January 16, 2021

The Liturgical Gangstas 3: The Authority/Dissent Issue

Welcome to IM’s popular new feature, “The Liturgical Gangstas,” a panel discussion among different liturgical traditions represented in the Internet Monk audience.

Who are the Gangstas?

Father Ernesto Obregon is an Eastern Orthodox priest.
Rev. Peter Vance Matthews is an Anglican priest and founding pastor of an AMIA congregation.
Dr. Wyman Richardson is a pastor of a First Baptist Church (SBC) and director of Walking Together Ministries, a resource on church discipline.
Alan Creech is a Roman Catholic with background in the Emerging church and spiritual direction. (Alan’s not a priest. If he is, his wife and kids need to know.)
Rev. Matthew Johnson is a United Methodist pastor.
Rev. William Cwirla is a Lutheran pastor (LCMS) and one of the hosts of The God Whisperers, which is a podcast nearly as good as Internet Monk Radio.

Here’s this week’s question: In an interview with Boston.com, the late Avery Cardinal Dulles answered a question with a crucial observation:

Q. What is the appropriate role of dissent in the church?

A. Dissent should be rare, respectful and reluctant. One’s first reaction as a Catholic is to agree with the official teaching of the church.

Thousands of IM readers ponder this question: If we cannot join our Catholic brothers and sisters in simply trusting the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic church, then what is the answer to the “authority” question for non-Catholic Christians?

Father Ernesto/Orthodox: To consider the appropriate role of dissent in the Church, it is important to look at what the Church is. And, in the view of our Lord and of St. Paul, she needs quite a bit of work. First, Ephesians 4:11-16 says that he gave some as apostles, prophets, etc., because the Church was less than perfect. In fact, did you ever think that Church structure is set up the way it is precisely because our Lord was quite aware that the Church is yet imperfect? Now look at those verses a little closer. No, closer yet. Look at the assumptions behind these verses. “. . . till we all come to the unity of the faith. . .” in other words, as St. Paul is writing, the Church is not yet united in doctrine. Let’s go on. Keep reading down that verse. We are not yet perfect; we are not yet up to the stature of Christ; we are not yet adults; we are able to be tricked; we can be deceitful. What a description of us! But, what our Lord said was even stronger. Look at the parable of the wheat and the tares. Not only are we imperfect, we are so immature that it is often hard to tell the difference between the wheat and the tares. But, it also means that some among us are evil and not of God. This is one side of the background to dissent.

The other side of the background to dissent is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the promises that the gates of Hell would never prevail against her and that the Holy Spirit would lead her into Truth and would teach her. As we read the New Testament, we see this conception of the Church being played out for us. We see St. Peter fighting for the Gentiles after baptizing Cornelius. We see St. Barnabas arguing with St. Paul about St. Mark. We see St. Paul confronting St. Peter about his double-mindedness. But, we also read the clear conviction that the Holy Spirit will bring an united solution to the problems, and a solution that will maintain the unity of the Church and, on top of that, reveal those who are tendentious, that is immature, Christians, and those who are evil and need to be out of the Church.

And, so, we also read in the New Testament about the Jerusalem Council, the one that set the pattern for future Ecumenical Councils. It both issued doctrinal rulings that stood for all time and disciplinary rulings that were only in effect as long as needed. What were the doctrinal ones? Well, males are not circumcised in order to be considered Christians, but they sure are baptized, for instance. More than that, it was the Church’s decision that there was a New Covenant with different regulations than the Old one (remember, the New Testament had not been written yet). What disciplinary rules? Well, how many of you have had a bloody red steak? That was forbidden for a time. It was a disciplinary, but not a doctrinal rule. And, so, unity was preserved for over a thousand years. There were many arguments, but they were all eventually resolved, sometimes after decades of arguments.

