Authority in General
 The term "authority" has many possible meanings.1 In regard to our topic here,
however, the list of possibilities is relatively short. When
a person speaks of the authority of the church in the world (as
distinct from the church's authority among its own members), he or
she is likely to be speaking of its "power to influence the conduct
and actions of others," its "power to influence the opinions of
others," and/or its "power to inspire belief."2
 Max Weber suggested that there are three (ideal) types of
authority-each with its own legitimization. The first of
these is the traditionalist type, whose grounding is in the "elder"
(prince, patron, etc.) of a social unit, who maintains what has
been. The second is the charismatic type, in which an
extraordinary person (prophet, leader) acts with inspiration and
conviction, gathering a following. The third is the legal
type, which is administered by bureaucratic structures, and that is
typical of modern societies.3
 A review of the history of the church would no doubt show
that each of these types has been manifest at different times and
places. As one moves back behind the fourth century (the time
of Constantine, during and after which the church became
established under law), however, the third type seems to recede and
disappear. The church of the New Testament era would not have
had legal authority in the world. That means that the
traditionalist and charismatic types of authority (and their
legitimization) remain as helpful for analysis of the authority of
the church in the world according to the New Testament.
Authority in the New Testament: The
 The Greek word translated as "authority" in English is
exousia. The Greek word and its Hebrew counterpart
both denote, at the very least, the ability of one party to exert
its influence or will upon another and to expect a positive
response. Within the Bible, as in all other times and places,
it is presupposed that the one who exercises authority has an
inherent, evident, and morally justifiable right to do so.
Without that, the exertion of one party's will upon another is a
violation of ethical behavior, an abuse of power.
Authority in the Ministry of the Earthly
 Authority in the days of Jesus and the New Testament in general
was exercised by both political and religious authorities. In
addition to Roman authority, which was very much felt in Palestine,
authority was exercised by the Sanhedrin as a body in Jerusalem, by
synagogue councils in the diaspora, and by scribes as
 It can be said that the authority of the scribes, as well as
that of later rabbinic masters, was a "derived authority."
That is to say, the scribe (or rabbi) had no authority intrinsic to
himself. His authority was vested in his ability to interpret
the Scriptures of Israel and the authoritative oral traditions
transmitted to him. But Jesus' manner of teaching was
different. It did not consist simply of the interpretation of
an authoritatively given sacred text, not even when he quoted words
from Scripture. Günther Bornkamm has expressed the
matter succinctly: "The reality of God and the authority of his
will are always directly present and are fulfilled in
[Jesus]. There is nothing in contemporary Judaism which
corresponds to the immediacy with which he teaches."4
 So it was said about Jesus that he "taught as one having
authority, and not as the scribes" (Mark 1:22), and he cast out
demons by the power of God (Matt 12:28//Luke 11:20; Luke
4:36). He taught by means of parables as free-standing
messages, not as expositions of Scripture.5 Furthermore, he
exercised divine authority in forgiving sins (Mark 2:1-12//Matt
9:1-8//Luke 5:17-26). All this shows Jesus to have been one
who spoke and acted with charismatic authority (which had long been
rejected by the scribes of his day). To be sure, Jesus can be
shown to have acted with traditionalist authority insofar as he
carried on disputes with the scribes and Pharisees on matters of
scriptural interpretation. But the impression is not the
whole of the matter. For in those cases he seeks to get at
the heart of the matter in Scripture, dispensing with the received,
traditional authority, and freely stating his own interpretation
(cf. Mark 7:1-7; 12:28-31, 35-37).
