Pagan Christianity and Congregational Autonomy, Part 1

Pagan Christianity is a new/old book by George Barna and Frank Viola. Viola wrote an earlier version called, confusingly enough, Pagan Christianity, which attracted much less attention. But this edition, with the well-known statistician George Barna listed as co-author, has attracted much more (Amazon rank of 1,667 vs. 215,610).

I’ve not read this edition, but I read the earlier one, and it’s very much in line with the thinking of the Restoration Movement, seeking to find a purer, better form of Christianity by getting back to First Century roots. However, unlike Restoration Movement churches, the authors make a strong push for house churches as truer to the scriptural pattern.

However — and this is why I’m posting this — I just read a fascinating review by Ben Witherington, where Witherington frankly challenges the idea of congregational autonomy, which seems worth talking about. For example,

There is frankly no Baptist or low church Protestant ecclesiology to be found in the NT in regard to this particular matter. Paul for example instructs his co-workers Timothy and Titus to appoint elders. The elders do not appoint themselves, nor do congregations get together and ordain or appoint them much less vote on them. The ecclesial structure of the NT church was hierarchial, not congregational—it started with the apostles and the 12 at the top, worked its way down to the co-workers of the apostles who were also itinerant and over multiple congregations, then there were the local church leaders—prophets, teachers, elders, deacons etc. In the early second century the apostolate seems to have been succeeded by bishops, most especially monarchial bishops like Ignatius of Antioch (read his letters sometime from the first 2 decades of the second century. They are quite revealing.). In short, the priesthood of all believers neither rules out nor negates the fact that there was an ecclesial leadership structure in the early church which involved in various cases a process of ordination from higher officials. To say otherwise is to misread the NT evidence. Of course it is true that what determined who had which gifts and graces was the work of the Spirit, but the Church needed to recognize that work and affirm it, and this took place through leaders who saw the gift in people like Timothy, and did from time to time use a process of ordination to make clear whom the Spirit had gifted and graced.

What do you think? Has Witherington proven his point that congregational autonomy is not required by scripture and may, in fact, not even be scriptural?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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23 Responses to Pagan Christianity and Congregational Autonomy, Part 1

  1. The issue I have with this topic is not really "congregational autonomy" or the "ecclesial leadership structure" discussed above. But rather, the more mundane practical matters.

    Congregational autonomy, in my view, developed as a reaction to the authoritarian leadership style of ecclesiastical leaders. I don't dispute Witherington's view of what the Text describes. But can you imagine the kind of debate we'd get into today about who had the gifts people saw in the apostles or other, such as Timothy.

    I agree that house fellowships are a more likely model from the early days. But that doesn't mean I think congregations are bad.

    My sense is that Jesus knew we needed fellowship with other believers, and that we should get together. He knew we needed some people to volunteer to take on tasks that were bigger than one or two could do for themselves. He knew we needed to rely on older wise believers who could help us on our Christian journey.

    All of this led him to call for us to assemble together. The precise form is less important than the effects of these things.

    We've put too much emphasis on the form and not enough on the results, and the spirit behind the form.

    Elders, in my view, should not be a non-profit board. They should be teachers and mentors. They should have wise, spiritual counsel to administrators, but not be decisions makers.

    Rarely, have I witnessed true servant leadership in my 58 years. And that is sad. Perhaps I should say I haven't seen it as much as I would like to have seen it. Anyone who seeks to be a "leader" should be viewed skeptically. Someone who seeks to be a servant, should be sought out for advise and counsel.

    Current manifestations of the ecclesiastical model seem to be based upon authority. I'd prefer them to be based upon authenticity.

    Whether congregations can or should be autonomous is really an individual issue. The trouble with this position is that people of good-will and good intentions will disagree on how any particular scenario should work out. And we seem to have trouble disagreeing without being disagreeable — and that's counter to God's intent, I think.

    In broad terms, we continue to struggle with the worldly point of view and the spiritual point of view. And we probably always will.

    Does any of this even makes sense to anyone?

  2. William says:

    Witherington’s review is being critiqued quite effectively by another scholar. Parts 1, 2, and 3 can be read at this site,
    apparently, the sequel to the book discusses church form and polity.

  3. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks for the link. That guy really took Witherington to task! A very thorough dressing down.

    But he didn't address Witherington's arguments re having bishops.

