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Thoughts on Church “Authority”


After several conversations with a dear friend concerning the nature of the church’s authority, he bought me the 2010 book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, by Jonathan Leeman. Leeman argues, in sum, that God’s love is defined for the world by the practices of formal church membership and discipline. This book is endorsed by prominent Southern Baptist pastor, Mark Dever, and by the Reformed theologian, Michael Horton. It represents a trend among recent confessional evangelicals in North America to reclaim (against the backdrop of its de-emphasis) the doctrine of the church and its centrality in the life of the believer. While I benefited from many sections in the book, I’m uneasy about this new re-emphasis on church authority. In my judgment, many ambiguities attend the recent Protestant recovery of “church authority.” And as much as I consider myself to have a “high ecclesiology,” the flavor seems off here. Many of Leeman’s most controversial statements must die the death of a thousand qualifications – some of which he gives and some of which he does not give. Here are a few thoughts:

1. The concern for “clarity” as it concerns the relationship between the visible and invisible church can, in fact, be unprincipled. Over and over again in Leeman’s book, he argues that church membership and discipline are God’s way of guarding His name, making clear what His love actually looks like, etc. The less we practice formal membership and discipline, presumably, the less clear we are about the exclusive nature of the gospel and Jesus’ gospel demand for repentance. But, the “boundary” between the visible and invisible church has never been particularly clear. Look at the people Paul can meaningfully call “brothers” and “churches” in his Corinthian correspondence. Consider the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The objective behavior difference between the visible church and the world is sometimes sadly blurry. But this is just a feature of living in the age between Christ’s first and second comings. Certainly, the line between the church and the world is not endlessly elastic. Paul did, after all, oust someone in 1 Corinthians. And surely if a person said, “I don’t believe in Jesus anymore,” they’d be out. But the threshold of entrance into the church in the New Testament is not particularly high.

As much as we might like to make the line more clear, we are not authorized to do so in the New Testament. While the entrance threshold is quite low (i.e. basic confession and the lack of any explicit evidence against the confession) – the standard that the confessed are held to is rather high. Paul spends a lot more time in his epistles exhorting confessors than he does questioning the “reality” of their faith. In any case, once we focus too much on church membership and making the line “clear,” where do we stop? Church history is, after all, riddled with churches that have all sorts of ways of making “extra sure” that individuals’ confessions are real – and with terrible consequences.

The answer to nominalism in our churches is not to “up the ante” for church-membership, but to encourage and disciple one another with the word of God. We do not need to construct artificial forms of community (see below), but rather be ever more vigilant in pursuing the love of God through the gospel. The risk of luke-warm Christianity is not a risk Jesus saw fit to absolutely eradicate. And this is precisely because the church is a school for sinners, not a club for saints – a contention that surely everyone in the current debate would agree with.

2. While I think the first point constitutes the largest sentimental problem with Leeman’s paradigm, the largest semantic problem has to do with his equivocal use of “authority” in ecclesiological matters. Again and again, we are told that the church has been given Christ’s authority. We are told that the local church (not individual Christians) has been authorized to speak in His name, declare who belongs to Him, separate those who don’t, disciple its members, etc. This might offend us, we are reminded, but this is only for the same reason that God’s authority offends us.

There is a major problem with putting the matter this way. As I’m sure Leeman would agree, when it pertains to Christian conscience, the church only has the authority of the word. If the church excommunicates you for no good reason, it has no spiritual implications. If the church doesn’t excommunicate you when it should, then you are still in big spiritual trouble! Why? Because the church is only declaring externally what is already true spiritually. The only “authority of Christ” it has is an “inasmuch as” authority. That is, it has “ministerial” and declarative authority. But, this authority really belongs to every individual Christian. Spouses can minister God’s word to one another and to their children. Individual can admonish one another and rebuke one another with the word. And inasmuch as their admonishments, encouragements and rebukes accurately reflect the word, they are (indeed!) speaking for Christ! The only difference the “group” makes is with respect to the “group,” not with respect to the underlying spiritual realities so declared. Certainly only a body of believers can kick someone out – but that is because of the nature of belonging to a collective body. Certainly only a local church (not an individual) can refuse you the Lord’s Supper or baptism, but that is because both of these are communal events which require more than one person. But here is the key. The spiritual meaning and implication of this refusal to the sacraments is not different when it is said by a group or by an individual, because all that is being said is what God’s word says. It is not as though one is “right with God” up until the moment of excommunication and then they’re “out with God” when the church gavel hits. That is just a visible testimony of what is already true of someone – and which can (in principle) be stated by any believer. And this is also, by the way, the reason the tense of the verbs in Matthew 16 matters. “What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” can also be translated “shall have been bound in heaven” (future passive). In other words, the earthly binding takes its “binding” quality from its already heavenly archetype.

And so, the church does not have “spiritual authority” in any way analogous to the earthly authority of a parent over the life of a child or a magistrate over a citizen. The church has this sort of authority only as it pertains to certain externals: the time of worship, the order of the service, the “Cider House Rules” of each particular church community, etc. These are a function of the church being like any other organization or political structure. As a political or institutional structure, the church has no particular or unique relation to Christian conscience. It is only in respect of its gathering around the word and sacraments that the corporate church has a particular relationship to Christian conscience – but this is (again!) a function of the word being gathered around and its ministry rather than a function of the institutional quality as such. The “spiritual authority” is only ever the word – and this exists in principle with any priest (i.e. believer) ministering in God’s name.

Of course, we certainly render our elders and pastors the submission and deference due their office, service, etc. We want to make their lives a blessing in gratitude for their ministry to us! And (hopefully!) as exemplars of what the word looks like in practice, we might take their council as more weighted in moral and spiritual matters than most other church members. Indeed, churches normally hire someone to explain the word and it is normative for a believer to go to such a  person for help in understanding what God’s word requires us to do and believe. But in all these cases, as it pertains to Christian conscience, we are only bound to follow these men inasmuch as they proclaim the word accurately – and (in precisely this sense) we are just as obliged to listen to any brother or sister who accurately applies the word to us. Again, the most obvious difference between the authority of any individual in Christ’s body and its leaders (or the church corporate) is in the non-binding prudential matters which are a part of any institutional organization of people.

3. Behind this semantic issue is a confusion, in my judgment, about what the “church” is. The visible church is just the totality of the baptized in the world. The church is just the people of God called out of the world. They exist prior to their institutional expression. This is why a mother can “minister” to her child. The church is a community (both worldwide and local) and has all the ambiguities of normal human communities. Indeed, in founding the church, did Jesus’ even found a particular institutional form? For the most part, the history of church structure and government has been a history of Christian prudence. Like Jethro’s prudential suggestion that Moses institute judges in the Old Testament, so the New Testament church basically follows the Inter-Testamental Synagogue pattern (See James Burtachaell’s From Synagogue to Church). In Acts, the founding of the office of the deacon seems to be rooted in particular problems that require a particular solution. And what is more, most human communities in history have had something very similar to “elders” and “deacons.” Even in Ephesians 4, Paul’s exposition of the “word ministries” assumes the prior existence of the church to which the ministries are given as fitting to “build up” the people with the word. In sum, the church is just the community of confessors and the political form they take is rooted in nature and in Christian prudence as guided by Scripture.

The point here is not to say that we can pick and chose any form of ecclesiastical organization that we want – any more than we can say the same of human government generally. The point is rather to say that the rhetoric which is associated with “ministers” and “offices” that Jesus has given to the church as “authorities in His name” understate the extent to which these ministries stand in continuity with the ministries of Israel and with all human communities. And in recognizing this, we move a step away from viewing the church as a people associated with a priestly caste and rather just call the church the people – the offices just comprising the political expression of the people in the manner that all human communities express themselves. Far from making a “free for all” blueprint as it pertains to forms of ecclesiastical government, however, there are independent arguments (both Scriptural and prudential) to be made for particular forms of church organization.

Putting the matter this way also helps to clarify that the individual Christian has the same relationship to the word as “the church” does corporately. Both as individuals and a body, we stand under the word. The body nor its officers mediate the word to the individual as a political ambassador reading decrees. Any individual can receive such decrees from the word individually or from another Christian apart from a particular institutional expression – even if we recognize a particular blessing in the worship gathering and the uniqueness of the manner (preaching and sacraments) in which we receive the word there.

