflecting our individualism, such understanding of the church unnecessarily limits voices and perspectives that might be helpful in conversation. But restricting access to debates and judgments about theology to those who have been set apart as elders in Christ’s church and who have gathered for the purpose of study, prayer, and declaration actually ensures a more thoughtful process and a surer understanding of Christ’s Word than a pell-mell, democratic, individualistic free-for-all. Not only do we trust that a multiplicity of voices is represented by the eldership, but, above all, we trust that the single voice of the Spirit of Jesus will be heard in our midst.
Finally, this understanding that the church declares and judges doctrine bothers us because it seems slow and prone to error. After all, doctrinal error is significant: precious souls are at stake, so the church must speak quickly in order to protect the flock, the thought goes. Yet, how often is it true in the life of the church that haste makes waste, that rapid response actually spreads doctrinal deviancy by giving it an undeserved attention? Or we end up failing to honor our brothers in Christ with whom we disagree by not listening well to what they are saying? The seemingly slow processes of the church as it works its way through doctrinal confusion and conflict actually preserve the reputation of our brothers. After all, “the one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17).
Of course, such slow and deliberate processes do not guarantee a biblically appropriate result. After all, the Westminster Confession of Faith tells us that “all synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred” (WCF 31.3). Sometimes, entire denominations err significantly as they prayerfully consider Scripture and judge doctrine. Such error, however, does not negate Jesus’ own delegation of authority to the church and set the stage for a free-for-all. Rather, errors are appealed to the judgment of the larger church—whether higher judicatories within a denomination or the global church itself.
And if the particular church does not repent of her errors, then the third power of the church is invoked: the church’s authority to discipline itself (Matt. 18:15–20). Sometimes this discipline occurs within the courts of the church. Sometimes this discipline occurs when congregations are forced to exercise “discipline in reverse” by leaving a particular denominational body. Such is never done with rejoicing, but always with tears. However, the main point is actually reinforced: Jesus has delegated authority to the church to declare and judge doctrine, and so discipline herself. As the church does this, she demonstrates her submission to her King, who rules over all things and who continues to speak His Word through His church. Thankfully, we have His sure promise: He is with us always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20).