ecumenical dictionary

June 2003: "Authority". Author: BERNARD SESBOÜÉ


The word “authority” comes from Latin augere, cognate with Greek auxanein, “to cause to grow, to increase, to enlarge”. This underlying sense of growth points to a dynamism in authority that produces, promotes and completes the bond which unites people (G. Fessard, Autorité et bien commun, 1969): if authority is needed and exercised among human beings, it is because they do not at once realize and achieve what they are to become on the personal and social plane. Each human being’s desire is universal, which inevitably poses the problem of the progress of each with the co-existence of all. No social life can be established or maintained without some form of authority. The origins of societies of very different kinds show that at the basis of all authority lies a de facto power, employed either for the better (the “charism” of the born leader, the natural ancestor of the “saint”*) or for the worse (the brutality of the gang leader, the tyranny of violence), which always has a tendency to turn into de jure power. Institutional structures develop and regulate the common will to live. Paradoxically, the goal of authority is its own disappearance; the authority of parents and educators ceases when the child in its turn has become a free and responsible person. In the case of a society, the common good is never perceived or achieved by all so fully that authority can cease. The goal remains asymptotic. As long as it has not been reached, authority appears as the necessary mediator of the common good of the group.

In a Christian perspective, the ultimate ground of all authority is the sovereignty of God (Rom. 13:1), who wills the good of his creatures. God, however, also wills their salvation,* i.e. that humanity grow in life towards eschatological fulfilment. God therefore sent his Son in a humanity like ours in order to manifest and exercise his saving authority in human terms, in a visible and historical way. Of his own free choice, Jesus falls in with the anthropological laws that govern the genesis of all authority.

The basis of authority in the church
Jesus appears as a charismatic leader who makes an unheard-of claim to authority (Matt. 7:29; Mark 1:22,27; Luke 4:32), sets his own word above that of Moses (Matt. 5:21-48, 19:8-9), claims authority to forgive sins (Matt. 9:1-8; Luke 7:48-49), commands with power unclean spirits, the sea and the winds (Luke 4:36; Matt. 8:27), calls on people to leave everything and follow him (Matt. 4:18-22, 9:9) and claims a unique relation with God, whom he declares to be his own Father (Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22), designating himself as the Son. That authority is questioned by his contemporaries (Matt. 21:23-24 par.), but it compels recognition from those who follow him and is acknowledged as rightful authority in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.* The risen Jesus can then send his disciples on mission* in the name of the total authority that has been given him in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). Johannine reflection sees Jesus as having received from the Father authority to execute judgment (John 5:27) and power to give life (John 17:2). Jesus’ authority is exercised for the sake of the growth of the kingdom, the common good of humanity of which it is the channel. The Revelation to John celebrates the Son as the Lamb sacrificed and victorious, on whom all authority and power has been conferred (Rev. 5:12).

Jesus gathered around him a community of disciples. After the ordeal of his passion, that community re-assembles through faith* in his resurrection and the strength of the Spirit received at Pentecost.* In the primitive church every baptized person has the responsibility, and as it were the authority, to bear witness to the truth of the message and to serve in the name of Christ both inside and outside the community. Within that communal group, the special authority of the twelve chosen by the Lord and bearing witness to his resurrection is confirmed. They have received the official mission to proclaim the gospel to every creature. The group of apostles is joined by Paul in virtue of the singular grace* he received of seeing the risen Christ. The authority of the Twelve, of the apostles and ministers who assist them in their task, is lived in an atmosphere of close fellowship with the community. According to Jesus’ words, it is an authority of service (Mark 10:43-45), which must not follow the model of the political structure of secular society (Luke 22:25-26). This authority is based on the bond of the apostles with Jesus (in this sense it is a de jure authority); in its turn it is the basis of a ministry which consists in preaching the word, prayer and worship, and maintenance of the church community in a fellowship of faith and love. Paul claims this authority for himself (2 Cor. 13:10); it includes if necessary the duty of reproof (Titus 2:15). In another order of ideas, Paul commends obedience to the civil authorities because they are established by God (Rom. 13:1-3).

All Christian churches consequently acknowledge the authority and sovereignty of Christ over his church in the power of his Spirit. That authority is that of the gospel, which Origen identified with Christ himself and which is a power of salvation for the believer. It is attested in scripture, the authentic formulation of the word of God,* which demands both from the church as a gathered community and from every Christian the adherence of faith and obedience. Any authority exercised in the church can only be in the service of that faith and obedience.

Dispute about authority
The question of authority was one of the earliest matters of dispute between the churches. This is not surprising, for separations always involve questioning the legitimacy of the authority of the existing church. Between East and West the dispute was more about the way authority functions in the church (more synodical, collegial, communal and respectful of local freedoms in the East; more centralized, personalized and “authoritarian” in the West).

In the 16th century the conflict about authority assumed strictly doctrinal significance, connected with the deep ecclesiological divergence between certain confessions and with different conceptions of the nature of the ordained ministry (see ministry in the church). In the name of justification* by faith and the incapacity of human beings to cooperate in any way in their salvation, the reformers – the Lutherans in particular - acknowledged the necessity of human authority for the good order of the church,* the correct proclamation of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments,* but they did not accept that in these domains the church is the administrator of an authority derived from God himself, for the sake of the salvation of human beings.

