The License of Moral Authority

Moral authority is a phrase that some have used to describe Pope Francis’ recent public appearances. For instance, the always insightful historian, Leslie Woodcock Tentler, writes:

The longest and presumably most consequential of those addresses was delivered to the joint meeting of Congress. The pope spoke slowly, in heavily accented English, and with an air of humility. (He did not use the papal “we.”) But his moral authority was palpable.

When you think about any authority the papacy might have upon citizens and residents of the United States, you begin to scratch your head. Wasn’t the point of anti-Catholicism that Roman Catholics would not be good Americans since they were subject to a foreign prince? But now we learn that the pope has moral authority. Doesn’t this raise the stakes? Not only does he have authority over Roman Catholic officials and citizens, but since morality of some kind is binding on all people, now Pope Francis even has authority over President Obama. Which is odd because Woodcock Tentler includes in her essay a frank acknowledgment that the papacy lost authority at Vatican 2:

The Church itself has changed. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) made official Catholic peace with religious liberty and the religiously neutral state, liberating popes from what had become a pointless ritual battle against nineteenth-century liberalism. Catholic immigrants to the United States saw their children and, more frequently, their grandchildren become socially mobile. Especially after 1945, a rapidly growing Catholic population—fully one-quarter of the nation’s total by 1960—moved in large numbers into the ranks of the middle and upper-middle class. Newly affluent Catholics were less reliably Democratic in their voting behavior than their immigrant forebears, emerging in recent decades as a crucial swing vote in national elections.

Not to worry about papal supremacy in a more conciliar church. Even more than temporal or spiritual authority, the papacy has moral authority. Or is it a function of the man who is holds the papal office? Does the pope have moral authority or does Jorge Bergoglio by virtue of his manner and conduct? Did Ratzinger have moral authority? (And why does a pope need a new name when a bishop doesn’t? Rowan Williams was still Rowan Williams when he was Archbishop of Canterbury? Fancy shoes and funny hats. . . )

So if a pope has moral authority which gives him license to address climate change, economics, international affairs, what does a Protestant minister have? Does a Protestant minister even have authority? The traditional answer was always that by virtue of ministering God’s word, the minister has authority. His office implies some authority, but even more the authority whose word he ministers, adds even greater weight to his authority.

But Andrew Wilson thinks that pastors have as much scope in their jurisdiction as the papacy:

A pastor, by contrast, is a generalist and does not have the luxury of specializing. The people that pastors serve do not restrict their concerns according to their areas of expertise, so neither can pastors. No pastor collared by an anxious congregant who wants the Christian take on divorce, the state of Israel, spiritual gifts, or same-sex marriage can deflect by muttering, “It’s not my field.” They can do their best in the moment and then promise to learn more. But they cannot duck an issue because they don’t know much about it. Their people look to them for theological guidance, and since all of life is theological, they have to know something about everything.

Wow. So much for the sufficiency of Scripture.

That understanding of a pastor’s scope of concern may explain why the press, Roman Catholics — observant and non-observant, and onlookers were so overwhelmed by Pope Francis. If an ordinary pastor gets to speak on everything that his church members bring him, how much more a pastor with universal and moral authority?

The funny thing is that of the oldest legal professions, attorneys and physicians have much more leverage when telling your average Christian what to do either about legal affairs or health. Generally speaking, when my professional advisers tell me what to do, I follow their counsel. The reason has a lot to do with their speaking on the basis of their professional authority and competency.

So why do pastors think they have the competency to talk about everything in the world? Might they not be in danger of compromising their real authority? Maybe pastors should go back to ministering God’s word and priests should go back to liturgy and canon law and let the rest of us lay people figure out the material (as opposed to the spiritual) world.

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28 thoughts on “The License of Moral Authority

  1. Those were pretty cheap shots by Wilson. Because the Bible does say something about those 4 things (though only certain things). I wish the transformationalists would go all out like the other Wilson and say “there’s a Christian way to do Mathematics.” Cause that’s what they mean, they just know how ridiculous that sounds.

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  2. ,i>Walton
    Posted October 6, 2015 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
    Those were pretty cheap shots by Wilson. Because the Bible does say something about those 4 things (though only certain things). I wish the transformationalists would go all out like the other Wilson and say “there’s a Christian way to do Mathematics.” Cause that’s what they mean, they just know how ridiculous that sounds.

    That’s why they don’t say it.

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  3. Walton,

    Is it ridiculous to say “there’s a Christian way to do history or philosophy”?

