Do we have the authority to compare the Orthodox Church with Scripture?

by Matt Slick

Do individual Christians have the ability, the authority, and the obligation to compare the Orthodox Church to Scripture?  Of course they do.  No Christian should blindly accept what someone tells him simply because that group or individual claims authority from God. We are obligated to check all things against Scripture because it is the Scripture that is the inspired word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  If we don't check what people say with the word of God, then how will we know if we are being deceived by what is being taught? Just because a church claims it is ancient and claims to have authentic apostolic succession does not mean that it does. Any group that tells you to just trust that group because it has the "authority" or it is the "true church", that should be examined with caution.

False Groups Claim Authority to Interpret Scripture Unchallenged

It is typical for groups who deviate from Scripture to claim exclusive authority to interpret God's word and/or link salvation to their "true church". If they didn't, it would be more difficult to keep members - because people might be examining the Bible for themselves and disagree with what they are being told.  When anyone discourages individuals from studying the Word of God and is instead people are urged to fall in line with whatever the teaching authority tells them, that is dangerous.  Consider the following statements from false groups who teach exactly that:

  • Jehovah's Witnesses
    • "Only this organization functions for Jehovah's purpose and to his praise. To it alone God's Sacred Word, the Bible, is not a sealed book" (The Watchtower, July 1, 1973, p. 402).
    • "We all need help to understand the Bible, and we cannot find the Scriptural guidance we need outside the faithful and discreet slave organization" (The Watchtower, Feb. 15, 1981).
  • Mormonism
    • The 6th LDS President Joseph F. Smith said, “The moment a man says he will not submit to the legally constituted authority of the Church, whether it be the teachers, the bishopric, the high council, his quorum, or the First Presidency, and in his heart confirms it and carries it out, that moment he cuts himself off from the privileges and blessings of the Priesthood and Church, and severs himself from the people of God, for he ignores the authority that the Lord has instituted in his Church” (Joseph F. Smith, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p.365).
  • Roman Catholicism
    • "The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ," (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 85).
    • "The Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism explains: "For it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained." (CCC 816).

Such exclusive claim to authority and/or apostolic privilege is the mark of cults and apostate religion. But this does not mean that all groups who hold such claims are also false. Each case must be examined individually. Nevertheless, when a group sets themselves up as the supreme authority as "the true church" that has the right to interpret Scripture, then there is no way to find out if they are true or false unless one goes outside the authentic-self-proclamation of the church and examines the word of God for themselves.

Who has authority to Interpret Scripture?  Christians do

In John 11:35 it says, "Jesus wept."  the context is as follows:

John 11:33-37, "When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her, also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit, and was troubled, 34 and said, “Where have you laid him?” [Lazarus who had died, John 11:14] They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 And so the Jews were saying, “Behold how He loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of him who was blind, have kept this man also from dying?”

Do we need authority from a church or from those who claim apostolic succession to interpret the shortest verse in the Bible, "Jesus wept," (John 11:35)?  Of course not.  We can read it for ourselves and understand it plainly.  Are we committing sin by daring to interpret the words?  If authority is necessary to interpret God's word, and how is it we can understand it without that authority? Or, can't we just read it for what it says? Of course we can.

Now, that is not to say that all Scripture can be as easily understood. There are scriptures that are more difficult such as Col. 2:14 and Romans 5:18.  But, if we are capable of understanding simple scriptures quickly, it makes sense to say we can understand more complicated issues with more study. But in all this, it does not mean that we ignore our church, or other Christians, or ancient councils, etc. But it does mean we have the right to be able to go to the word of God and look at it and see what it says for ourselves. If you don't believe me, consider what the Bible says...

1 John 2:27, "And as for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him."

If we are to submit to Church authority when interpreting Scripture, then...

Does the Bible itself support the idea that we are to submit to church authority when interpreting the word of God and comparing teachings of Scripture? No it does not. In fact, it contradicts this idea.

  • Acts 17:11, "Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so."
  • Romans 14:5, "One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind."

If the authority of the biblical interpretation rests with the church, then why did Paul the apostle praise the Bereans for checking what he said against Scripture?  Why didn't he just tell them to submit to his authority?  Also, if authority and submission to the Christian Church (i.e., Easter Orthodox) are required regarding beliefs and practices, then why does Paul contradict that in Romans 14:5 when he is speaking of doctrinal issues and practices when he says "let each man be fully convinced of his own mind"? Notice that Paul is telling us that individuals have the right to look at the word of God and decide for themselves; that is, to be convinced in their own minds. This clearly contradicts the idea that only certain churches have the "authority" to interpret God's word.

But, I do not expect the Orthodox Church to agree with what I am saying here in this article. I can only ask that anyone who is reading this would look at the Scriptures I have cited and see for yourself.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.