Inordinate power and control
This is No. 17 in the series. Please read my introduction and explanation here.
I’ve always been pretty much a conformist. While in my parents’ home I acknowledged their authority and tried to please them. As a student I accepted the rules and did follow them. In most of my adult life I tried to be the daughter, sister, wife, and mother that society says I should be. So my break with the Catholic Church was a bit out of character for me…a non-conforming act of rebellion that was not without struggle in my own mind and heart.
But once I walked away from the Church, I saw clearly that conformity is not always a wise choice. And submitting to an unauthorized person or institution is folly.
For roughly 30 years the Catholic Church was my spiritual Mother, telling me what to believe, how to behave, and what would behoove me to practice as a member of Christ’s church if I wanted to join him in heaven. In addition, if I did not conform and obey, she asserted the right to decree penances and punishments on me, in this life and in the one to come. But does she have those rights?
In previous posts like this one, and this one, I talked about the Church’s claim to being the one, true church by virtue of apostolic succession. These doctrines empower her to exert an inordinate amount of control over her members. As a Catholic conformist, I was willing to submit to her, in large part because I loved and trusted my parents. But once I had a few children of my own, I knew that age and maturity called for a reasoned evaluation of what I had previously consented to. My journey of investigation, however, was really much more than an intellectual pursuit. God was stirring me up to seek him. I had known of him, and knew some general things about him. Being willing to question what I had been taught, by comparing it with his word, was what led me to really know him.
Now that I am outside the Catholic Church, but inside the Body of Christ, to which belong all those who are true believers, I recognize that she has asserted authority for herself that God did not grant…authority to determine the correct interpretation of Scripture, establish doctrine, decide the requirements for membership in Christ’s Body, and even punish by torture and death those who promote contrary teaching. Her wholesale assumption of the mantle of Christ’s visible church on earth has led to something akin to invisible chains binding the faithful. They are not free to interpret Scripture differently, reject any infallible doctrine, disobey the pope, or even eat what they want to on certain days. The Church has power over them that I am convinced is not of God.
I don’t believe there’s any evidence in Scripture that Jesus wanted to establish a visible institution known as the Church, with a single, reigning, visible head over all its members. Even if he were singling out Peter in Matthew 16:18 to be the, instead of an, instrumental leader in the fledgling New Testament church, neither he nor any of the apostles said anything about appointing successors that would act as a primate. It is more than plausible that since this was a totally new kind of venture – making the “one new man in place of the two”1 – and one that would change the course of history, a unique and temporary leadership position may have been needed for its inception.
When in the days of the judges, the elders of Israel came to the prophet Samuel and demanded he appoint them a king, God was displeased because, “they have rejected me from being king over them.”2 In the same way, since Jesus Christ is the head of the church3, I believe he is displeased when we appoint our own heads over it. The Catholic Church acknowledges Christ’s headship over his Body, but so did the Israelites recognize God’s sovereignty when they asked for a king. They were just not willing to trust in his active leadership – they wanted a leader they could see.
I belong to an independent, non-denominational church. I call our pastor by his first name, and he serves under an elected board of elders. We answer to no one but God, and are accountable to him alone. We don’t all agree on secondary issues like the age of the universe, the propriety of certain musical elements, or even eternal security. But we all agree in salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, in the primacy of Scripture, and the power of the gospel for all who believe. Though we are an imperfect local body of believers, like all are, and we have our quarrels and failures, God is active by his Spirit in and through us. And I believe we are a fairly faithful representation of Christ’s design for the church.
Catholics insist that without an established, authoritative leadership body, there is no way for the church to know what is true…what God’s word really says. They point to all the various Protestant denominations split on doctrinal issues as evidence that it is needed, and Jesus’ promise to the apostles that the Holy Spirit would guide them “into all the truth”4 as a promise for them today as their successors. But if a single, authoritative magisterial body is needed for God to accomplish his goal of redeeming and restoring mankind to himself, how do you explain the thousands, perhaps millions, of people being redeemed and restored to him in China and other nations hostile to Christianity, through the simple preaching of the clear and simple gospel, and totally apart from the Catholic Church?
It’s frankly maddening to me, the way the Church “lords it over” her people, claiming to be the very presence of Christ himself to them. How could any good Catholic refuse Christ? And if a Catholic is bound to obey all the rules of law under threat of punishment, restricted to a predetermined understanding of Scripture, and trapped in a works-righteousness system with ever-elusive and undefined quotas…is she really free in Christ?
Brothers and sisters, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?…For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’…But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith…But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother…So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”5
1 Ephesians 2:15 2 1 Samuel 8:6-7 3 Colossians 1:18 4 John 16:13 5 Galatians 3:2, 10, 25-26, 4:26, 31, 5:1