    Darryl,

    “The traditional answer was always that by virtue of ministering God’s word, the minister has authority. His office implies some authority, but even more the authority whose word he ministers, adds even greater weight to his authority. ”

    Why should anyone view a layman preaching God’s word any differently in authority than an “ordained” minister?

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  4. CVD,

    I think you’re picking the cheap ones too. Christianity is historical and no one denies the close relationship between philosophy and theology.

    However, recently the RUF pastor gave a critique of individualism, which as a libertarian, I totally disagreed with. And I think he was mostly misinformed because he’s not much into philosophy and politics, which he doesn’t have to be, but he also doesn’t have to diagnose what worldly philosophy is plaguing our culture. (And if it were actually individualism, we’d be much better off.)

    And in church we’re studying Revelation and the pastor gives a lot of historical background to the letters to the seven churches, but he doesn’t have to. Unlike climate change, history is not settled. Protestants think the Bible interprets itself.

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  5. Walton
    Posted October 6, 2015 at 4:52 pm | Permalink
    CVD,

    I think you’re picking the cheap ones too. Christianity is historical and no one denies the close relationship between philosophy and theology.

    No, he demolished the cheap “Christian way to do Mathematics” argument Old Life has become so reliant upon.

    As for the Christian case for libertarianism, there isn’t one. [Matthew 25:31–46]

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  6. Darryl,

    Why does ordination matter? “The traditional answer was always that by virtue of ministering God’s word, the minister has authority. His office implies some authority, but even more the authority whose word he ministers, adds even greater weight to his authority.” Is a layman closed off to the authority of God’s word he preaches which is what you say gives weight to the ordained minister’s authority?

    Walton,

    So Christian presuppositions can color one’s application/analysis and “doing” of history, ethics, NT and OT textual studies, archaeology, philosophy, and so on. “Christianity is historical” – Christianity makes historical claims, sure – but there are many practitioners and specialists of history who hardly think it is actually historical. Guess they’re not doing it right.

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  7. ,i>D. G. Hart
    Posted October 6, 2015 at 5:06 pm | Permalink
    #whoisvd,ttojudge

    I forgot. The story of the Sheep and the Goats is cut out of the Calvinist Bible. Doesn’t matter whether you’re a Sheep or a Goat. You’re “Elect.”

    Nice racket y’all have going there.

    31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

    34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

    37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

    41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

    44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

    45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

    46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

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  8. Christianity is historical and no one denies the close relationship between philosophy and theology.

    Well, there is Paul:

    For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

    Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

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  9. Maybe no one is doing history right. All sciences (history, biology, medicine, geology, etc.) produce only probabilistic notions of truth (and still the probability doesn’t look too good http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124 )

    So how do we know Jesus is the Christ and he speaks truthfully in the Bible? “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father who is in heaven.” “My sheep hear my voice.”

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  10. Cletus,

    Why does ordination matter?

    Because Paul says that the church should recognize leaders based on criteria (1 Tim. 3:1–7). And its part of the broader principle of doing things decently and in order (1 Cor. 14). And because God has called some to be teachers and some to be ministers, etc. (Eph. 4).

    But ordination doesn’t convey some kind of ontology of authority on the person such that a pastor’s correct explanation of John 1:1 is ontologically more authoritative than a non-pastor’s explanation of John 1:1. That’s because the final authority is in God’s Word, not the person or the institution.

    Some people are more qualified to teach God’s Word than others. And nobody has authority to command anyone else to believe what is wrong.

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  11. @tvd You’ve mixed up cause and effect again. The sheep are sheep because they were elected. To follow the lead of Ali, John 6 and Romans 9 for starters.

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  12. sdb
    Posted October 6, 2015 at 6:13 pm | Permalink
    @tvd You’ve mixed up cause and effect again. The sheep are sheep because they were elected.

    Circular.

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  13. Looks pretty linear to me. God chooses some before the foundation of the world. Those he predestines are justfied, sanctified resulting in good works. These are the sheep and they are rewarded. No circles! Not palatable to most people (cf John 6). Perhaps you can take it up with Aquinas. He is pretty good here.

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  14. James Young, I know you think only Roman Catholics think ordination matters. Funny because so few Roman Catholics actually think that.

    But Protestants do too. Now if you could only admit that the Bible is what gives a pastor or bishop authority. No fair appealing to one teeny tiny verse in Matthew’s gospel.

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  15. “As for the Christian case for libertarianism, there isn’t one. [Matthew 25:31–46]”
    I missed the part where Jesus said, “You didn’t vote to expand government support for anti-poverty measures”.

