Christian Authority and Authority in General
Authority After the Reformation
Many things are different for Christianity in North America after Christendom, but maybe nothing more so than the shift away from traditional sources of moral and religious authority in culture. For almost 500 years, Protestants have more or less relied on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura for answering the question, “Where is our authority?” Of course, due to divergent interpretations of Scripture, church unity has never followed from this, but consensus about the Bible’s place in Christian life was nonetheless upheld for centuries following the Reformation.
But even this question, “Where is the authority?”, was itself being asked in a Christendom context. That is to say, the assumption behind the question was really, “Where is the Christian authority?” The choices were fairly obvious at the time. Either authority lies in the tradition and the church (Catholics), or it is to be found above all in the Bible (Protestants).
Today though, people no longer look to the Bible or the Christian tradition for answers to the authority question. Thus, if we are missionally-minded Christians embracing the new normal of the post-Christian U.S. landscape, I think we need to ask a bigger question. Where is the authority for anyone? Authority used to be in the Bible or Tradition. Today people ask if there is authority in general. Click To Tweet
Of course, we cannot simply ask a question for “anyone,” or “in general.” One always asks a question from a particular place and with certain a priori convictions. So I am indeed still asking about authority from a Christian point of view.
At the same time, being missional requires moving beyond the safety of Christian assurances, to some extent, and being willing to, at least partially, entertain the question of authority “as if” I were not a Christian. This is where the gospel and culture intersect, because if the gospel is true, then it’s capable of getting inculturated anywhere. The gospel is always relevant, in other words, but we still have to communicate it intelligibly for our context.
Grace and Faith, and Sin and Judgment
The Solas in our Modern World
Martin Luther and the other reformers did not merely say that authority was to be found in the Scriptures. There were other authoritative “Solas,” in addition, like “Sola Fide” (faith alone) and “Sola Gratia” (grace alone). These two have held their ground for a long time as well (Eph 2:8-9), so much so that many evangelical Protestants today have tended to double-down on them — especially those in the neo-Reformed movement. One only has to look at the influence of the notion of “gospel-centeredness” in preaching and church planting in the last 10-15 years to see this.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself. We believe in salvation by grace through faith! But there is a noticeable limitation to this strategy, missiologically speaking. Namely, it still assumes a Christendom perspective on things.
At the core of “gospel-centeredness” is typically a dependence on the belief in the need for salvation because of 1) humanity’s sinfulness and 2) a God of judgment. These doctrines simply cannot be taken for granted today. We must do the work of connecting them with the post-Christendom experience. Belief in the need for salvation because of sin and God's judgment can't be taken for granted. Click To Tweet
Where the Message of Repentance & Salvation Gets Lost
For one thing, people from Asian cultures and Eastern religious traditions have little recourse to such concepts. And while there are many unchurched and “de-churched” people who continue to believe in something like “God” and “good morals,” it’s pretty clear that the whole sin and judgment thing has nevertheless faded significantly from the Western worldview. Individualism and liberalism have certainly played a role in this, but so have evolutionary theories of religion and what Charles Taylor refers to as “the immanent frame” that is now native to our secular age.
Liberal Christians have been queasy about sin and judgment talk for a long time, and so their response has largely been to go along with the trend and throw out the language of sin and judgment altogether. They focus instead on social justice issues or meditation and mindfulness. These are good things, but the central Christian message of repentance, trust in Christ for salvation and life in the Spirit tends to get lost in the process, if not deliberately abandoned.
The Authority of the Gospel outside of Christendom
What would an approach to Christian authority beyond Christendom and in the absence of any assumptions about “sin and judgment” even look like?
This is a big question, and a faithful answer would take an on-going ecclesial conversation. In the last section of this post, I only want to propose a set of theologically authoritative tenets for missional churches to consider. Together, I believe they could constitute a different kind of gospel-centeredness — one that sets the good news in the broader story of our struggle with violence, the formation of a new community, and concern for those whom the world usually excludes or overlooks. A different gospel-centeredness responds to violence, forms community, cares for the outcast. Click To Tweet
Three Tenets of Gospel Authority after Christendom: Non-Violence, the Poor, and Community
- What are we being Saved from? As the incarnation of the infinite Wisdom and love of the Creator (John 1), Jesus’s violent suffering saves us from our own violence, both individually and collectively (words like violence or egoism are virtually synonymous with sin, but are more self-evident). As such, the great mystery of salvation is that God uses our worst to do God’s best, and offers restoration of God’s image in us for a non-violent, Spirit-filled life.
- Who is Saved? Salvadorian theologian Jon Sobrino wrote a book about a decade ago called No Salvation Outside the Poor. The title pretty much says it all: Jesus enters into solidarity with the poor and oppressed, and they receive the good news first. The gospel always starts by taking root on the underside of history, and everything about the way wealth and power function in the church should reflect this. A major facet of the good news, then, is that God judges injustice, and that the last will be first (Matthew 19-20). This is part of what makes the gospel so surprising and even offense, but also so attractive.
- What are we Saved for? None of this other stuff matters though if the church and a new humanity inaugurated by Christ do not get practiced and embodied at the local and communal level. We are saved for living in reconciled relationships with our neighbors — relationships oriented around the aforementioned values: non-violence and the preferential option for the poor.
It is true that the church must think critically and creatively about the roots of the disconnect with culture concerning its message about sin and judgment. When understood in the context of violence and injustice and God’s compassion for the world, however, sin and judgment remain inseparable from the Christian faith.
I believe that these three features of gospel authority listed above preserve the traditional notions of humanity’s sinfulness and God’s judgment, but do so without merely making a narrow appeal to the authority of Scripture. Sin and judgment can also be understood by making an appeal to human dignity and the image of God in everyone, no matter how wounded or suppressed that image might be. As we make this appeal, we trust that the Holy Spirit is always working to awaken people to this image, and to reveal the authority of the gospel in new ways and new places.
Some lingering questions:
- What else should be considered here regarding the North American missional context?
- What other tenets am I missing for gospel authority after Christendom?
- Do you agree that the image of God in us is a source of authority for the reality of sin and judgment?