In establishing any form of church authority, such as the system the Christadelphians have established and which is well documented on this site an interesting question emerges which revolves around the divine validity to establish and exercise a system of church authority.
As a community the Christadelphians make the claim that they are the “body of Christ,” that when they break bread in remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ it is “the Lord’s Table” and when a person is baptised with their beliefs they become “in Christ” and “in fellowship.” Likewise when they disfellowship a church member they are subsequently considered “out of fellowship.” In view of the divine claims, exercising church authority cannot be compared to the simplistic suggestion that a church is no different than “a club with rules.” A club doesn’t suggest it enjoys divine fellowship or tell its members to separate from the world as Christadelphians do. In an attempt to avoid the question of authority and divine validity this argument is sometimes made by those who exercise church authority. Without any direct guidance from God, they are hard-pressed to answer the question “by what authority” they can elevate their interpretations of scripture over anyone else’s.
Quite clearly then to exercise church authority requires considerable certainty by those taking the seat of spiritual authority that they truly are fulfilling God’s will. Disfellowshipping people is a case of making a very definite judgment about whether or not those being disciplined should be considered part of the body of Christ. It shows of lack of consistency to suggest that the members of the church are “the body of Christ” and baptising them is “baptising them into the body of Christ,” whilst putting them “out of fellowship” is not putting them out of the body of Christ. Exercising church authority carries with it an awesome responsibility to be sure that actions taken represent God’s will. It is impossible to act as God’s body whilst not doing what he wants after all.
The Bible itself has a passage about the risk of the wrong use of church authority in John 16v2, where Jesus says to his disciples, “they shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you [has been done to “heretics” elsewhere] will think that he doeth God service.”
The formulation of statements of faith as a “basis of fellowship” and a system of church authority leads to questions about their sufficiency. If they are greater than God requires, disfellowshipping has the potential to exclude those who God accepts. If less, they carry the potential to include those who believe and would promote error. An ancient principle of Christianity has been “on essentials unity, on non-essentials, liberty.” In the case of the founder of the Christadelphians John Thomas promoted a more exclusive basis of salvation than the Restoration Movement, he initially joined, that subsequently became made into a written creed. There have also been various divisions within the Christadelphian movement over what constitutes essentials, leading to schisms, the amending of statements of faith and the existence of small breakaway groups.
A particular difficulty that Protestant Christianity has faced and which was noted by the founder of the Christadelphians has been that the Bible alone is often supplanted by the elevation of creeds which suppress independence of thought. To elevate a creed (without divine assurance) is to elevate a human interpretation of scripture above that of another person or church. The idea of Biblical infallibility and in what way the Bible is inspired is of no value in terms of church authority unless the group can also claim infallible interpretation to be consistent.
To consider this more deeply requires a consideration both of how the Bible was inspired and also principles of interpretation as well as a consideration of our limitations in being able to do this.
The Christadelphians do not believe they get divine guidance or assurance outside scripture and therefore their authority rests upon intellectual certainty they have interpreted the Bible right above all others.
The question over what a person has to believe in order for salvation is one which some Christadelphians puzzle over. In particular it raises some thoughts about whether God will exercise grace over this matter at the judgment (and whether we should do so now in view of our personal limitations) and is connected to this consideration of the question of divine authority.