In my last post, I spoke of several “common objections” a number of people have had to the path I am walking with God outside of the institutional church. In this post, I will address what I see as the two most significant of such objections.
I call them “significant” not because I think they are more difficult to argue against. Arguing is not the point here. The point is to know Christ.
I list these two separately because they often seem to be the most deeply held, and are certainly the most detailed in nature. Therefore, the amount of time (and space) it will take to discuss them will naturally be longer than the ones I mentioned in my last post. Again, please keep in mind that I am not criticizing anybody who engages in their personal relationship with God inside the framework of an organized church. To any of you who have chosen that path, that is between you and God, and I rejoice that you are walking with Him. My only point is to demonstrate, from the pages of Scripture, that the institutions we think of as “the church” are just that – human institutions which many people have for centuries used to aid in worship and relationship with Christ.
What about spiritual authorities?
I am always curious about this one, and always have to respond to the people who confront me on this issue with the question, “What does that phrase even mean . . . ?”
The thing that makes these last two such involved topics is the extent to which they depend on definitions. I wrote, in my opening post on this blog, that I believe definitions matter a great deal. In this particular case, we have to define both words in the term “spiritual authority.”
What do we mean by authority? Do we mean somebody who, by virtue of his or her position, has the right to direct our actions? Do we mean someone who is older and wiser and whose instructions we have a responsibitily to obey?
What, then, do we mean by a “spiritual” authority? Do we mean someone accountable to God for our spiritual state? Do we mean someone who is the final word on all spiritual matters?
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then I take great exception to the entire concept of the existence of earthly “spiritual authority.” I Timothy 2:5 says, “There is one God, and one Mediator between God and Man, the Man Christ Jesus.” I am answerable to God for the state of my soul – because He created me, gave me my earthly life, and sent His Son to die so that my relationship with Him could continue into eternity. Nobody else has done that for me, and therefore, nobody else is responsible before God for my spiritual state.
Of course, that is not to say that there are not many wise and good people who speak truth into my life. A life lived in isolation from any outside influences is a very narrow life indeed. But as far as institutionalized governing positions, I don’t believe God has mandated any such thing.
Of course, the follow on to this question is, “What about elders and deacons?”
The latter is easy. The position of Deacon was never intended to be a position of authority, but rather an administrative position ensuring that all members of the Body were adequately cared for. Furthermore, the position was not established by an edict of God, but was the bright idea of the original twelve apostles (Acts 6).
Additionally, lest you think that the creation of deacons necessitates a “local body” that must be served, and of which we must be members, please recall that when the original six deacons were chosen, they were approved by, and oversaw, “the whole congregation” . . . meaning the entire body of Christ, at the time centered around the city of Jerusalem.
Elders, on the other hand, were in a position of authority . . . not religiously, but culturally. The first time Scripture uses the word to refer to a position, rather than merely to a person, is in Genesis (50:7) before the nation of Israel even existed. The first time it was recorded that the Hebrews had elders was in Exodus 3:16. The existence of elders was a fixture in Jewish culture, and they played a key role in the deaths of both Jesus (Matthew 16:21) and Stephen (Acts 6).
The Jews at the heart of the original Body of Christ would have been quite familiar with this practice of recognizing those with the most wisdom and life experience, so Acts 14:23 says they simply followed that ancient practice. The passage says they “appointed elders for them in every church,” but it might also be translated “throughout the church.” Certainly it seems an efficient practice in that time and culture, but Acts hardly records it as being mandated by God as the sole authority structure for His Body on earth for all time. In fact, in the very first mention of elders in the context of the Body, Acts 11:30 simply mentions that they existed . . . not how or why or by whose instruction . . . they were simply “there.”
Just as they had been for millenia.
As far as the way they were selected in the New Testament, it seems our preferred process of democratic election of elders is also on shaky ground. In all instances but one, when scripture records elders being “appointed,” the appointing was done by the apostles themselves, rather than the congregation. The single exception is the church at Crete, where Paul designated Titus to do the appointing in his stead. There is no support for anybody other than the original founders of the Christian church to “appoint” elders, and in any case, we have no record of the process being formalized at all.
