There is a growing emphasis on church membership right now and “being under the authority of the local church.”
This can seem laudable in many ways, but there is a very important emphasis which often seems to be missing when people talk about this. Without this emphasis, people will inevitably misunderstand.
The missing emphasis is that of the freedom of the Christian and the ultimate authority of the Scriptures. This is well summarized even in the Church of England’s Articles of Religion, giving an excellent summary of the united position coming out of the Reformation on this matter:
Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation: so that whatever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”
This is why I am uncomfortable with people speaking of “being under the authority of the local church.” There is a sense in which that can be understood properly. But I’m not sure most people who speak this way are doing that. It too easily sounds like the local church has complete authority over the person, almost like a medieval monarchy. That is simply not the case.
In order to understand church authority properly, it needs to be understood that the authority of the local church is a limited authority. That is, no church, no elder, no pastor, nor any other church officer can require a person to believe or do something that is not taught explicitly in the Scriptures, or deduced from them with good and necessary consequence. Which means no local church has complete authority over a person.
This is an extremely important matter, which is why I avoid ever using the phrase “under the authority of the local church.” We are under the authority of the Scriptures. This does not mean the local church has no authority; rather, it means they only have the authority to require what the Scriptures themselves require. In all other matters, the Christian is free and responsible to choose his or her own course of action.
Some people say “well isn’t that risky?” Which of course is how people’s freedom is always taken away. To deny spiritual freedom in the name of “well, you can’t handle freedom” is not only the road to tyranny; it is tyranny.
Beyond that, it is to go against what God himself has declared. God wants his people free and has made them free. I believe one reason for this is that this is the greatest stimulus to spiritual growth. You cannot truly take ownership of your faith, and thus grow, if you think you are ultimately dependent on any other person or institution — including your local church. The local church is to assist in growth, not take control of the person.
It is not healthy to see ourselves only in terms of submission. We are also leaders — leaders of our own lives.
To fail to emphasize this and keep it clear is to muddle the sufficiency of Scripture, the authority of the Scripture, and the God-given freedom of the Christian.
I would encourage anyone who is going down the road of this renewed emphasis on church authority to study carefully those doctrines first. A good place to start might John Stott’s chapter “Authority: Tradition or Scripture?” in Christ in Conflict.