But, that is not the whole story. The New Testament also records that there were those who left or were thrown out. And, so, St. John can say, “Children, this is the last hour. Just as all of you heard that an antichrist is coming, many antichrists have already come. From this we know that this is the last hour. They left us, but they were not part of us. For if they were a part of us, they would have remained with us. By leaving they showed that not all are part of us.” — 1 John 2:18-19. By and large that was shown to be true during the first 1000 years of the Church. Groups that were declared anathema and thrown out, by and large, disappeared from having a significant part in Church history after some decades. [Note: many groups declared anathema simply kept on outside the Roman Empire, so it was not simply that they were “suppressed” as some put forward.] One could argue that one can see the work of the Holy Spirit in history withdrawing himself from those groups that had fallen outside the Church. It is, then, no surprise that St. Cyprian could claim that there is no salvation outside the Church–besides the theological reasons, that is.

So, what was true? First, arguments were permitted. Two, arguments eventually had an end. Three, those arguments were resolved through a process that involved the Church through the presence of those who are named in Ephesians 4 as those who are charged precisely with the growth of the unity and maturity of the Church. Four, those who continued to object after the final decision ended up being outside the Church. By the way, if you read the Council of Trullo, you will find that those who repented were simply allowed back into the Church. That was pre-Middle Ages.

That whole process–good, bad, or indifferent–has fallen apart today. Which means that I do not have a good answer anymore for the place of dissent in the Church. You see, the problem is not simply that there is no longer one process in place to resolve doctrinal and disciplinary disagreements, but also that we currently live in a culture in which arguments do not have an end. In the USA we not only prize dissent, we equate it with proof of our independence and take pride in letting no one lead us by the nose. This, however, leads to a situation in which dissent on the grounds of principle often turns into the stubborn refusal to countenance other possibilities. Thus, if I have some advice today, for an American, it would be to restrain yourself from dissenting. First, study and see if you are the one who could be wrong. Second, ask yourself, how important is this particular issue? Third, is this an issue that needs resolving or can I allow for differing opinions on this matter? [I will point out that you can quote Church Fathers on either the Calvinist or Armenian issue because the Church of the first thousand years never thought that was an issue that had to be decided. The West was Augustininan and the East was at the other end, and no Council was ever thought necessary.] Fourth, ask yourself how I can go about preserving the unity of the Church in this situation. Fifth, and this is usually an impossible one for Americans, which is what has led to so many of our divisions, can I submit? Can I trust those in authority enough, on this particular issue, to change my mind this time? Note that I am not saying every time or on every issue. But, can I drop some of my American insistence on independence and take a chance on interdependence?

Matthew Johnson/United Methodist: Asking a United Methodist about authority might get you the same kind of look you would get if you asked me a question in Swahili. We aren’t very good at recognizing authority in my denomination. Our doctrinal standards are impeccable yet they generally aren’t looked at as authority but as a relic of a time passed in which people used to care about things like the Vigin Birth or other theological emphases that are barely even sniffed at today. As a United Methodist pastor I sometimes feel as though I could replace the Episcopal church with the UMC in a quote from Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal who once said, “If I wanted the aesthetics without the inconvenient morality,I could become Episcopalian.” Inconvenient morality seems to be the way many of us view not only Scripture but also our statements of faith.

Only a doom and gloomer would stop there. Without having seen his response I’m going to predict that my answer is similar to Peter Matthews. Since the United Methodist Church doesn’t have an infallible magisterium we attempt to look at our theological practice through the lenses of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. This fourfold approach, sometimes called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral even though Wesley never formulated an approach in these terms, becomes a pretty good flow chart for our authority. Scripture is the obvious starting point. Without getting into the complexities of biblical interpretation, there are a lot of statements in Scripture that are pretty obvious like “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Just kidding). If Scripture doesn’t sufficiently shed light on a particular issue we look not only to our own history and tradition but to the history and tradition of the whole church beginning with our Anglican roots and going back to the Early Church Fathers. If this proves unhelpful we ask “What is the most reasonable response in light of what we know of the whole of Scripture and Church history” and leaving the very subjective experience of the church and believer for questions so obscure that personal preference can only decide. You may note that I’m not a big fan of the role experience plays and I’m being a little more than slightly sarcastic. Since I do believed in total depravity held in check by God’s grace I’ve watched the experience of others leads to more rationalization and excuse-making than anything else.