4. As stated above, there is a failure here to perceive how the church as an institution is not unique among human institutions. Making the church as a local institution something “special” in this sense creates lots of awkward problems. Am I “more obligated” to members of my local church than to members of another local church? Am I “more” of a spiritual family with my local church than with other believers throughout the world? Should I submit my resources and my calling “more” to the local church than to other churches, believers, or unbelievers? If the institutional church is just the natural political expression of the baptized community, then the answer to all these questions is very simple: It depends – and it depends on precisely the same sorts of “neighbor loving” or “group” considerations that obtain in any other institution. Does the fact that one has a significant ministry in the life of one’s unbelieving neighbors play a role in making a decision about whether or not to move? Does the societal benefit that incurs when one uses their gifts at their job perhaps mitigate against an offer to make more money?

Certainly it is a problem to move from church to church willy-nilly. But this is not because our “church vows” obligate us otherwise, but because we shouldn’t behave this way in any community of which we are a valuable part. Members in Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, develop deep relationships with one another and really need each other. It would reflect bad character to skip from AA chapter to AA chapter without building the deep and personal relationships for which the program was designed. The problem of “church skipping” is not to be solved by binding the conscience (comparing local church membership to a marriage contract, for instance), but rather by dealing with the societal impulses that make us unable to commit and love people.

5. This leads to a final point. It seems to me that the “return to ecclesiology” (which is a good thing!) can have some uncritical “pendulum” effects. In a culture awash in options, a culture in which there is nothing forcing us to commit to anything, where we can divorce at will, choose to form relationships in ways that our forefathers would never have dreamed, etc – we face many complex pastoral problems that former generations did not have to face. The solution to this, however, does not lie in the artificial erection of boundaries or laws to “compensate” for the modern situation. The solution is to reflect upon the uniqueness of our situation, pray for wisdom, and seek the Spirit’s help in building up natural community and accountability in the way that human beings have always done. Behind this solution is the old Reformed notion that redemption renews (rather than replaces) creation. The reason church community looks very much like natural community is that God is in the business of redeeming creation. And for precisely this reason, the problem of church membership and discipline is not different from the problem that faces our human communities generally. We don’t suffer from a problem of church commitment only, but from job commitment, marriage commitment, organizational commitment, friendship commitment, etc. The solution is to analyze the way in which our modern situation destroys natural human bonds and flourishing and to recover nature – but as moved along by grace.

The other solution is to recover the Reformed doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” for which I recommend Brad Littlejohn’s recent series.



  1. Mark Ritchie says:

    Very helpful thoughts! Thank you.
    Mark Ritchie

  2. Baus says:

    Joseph, two questions:

    1) you think the local congregation as a whole and individual Christians have the same ministerial authority as elders? It does not differ in any significant respect? This is the impression I got of your view.

    2) you take the visible church to be all the baptized and not all those who profess the gospel and their children?

    I am disappointed to know this book does not make clear and emphasize the nature of ministerial authority, and I agree with you on the need for that. But I think elders have authority that non-elders don’t have, and that the visible church is other than the baptized. Would love to get your thoughts on those two points.

    • Joseph Minich says:


      1) As it pertains to matters of doctrine, morality, and conscience – absolutely. Elders, an individual Christian, or an entire group can speak for Christ by speaking His word accurately. This is the “general office” out of which pastors and elders have particular functions within the community. As it pertains to matters peripheral to the word (the time of worship, etc), obviously the congregation or the elders have a different level of authority. To cover my bases, however, one might also speak of “authority” in terms of the innate charisma/spirit-filled quality of individual Christians, as such. We speak of people who “know a lot” as “authorities” on their subject. We might also speak of folks who know the Scriptures, are particularly wise, and who are exemplars of the Christian life as having some sort of “authority” of what it means to believe and live Christianly. But this transcends office – even though (hopefully!) we give office to men (and women if you believe in deaconesses and widows) who have these qualities. In “two kingdoms” talk, there is no difference in authority with respect to the “spiritual kingdom” aspects of the church, but plenty of difference in authority with respect to the “visible kingdom” aspect of the church.

      2) Fair question on the visible church. Actually, I would prefer to say that all baptized confessors and their children constitute the visible church. And that is what I had in mind, though I wrote only of “the baptized.” I would not consider, for instance, someone who was baptized as a child but who overtly rejected the gospel and was not in communion with any body of believers as constituting part of the “visible church.” Thanks for pushing me on this! As for any conclusions that might be drawn about the book generally, this is my read of the situation. There is at least a problematic ambiguity.

      • Joe,

        I would agree with you that there is a sense in which some forms of authority transcend office in day to day interactions anytime an individual is speaking the word accurately. However I don’t believe that the existence of that “general” authority removes or supersedes the power of the keys which has been given to the church officers.

        WCF 23.3 (emphasis mine)
        It belongs to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; **not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word**.

        I think there are two key things to notice in what we confess here.

        First, we confess that there is a special authority that has been conferred unto the church officers that is distinct from the authority of a general believer. Any believer’s words when he speaks things that are consonant to the Word of God are to be received with reverence and submission on account of their agreement with the Word. However when Presbyters come together and “authoritatively determine the same”, there is more going on here than merely the proxy authority of the Word. They are using the keys of the kingdom which have been placed into their hands (hence the proof text of Mat. 18:17-20), and as such their decrees and determinations have a distinct power, “as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word”. Granted, it is a ministerial power and not a magisterial power, but it is a power none the less.

        Secondly, I want to point out that we confess that this power applies not merely to circumstances of worship which are adiaphora, but “controversies of faith, and cases of conscience”. In fact, I would argue that the primary function of the keys is relative to authority on what you’ve called the “spiritual kingdom”, since “controversies of faith” have almost always centered upon that. Would we not argue that there is a real authority in the Council of Nicaea’s condemnation of Arianism, or the Council of Chalcedon’s statements on the hypostatic union?

        I absolutely agree that the tense of δεδεμένα and λελυμένα are significant in that they demonstrate that the authority of the keys is only ministerial and not magisterial. We confess that all synods and councils may errer, that many have erred, and when we are convinced that what they have pronounced is contrary to the Word, then we can not submit. But I can’t agree that such distinctions eliminate the authority that God has given to the Church in the form of it’s officers. It merely limits that authority, it does not remove it entirely.

        I think this is demonstrated well in the Council of Jerusalem, where the presbyters of the age came together to judge the matter of Paul and Barnabas’ orthodoxy in regard to their teaching on circumcision. After hearing the case, they decided that Paul and Barnabas were correct, and sent them and several others to Antioch (Acts 15:22). Then after Paul and Barnabas had separated, Paul took those decisions and delivered them to the churches as he went (Acts 16:4). And the text calls the decisions “decrees to keep” (NKJV) or more literally decrees “to guard or protect”. The decrees weren’t merely something of a temporary compromise, but something that the people were to protect or guard since they had an actual authority as being an ordinance of God appointed in His Word.


      • Joseph Minich says:

        Greg, thanks so much for your thoughts.

        I do agree that leaders (or the gathered body) have an authority in relation to the whole group which is unique. But I think this arises from the nature of the visible church as a gathered human community. Communities have leaders, and in most polities, the group has authority that the individual does not. Only the group (or its leaders) can make doctrinal statements which define the beliefs of the group, receive or exclude members, etc. But, at the end of the day, this reduces to temporal rather than directly spiritual authority. We have no obligation to believe a doctrinal statement which is in tension with God’s word. But that doctrinal statement still governs the body of which we are a part whether we like it or not. It is the “authority” in that body whether it is right or wrong. Similarly with the acceptance and exclusion of members, the authority (whether it reside in leaders or in group vote) to accept and exclude members is a function of the visible church being a political group (a redeemed family) like any other group in its external life. But whether or not the church ought to accept certain members (and even if it illicitly excludes others), it has the authority to do so because of the nature of groups and authority within said groups.

        The point here is this, however. None of this actually means anything spiritual unless there is agreement with the word. I don’t have the authority to excommunicate a member or even declare a member to “belong” to my church. But if I know someone to be living in perpetual, open, and willful sin – and “the group” did nothing about the issue – I’d be speaking with the authority of the word of God if I told that member that whatever “the group” said, that person ought not to confidently claim Christ as their redeemer. Now, I can’t do anything about it in terms of the temporal life of the church. And that temporal life ought to reflect the Word. The essential point is: All believers have the authority of the word, but with different objects. Individuals have an office with respect to other individuals in the church. Groups (or leaders representing them) have an authority with respect to the group and the individuals relationship to that group. But all of this is the authority of the same word applied to different objects in different relations. And none of this authority means anything spiritual if it does not reflect the Word.