 Charismatic authorities were tolerated, followed, and/or
persecuted in the ancient world. Once they had passed from the
scene, their followers tended to drift away. In the case of
Jesus, it is important to ask how his claims to authority were
received. The answer from the New Testament perspective is
that, in spite of his rejection and crucifixion, Jesus-and so his
words and deeds-was vindicated through resurrection from the dead
on Easter. It is the risen Christ who could then say that all
authority in heaven and earth had been given to him (Matt 28:18;
cf. Rev 12:10). The resurrection of Jesus can be called an
eschatological verification of the authority of Jesus in the
The Authority of the Church in the World
 One looks in vain for the phrase "the authority of the church"
within the writings of the New Testament. Moreover, it is
difficult to find and describe images of the church that
demonstrate its authority in the world. It is much easier to
describe its witness, mission, and service in the world than it is
to describe its authority-or even any possible sense of its having
authority in the world. Nevertheless, there are materials in
the New Testament that stand out as ingredients for a discussion of
the topic. Five are discussed here.
I. Authority to Forgive Sins.
 Already in Matthew's version of the Healing of the Paralytic
(9:1-8) the account contains words in addition to those in Mark's
version (2:1-10) at two places: (1) Matthew has additional words so
that 9:6 reads: "the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive
sins," and (2) Matthew's entire account ends with the additional
words concerning the crowds: "they were filled with awe, and they
glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings"
(9:8). As commentators have often pointed out, this is
Matthew's way of saying obliquely that the authority to forgive
sins was not given by God to Jesus alone, but to the church as
well. That corresponds to the Johannine scene of the risen
Jesus who grants to his disciples the authority to forgive sins
(20:23) and, in part, to the Matthean scene on the powerof the keys
 Although for the church to have authority to forgive sins
on earth seems at first to be an entirely "internal" or "pastoral"
matter (authority "in" the church), it actually has implications
for the authority of the church in the world. That is so in
 First, in a world that is very unforgiving and where
revenge is commonplace, the church defies the ways and powers of
this world by its own teaching and exercise of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not simply an idea proposed; it is an act carried
out "on earth." As a provocative act, it becomes an
authoritative intrusion of the church into the world. That
intrusion has led to further actions in the public sphere.
For example, the church does not doubt that it is empowered to call
for amnesty or for alternative, more just and humane treatment of
those who have caused offense to others (prisoners of war, persons
on death row, political refugees, impoverished persons and
countries, and others). And there have been "secular"
versions of forgiveness inspired by Christian claims (e.g., the
Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa).
 Second, the authority of the church to forgive sins on
earth has implications for its relationship to persons who do not
normally receive forgiveness, but who nevertheless assess their
lives and find them lacking in self-worth as a consequence.
Such persons may feel that they lack the "righteousness" that is
required of them to be acceptable persons in society. Some
know themselves as despised. But if and when the church
stands by, defends, and lifts up such persons (cf. the Magnificat
of Mary in Luke 1:46-55), it injects a new impulse into society and
hopefully provides inspiration for such persons, even if they do
not share the theological convictions of the church itself.
While the church may not be able to pronounce absolution to such
persons (as non-members), it is operating on a parallel track
(parallel to its own acts of forgiveness of sins) when it calls
upon people to respect all persons, regardless of any standards of
"righteousness" that prevail. One might say that this is a
secular version of the "justification of the ungodly" (cf.
Romans 4:5). As the church calls for compassion for
those who do not measure up to respectable standards, or even calls
for forgiving the failings of others, it exerts its authority in
the world. And that is consistent with its own
self-understanding of its place in the world.
II. Authority to Create and Promote Life in
 A common theme in the New Testament is that the church is, or
can be, a model community for the world. The New Testament
writings themselves were composed within communities of faith and
were addressed to communities of faith. Insofar as they
illustrate concerns within the early church, they demonstrate that
the formation of communities was a central task.
 Jesus of Nazareth called people into community, even if
that meant the breaking of natural (family) ties (Mark 3:31-35;
Matt 19:29; Luke 12:53; 14:26). Community, as envisioned by
his calling of disciples, was possible for persons who differed
from one another in remarkable ways: women, men, and children;
fishermen, tax-collectors, former disciples of John the Baptist,
and persons regarded as "sinners."
 Various New Testament writers express the concern that
Christians and Christian communities serve as models for people
outside on how to get along with one another. That is evident
especially in the Pauline (1 Thess 4:12) and deutero-Pauline
letters (Col 4:5; 1 Tim 3:7). In the communities of faith
people were called upon to set demographic differences (gender,
ethnicity, and class) aside in order to create community.