This sounds a lot harsher than I really feel but I’ve watched people glorify dissent in the “essentials” or that which has been believed by the whole church for two thousand years for the sake of something other than the health of the church. Yes, I’m fully aware that our denomination’s parents (Anglicans) and grandparents (Catholics) are watching their irony meter redline.

Peter Vance Matthews/Anglican: Anglicans believe in the primacy of scripture but believe the Bible should be interpreted with and by the Church. This, of course, begs the question, “Which Church?” The Anglican answer is the early, undivided Church. Why do Anglicans answer this way? First, the canon of scripture was itself finalized in the early centuries. It was the Church of this era, guided by the Rule of Faith, that nailed down the books contemporary evangelicals believe are authoritative. Second, the consensual Catholic faith – set forth in the ecumenical creeds – was synthesized and established. The ideas of the Trinity and Chalcedonian Christology that have guided the Church from then on were established. It simply follows that these creedal statements function authoritatively for the Church and function as a grid through which scripture is interpreted. Third, the Church was undivided. While the life and praxis of the Church was not uniform, there was great consensus regarding core doctrine and practice in the life of the Church. The Church was in a real, concrete sense, Catholic. The Catholicity of this era is best captured by the Canon of Saint Vincent of Lerins, “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘Catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent.” (http://www.ancient-future.net/vcanon.html) The undivided universality of the Church was seen then as a guide for discerning what is to be believed by the Church. Fourth, in this era a great consensus regarding worship and discipline emerged. Again, not a rigid uniformity, but a great consensus about things such as the Church’s worship in Word and Sacrament, the nature and centrality of the sacraments, the threefold order of Bishop, Presbyter and Deacon and the use of scripture in worship.

This approach is what creates the unique Anglican ethos of the middle way. On one hand, Anglicans identify with the Protestant Reformation. We believe in the primacy of scripture and reject the idea that the Bishop of Rome is the head of the Church Catholic on earth. At the same time, if you showed up at a typical Anglican parish you might find yourself thinking, “Hmm, this sure looks Catholic to me.” The Anglican rejoinder would be, “It is Catholic, it’s just not Roman Catholic.” It’s Catholic in the way the early undivided Church was Catholic. During the Reformation, Anglican polemicists like Bp. John Jewell defended the English Reformation against the Roman Church not as a rejection of Catholicity but as a restoration of Catholicity. (BTW – The Roman Catholic Gangsta, Alan Creech, is a good friend of mine and we know where we disagree about these things. We love and respect each other, so please don’t read these contrast statements as uncharitable slams against my Roman brothers and sisters, the contrast just helps clarify the Anglican approach.)

So as an Anglican, my impulse is to give the teaching of the Church the benefit of the doubt. However, I look to the life and teaching of the early undivided Church as the source for this teaching rather than the Roman Magisterium. Thomas Ken, Anglican Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1685 to 1691 wrote, “”I die in the holy catholic and apostolic faith, professed by the whole church before the division of East and West.” His statement captures the heart of my approach as an Anglican Christian to authority in the Church.

Alan Creech/Roman Catholic: As I said before, these questions keep getting harder and harder to “answer” without writing a book. Don’t get me wrong, I want to write a book at some point, but not right this minute, so I’ll try to hit the high points on this one. OK, wait, is everybody looking at me? Why are you all looking at me!? Oh, only Catholic in the room, subject matter, blah blah. It’s alright, I’ll be alright.