        Obviously, this does not make offices or “groups” superfluous. They each arise from human nature. The local church is an expression of the worldwide family of Christ, and it is utterly natural and spontaneous for believers to gather together in this way. And it is totally normal that certain individuals are gifted to teach and understand doctrine more than others. But as I mentioned in my above post, Ephesians 4 seems to imply that “the body” exists prior to the gifts. The gifts are given for edification. The teachers do not have an authority beyond the Word, but only the authority of the Word in relation to the body as a whole. And these teachers are simply going to have disproportionate spiritual impact on members of the body. This is not because they have a different spiritual authority. They have a different calling, sure. But if they fail to teach the gospel, they are still (probably!) going to have a greater impact than non-teachers who do try to persuade others of the gospel. This is because of the nature of their temporal and external authority. When they do preach the gospel, however, and their external authority is combined with spiritual truth, the impact of the latter is far more significant. That’s why we pay them! But the essential difference in authority here, in my judgment, is political and external. Spiritually, their authority is that of any believer. They can declare the word of God to folks. If they fail to do this, they still have temporal authority but no spiritual authority. Conversely, if I proclaim the word rightly to someone who is not being dealt with externally and politically, I can’t do anything about it, but I have exercised the same spiritual authority as someone who can do something politically. I have told them what the word of God says about them.

        A thought experiment might help here. If I wrote WCF chapter 1 before it was adopted by the church, would a believer who understood the content of my WCF 1 be under less obligation to believe my speech before it was adopted than after it was adopted? I suspect we’d say “no.” If that chapter is in agreement with the word, and I am ministering (even as a non-ordained individual) to you that same word, you ought to believe it. But “the church” does confer its political and juridical authority upon that document once it is adopted. But this is true whether it is biblical or not.

        Now, in my thought experiment, I’m assuming that someone fully understands the content of my WCF 1. In real life, most people are busy and receive bits of theology over a long period of time. Very few believers develop a full-blown systematic theology. So if I wrote, “Joe’s catechism section 1” and said, “Hey! This is biblical!” – most folks would be right to be kind of suspicious, check with their leaders, pray, consult their Bible, etc. Typically, offices (or the group as a whole) are going to land on the truth in a way that an individual won’t. Indeed, I think the Holy Spirit typically works this way. It is not just biblical but common-sensical to be less suspicious of a collaborative theological effort than the writings of a single man. The church is a group which naturally forms together by the Spirit to share a common life. It recognizes and officially installs leaders. And God has given the church teachers in many aspects of its life. And these are all safeguards. They help “build up” the church in a way that an individual cannot do politically and almost can never do prophetically. An individual is limited in perspective, gifts, and resources.

        BUT, all of this still reduces to the word. Even though there is strength in numbers and the Holy Spirit promises the lead “the church” (I take that to be predominantly corporate), this does essentially boil down to the authority of the word. Councils, ministers, and “the group” have failed in church history. And sometimes individual kings, laymen, etc. have prophetically participated in the general office of all believers and said with the authority of God’s word, “This is what you ought to do.” Now, except for the kings, this has no political authority and perhaps no influence, but the spiritual authority of the word resides on the lips of that layperson in the same manner that it sounds from the lips of a minister on Sunday morning (the latter only having more political and community authority). Indeed, the latter is likely going to have more influence even if they are wrong. That is, apart from the Spirit working through his word – like Kuyper being converted through the gospel ministry of a gentle and pious Reformed woman who was concerned that he was not preaching the gospel. In this dear woman, Kuyper heard the voice of God and was converted! Why? Because he heard the word – not ministered politically or officially, but prophetically, morally, and individually.

        Were I to put this in a sentence, I agree that the church and its ministers have a special power that does not belong to individuals, but I believe this to be essentially political and only contingently spiritual. With respect to the latter, it is normal that the group and its offices/ministers are going to have more spiritual impact than the average layman. But there is no essentially different spiritual authority here. If I speak the word of God to you, you ought to take it as an ordinance from the Lord, because it is!

        To address a few of your specific points, I would agree that there is an authority in the Council of Nicaea and Chalcedon: the authority of the Word. No more – no less. And indeed, they only have political authority in churches if they are assumed standards of faith or officially received as part of the constitution of a church body. Don’t get me wrong. They’re totally biblical! That’s why we should believe them. If they were not, we should not. I’m not sure what the “middle ground” is here. If they said x and I said y – and the Bible said y and non-x – you are obliged by the authority of God’s word to believe me and not them. This is insane, of course, but only because it’s counter-factual. With respect to “power” to resolve controversies and cases of conscience, this is simply a function (again) of the political authority and public nature of church authority. They can decide wrong and then the congregants can either submit or leave.

        With respect to your point about the Council of Jerusalem, let us imagine that they got the wrong answer. Paul would not have submitted. Indeed, in Galatians 1 he is pretty clear that even Apostles (the highest office!) stand under the gospel – as I know you agree. Indeed, it is fascinating that in Acts 15 the decision is not just that of the Apostles. The Apostles could not just show up and say, “This is it.” Of course, they could have, but they were dealing with a legitimate political organization that clearly had procedures and a clear manner of deciding such controversies (perhaps patterned after syanagogical councils). If they had got it wrong, Paul would have said, “you’ve ceased to be the church.” This might have done little politically, but it would have meant everything morally. Even more (per Gal. 1), if Paul himself had agreed with a wrong decision, little Suzie-nobody serving the coffee at the council could have said (with the authority of the gospel), “You have ceased to be Christ’s people.” Again, this would have done nothing externally, but it would have been the same spiritual power (not impact!) that exists when the gospel is proclaimed on Sunday morning. As for the “decrees,” they had a particular political authority because they came from the church leaders, but their spiritual authority was only their agreement with what the Word would say as applied to the particular situation they faced. The spiritual authority would be the same as if Suzie-nobody wrote the same suggestions to her pastor with the same biblical reasoning (sans the political authority).

        In this respect, I might not be fully confessional (at least WCF-wise). I’m cool with that. =) I agree with the confession that we do not submit to our leaders only for their agreement with the Word, but also for their power. I might disagree, however, that this power reduces to something more than political power. I submit to their words spiritually inasmuch as I’m persuaded they are teaching the Word of God. I submit in the same way to you. But I must submit to them communally and politically as well – even if I think they are wrong and don’t force me to violate my conscience. In the case of the former, there is no more “ordinance of God” aspect to their authority than if I receive the Word from you. In the case of the latter, they’re just the leaders and I need to submit and be a blessing to them inasmuch as I am able. And again, I do believe that the Holy Spirit ordinarily leads through teachers and groups in a way that he does not necessarily do through individuals, but this is not an essential difference in spiritual authority. This is why I bring up exceptions. It helps clarify essential differences. Normatively, however, I’m more apt to take a group confession and the decisions of my godly leaders as an ordinance of God than the comments of most individuals. It is prudent to be more disposed to receive their word as such, though perhaps this is easy for me to say because you and I actually have godly leaders. That have been many days in the history of the church where I could not call this general disposition prudent at all! As well, there are plenty of instances in North American Reformed life where I’m inclined to take various official decrees as total BS, while I take the opinion of an educated layman as reflecting the word. But inasmuch as the BS does not require me to violate my conscience (in the PCA, for instance), I submit and try to bless my local church and denomination in the manner which I am able.

        Does that help at all? I apologize for the length of this. I appreciate the dialogue very much!


  3. Joe,
    Amazing and helpful response to this book. Thank you a thousand times brother…

  4. Joe,

    Thanks for your thorough and thoughtful response. If I understand you correctly, I think that the primary places where we differ would be around where the authority of the officers of the church originates.

    You seem to be saying that you find the authority of the elders of the church lies within natural law (I know the term is somewhat loaded nowadays) or that which is common to any society or political group of mankind. We then would be bound to recognize the authority of the group in accord with the agreed upon polity of the group. However that authority is strictly political or temporal flowing from the fact that it is a group of people, not necessarily that it is a church. Am I understanding you correctly?