Defenders of the “office” of elders and deacons as necessary for the church will probably point to I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as lists of “qualifications” for elders, and will infer a formal process. However, it seems to me as though these are simply lists of the way an elder must live as an example for others . . . not necessarily what one must do in order to take a particular “office.”
Where does that leave us? We know that the original apostles appointed elders (or designated others to do so for them), after the fashion of the Hebrew culture. We know that they did so both universally and locally – the same way Hebrew towns had elders, along with the elders that governed in Jerusalem. We know that the decisions of the elders in the church at Jerusalem were authoritative in other churches as well (Acts 16:4). We know what Paul, in particular, looked for in an elder.
That, however, is all we know. Again, like deacons, this seems to be a position created for convenience’s sake, to ensure that believers in localities all around the Greco-Roman world had a way to network with one another, and had mature examples to look up to. In today’s panoply of denominations, with multiple believers attending multiple services at multiple buildings in even small towns throughout much of the world, following the Pauline example with regard to the process of elders is impossible. Following the lifestyle of Paul’s ideal elders, however, is something to which all mature Christians should aspire.
If, however, we try to turn this description of the administrative structure of the First Century church into a timeless prescription, we run into trouble. How many towns today have a single church, to which all professing believers belong? How many local churches answer to a head church . . . and how many of these “head churches” are in Jerusalem?? Furthermore, how many of the elders in any church today, local or otherwise, were appointed by apostles?
The simple fact is that the first century church set up an administrative structure using political and social conventions with which they were comfortable – namely, churches reflecting the localities in which they lived, and authority structures reflecting the councils of elders with which they had dealt their whole lives.
. . . and every culture since has followed suit. The Catholic church, once sanctioned by the Roman Empire, immediately set out to emulate it in form. The breakaway of the Church of England established the King of England as the supreme ecclesiastical authority. The Reformation established local church authorities, subject to their local princes.
Even today, we continue this practice. In Western Christianity, our churches are incorporated, and governed by a CEO known as the pastor, sometimes with a democratically-elected board of directors known as “the elders.”
What we have now is not what the first century church had . . . why do we try to pretend that it is?
Finally and most importantly, in walking this path with God, I am doing nothing different. I have structured my spiritual environment in the same way I would structure my sociopolitical environment if I had that choice – a small band of people dedicated to one another, loyal to the extreme, and travelling in roughly the same direction, without the burden of a single dictator (or group of dictators) directing us what to do.
As someone whose political beliefs trend libertarian, I believe that the ideal polity is one that exists because each of its members has chosen to exist that way.
I believe no differently when it comes to those with whom I fellowship and share daily life in Christ’s Body.
Didn’t God institute the church?
Again, this all depends on definitions. If by “church” one means, “the body of believers, of which He is the head,” then the answer is absolutely yes! If, on the other hand, one means the institutional church, organized as it found itself in the first century AD, or as it finds itself today, the answer is absolutely not! Christ instructed his followers to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” His instruction was not “go into all the world and plant churches.”
He instructed Peter, in particular, to “feed his sheep.” Contrary to Catholic doctrine, this was not an instruction to “set up an administrative structure based in Rome (or anywhere else for that matter) that rules and governs all believers everywhere for all time.”
Furthermore, it depends on our definition of the word “institute.” If, by using that word, we indicate simply that Christ established His Body on earth, and believers as the parts of that body, that’s one thing. If, however, we mean that He set up an elaborate structure of governance, that’s another thing entirely. It was not Christ who did that, but men.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with structures of governance in theory. Sometimes they can aid in efficiency and coherence. However, they can also become tyrannical.
Where I think I have come down on this issue is that each believer should choose for himself or herself that place in which he or she can best experience “body life” . . . learning and growing with fellow believers, serving as a light to those who do not know God, and walking in fellowship with Him . . . wherever that may be.
At the same time, I believe that each of us is responsible to God for the state of his or her soul. Let us not be lazy, demanding that someone else tell us what to do. Let us turn wholeheartedly toward our mediator, our Father, our friend, rather than relying on a manmade spiritual mediator to guide our paths. It is well and good to seek counsel of other believers, but if we do so at the expense of our own search for Him, we do ourselves – and God – an injustice.
After all, He Himself . . . not the manner in which we seek Him . . . is the point.