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Scriptures or Magisterium?
A False Dilemma

Question: Have you ever wanted to be so sure about something that it stopped you in your tracks? Kind of like a deer staring into the lights of an oncoming vehicle. I am in that sort of predicament. On the one hand I have the Scriptures which I read from on a daily basis and the Spirit of God to lead me. On the other hand I have this Church that basically says, "Just do what I say." I am at a standstill. The one thing that really get to the crux of the whole issue is authority. Did Christ give the church the ultimate authority in all matters of doctrine and faith, or is it his will that each one of us should be led by the Spirit of God?

Answer: You’re struggling between two choices: on one hand is the Catholic claim to ultimate authority, on the other, the leading of the Holy Spirit by the Scriptures.

This, however, is a false dilemma. For church authority and private judgement are not enemies, and you do not have to choose one and oppose the other. The alternative to the Roman claim to ultimate and infallible authority (basically, "believe and do whatever the magisterium says") is not the leading of the Holy Spirit and private interpretations of the Scriptures.

Many people hold this false notion that Protestantism champions the "me-Bible-only" Lone Ranger mentality, which unfortunately is so common among us. This problem is certainly not confined to Evangelical circles. The same phenomenon is also seen among Catholics, in which case the formula changes to "me-my-opinion " irrespective of what the Church officially teaches. The individualistic attitude is not what we find in the New Testament churches!

The Head of the Church commissions pastors to preach and teach and explain the Word. Christ gives gifts to the church, including pastors and teachers, whose job is it to teach and preach (cf Ephesians 4:11ff). "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine" (2 Timothy 4:2). "These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority" (Titus 2:15). The picture which we don't find in the New Testament is of a “church” made up of autonomous self-sufficient individualistic Christians who do not see the need of teachers because they have the Bible and the Holy Spirit.

The individual Christian is not alone in his endeavor to understand and mature in the Word of God. The Lord gives us the service of pastors and teachers to help us understand His Word, and we will be impoverished if we ignore this God-given plan for His children. He calls Christians to join in with other brothers and sisters in local assemblies to be spiritually fed, supervised and ruled by elders (also known as pastor or bishops, 1 Peter 5:1,2; 1 Tim 5:17; Hebrews 13:7)

Two objections immediately comes to my mind:

  1. How can evangelical pastors have any authority since they are not infallible?

  2. If I submit to the teaching ministry of the church, does that mean that I loose my right to private judgement?

To the first statement, I reply: It is not necessary for someone to be infallible to be authoritative. Our governments possess authority, but they are not infallible! As a father you have authority over your children to raise them up in the counsel and admonition of the Lord, yet, as you are painfully aware, you are a fallible human being. You may make mistakes, probably you have already committed quite a few, and yet you're still the authoritative head of the family. What if your children say, "Our dad is not infallible, therefore he has no real authority, therefore we will not submit to him." Have you ever thought like that vis-à-vis the evangelical pastors?

The very claim to infallibility is evidently false. It is a novel and proud invention of the modern Roman Catholic Church. Ironically, a popular Roman Catholic catechism in the middle of the nineteenth century by the Rev Stephen Keenan denied the infallibility of the Pope:

Question: Must not Catholics believe the Pope in himself to be infallible?
Answer: This is a Protestant invention; it is no article of the Catholic faith; no decision of his can oblige, under pain of heresy, unless it be received and enforced by the teaching body; that is, by the bishops of the Church. (Keenan's Controversial Catechism, on Protestantism Refuted and Catholicism Establish, by the Rev. Stephen Keenan, Second Edition revised and enlarged, published in 1851 by C. Dolman, 13 South Hanover Street, Edinburgh; and 61, New Bond Street, London).

What was then an alleged “Protestant invention” was soon declared to be a dogma by Vatican I and claimed to be a teaching “received from the beginning of the Christian faith”!

Compare the proud claim of infallible papal authority to the attitude of a Christian pastor. He is aware of the God-given authority to preach the Word (Titus 2:15); yet he is also painfully aware of his own weakness. He has taken the warning seriously, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things” (James 3:1,2). The faithful pastor studies to show himself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth. Do not hold it against him that he is humble enough to admit his fallibility.

What then of the notion of private judgement? Does the individual Christian forfeit his privilege to study the Scriptures and to exercise discernment when he submits to the pastoral and teaching ministry of the church? No, not at all. On the contrary, the Lord and His apostles constantly reasoned with the people from the Scriptures. The apostles did not merely say, “Believe and obey what we’re teaching because we are apostles.” The method they employed, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles, is based on persuasion by reasonable argument and appeal to the Scriptures.

This implies that it is not expected of the disciples to be blind followers of their leaders. Christian pastors are eager to demonstrate that the Christian faith is rooted in the Holy Scriptures. At the same time, disciples should exercise discernment, testing all things, searching the Scriptures daily to see that the things taught by their pastors are true.

I am thankful for those who have taught me the Christian faith through their sermons and writings, and especially for taking me to the Scriptures, so that ultimately my faith would rest on the solid rock of the Word of God.

The real choice is between one form of church authority and another. On the one hand, we have the false claim of infallible authority by the leaders of the Roman Church. They refuse to be accountable to the church in general because they say that ordinary Christians cannot rightly interpret the Bible. On the other hand, Christian pastors exercise teaching authority while admitting that they too are liable to make mistakes. They encourage ordinary Christians to test all things, including their teaching, and to study the Scriptures for themselves.

The end result is this. The Catholic ultimately rests on the authority of the Vatican leaders. “I believe because the Church teaches so and so.” Having been convinced that the teaching of the church is biblical, the Evangelical Christian says, “I believe because the Bible teaches so and so.”

© Dr Joseph Mizzi