    I appreciate this emphasis and agree that there are ways in which the church being a consenting society of people governs our duties towards it. For example, I think you’re completely right in saying that our duty of honoring the officers of the church is relative to them being fathers of the federal society, the same way we owe honor to our natural parents (being a part of their physical family) or kings and other civil magistrates (being a part of their national/political family). The recognition of this sort of reasoning is all together lacking within modern evangelicalism.

    However I can not consent that the authority of the visible church consists strictly in its political authority grounded upon natural/moral commandments. When the confession says “for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word”, I don’t believe that the power there stems from the natural/moral law of God applicable to all men, but the positive commandment of God given particularly to His church within the new covenant dispensation.

    In other words, I think that the execution of the keys of the kingdom is an ordinance of God in the same way that the sacraments are ordinance of God. In the same way that ministers have been made stewards of the mysteries of God (1Cor. 4:1), presbyters have been entrusted with the keys of the kingdom (Mat. 18:17-18). When a minister pronounces “this my body which is broken for you” or “this cup is the new covenant in my blood” he is following a positive commandment of Jesus and not a natural/moral one. He is declaring spiritual realities which he has been particularly been entrusted with, and not natural or moral realities. He has the authority to make such a declaration because God has – by a positive commandment which extends the entire duration of the new covenant – commanded him to speak to His people in His name, and to administer the mysteries of the sacraments.

    In the same way, I think that the using of the keys of the kingdom is the fulfilling of a positive command, and not a natural one. After telling it to the church (which I understand to be the presbyters) and the offending brother refuses to repent, the presbyters are to make an authoritative statement about their spiritual condition. They are to bind on earth what has been bound in heaven, and they are to loose on earth what has been loosed in heaven (noting the tense). The declaration that they are making is not merely about natural things pertaining merely to the political structure of the church (that they are merely no more a part of the visible family of God), but spiritual or eternal things. They have been given authority through the positive perpetual commandment of God to declare what has already taken place in heaven. This is quite different than merely an individual making a private judgment or statement, and in that sense it has an added authority as being an ordinance of God positively prescribed in His word.

    Perhaps another helpful example would be in the authoritative preaching of the gospel. A private Christian may surely give a defense for the hope that is within him (1Pet 3:15), or share the truths contained within the Scriptures with an unbeliever or fellow believer. However he may not take upon himself the official preaching of the gospel. “And how shall they preach unless they are sent” (Rom. 10:15) and “And no man takes this honor to himself [in this case the office of High Priest], but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was” (Heb. 5:4). One must not only have the personal qualifications, but he must have an external calling and appointment if he is to execute the positive commands of God. He must have the authority/gifting granted to him with the laying of hands by the presbytery (1Tim. 4:14). When he has that authority/gifting, he has been set apart by God, and given a special authority to execute particular positive commands that God has given, in the same way that Aaron was within the Old Covenant. As such, when a pastor preaches his preaching has a ministerial authority that goes beyond merely that of speaking the Word of God, but has the further authority of a man in office fulfilling the ordinance of God, given in His word.

    Does that help in illustrating the difference? If you’re not familiar with the distinction between positive commands and natural commands, then might help.

    • Joseph Minich says:


      Thanks for the continued and cordial interaction. First, a few general comments and then I’ll address some specific points.

      1. I would not say that the only difference that I note here is a difference concerning the origin of church officers’ authority. I might totally agree with you on this question, and still want to make the major point in the previous post: to wit, the offices do not possess a spiritual power that is essentially different from the power of the word that belongs to all Christians. One might argue that they have powers (given to them directly by an ordinance of Christ) which give them the right to declare this word publicly and officially in a manner that no other person can, but this reduces to a jurisdictional authority, not a unique spiritual power. Consider the following analogy: Imagine a society not too far off from ours) in which only soldiers could bear arms and only soldiers were authorized to use them to fight a nation’s domestic enemies. In this instance, only soldiers have the “right” to do this on behalf of the people. Indeed, we can even imagine that this was perceived (rightly or not) to be a “divine ordinance.” And now imagine that “non-solder Joe normal” decided to steal a sword from a soldier and use it to slay a real domestic enemy. That may be wrong, but the power is in the sword and the sword is still effective. Similarly, the declarative power of ministers (as it pertains to spiritual realities) is only declarative and reduces to the power of the word. Even if it is wrong for anyone to wield this power officially without authorization, the power of the word is still the power of the word. Now, as it turns out, I don’t think it is inappropriate for private individuals to wield such spiritual power and to declare the word. I only think that church officers do this publicly and officially. The next point is very important to clarify in this regard, and so…

      2. When I say that the power of officers is “political,” I do not mean to imply the that objects of their political activity are merely “external.” The objects are certainly “spiritual” (persons, propositions, and practices). They can declare persons to be spiritually “in” or “out.” They can declare certain propositions to be “biblical” or “unbiblical.” And they can declare certain practices to be “right” or “wrong.” Certainly these objects are all spiritual. The means by which they relate to these spiritual objects, however, are political and official. The “problem cases” help us grasp this. Again, even when church officers wrongly excommunicate, declare the wrong truth, or bind the conscience, they do so with political power in relation to the assembly of God’s people. What makes their spiritual power different from that of a lay Christian is not that they have a different spiritual power, but different temporal tools (legitimate leadership over a group) with which to either bless God’s people or significantly harm them. And so I agree (for the most part) that church leaders have been authorized to make official declarations about spiritual matters and to do so in a manner that private Christians are not so authorized – but this authorization reduces to political (not essentially spiritual) power.

      3. I should clarify the relationship of point 2 to the issue of sacraments. In some ways, what I am saying is much more easy to swallow when we’re just talking about declaring the word. Even if it were wrong for private Christians to go around and officially (?) evangelize or proclaim the gospel without an ecclesiastical call (I don’t think it is), we’d be blind to suggest that the power of the word has never (indeed, very very often!) worked in this manner. Things are more complicated with the sacraments. If only ministers can baptize or administer the Lord’s Supper, does this mean that non-ministerial baptism and the Lord’s Supper is simply not baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Well, there are many many situations that could be addressed here and it is rather clear, from what I can tell, that the Reformed have not always agreed upon issues pertaining to the validity of lay baptism, emergency baptism, etc. The Lord’s Supper is different. I suspect no Reformed body would recognize anything “spiritual” about a private Lord’s Supper. Here’s what I’d propose on this. Even if ministers are necessary to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, I would not say that this is because they have a spiritual power that others do not, but because these events are innately political and communal and consequently are not “legitimate” apart from the one chosen from the community to represent God on behalf of the community. In this view, lay baptism or the Lord’s Supper (sans the minister) would be like a citizen of the State of California declaring an illegal alien to be an official citizen. It sounds nice, but there is an innately ceremonial quality about “making a citizen” that requires official representation. As it turns out, I don’t think this to be entirely the case. I’m just suggesting a manner in which one might combine my own emphases with “by divine law” views of church office and ordinance. In point of fact, I think we can totally recognize preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper (even “performed” by laypeople) under the oversight of the community leaders. I might agree that there is “nothing” in private baptism or the administration of the Lord’s Supper – but this is (again) because of the innately communal quality of these events. Finally, I might concede that even if lay-performance-under-elder-oversight were legitimate, this should not be normative.

