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Nothing is more common in life than a seeming tension between the freedom of individuals and the authority of communities and their designated leaders. From individual citizens who must set aside their own desires and obey laws they think unwise, to athletes who must subordinate their individual talents to a coach’s plan that seems to undervalue their possibilities, versions of this tension confront us constantly. The problem is most intense, however, when the final authority of the community to which we belong is truly final—when that authority is the author of our being.

Thus, for example, Michael Wyschogrod writes: “Must the believing Jew sacrifice his conscience in obedience to God? Must he give up an ultimate individuality when he embraces the covenant which is more national than individual, and must he . . . reject the Kierkegaardian single one for a relation with God that is always social and in which the ultimate aloneness before God yields to the community of Israel which is ruled by law rather than conscience? . . . Perhaps conscience is the Isaac in each one of us, which, though we love, we must be prepared to offer on the altar of divine sacrifice.”

Although this may be a general problem, I will approach it as a specifically Christian question—as it works itself out within the life of the Church. The tension between freedom and authority in the Church’s life is not really a single problem, however; it is many different problems intertwined. Two questions stand out: (1) What if, when the Church teaches us how we ought to live as followers of Jesus, that teaching does not make sense to us, or even seems to destroy our chance for happiness in life? (2) Can structure shape spirit? That is, can external disciplines of the Church, which seek to form people who follow Christ, really bring us closer to free and faithful discipleship?

Beginning with Enlightenment thinkers of great importance—most obviously, Immanuel Kant—the connection of morality to the Church has become tenuous and problematic. As Bernd Wannenwetsch notes, to think of ourselves as governed or directed by oughts pronounced by an authoritative Church came to be regarded as demeaning of human freedom (heteronomous) and as too closely tied to a particular community’s way of life (insufficiently universal). Insofar as Christian thinkers have accepted that Enlightenment critique, the only role left for the Church to play in our moral life is that of motivator. The Church is needed to help motivate people to fulfill their moral duties (whose ground and authority, however, lie in reason rather than in the revelation to which the Church is appointed to witness).

But a cheerleader is not the same as an authority. Consider a realm of life other than the Church in which we encounter authority. Why should a son honor and obey his father? Suppose I say, “I follow my father’s instruction because I find his advice to be intelligent and wise.” Is this obeying my father? Acknowledging his authority? Or is it doing what I myself think wise while nodding decorously in the direction of my father?

In a short but characteristically challenging piece titled “Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle,” Søren Kierkegaard writes that “to honor one’s father because he is intelligent is impiety.” It is not the pietas a son owes his father; it is simply taking note of the fact that the father’s views reduplicate the son’s. Hence, Kierkegaard notes, it is impossible to “obey” on the basis of one’s judgment that one’s father is correct. For similar reasons, he suggests, the genius and the apostle are qualitatively different.

Consider the proposition There is eternal life. This might, Kierkegaard notes, be spoken by Christ; it might also be spoken by a theological student. Each says the same thing, and the proposition is no more profound in the mouth of one than in that of the other. “And yet there is an eternal qualitative difference between them.” The two statements do not become equal in authority simply because they are equally insightful and profound—or, for that matter, equally commonplace. Or, again, although for Christians the letters of St. Paul teach authoritatively, “as a genius St. Paul cannot be compared with either Plato or Shakespeare, as a coiner of beautiful similes he comes pretty low down in the scale, as a stylist his name is quite obscure—and as an upholsterer: Well, I frankly admit I have no idea how to place him.”

The possibility that I might be appointed to exercise apostolic authority in the Church is not dependent simply on my talents, my theological training or profundity, my feeling that this is what I ought to do—by any of the possibilities my high school guidance counselor may have discerned in me. One becomes an ­apostle only by God’s appointment and exercises ­apostolic authority for that reason alone.

If this is true, however, its implications for how we ought to live are surely troubling. The Church teaches with authority—that is, it unfolds for us the truth about a world created and redeemed by God, the whole counsel of God about how we are to live. But this teaching may sometimes or often seem more like arbitrary command than wise counsel—as, for example, when it is inadequately articulated; when it seems to leave important questions unanswered; when it does not cohere with our own best and most serious attempt to think through the matters being taught; or, perhaps most disturbing, when it seems remote from our own desires, when it seems almost unconcerned with our happiness or fulfillment in life.

