Some thoughts on Paul’s relationship with the authority of the Church

Paul is an independent fellow. We never see him following the lead of another person (except Christ). Yet even as Saul, “breathing out murder” he goes about his work of arresting followers of Jesus with letters of authority from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 7-9). He functions as a leader exercising his own authority, yet does so on behalf of or with the blessing of others. Later in his work as an apostle of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, Paul will continue this pattern.

Acts 14:26 explains the return of Paul and Barnabas to Antioch –

…they sailed back to Antioch,
where they had been commended
to the grace of God for the work…

The commendation – i.e. the commissioning for ministry – came through the church. Yes, Paul’s conversion experience was through a direct revelation from God. But even he submitted to the authority of the church through prayer and the laying on of hands. In the next chapter (ACTS 15) he will return to Jerusalem to discuss his ministry among the Gentiles and receive the blessing of the Elders there. Though his ministry audience and approach is very different, he is in fellowship and communion with the Jerusalem church – the established or traditional church. The Jerusalem Christians follow the Jewish law, as they are Jewish Christians. After prayerful deliberation James, the head elder in the Jerusalem church, says that the Gentile Christians will only be held to four things from the Jewish law – “19 Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. 21 For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.” 22 Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.”

Abstain from things polluted by idols, from fornication, from whatever has been strangled, and from blood. No explanation is offered as to why he chose these and eliminated others. Peter’s dream (ACTS 10)seems to suggest that food sacrificed to idols is not an issue, and Paul teaches the same (1 COR 8). Perhaps it was that James anticipated these practices as most likely to lead the gentiles back into their polytheistic worship practices. Whatever his reasons, it is a very small list indeed, and flies in the face of the Pharisees strict direction that all be circumcised.

Paul lives with a tension, demonstrated in his writings, between the sole authority of Christ directly in his life without mediation, and the role of the larger church to mediate the teaching, ministry, authority and grace of Christ in his life, and through him in the world. In Galatians 1-2 he writes of his conversion and two trips to Jerusalem, the first 14 years and second another 3 years after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Here he is seeking to demonstrate that he is not beholden to any, nor under the authority of any but Christ. Even so, he goes to Jerusalem to meet with the elders to ensure that he had not and was not ministering in error or in vain. When he is able to confirm through this encounter that his proclamation of the gospel is sufficiently similar, he departs with their blessing. He even indicates that he went there for this purpose in response to a revelation – a message from God that this is what he should do.

In Galatia Paul confronted his fiercest critics regarding the relationship between law and grace for the believer. In a moment of passion, perhaps, he even suggests that those who are so insistent on the gentiles being circumcised should go ahead and castrate themselves. That probably did not help facilitate open and trusting dialogue between Paul and his detractors. It is not the kind of thing one can take back once it is said – we are still reading it 2000 years later! In spite of his struggle with those from Jerusalem, he repeatedly returns there, and continues to honor them by collecting an offering for them because of the famine in that region.

The global church may have every expression and illustration of autonomy and authority that one can imagine. Individuals step forward claiming direct divine inspiration and refuse to submit to any authority other than the Holy Spirit and the Bible (though one might ask them where they got a bible, if not from the historic church). On the other end of the spectrum are churches with a strong formal hierarchy vested with various forms of power and authority. They too claim that their right to this power and authority comes directly from God. Interesting that no matter what our notion of the place of autonomy, independence, interdependence, community, covenant, power and authority in the church, we will want to ascribe our view to God as though it came down from heaven on tablets.

Paul never seems quite settled with this tension in his own life – he lives in the midst of it. Perhaps this is a witness and example for us as well. Perhaps we are called to acknowledge and live in the midst of this tension, realizing that opposing claims are calling to us. Perhaps God wants us exactly here, in this creative tension. Unless muscles press or pull against a resistance, they will atrophy and die. Perhaps this tension is a creative force that enables our spirits, our faith, and the church to strengthen and grow as we mature toward the fullness of God in Christ.

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