      4. Now to the issues that you more directly addressed. I’m not totally persuaded that there is a “polity” in the New Testament by “divine command.” If there is, I’d agree that the authority of ministers derives not only from natural law but also from the positive commandments of Scripture. I’m not sure this makes any difference practically speaking, however. Indeed, at this point I’d like to ask a two-fold question: 1. Even if you are right about there being a “biblical” polity, does any “spiritual power” belong to a minister when they make a wrong official declaration? 2. What “spiritual power” does the individual Christian lack when declaring God’s word? Clearly, there is no communal import (excommunication, “laying down the confessional law,” etc) in a private declaration, but this is because of the innately political quality of these activities – which are what and as they are even if one is excommunicated wrongly or something is confessed wrongly. Now, back to polity. It seems to me that N.T. polity basically follows the polity of the synagogues (with perhaps some circumstantial changes). We never really see Jesus “establishing” anything new in terms of elders. And obviously, there were “elders” and “judges” in the Old Testament. It would seem they functioned in various manners throughout the ages, but there was always some sense of “elder leadership” in the congregation of Israel. And as you might guess, I’m going to say that this is probably just because this is “normal.” Certainly God approves it (perhaps just because He created us to naturally organize ourselves in this manner). Even when Moses sets up the “judge system” in Exodus 18, it seems to be an argument from prudence and natural law. More provocatively, I suspect the same of the office of deacon in Acts 6. Note in the latter case seems to have warranted congregational assent! That said, I do think there is a perpetual place for a deaconal office which normatively arises very early in the life of a local church. Finally, the office of “apostle” seems to have some precedent in Roman polity. I could sum up my thoughts on these matters in the following two propositions: 1. I’m not persuaded that there is any “biblical” polity which is not just re-stating natural law polity. 2. Any criticism we might have of polity which goes against the type of polity we find in Scripture is probably a criticism that could be derived from natural law alone. To wit: Group leadership? Doesn’t that just make sense? Male leadership? Natural law. Male leadership by exemplars in the represented community? Natural law. Of course, all of this depends upon the nature, function, and mission of given communities.

      5. Now, Matthew. I take the “on this rock I will build my church” differently from the “ministry of the keys.” At least, they are theoretically separable. In the case of the former, Peter is declared to be “the rock” by virtue of his confession, not his person or office. The church is always built on the word (represented by Peter’s confession), so much so that Paul even declares (in Galatians 1) that the gospel is prior to his person and office. Certainly the gifts and offices (Eph. 4) are given to the church to build it up through the word, but – 1. I distinguish “gift” from “office” (and I think Eph. has both in mind with an emphasis on the former) – 2. the church is “prior” to these gifts in Eph. 4. The word proper is prior to the proper leadership and handling of the word through gifts and offices – and so is the community that is built upon it. As for the famed “ministry of the keys,” I’m probably just going to repeat what I said above. Certainly it belongs to leaders and to the group (note I do not take “the church” to be presbyters) in a manner that it does not belong to individuals, but this is only because the keys are an innately communal and political power – a power which God certainly promises to bless when it is used prayerfully in His name! To be clear, I don’t think the “ministry of the keys” is equivalent to all forms of “the ministry of the word.” This is key here. It is only the political and official application of a common spiritual power (i.e. the word). As well, I think we need to be careful when we say that the “ministry of the keys” is a new ordinance. Certainly the Old Testament has a “ministry of the keys” in some sense. Indeed, the language seems to be borrowed in large part from inter-Testamental Judaism. As well, most commentators (as I’m sure you are aware) see some hint of Isaiah 22 here (the “opening” and “shutting” of the door by the steward of the house). What is interesting about the possible Isaiah illusion is that the “opening” and “shutting” language occurs in the context of a “change of officers” in the house. God is taking away the key and giving it to another. Similarly in Matthew 16, I suspect what is going on is (at least in part) a contrast with the earlier portion of the chapter. Jesus had just told his disciples to beware of the teaching of the religious leaders (16:12), and then Peter outs with his confession in the very next section. Then Jesus speaks about “giving” Peter (and later the church corporate – Mat. 18) “the keys.” This seems to go along with something I see emphasized all over the gospels, the change of the leadership of God’s people from the Jewish leaders to the apostles and co., from the synagogue to the church. This is especially emphasized in Luke/Acts. In Acts, I find it fascinating in the early chapters to note the tension between “the people,” the Apostles, and the Jewish leaders. Great stuff. But there is less a “new ordinance” here than the “changing of the guard.” The big question for the people is, “Who speaks for God?” The answer of Matthew 16 is, “the one who confesses His Son.” There is nothing really new about the the polity here, though. This is basically a declaration that the old leaders have been fired and the new ones hired. For what it is worth, it is possible to argue that there is something similar with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I’m less clear about this, but it seems that Jesus transforms two common ceremonies rather than inventing them from scratch. I suppose there is an element of “divine authorization by precedent” here with respect to the transformations themselves, however.

      6. Other passages? I’ve never understood the weight that is put on Romans 10. It seems to me that this is put in the context of the Gentile mission. I’ve always read it as, “How the heck are they going to hear this stuff unless someone supports them?” It is less prescriptive than descriptive. Now certainly one can make an argument (again, just as well from natural law!) that it is prudent and normal for someone to be trained, represent a community, etc. But I do think this de-authorizes non-“official” missionary work in certain circumstances. Hebrews 5:4 is about the priestly sacrifices of Christ. While I agree that there is some “moral continuity” between gospel ministry and the Old Testament priesthood, and no-one can take the gospel ministry “upon themselves” (i.e. represent the community without the community saying so), I don’t see what this has to do with “spiritual” as opposed to “political” power. In 1 Timothy 4, I take it that Timothy is given an official and public role of spiritual oversight that obviously requires the support the community leaders (whether Timothy be seen here is a bishop or a minister). And while this has tremendous spiritual import, I still (per above) don’t see what makes this essentially spiritual “power.”

      7. Seven is the perfect number, so I’ll conclude with a perfect point. Ha! It seems to me that the connection between nature and grace helps us out here. As a Bavinck-obsessed person (who agrees with a lot of what you are saying, by the way!), I’m inclined to bring everything back to nature and grace. To wit, grace renews rather than replaces creation. I think we can often go back to natural law and creational structures simply because God is redeeming real humans who really tend to form a particular way toward the good. Now certainly the Bible often clarifies natural law for us – because we are blinded by sin. In our generation, for instance, the emphasis on male leadership in the New Testament is not as clear to us as it was to previous generations – and that from natural law by itself. This is not to say that there are no positive commands in the Bible which go “beyond” natural law, I’m just not sure they are ones (especially in the new covenant) of polity. But polity IS emphasized for various reasons. Good leaders, good communal stewardship of the word, God’s natural (and then redeemed) gifting of certain people with certain intellectual capacities (etc) – all become the channels by which God communicates His word. One way of saying this is that God communicates His word to us in much the same way that we communicate with one another. And the channels which are effective for the communication and spread of God’s word (i.e. community oversight, exemplary leadership, oratory, etc) are precisely the channels by which any message of humans is effectively communicated. In other words, these are not random channels, but natural ones – and it is precisely for that reason that they protect the word as nature is renewed by the Spirit. I think that helps a lot. The closest (I think?) I come to what you are saying is that spiritual power is effectively channeled by natural political and official means. And this is particularly true as it pertains to objects that cannot but be addressed by communal leadership: that is, 1. officially defining which persons, propositions, and practices should be a part of the community and – 2. performing those ceremonies which necessarily require public authorization. Perhaps another element in which I come close to you is recognizing that there are special promises attached to the community which are not attached to the individual. The promises of Mat. 18 (“where two or three”) and of John (“I will lead you into all truth”) are communal in nature. But still, I take this to be consistent with the paradigm above. Groups (even in nature) just usually do get it right over the individual – but with exceptions. It is normal that God will particularly bless a collaborative church leadership/community effort over that of an individual – not predominantly on account of issues related to “authorization” but because that is how God has made communities (in nature) to function. But the exceptions get at the essence. There are times when the group is wrong and Luther is right – and we can articulate why this is so: because all spiritual power reduces back to the word. Not all political power. Not even all spiritual effect (Luther was very much channeled through political means!), but the spiritual power is just the word – and that means Luther or even a layman can be speaking the voice of God when all the leaders are not. It is not normative, but it is possible. Again, the exceptions get at the essence of spiritual power. Finally, I suspect we’d get a good picture of the balance here buy relating N.T. polity to the appropriated polity of the synagogue. There we see community leadership with a seemingly high degree of lay involvement. Perhaps this is reflected in 1 Cor. 14:26.

      Thanks again for your thoughts. Cheers!


  5. Joe,

    I appreciate the through response again, but I think that we’re talking past each other a bit here.

    I do still think that the primary difference between the two of us lies in our understanding of the origin of the authority of the officers of the Church. Whereas you see the origin of the authority as arising from their being the political leaders of a civil society (representing the family of believers), I see their authority (at least as it relates to the word, sacrament, discipline, etc) as arising from their being explicitly given that authority by Christ as mediator, and head of the Church. This is I believe why we differ as to if it is a “spiritual” authority.

    Let me state the question in another way. What is the efficient cause of the different types of authority that we have been discussing?