And, after all, the Kierkegaard who suggested that to obey because our own judgment agrees with the Church’s teaching is not really to obey is one who elsewhere observed: “There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys; they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves.”

Our problem, then, is an intricate one. The Church both states its teaching and argues for it. Indeed, as William Werpehowski has suggested to me, we might say that to state Church teaching without also arguing for it is not sufficiently to teach. Yet the very need
to argue seems to undermine the Church’s authority to state its teaching, while simple statement without accompanying argument may not seem helpful.

I can illustrate this by noting what has often been my own experience when reading papal encyclicals. (I say this, of course, as a Lutheran, not a Roman Catholic; yet the problem might be still more intense for one obligated, in a way I am not, to give encyclicals considerable deference.) The genre of the encyclical has often seemed inadequate to me, for it states Church teaching more than it offers a rationale for that ­teaching. And, in fact, the most interesting encyclical letter I have ever read—John Paul II’s 1993 Veritatis Splendor—is interesting precisely because, unlike so many others, it offers a long and sustained moral argument. It seeks, uncharacteristically, not merely to state Church teaching but to argue for it. In so doing, however, it invites the sort of reading one is more inclined to give the genius than the apostle—it invites the observation that it is “interesting” or “worth pondering.”

Suppose we think of just a few examples from the realm of sexual and reproductive ethics, where the tension between freedom and authority in the Church’s life has often seemed quite pronounced, at least in recent years:

(a) a Christian woman who is pregnant but abandoned by the father of her child and who feels that her life will spiral out of control if she completes the pregnancy and gives birth to the child;

(b) a man, regular in church attendance, caught for years in an unhappy marriage but drawn now toward a woman at work with whom he seems to find the happiness that has been missing from his life for so long;

(c) a young Christian man drawn by a powerful desire for sexual intimacy with another man, sensing here the answer to a longing that has been buried deep within him;

(d) a married couple who desire no children—not now, not ever—feeling that the task of childrearing would divert them from the satisfactions and accomplishments they find in their work;

(e) a married couple at risk for serious genetic disease who want children but children free of that disease and who think that preimplantation genetic diagnosis—to select out and eliminate at-risk embryos—is the way to fulfill their desire for healthy children. 

The Church—when witnessing faithfully to the will of God—teaches with authority that the pregnant woman should not abort her child; that the married man should not divorce his wife and marry another whose companionship promises more happiness; that the young man drawn toward genital intimacy with another of his own sex ought not satisfy that inclination; that the married couple who deliberately want no children should learn that the bond of marriage involves a procreative task; and that the married couple who desire healthy children must understand that ­children—and, especially, children of a particular sort—are not our entitlement and that it is wrong to destroy nascent human life for eugenic reasons.

Perhaps, though, in any or all of these cases, devout believers will not understand why the Church teaches as it does or what sense the teaching makes. Perhaps, even, they will sometimes experience this teaching as a sharp blow that wounds them deeply. They may be tempted, then, to think of the Church not as an authority but, shall we say, a “moral resource” whose counsel is to be considered along with counsel from other quarters. How, in such circumstances, is the Church to teach with authority, seeking to unfold the shape of a life that follows Christ?

We should not be too quick to suppose that the Church can teach with authority only when it declares or commands, only by exercising a kind of quasi-­political authority that simply requires certain behavior as a condition of membership. There may, we must acknowledge, come a time for that sort of exercise of authority, though it will always be an occasion for regret. But the Church’s authority is exercised not only in commanding but also and first through rich and expansive teaching—in studying together the scriptural revelation, in seeking to grow in understanding, in critical reflection and analysis. This reflection must include what we might call an ecumenism of time—according to which the voices heard are not only those of our own time but also, and especially, those of the great teachers of the Church in centuries past, from whom we still seek to learn.

