God, Emerging church, and Authority

One of the biggest questions in any discussion on the church has to do with authority. In fact, I would say that this is the biggest question of all.

Maybe this isn’t the biggest question about what we know about God, but it certainly is the most pressing in how we understand what it means to be formed as a community. It affects how we understand church history and schisms. How we understand present issues of church growth and new expressions of church experience. Indeed, I would say that it is precisely the issue of authority that most defines the emerging churches as being emerging churches.

And maybe, now that I think about it, the issue of authority strikes right back at our core understanding of who God is, his nature, his approach to this world, his understanding of community.

I would also say that it is the issue of authority that is probably the most radical aspect of my own theology.

Who is in charge of our relationship with God? And connected with this is another question. How do we know we are connected with the people of God?

The classic answer was through apostolic succession. The leadership of Jesus was passed on through the disciples, which was passed on to the key leaders after their death, which was passed on down the generations. The authority of the church is found in this mantle of leadership, which is embodied by the present bishops of the historic churches. Those of the Roman Catholic church see this apostolic succession primarily derived from Peter, and his particular leadership in the early church. Those in the Orthodox community are not so limited, nor as interested in propping up the leadership of one particular city. The earliest churches formed by various disciples become central areas of leadership, but other churches, in other countries can become established by this apostolic succession and then pass on the mantle of leadership. This line of apostolicity defines the line of the church, and so to participate in the church one aligns with this apostolic structure that has been passed from hand to head, down through the generations, across the continents, in an unbroken succession of anointed leaders. The authority of the church is the church, one might say.

Now, I respect those who hold this view. Some of the finest Christians now and in history have held this view. Some dear friends are in agreement with this view and so I’ve been pressed to examine again and again my own perspectives.

Yet, I still, increasingly, come back to the position this is wrong. And that pretty much explains why, despite my long standing flirtation, I could never be a part of the Orthodox church. Because I respect their position, but cannot come to agreement on this issue. Which pretty much tosses me out of their communion.

For most folks this is not a big deal. Not being Orthodox or Catholic is a sensible position. However, my coming to terms with the issue of authority doesn’t stop on the edges of Rome or Constantinople. It presses on, as I’ve seen how churches across the spectrum hold to what is basically the same understanding of authority. They just replace who they think is in charge.

I think this is going to be a continued exploration on my part–coinciding with my not unrelated occasional series on an outsiders history of the emerging church. For now, let me hit one of my major issues on this topic.

Jewish backgrounds.

In the Old Testament who is the spiritual leader? How is spiritual leadership passed on? Who defines who is part of the people of God and who is not? Maybe we can say the priests, but I don’t think that’s accurate. The priests served in a liturgical role, not a gate-keeping role. They could rule on unclean and clean based on a divinely mandated set of rules, but they were not themselves bearers of any authority over identity. Maybe prophets. They anointed and spoke on God’s behalf. But they followed God’s lead. And there was not a succession of prophetic authority, rather God raised up who he would raise up.

We might say the kings exhibit an example of succession in the Old Testament. However, it’s pretty dangerous to define Israel by the line of the kings. Even when there was a line based on family, God still continually mucked up the system, judged as he would, kicked some out and brought others in. Up to the time he said, “no more” and ended the line of visible kings. Yet, even still the line of David was promised eternal rule. And the line of David was fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Who was, as Hebrews so nicely tells us, our high priest. In the order of Melchizedek. A servant of God. A man without lineage.

Succession was based on God’s work. The lines of official succession meant very little. God chose who he chose, cast off who he would cast off, and moved as he would move. Raising up leaders, and prophets, and scholars along the way. The people of God were maintained by the direct work of God in the generations, gathered together under a common confession, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

Jesus chose who he would chose, true disciples. They were outside the leadership of Israel, part of the people of God but not a particularly special part. They were the ones who left their nets, their tables, their crafts to follow this man, learn from him, risk for him, pray and study and gather together. They were the ones who the Spirit came upon and empowered for service. They were born again, resurrected in this life.

So, with this in mind, it becomes quite difficult for me to say that even as God did not work in succession in Israel, that he deposed kings and priests and prophets, he uniquely empowered the untrained and powerless, that he would do a different kind of work–an unprecedented approach–all without being explicitly clear about what he was intending for his continued church. All while saying it was the Spirit who grants gifts, and power, and authority–even if human authority doesn’t agree.

And this granting of authority, in the pattern of faith and Spirit God uses throughout the whole of Scripture, radically affects my perspective on the present authority in the church.

Which means there’s a lot more still to say…

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