Authority in the Church: The Gospel of Matthew

In my NT class this week we discussed the Gospel of Matthew, the ecclesial Gospel, which alone amongst the four Gospels actually uses the word “ekklesia,” or Church. We had some interesting discussions about the nature and exercise of authority in the Church and students are often surprised about what is said (and what is not said) about the authority of Church leaders in the Gospel. Matthew is more concerned with the passing of the authority of Jesus to the apostles (though he only uses the word apostle once in Matthew 10:2) and to the establishment of the Church and its moral teachings and practical behavior than any other Gospel. Though,  truth be told, the other Gospels are more concerned with the Church, even if the word is not used, than much scholarship would indicate.  Yet, the Gospel of Matthew does focus to a greater degree on establishing Jesus’ apostles and disciples in the continuation of his mission and authority. Authority, though, is a tricky business, perhaps in every rightful manifestation of it, parental, governmental and otherwise, but especially in the exercise of it in the Church. In the ecclesial setting, authority is certainly and properly vested in the clergy, which has developed naturally since the 1st century, but of what does this authority consist and how should it be exercised? In answering these questions here, I will only look at the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus’ divine kingship is fully expressed in Matthew’s Infancy Narrative (Matthew 1-2), the fulfillment of Jewish hopes as Matthew indicates numerous times with the use of the “fulfillment formula” to indicate that prophecies long awaited were now finding their completion. Most compelling for the establishment of Jesus’ own authority is Matthew’s telling in the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus relationship to the Torah given by God:  "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (5:17-19). At one level, the disciples of Jesus are clearly being told that the Law of Moses must be followed; on the other hand, Jesus himself is the one who “fulfills” that Law. Jesus was accused of detracting from the Law, but here he proclaims that his task is not to detract, but to fulfill and bring the Law to completion. This is a “messianic completion”, the definitive revelation to his followers. In this sense, Jesus’ disciples follow the Messianic Torah by virtue of following the one who fulfills the Law.


It is explained by the “Antitheses” in 5:21-48. In each case, Jesus states, “you have heard that it was said…but I say to you;” Jesus is speaking not of what you “heard” at the market, but what you “heard” in God’s own law. He expresses his authority by stating simply “but I say to you,” indicating his authority even over the Law of Moses. One thing I must stress: this moral code that Jesus presents is not to be identified with a “pragmatic” norm – do your best, give it a try – or a “feel good” morality. This is a code, a covenant, dealing with the self-revelation of the Messiah. It retrieves the Law of Moses and brings it to completion. Opposition to Jesus from his opponents often seems to derive from the fact that they had closed themselves off in advance from the element of the new, the unforeseen, and the unexpected in the workings of God. There are constant problems, inherent in fallen humanity, which create a chronic threat to our relationship with God, even when we have and know the Law: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). This is the deep problem Jesus addresses.  If you become so assured that your situation is self-sufficient and that you lack nothing for salvation, then you forget the need to rely constantly on God and the need for constant repentance. This is not an easy path, but it is the path Jesus set for his followers. In the case of each antithesis Jesus has made the Law more demanding, not easier or simpler. But how can this be? What does Jesus expect from his followers? Lying behind Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and our struggle to measure up is the reality that the disciple has been transformed. Ezekiel 36:26-27 looks forward to this new reality: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” The one who follows Jesus must be a changed person.

The need for transformation is, obviously, no less the case for those whom Jesus sets in positions of authority, yet it is precisely amongst those with power that the dangers of spiritual self-reliance can become problematic. Apart from choosing and sending out the Twelve to share in and continue his ministry, Jesus appoints Peter and the Twelve for roles of authority amongst his followers.  Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that identified Jesus as the Messiah was met with Jesus’ identification of Peter as “the rock” upon whom the Church would be built (Matthew 16:13-20). The historicity of this event has been challenged by many scholars, but there is no question that Peter received his nickname from Jesus, as all four Gospels attest, and that he was accepted amongst the apostles as their leader. He is given the power to bind and to loose, which are generally understood as judicial terms which mean to “forbid” and to “allow.” They express the teaching and judicial authority of Peter and the Church. The same terms appear again in 18:18, in the Church Discourse, where they seem to be directed at the Twelve disciples as a whole and suggest the judicial and teaching authority of the disciples as a group. Yet, the Church Discourse (Matthew 18:1-35) has more things to say about the limitations and constraints of proper ecclesial authority in its proper exercise than its power.

First, the disciples are told to become “humble like this child” (18:4), to transform themselves and “become like children” (18:3), and then to welcome actual children with care and kindness (18:5-14). A large portion of the chapter, therefore, focuses on becoming like the weak and vulnerable and welcoming the weak and vulnerable. At this point, issues of discipline are raised by Jesus and the processes for the Church to discipline other members are discussed. The issues of discipline, though, are leavened with a radical parable of forgiveness in which Jesus explains the absurd mercy of God. In this parable a slave owes 10,000 talents to his master – one talent was the equivalent of 15 years wages – and he begs to be forgiven by the master, claiming he would pay it all back. The master agrees to forgive the debt, but when he finds that the forgiven slave refuses to forgive a much lesser debt of another slave, “his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt” (18:34). What is clear from this chapter is that the authority of the Church is to be tempered with humility, offered gently and with forgiveness always in mind where there has been wrongdoing and repentance.

As Jesus prepares his disciples for his Passion, he continues to instruct them in the exercise of their authority. Just as in Mark 10, those who are to rule in the Church, rule as servants, following the model of Jesus himself: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28). In the midst of his criticisms of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, Jesus contrasts the manner in which the authority of his followers can be made manifest:  “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:6-11). The leaders in the Church are all students of Jesus himself; their authority only resides in their willingness to follow the one teacher, the one instructor, the one Father. Matthew 10:24-25 furthers this thought, stating that "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” Authority in the Church, that is, rests not precisely in the position, but in the willingness of the ones in these positions to model themselves on Jesus Christ.

A final warning to the leaders of the Church comes in Matthew 24:45-51. In its present form the parable most certainly is taking account of the (supposed) delay in the return of Jesus and offers frank advice to those in charge of the Church:

"Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked slave says to himself, "My master is delayed,' and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24:45-51)

The parable assumes the practice of the masters of large estates in the ancient world, who left the day to day operations in the hands of trusted slaves (Greek: oikonomos; Latin: vilicus), but transferred to the realm of the administration of the Church. Those who run the Church in the physical absence of Jesus have a weighty responsibility. Those who take advantage of their fellow Christians will, in Matthew’s evocative language, be “cut…in pieces” at the time of Judgment. True leadership and true authority in the Church, as Matthew makes clear, is service to all those in need and always dependent upon the model and the authority of Jesus himself (cf. also 25:31-46). Genuine authority is derived from Jesus himself and is essential to the organization and operation of the Church, “but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26).

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

So what does it matter what a celibate woman thinks about contraception?
Helena BurnsJuly 20, 2018
Former US President Barack Obama gestures to the crowd, during an event in Kogelo, Kisumu, Kenya, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo Brian Inganga)
In Johannesburg, Obama gave what some commentators consider his most important speech since he vacated the Oval Office.
Anthony EganJuly 20, 2018
With his "Mass," Leonard Bernstein uses liturgy to give voice to political unease.
Kevin McCabeJuly 20, 2018
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, arrives for the Jan. 6 installation Mass of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
Women often “bring up the voice of those who are the most vulnerable in our society,” says Hans Zollner, S.J., who heads the Centre for Child Protection in Rome.