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Authority, Ecclesiastical

AUTHORITY, ECCLESIASTICAL (Potestas ecclesiastica): The vested power of the Church over its members, by virtue of a divine commission (mandatum divinum) in the foundation of the Church.

Pre-Reformation and Roman Catholic View.

According to the pre-Reformation view and according to the same view as conserved by the Roman Catholic Church to-day, this authority is vested only in the pope and the bishops; so that any others can exercise it merely in their name, as their commissioned agents. Indeed, strictly regarded, according to the sense of the curia, it devolves exclusively upon the pope, so that even the bishops possess none but a derivative power from him; and in so far as this conception of the matter is fundamental to the Vatican, it must accordingly be regarded as the sense which officially obtains in the Roman Catholic church to-day.

Intrinsically, to be sure, the power of the Church is a salutary and spiritual power even according to the pre-Reformation doctrine. But the commission also carries with it everything which appears expedient in the sight of the commissioned themselves, with reference to the interests and cure of souls, toward the appertaining regulation of external conduct. Within limits affecting the cure of souls, then, the Church is also empowered with civil functions and prerogatives. In this 384respect, the pre-Reformation doctrine distinguishes two sides or directions of ecclesiastical authority: an internal power (potestas ordinis or sacramentalis) and an external (potestas jurasdictionis or jurisdictionalis), the former acting upon the so-called forum internum, the latter upon the externum.

Protestant View.

The Evangelical Church, Lutheran and Reformed alike, puts a narrower construction upon ecclesiastical authority, interpreting the potestas ecclesiastica exclusively as the power of administering the word and sacraments in the widest sense of the term; which includes the cure of souls under these instrumentalities, but not at all the external regulation of conduct by the exercise of legal compulsion. The exclusion of the ungodly from the congregation is to be brought about without human power, solely through the word of God; and so this jurisdiction is only an act of verbal execution. Not infrequently in the Evangelical confessional writings, ecclesiastical authority is mentioned comprehensively as the ” power of the keys” (see Keys, Power of the). As such it is attributed not to a single estate in the Church, but to the Church as a whole. The power of the Church is thus committed immediately to the Church; intermediately and for practical operation the persons thereunto adopted receive it from the Church.

Views of Luther and Other Reformers.

Thus the Evangelical conception of ecclesiastical authority assigns to the secular powers, or as modernly expressed, the State, a different province in relation to the control of church affairs, from that of pre-Reformation times and likewise that of the Roman Catholic Church to-day. The Schwabach articles of 1528 declare ” the power of the Church is only to choose ministers and to exercise the Christian ban,” and to provide for the care of the sick; ” all other power is held either by Christ in heaven, or by temporal powers on earth.” The reiterated expressions of Luther and other Reformers, to the effect that this temporal power has no ecclesiastical jurisdiction and may not interfere in church government, mean consistently this alone, that the temporal power has no spiritual jurisdiction and may not intermeddle with the cure of souls. The matter of control in the external affairs of the Church, that is, what we nowadays call church government, was deferred by Luther even so early as his tract to the German nobility, and at a later period constantly so, to the temporal powers directly; and the same is true of the other German Reformers. In particular, they claim for the Church no manner of legislative prerogative; the Reformation ecclesiastical law subsists rather, in so far as it was formulated by new legislation, entirely upon State enactments (see Church Order). Only since the established reformation Church has come to be superseded more and more by the organized union Church on a presbyterial-synodical basis, has the latter, apart from the absolute administration of word and sacraments, been also empowered by the State with the jus statuendi; and this it exercises within forms and limits determined by the State; as it also exercises the right of independent church government according to its constitutional latitude under this organization. In both instances, however, this is done not upon any fundamentally intrinsic ground, but solely on historic grounds; and therefore, in so far as no unwholesome ideas come into play, without conflict with the State authorities.

E. Sehling.

In the free Churches of Great Britain, in the British colonies, and in the United States, there is no assumption of ecclesiastical authority by the civi government, its sole function being to protect the Churches in their right to hold property and to carry on their work. In many cases church property and in some communities where an income tax prevails ministers’ salaries are exempted from taxation. Individuals are protected by the civil courts from injustice at the hands of a Church. Ministers may, e.g., sue for their salaries or for wrongful dismissal, and excommunicated members for malicious or unjust treatment; but even in such cases, the courts are careful to interfere as little as possible with the authority of the Churches. In each religious body the question of authority is determined by its polity. In episcopal bodies much authority is vested in individual bishops and boards of bishops, in presbyterial bodies in synods, in congregational bodies in the local church. See Church Government; Polity.

A. H. N.

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