The Church’s Authority - Matthew 18:15–20
Updated: 2 hours ago
As we looked at briefly last week, we all read the Bible and form an understanding of what ‘church’ is from different backgrounds and traditions. Our church stands on the heritage of the Anglican denomination, which we have a lot to be thankful for. The Anglicans in Sydney are committed to teaching the way of salvation through Jesus – the ‘gospel’ – as the Bible does, holding firm to the main point of the scriptures which is the revelation of God in Jesus, making a way for us to be forgiven, cleansed, and reconciled to God as we’re also set apart from the world to become the children of God, not by works, but by God’s grace, received through faith. This is the ‘key of knowledge’ that unlocks all of scripture.
Although we are so thankful for this foundation, the Anglican denomination also holds some traditions that make it difficult to apply certain truths. Thankfully none of these truths are what we’d call salvation issues or even primary issues that relate to the nature of God himself or the gospel that’s been handed down to us, but secondary issues that we’ll look at in the study this week. To better understand this we need to go back in time to 16th Century England, where it all began.
The Church of England was founded in 1534 when King Henry the VIII removed Pope Clement VII as the head of the church in England because the Pope was not willing to grant the King an annulment from his wife Catherine of Aragon. Henry’s request put the Pope in a difficult position because Catherine was Aunt to Charles V who was the Holy Roman Emperor at that time (1519 – 1556), so he denied Henry his annulment. Note; the relationship between church and state made for a very complex set of relationships during these times! When Henry removed Pope Clement VII from his role as head over the church in England, Henry replaced the Pope with himself, and the Church of England was founded. Henry then appointed an Archbishop named Thomas Cranmer who granted his annulment. Henry went on to marry a total of six wives.
Although this was in many respects a disastrous sum of catastrophic events, King Henry’s separation from Rome also allowed for him to authorize an English version of the Bible to be provided for every church. This would have been illegal under Catholicism at that time. Henry’s son Edward VI who became King in 1547 was tutored by men who knew their Bibles, and the Church of England began its own reform as the gospel was better understood. There were many tumultuous times ahead, but in short, from that time on the Church of England would contain both Protestant and Catholic clergy, as is still the case today. In Sydney we have a largely Protestant heritage which is why you can hear the Bible taught in just about any Anglican church in the Sydney Diocese, but outside of Sydney the Anglican churches are more commonly ‘High Church’, or ‘Anglo-Catholic’, although by the grace of God the landscape is changing for the better.
As mentioned above, although we are so thankful for the true gospel being taught clearly in Anglican churches in Sydney and some other places, a biblical understanding of the authority structure of the church was lacking. This is because the Church of England was thoroughly Roman Catholic, with Priests over each congregation, Bishops over the Priests, the Arch-Bishop over the Bishops and the reigning monarch of England taking the place of the Pope over the denomination as a whole. In short, even when the gospel was taught in certain Anglican denominations – like it has been in Sydney since its foundation in 1788 – it was taught within a Roman Catholic authority structure which still remains today.
We should also recognise the necessity to this hierarchical structure, because in such a denomination there needs to be authorities to govern the many churches within its jurisdiction. This is only a problem because in the New Testament there is no sign of denominations. Although churches in New Testament times relate to one another voluntarily as peers, they are also independent from one another as they govern their own membership, and work to maintain the unity and purity of their own churches, are led by their own set of shepherds / pastors / elders (all words the Bible uses to describe an ‘overseer’ of a church), with Jesus overseeing them all by the power of his Spirit and the authority of his word.
This difference in structure between the New Testament example of self-governing churches and denominations like Anglicanism remains today, and continues to have implications for passages that speak of the church’s authority. According to Jesus in Matthew 18:17, the church is our final authority on earth, because as Jesus will go on to say in v. 18, the decisions they make together on earth are binding also in heaven.
“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
This picks up on the authority Jesus already spoke about in Matthew 16:19, this time spoken to Peter who was the first ‘stone’ used by God to build his church:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Jesus gave that authority to Peter in Chapter 16, but in chapter 18 he gives it to the church. This isn’t a contradiction, because Jesus gave that authority to Peter as a member of his church, and we need to understand that as we come together as the church here in SW Sydney, this authority is also given to us. In fact, Jesus has given the authority to each local church to empower them to govern their own membership. This authority is given to make judgments about what is right and wrong, to expel those who threaten the witness and purity of the church, and to include those who, like Peter, come to see Jesus as the Messiah, the divine Son of God.
In Anglican churches, all authority is given to the ‘priest’ or ‘Rector’ of the church. We generally call that person the ‘Senior Minister’. In the New Testament, the Apostles call on churches not to put up with poor leadership or listen to men who are not aligned with God’s word (e.g. Galatians 1), but in a denomination with a hierarchical authority structure, if there’s a disagreement between a Senior Minister and the church, the church has no authority to remove him. They must vote with their feet and leave the church. So far from implementing a ‘priesthood of all believers’ that we see is God’s will for his people (1 Peter 2:5 + 9), where Christ’s authority rests with the congregation to act on his behalf, the authority of that role is taken from the congregation and given to the Senior Minister, in the same way that the authority in any local Roman Catholic church rests upon the priest and not the church itself.
To conclude, in Matthew 16:13–20 we saw Jesus begin to build his church with Peter, our dear brother who became a living stone through his faith in The Living Stone, our Lord Jesus. We also heard from Peter as he taught us that we too have become living stones through our faith in Jesus, and that God was now building his church – or household – through us.
Here in Matthew 18 we see what it means to be a member of his church. It’s in the context of discipline, and in his wisdom Jesus chose to use this context to show us the kind of authority we have as we come together in his name, and the expectation he has that we would work together to maintain the purity and dignity of his church.