Rethinking Authority During the Reformation

Jesus with BibleThe issue of authority within and for the church has long been a topic that has sparked debate within the Christian tradition. Even in our own context questions remain concerning the Christian’s attitude toward the state, the role of women in the church, and questions concerning the sufficiency of ecclesiastical offices. In the essay that follows below, we examine several Reformation Era perspectives on authority within the church. Through these perspectives we see that central for these reformation perspectives was their desire to rethink the authority of scripture in light of differing interpretations and interpretive authority structures within the church.

In his Brief Declaration, Robert Fulke writes that the church, as the “house of God,” should be ordered in accordance to the scriptures (185). In scripture, he argues, there are two forms of office: the temporal and the perpetual, each of which holds authority in a particular church, city, or regional area (186). Temporal offices, those which were used in the establishment of the church, included apostles, prophets, evangelists, and those who demonstrated supernatural gifts such as speaking in tongues, healing, and miracles (186). For the current church, Fulke argues, only those who hold perpetual offices are to be understood as authoritative. These ecclesiastical offices include those of pastor, doctor, governor, and deacon (187); of these he conceives of doctors and teachers as the chief instructors of the church (187), and of the elders and deacons as those who should provide order and discipline within the church (187, 190). The goal of the church disciple doled out by elders and deacons was fourfold. He argues that disciple was necessary in order “to keep men in awe from offending and to bring offenders to repentance, to avoid the infection of sin within the church, and the reproach that growth by neglecting the punishment of sin…” (191). Clearly Fulke advocates church discipline that both forms morality and punishes the sins of the congregation when necessary. These purposes in hand, Fulke writes that church discipline was to be enacted by the pastor together with the elders, either punishing Christian offenders or cutting them off from the church (191). Fulke decries the Roman church’s practice of excommunication for he termed minor disagreements with the church, arguing instead for excommunication only on account of unrepentant sins such as covetousness, idolatry, slandering, and those heretics who failed to repent of their errors (191). Ultimately, Fulke appeals to the authority of scripture, specifically that interpreted by pastors in a synod of fellow pastors, as the ultimate authoritative basis for the church (189).

The work of Margaret Fell in Women’s Speaking Justified offers interesting insight into reformation era attempts and reconceiving the traditional role and authority of women in the church. Despite this work’s relatively short length, Fell engages the chief proof-texts traditionally used to denigrate women with the church. Fell argues from the creation narratives that God made both man and women in His image, making no distinctions between either as her contemporaries did (282). She notes that Woman spoke to God just as Man did (282), and that He promised Christ through the Woman (283). Fell’s use of the protoevangelion found in the Genesis narrative forms the basis for her understanding of God’s use of women in the bearing of Christ, a position that she uses to demonstrate the usefulness and equality of women (283). Turning to the New Testament, especially Paul’s writing in I Corinthians, Fell tries to read Paul’s context as one of exhorting charity and understanding. As he clearly argues against speaking in unknown tongues, Fell understands Paul’s command for women to keep silent as a reference to not to their general status in the church, but instead as reflecting his command to the entire Corinthian church—that no one, man or woman, speak in unknown tongues (285). In considering Paul’s calls that Women be obedient, Fell understands Paul as writing about women who are under the law and who are in need of teaching and training in their homes (under the guide of the husbands), not those women who are knowledgeable and trained in the proper manner of Christian faith (285). Fell further qualifies her interpretation of Paul’s writings by noting that some of what he writes is for women in relation to their husbands and not the church (286) and that the overall context of Paul’s writings indicates that he worked with women who were apostles, evangelists, and prophetesses (286-7). Fell ultimately concludes that scripture must be reinterpreted in light of Christ’s freedom.

Fell was not the only reformation era writer to consider the role of women in the church, as she was joined in some respects by early Tirolean Anabaptists and Pilgram Marpeck. In “The Theological Roots of Gender Equality,” Stephen Boyd notes Marpeck’s perspective on women within the church. In light of Marpeck and the extant evidence that Boyd presents, women within Tirolean Anabaptist groups appear to have been very active in leadership roles, at least in the earliest years of the movement (43). Boyd notes that nearly half of the congregants were women, and of these over ten percent were lay leaders and missionaries, and nearly twenty-five percent were martyrs (43). Some of these women may have even baptized, though at the very least they were acting as missionaries and evangelists for Anabaptism (43). While Marpeck never explicitly writes about the role and authority of women in the Tirolean Anabaptist congregation, his theological emphasize seem to allow, perhaps even dictate, that women actively to preach, teaching, and possibly baptize (44). Key for Marpeck’s understanding of women in the church was his understanding of Christ’s suffering and death as instituting a new, non-worldly order for the church, which allowed him to rethink of the roles of women in a traditional interpretation of scripture (40). He argues that through Christ believers are given the freedom of the Spirit, by which they are to do good before God and humanity (II Corinthians 2; Matthew 3; II Corinthians 8). Marpeck further appeals to the gospel narratives about Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, who were charged with apostolic and evangelistic authority to testify even to the Eleven concerning the Risen Jesus, as evidence for the new role of women within the freedom of Christ (44). The evidence presented in this article indicates that Marpeck did not explicitly offer an exegesis on passages of scripture that have traditionally been used to dictate the role of women in the church. However, given his reconsideration of other facets of church tradition, it would seem to follow that Marpeck could have conceived of the household codes found in the New Testament more in light of Christ’s freedom.

John Smythe
John Smythe

To briefly consider one more perspective on authority in the reformation era church, we turn to John Smythe’s Propositions and Conclusions. Smythe touches on the proper authority of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, writing that they exist as supports for Christian faith and calls to true repentance, not as designators of grace or regeneration (746). He conceives of baptism and the supper along the same lines as scripture, as he understands them to teach, strengthen, and feed regenerate believers (746). Smythe also concerns himself with proper interaction between the church and state, writing that he understands the office of the magistrate (the state) to be an ordained and permissible office of God for the overall good of mankind, citing the oft quoted passage of Paul in Romans 13 (748). However, he also argues for the limited authority of the civil magistrate, writing that civil authorities have no business in matters of religion and private conscience (748). Symthe remains unclear as to the exact status of the possibility of the Christian as a magistrate, arguing that a magistrate must act as Christian, though without distinguishing between his private and public office (748). This could be an intentional ambiguity for Smythe; however, there is simply not enough included in this treatise to accurately gauge his perspective for our purposes here.

As has been shown by our brief examination of these reformation era sources, there was great diversity of perspective on issues of church authority among various writers. Among these diverse perspectives, however, remain several central concerns. As Fulke demonstrated, scripture remained a key authority for these theologies, though he argues for concord based on synods of pastoral leaders. In Fell, we noted again the centrality of scripture, though there she argued for a re-reading of scripture in light of its original context and the newness of Christ’s freedom from the law. In Marpeck we noted a reliance upon scriptural evidence to rethink the role of women, as well as rethinking the theological implications of freedom in Christ. Finally, in Symthe we briefly noted a reconception of both the sacraments as well as church and state relations. In light of these diverse concerns, it seems clear that central to these reformation attempts was the need to rethink the authority of scripture in light of differing interpretations and interpretative authority structures in and for the church.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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