Authority of the Church in Scripture
The obligation to obey the teachings of the Church grows naturally from the obligation to obey the teachings of Christ, who established the Church and commanded his Apostles to be witnesses of his doctrine worldwide, and from the Church’s mission to offer salvation to every human soul. Yet that authority is strongly resisted by those Christians who choose to be outside of the Catholic faith. This fact of history does not relieve Christian communities from the obligation to reflect the unity of God himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the perfect union of the Holy Trinity.
There are many Christian ecclesial groups, commonly called “Christian denominations” growing separately from the Catholic Church. Yet Christ did not create a Christian denomination. Those denominations are the creation of men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and other Catholics that began proclaiming their own personal interpretations of the Gospel, thus breaking a tradition of authority that extended from the time of the Apostles for more than fifteen centuries.
1 Timothy 3, 15 — if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: he was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
Saint Paul teaches that the Church — not Scripture — is the foundation of the truth. Then he declares de mystery of the Incarnation in detail, not quoting any existing Scripture of his time but simply declaring that Christ was born as a man; was manifested in the flesh; clearly vindicated by the arrival of the Holy Spirit after the humiliations of Calvary, not only to human beings but also to the heavenly host; and made known to all the nations by the preaching of the Church, gathering believes from all over the world, and taken up in glory to Heaven. All of these things are declared in Scripture after the Apostles have taught them to the Church. The deposit if faith is kept in the community of believers, the keepers of Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture as well.
1 Timothy 4, 11-16 — Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Here we can notice that the reading of Scripture is one of many duties assigned to Timothy. He must keep improving in his teaching, and making good use of the graces he has received. He has to do it to save both himself and those hearing him (the community of believers.)
Hebrews 13, 17 — Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you.
The Church is not a democracy but a hierarchy. Every soul within the Church benefits from recognizing and submitting to a superior authority. The Church is organized in a way that all her human leaders are responsible for the souls of the faithful, and will have to give account to God for the flock trusted to their care.
Matthew 28, 18-20 — And Jesus came and said to them: “All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
The Church has a prophetic mission
Those who separate from the Church to preach their own interpretations relinquish the authority of the Church. The Catholic Church will never perish because she is invested with the authority of Christ. Christ remains with us in person and also in his teachings. It is our duty to follow Christ by teaching others what he taught us. If we stray away from the doctrines of Christ and the Church, we risk losing our souls. This Scripture shows that the authority and power of Jesus validate and sustain the commandments and doctrine of the Church. Christ guarantees that he will remain with us until the mission is completed. Therefore separating from the Church is to separate from Christ who is present in her midst.
Ephesians 3, 7-12 — Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him.
Through the ages the wisdom of God is communicated to humanity and even to the angels by means of the living witness of the Church. The Church has the responsibility to represent God before all creation, revealing the sacred mysteries to the Jews, the Gentiles and even to the host of heavenly angels. Saint Paul shows here how God is revealed in all ages of history through the teachings of the Church.
John 11, 45-53 — Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him; but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death.
Saint John declares here that the Holy Spirit inspired even Caiaphas when — speaking from the seat of Moses — declared truthfully that Jesus had to die for the benefit of the whole nation. Caiaphas spoke the truth as High Priest of the Levites not because he personally deserved to communicate the truth of God. In the same manner, the Holy Spirit has guided those who have ascended to the throne of Peter in spite of their occasional faults or lack of integrity. God allowed Caiaphas to misuse his free will to plot against the Son of God. However when he talked to instruct the people of Israel, he was inspired to tell the truth — even when he did not fully understand the transcendental importance of his own utterance.
The Church rightfully demands obedience
Matthew 23, 1-3 — Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.
Jesus taught his followers to obey the ordained religious authorities and practice the doctrine they teach even when those teachers were not giving a good example.
1 John 4, 6 — We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Saint John instructed us to listen to the Apostolic Body. Fidelity and obedience are signs of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
The Church is a hierarchy
The English word “hierarchy” comes from the Greek ἱεραρχία (hierarchia) meaning “rule of a high priest” and that comes from ἱεράρχης (hierarkhes) meaning “leader of sacred rites.” That is the appropriate term to describe the way the Church was organized by Jesus from the beginning as an organized body of persons with well-defined responsibilities in successive ranks or orders.
