Ultimate Source of Authority
In most areas of life people appeal to an ultimate (final, conclusive) standard of authority when they affirm they are correct in their teaching and practice. If someone attempts to use their own standard of authority to “prove their case,” their reasoning is usually questioned. Illustration: suppose I fail to stop at a stop sign and a police officer pulls me over to give me a citation. What will happen if I say to the officer: “But I never stop at this sign because there is never anyone at this intersection” or “But the driving instructor who taught me said I could ignore this sign when nobody is coming to the intersection.” The officer will not accept these as “standards of authority” (myself or my instructor); he will appeal to the ultimate source of authority, the written laws governing traffic.
There is no area of life in which it is more important to make certain that we are citing the approved standard as our ultimate source of authority for all of our beliefs, teachings and practices than in the realm of religion. The apostle Paul states: “…whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus…” (Colossians 3:17). “In the name of the Lord” means by the authority of the Lord.
Only Two Sources of Authority: God or Man
In regard to religious matters, God’s Word teaches that there are only two sources of authority: God or man. “When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, ‘Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?’ So they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ And Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to Him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven’.” (Matthew 15:13-17). Peter’s statement was not from men, “flesh and blood,” but from the ultimate source of authority, the “Father who is in heaven.” It mattered little what men were saying about Jesus; the ultimate source of authority, God the Father, is the authority endorsed by Jesus.
When Jesus answered the religious leaders who asked about His source of authority for what He was doing, He said: “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” (Matthew 21:25). Jesus affirmed that there are only two possible sources of authority: “heaven” (referring to the authority of God) or “men.” The chief priests and elders understood that if the ultimate source of authority for John’s baptism was “from heaven” then they should believe and obey John’s command to be baptized; refusing to obey would be to reject “the counsel of God” (Luke 7:29-30).
When the Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus why His disciples did “not walk according to the tradition of the elders,” Jesus said of these scribes and Pharisees, “…in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). The problem with “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” is that man is not the proper source of authority in determining what pleases God in worship. Relying on the “commandments of men” has the effect of rejecting the ultimate authority of God: “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men…you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition…making the word of God of no effect through your tradition…” (Mark 7:8,9,13). It is evident from this account that of the two possible sources of authority, God or man, man’s authority makes one’s worship “vain” (empty, of no use) and is not acceptable to God.
Man’s Authority Instead of God’s Authority
Many in the religious world rely upon man as their source of authority for their beliefs and practices rather than the ultimate authority of God. But man is not and never will be the approved standard of authority in religious matters as far as God is concerned.
Some rely on their conscience as their source of authority in life, failing to realize how misguided one’s conscience can be. Saul of Tarsus said of his life before he became a Christian: “…I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9); yet at that time he “lived in all good conscience before God” (Acts 23:1) as he persecuted Christians, condemning them to death. When he was confronted with the ultimate source of authority, Jesus Christ, he learned that his conscience was not a sufficient guide and he submitted his life to the authority of God.
Instead of citing the authority of God revealed in the Scriptures, others have as their standard of authority the wisdom of various Biblical scholars and religious leaders, or their own human wisdom. The Scriptures affirm that the wisdom of men is not a God-approved standard of authority: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God…The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile” (1Corinthians 3:19-20). God’s thoughts and ways are infinitely higher than, and often opposed to, man’s wisdom: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). In spite of these and other warnings against relying on the wisdom of men, it is not uncommon to meet people who trust what their preacher or church leaders say about teachings and practices that cannot be found in the Scriptures. I have encountered people who say: “I do not know what we teach or practice, but my preacher can tell you.” Others have said: “If the elders say it is right, we believe it is too.” Preachers and religious leaders are human authorities unless they are citing the ultimate authority–what God says in His Word.
Church manuals and creeds, church disciplines and catechisms, and traditional church doctrines are also used as sources of authority in religious matters. If these teach more than or less than what God’s Word reveals, then they “teach as doctrines the commandments of men” and are not acceptable to God. If you want to follow the ultimate source of authority, then you will not believe or practice something because the “church teaches it,” but because the Lord teaches it. The church is to be “subject to Christ… in everything” because “Christ is head (the ultimate authority) of the church” (Ephesians 5:23-24).
Man’s Authority on the Day of Judgment
The various forms of human authority, which many people appeal to in order to justify their beliefs and practices, will not lend them any support on the Day of Judgment. In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus says not all who call upon Him as “Lord” will enter heaven, but only those who do the will of His “Father in heaven.” On the final day of judgment many will claim that they were involved in many religious practices in His name (by His authority), but Jesus will send them away, charging them with practicing “lawlessness.” Their practices were not according to God’s law (the ultimate authority), but according to man’s authority.