We begin with such reflection rather than with unadorned statement or political command for the simple—but crucial—reason that the Church not only speaks God’s word but also hears that word, is addressed by it, and is compelled to reflect on it. The Church is Christ’s Body, to be sure, but these two—Christ and his Body—are not, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, mystically fused, for Christ is also Lord over that Body.

Challenges to the Church’s teaching are not, therefore, simply denounced and rejected. Challenges are heard, examined, studied, refined—all in the hope that, even if unacceptable in many respects, they may contain a part of the truth, which can then be opened up in fuller and richer ways.

It is, though, a sine qua non of faithful, churchly reflection and thinking that, while the Church hears and examines a challenge to its teaching, none of us thinks himself free to act as if the challenge had already been accepted and approved. To live within the Church and—with a freedom given by the Holy ­Spirit—to acknowledge the Church’s authority, is something very different from being a free-floating philosopher of the moral life, answerable only to one’s own critical judgment.

At any rate, the Church seeks first to help us understand how our duty may become our delight, how the command of God does not so much tell us what we ought to do as, rather, direct us to the only kind of life that can ultimately allow us to flourish as human beings: a life lived with rather than against the grain of the universe God has created. The purpose of the Church’s reflection and teaching is that we may come to see and believe that God’s command does not destroy us but perfects and completes us. There are, of course, mysteries—at times painful ones—hidden within that perfecting.

“This is,” as Josef Pieper once wrote, “one of those concepts which probably can never be known and defined before it is experienced. It is simply in the nature of the thing that the apprentice can have no specific idea of what the perfection of mastery looks like from inside or of all that is going to be demanded of him. Perfection always includes transformation. And transformation necessarily means parting from what must be overcome and abandoned precisely for the sake of preserving identity in change.”

That transformation may even resemble “passing through something akin to dying.” It is, therefore, Pieper hauntingly suggests, “much more than an innocuous piety when Christendom prays, ‘Kindle in us the fire of thy love.’”

There is no instruction book that tells us when the Church’s attempt to argue or explain its teaching has failed and the time has come simply for unadorned statement of and insistence on that teaching. There are no rules specifying how we know that the Church’s attempt to unfold the counsel of God has, to our regret, failed to achieve its desired end. No voice from heaven will tell us that, now, the integrity of the Church’s shared life requires that obedience be asked even of those who still feel themselves unable to make sense of the Church’s teaching.

But we may come to such a point—and not only with respect to dogmatic matters of faith but also with respect to matters of moral life. For, in fact, these are tightly interwoven. Think again of the examples from sexual and reproductive ethics that I used earlier to exemplify our experience of a tension between freedom and authority. In various ways they invite us to reflect on the meaning of our embodiment and our ­creation as male and female. We are tempted to suppose that our “real self” is separate from and transcends the sexually differentiated body—and that this real self uses the body to satisfy our desires and achieve our purposes.

That way of thinking is a version of the first heresy the Church ever faced, which thought of salvation as deliverance from the body. And in the face of that temptation the Church had to find ways to bear witness to the truth that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate and that, because Jesus had risen from the grave, Christians too should await the resurrection of their bodies. Those christological and trinitarian dogmatic beliefs, whose authority we acknowledge and which could hardly be altered without destroying the integrity of the Church’s shared life, are in fact closely related to what we teach in sexual ethics about the significance of our embodiment. Faith and life are deeply intertwined, and the Church cannot be faithful unless it structures its life in a way that coheres with the faith it proclaims.

Thus, if the Church is to be itself and to shape freely its own life in obedience to its Lord, it will eventually have to distinguish between those who heed its teaching and seek to follow Christ and those who—even if they continue to think of themselves as believers—will not heed that teaching or follow that path of discipleship. Freedom to determine one’s being is not just for individuals. Communities also must be free to determine who and what they are. “The Body of Christ takes up space on earth.” This is space for preaching the gospel and for administering the sacraments, but it is also space in which believers may order their shared life—the life of the Body—in accord with the will of God to which the Church witnesses. This means, of necessity, that the Church must exercise authority over the lives of individual believers.

