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Authority to Teach

When talking with other Christians, Catholics often find themselves discussing various interpretations of specific Scripture passages, many of which can be agreed upon as allowable interpretations, but many others about which the parties must remain at odds. Intelligent, sincere, non-Catholic Christians have studied the Bible and listened to enough Bible teaching to genuinely believe that their interpretations are correct and to be unconvinced of any flaw in their understanding. No two people in conversation about Scripture will see eye to eye on everything.

Has the interpretation of Scripture always been an issue? Was it a problem in the earliest days of Christianity? In fact, even during the apostolic era there was concern about misguided interpretations of Scripture. Peter wrote, “There are some things in them [Paul’s letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16). He went on to warn Christians, “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability” (2 Pet. 3:17).

How were early Christians to know who was teaching the truth? Was there a way to discern who was teaching Christ’s truth and who was not? There was.

Sent by Christ

Jesus gave certain followers the authority to teach. The early Christians knew they could trust Peter’s teaching because he was one of Jesus’ apostles. The word apostle comes from the Greek word apostolos, which denotes one who is sent as a messenger. Early Christians recognized that the apostles were sent by Christ and endowed with the authority to teach in his name.

At the Last Supper, Jesus promised the apostles that the Father “will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever . . . the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. . . . He will guide you into all the truth” (John 14:16, 26; 16:13).

Before his ascension, Jesus instructed the apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20).

False Teachers among You

Peter taught that “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:20–21) and went on to warn about those who taught without authority: “There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1).

Paul instructed, “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), and “If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:14–15).

The letter to the Hebrews states, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited their adherents” (Heb. 13:7–9). It goes on, “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17).

The apostles had authority to teach, and they warned Christians to follow only those teachings and to beware of those without it. Scripture even provides evidence that the early Christians recognized the apostles’ authority. Paul wrote, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2).

But what happened after the apostles were gone? To whom did the authority to teach pass? Was it open to anyone who knew Scripture or had a teaching credential or a theology degree? How were later Christians to determine who was teaching the fullness of the truth?

The Laying On of Hands

Scripture indicates that the apostles endowed bishops and elders with their special authority to teach. We see the earliest evidence of the apostles conferring authority in the account of the appointing of Judas’s replacement:

“For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘His office let another take.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:20–26)

In his first letter to Timothy, a bishop—in which Paul calls the Church “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15)—he instructs him, “Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:13–16).

It is obvious to Catholics that Paul was speaking of Timothy’s ordination, through which he received the sacrament of holy orders. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

No one can give himself the mandate and the mission to proclaim the gospel. The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority but by virtue of Christ’s authority; not as a member of the community but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered. This fact presupposes ministers of grace, authorized and empowered by Christ. From him, bishops and priests receive the mission and faculty (“the sacred power”) to act in persona Christi Capitis; deacons receive the strength to serve the people of God in the diaconia of liturgy, word, and charity, in communion with the bishop and his presbyterate. The ministry in which Christ’s emissaries do and give by God’s grace what they cannot do and give by their own powers is called a “sacrament” by the Church’s tradition. Indeed, the ministry of the Church is conferred by a special sacrament. (CCC 875)

After this the apostles went on to appoint others: “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed” (Acts 14:23).

Paul’s writings provide early evidence that at least some of those appointed by the apostles had authority to go on and appoint still others. To Timothy he wrote, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). And to Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Ti. 1:5).

The Successors to the Apostles

Not all teachers are worthy of our confidence. Only the successors of the apostles, through the sacrament of holy orders, can be trusted in their teaching authority and interpretation of Scripture. The Church Fathers were mostly bishops, and every pope’s succession can be traced back to Peter. Quoting the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism speaks to the importance of apostolic authority in Catholic teaching:

“The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the bishop of Rome. (CCC 85; cf. Dei Verbum 10)

How reassuring it is to know that even today our teachers are successors of the apostles, with God-given authority! How much easier this makes it to let go of misguided Scripture interpretations and to embrace the truth that Jesus wanted all of us to know: the fullness of the Catholic faith.

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