Liturgical Gangstas Redux, Part III: The Authority/Dissent Issue

What is “Liturgical Gangstas Redux”?

In 2009, Michael Spencer asked some of us across denominational lines to come together as “The Liturgical Gangstas.”  The intent was for Michael to throw a question to Christians of different traditions to see how we would approach the questions and, ostensibly, to help ourselves and the readers to think through spiritual issues more deeply.  We did this over the following year.  I bowed out after Michael’s passing, though I think the Liturgical Gangstas continue on over at the Internet Monk site.  Anyway, in looking through the older content at Internet Monk, I thought I might post my answers to those questions over here, in case they are of use to anybody. (I don’t feel comfortable lifting the entire Gangsta posts from the site, but, in time, I’ll move the questions and my responses here.)


“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?”

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.)

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