And if one of those individual believers cannot or will not hear in the Church’s voice the voice of the Lord? If one feels that to obey the teaching of the Church would violate the responsibility he has as an individual before God, would that compel him to deny the gospel as he understands it? What then? This is, no doubt, the most painful question of all, and it arises inevitably out of the train of thought I have been ­pursuing.

Before attempting to resolve that question, however, we must think about a second aspect of the tension between freedom and authority. How do members of Christ’s Body become people who can freely take up the way of life authoritatively taught by the Church?

We sometimes think—indeed, we like to think—that such obedience is and can only be our free response to the gospel. That gospel renews our spirit and, in so doing, reorders the structure of our lives. Transformation happens from the inside out. The Church’s moral teaching has a point, then, chiefly insofar as it prepares us to hear the gospel—to recognize our bondage to sin and to desire a word that sets us free. And for believers who have been freed, the Church’s teaching about how we ought to live becomes, at best, a kind of moral resource—sometimes bearing, we may hope, the mark of genius but not authoritatively structuring our lives. Spirit cannot, we suppose, be shaped from outside in.

It may be worth reflecting on the fact that few parents think that way when struggling to raise their children. They worry about where their children go to school, about who their playmates and peers are, about the ways they use their free time, about what they see on television. They anticipate that the structure of their children’s lives will help to shape their inner spirit—not perfectly or inevitably, of course, but nonetheless ­powerfully.

They worry about all these things because they know that Aristotle was, at least to some extent, right: Moral virtue is habit long continued. The inner spirit is shaped and formed by the structures and disciplines within which we live. Most parents look for ways to let their children know they love them and trust them to do what is best, but most also think it would be foolhardy to do nothing more than announce such trust, paying no attention to the schools their children attend, the friends with whom they play, the computer games that occupy them, and so forth.

Thus, for example, a mother who schools her ­children at home writes that the various aspects of their study are “elements in an integrated whole from which, we hope and pray, our children will emerge one day so firmly formed that nothing in this world can unbend them.” Still, even the best formation cannot guarantee the desired result, and one hopes she takes seriously that this is a matter for hope and prayer. Too much confidence here would be a mistake—and, in fact, a theological mistake. What father wants to take full responsibility for shaping the character—much less the soul—of his child? What mother does not understand that her child’s inner spirit is free and cannot simply be molded, however strenuous her efforts? Only God can bear such responsibility. There are limits to what we can accomplish working from the outside in; though, to be sure, we must attempt it.

Something similar is true of the Church’s authoritative shaping of the lives of believers. Although the Church is the Body of Christ that takes up space in the world, although it is an extension of the incarnation, its disciplined way of life cannot programmatically guarantee to elicit the free obedience of its members. That is why in baptism we hand our children over to God, acknowledging that only he can finally stand as guarantor of their faith.

The reason the Church’s formative power has limits is not exactly Paul Tillich’s notion that the Church participates in what is “unconditioned” but cannot identify itself with that “unconditioned”—that it carries within itself a permanent negation of every worldly structure and institution (including itself). The true limit to the Church’s ability authoritatively to form the lives of its members grows out of a fact I noted earlier—that the Church, too, is addressed by the Word of God. It truly is Christ’s Body, but, at the same time, Christ stands over against it exercising his Lordship. It must listen in obedience and only then speak in the name of its Lord.

That the Church’s power to form and shape us is limited is, therefore, a truth never to be forgotten. But we would be badly mistaken to say no more than that. What sort of creatures would we be if the Church’s structures and disciplines were no more than a moral resource, if they had no power to shape our lives in God-pleasing ways? We would be angels, entirely free spirits—bodiless beings not located in any particular time and place, immune to the influence of other people or institutions.

That cannot be right. We do not, in fact, move toward God or form our hearts to obey only as single individuals. If, as Bonhoeffer says, it is through the call of Christ that we become individuals, it is equally true—as he also says—that the One who calls us is “the founder of a new fellowship.”

It is almost always a mistake, therefore, to begin by setting ourselves—as purportedly free and autonomous individuals—over against an authoritative Church. The freedom we have to follow Christ is one that has been nurtured in us by the Church. Our powers of judgment, our capacity to discern what is the will of God, our ability to understand the counsel of God—all this has been formed in us as members of the Church. The inner spirit with which we freely offer our obedience to God is the spirit of a human being, one who is located in space and time, one for whom the body is the place of personal presence—one whose free obedience, therefore, can and must be taught, nurtured, and shaped by the Church.

