Do we need “authority” for what we believe and practice in the kingdom of God?
I think so.
It seems that Jesus was concerned about that very question when he raised it with his inquisitors regarding the baptism of John. “By what authority” seems to be a legitimate question (Matthew 23:23-27). [Perhaps someone might quibble with my use of that text–I understand that, but I will leave the larger question to the side for the moment. I will simply assume, for my present purposes, that disciples of Jesus need “authority” for what they believe and practice in the kingdom of God.]
Now the question is what do we mean by “authority”? What are we talking about?
Limiting myself to the historic position among Churches of Christ on “biblical authority,” I want to discuss this point in the light of two variant approaches.
One answer might be something like this. What disciples need for authority in the kingdom of God is positive law. In other words, to search out the rules and regulations which govern the church as if New Testament documents intended to fully set out a pattern for the church in terms of assembly, organization, etc. These rules, for example, are specific and exclude coordinates (not simply what contradicts the command, but what is coordinate to the command). The specific of bread and wine, for example, excludes any other food in addition to the bread and wine. The specific of singing excludes any addition to the singing (including humming, playing or handclapping, etc.). The specific of first day of the week Lord’s Supper excludes any other day. What is assumed is that each of these texts intend to be specific exclusionary commands. This is a process for discerning positive law, and it assumes a constitutional literary model, legal hermeneutics, isolation of texts from contexts in order to place them in a legal syllogistic frame, human inferences about “coordinates” and their nature, and the Reformed regulative principle among other things. I have critiqued this approach in my previous articles on hermeneutics, especially the series on Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics and this present series.
Another answer might be something like this. What disciples need for authority in the kingdom of God is an organic connection or relationship with the gospel (the Christ Event). Jesus is the authority in the kingdom of God–the meaning and significance of his life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension are the authority for disciples of Jesus. Whatever we do in the kingdom of God must be rooted, connected to and organically grow out of the Christ Event. It is fundamentally the imitation of Jesus, but more broadly the imitation of God (theocentric focus) who is revealed in Jesus and through redemptive history.
The problem with positive law is that we don’t have any instruction within the New Testament that fits the genre of a legal code in the New Testament. The Christ Event is the core message of the New Testament and the theological reality which is the hermeneutical lens for Paul (as an example). If you have read my previous posts on hermeneutics, you can understand why I think the “Christ Event” rather than “positive law” is the root of authority in the kingdom of God.
Authority derives climatically from the mighty act of God in Jesus whose significance has been lived out in Israel previously and the church subsequently. Authority in the kingdom of God is not about legal propositions but authentic revelation of the heart of God in Jesus.
But how does this work? Those within Churches of Christ are quite familiar with how positive law functions within a paradigm of command, example and inference that assumes a legal pattern for the church within the New Testament. But authority derived from the act of God in Jesus does not resonate well with those trained in the legal hermeneutic of positive law. Consequently, I will briefly illustrate what I mean by this.
Those who know my writings know that I have spent quite a bit of time and used quite a bit of space talking about the sacraments or ordinances of the gospel (Baptism, Lord’s Supper and–I would add–Assembly).
The practice and meaning of these sacramental moments is derived from the Christ Event rather than a positive law. This was part of my purpose in my “sacramental triology” on Baptism, Lord’s Supper and Assembly.
Baptism. Disciples follow Jesus into the water. They commit themselves, as Jesus did, to the ministry of the kingdom through their baptism. They are declared children of God at their baptism. They are gifted with the Holy Spirit to minister at their baptism. Jesus is the model of baptism; his baptism is the first Christian baptism. As disciples of Jesus, we commit ourselves to the way of the cross through baptism just as he did.
Israel anticipated this purification act through their own water rituals and the early church continued the water ritual of baptism as initiation into the community, participation in the gospel, and anticipation of the eschaton.
Lord’s Supper. Disciples follow Jesus to the table. They continue the table ministry of Jesus through the breaking of bread–eating with sinners and saints, Pharisees and prostitutes. At the table, Jesus breaks the bread, communes with us, and we enjoy the fellowship of the kingdom. But the table is characterized by kingdom etiquette–it welcomes the poor, the oppressed, the wealthy, sick, etc. At the table we sit as servants together in the kingdom of God and declare the gospel in word and deed.
Israel anticipated this table fellowship through the thanksgiving (fellowship) offerings of the Levitical system which was a daily event in Israel and part of every festival. The early church continued breaking bread with Jesus and each other, both daily and every first day of the week. The practice of the table was declaration of the gospel, a participation in the gospel, and an anticipation of the eschaton.
Assembly. Disciples follow Jesus into the assembly of God’s people. Jesus assembled with the people of God to declare the praise of God, and he calls us to gather together in his name to pray. He is present with us, joins in our chorus of praise to the Father, and by the presence of the Spirit transforms us into his image.
Israel anticipated the assembly of God’s people with Jesus through their own assemblies in the presence of God (Leviticus 23) as their festivals were sacred moments of encounter between God and his people. The early church continued the practice of assembling for prayer as well as mutual encouragement, but it was not simply for encouragement but also to meet with Jesus and enter the Holy of Holies as a community. Assembling is a witness of the gospel, a participation in the gospel, and an anticipation of the eschaton.
Thus, disciples seek “authority” in the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus rather than in prescriptive rules and regulations that are embedded in a legal constitution. We seek authority in the story of God among his people so that we might participate in that story, imitate the life of God in that story, and become the image of God in the world rather than finding a pattern (which we have to construct because it is not explicitly there) in order to build our congregations like Moses built the tabernacle.
I know that there are many other hermeneutical issues to consider. I have made a feeble, fallible and flawed attempt to think through some of the issues of hermeneutical method. I hope it is beneficial to some and at least food for thought to all.
Now I take leave for a few days to watch the Cubs in Atlanta as the eschaton is on the horizon with the Cubs in first place!