One Sunday many years ago I was standing in my pulpit preparing to preach. I had done my homework, spending nearly ten hours in prayer, study and exegesis, consulting all the best books on my shelf, so that what I would proclaim to this flock to which I had been ordained to shepherd would be true. My flock trusted me for this.
And I knew that I was expected both by them and by God to proclaim truth: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mk 9.42) I knew that as their pastor I was eternally responsible for what I preached.
As I stood there in my black academic gown covering my otherwise business attire of white shirt and tie ready to read the Scripture text from the recently approved Common Lectionary, it struck me that within a fifteen-mile radius of my pulpit were literally 20-30 other churches with similar pulpits manned by similarly ordained men and women all ready to read the same text. What paralyzed me was the realization that though we all believed that the Bible was sufficient for leading us into all truth and that we were each responsible before God for what we preached, we were each teaching different, even contradictory things. Which of us was right? Which of us if any would one day hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Mt 25.21a)
One of the many questions that crossed my mind that morning and in the weeks to follow was, by what authority did I or the rest of my neighboring preachers have to stand before our congregations and preach anyway? This is a very valid question for all ministers to ponder for even our Lord was challenged by this question by the rightly ordained religious leaders of His day: “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Mk 11.28) Can just anyone declare that they have a calling from God, set up a pulpit, start a Church, and preach? This happens today all the time especially here in America. By what authority do these self-proclaimed preachers preach? And to what extent do they truly represent Christ?
Originally ordained a Congregationalist minister, I pointed with great self-assurance to the following words of Christ to justify my independence and freedom to start churches without any permission from any earthly authority: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18.20) But is this what Jesus truly meant? Does this fit with the context of the rest of His instructions to his hand-chosen core of apostles who were to establish the Church once He was gone?
In Romans 10.13-15, the Apostle Paul gives a clear description of the preaching office and the authority behind it:
For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without a preacher?
And how can men preach unless they are sent?
Paul emphasizes very clearly the necessity of being sent for the authenticity of the preacher and his preaching. This was a critical warning because already within the lives of these first generation Christians there were false teachers spreading half-truths, misleading the brethren. Paul exclaims: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. . .. If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” (Gal 1.6-9)
Where did Paul get his authority to preach and to declare that His gospel was the true one? Paul claimed later in Galatians that he had not received the gospel he preached from men but directly by revelation (1.12). But how was he or his followers to know that what he was preaching was true?! Can just anyone claim that he has had a revelation from God, that he has finally after all these centuries received from the Holy Spirit the Truth, and therefore begin preaching and start his own church? This has been done over and over again throughout the history of the Church, especially in the last 200 years.
Paul confirmed the authority and authenticity behind his preaching by pointing to the fact that he had visited with Cephas (Peter) alone for fifteen days and then later received the right hand of fellowship (spiritual unity) from the rest of the apostles, confirming his calling to preach the gospel to the uncircumcised. (Gal 1.18-2.10)
How can one know today whether the gospel he is preaching is the true gospel? I came to realize through personal experience how easy it is for a busy Protestant pastor to become deluded into thinking that he is preaching and teaching the truth. In seminary I was taught a method for preparing sermons. Before I consulted with the commentaries, I was to first do my own exegesis and language studies. Then once I had determined for myself what I thought the text was teaching, I was to check my conclusions with other commentators. But then one day as I was perusing my wall of commentaries I realized that my collection was very selective, hand picked by moi. They consisted of all the best evangelical writers with whom I already agreed. In essence, when I checked my commentaries I was really only checking my conclusions against my own presuppositions. And even when I took the time to consult commentators of other persuasions, I generally rejected out-of-hand any comments that differed from the consensus of the authors residing in majority on my shelves. There was little chance in my busy schedule that I might discover that my limited evangelical North American Presbyterian presuppositions were in fact only a mere whisper in the great cacophony of opinions that exist in modern Christendom.
Many claim they are preaching what the Bible says, yet are blind to the fact that what they are preaching contradicts what others are preaching right across the street with the same self-assurance of Biblical accuracy. Others know this very well but somehow think it doesn’t matter. Paul warned of confused days ahead, which sound very much like the day in which we live. He instructed Timothy, his hand chosen apostle, ordained to carry on the preaching of the gospel:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itchy ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4.1-5)
Where did Timothy get his authority to preach? How was he to know that what he preached was true? In both letters, Paul reminded Timothy of the source of his authority and assurance:
Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you. (1 Tim 4.14)
Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands… (2 Tim 1.6)
Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. (2 Tim 1.13-14)
Lest anyone presume that with merely the Holy Spirit and the Bible they have the authority to preach, this is no where found here. First of all, Paul and Timothy had no written New Testament—only the Old Testament Scriptures and the Apostolic deposit of faith passed orally from Jesus to his Apostles and then on to their hand chosen successors. This is clearly seen in Paul’s instructions to those under him. What they were to preach was to be in line with what they had been taught by Paul:
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thess 2.15)
He then instructed the men under him, whom he had personally chosen and ordained, to continue this practice to ensure the accurate proclamation of the gospel into the future:
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2.2)
This understanding of the necessary authority to preach through the apostolic succession of laying on of hands was well understood and accepted in the Early Church.