Ephesians 2, 19-22 — So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
The Church is the household of God, a temple built upon Jesus Christ who is the cornerstone, the apostles and prophets. The whole building is organized as a hierarchical order. Those who remain in union with the Catholic Church are living stones built into that glorious structure.
Matthew 18, 15-18 — “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Authority to rule in matters of doctrine, faith, and morals
God has clearly given the Church authority to keep the peace by giving her the power to decide in matters of doctrine, faith, and morals. Such authority was never given to Holy Scripture since human interpretations vary and someone has to have the last word. Those who separate from the Church to preach their own interpretations of Scripture, find themselves rather quickly that others also have their own interpretations and can do the same. Ecclesial groups who lack the cornerstone of Christ, and the apostolic foundation have a tendency to divide into smaller groups, as history has shown so far.
Deuteronomy 17, 8-12 — If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns which is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God will choose, and coming to the Levitical priests, and to the judge who is in office in those days, you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place which the Lord will choose; and you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you; according to the instructions which they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the verdict which they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left. The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die; so you shall purge the evil from Israel.
In the Old Testament we find practically the same magisterial authority provided by God to preserve the right teaching of the faith given to the Israelites. In the Levitical order all disagreements were placed before the priests and judges who had a divine-given authority to rule. There is no evidence that personal interpretations of Scripture had any role in solving disagreements. We do not find in the Old Testament (or the New Testament for that matter) any affirmation that Holy Scripture is the supreme authority in matters of faith. In Acts chapter 15 we can see clearly how the apostles resolve a doctrinal disagreement. The apostolic decision resolved that issue permanently prevailing even over commandments of the Old Testament and the Jewish tradition of the day.
Ephesians 3, 4-6 — When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.
Divine revelation comes to us through the Church. There is no reason to believe that an ordinary believer could receive spontaneous, direct, personal inspiration from the Holy Spirit. That is particularly true if such “revelation” contradicts apostolic dogma. Although some use this passage to justify personal interpretation, the context shows clearly that Peter and other members of the Apostolic Body were guided by the Holy Spirit to accept gentile believers in the Church. The Spirit did not reveal that wonderful truth to all believers but only to the Apostles and Bishops.
Acts 15, 30-31 — So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation.
Acts 16, 4 — As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.
The Apostles and other shepherds of the Church spread the Gospel and taught the dogmas of the Church to the whole world. The Apostles expected obedience from the believers because they and their successors received their authority from God. They did not expect obedience out having demonstrated the truth of their doctrines appealing to sola Scriptura. Their authority always existed outside Scripture, and — since their teachings come from the same God that inspired the Bible — there is no contradiction between what they taught and Scripture. This is a great grace given to all believers. We do not have to wonder if our interpretation is correct. Whenever our understanding contradicts what the Church affirms, we know we are wrong and should work to better understand the matter.
The Church is holy, sanctified to take the Gospel to world
Ephesians 5, 25-26 — Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word
Christ was crucified to sanctify the Church. Salvation comes through Jesus. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God prepared a human body for Jesus. That was, is, and forever will be a sanctified body, flesh put aside for sacred sacrifice to God. The word “sanctified” basically means, “put aside for a holy purpose.”
Hebrews 10, 5 — Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.”
Ephesians 1, 22-23 — He [God] has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Since the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, it is perfectly logical to deduct that their members cannot be separated, and that the whole body has been set aside, sanctified for a divine purpose. The Church is one and is holy.
1 Corinthians 12, 12-27 — For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
St Paul is clear. Salvation comes through Christ, and therefore through His Church. There is no way to justify a division of the Holy Body of Christ.
Ephesians 4, 11-16 — And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love..
St Paul teaches that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. Just as a human body cannot exist divided in pieces, Christianity cannot exist divided. Divisions in the Church are stumbling block for those outside the faith, as well as a burden for those who are charged with taking the Gospel to non-believers. The well known Anglican apologist C. S. Lewis, one of the most prolific Christian writers of the 20th century wrote:
“Divisions between Christians are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times to be making contributions toward re-union, if it is only by their prayers.”
