Rudiments of the Gospel

Christ: The Divine Depository of All Religious Authority

James P. Needham


No subject is more important than that of religious authority. This is made clear by Jesus' presentation of the judgment scene when some will say, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (Matthew 7:22-23). Iniquity is working without law, or violating existing law. These persons had done "many wonderful works," but by the wrong authority. They claimed to have done them in the name of Christ, that is, by His authority, but Jesus denied it. Jesus did not question their sincerity, or their morals, but their authority. Sincerity, good morals, nor anything else can substitute for the proper authority in religion.

All people understand the necessity of having a singular standard of authority in every realm but religion. We all are happy that we have a singular standard of authority in money, weights, measures, time, etc. What if you went to the bank to cash a check and the teller said, "Come on back and help yourself, we have no standard here." You might think that would be great, but it wouldn't be if your creditor used the standard of 500 or a thousand cents to the dollar. What if everyone could set his own standard in weights and measures? One merchant uses 16 ounces to the pound and another 26? What if you go to the airport to catch a plane to Chicago scheduled to leave at 12 noon, and the clerk tells you that plane left early this morning. You say, "but my ticket says it was to leave at noon." The clerk says, "Oh, well, we don't use those standards here, we just fly whenever we decide to." Without standards of authority the world would be in hopeless chaos. That is precisely what we have in religion. Every man is a law unto himself, as in ancient Israel, "...every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judges 17:6). Sincerity, good morals, majority view, good feelings, emotion, etc. are all substitutes men use for the authority of Christ.

1. God's eternal purpose:
God eternally designed that all authority ultimately was to be in Christ Jesus in the present age. Through the Old Testament prophets God revealed His eternal purpose, "... precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:" (Isaiah 28:10). In Deuteronomy 18:15, Moses notified the people that, "The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken." Peter applies this passage to Christ: "For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people" (Acts 3:22,23, see also Acts 7:37).

2. Jesus manifested His limited authority during His personal ministry:
He constantly used the expression, "Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time....But I say unto you." That His authority was limited during His personal ministry is obvious from several passages. Jesus never claimed "all authority in heaven and on earth" until after His resurrection (Matthew 28:18). Paul said God's mighty power was "wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 1:20).

3. The Father attests His authority during His personal ministry:
In the mount of transfiguration Peter wanted to put Christ's authority equal to that of Moses and the prophets but God said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him" (Matthew 17:5).

4. Affirmations in the epistles:
"And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all" (Ephesians 1:19-23).

"And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell" (Colossians 1:18-19).

"For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power" (Colossians 2:9-10).

Peter said Christ "is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him" (1 Peter 3:22).

"That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him" (Ephesians 1:10).

It is necessary to understand that "all" does not always mean all in the absolute sense. All authority in heaven and on earth was given unto Christ, but this does not mean that the Father was made subject to the Son. "For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:27-28).

What necessary conclusions are to be drawn from these scriptural facts?

1. No religious authority originates with or is to be exercised by man.

If Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth, that leaves none for anyone else. Since Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth, and yet certain men claim to have religious authority, the question is, "From where do they derive such authority?" The answer is immediate: Not from heaven, and not from earth because Christ has all of it there. That leaves only one other place, and that is hell. I affirm therefore that all religious authority claimed by men originates with Satan and not God. The most arrogant claimant of religious authority in the world is the pope of Rome. Official Catholic literature affirms that the pope's letter is the weightiest authority in the church. The origin of this authority, therefore, becomes obvious.

2. All religious acts that are not divinely authorized are sinful. "And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him" (Colossians 3:17).

3. Elders in local churches have no authority independent of the word of God. Today there is a wide-spread misconception of the authority of elders. This condition has evolved from several sources.

  1. Men who are executives in the secular world come into the eldership and think they can use the same methods of management and control in the church that they use or have used in their secular employment. For instance, a brother who has been a military officer or a CEO in some secular corporation and who has always been in control of things thinks he can use the same methods in the church that he used in his secular position. He thinks his word is the law and he has no obligation to get input from anyone. Elders often make arbitrary decisions as a body independent of the church, which decisions affect the peace and harmony of the church. They seek no input from anyone. An example of this kind of thinking and action is found in 3 John. "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church. Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God" (3 John 11). It is not unusual for some elder to make and execute a major decision on his own, independent of the other elders.

  2. An over-emphasis and misunderstanding of those passages which speak of the rule of elders and the duty of the members to be obedient and submissive. This cannot and must not be over lording rule, or slave-like obedience. The apostles once were concerned about who would be the greatest or chief among them. Jesus used the practices of the princes of the Gentiles as an illustration of how it would not be in His kingdom: "But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister" (Matthew 20:25-26). The highest position anyone can attain in the kingdom of God is a servant. In his discussion of the eldership, Peter said elders are not to be "lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:3).

    Thayer says of the word "bishop," "An overseer, a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly, a curator, guardian, or superintendent..." To see that things done by others are done rightly where the eldership is concerned means to see that things are done according to the divine pattern (Hebrews 8:5), not according to the personal whims and dictatorial decrees of a fallible eldership.

    There is a common idea that the decrees of the elders are the voice of God, and one is bound under threat of sin if he disagrees with them. When I served as an elder a member said as much to me. If this is the case, then elders constitute a legislative body. If disagreeing with the judgment of the elders is a sin, then the judgment of the elders becomes divine law. Who can believe it? Not even the apostles had such authority. What they bound on earth had already been in heaven; they were simply divine messengers (Matthew 16:19). Paul refused to exercise dominion over others' faith: "Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand" (2 Corinthians 1:24). That should be the sentiment of every elder. He is but a humble servant of God and His people, and his desire should be humbly to help the joy of those under his care–not to hobble them with over lording pontifications that originate in his own fallible mind.

  3. The natural tendency of men to be corrupted by power. It has been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Some men campaign for the eldership like a politician, and when they finally get "elected" their ego is inflated beyond measure. I heard a brother say he would give his right arm to be an elder. Another who was in an eldership that was dissolved said he was going to move to another congregation and if he couldn't "get an eldership" there he would move on to another. Here is a thirst for a position and power.

No congregation is everything God wants it to be without scripturally qualified elders and deacons. But there is a crying need for the church generally to understand the scriptural qualifications and functions of these operatives. They are not over-lords, but ensamples. They are not dictators but superintendents. They are not drivers, but leaders. They are not overlookers, but overseers.

It is high time that we hark back to the ancient order of things, and realize that Christ is both the center and the circumference of the church and all its workings. All religious authority in heaven and on earth inheres in Christ Jesus, and none, absolutely none, inheres in any man. The Lord's church knows nothing of a sacerdotal system where certain men are given special powers over the faith and religious acts of others. It is the Law of the Lord that thoroughly furnishes us completely unto all good works, not the whims of a man or group of men (2 Timothy 3:16,17). It is the New Testament that contains all things that pertain unto life and godliness, not human creeds, written or unwritten (2 Peter 1:3). God designs to use mature men to see that things done by others are done rightly, not that these men become the source of authority to execute their own agenda. Whatever is done in word or deed is to be done by the authority of Christ, not by the foibles of feeble and fallible men. The apostles declared, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). "But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).


All religious institutions, conceptions, and actions that find their authority outside the law of Christ are sinful and are destined to be rooted up by God (Matthew 15:13). The religion of Christ was designed by God in eternity, and must remain as delivered unto us by the Holy Spirit in the Bible. To add to it or to take from it or to preach other than its precepts is to incur the wrath of God (Galatians 1:8,9; 2 John 9-11; Revelation 22:18,19).

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