It took about four years after my reception into the Catholic Church to fully realize the personal implications of this. I was attending the ordination of a close friend to the permanent deaconate. While our bishop was preaching, explaining the origins of the deaconate, he explained that during the first few centuries of the Church, especially during the days of intense persecution, the differences between bishops and local parish priests were sometimes indiscernible. This was the result of being scattered and at times hidden for fear of detection. However, there was always one clear distinction which set bishops apart from priests and deacons: only the bishop had the authority to ordain. Only the bishop had the authority to lay hands on a man to give him the authority to preach.
I was struck to the quick. By whose authority did the men who laid their hands on me ordain me? By whom were they sent to then send me? I realized that they had no more authority to ordain me then the man in the moon.
When the Reformers took it upon themselves to throw out the 15-century-old tradition of the priesthood, which in fact was only the continuation of the Levitical priesthood as redefined by Christ, they threw havoc into the Church. For this reason, when St. Francis de Sales began his work of trying to bring home those in Geneva who had been enticed away from the Catholic Church into Calvinism, he began by distributing a pamphlet door-to-door pointing out that the Reformers and the preachers they had ordained had no authority to preach their new gospel. Hear his words in this first pamphlet, written with love around the year 1594:
First, then your ministers had not the conditions required for the position which they sought to maintain, and the enterprise which they undertook. Wherefore they are inexcusable; and you yourselves also, who knew and still know or ought to know, this defect in them, have done very wrong in receiving them under such colours. The office they claimed was that of ambassadors of Jesus Christ Our Lord; the affair they undertook was to declare a formal divorce between Our Lord and the ancient Church his Spouse; to arrange and conclude by words of present consent, as lawful procurators, a second and new marriage with this young madam, of better grace, said they, and more seemly than the other. For in effect, to stand up as preacher of God’s Word and pastor of souls,—what is it but to call oneself ambassador and legate of Our Lord, according to that of the Apostle: We are therefore ambassadors for Christ? And to say that the whole of Christendom has failed, that the whole Church has erred, and all truth disappeared,—what is this but to say that Our Lord has abandoned his Church, has broken the sacred tie of marriage he had contracted with her? And to put forward a new Church,–is it not to attempt to thrust upon this sacred and holy Husband a second wife? This is what the ministers of the pretended church have undertaken; this is what they boast of having done; this has been the aim of their discourses, their designs, their writings. But what an injustice have you not committed in believing them? How did you come to take their word so simply? How did you so lightly give them credit?
To be legates and ambassadors they should have been sent, they should have had letters of credit from him whom they boasted of being sent by. The affairs were of the greatest importance, for there was question of disturbing the whole Church. The persons who undertook them were extraordinaries, of mean quality, and private persons; while the ordinary pastors were men of mark, and of most ancient and acknowledged reputation, who contradicted them and protested that these extraordinaries had no charge nor commandment of the Master. Tell me, what business had you to hear them and believe them without having any assurance of their commission and of the approval of Our Lord, whose legates they called themselves? In a word, you have no justification for having quitted the ancient Church in which you were baptized, on the faith of preachers who had no legitimate mission from the Master.
Now you cannot be ignorant that they neither had, nor have, in any way at all, this mission. For if Our Lord had sent them, it would have been either mediately or immediately. We say mission is given mediately when we are sent by one who has from God the power of sending, according to the order which he has appointed in his Church; and such was the mission of St. Denis into France by Clement and of Timothy by St. Paul. Immediate mission is when God himself commands and gives a charge, without the interposition of the ordinary authority which he has placed in the prelates and pastors of the Church: as St. Peter and the Apostles were sent, receiving from Our Lord’s own mouth this commandment: Go ye into the whole world, and preach the Gospel to every creature; (Mark 16.15) and as Moses received his mission to Pharaoh and to the people of Israel. But neither in the one nor in the other way have your ministers any mission. How then have they undertaken to preach? How shall they preach, says the Apostle, unless they be sent. (The Catholic Controversy, TAN Books, 1989; pg. 11-13)
I, too, write this in love. Not to merely disclaim the authority of non-Catholic ministers to preach, but to challenge them to examine the authority behind their preaching and ordination. Have you presumed something you shouldn’t have? Have you taken upon yourself an unwarranted responsibility for which you will be eternally responsible? I am one who found himself in this position and recognized that, although God had faithfully blessed and used my meager efforts, I had no authority to consider myself an ordained ambassador of Christ. I had misused those passages from 2 Corinthians 5 to claim something for myself which I had no right to claim. I pray that God will forgive me for this presumption and that He will lead those of you still caught in this presumption to hear the fullness of the truth and come home to His Church.