A CONUNDRUM ON AUTHORITY

From the perspective of the Old Testament, the world was divided into Jew and Gentile. Paul dismantles that distinction in Galatians 3:28 when he says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek”. His meaning is obviously that in God’s eyes one’s ethnicity (especially that all-important Abrahamic ancestry) means nothing. All souls are equal in His sight.

Later, the world seemed to become divided into two camps again, Catholic and Protestant/Non-Catholic. The conundrum comes about when one considers the views of these two groups. Without trying to oversimplify, Catholics basically see the Catholic Church as the continuing authority with the ability to make determinations on issues and clarify difficulties in understanding. They believe that without continuing “revelation” in the form of an authority on earth, we would never know how to handle issues such as birth control, marriage-divorce-remarriage, etc. Catholics site the seemingly innumerable differences in interpretation among Non-Catholics as reason for the need of continuing authority.

Non-Catholics believe that the only authority is the revealed word of God. All that is needed to understand God’s will for us is in the scriptures. Non-Catholics look at the purported authority and see many inconsistencies to the scriptures. For example, the marriage practices in the Catholic Church do not seem to harmonize with Biblical teaching. Priests are forbidden to marry, yet Peter was married. Paul argued that he had the right to take along a believing wife, 1 Corinthians 9:5. Paul even speaks of those “forbidding to marry”, 1 Timothy 4:3, where he proclaims such as departing from the faith in verse 1 of the same chapter. I have been told that no priest is forced to be unmarried but  that he gives up his right to marry willingly. Such reasoning seems to me to be specious, and could be proved false by a priest who insists on maintaining his right to marry. Presumably, he would be forbidden from being a priest.

Annulments are another sketchy area. My understanding of annulments was the Church-sanctioned dissolution of a marriage, but the practice goes deeper than that to validity of the marriage. It is true that in such a determination there are several factors considered; however, one of those considerations is, according to catholicannulment.us, that civil and Protestant marriages are not valid because they were not performed properly and in the Catholic Church. I am not trying to misrepresent the teaching, but the point here is in direct contradiction to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. There, we see couples who had been pagans. One of the spouses obeys the gospel. What are they to do? Paul tells them to stay together if the non-Christian is willing to live with the Christian. Certainly, these marriages would not have been “in the church”. Catholic doctrine would consider them invalid; Paul says they are binding.

So on one hand, we see disagreements and denominations among non-Catholics. On the other hand, we note that, if the Catholic Church is the authority, it seems to hold many positions contrary to what is taught in scripture. We could say that God’s will has changed since the first century, but to do so would be to place all trust in the authority. I am reminded, here, of the account of the man of God and the old prophet in 1 Kings 13. And celibacy for priests is a relatively modern invention.

What are we to do? This questions is a valid one for anyone seeking truth. Do we place our trust in the scriptures or in a subsequent “authority”? The only thing I know for sure is that human beings are fallible. We can be influenced by our level of intelligence or education, our emotions, our personal experiences, motivations, prejudices, etc. We will make mistakes in understanding. For me, to place my trust in an “authority” that I find suspect means to place my trust in other fallible human beings. If I were to invest in their divine guidance, I would have to suspend any understanding on my own part. I would completely surrender my study to their guidance. Yet, I know the Bereans were considered more noble for testing what Paul taught against the scriptures. Recognizing the Catholic Church as the authority would mean I could no longer follow in the footsteps of the Bereans.

When Paul says “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” in Philippians 2:12, he is not saying that each of us can interpret the word in our own individual way. He is, on the other hand, warning us to take our study of the scriptures seriously with an open heart and mind. I choose to put my trust in the word as I understand it to the best of my limited ability rather than in the understanding of other flawed humans whom some may consider the on-going authority. As well, I must be prepared to be persuaded if someone can show me from the scriptures the way of God more accurately.

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