Sunday, July 12, 2015

E6. There are likely elements to church governance.

This is the sixth post on the Church in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit on the Spirit and the Church was on the Holy Spirit.
Even though there is no one right form of church governance, there are some likely elements that different churches will have in common.

1. We want to emphasize that the Church is not bound to the specific names or structures of leadership in the earliest church or the churches of Christian tradition. This is a fundamental hermeneutical mistake. Just because many churches in the New Testament had a role they called a "diakonos" does not bind any church today to have a role they call a "deacon."

Why? First, because description in the Bible is not the same as prescription. The fact that Judas went out and hanged himself is not a suggestion that all who betray Christ should go out and hang themselves. It is a description of what happened.

More fundamentally, while Scripture is for us, it was not written at the first to us. When everything is working correctly, this distinction is not important. When we read Scripture through the eyes of the Spirit, we see what we should see.

The danger of the nominal church of today is that it does not read Scripture as "for" it. But the danger of the convictional church today is that it reads the Bible too much as "to" it. If Ephesians 4:11 says that God gave the church apostles, then the assumption many will have is that there must be apostles today, because they think Ephesians was written "to" us.

But there are no apostles today of the sort that Peter was. And there are no apostles today of the sort that Paul was. They were apostles because they were witnesses to the resurrection of Christ in his body and specifically sent to witness to his resurrection as eyewitnesses. There may have been apostles for the Ephesians, but there are no apostles of that sort for us today, except as we hear their voices in the Bible.

A third reason follows on the other two. It is the nature of culture and context that the "how" of accomplishing goals will vary. A tactic that will work in one context will fail hilariously in another. In that sense, we would be foolish to look to the Bible for specific commands on how to do things today. Rather, we better look to the Bible for more fundamental principles, which we then best play out specifically in ways that fit our culture and context.

Why then does the "how to" use of the Bible sometimes work? It works because of two other dynamics. First, there is the dynamic of our own common sense. When someone who is insightful about money reads the Bible as a how-to book about financial resources, he or she will inevitably see in that mirror principles that he or she knows will work in our world. When a skilled practitioner reads the Bible as a how-to book about doing something, he or she will inevitably see in that mirror principles that he or she knows will work in our world.

They see valuable how-to insights because they are already insightful how-to people.

It also works because often when we do not really understand the Bible, the Holy Spirit steps in the gap. The Holy Spirit can give us insights for our contexts and cultures that perhaps had little or nothing to do with what the biblical text actually meant. But the Spirit can make the text "become" the word of God to us directly.

2. The preceding is meant to keep what follows in context. There do seem to have been common problems and elements in the governance of the early church. These are not prescriptive for the church today in their specifics, but they provide us with insights all the same.

We perhaps understand the power structure of the earliest church best if we view it through the twin poles of structure and charisma. These two poles stand in tension, as they do in the church today. By "structure" we refer to individuals with formal authority of some sort, an "office." By "charisma" we refer to individuals with informal authority of some sort, individuals who had followers without having a specific position of authority.

3. We have now clear traditions about the origins of formal authority in the Church. Jesus appointed twelve. [1] The apostles were thus the bedrock of formal authority in the early church.

But even here, the risen Jesus called other apostles through a more charismatic channel. Paul was not appointed by any apostle. James, the Lord's brother, was not appointed by any apostle. We thus find that the earliest layer of apostle in the early church was heavily created through charismatic channels.

Christians disagree today, arguably, over how this level of apostolic authority comes to us today. There are certainly charismatic parts to the Church that believe that God still calls people with this level of authority. They even call such individuals "apostles" today.

For the Roman Catholic Church, we might say that this level of apostolic authority resides in the Pope and the cardinals of the church (they might not say this). For Protestants, the apostolic level of authority is encapsulated in the New Testament. We like to think of that authority thus as fixed and set in the biblical text.

4. Yet it seems very difficult to dismiss the existence of charismatic authority in the Church today either. Some traditions recognize this authority differently than others, but it is arguably there just the same. Charismatic traditions tend to normalize spiritual charisma. The Spirit can speak authoritatively through a random individual in a congregation. Then again, the charisma of such an individual is only as authoritative as it is received by that congregation.

The prophets of the earliest church reflect charismatic authority in the earliest church. Over time, church structure tended to try to squash prophetic authority or at least channel it through official roles. But the "prophets" Ephesians includes in the foundation of the Church were almost certainly New Testament prophets (Eph. 2:20).

The clergy of churches today relate in various ways to the prophets of the earliest church. In many respects, the role of preaching today can function as a prophetic role. Some traditions conceptualize the preacher as someone who has a word from the Lord to deliver to a congregation on a specific day or occasion.

The very calling of a minister is conceived in some traditions in prophetic or even apostolic terms. The Holy Spirit speaks to a person and calls them to his mission in a specific way. Perhaps he calls them to go as a planter or a missionary. These roles tended to be normalized as history continued to ward off the chaos of the charismatic.

5. Meanwhile, the structure of authority in the local churches of the early church seem to have revolved around twin roles--that of elder and that of deacon. Local house churches and then perhaps the churches of a city were probably directed by a group of elders, who would literally have been old and probably mostly men. [2]

The role of "overseer" (episkopos), which would later be translated as "bishop," was probably simply a name for the function that elders performed in the early church. So the elders of a local congregation were the overseers of that congregation. [3] It seems more than likely that within this group, there was a single individual who "chaired," as it were, this council of elders.

On the other end are deacons. The word can mean "ministers" or "servants." They could be either men or women, as Phoebe at Corinth demonstrates (Rom. 16:1). It is at least possible that Timothy is called one in 1 Timothy 4:6, opening up the door that the councils of elders in local congregations sometimes laid hands on individuals in their midst on whom they recognized the gifting of God for ministry (cf. 1 Tim. 4:14). In 1 Timothy 4, we see the "young" Timothy performing ministerial functions at Ephesus like reading Scripture, exhorting, and teaching (4:13).

6. While it is thus inappropriate to say, "the structure of a church should look like this," there do seem to be some common features to church authority, even if they play themselves out in different ways in different traditions.

First, there should be some formal authority. It can be mostly local under the apostolic authority of Scripture (e.g., congregational) or it can be more global in nature (e.g., episcopal, presbyterian). There needs to be a way for church discipline to take place.

Second, there should be room for a prophetic word. This can take place through formalized roles such as that of a minister or priest, or there can be an allowance for charismatic authority to arise from within a congregation.

Finally, there should be individuals performing functions of leadership and service within a local congregation. Most churches in history have opted for a lead minister, a council of elders, and individuals who do more mundane service along the lines of Acts 6. This is the minister-elders-deacons structure of many churches today.

But what is important is not the names we give these roles, and there is no "right" way of structuring a church or denomination. There are rather common functions and likely elements to church governance.

Next Sunday: The Church is in the world but not of the world.

[1] From the standpoint of Israel, Jesus was the ultimate in informal, charismatic authority. We of course think of him now as having the ultimate formal authority, being God the Son from eternity past appointed as Messiah of Israel by God the Father. But on the countryside, from the human vantage point, his authority did not come through any normal structural authority.

[2] Given the culture of the day, this is not surprising. We cannot say for certain, however, that no women held such roles and, in any case, there were clearly women in the earliest church with charismatic authority, which always tends to surpass structural authority.

[3] The two roles are treated synonomously in Titus 1:5-7.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this!