Do You Know Your Proper Place of Authority in the Church?

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Who has more authority: the pastor or a commentary author? The pastor or a theologian? The pastor or what he preaches?

In preparation for my Ordination Council this Sunday, I have been reading Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrim’s on the Way. Any of you who are following me on Twitter know that I have been thoroughly enjoying it.

In my reading this morning, I found a particularly helpful paragraph about dogmatic authority for the church (page 218):

“We do not believe the Bible’s teachings because of the church’s authority, but we do believe them through the church and its ministry (italics his). Children and theologians alike take their place under the magisterial norm of Scripture and its communal interpretation by the ministerial guidance of the church.”

Let me unpack that for a sec. Horton distinguishes between what he calls the magisterial authority of the Bible (i.e., its ultimate authority over the church), and the ministerial authority of those who proclaim the Bible (i.e., the relative authority of pastors/elders/teachers/overseers). So what he is saying in the above paragraph is that the church and its pastors do not contain the magisterial authority of the church, but they are stewards of that authority, and direct everyone under it. Horton continues:

“Theologians find their proper place as servants of ministers of the Word and sacraments. This then is the proper order: (1) the Scriptures as the infallible canon, qualitatively distinct from all other sources and authorities; (2) under this magisterial norm, the ministerial service of creeds and confessions; (3) contemporary proclamation of God’s Word in the church around the world; (4) long-standing interpretations in the tradition; (5) the particular nuances of individual theologians.”

Did you see where Horton put the ministry of preaching? In the middle.

But in your sermon preparation, how often do you default to long-standing interpretations? How much do you value the particular nuances of a theologian or commentary author? Do you, as Horton states, view them in service of your preaching ministry? Or do you view these books as a lord over your sermons?

Yes, those authors have spent more time studying. Yes, you should, no, must, consult biblical and theological books during your sermon preparation. No, you don’t have to adjust your views to accomodate “the particular nuances of individual theologians” and commentators. Rarely, if ever, should those particular nuances nestle down comfortably in the main points of your sermon.

Before you feel too good about yourself, you might want to read #3 above one more time. It is not the preacher who has the authority, it is the proclamation of God’s Word that has authority. So don’t preach the commentators and theologians. Don’t preach yourself. Preach the Word.

After all, that’s what the Word, in all its magisterial authority, commands us to do (2 Tim. 4:2).