    The first sort of authority – which I think we both agree exists – is that which God has instituted in creation. As you have repeatedly noted, this authority is common to any political entity because it applies to us not as Christians, but as mankind. God has made man to be a social creature who is inclined to form political bodies and as such has given such societies the power of making laws. As Suarez says, Qui dat formam, dat consequentia ad formam (He that giveth the form, gives to the form the consequences there of). Therefore, we are to render submission to such authorities because we, as men, have combined into those societies, and as God has given them the authority to make laws, he has likewise given such societies the right to govern themselves through jurisdictional authority. This is true within the family, the state, and any other political entity. We are to honor the fathers and mothers within any federal body (Ex 20:12; WLC 124-125), and we are to submit ourselves to every political ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake (1Pet 2:13). I think we’re in total agreement here (but do correct me if I’m wrong).

    Further, as I noted before I am grateful for your emphasis here and can consent that this creational ordinance applies to circumstances governing the church. As we confess in the Westminster Confession, “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.” (WCF 1.6) The elders as governors of a particular human society have an authority to do things like set the place of worship on the Lord’s Day, decide which text to preach on, which psalms to sing, require that someone go through a class in order to join the church, etc.

    I believe the point of disagreement is that I do not consent to this creation ordinance as being the origin of the authority of the presbyters to do things like execute censures (discipline), officially preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, etc. Rather I believe that such authority is given not by God as creator, but Christ as mediator and Head of the kingdom which is His Church. Hence the reason why I point to Jesus giving the officers the “keys of the kingdom” (note the kingdom language) as a particular gospel ordinance.

    To state this another way, I believe that Christ has been given a kingdom that is distinct from the kingdom that God reigns over in creation. The Father has set Jesus, as mediator, “upon his holy hill of Zion” (Psa 2:6), and as mediator he “has the key of the house of David laid upon his shoulder; So he shall open and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open” (Isa. 22:22).

    This kingdom which he executes as mediator shall not be executed by him forever, but is temporary. “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.” (1Cor. 15:24-25) It is as mediator that he must sit on his throne reigning and ruling until he has put all enemies under His feet. He reigns not over creation in general, but as “He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.” (Col. 1:18; cf Eph. 1:22) As such, it is a kingdom that has a particular goal, purpose, and duration which includes positive ordinances and commandments fit for that goal and purpose.

    It is when he ascended on high to receive that kingdom that he gave gifts to men (Eph. 4:8-10). These offices/giftings can not arise from natural law, because Paul gives them an explicit termination point in verse 13, “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Side note: I think it’s also helpful to note the parallel language in 1Cor. 13:8-13). I take this “fullness” to be parallel to Christ having put all His enemies under His feet.

    As such, they must be a positive ordinance that Christ has given particularly for the building of His kingdom (both his political body, as well as his mystical and invisible body), and once they have fulfilled that purpose they will cease. This is why in WLC 45 part of the way that Christ as mediator (note the context of WLC 42) executes the office of king is “in calling out of the word a people to himself, and giving them officers, laws, and censures, by which he visibly governs them”. They are the instruments not just of a general ruling of the church by the consent of the people, but how Christ rules in His kingdom by divine appointment.

    So then at the very least, I believe we should know that the offices are of a “spiritual” nature, as they find their institution, origin and authority in Christ as mediator, and not God in creation. But what about the duties executed by those officers? Can we really say that they are of a “spiritual” nature?

    Well, as I said before clearly not all duties executed by those officers are of a “spiritual” nature (cf. discussion of circumstances above). Any duty that was of a “spiritual” nature would have to have it’s authority come not from natural institution, but positive institution. It would have to be an ordinance that had its origin in the mediatorial kingdom of Christ, and not the general kingdom of creation. Are there institutions of such ordinances? Indeed, I would argue that there are, starting with the “keys of the kingdom”.

    As you helpfully pointed out, the origin of the notion of the keys is not one that originates strictly in the New Testament, but the Old. In Isaiah 22:22 King Hezekiah names Eliakim son of Hilkiah as the new prime minister, and places “the key of the house of David on his shoulder”. Having that key, “when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open”. However the true key of the house of David does not pass unto the officers of the Church, but to Christ himself. Christ, being mediator, sitting on the throne of David, is “He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens” (Rev. 3:7). Only Jesus is the one who opens and no one shuts, and shuts an no one opens. He is the only one with magisterial authority within His kingdom.

    In Matthew 16 and 18 Jesus does give the keys to the Church. However when he talks about it there is not a single opening/shutting or binding, but a two fold binding. “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven” (Mat. 16:19, 18:18) There is an internal binding in Heaven, and a political and external binding on earth, and both are done by the “keys”. Christ gives the keys to the church to bind what He binds in heaven, and to loose what He looses in heaven.

    That is “the Church” in executing the ordinance of the keys is not merely executing the authority that it has as a political body, but rather is executing the delegated authority of Christ as the head of His Kingdom. The authority contained within the act stems not from the nature of the political body (although it is a political act), but from the delegated authority of the King by a positive institution. Or said another way, the authority is the delegated authority of Christ as mediator, not God as creator. In this sense I can not but conclude that it is a “spiritual” authority rather than a political authority that the presbyters (or whoever you want to understand “the Church” as) have in their using of the keys. Particularly since this authority is going to cease once Christ has put all His enemies under His feet, as there will be no more need of spiritual discipline in the eschaton.

    I would of course argue the same for the preaching of the Word and administering of the sacraments, but that would be a discussion for another time.

    Having hopefully then illustrated the differences between our positions, perhaps it would be a good time to try and answer your questions about the “problem cases”. For example, does any spiritual power belong to a minister when they make a wrong official declaration?

    No, I would say that there is not any spiritual power being executed by a minister when they make a wrong official declaration. However the reason that there is no real spiritual authority is because the authority that they have is a delegated or ministerial authority and not a magisterial authority. Christ has given them the authority to bind on earth what He binds in heaven, and to loose on earth what He looses in heaven. When they bind on earth what He has not bound in heaven, or loose on earth what He has not loosed in heaven then they are going outside of the authority which He has granted them. It is not however that they have gone outside of the authority of the Word per se (although they likely have), but outside of the delegated authority of Christ as mediator.

    I believe this is the reason that the confession makes the distinction between matters of faith and worship and all other areas of life in regard to binding the conscience. The confession states that whereas other authorities (like civil authorities) may not bind the conscience in any thing contrary to His Word, ecclesiastical authorities dealing with matters of faith an worship may not bind the conscience in any thing beside His Word (WCF 20.2). Why?

    Because a legitimate political authority by its nature is free to issue any commands so long as it does not contradict its own charter. In this sense it is a magisterial authority in regard to the political society. However this is not true of all aspects of the Church. All legitimate authority relative to faith or worship is a delegated authority from Christ as mediator, and as such they only have the authority to bind the conscience with the commands that they themselves have been given.

    Hopefully that more fully illustrates where I’m coming from, and better illustrates the differences between the two of us.

    There is much more that could be said, particularly in agreement with you on continuity between some OT polity and NT polity (although I would see it as a connection in positive structures rather than natural structures), but that should likely wait until another time since this comment is already quite long as it stands. I’ll just add that this shouldn’t be unexpected since God does say he would take priests and levites from among the Gentiles (Isa 66:23).

    I guess to summarize, I am hopeful that the “return to ecclesiology” will return to the system of doctrine contained within the confessions and catechism, which I hope I’ve demonstrated is slightly different than what you’re articulating.

    • Joseph Minich says:

      Greg, I think I can be more brief here.

      You write, “I do still think that the primary difference between the two of us lies in our understanding of the origin of the authority of the officers of the Church. Whereas you see the origin of the authority as arising from their being the political leaders of a civil society (representing the family of believers), I see their authority (at least as it relates to the word, sacrament, discipline, etc) as arising from their being explicitly given that authority by Christ as mediator, and head of the Church. This is I believe why we differ as to if it is a “spiritual” authority.”

