Is the Community the new Authority?


Recently I was invited by a friend and colleague, Rev. Ryan Kiblinger to share a bit more about my understanding of authority. In the course of writing a response to his interesting questions, a metaphor stuck me. 

Over the past several centuries in the Christian tradition we have been shaped by one of the cries of the Reformation, sola scriptura - Scripture alone. Which is the belief that the Bible contains all the knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness. And so for many Protestant traditions, scripture becomes the Ultimate Authority on all things. Perhaps not summed up any better than the bumper sticker which reads, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." 

Over the years Protestants began to place more and more emphasis on the authority of the scripture to the point that some of us elevate scripture to the point of idolizing the Bible. The Bible has held the position of privilege as the primary authority for so long that it is hard to remember there was a time when the Bible was not the Ultimate Authority in Christianity. There was a time it was the Pope. There was a time it was the Church. There was a time it was the Emperor. 

Today the position of privilege the Bible has maintained is up for grabs. Not because the Bible is less True or less authoritative but that it is becoming more and more the case that the new authority is the "community". 

Some are threatened by this idea that the community is becoming the privileged position of authority because there is the fear of some from of relativism. However, I want to submit the authoritative community for the Christian is not a group of people. The authoritative community for the Christian is a broad group that spans time and space. The community includes but is not limited to:

  • Jesus
  • Holy Spirit
  • God
  • Scriptures 
  • Tradition
  • Reason
  • Experience
  • The Holy Spirit 
  • Local customs and traditions
  • Science
  • The stories of the saints of the past
  • Current incarnation of the Church

And so, just like any community, there are times in which one member of the community might have a greater voice in one area and a diminished voice in another. This does not mean the voice is not authoritative but that the voice is in conversation with other authoritative voices and the community in order to discern Wisdom, Beauty, Grace, Justice and Truth. 

This is why the Bible is not the Ultimate Authority for me. It is one member of the community of authority that guides and directs me. At times it has more weight than others, but even the Bible can be vetoed by other voices of the community (Jesus vetoed some of the way the Biblical tradition was understood).