I’ll start with the Dulles Q&A. His answer to “What is the appropriate role of dissent in the church?” was this, “Dissent should be rare, respectful and reluctant. One’s first reaction as a Catholic is to agree with the official teaching of the church.” I do get that answer. I am a Catholic Christian. My being Catholic is not entirely about well figured out reasons, but one reason I want to be Catholic is to be connected, in as good a way as I know, to the whole and ancient Church. I really think that’s the way I want to follow-up on Cardinal Dulles’ answer. First of all, I basically agree. What I want to add into the mix is that this agreement with the official teaching of the Church is not, I don’t believe, meant to be some kind of thoughtless, mechanical, snap-to-it kind of response. I say that partly because this is how you see this concept characterized by some who are and some who are not Catholic. Perhaps it would be helpful to look at this as not so much of an organizational lock-step obedience thing, so much as a base-level trust in the ancient Church – that’s what I’m agreeing to. That’s what I’m trusting – that the Church is basically teaching the right thing. I lean toward trusting that.

Now, and I’ve talked about this before, dissent: One may be a Catholic and not “get” everything that the Church teaches. One may have questions. One should think about what one believes – work it out – hash it out – wrestle with it. There are levels of dissent as there are levels of assent the Catholic Church asks of us about different things. Very few of those things, believe it or not, are on the level of “don’t even have a question about this or else.” We shouldn’t live in fear of questioning or wondering about this or that. We should study and be informed. We should mostly be formed in the Image of Christ. Then we will be able to see clearly. On a base level, though, I see it like this – here is this big old, ancient Church. It, of which I am a part, has been working and hashing these things out for 2 millennia. So, I trust that the Holy Spirit is, and has been, working in, on, and through it, and so I have a trust. There are things I wonder about, question, things I even think are goofy and need to change, but basically, I agree, I trust. Again, it is neither as black and white as some make it seem, nor is it as colorless or gray as others might think. That’s not the easiest thing to explain, but there you go.

As for how Protestants should look at the authority of the Catholic Church, or the whole Church. What’s the deal? In general, there is probably a lot of room for more catholicity in the Protestant Christian arena. Some Protestants lean more on some kind of trust in the ancient catholic faith than others. Again, I think it helps to look at this authority as a trust we put in the ancient faith, in the Church that has always been here, working things out along the way down through history. That, instead of only thinking of it in such rigid ways – organizational entity > entity has official leaders > when they speak I must obey and comply > resistance is futile. That’s a very unhelpful way to look at authority, Catholic or otherwise.

Generally, I think all Christians need to steer away from being independent-minded and toward being more catholic, and I don’t think that necessarily requires “conversion.” Seriously looking at the wisdom of the Church catholic, Catholic, Orthodox, etc. is, I believe, a necessity, not to be “a Christian,” but to be more healthy as churches, as the Church. What does that mean? It depends – it may mean giving up on the re-invention of the proverbial wheel in many cases, liturgically, worship-wise, sacramentally speaking among other possibles. It’s attitudinal to begin with, which will then work its way into how we “be” the church. Wow, that may not have even answered the question but it’s the best I could do at the moment. Peace.

Wyman Richardson/Southern Baptist: The question of “authority” is indeed a bit difficult for those without an official Magisterium (though many observers of the modern SBC would point out that we now seem to have a kind of magisterium!). In short, Luther’s declaration at Worms about his “heart being captive to the Word of God” resonates deeply with Baptists, even if Lutherans would no doubt point out that Luther would be quite suspect of much Baptist handling of the word! Furthermore, I fully acknowledge that every believer of every communion will, at heart, assert with equal strength that God’s word is ultimately their authority as well. The question then becomes one of mediation. How do we hear and find and understand this authoritative word to which we are accountable?

The Baptist finds it in his experience with the word, as it is opened through the Holy Spirit’s unction via the means of careful exegesis and sound hermeneutics. He finds it particularly as it is fleshed out in the local church. We see the Bible as the encapsulation, in written form, of that early authority to which, Acts tell us, the early church devoted herself: “the Apostle’s teaching.”

