Should We Fear an “Authoritative” Church?

In yesterday’s post, I noted that Mathison contrasted what he described as the Evangelical view of the Church, which he claims leads to “anarchy,” and the Catholic view of the Church, which he claims leads to “tyranny.”  My friend Cary writes in response:

love it, great timing too, as I have a discussion going w/ someone on this Monday and was asking kev about it…the person i was discussing it with suggested that Papal/Church authority has the danger of leading to an Islamic type system without individual thought and requirement of top down interpretation of every issue. thoughts?

I have many.

(1) This person doesn’t seem to know many actual Catholics.  They’re not exactly mindless sheep, incapable of forming their own thoughts.  Historically, the best and most interesting theology comes from within the Catholic Church, as even many non-Catholics will concede.  While the Church has Her share of problems, blind acceptance of Church teaching isn’t one of them (the opposite, however, is).

(2) As for the danger of an Islamic-style system of religious authoritarianism in which the Truth is suppressed, that danger exists if, and only if, the Holy Spirit doesn’t guide the Church.  After all, no Christian can seriously fear the prospect of the Holy Spirit as “Dictator” of the Church, so a Spirit-lead Institution is absolutely safe.

What I hear a lot of when these things come up are fears and rationalizations.  What I don’t hear are (a) concrete examples where the Church explicitly contradicted Scripture or Herself (although I hear plenty of things which people think are those contradictions, they never turn out to be upon any serious examination), or (b) passages from Scripture supporting the idea that sometimes the global Church isn’t trustworthy.

(3) In the Catholic corner, there’s Matthew 16:17-19; Matthew 18:17-18; John 14:16; John 14:28; John 16:13;  Acts 8:3 and Acts 9:4 (Paul persecuting the Church = Paul persecuting Christ Himself); 1 Corinthians 6:1-5, Ephesians 1:18-23 (Christ is the Eternal Head of the Church); Ephesians 5:25-32 (this passage is incredible); Colossians 1:18; Colossians 1:24; 1 Timothy 3:15; and numerous others.

These passages clearly describe God as in control of the Church, Christ as Her Head, the Holy Spirit as Her Counselor and Advocate, leading Her into all Truth.  Yet this Church is still Institutional, and has regular folks running Her.  1 Timothy 5:17 says that the presbytery is put in place to run the affairs of the Church, and Acts 20:28 says it’s the Holy Spirit who puts these men in place.  And Hebrews 13:17 explicitly orders us to submit to these earthly authorities within the Church.  So even the mortal side of the Church is put in a place of honor and authority by God.

Given all of this clear Scriptural support for the idea that the Church is a God-ordained and God-controlled Institution (the Body of Christ, even), and exists to guide and lead us, to authoritatively settle disputes amongst believers, and so forth… what’s the contrary case from Scripture?  It sounds like it’s just people’s misinformed fears about how bad they’ve heard Catholicism is, or was, or might become in the future.

(4) Where in Scripture do we ever see God (or anyone) praising individuals for splitting from the Church?  In Numbers 16, God kills Korah and his followers for trying to create a priesthood of all believers without a clerical priesthood in Israel.  Paul warns in Galatians 5:19-21 that those who promote factions and dissensions within the Church go to Hell.  Where are the contrary Scriptures?


  1. “In the Catholic corner, there’s Matthew 16:17-19; Matthew 18:17-18; John 14:16; John 14:28; John 16:13; Acts 8:3 and Acts 9:4 (Paul persecuting the Church = Paul persecuting Christ Himself); 1 Corinthians 6:1-5, Ephesians 1:18-23 (Christ is the Eternal Head of the Church); Ephesians 5:25-32 (this passage is incredible); Colossians 1:18; Colossians 1:24; 1 Timothy 3:15; and numerous others.”

    I think the usual response to those verses is that ‘the church’is a collection of believers and it’s not specific denomination and it definitely cannot be the Catholic Church … they will concede that there might be some Catholics in ‘this Church’.

    Surprisingly, I have found that pointing out how this definition is simply untenable (no way to get any objective teaching from ‘this Church’) doesn’t cut any ice. The sharper ones will agree that it’s not perfect, but this is the best we can get in this world. The RCC is simply wrong, so it cannot be this church.

    This frustration probably accounts for most the white hair on my head.

  2. Jarrod,

    I’ve often had the same problem. I looked at some of this here ( and here ( And you’re right that it can be frustrating at times, but hang in there. It might help to present the questions to them:

    – Where do we see the Church as a disorganized collection of believers in Scripture?

    – Are the bishops and presbyters in the New Testament Church chosen by the people, or appointed by the Apostles?

    – When the Church declared Herself to be speaking on behalf of the Holy Spirit in Acts 15:28, could an individual Christian reject that Council?

    Those sorts of things. I can’t promise that it’ll work, but it might be worth a shot. Another approach you can take is start asking about the early Church. Most Protestants, quite honestly, haven’t read the Early Church Fathers, or seriously looked into what the Church in say, 200 A.D. might have looked like (I’m sure that’s true of Catholics as well). I tried to lay out the basic case for this approach here (

    Finally, on a related note, nearly all Protestants will concede that the Church from roughly 500 – 1500 A.D. was Catholic and not Protestant. Using the passages we just described, this is pretty solid proof that either Hell overcame the Church (contrary to Christ’s promises) or the Catholic Church is the Church Christ was promising to preserve (I argue that here:

    I don’t know if any of those lines of reasoning will work, but barring all of that, you might just encourage the person to read Scripture and the Church Fathers to try and discover what the early Church looked like.


  3. I really, really empathize Jarrod.

    This is *THE* issue I get thrown at me from my anti-Catholic friends. Even after big concessions about sola scriptura and such, they throw the “personal relationship with Christ” card at you. And that is supposed to prove that Catholics are modern day Pharisees, because Catholics give the Church more authority than their personal relationship. Very frustrating.

    Joe’s list is very good. I might just add a point made by (the now La. Gov.) Bobby Jindal, that I find compelling:

    “Pope Clement used his authority to discipline the Corinthian church in A.D. 96. At that time John and other apostles were still alive and would have objected to any illegitimate exercise of authority. However, no protest was made, since Clement was acting within his rights as Peter’s successor.”

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