The Moral Authority Jesus Had in Mind

March 14, 2012

The letters poured in yesterday in response to my last post, “The PCUSA has lost its moral authority.” My midweek schedule here is piled on with presbytery, two classes I am teaching, and various extras, so I cannot write a long post today. But there are several questions that deserve thoughtful answers, and this will be my project the rest of the week, one at a time.

As a seedbed, though, it would be good for us to start with the basis for moral authority, out of which grows the implications for what the church is to do.  A church (and The Church) has authority that has been imputed to it by Jesus Christ. Matthew 16:16-19 is our text:

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Protestants understand that “this rock” has a double meaning, that the foundation of spiritual authority in the church rests both upon Peter’s profession of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior, and upon Peter himself as the professor of that belief. In the gospel context, that profession is not intended to be mere words. Jesus said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). A person can say the right words, but be disobedient in practice, thus nullifying his or her moral authority. [Yes, I realize we get into a discussion around the Donatists of the fourth and fifth centuries, but hang in with me here.] The Pharisees, in Jesus view, said many of the right words in profession of faith, and yet they “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4).

The concept of moral authority is addressed in the seventh of our Historic Principles of Church Order:

That all Church power, whether exercised by the body in general or in the way of representation by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative; that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no Church judicatory ought to pretend to make laws to bind the conscience in virtue of their own authority; and that all their decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God. (F-3.0107)

What this means is that the church exercises moral authority when it adheres to what the Scriptures teach. As long as it does that, it has derivative authority from Christ himself; when or if the church departs from “the only rule of faith and manners,” the church is on its own without moral authority. My claim is that the PCUSA has reached the point of departure in practice from what the Scriptures teach, and therefore has lost its credibility as a reliable teacher of the gospel, or, in other words, its moral authority.

My intention is to cull through the questions my readers asked this week and, as time allows, post some thoughts in response. The interchange reveals to me once again that my readers are on the cusp of decisions about what they will do and what they will advocate. As we “bring the Word to life” together, may God guide us all in the way of wisdom and grace and truth.


6 Responses to “The Moral Authority Jesus Had in Mind”

  1. A Simple Guide for Behavior

    Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

  2. revmary Says:

    Mm, so Mary, what point are you trying to make here? That I have a critical spirit, an ugly sneer, contempt? A traveling road-show? Holier-than-thou? If so, I am sure many people might agree with you simply on the basis that I am sharing opinions that oppose theirs. But even my even my face-to-face opponents would not attribute to me sneering or contempt, and you yourself have not seen me in action at presbyteries or in committees. Would you like to explain in your own words the point you are trying to make?

  3. Linda Lee Says:

    Rev. Mary you have my respect, support and prayers:
    Psalm 91:4 “He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth shall be your shield and buckler.”

  4. Jodie Says:

    Dear Rev Mary,

    Sometimes I really like your posts and what you have to say. Sometimes, not so much. In your last post you seemed to assume that a said presbytery, by turning a blind eye to ordaining a gay pastor, was somehow flaunting the Book of Order more than the more orthodox of Presbyteries. But the way the rules were written in the Book of Order, nobody could be ordained. Every time someone was denied ordination on the basis of G-6.0106b, they were victims of capricious hypocrisy at best.

    For did you ever vote against an ordination because the candidate was too fat (i.e. a glutton)?

    But that is not even what angers me most about the post. What angers me most is how you cast derogatory aspersions on this whole entity you call the PCUSA without a care in the world as to whom you are casting the aspersion upon (and just the other day you called for Grace). Who or what is this entity “PCUSA” that has “reached the point of departure in practice from what the Scriptures teach, and therefore has lost its credibility as a reliable teacher of the gospel”?

    I am a member of the PCUSA. Are you saying therefore that I have departed from what the Scriptures teach? If not all of us, then who, exactly, are you talking about, and why do you call them the PCUSA and not us? The PJC? I don’t recall joining that committee.

    I think what you are really trying to say with all your considerable scholarship and erudition – and I do respect it, it is impressive. don’t get me wrong – is that there are some people in the denomination, mostly other pastors I think, with whom you have doctrinal differences of opinion. I think you mean to say that they are “bad apples” and that they are “spoiling the whole bushel” and that we should do something about that. Suppose that IS true. Suppose there are some bad apples out there. And surely there are! The elephant in the room is that Jesus teaches us that it is the good apple that redeems the whole bushel of bad, not the bad one that spoils the good! Isn’t that what Jesus taught about being the little bit of yeast the leavens the whole bread? About being the little light that makes the whole World not dark? As his disciples are we also not to touch the untouchables, and by our touch make them clean, just as He did? And when it comes to sin, does He not also teach us that you can’t tell which is a tare and which is a wheat – that not even the angels can tell? So who’s to say if I’m a tare and you a wheat, or you the tare and I’m the wheat, or both or neither?

    I for one believe Him when He says that.

    So who is it that is deviating from Scripture? People who turn a blind eye to sin when deciding whom to ordain, or people who exclude from ordination those whom they believe are living in sin while rationalizing away their own? What makes ordination or marriage a sacrament that we should tear ourselves apart to discern, rather than gather at the foot of the cross to receive? God calls whom he calls, and unites whom he unites.

    This is way too long. But these are not just rhetorical questions. For as you said, “Evangelicals have to take the gospel seriously or we have no credibility at all.” You are more there than you know.

    Jodie Gallo
    Los Angeles, CA

  5. Adel Thalos Says:


    Your posting is a joke….right?

    Your inclusiveness with no boundaries is hilarious…

    For example, what if the denomination decided that the inclusion and ordination of multiple skin-heads, who believed that it was perfectly good to murder Jews and Blacks, was a good thing and a wonderful biblical hermeneutic?

    Your logic utterly breaks down. Everyone has lines for inclusion.

    I’ve been laughing at your posting…great joke!

    Adel Thalos
    Hixson, TN

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