I understand the dilemma in arguing that the word of God is our authority. Have Baptists not simply abandoned one pope for sixteen million popes (as the official but absurdly inflated numbers of the SBC would suggest)? Has not the idea of the lone soul standing with his Bible before his God given rise to a pandora’s box of chaotic, idiosyncratic interpretations and splintering? Has not the cry of “ecclesia semper reformanda” simply become a first principle by which we validate whatever tangent we happen to want to go on at the moment?

I don’t deny the practical realities of these problems, I simply deny that claiming the word of God as your authority must necessarily be this way. To be sure, in a Baptist climate of disappearing ecclesiology, the deceptive cry of “no creed but the Bible” (not originally a Baptist cry anyway) has morphed into “no creed but me.” But it need not be this way.

In truth, a more full-orbed Baptist understanding of authority can be found in the congregational renewal that is currently taking place among the many Baptists who are seeking to reclaim the cherished principle of “regenerate church membership.” This does not position authority in the church, but it does give a healthier oversight of our handling of the word in the context of a local, covenanted, accountable, and disciplined congregation. A concurrent retrieval of the once-strong system of accountability among these local congregations would likewise strike a blow at the church-shopper mentality that says, “Ok, if my quirks aren’t welcome here, then I’ll just find someplace where they are.”

Alongside this ecclesiastical parameter that surrounds and guides the individual and his Bible, I firmly believe that many of those calling for a greater appreciation of historic, consensual exegesis as a tempering guide for reading the Bible are hitting on something key. You can find this in many of the Baptist catholicity guys (Timothy George, D.H. Williams, Steve Harmon, et al.), but perhaps it has been best articulated in Tom Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy programme.

Thus, I would argue that the Christian’s source of authority is the enscripturated Word of God as it is read, understood, and lived in the context of an accountable, covenanted local congregation, and as it is guided and tempered by a renewed appreciation for the voice of the Church throughout time (a voice which does not eclipse the word, but which certainly ought to be respected and heeded in the reading of the word.)

William Cwirla/Lutheran: The question of church authority is really a question of the authority of the Word of God. We Lutherans make a distinction (we love distinctions) between authority that is de jure divino (by divine right) and de jure humano (by human right). (We like to toss around Latin phrases, too.) In the church, pastoral authority, that is, the authority to pronounce forgiveness, to proclaim the Gospel and to administer Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is de jure divino, since the ministry is established by God. All other church authority, such as the monarchical episcopacy, synods, councils, and church bodies, are de jure humano. These are created by men for the well-being of the church.

Now this is not to say that we are permitted to disobey human-based authority. Our confessions teach that we are to obey our bishops and leaders even in matters where the Word of God is silent for the sake of peace and unity. Too much of today’s Christianity is everyone indulging his inner brat and wanting to have things his way. But the bottom line is the Word of God. Here “we must obey God rather than men.”

The issue comes to the fore in the interpretation and application of Holy Scripture in terms of doctrine and practice. Who decides? The protestant principles of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone, there goes that Latin again) and “Scripture interprets Scripture” seem to leave a vacuum of ultimate authority. Catholicism has the Pope and the teaching magesterium of the church; Orthodoxy has its bishops. Protestantism appears to be a mob of individuals.

Personally, I think the divisions within protestantism are vastly overstated, as is the claimed unity of Catholicism or Orthodoxy. There are as many wacky beliefs hiding under the mitres of the pope and the eastern bishops as there are in an Evangelical bookstore, a Kentucky tent revival or a synod of Lutherans, to speak of my own tribe.

But if you sum up all that’s believed, taught and confessed end of the day and divide it up by all the baptized believers in the world, leaving out the wacky fringes, you pretty much come up with Chalcedonian Christology and Nicene orthodoxy. We all basically believe that God is three Persons in one Being and that Christ is true God and true Man in one Person, who died, rose, and reigns to save the world from sin and death, and we do so from the Scriptures. We may quibble over Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the place of justification, but we all have them, whether we all recognize what’s going on or not. That’s not too bad for a couple of millenia. Islam and Judaism should have it so good.

