"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

To Which Leaders Should We Submit and Obey?

"Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account." (Hebrews 13:17)
If that verse meant that members of each denomination should obey and submit to the leaders of their denomination, full visible unity would be quite impossible unless the leaders of all denominations united within one institution. Not only that, but members of schisms and heretical sects could not justifiably leave their schism or sect if their leader instructed them that they should not do so.

A few years ago, while I was still an Anglican, a Catholic friend of mine asked me why I was not in full communion with Peter's successor. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote in reply:
I'm not convinced yet, that the bishop of Rome is Christ's Vicar. I don't deny it, I just don't know whether it is true. Not only that, what is worse is that I'm not sure how I can become convinced of it. My starting position (the position I'm in right now), is as one outside the Roman church. So, by default, I don't view the authority of the bishop of Rome to be any greater than that of any other bishop. So, if the bishop of Rome tells me that he is Christ's Vicar, and my present bishop tells me (which he does) that the bishop of Rome is not Christ's vicar, but merely another bishop, then to whom should I submit? It's an intellectual quandary. In order to submit to the bishop of Rome on this matter and not submit to the teaching of my present bishop, I must already believe that the bishop of Rome is Christ's Vicar. But I'm not yet convinced of that, so as yet I have no reason to submit to him over any other bishop. But in order to be obedient to my present bishop, I must not submit to the bishop of Rome. So, I'm caught in this logical circle. Scripture does not help me here, because the relevant passages are not explicit enough to convince me that the Roman position is being taught.
My friend replied that Jesus would not have left us without a way of determining who is the true ecclesial authority. He pointed out that theoretically there are essentially four ways in which Christ could have installed His authority in the Church. Christ could have left His authority:

(a) to a single individual immediately and mediately to his direct individual successors over time;

(b) with a single individual (and his personal successors) as the leader of a conjointly authoritative group of teachers/preachers;

(c) with an undifferentiated (leaderless) group of leaders, to be passed on to their personal successor leaders; etc.

(d) to a group of leaders and their successors who, once that authority was inscripturated, ceased to have any special role, and Christ's authority after the Apostolic era resides solely in the Book as interpreted by the individual under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

He then proceeded to evaluate these four possibilities, mostly from a philosophical point of view. I knew enough already to know that it was either (b) or (c), but I wasn't persuaded by his argument for (b), in part because I needed more than philosophical argumentation for such a question. But our exchange prompted me to start studying the fathers and early Church history to see for myself which of the four theses would be found there. That research led me to see that the fathers believed that Christ gave authoritative primacy to Peter (see here for some fruit of that research), which, along with their belief in Apostolic succession, explained their belief in the continued primacy of Peter's episcopal successor. Over the course of a year I determined that my Anglican bishop did not have the authority that Peter's successor has. And therefore, I was freed from the "intellectual quandary" I had described to my friend the previous year. Peter's successor was the leader to whom I must "submit" and "obey" (Heb 13:17), not my Anglican bishop who rejected the authority of Peter's successor. I knew then that I had to become Catholic. When my wife and my two daughters and I were received into full communion with the Catholic Church by the Catholic bishop, my Catholic friend was there by my side as my sponsor.

As an ecumenical exercise ask yourself the following question: Who has more ecclesial authority, your present pastor/priest/bishop/denomination, or the successor of Peter, and why?

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