Three Levels of Authority

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. This method below is a simple one. I borrowed it from George Patterson and Brian Hogan. I find it helpful in my learning journey. I hope you do too. The FIRST level of authority is New Testament commands of Jesus. 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. The basic commands of Jesus, which were being obeyed by the 3000 new believers in Acts chapter 2 in their most basic form, include:

  1. Repent, believe, and receive the Holy Spirit.
  2. Be baptized.
  3. Break bread.
  4. Love God, neighbor, fellow disciples, enemy (forgive).
  5. Pray.
  6. Give.
  7. Make disciples (witness, shepherd, teach).

The SECOND level are the things the Apostles and the early church did as an example to us which we may or may not follow depending on local circumstances. 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. Their only authority is our voluntary agreement with them. We cannot force them and we must prohibit them if they impeded obedience. They include:

  • Non-biblical requirements for ordination, officiating communion, baptism, church membership.
  • Sunday School structure.
  • Wearing robes in the pulpit, not wearing robes in the pulpit.
  • The pulpit.
  • Church Buildings.
  • Altar Calls.
  • Monologue sermons.
  • Prohibition against using wine in moderation.
  • Democratic processes in church business meetings.
  • Etc.

Copyright © 2002 by George Patterson, Shared with permission