Because, they reply, they are pastors of the church and have been consecrated by the Lord-Jean Calvin
This little gem is a piece of Calvin’s argument to the King of France in the beginning of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He had left his home country of France during the Reformation. There were those in the Roman Church who would have had his head. His argument to the King was that the authority of the Roman Church was self-imposed. There was no real authority, especially from any apostolic source, and very clearly not from the Holy Scriptures. Notice the way that he colors their claims. “They reply, they are pastors of the church and have been consecrated by the Lord.”
It’s actually a common claim by many self-described authorities in church. In fact, we can definitely say that the Holy Scriptures do give some people authority in the church and commands us to submit to them.
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17, ESV)
The problem that we run into sometimes is this; not all of them actually hold real authority. Sometimes they are fakes, counterfeits, and play-actors.
Sure enough, just because a pastor, elder, or deacon is elected, appointed, or a self-described leader, doesn’t necessarily mean he (or she) is legitimate. To say someone is a thing is not the same as being that thing. In fact, to say that they ought to be a thing does not mean that they are that thing.
A person may say they are a racecar driver, but if they have never participated in a race at a racetrack then they are not a racecar driver. They may even drive cars, everyday, near a racetrack. If they never drive a real racecar on a real racetrack then they are not a racecar driver. They may even have a cool jacket or a helmet; they may have gone to Richard Petty’s driving school at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s still true that if they have never raced a racecar on a racetrack then they are not a racecar driver. Ontologically speaking, even if a person was hired by a racing team to drive racecars, until they actually race a car on a racetrack, they are not a racecar driver.
The same is true for the authorities in the church. A pastor or elder may have all of the so-called qualifications of a pastor, but those things do not make him one. They may say that they’ve been called. They may have been to Bible college and/or seminary. They may have even ‘pastored’ other churches. None of those things make them a pastor or cause them to have any real authority.
Now if you buy all of that, I’ve presented you with a real problem. How can you know if the person in the pulpit is actually who he says? Maybe more importantly, can you know?
Well I think Calvin knew. He indicated pretty clearly, as did Luther in his writings, that the priests all the way up to the papacy were illegitimate in their claims of authority in the Roman Church, and let the weight of their stance against them be felt. The Roman Church was the Church. There was no alternative. They did not have the option of the Baptist church down the road. To not be a part of the Roman Church was to not be a part of the Church. Yet they said about those authorities…
Hilary considered it a great vice in his day that, being occupied with foolish reverence for the episcopal dignity, men did not realize what a deadly hydra lurked under such a mask.-Calvin
Luther was a bit more abrasive…
You are desperate, thorough arch-rascals, murderers, traitors, liars, the very scum of all the most evil people on earth. You are full of all the worst devils in hell – full, full, and so full that you can do nothing but vomit, throw, and blow out devils! -Luther
Now, with these two quotes we get a glimpse of how important Luther and Calvin considered recognizing real authority. We can also see that when the two Reformers saw a fake, they held very few punches. There is no question that in the end, the two men held no reservations about resisting and publically denying so-called authority.
How did they do it though? How did they pick out the fakes? How can we discern real authority from an imposter?
First, there is the Word. The Scriptures are clear that God’s men who yield authority over his church must meet certain criteria before they can be considered.
“For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:7–9, ESV)
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” (1 Timothy 3:1–7, ESV)
If the person who claims authority in church doesn’t meet this requirement, and I realize that there are interpretive issues with some of these points, then they are not an authority. It’s plain and simple. However you interpret these criteria, there are no exceptions in view.
But the fact is that just because a person may meet these requirement, (vis-à-vis: racing helmet, jacket, drives a car), they are not necessarily a pastor/elder, therefore they may not be a real authority.
What is the missing piece? What is it that must be added to these things that give a person proper or legitimate authority in a church? Real authority is that authority that is bestowed by the ultimate authority. God gives that authority to pastor/elders. They are the teachers and the shepherds of the flock of Christ. They are called by God and empowered by God. How can we know this?
Calvin said that there are “two things that are prerequisite to someone who would be heard; that they are called by God and faithful to fulfill his duties.”
It’s not so easy to discern whether someone is actually called. It is an ambiguous concept to us, and it is difficult to see or hear calling. It’s not something that can necessarily be determined through the senses, per se. That is not to say that it can’t be determined, and I don’t mean to indicate that calling is so ambiguous that in time, it can’t be examined, considered, and judged.
I believe that Calvin unlocked the way to find the evidence of true calling in the second half of his statement, the one who would be heard must “fulfill his duties”. One can look for evidence over a long period of time and determine whether a pastor/elder has been called, by whether or not they are fulfilling their duties. What are those duties and how do they relate to calling? Before we look at that, I would like to say one thing.
I don’t believe that if a young pastor is not fulfilling these duties to the letter that he hasn’t necessarily been called to be a pastor. He may merely need mentoring or to be the disciple of another pastor or elder. What a failure to fulfill these duties does indicate is a failure to understand ones call, and if a pastor/elder has shown a long history of failure in many of these duties, and if they show no desire to repent of their failure, then there is a good possibility that they are not called. That would certainly indicate that they hold their position illegitimately and therefore hold no actual authority in the church.
(to be continued)
 Calvin, J. (2011). Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. (F. L. Battles, Trans., J. T. McNeill, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 26). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
 Calvin, J. (2011). Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. (F. L. Battles, Trans., J. T. McNeill, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 25). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.