Vol. XI — No. 45 November 8, 1970


The Authority-crisis

1 Peter 4:11

If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God.

In Christ Jesus, who has given us His Word as our highest authority, Fellow Redeemed:

We are witnessing an authority crisis in all areas of life. The French-Canadian secessionists have resorted to kidnapping and brutal murder. The new left in our country is using calculated disturbances of the courts, bombings, arson, “pig” killing, and whatever violence seems expedient. The campus radicals also use bombing, arson, sit-ins, take-overs, and whatever other means are available to protest the “establishment.” We find that “law and order” is the dominant theme of the current election campaign, for all citizens are aware of the fact that the current authority-crisis could well be tolling the death of our civilization and way of life unless respect for duly constituted authority is once again restored to the thinking and behavior pattern of all citizens. These are problems for the state. They vitally concern each one of us as citizens. But on this Reformation Festival we do not intend to convert this pulpit into a political platform for another speech on “law and order.”

We want to direct your attention to the authority crisis in the church. What is the final authority in the church? Whose word is the last word? There is no one that can be that insensible to what is going on in the churches that he is unaware of the authority crisis in all churches. Who or how are questions of doctrine, or morals, of daily living to be decided? No one seems to know. The crisis is no longer at the seminaries, but has seeped down to the very Sunday School classroom. One of our Sunday School teachers was telling me of a frustrating day of testifying at work. She was listening to three fellow workers lament conditions in their respective churches. All of these laments centered around the break-down of authority in the church. One of the ladies said that her husband taught the ninth and tenth graders in Sunday School in a Lutheran church in a neighboring city. He was trying—to the best of his ability—to teach these young people Bible truths. But he was faced with open rebellion. He was simply told by his young students that they were not about to take his opinion as to what the Word of God has to say. They would make up their own minds about things. This—in a Lutheran Church—that this Reformation Day is supposed to be remembering that one of its basic principles is Sola Scriptura, Scriptures Alone, as the high authority in the church. The situation in this particular Sunday School classroom is, unfortunately, not an exception, but is rather characteristic of most classrooms, pulpits, and seminary lecture halls. The church is in a state of anarchy. The problem is—


This crisis in authority, first of all—

  1. Reflects man’s natural stance of rebellion against God.
  2. Can only be resolved by a man of God’s stance on the Word of God.

We say that the natural stance of man is one of rebellion against God. Is it really that bad? Think for a moment? What was the first sin? It was plain and simple rebellion against a very specific word of God. God had said: “of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Gen. 2:16-17. What happened? Satan came along and suggested to Eve that she didn’t hear right, that God was holding out on man, that God was jealous of man, that God didn’t really mean what He said. Eve took of the forbidden fruit—an act of pure, unadulterated rebellion against the word of the Lord.

With that initial rebellion man lost the image of God and thereafter lived and passed on to all future generations the natural factual stance of rebellion against God. God’s evaluation of man is that “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually.” Gen. 6:5. So it is that when God says “No,” man naturally says “Yes.” When God says, “Thou shalt not,” man wants to do it. When God says, “Thou shalt,” man naturally drags his feet. When God says, “This is truth,” man says, “I don’t think so.” When God say, “My Word is the highest and final authority,” man says, “Not by a long sight—I’ll decide just what is the Word of God and how and when it shall be applied.” Look about you. Read what is written. Listen to what is said. This is what you will hear, for the most part, in the churches.

What is the solution? Peter gives it in the few words of our text, and when I say that Peter gives it, you are to understand that God gives this solution because Peter wrote under the guidance and control of the Holy Spirit. Peter tells us how things are to go in the church: “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God.” The oracles of God are simply the words of God, both old and New Testament—the Bible. When the preacher preaches from the pulpit or instructs the catechism class or conducts the educational portion of the women’s meeting, when the Sunday School teachers teach in their classes, when you parents instruct, admonish, correct your sons and daughters at home, when one Christian exhorts, admonishes, comforts, encourages another child of God—he or she is to speak according to the oracles, the words of God. St. Paul wrote to Timothy that all Scripture is “profitable for doctrine (for teaching eternal truths), for reproof (for exposing and refuting religious and moral lies), for correction (for restoring a fallen sinner through repentance unto grace), and for instruction in righteousness (for training people to walk in the ways of the Lord.)” II Tim. 3:16. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God.” And when that word is spoken, all in the church are to hush and listen and obey—for there is no higher authority. A man of God must take his stand on the Word of God!