 The natural tendency of human beings, ancient or modern, is
to draw circles around their own groups, defined by ethnicity,
nationality, or socio-economic class. It has been observed
that, in general, religious associations and cult groups in pagan
antiquity had an "inward focus," but that the Christian communities
had an "international scope" from the outset.7
 Too often the church of the modern era is divided by
matters of ethnicity, nationality, and socio-economic class.
Yet there is within the church the affirmation of its own oneness,
which is a gift and task. The church's self-understanding
calls for community and trans-national fellowships, all the while
respecting differences. The modeling that the church does can
carry moral weight in the world, challenging the tendencies toward
individualism and fragmentation.
III. Moral Authority.
 It goes without saying that the New Testament envisions the
church as a moral force in the world. In the gospels Jesus
tells his followers to be lights in the world (Matt 5:14-16) and to
be persons who produce good fruits (Matt 7:16-20). Needless
to say, various New Testament writers affirm that Christians
conduct themselves, or ought to, in exemplary ways out in the world
(2 Cor 1:12; Phil 2:15; Col 1:6; Titus 2:12; James 1:27).
 To be sure, it can be maintained that the church has moral
authority only among its own members, i.e., those who share in the
theological presuppositions of the Christian faith. Yet that
is not the end of the matter. Disciples of Christ are to live
in public in ways that are consistent with their Christian
confession. The result is a positive moral force in the
IV. Authority to Relativize All Earthly
 The message of the church relativizes all earthly
authorities. That claim is rooted already in the ministry of
Jesus where he declares that a person is to render to Caesar what
is Caesar's and to God what is God's (Mark 12:17//Matt 22:21//Luke
20:25). Perhaps the best known passage on earthly authority
is Romans 13:1-7. In that passage Paul exhorts Christians to
be subject to the governing authorities (forms of exousia are used
four times in the passage). At the same time, however, he
divests the emperor and any other rulers of divine status; such
persons are to be servants of God (13:4) for human welfare. Paul,
the Deutero-Pauline writers, and the author of 1 Peter declare that
the risen Christ reigns above all earthly powers (1 Cor 15:24; Eph
1:21; Col 2:10; 1 Peter 3:22), which again serves to relativize the
authority of the earthly powers. A related emphasis can be
found in Paul's claims that the dominant social forms and cultural
values of this world are doomed to pass away (1 Cor 7:29-31; cf. 1
John 2:17). The book of Revelation goes further than any
other New Testament writing by envisioning the authority of Rome as
 The relativizing of all earthly authorities remains an
important function of the church in the world. The
"authorities" are political, economic, military, and cultural (to
name but four). These "authorities" tend to take on an
ultimacy that corresponds to claims for divine authority in the
world of the New Testament. The church is given the authority
to challenge, unmask, and thereby relativize them.
V. Authority to Engage the World.
 The authority to relativize all earthly authorities is not
the end of the matter. Writers of the New Testament
understand the church to be apostolic, i.e., sent forth to engage
the world in proclamation and service. In order to engage the
world, the church must understand itself first of all as disengaged
from it, a people called out of the world. Disengaged (or
disentangled), the church can then become engaged in the affairs of
 If it is true that the earliest communities of faith were
highly apocalyptic in outlook and very unconcerned about their
relationship to the world, that outlook did not last long.
The church had to settle down and think of this world as its own
dwelling place. Its apostolic mission took on a "secular" or
"worldly" character. Communities of faith (house churches,
congregations) gathered for word and sacrament regardless of the
politically or culturally sanctioned religious systems and cults in
the larger community. That very activity was an
over-against-ness that challenged local worldviews. It was a
means of engaging the world. Furthermore, when the
communities of faith were not gathered for worship, they engaged
the larger world through their members. Living out the life
of Christian faith in the world is itself apostolic mission and
engaging the world. From the very beginnings of the Christian
movement, it has been taken for granted that the church has the
authority to do so in the world.