      I think this misses the import of my “point 1” in my previous post. There, I argued that “even if” you are correct about their being given a special ordinance of Christ (i.e. “the ministry of the keys”), and even if they alone can appropriately minister, dispense the sacraments (etc), then I’d still have a problem with granting them “spiritual power.” Certainly, the “objects” of discipline, sacramental administration, and the proclamation of the word are spiritual objects – but this does not equate to spiritual power. And so…

      To be clear, I think there is some equivocation going on in this conversation concerning what we mean by “spiritual.” When you speak of “spiritual authority” and “spiritual power,” it seems to me that you are referring to the objects concerning which Christ has, by a special dispensation (in your view), only given a particular group of persons a special oversight. When I speak of “spiritual authority” and “spiritual power,” however, I’m referring to the causal relationship between an authority and a power and their effects in the world.

      This is why I keep going back to the exception cases. Even if only presbyters have the right to excommunicate someone (I would agree with this for natural law and biblical reasons), their excommunication only has causal power in the temporal realm. They don’t cause someone to be taken out of the books of heaven. More appropriately, consider the proclamation of the word. Even if someone illegitimately preaches the gospel, there is power in the word itself and the word can cause hearts to change (because the Spirit is with it). You can argue that God didn’t authorize such preaching, but you cannot argue (and be a consistent Protestant, at least) that there is spiritual power automatically “added” to the word itself by an office.

      As for some specific claims, I’ll go quick:

      1. I never said that the origin of the authority of the church is a creation ordinance. I said the the structure and internal functioning of the church is a creation ordinance. That is to say, the object (i.e. “church”) is a new creation of the word. But since creation renews nature, that “new creation” (inasmuch as it takes institutional structure) simply takes on the structure of nature. The authorization of the church to carry out its mission (etc) is from Jesus, but Jesus’ redemption of the church moves along the track of created structure – because the church is made out of human creatures. This is why I think you can argue that elders are both “biblical” and “natural” without having to come up with a hierarchy.

      2. The issue of Jesus’ role as Mediator over the church and the nations is a difficult one. I would tend to say that the language of Matthew 28 suggests that it is as risen and exalted Lord that Jesus’ has been given authority over the nations. And this cannot be separated from His mediatorial kingship. He demands the nations to repent and believe in Him – and that is gospel, not law. But the gospel supports the temporal ends of a commonwealth, and so the upholding of the temporal ends of civic law are not in tension with His Mediatorial reign over the nations. That to say, I think Jesus does reign over creation in general, even if many oppose Him. As well, I would argue that His rulership over “the church” cannot be reduced to rulership mediated by elders. He rules each believer directly through His word and each believer in their vocation are witnesses for King Christ in all of life.

      3. The termination of certain offices and gifts does not imply that they don’t arise from natural law. Marriage arises from natural law, but it will terminate. Creation was always oriented toward the eschaton, and since I would argue that the track of redemption follows the track of creation as it pertains to external government, I don’t see a tension here. And again, we need to distinguish the authority of the church from the manner of its execution and the structures by which it exercises those authority (all of which might be simple “copies” of natural law).

      4. But again, let us say that I agreed with your emphasis on “divine appointment” 100%. I still don’t see how this gets us “spiritual power” over simple authorization to exercise the external powers by which spiritual power is communicated. This is really the key point to me. I could imagine agreeing with you totally that the authority of ministers is totally derived from a special ordinance of Christ and that this is the reason we ought to listen to their proclamation as the very voice of God, but I cannot imagine saying (as a Protestant) that this involves “spiritual power” which is essentially different from a mother teaching her child, or someone illegitimately using a sword (previous analogy). I cannot imagine that we’d really want to say that the “spiritual power” of the word is actually tied to “being authorized” by Christ to administer the sacraments and preach the word. The spiritual power of the word exists apart from preaching, sacraments, and discipline. And it does not exist when either of those three are done wrongly. I’ll “say” that again because I think it is so important. The spiritual power of the word exists apart from preaching, sacraments, and discipline – and it does NOT exist when either of those three are done wrongly. If this be the case, what does “office” add? You are left with two options, it seems to me: 1. It adds the external medium by which the spiritual power is effective communicated and guarded within a community. With this, I agree! 2. God actually adds an extra “power” to office that does not exist when a layman speaks the word. That is to say, the Holy Spirit is actually “more present with the Word” during a sermon than when a woman reads the Scriptures to her children or when someone witnesses to a friend. Sacraments and discipline are more difficult, and for that reason I’d like to stick with the Word. It seems to me that whether or not a lay baptism is “valid,” for instance, is a direct implication of this larger issue.

      5. If you don’t want to say that the Spirit is “more present in the word” with office than without it, it seems to me you are left with a (perhaps divinely authorized) temporal authority to administer the word in a declarative and testifying manner publicly. But, as though I hadn’t stated it enough times, once you argue that this adds spiritual power in any causal manner, I don’t see how this can be considered consistently Protestant. This is, by the way, why the Rutherford’s of the world were (in part) considered papists by some of their contemporaries. I recognize that this tension, by the way, has always existed in the Reformed community from the beginning. That the Reformed community has not been ubiquitous in the acceptance of lay baptism or of Roman Catholic baptism demonstrates, in my judgment, that there is a tension here. And, not to sound snarky, I’m calling “bluff” on Rutherford. Either “spiritual power” doesn’t really mean anything, or it means something papist. Again, even in the case of excommunication – a legitimate excommunication doesn’t cause (but only witnesses externally) to something spiritual. That’s just government, not “spiritual power.” Indeed, it doesn’t even mediate spiritual power, other than the power of the word testifying about a sinner’s situation, a word which can be stated (in principle) by any believer. Would it really be wrong to tell someone living in open sin (whom the church authorities ignored), “Hey man, you are in serious spiritual trouble and need to repent!?”

      6. To apply what I’ve written above to a specific comment, you write, “The authority contained within the act stems not from the nature of the political body (although it is a political act), but from the delegated authority of the King by a positive institution. Or said another way, the authority is the delegated authority of Christ as mediator, not God as creator. In this sense I can not but conclude that it is a “spiritual” authority rather than a political authority that the presbyters (or whoever you want to understand “the Church” as) have in their using of the keys.” Even if Christ delegates authority to presbyters, my point has always been that this is really only (in any real sense) political authority. To say it even better, one might argue that their right to exercise this political power is given to the by Christ and that political power is limited to testifying to what He says in His word in the exercise of discipline, etc. But still, none of their “ministerial authority” actually adds any essential power to the word. Again, this is unless you are arguing that there is “more power in the word” when coming from Presbyters speaking on behalf of Christ than when it is coming from your wife.

      7. One clarification. I do agree that God promises to bless church leaders and public preaching, but I think that this is simply a function of the things themselves. The clearer the word is proclaimed, the more blessing there is to be taken from it. And, as I’ve stated above, it is just nature (and THEREFORE, grace) that groups tend to get things right.

      Well, there you have it. So much for being short. But, I hope that clarifies a few things. We’ll see!

      • Joseph Minich says:

        Greg, I should add one clarification:

        As I stated two posts ago, I do agree that God has attached special promises to public proclamation and to “groups.” One might be tempted to perceive this to be a sort of “spiritual power” that does not exist otherwise – a sort of “extra Spirit endowment” when these things occur. In my judgment, however, this all has just to do with the clarity of the word in these circumstances. Public proclamation by a trained ministry is usually (hopefully!) going to communicate the word of God more accurately, clearly, and powerfully than a comment on Scripture from an average layman. This is not because there is “more Spirit” with officers. The Spirit is with the word, but the word is not equally in all places. All that to say, it is still the word and its power that is making the difference in these cases. God’s promises concerning public preaching and church gatherings is, in my judgment, something that honors (here I go again!) nature and natural law. Groups are usually right. Public proclamation is usually a great way to persuade folks. But the power is ever and only the word – which shines forth mightily in well-ordered public worship.

        Sacraments, as I noted a few posts ago, are a bit different. Since my understanding of the keys is that they belong to the whole church (the leaders only being the representatives of the whole), I can say that lay administration of the sacraments (NOT private administration) is still the sacraments – even if it is not orderly or prudent. Basically, it comes down to this. I believe that the word makes the sacraments, and the offices and gifts order them and carry them out fruitfully. Again, because of their innately corporate nature (the uniting in Christ of a local body of believers), an informal lay sacramental feast just doesn’t mean anything. That ceremony was never set apart or said to mean anything. Clearly, sacramental administration takes an officiant and elders or ministers are the appropriate people to do this – since they have been set apart to represent God to the people. But within the life of a local body, I could imagine an instance in which no elders or ministers were present, and I believe it would be appropriate (within such a polity) to have someone informally recognized for a very brief period of time to be the officiant of a local body’s ceremony. This would be analogous to informal ordination for three hours. Totally irregular, sure, but I would still say that this was the sacrament in all its essential components. In that sense, it takes a “minister” to have the Lord’s Supper, but not because the office actually makes the sacrament. It is an external ceremonial necessity, not a necessity arising from the office as such. To say it differently, the regular office serves (but does not make) the ceremony.