Let us realize, however, that authority crises are nothing new in the life of the church. Sometimes the crisis is more intent than at other times. The Reformation was such a time in the history of the church. Luther wrestled with the problem: What is the highest and hence the final authority in the church? He had been taught that the pope or the church councils were the highest authority. You realize that the battle is still raging in the Catholic Church as to whether the pope or the church councils has the final authority. The pope has recently re-asserted his authority as supreme. But what was Luther to do when he realized that the teaching of the church—its popes and councils—was contrary to the Word of God? Luther had to do what had to be done. He broke with the church—testifying that the Word of God must be followed when popes and church councils come into conflict with that Word. In asserting this truth Luther had to make clear what is so foggy in men’s minds today—that the naked Word, the literal text of the Bible, not any man’s interpretation of the Word, is the highest authority.

For example, Luther’s basic problem concerned his own soul’s salvation, and that of every sinner. The whole structure of the church with its traditions had built up an elaborate system of works by which the sinner was to be assured of his salvation. Just do what the church tells you to do—prayers, confession, penance, indulgences, masses, pilgrimages, monastic orders, and then top it off with a spell in purgatory. This is it! Don’t argue! But when Luther studied his Romans, he came across Paul’s quotation of the prophet Habakkuk: “The just shall live by faith.” Those few words contradicted the voice of the church—its popes, priests, church councils. Whom was he to believe? Luther rested his faith on those plain, simple words of Habakkuk and Paul: “The just shall live by faith.” No interpretations, no explanations, no explanatory notes to the text—just the simple, plain words of Scripture. This is the highest and the final authority in the church. Every child of God is to take such a stand on the Word!

We should realize that we must continue to refight the battle that Luther fought. We have an authority crisis today. It is the same as in Luther’s day. When we talk about popes and church councils setting doctrine, let us realize that the churches of the Reformation are suffering from the same thing today. A few spokesmen for the National Council of Churches presume to speak as pope for millions of people. Matters in most church bodies today are decided on the basis of majority votes at church councils, which are today called church conventions. One of the problems is whether or not the church, as church, should be involved in the affairs of this world, in politics, economics, civil rights, social work. In most churches it is taken for granted that this is the thing to do. We say “No” to this trend. Is the decision difficult to make? Is the rightness or wrongness of this trend something that can only be decided by learned theologians? Is it to be decided by majority vote at conventions? No, the simple, naked word of the Lord—without interpretations settles the question. Jesus gave the answer briefly when the problem of the nature of His Kingdom was put to Him when He was being interrogated by Pontius Pilate. He said simply: “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36. Period! Argument ended! Discussion closed! So it is when the Word of God is respected as the highest authority in the churches.

Another big problem that keeps coming up in one church convention after another and in one denomination after another is the ordination of women as public teachers in the church. The obvious trend is towards the ordination of women as public teachers and preachers in the church. We say “No,” and our women also say “No.” Why? Is it because we discriminate against women in our church? Is it because our women are tyrannized and intimidated so that they are afraid to assert themselves? No, not at all. It is because we believe, both men and women, that the Word of God is the final authority in the church. Preaching and teaching are the exercise of rule in the church. St. Paul, who is accused of being a woman-hater by those who reject the authority of the Word, based his teaching on the book of Genesis, the Word of God for the Old Testament people. He said simply: “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence,” I Tim. 2:12. Those words aren’t unclear. Any woman who has difficulty with those words only needs to have her grade school daughter read them to her and tell her what they mean. The whole problem of the position of women in the church is created by rebellion against the Word of the Lord. When the Word of the Lord rules, the crisis is over. We’ve experienced that in our congregation.

Another of our Sunday School teachers reported of a woman in a neighboring city saying how distressed she was because she taught her daughter that premarital sex is wrong, but her church is teaching her daughter that it is permissible. That is a case of a clash between the authority of a parent and the church. But basically it is the same clash between the authority of God’s Word and the authority of man’s word—in this case the sociologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, and all others who establish the rules and standards by which society lives. Who’s right? Whose word is final? Again, there is nothing difficult. There is nothing beyond the capacity of a common, ordinary Christian to decide. God simply says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Period. No argument, no ifs, ands, or buts! If the woman mentioned were really troubled about her daughter, the first thing she should do is take the child and herself out of such a church, which openly flaunts the authority of God’s Word. Such a church is dangerous to the welfare of the souls of its members.

You and I naturally tend to buck the Word of God. Our flesh will never bow to the authority of the Word. But our new man, which is a creation of the Spirit of God, knows, believes, and accepts the authority of the Word. What is necessary for us is to continue learning and studying the Word and applying it to situations that daily keep arising in our life. The Psalmist of old declared: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Ps. 119:115. Let us walk in that light. When we speak in our own families, when we talk to others, when we preach and teach in the church in whatever capacity is entrusted to us, let us always speaks according to the oracles of God, for those oracles are the highest and final authority. Amen.

—Pastor Paul F. Nolting

Preached October 25, 1970
Holy Trinity Independent
Evangelical Lutheran Church
West Columbia, South Carolina

Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.