The Tangled Web of Protestant Authority

Andrew did a very comprehensive post on the Kingdom of God a while ago and I wanted to jump off from his fifth point:

5. As the last point implies, the clergy, which share the fallibility of the church, were instituted to have slightly more authority (and therefore responsibility) than the lay, but can ultimately be corrected by laypersons on the basis of what the apostles taught.

Sounds straightforward and, in theory I am sure that it is sound. The sticking points come, and I think Andrew would agree, comes when we try to implement something like this in practice. How do we know when the laity needs to correct the clergy? What is a doctrinally essential, and on what can we agree to disagree?

Here’s a great sticking point all by itself, I mean, what some consider doctrinally essential others don’t even have a doctrine on. Some battles which the church has long considered over are now being refought (google “oneness pentecostalism” if you doubt me). So when does the laity step up, appeal to the apostles/scripture to correct those in authority.

The reality for most Protestants is that we do not have an episcopal system where one can go to the bishop or some statement by the leader of the denomination if one thinks that there is a problem. So on what basis do Protestants make an attempt to correct the clergy? Their own personal interpretation of the Bible? Appeal to some creed or other document of the faith? A book by a popular Christian author? YouTube clips?

If we grant that the pastor in this scenario isn’t totally incompetent, it should be fair to assume that most of what a layperson would bring up should be on the pastor’s radar (well, maybe not YouTube clips). So what if the pastor says, “oh yeah, I know about that, but on the basis of this and this I think you’ve misinterpreted it” to the concerned layperson?

The stock answer at this point – at least since Luther – is to insist on going back to the Bible itself. This seems like a good idea, but in practice many of the topics that people find contentious in the church are found contentious because there are differing interpretations or apparent differences in what the texts say. So back to the exegetes we go, what does all this mean? And now it’s just a contest over which theologian one prefers without some kind of authoritative rendering that might clarify things.