The authority of the Church cannot be challenged
1 Thessalonians 5, 12-13 — But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
When Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron rebelled, God punished them publicly. Miriam fell sick with leprosy because she did not want to submit to those chosen by God to rule Israel. Miriam’s objection to authority is the same objection some make today to disobey the Church’s commandments.
Numbers 12, 1-15 — Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman; and they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth. And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the door of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed; and when the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow. And Aaron turned towards Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he comes out of his mother’s womb.” And Moses cried to the Lord, “Heal her, O God, I beseech thee.” But the Lord said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut up outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again.” So Miriam was shut up outside the camp seven days; and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again..
The family of God has never been a democracy. This part of Scripture shows what God thinks of those who presumptuously use their God-given talents for their own purposes, and disobey those whom God has chosen to shepherd his flock.
Numbers 16, 1-35 — Now Korah the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” […] And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to the congregation, Get away from about the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.” Then Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel followed him. And he said to the congregation, “Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins.” So they got away from about the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, together with their wives, their sons, and their little ones. And Moses said, “Hereby you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. If these men die the common death of all men, or if they are visited by the fate of all men, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth, and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.” And as he finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split asunder; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men that belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. And all Israel that were round about them fled at their cry; for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up!” And fire came forth from the Lord, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.
Korah, Dathan, and Abiram used the same argument to challenge the authority of Moses. They paid with their lives for their disobedience. The Apostle St Jude also warns us about falling into that kind of folly:
Jude 1, 11 — Woe to them! For they walk in the way of Cain, and abandon themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.
St Jude is condemning some in the Christian community who resisted the authorities of the Church. Clearly that authority given by God does not reside in each individual but in the successors of the Apostles who received it from Jesus Christ.
Numbers 11, 27-29 — And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, forbid them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”
1 Corinthians 14, 37-38 — If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
In these verses we can clearly see that there is a distinction between the gift of prophecy and authority. The Holy Spirit does not give every believer the power to utter prophecies. Yet that is the basic argument of those who believe in the false doctrine of Sola Scriptura, that the Holy Spirit will guide all of them to the true interpretation of Scripture, making them all prophets! In all truth, God never allowed any prophet to contradict the teachings of the Church.
2 Peter 1, 20-21 — First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
God the Holy Spirit cannot lead men to confusion by delivering contradictory interpretations. The Magisterium of the Church cannot be contradicted by mere personal interpretations or visions. To contradict apostolic teaching separates a person from the grace of God.
Galatians 1, 8 — But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.
False teachers also hurt the Mystical Body of Christ, carrying away souls to their eternal destruction.
2 Peter 2, 1-2 — […] there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled.
2 Peter 3, 16 — speaking of these [the letters of Paul] as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.
The Holy Spirit guides the Church
During the Last Supper, Jesus promised to always guide his Apostles and their successors to the truth through the Holy Spirit.
John 14, 16-18 — And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you..
John 14, 26 — But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
John 16, 13 — When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
St Peter calls the faithful to respect their shepherds and behave humbly before God. All of them are exhorted to persevere in the faith. It is obvious that only someone in a position of authority could address other Bishops and their flocks in such a way:
1 Peter 5: 1-3 — Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it — not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock.
Christ gave the Church the authority to teach the truth, to give witness of the Resurrection, and to reconcile sinners with God. The work and doctrine of the Church is essential for salvation, it is firmly grounded in Holy Scripture. The Church has also a prophetic mission aimed at calling all souls to Christ. Organized as a hierarchy with Christ as her King and the Bishop of Rome as his Vicar, the Church rightfully demands obedience from the faithful in matters of doctrine, faith and morals. The Church is holy because she has been set aside to declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ worldwide. The Holy Spirit guides the Church and is the sign of Christ’s continued presence in the midst of the faithful. That is why her authority can’t be challenged and her doctrinal decisions are law for all faithful Catholics. Until the Lord returns in glory there will be always those who believe they can follow their own opinions. That spirit of independence that prevails in the world today has been the reason why so many believers have lost their sensum fidei, the sense of the faith. God gave us enough freedom to live our lives but he also gave us the Church to be a guiding voice of truth leading us to salvation. God expects us to hear her motherly voice and obey her. The authority of the Church, and the assurance of her infallible Magisterium are signs meant to guide obedient humanity to salvation.
 C. S. Lewis; Answers to Questions on Christianity.