The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and the Orthodox churches (though authority assumes a different form with them) hold that this kind of authority is given to them by the will of Christ. So great was divergence on this issue in the West that the response on the RC side to the challenge of that authority was a stiffening and strengthening of the authority principle, together with increasing Roman centralization. By the late 19th century, the RCC could be described as a religion of authority in contrast to the Reformation churches, understood as religions of the Spirit, of conscience* and liberty.*

This divergence finds concrete expression in the understanding of the structure of the church, especially in the role assigned to the episcopal ministry as the ministry of “superintendence” and pre-eminently the ministry of authority in the church. The divergence extends to all the chief areas of this ministry: proclamation of the word, sacraments, government and maintenance in communion.*

For the RCC the ministry of the word includes not only the task of preaching but also the authority to interpret the scriptures correctly, in order to maintain the community in the truth of faith. The ministry therefore constitutes a magisterium (see teaching authority), which is exercised in regard to the scriptures, without standing above them. This magisterium pertains to the bishops in communion with the pope, acting either separately or assembled in a council. When an irrevocable and solemn decision is taken by a council, this is considered to be infallible (i.e. free from error, see infallibility/indefectibility), for the council is an organ of expression for the infallibility of the whole church, that which rests on the “supernatural sense of the faith which characterizes the people as a whole... from the bishops down to the last member of the laity” (Lumen Gentium 12). The First Vatican Council defined that the pope, as bishop of Rome, in virtue of his responsibility to maintain unanimity in faith among the churches, can on certain precise conditions himself commit the infallibility of the whole church.

The Orthodox churches share the ideas of episcopal magisterium and of infallibility (or, more exactly, inerrancy) but are loath to separate this exercise of authority from the “general consciousness” of the church (the synaisthesis, the Greek equivalent of the Latin sensus fidelium; see consensus fidelium), the primordial seat of Christian authority. For this reason the Orthodox link the infallibility of councils more with their reception* - it is discerned after the event and cannot be guaranteed beforehand. The Reformation churches generally reject the idea of an ecclesial magisterium in the name of the principle that scripture is its own interpreter and always produces anew its own correct interpretation. Doctrinal authority in the church is simply human and is judged by its fidelity to “the sovereign authority of the holy scriptures”.

The RCC claims for the ministers of the word and the sacraments an authority of a sacramental nature (often denoted by what has now become an ambiguous term, “power”), received by ordination,* which places them in the apostolic succession (see apostolicity). Ordained ministers thus act in the name of Christ and of the church, for the sacraments are acts of Christ, celebrated in the church by the power of the Spirit who is invoked. The Orthodox churches share this fundamental conviction. For the Reformation churches, the authority of ministers belongs above all in the place of ecclesial investiture, for the ultimate basis of all ministry is, most often, baptism.*

Finally, the RCC holds that its ministers have received an authority of jurisdiction (referred to in Matt. 16:18 and 18:18) over the members of the Christian people, which is exercised in the order of faith and life, in the service of their salvation. That authority is likewise necessary to the maintenance of communion among local and particular churches. That is why the councils of Florence (1439) and Vatican I* declared that the primacy* of the bishop of Rome confers on him a power of universal jurisdiction over pastors and faithful. The Orthodox churches, which share an analogous conception of jurisdiction, have historically always rejected this Catholic doctrine of the Roman primacy as extraneous to their tradition and to the practice of earlier centuries. The Reformation churches remain alien to the idea of jurisdiction, which attributed to the church an instrumental role in the domain of salvation.

While the Anglican communion has always sought to be a via media, its “comprehensiveness” in fact covers a very complex situation, which includes both “high church” (close to the Roman Catholic conception) and “evangelical” (close to Reformation ecclesiology) trends.

Ecumenical understanding of authority
Contemporary ecumenical discussions have devoted considerable attention to the question of authority in the church, examining it mainly in relation to the theme of ministries, which still constitutes a key obstacle to ecumenical progress. Before summarizing results, the chief dialogues and relevant documents may be listed.

International dialogues. To be mentioned here are the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic) “Authority in the Church I” (Venice 1976), “Authority in the Church I: Elucidation” (Windsor 1981), “Authority in the Church II” (Windsor 1981), “The Gift of Authority: Authority in the Church III” (Palazzola 1998); the Lutheran-Roman Catholic International Commission, “The Ministry in the Church” (1981, esp. sec. 3); the International Commission between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, “The Presence of Christ in Church and World” (1977, esp. sec. 2, “Doctrinal Authority in the Church”); the Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue, in its reports of Denver (1971, paras 99-118), Dublin (1976, paras 106-107), Honolulu (1981, paras 35-38), Nairobi (1986, paras 61-75), Singapore (1991, paras 53-98), Rio de Janeiro (1996, paras 53-72), and Brighton (2001, under the title “Speaking the Truth in Love: Teaching Authority among Catholics and Methodists”); the Anglican-Lutheran dialogue, Pullach (1972, paras 17-50); the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue, Moscow (1976, paras 1-18) and Dublin (1984, paras 21-30, 47-52, 90-92, 104-106); and Faith and Order, BEM (Lima 1982, esp. M15-16,19-25). The Roman Catholic-Orthodox International Commission is expected to tackle the question of authority in the church.