But also—and here I return at last to the question I left dangling earlier—one whose faith and obedience are shaped by the Church’s Lord. The Church is addressed by its Lord. It shapes its members in accord with that address, but each believer is also addressed singly. That is, each believer is addressed not only by the Body of Christ but also by the Head of that Body, the Lord himself. No matter how closely shared our lives are, no matter how true it is that we have been baptized into a new fellowship, we cannot finally confess or repent or believe for each other. Before God, each of us is that “single individual” with whom Kierkegaard was so obsessed, and it is not even wrong to say that we are obligated—or, if you prefer, freed—to assess the Church’s teaching and instruction for ourselves, listening prayerfully to the Word of God revealed in Jesus and testified to in the Scriptures.

Indeed, it is necessary that individual Christians have such freedom. Because the Church is not mystically fused with Christ, any particular claim to ecclesiastical authority may be mistaken or inauthentic. To be sure, there can never come a time when the world is abandoned by the risen Christ and his authentic voice is not heard in and through the Church, but that does not relieve us of the need to judge for ourselves whether churchly claims to speak for God are the voice of the Master who has also addressed us singly. This is, as Oliver O’Donovan has noted, the true sense in which the Church can be said to be invisible; and it may be that “the believer must, in the logic of discipleship, behave ‘as though’ he or she were alone, as though all the rest had fled as they fled from Christ in Gethsemane.”

We should make this point only with great care, not forgetting that even the individual who must do his own judging has learned what that means and its importance within the community of the Church. There is a kind of “hyper-Protestantism”—more exactly, I suspect, a form of Enlightenment rationality—that turns first rather than last to this notion of the single individual.

“I cannot accept,” writes a Methodist theologian, “the conflation of genuine obedience to the gospel with ‘submission’ to authority. In fact, in the name of ­Christian freedom and the priesthood of all believers Protestants must oppose the enterprise of concentrating power in the hands of elites to whom everyone else is to submit. Truth—especially hermeneutic truth—is not a subset of authority; authority, for a Protestant, must be based on truth.” Which is to say, of course, that there is no genuine authority other than the aesthetic power of the genius.

Even if we avoid that mistaken understanding of the priesthood of all believers, however, there is a sense in which, as Kierkegaard puts it, “eternity . . . never counts.” Never lumps individuals together into a sum. Before God each of us is equal—and equally, that ­single individual. What am I to do, then, if—even after patient conversation and reflection—the Church’s teaching makes no sense to me? Or seems to ask of me more than it ought? Or, even, seems to destroy the person I am rather than renew and complete me?

If the Church is really a body, if it truly takes up space in the world, then it must be free to hear the Word of God and shape its life in accordance with what it hears. If I, though, am also, even as that single individual, free to hear the Word of God, what shall we say when my freedom to listen to God and the Church’s freedom to order its life in the manner it considers faithful seem to clash? I cannot and should not claim—whether on the basis of some notion of the priesthood of all believers or simply on the basis of a rejection of heteronomy—that the Church cannot speak authoritatively to me, even if only to determine that I do not faithfully represent its teaching.

The Church must be free to do that if it is to order its common life with integrity and faithfulness. And if I am simultaneously free to live immediately before God, I may have to step out from under the visible Church’s authority and apart from its common life—even if I understand that as my way of bearing witness to what I think the Church ought to be. What I cannot claim, in so doing, is the authority of the Church’s apostle. I may, if I wish, think myself a genius, but I can only speak “without authority”—to borrow for my own purposes a formula Kierkegaard used in somewhat different ways.

And then we must pray—pray that, when one day we see the full meaning of the truth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, the clash between these conflicting claims about the Word of God to us will be healed; and our hearts, all our hearts as one, will be freely and joyfully set to obey God’s commandments.

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.

Image from Historien d'art [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons. Adapted from Christ the Good Shepherd, Kufstein Cemetery, Austria.