Evangelicals, The Catholic Church, and Authority


Recently, I was explaining to a friend what I was reading, they replied to me, “That sounds like the Catholic Church, doesn’t it?” I had shared with this person about my readings from this excellent little book on what an elder in the church is and what he does. In it, David Dickson (an elder from a few hundred years ago) describes what typical visitations from an elder would look like in his parish (modern times, church community).

Back then, they used to go to peoples’ homes, sit down with the family and seek to be an encouragement, a shepherd and a teacher to them. The book explains this in further detail so I wish not to spoil (as is often done with lengthy book quotes… someone takes out the guts of a book, what an author has labored so hard to present, and then with a stroke of a key plasters it all over the internet…). The point is, an elder coming to the home, speaking with the children and parents all independently in the home about the state of their souls (cordially and with tact, of course) caused this person to think their thoughts.

I agree with my friend, in a sense. We have not grown up in churches where this was the common practice. Religion has been primarily my decision. I have decided to follow Jesus, after all…. It is something I do in my quiet time, and I am continually seeking to be alone with God. So to have someone who takes the position to join with and inquire about this in a way, seems overly intrusive into one’s life – reminiscent of the way one goes to a Catholic Priest for confession.

In a strange twist, in my current musings through Reformed and Presbyterian theology, the critique is also laid rather frequently that the Evangelical church looks more and more Catholic (a “Senior Pastor” making “executive decisions” about the nature and direction of the church/local congregation).

So what I’m seeing is this kind of syllogism:

  1. The Roman Catholic Church is bad
  2. Said practice looks awfully Roman Catholic
  3. Therefore said practice is bad

The problem here, as I have had to combat in own thinking, is that simply because something appears “Catholic” does not necessarily mean it is wrong, unwise, or unhelpful. Confession of sins to other believers is an explicit biblical practice that we are supposed to carry out. The problem is not the fact that we must do this – evangelicals think this is to be done with an “accountability partner/group”; the Reformed think it to be done with the Elders of the church; and in the Catholic church, with the Priest.

There are certain practices which have significant overlap since we are all drawing upon the same source (the bible) to form our belief and practice. What is interesting about the whole lot is that Catholicism is a way to write something off. This was my first reaction to much of the Reformed world – it all looked too Catholic. There is a clear authority structure.

This is a far cry in difference from the broad Evangelical world, in which I would say that the defining characteristic of the Evangelical World is it is anti-authoritarian. Though their are plausible authority structures in place, there is no true authoritative voice aside from Scripture. This is true in one sense: all things must be understood in light of Scripture. Yet we can see from the current state of the Evangelical world what happens when every man is left up to the authority of himself to figure out the meaning of the bible.

And this is why, I believe, it is so difficult for the Evangelicals to enact an Elder structure as what is commended in the book I shared. They may approximate it in biblical exegesis, but the application of it in its details with fail because of the implicit belief about authority.

Evangelicalism is not built upon and effort for ecumenism but autonomy. Ecumenism in the Evangelical world often comes down to social issues. Rarely, if ever, does ecumenism come down to theological and doctrinal issues. This would betray Evangelicalism at its core. But the problem for the Evangelical world is that autonomy undermines the work of Christ’s church. This is not to say that they are unable to build Christ’s church in any fashion, but to say, that parsed out and carried out, the tending result of Evangelicalism is antithetical to the unity presupposed in Scripture.

The fact that Evangelical’s can associate on social issues is at the core of it’s nature. When primary issues concerning faith and practice cannot be decided upon, and in fact are willingly not decided upon, the only other place to go with one’s Christianity is to the world, since the Church has no place for your theology. Evangelicalism, at it’s best, has done tremendous good for the community, the nation, and the world; yet this is not Christ’s Kingdom. The problem is that Jesus didn’t train doctors and therapists and counselors and business-men so that then they could save the world from their social needs. Jesus trained ordinary men with heavenly knowledge that they might save men out of this world.

In all their well-intentioned-effort, the Evangelicals have increasingly fudged on the central parts of biblical Christianity – the Gospel, the Church, and the Kingdom. The Gospel is reduced to “what a 5 year old can understand”, the Church is reduced to a “place where anyone would like to come”, and the Kingdom is reduced to a social “transformation program” where all your felt needs are either met or assuaged.

All of this stems from the fact of the anti-authoritarian nature of Evangelicalism. There is no one, and no thing that says, “this is true doctrine”. We say that we follow the bible, but we are left to our own, culturally, psychologically, and historically located interpretation of the bible. Throw in sin-nature and you have quite a mess. Everyone is an authority to themselves, and there is nothing against which declarations are checked. I am pressed to think that the multiplication of volumes in biblical studies has, at least in part, to do with the fact that one must read all the available literature in order to discern the prevailing thought, and combat or else affirm the authors/writers themselves.

When it comes back to issues like Elders, the Evangelicals struggle. There are some churches who perform better than others in this area, yet they resemble very little what the elders of past generations looked like. I believe this is because we, unbeknownst to us, have imbibed the political beliefs of our day, that we are free people, endowed with inalienable rights. Everything in life must function like the political process: my vote counts!

Instead, what we truly need is strong authority structures. Not by virtue of themselves, for we can see what happens when strong authority structures go bad – the Roman Catholic Church. But Scripture attests to the fact that there are those who are specifically set in place to guard, protect, watch over, and keep Christ’s flock. It is a stewardship that God has entrusted to them and they must exercise their authority over Christ’s church, or else the degeneration of the church will be perpetuated. If this were not so, the Pastoral Letters would never have been written.

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