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). Continue reading