National dialogues. Here we may mention from the USA volumes 5 and 6 of Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue (P.C. Empie et al., eds): Papal Primacy and the Universal Church (1974) and Teaching Authority and Infallibility in the Church (1978). The French Groupe des Dombes* has produced “Episcopal Ministry” (1976, esp. n.32-49) and “The Ministry of Communion in the Universal Church” (1985) in Pour la communion des Eglises: L'apport du Groupe des Dombes 1937-1987 (1988).

The immense advances achieved in regard to the nature, basis and meaning of ministry and ministries in the structure of the church also represent progress on the question of authority, in particular as regards ordination, apostolic succession of ministry treated within the apostolicity of the whole church, the ecclesiological reference of the episcopal ministry, its symbolic function in the service of Christ’s action for his church, and the traditional significance of the threefold ministry.* Openness to the idea of the sacramentality of the church, admittedly qualified and still hesitant, nevertheless allows hope for overcoming the fundamental difficulty concerning the nature of the instrumentality of the church in relation to salvation.

Another area of progress is that of dialogue on scripture* and Tradition (see apostolic Tradition, canon, Tradition and traditions), scripture and magisterium.* The whole state of the question has been completely transformed here since it has come to be recognized, on the one hand, that the composition of the New Testament belongs to apostolic church Tradition and the constitution of the canon to post-apostolic church Tradition and, on the other hand, that Tradition essentially consists in the transmission of the message of scripture and does not constitute another source alongside it. Thus Pope John Paul II, in his ecumenical encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995)*, could formulate the framework for further study as “the relationship between sacred scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and sacred Tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the word of God”. Convergence is also emerging in regard to recognition of the authority of the creeds* and councils* of the so-called undivided church. As regards the magisterium proper, a conciliatory formula might be along the following lines: whereas the Reformation churches have one-sidedly maintained the church’s sole obedience to scripture, the RCC emphasis on the authority of the magisterium has been no less one-sided – to the extent that it seems to consider the magisterium as self-sufficient. A dialectic approach capable of integrating the two points of view would be to recognize that the authority of the church is a secondary norm (norma normata), bound by obedience to the primary norm of scripture (norma normans), but is no less truly a norm which, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, provides in its most solemn pronouncements a guarantee of fidelity to scripture.

The dialogue which has advanced furthest towards agreement on the problem of authority is certainly the Arcic. Its first Venice document (1976) starts from the Christian authority which is at work in the church through the action of the Holy Spirit. It underlines the importance of the authority of holiness, and then acknowledges the authority attached to the episcope of the ordained ministry, which is exercised conjointly with the community in a “permanent process of discernment and response”. It considers the authority which serves communion between churches in conciliar relations and even tackles the question of primatial, regional and universal authority (Roman primacy). It also deals with authority in matters of faith, a point at which it gives an important place to the doctrine of reception. The Windsor document (1981) studies four particularly thorny topics: the interpretation of the Petrine passages in scripture, divine right, jurisdiction and infallibility. Almost two decades later, in “The Gift of Authority”, the renewed commission considered that it had attained a sufficiently common view on the question of the bishop of Rome’s universal primacy for it to propose the exercise and acceptance of such a pastoral and doctrinal ministry, so understood, even before the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches were in full communion.

The exercise of authority in the church also assumes concrete form which varies with cultures and historical epochs and which always to some extent reflects ways in which authority is exercised in civil society. This non-theological factor, extremely important as regards the image the churches present to one another and to the world, must also be subject to conversion. Each tradition has a tendency particularly to emphasize one of the three aspects - personal, collegial and communal - whose complementarity was recognized at the 1927 Faith and Order conference in Lausanne (cf. BEM, M26 and comm.). In a movement of ecumenical conversion, each confession owes it to itself to restore to a due place in its life and organization the aspect or aspects that it has a tendency to obscure.

See also church discipline, church order, ecumenical councils, kingdom of God.


Arcic I, “The Final Report”, in GinA-I @ Arcic II, “The Gift of Authority”, Toronto, Anglican Book Centre, 1999 @ P.D.L. Avis, Authority, Leadership and Conflict in the Church, London, Mowbray, 1992 @ J. Robert Dionne, The Papacy and the Church: A Study of Praxis and Reception in Ecumenical Perspective, New York, Philosophical Library, 1987 @ P. Hégy, L'autorité dans le catholicisme contemporain: Du Syllabus à Vatican II, Paris, Beauchesne, 1975 @ J.M. Todd ed., Problems of Authority: An Anglo-French Symposium, London, Darton Longman & Todd, 1961 @ K. Ware, “L’exercice de l’autorité dans l’Eglise orthodoxe”, IR, 54, 1981, and 55, 1982.

back to "Who are we?" page