        Again, I think the synagogue structure helps us here. You don’t find folks “taking it upon themselves” to perform the ceremonies, but there seems to have been a lot of lay participation under elder oversight. I suspect that this is what is going on the New Testament as well. And if you see the keys as having been given the church, and you distinguish gift from office, and you see N.T. church government as (even in the Bible) as representatives of the people, then this all seems to make a bit of sense to me. Basically, in my judgment, regular (as opposed to extraordinary) offices are given by the church – whereas it is the gifts that are given by God. The gifting is from God (as is the internal impulse to use it corporately for God’s people), but the office and the calling is from the church – as blueprinted by natural law and stated specially in special revelation.

  6. gmoeck says:

    Joe, was reading Turretin today, and it made me think of this discussion. Thought I would share a bit of what he has in Institutes XVIII.xxix.

    “Q: Does any spiritual power distinct from the political belong to the Church?
    A: We affirm

    I. As God (who is not a god of confusion, but of order) has instituted in the church a sacred government and order by which it might be rightly gathered and when gathered be conserved and governed, on this account he willed that pastors should be furnished with some lawful power and authority that they might execute the office committed to them in a sacred manner. However, because errors of different kinds prevail about this power, in excess as well as in defect, we must diligently examine within what limits it ought to be circumscribed, that it may not be extended too far, or be restricted too much.

    IV. That the statement of the question and the nature of this ecclesiastical power may be better understood, we remark (1) that the question does not concern imperial, royal, monarchical and supreme and hanypeuthyno (“not liable to human authority”) power (which is peculiar to Christ alone, the head and King of the Church). Rather the question concerns the inferior and ministerial power which belongs to his servants. (2) Nor does it concern the extrinsic ecclesiastical power, which is such only indirectly, objectively and by external domination, which is such only indirectly objectively and by external domination, which is indeed concerned with the church as to things without, but which is not formally in it, nor directly subordinates her to itself (such as the power of the magistrate about sacred things). Rather the question concerns that which is formally and intrinsically such as to spiritual matters, which properly pertains to faith and religion. (3) Nor does it concern the extraordinary power of the prophets and apostles as such taken formally and specifically (which was peculiar to them and did not pass over to others); but it concerns the ordinary and common power which was given by Christ to the church and to all its rulers. (4) It is not inquired concerning the power which is occupied with the internal and invisible state of the church. For in this she is under Christ alone, nor has any moral any right and power in this respect over her. Rather the question concerns that which is concerned with the external and visible state in the communion of the same profession of faith and the use of sacred things. This is nothing else than the sacred ministerial right granted by Christ, the head, to the church; of externally governing herself and her affairs for mutual edification and salvation.

    VI. That there is such power in the church is proved; (1) by the keys which were given to the church. For since it is evident that the keys are a sign of power and authority, it cannot be doubted that some power distinct from political was given to pastors, since Christ expressly testifies that he had given them the keys of the kingdom of heaven (to wit, the power of shutting and opening heaven, of binding and loosing sinners and of remitting and retaining sins, Mat 16:19, 20; 18:18; Jn. 20:22,23). Now although the use of the keys is referred to the preaching of the word, still it is not included in it, but must be extended to the exercise of discipline which Christ instituted in his church and which ought to be exercised not only separately by individual pastors, but conjointly by a whole synod.

    XI. (6) Because the exercise of such power frequently occurs, as in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), which the church not only convoked by the power granted to it, but where it also exerted that multifarious power in the very decision, dogmatic (determining the controverted truth and rejecting error) as well as ordaining (commanding the Gentiles to abstain from certain things for the sake of peace and edification) and judicial (marking the authors of that schism and error, holding them as false and subverters of souls, Acts 15:24). Here belongs also the fact that the decrees of this Synod are called dogmata, “the decrees that were ordained” (dogmata kekrimena, Acts 16:4), which necessarily implies power and jurisdiction. Now although the apostles who were present in this Council were endowed with the extraordinary gift of infallibility, it does not follow that the decrees of the Council were peculiar to them and cannot belong to other churches. It is evident that the power of a decisive vote was given, not to the apostles alone, but also to the presbyters and to the whole Council (as we gather from Acts 16:4). The same thing appears from the apostolic practice towards the incestuous Corinthian, whom Paul with the whole Council decides should be delivered to Satan (1Cor. 5:3-5). They could by no means have done this unless they understood that a spiritual authority and power and been conferred upon them for that purpose. Concerning this, we will have to say more when we discuss the subject of excommunication. Third, from the practice of the primitive church, which from time to time both convened synods and made various decrees and sanctions about doctrine as well as about discipline.”

    Really the whole section bears on what we were talking about. I would argue that the ideas I was putting forward are not unique to Rutherford/Gillespie or papist in any way but are merely the Presbyterian ideas. Presbyterianism was always the middle road between the Papacy and the anabaptists/enthusiasts. They may feel a bit foreign in some Presbyterian circles today but I would argue that is because the ideas of Independents are more prevalent in those Presbyterian circles, particularly in America.

    • Joseph Minich says:

      Hey Greg!

      Just a few thoughts.

      I appreciate that Turretin relates church government to “externals,” recognizing the “internal” state of the Church to be under Christ alone. When we start talking about the church “spiritual power,” I think that this distinction can be confused in practice, even if a distinction is made in principle. In any case, I agree with Turretin that the church has a “power” relative to these external ends – even though I think the underlying logic of this “giving-of-power” part is basically just rooted in the sort of thing that a church is. That is to say, I don’t ascribe a particular amount of significance to the “giving” of the “power,” as though things would be different if Matthew 16 had never been written. As I indicated earlier, I think the focus of Matthew 16 is less on the sort of power being given than on the shift in leadership in the new covenant. And furthermore, I think this shift basically goes to the whole church rather than to a quasi-priestly class (though I do agree that there is some moral continuity between OT priests and modern ministers). Basically, this means that I’m not particularly RPW when it comes to church polity (though I think Scripture gives us a fantastic look into “nature” here), even if I’m RPW when it comes to the institutional church’s teaching and task.

      Interestingly, I find papal and anabaptist ecclesiologies to be simply alter-egos of one another. The papists have a political “spiritual kingdom” and the anabaptists have the same (but in a simply retreatist fashion). I think there are streams within the Reformed tradition (and I fear Southern Presbyterianism could be a variety of this) which did not go far enough and have a neo-anabaptist flavor to them, equating the visible church with the spiritual kingdom and church government and spiritual power with Christ’s very own power. And I think the Reformed tradition has the internal tools to fix this as well. Though I’m no expert, I suspect that there are tensions in the earliest Reformers that can get you either to Hooker or to Cartwright and his descendents. And it seems to me that the big question is where the original principles themselves lead when worked our ecclesiologically. How does the Reformation gospel relate to Christian people and their ecclesial expression? It seems to me that the extensive articulation of “spiritual power” is fraught with problems, especially in light of its alleged contrasts. In any case, you can see all my caveats above.

      Thanks for the conversation, brother. I’ve enjoyed it!

  7. […] Joseph Minich: Thoughts on Church Authority […]

  8. Baptist wife says:

    Is this a discussion about how close our churches should resemble Catholicism? Do we need priests and bishops? Maybe even a pope to make sure we have a sacred government within our churches.

    • Joseph Minich says:

      Baptist wife,

      I’m not sure to which content your question is directed. Is it the original post or the comments? And in either case, which specific content are you thinking of when posing the question? Cheers!

  9. […] I have written more extensively about the place of the local church within this vision elsewhere. One area to highlight here, however, is the relationship of the believer to the state. Leeman writes insightfully of the manner in which Christians exemplify true community to the world, but this is not something that is simply true of local churches. This is also true of believers who do not belong to the same local church. And it is true of believers who work together in secular organizations. […]

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