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Joel Belz: Speaking with authority

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WORLD Radio - Joel Belz: Speaking with authority

A classic commentary about Americans’ unhealthy view of authority


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MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Wednesday October 5th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Next up: WORLD Founder Joel Belz’s classic commentary series.

Americans have had a problem with authority for a while now. Whether it’s church government or human sexuality, the root question remains the same today as it was yesterday: what is the final authority?

BROWN: Yes, you hear that question in a lot of discussions these days. Let’s hear a clip from a podcast called Think Biblically, host Scott Rae is talking to Christians tempted by sin.

CLIP: What ultimately is the trump card for them is not their same-sex experience. It’s the objective teaching of Scripture. At the end of the day, if the Bible is clear, you either accept it or you don’t.

EICHER: Joel Belz now with his classic take on Americans’ unhealthy view of authority, a commentary he wrote three and a half decades ago.

JOEL BELZ, FOUNDER: Pope John Paul's visit to the United States catches those Christians who are serious about the Bible in an unusual bind. On the one hand, the pope represents a kind of authority figure, at least nominally associated with biblical ethics.

On the other hand, the Pope's historical claims to a kind of authority that goes beyond the Bible, prompt many of us to distance ourselves from him. We like authority figures, but not those who go too far.

So the question in the next few days for many of us will be is there any sense at all in which John Paul to speaks for those of us who reject much of what he stands for? Americans, by and large, can't stand authority. They are conditioned by almost every influence to believe that democracy is the value, which supersedes almost all other values. Let the people decide.

Preparing for the Pope's trip to the US this month, American media are going out of their way to portray him as a wonderfully nice fellow, who nonetheless can't seem to understand how important it is to let his flock choose for themselves, what kind of church Roman Catholicism should be. After all, that's the American way. Particularly distressing to the media is the seeming insensibility of Rome to all those people who call themselves Catholics. But want a great deal more sexual freedom than traditional Roman Catholic dogma allows them.

The homosexual community in particular, is being pictured repeatedly as a persecuted and misunderstood minority, whose rights within the church are being trampled. But if a church cannot say, at least to its own members in today's society, that homosexual behavior is wrong, then we must ask whether that church is to be permitted to say anything at all of significance in the area of sexual ethics. And if a church cannot speak forcefully any longer in the area of sexual ethics, then where indeed is it allowed to speak with any authority at all.

That, of course, is the point.

Most people today don't want a church that speaks with authority, just like they don't want school teachers who speak with authority, or parents who speak with authority, or even a national constitution that speaks with authority. We're in a society instead, that much prefers just to make up its rules as we go along.

Like society around them, Catholic thinking may be profoundly shaped by biblical values from a very long past. But if that shaping isn't done consciously, and with frequent pointers along the way to the ultimate authority of Scripture, the people of Roman Catholicism will soon be indistinguishable from those of the world at large. It is already happening. And that is why the pope in coming to America finds many of his own people strangely alienated from him, and more like the people around them. But it doesn't happen just to Catholics. It happens to anybody who forgets what ultimate authority is all about. It happens even to evangelicals, who get sloppy on the authority issue.

BROWN: That’s Joel Belz, reading his column titled “Americans Can’t Stand Authority” from his book,Consider These Things. The column originally appeared in the Sept 14, 1987 issue of WORLD Magazine.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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