We believe that the Holy Spirit works through the prophetic and apostolic Word (ie the Holy Scriptures), and like the making of sausage, the process is messy and not for the theologically squeamish. The desire for an inspired father, whether a pope, a bishop or some charismatic leader with a nice suit and a good haircut, may provide a measure of security in the face of uncertainty, but the Word is a much more solid rock upon which to build the house of one’s faith. We may be appalled at all the divisions within Christianity, but God doesn’t seem to mind. If He did, He would simply have opened the earth and swallowed up the sectarians long ago like the sons of Korah.

Instead God uses the dynamic tension of dissent and division to strengthen HIs Church. The apostle Paul stated that the divisions in Corinth were necessary to show who was tested (1 Cor. 11). Paul’s public smackdown of Peter’s hypocrisy at Antioch served to underscore the Christian’s liberty from Mosaic law. The NT preserves a record of the dynamic and creative tension between Jewish and Gentile Christianity (James and Paul). The great creeds and doctrines of the church were all forged in controversy.

In view of that unfortunate Babel incident in Genesis 11, God doesn’t seem terribly interested “one world” anything – especially when it comes to de jure humano political and religious institutions. God has been known to stir the ecclesiastical pot from time to time, especially when the religious leaders are behaving and teaching badly. It’s no coincidence that most of the prophets were not institutional men. Consider John the Baptizer. A little dynamic “tension” is good for the una Sancta (i.e. the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church scattered throughout the world or the sum total of all who are united to Christ by faith). We Lutherans, by the way, specialize in dynamic tension.


  1. Here’s an interesting quote from Fr. McNeely:

    “God loves us more than we love ourselves. God judges us by our conscience not by the Church’s conscience or our parents’ conscience, but by our own personal conscience.

    Simply put, the individual’s conscience is supreme. This belief has been – and will probably be – the best kept secret of the Catholic Faith.”

    – from “Catholicism without the Guilt” by Fr. Maurice G. McNeely

    I was introduced to the Jesuits at just the right time in my life – 1968. I was coming from a Catholic upbringing – conservative, but I didn’t recognize it as such at the time – in which everything revolved around “rules”. You must go to Church on Sunday. Mortal sin to do this or that. I was rebelling against the whole thing.

    And then along came the Jesuits to take it to another level entirely. You can do whatever you want to do – but you alone are responsible for your immortal soul. Whoa!

  2. P.S. I should add that I love the Catholic Church and that I am thoroughly Catholic to my bone. I appreciate that the Church, through its authority, has protected the mystery of Christ through the ages, for all ages, through sacrament and liturgy. But I think that in order for us to grow up, spiritually, we have to get away from this “rules” stuff, and recognize and assume our own roles and responsibility in discerning how to live as Christians in the world.

    (You really should get some female gangstas on your panel:-))

  3. With all due respect Beth Fr. McNeely represents the dying ember of what used to be a great religious order. Jesuits of tody are not the Jesuits of the Catholic Reformation, these are hippies that wanted to make the Church their own rather than God’s.

    His book Catholicism without the Guilt has post-Vatican II nonesence written all over it.

    I would equate him as the Joel Osteen of Catholicism.

  4. “I would equate him as the Joel Osteen of Catholicism.”

    Wow! I thought we Lutherans were tough on each other. It’s good to get out into the ecumenical world once and a while.

  5. I”ll not be adding to the current line-up unless someone quits.

  6. “I’d say there is (or should be) nothing offensive about pointing out that Luther taught something different from what the Catholic Church taught and teaches!”

    As a Lutheran, I would agree as a Lutheran. Lutheranism should be considered heresy to papal Catholocism. For Luther, it wasn’t a matter of choosing “what one likes” and rejecting “superficial baggage” but choosing what he believed was right according the Scriptures, and rejecting what was wrong.

    As I cited in my original post, St. Paul says, “…for there must be factions (haireseis) among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor 11:19)

    There are, at times, necessary heresies.

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