I was reading recently some of Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, because I seek to understand other theological traditions (in this case, Roman Catholic) from their own primary sources and best teachers.
In the section on the nature of the authority of the Pope, he states that the pope has immediate authority. “[The authority of the pope is] an immediate power, that is, the Pope can exercise his power, without the intervention of an intermediary, over the bishops and the faithful of the whole Church” (p. 286).
Of course I totally disagree with this in relation to the pope. However, it presents a very helpful analogy for understanding God’s authority.
In short, God has immediate authority over each of us. This means that his authority does not have to be received through any human intermediary, such as a pastor or elder in your church. He has direct authority over us.
In other words, you don’t have to wait for a pastor to tell you what the Bible says before you can do what the Bible says. If you read a command in the Bible, it is directly applicable to you — you have the responsibility (and, more than that, privilege) of obeying it completely independent of any human approval or consensus.
Further, if the Bible commands you to believe or do something that is different from what your pastor believes, teaches, or even tells you to do, you are to follow Scripture — not your pastor.
This understanding of God’s immediate authority is at the heart of the Protestant faith. It is what allows each of us to have a direct, personal, and individual relationship with God.
This is also why those who argue that the Scriptures are not clear in themselves to teach us what God requires of us are not only mistaken in their doctrine of Scripture; they are also interfering with our ability to have a direct relationship with God, apart from any human intermediary.
They are, in other words, essentially rejecting God’s direct and immediate authority over us. For since God speaks in the Scriptures, if the Scriptures are not clear on the main things but instead we need to let a human teaching authority tell us what they mean first, then we have just placed human thinking and tradition over God’s law. This is the exact thing Jesus tells us not to do (Matthew 15:1-9).
This is an incredibly empowering doctrine. For it means that the power of the church is not contained simply in the formal offices of the church (pastor, elder, etc.), but among all Christians. Wow.
That creates a check on the abuse of formal power in the church, and thus is an important divinely-ordained means of accountability for leaders in the church.
It is also liberating because, as mentioned above, it frees us to have a direct relationship with God. If we couldn’t do what God commands in the Bible unless a formal pastor or teaching body in the church first told us what it means, God would essentially be gagged and we would be in a situation that is ripe for corruption.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is no place for church tradition, the teaching of others in the church, and so forth. Rather, it means that these things are sources of help in understanding what God’s word says.
They help illuminate what the Bible teaches and help us see more clearly how it applies. But in doing so, the authority always remains in the Scriptures themselves. Consequently, that which anyone teaches is therefore authoritative only insofar as it correctly teaches what the Scriptures themselves are teaching.