 Specific ways in which Christians or the church as a whole
have sought to engage the world have differed in history, as
indicated by the following paragraph:
The relation between faith
and ethics has been seen differently during the course of Christian
history. For some, the question of service to the world is an
integral part of the proclamation and living of the apostolic faith
itself. Others distinguish between the specifically Christian
ethics (i.e. the sermon on the Mount) and the ethical code given to
all human beings in which Christians also participate insofar as
they are a part of humanity For those holding the
latter position, this distinction has been considered as liberating
in that it enables Christians to join with others of goodwill in
addressing issues of society. Yet, also in this latter group,
ethical stances can be viewed to have such serious implications
that they require a declaration of status
The Authority of the Church in the World in Light of the
Cross, Resurrection, and Parousia
 Jesus of Nazareth assumed authority and exercised it on behalf
of God in his earthly ministry. Nevertheless, and in fact
because of his exercise of authority, he was crucified. He
was vindicated in the sight of his apostles on Easter. But he
will be vindicated to the world only at his parousia.
 The life, death, resurrection, and future destiny of Jesus
is paradigmatic for the church. The authority of the church
in the world cannot be measured and assessed fully during the
church's time on earth. Certainly that was true for the
church of the apostolic era. The church of that time and
place could not have thought of itself in Constantinian terms when
its authority in the world became more visible. Instead it
discovered very soon that its message would be opposed, and its
 Insofar as authority, if it is to be real, must have
validation, the authority of the church will not be considered
valid universally or consistently in its historical
existence. The church lives between the "already" of Easter
and the "not yet" of the coming kingdom.
 How then can one speak of the authority of the church in
the world at all? Is there ever a time that it can be
validated? From the point of view of the New Testament, one
must wait in hope for eschatological verification. Jesus
tells his followers not to fear, for it is the Father's good
pleasure to give them the kingdom (Luke 12:32). He tells
parables that speak of little seeds and leaven (Mark 4:26-29;
4:30-32//Matt 13:31-32//Luke 13:18-19; Matt 13:33//Luke
13:20-21)-parables that give assurances that the kingdom will
finally come in its fullness in spite of all that seems
otherwise. The writers of the New Testament look to the
future as the time of the vindication of Christ and his message
before the world (1 Cor 15:24; 1 Thess 4:16; Col 3:4; Titus 2:13; 2
 That means that the church's authority in the world may not
be obvious to the world, and it might not always be apparent even
to the church's own members. It will be challenged in the
world as one voice among many. It will be opposed by
some. It will even be misrepresented and misunderstood both
inside and outside. Insofar as the church seeks to exert its
authority in the world, it also runs the risk of being shortsighted
(or just plain "wrong" in normal parlance). In this respect,
the church collectively and its members individually have to bear
in mind that for now one sees through a glass darkly; only then-at
the coming of Christ and his kingdom-will one see clearly.
For its time on earth, the church has no power to enforce its
authority except its own collective consensus that its mission will
be vindicated. Its authority remains penultimate, awaiting
testing and validation only at the end of history.
* This essay is slightly revised from a paper delivered at a
meeting of the Faith and Order Commission, National Council of
Churches of Christ in the USA, Evanston, Illinois, March 15,
© January 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 3, Issue 1
1 There are eleven entries listed under "authority" in The
Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C.
Weiner, 20 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 1:798.
3 Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic
Organization (New York: The Free Press, 1947), 324-85.
4 Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York:
Harper & Brothers, 1960), 57.
5 The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is
spoken, however, in response to the lawyer's question about a
6 Interpreters disagree whether the "power of the keys"
has to do with absolution (forgiveness of sins), teaching
authority, or both.
7 Cf. S. G. Barton and G. H. R. Horsley, "A Hellenistic
Cult Group and the New Testament Churches," Jahrbuch für
Antike und Christentum 24 (1981): 28-29.
8 Quoted from The Nature and Purpose of the Church, Faith
and Order Paper No. 181 (Geneva: WCC/Faith and Order, 1998),