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The Limits of Church Authority

Question: I don't accept all the Church’s teachings - such as the encyclical on birth control (although I agree with much in it), and I don't really believe missing Mass on Sundays is a "mortal" sin. But fellow Catholics respond by quoting to me, "he who hears you, hears Me." In other words, the Pope and Bishops today are making binding rules, just as was done in the early Church by the apostles, and Catholics are morally obligated to obey. What do you think?

Answer: The highest authority in the Roman religion is the magisterium (i.e. the Pope and the bishops) and every Catholic is bound to be totally obedient to them, even if the individual disagrees with some aspects of their teaching. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, a person's religious belief is "outside the realm of free private judgment." And according to Canon 752 issued by Pope John Paul II, whenever the Pope or the college of bishops makes a declaration concerning faith or morals, "the Christian faithful" are required to give "a religious submission of the intellect and will" to it.

If you have a different opinion on birth control or on the seriousness of missing church on Sunday, well, you are acting criminally because you are breaking the laws of the Church.

Now, I don't think you are a criminal because you follow your conscience. To be sure, your opinions may be wrong, but on the other hand, I don't believe that church leaders have the authority to impose doctrines and rules that go beyond, or even against, the Word of God.

You say, didn't Christ say, "He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me" (Matthew 10:40). To this we may add that Jesus told Peter, "And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19). And later on, Jesus gave the same authority to all the apostles: "Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18).

Clearly Jesus appointed the apostles as leaders and invested them with authority to govern the church. Later on, Christ instituted bishops (also known as pastors, elders and presbyters), and though lesser than the apostles, they too have the duty to overseer the churches. Christ appointed authorities in the church and the last thing I want to do is to encourage rebellion against them.

Yet Christ does not want us to submit blindly. For church leaders can, and often do, go beyond their God-given authority. If that is the case, the Christian must respectfully but firmly refuse to obey. The same applies in family and civil life. For instance, a wife should submit to her husband. But what if her husband orders her to lie or steal? In that case, she is bound not to obey him. Similarly, citizens should submit to civil authorities. But what if our government passes a law forbidding prayer and evangelism? In these circumstances, we would be forced by our conscience to disobey the civil authorities and follow the Law of God. It is the same with church leaders. We should obey and follow them as long as they follow the teaching of the God’s Word. In the extreme case, the false doctrine of certain leaders exposes them as wolves in sheep's clothing. Jesus warned us about these false prophets. A tree is known by its fruit; a false teacher is recognized by his corrupt teaching.

We should not be afraid to apply these principles and test every teacher, including the Roman magisterium. Consider, for example, these two precepts of the Catholic Church (See Catechism, paragraph 2043):

  • You should keep holy the holy days of obligation.

  • You should observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.

These rules are obligatory. Catholics must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; they must observe the holy days set by the Church. Failing to obey the Church's precepts is tantamount to breaking the law of God. "Holy days of obligation are special feasts of the Church on which we are bound, under pain of mortal sin, to hear Mass and to keep from servile or bodily labors" (Baltimore Catechism).

Can the claim of the Catholic magisterium to formulate and impose obligatory laws on God's people be supported by the Scriptures? For the sake of argument, let's concede that church leaders have the authority to impose new obligatory rules. In that case, though we would not expect these rules to be written in the Bible, we would expect that they do not contradict the teaching of the inspired Scriptures. We open the Bible to investigate. First we find this passage...

So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ...Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations - “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using - according to the commandments and doctrines of men? (Colossians 2:16-22).

Paul says to the Christians in Colosse that the Old Testament regulations about food and drink and holy days were signs of better things to come and these were fulfilled in Christ. Now that we have Christ, such regulations have no place in the New Testament church, and Paul warns us not to let anyone judge us on the basis of fasting or holy days, and goes on to say that they are 'commandments and doctrines of men'. Interesting!

Then we read further…

For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? ... One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks (Romans 14:2-6).

Thus, Scripture teaches that every Christian has the liberty whether he should eat or not eat certain food, and whether to esteem a day (say Easter or Christmas) above another. Don't you see that when church leaders impose such rules as keeping certain days and abstaining from certain foods, they are virtually depriving you of the God-given liberty to make your own choices in these areas?

Then we find this fearful passage…

Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth (1 Timothy 4:1-3).

The Bible says that it is a departure from the faith when people forbid marriage (celibacy is imposed on the Roman clergy) and command people to abstain from meats. This is very serious: it is nothing less than apostasy!

Why would the apostle Paul condemn this so severely? After all, fasting, holy days and marriage are not the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. The reason is simple:

The church leaders’ responsibility is to lead the people according to Christ's teaching, not their own. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations...teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19,20). Church leaders have a God-given authority to rule but they have no right to invent rules of their own accord. And when they impose these human regulations, they override the teaching of Christ. While pretending to be teaching God's will, they are really teaching their own. Simple matters like fasting, celibacy and feast days expose the wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8).

Finally, we should make a clear distinction between apostles and bishops. You assume that the two groups have similar, if not identical, authority: "the Pope and Bishops today are making binding rules, just as was done in the early Church by the apostles." That assumption is incorrect. The apostles were a limited group of men, chosen by Christ for a very special purpose. Together with the prophets, the apostles are the foundation of the church. The church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone" (Ephesians 2:20). The mystery of Christ which had been previously hidden was finally revealed by the Holy Spirit through the apostles and prophets (see Ephesians 3:5). Therefore, it was the apostles' specific job to establish the doctrines and practice of the church. Thus, following the apostolic example, the church now meets on the first day (Sunday) rather than on the seventh (Saturday) (see Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2). The Lord testified to the apostles' authority to lay down the doctrinal foundation of the church by signs, wonders and mighty deeds (2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:4).

The bishops (also known as elders and pastors) are not apostles, nor are they able to perform signs, wonders and mighty deeds because they have a different function from the apostles. Like the apostles, they have the responsibility to lead; unlike the apostles, they have no mandate to establish new doctrines and regulations. The apostle Paul instructs bishops to hold fast the faithful word as they themselves had been taught (Titus 1:9). Indeed, all of us are exhorted to earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered (see Jude 1:3). The Christian faith has been handed over to us by God through the apostles; we are to preserve it whole and not ruin it by any additions or subtractions.

In conclusion, we should submit to and obey church leaders - those who do not teach human ideas, philosophies and traditions but the teaching of Christ. The apostle Paul puts it this way: "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1). Submit to the pastors and teachers who follow Christ, but do not submit to false teachers who, in the name of Christ, teach their own doctrines.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi