Friday, August 26, 2011

Three Levels of Church Authority

On Wednesday I posted on Deconstructing Faith in A Safe Environment, which reminded me of George Patterson's "Three Levels of Church Authority" that I learned about during my time in seminary. I have always found this helpful for discussions such as I described in my last post and thought that it would be worth sharing with you all here for your own faith discussions. So here it is: 
This document may be freely translated, copied, and published in any language and any country. It must carry the following copyright statement.
Copyright © 2002 by George Patterson
To differentiate between New Testament commands, apostolic practices and human customs has proven over the years to be most helpful, for settling church disputes, for ascertaining the level of authority for a church activity, and for making plans and establishing priorities. The method is a simple one.

The FIRST level of authority is New Testament commands. We must obey them and must not hinder others doing them. These include Jesus' commands, which are foundational, and those of the apostles written in their epistles. These build on Jesus’ commands and are for Christians who are already under pastoral care in a church. The basic commands of Jesus, which were being obeyed by the 3000 new believers in Acts chapter 2 in their most basic form, include:
Repent, believe, and receive the Holy Spirit. Be baptized. Break bread. Love God, neighbor, fellow disciples, enemy (forgive). Pray.
Give. Make disciples (witness, shepherd, teach)

The SECOND level is apostolic practices that were not commanded. We must not make universal laws of these, nor prohibit others' doing them. They include:
Baptizing immediately. Using one cup in the Eucharist. Fasting. Worshipping on Sunday. Speaking in tongues. Naming several elders to shepherd a church. Etc.

The THIRD level is Human traditions not mentioned in the New Testament. We can take them or leave them, and we can prohibit them if they hinder obedience to New Testament commands. We must not force our own traditions and customs on other churches. Most traditions are good, and some are necessary for good church order. They include:
Non-biblical requirements for ordination, officiating the Eucharist, baptism, church membership.
Sunday School structure. Wearing robes in the pulpit, not wearing robes in the pulpit. The pulpit. Prohibition against using wine in moderation. Democratic processes in church business meetings. Episcopalian hierarchy, etc.


  1. I think we have found the topic for our next discussion :)

    While it would certainly be profitable and enjoyable to discuss theological issues such as the Real Presence, Eternal Security, and such, all of these discussions on doctrine and practice ultimately go back to a discussion of authority and the nature of the Church.

    I think that many Protestant Christians could read George Patterson's document and wholeheartedly agree. It probably makes a lot of sense in the context of your view on these matters.

    I, on the other hand, read your post as I am wont to do in the morning (I don't drink a morning coffee to wake up--I just check my friends' blogs!) and my head started spinning with thoughts. There are several presuppositions to Mr. Patterson's document which I would disagree with, and which would obviously have major implications for how we would approach these types of discussions, so it might be profitable and even fun to engage this next time we meet my friend.

    I will put my thoughts down on paper and share them, either on my blog, or with you privately, depending on how much I can prepare given my time constraints. If you have any other articles or essays that you want to send my way, feel free to.

  2. Matthew - Hope you don't mind me jumping into the discussion for a bit, that is, if it takes flight. Since my field is theological ethics, I am interested in the notion of "command(s)", especially what Patterson outright reads as command(s) of Jesus. Do you agree with Patterson that repentance, belief, receiving the Holy Spirit, baptism, breaking bread, praying, giving, anthropological-soteriological witness are actual "commands".

    If so, why? And on what basis can Patterson, you, I and/or any other make this claim?

  3. Fr. Anastasios Hudson, I would love to engage with you more on this, I actually meant to bring it up in our conversation at the Ale House, but got lost somewhere. There are also different ways to describe these three levels of authority, but this is one of the best clearly written out documents that I am aware of. Also, feel free to interact in whatever way that time allows whether that be via blog or in person. Look forward to it either way!

  4. Ben, would love to have you jump in this conversation and any as I believe you have a voice that needs to be heard. I consider you as someone with more maturity and wisdom, therefore I respect your input.

    Based on the reading of Acts 2 and numerous other passages that are pointed to in that passage then yes, I would agree with Patterson in that Level 1 are NT Commands. Now whether you want to nuance the meaning of the word "command" then we can, but I believe that what we read in Acts 2 is not necessarily descriptive or prescriptive. Some would say neither, but rather as a church planting friend of mine commented that it is a snapshot of what it looks lik when Jesus Christ is truly Lord.

    To answer on what basis? Because direct biblical commands are always right regardless of cultural content. Overall hermeneutics is key here when dealing with really all three levels, but especially the first and second level. It is not by my authority, Patterson's authority, or your authority that any of us can make this claim, but by the authority of Christ and the Bible.

    I understand that this may not be entirely what you are looking for, but enjoy the dialogue either way and I would love to hear more of your thoughts on the topic, including where you were, where you are, and how you got there?

  5. Let me further clarify. My question is not whether there are commands (regardless of how one may or may not nuance the term "command") in the NT, but rather if Patterson's list [• Repent, believe, and receive the Holy Spirit. • Be baptized. • Break bread. • Love God, neighbor, fellow disciples, enemy (forgive). • Pray.• Give. • Make disciples (witness, shepherd, teach)] are the commands of Jesus and the NT writers.

    If it is by authority of Christ and the entire bible then what in Scripture is not a command? If one's hermeneutic is that the bible is God's revelation and not a book containing God's revelation then one would (at least in my understanding) 'HAVE' to hold to the notion that the bible is actually God's Word; and thus, every bit of it is a call in which the reader is being called to respond.

    So I am more interested in what constitutes something as a command in the universal and/or particular sense? Is 'belief' for instance (since it is one of the first in Patterson's list) a "command"?

  6. First, I feel like this is a loaded question that could continue on for a long time and maybe should because it has for many years with many groups of people. There are other ways of looking at these similar lists without calling them "commands". A more simplified version, which I am sure you are aware of, but maybe not my Orthodox friend, would be open and closed handed issues. List one would be issues that are closed handed, non-negotiable, whereas list two and three would be more open handed in the sense of how they are actually practiced based on "practices, customs, and traditions."

    Second, as far as what would not be a command we could look back to the Old Testament, which was not included on Patterson's list, because we are no longer under its law, otherwise we would stone people to death for doing things such as gathering firewood on a Saturday afternoon. These "first level" issues would be always looked at as right or wrong regardless of who you are and where you are culturally. For example, in moving to South Asia if a Hindu wants to come to Christ in belief of Him, but does not want to repent of their many gods, but only add Jesus to the mix, then this person has not truly followed what is modeled "commanded" in Scripture because there has not been true repentance. Rather what has happend here is syncretism, not repentance.

    So then, what would constitue a command would be those things that we see Christ telling his followers to do in obedience such as those in list one, which is what makes them "level one". The reason "level two" would not be considered a command, although in Scripture would be because the practice may have taken place in the New Testament, but not in a consistent form. For example, we see some things in Scripture that the Apostles did that would not be considered the norm based on the inconsistency of the practice and the lack of it as a "command" from Christ.

    Third, what would constitute something as a universal and/or particular command would be based on once again how we see it modeled by Christ and through the Apostles in Scripture as something as a "must" or "non-negotiable" or "command". Level one would be the only level that could be universal because it is something that does not change based on location or culture, whereas level one and two are more flexible.

    Belief for instance as listed on Patterson's list would be a command as we see in places like Romans 16:26, "but now has been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith." In other words all who are obedient to this command of faith, which includes belief, will be saved.