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  16. Darryl,

    “Roman Catholics think ordination matters”

    Well yeah. It’s that whole apostolic succession thing. It’s that whole authority and authorization thing. It’s kind of a big deal. I don’t see how your view of authority makes ordination carry any actual weight – seems rather superfluous and about as significant as choosing the next treasurer of the rotary club.

    “Now if you could only admit that the Bible is what gives a pastor or bishop authority.”

    Right the same Bible that talks about ordaining people and sending those so authorized and submitting to those so authorized.

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  17. D. G. Hart
    Posted October 6, 2015 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
    vd, t, great verses about that great day.

    so are you a sheep or a goat? Why do you appeal to Jesus about the final judgment but don’t go to church?

    Who are you to judge? You’re certainly not much of an advertisement for churchgoing.

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  18. Cletus,

    Right the same Bible that talks about ordaining people and sending those so authorized and submitting to those so authorized.

    Yes, and the same Bible that tells us that wolves are coming, and where Paul says not to accept a different gospel even from him, and where there are lots and lots of examples of people who didn’t submit when they were commanded to sin. Which means no church gets unqualified submission.

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  19. First, the term ‘moral authority’ can be ambiguous. For some, having moral authority might mean that one has the right to command others to obey regarding moral issues. While some others would look at the term as meaning that because of one’s past, one has the credentials so that their view about some issue should be given more importance and weight than the views of the average person.

    As for whether ministers should have moral authority to speak on the issues the Pope has will depend on their fields of expertise. But that isn’t the issue here. The real issue is whether ministers should gain new fields of expertise in current affairs and political issues in order to carry out their jobs. And how one would answer that issue depends on the responsibilities Christians have in daily life regarding the environment, foreign policies, and so forth.

    Here, direct statements from the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, about the relationship between the government and Christians may not be as helpful now as they were then because democracy has ushered in a new relationships between Christian citizens and their government as well as new sets of responsibilities. In other words, as an old Duke Ellington song was entitled: ‘Things ain’t what they use to be.’

    Such presents a real tension for those whose learning from the scriptures consists solely of examples and literal statements because they are now being asked to construct implications from what the Scriptures have taught us. And perhaps the reluctance to leaving the simple and controlled life of only having to know examples and literal statements is what keeps people supporting the notion that ministers should gain some expertise in certain secular affairs.

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  20. “Historian—an unsuccessful novelist” — Mencken

    Christian historian— an unsuccessful theologian?

    A Christian philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. The neo-Kuyperian, the theonomist, and the natural law advocate are theologians who find the cat that isn’t there???

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  21. How can the pope worry about climate when he has his hands full in Vatican City?

    The latest headlines involve allegations of financial corruption: the same problems that were identified during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. But as Vatican spokesmen are now pointing out to reporters, the charges themselves are curiously outdated, based on evidence from months ago. In the last few years—beginning under Benedict XVI and accelerating under Francis—the Vatican has taken great strides toward financial transparency. New polices are already in place to prevent the sort of misconduct that is detailed in the new books that have caused such a sensation.

    But financial misconduct was only one aspect of the trouble within the Roman Curia. In their discussions leading up to the conclave of 2013, the cardinals voiced their dissatisfaction with a more general culture within the Vatican bureaucracy: a dysfunctional combination of secrecy, careerism, backbiting, and office politicking. And now fresh leaks of confidential documents have shown that the same culture—the same tendency toward petty rivalries and intrigues—rermains embedded in the offices of the Vatican.

    It made sense to address the Vatican’s chaotic financial system first, because money is always the life’s-blood of any corrupt system. The newly created Secretariat for the Economy, led by the imposing Cardinal George Pell, now holds all Vatican officials accountable for their spending. But not everyone is happy with the financial reforms; Cardinal Pell has ruffled feathers. So it comes as no surprise that Andrea Tornielli, one of the best-informed Vatican journalists, identifies Cardinal Pell as the target of the latest gossip.

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  22. One Reformed (OPC) pastor wrote:

    “The Bible says climate change is connected with covenant obedience:
    Deuteronomy 28:15, 23-24

    But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee:
    …..
    And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. The Lord shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed.

    Did that make it into the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015?” (Facebook Status).

    The same pastor commenting under his status:

    “nature is an important moral principle; but such is not unconnected with covenant obedience and faith. Though God does use secondary causes to accomplish His decrees, it is appropriate to ask if global warming is primarily the result of greenhouse gases or human rebellion against God.”

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