  4. Joe Baggett says:

    “Congregational autonomy” is not reality. In the churches of Christ if one congregation does something the others do not approve of you will hear about. There will be articles written in the brotherhood publications condemning it and marking them as false teachers. Just look at ACU who recently changed their policy not to police off campus drinking by those of legal age. You would have thought that they had killed a child or something by the way people treated them. One blog had an article about that was entitled "Read and weep, what next?” Here is the difference between the Apostles and early bishops such as Polycarp. They were not the police for all the formats of doing church. They were more spiritual leaders rather than religious law makers and enforcers. In researching early Christianity I have yet to find a church or local area that had a multiplicity of elders. Most had one episkopos or bishop. I would embrace this type of structure if it were based more on spiritual leadership and servant leadership rather than authoritarian law makers who simply enforce their religious laws.

  5. Nick Gill says:


    Have you read any of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch? Even by the first decades of the second century, monarchial bishops were rising to enforce their religious laws.

    Congregational autonomy is as much a reality as unity. Both are to be kept, not created, and our tradition does a TERRIBLE job of keeping both.

    I would have a very difficult time embracing a one-bishop structure. I believe Dr. Witherington is REALLY stretching the evidence in Ephesians when he suggests that Paul meant some within the range of circulation of the letter were given to be leaders.

    Who is to be the safeguard, the "check/balance" over the head of a one-bishop hierarchy? The Archbishop? The Metropolitan? The Cardinal? The Pope? WHO?

    I'm sure much of my stance is colored by the upbringing in a one-person, one-vote society. I also believe that Acts and the Epistles speak of and describe the nativity of the church, not our adulthood (just as Jesus had to grow in wisdom and stature, and we don't have the Talledega Nights Baby Jesus, so also the church). But the NT never speaks of a one-leader congregation, nor do I see events in the story of God pointing that way. One-leader arrangements for God's people were ALWAYS temporary. Moses, the judges, the king. Even Jesus' personal authority is temporary (1 Cor 15:24). In the new Jerusalem, the Trinity will rule co-equally. Just so, (as the elders on the mountain, the Jerusalem council, and the elders in Ephesus) the community or a spiritually-gifted portion thereof is to exercise authority.

    That's where I'm at in reading the story, anyway. I'm sure I'll have more to say in a few weeks, when I go over the "Choosing Leaders" chapter in Living The Mission.

  6. Jay Guin says:

    I've decided to reject autonomy altogether — now that I've been nominated for Church of Christ pope!

    And if I am elected, I will end all this talk of "mergers." We're going for some hostile takeovers. Finally, my law degree gets put to use in service of Jesus and the monarchial episcopy.

    I think we'll first conquer (oops, I mean, lovingly integrate faith communities with) the instrumental Christian Churches, and then we'll head after the Baptists. I figure they're desperate for new leadership and will willingly join the Pope Jay movement.

    So, yes, Ignatius and Ben Witherington have it right. Bishops rule! Jay for Church of Christ Pope!

  7. Jim says:

    Thanks William. Zens posted his fourth response to Witherington. It's now on that same site. I'd say there's nothing left of Witherington's review now.

  8. Melina says:

    what do I think? Something I've always felt missing from the NT was blueprint for the long-term future. I don't see clear instruction saying by whom new elders were to be chosen after the first bunch had died and after the apostles had died. Were there to be successors to the apostles who would oversee these things? I don't see that explicitly laid out.. Was there to be an order of evangelists who would mentor their own successors who would be separate from any congregation going about continuing to start new congregations and appointing elders? Maybe. But once elders were appointed and the congregation was rolling for a few years, would the evangelist's job there be finished? When Paul said goodbye to the Ephesian elders on the beach, he seemed to leave them in God's hands. He didn't tell them to call on a central committee or area bishop when they had problems. There was obviously communication amongst the NT congregations since they, for example, were instructed to circulate apostolic letters. So I settle somewhere around congregational autonomy with communication and perhaps some sharing of material aid.

  9. Nick Gill says:

    Melina, I think that is exactly what is missing from the New Testament, and it is one of the things I see as proof of inspiration.

    There is no way that some guys who wanted to build a power structure for themselves established THIS set of documents in order to do it. Because there IS no blueprint for the future, because the future (then AND now) is just too diverse.

    There is a clear blueprint for the future in the OT. God is creating a distinct people whose identity is based on Him and His values. Imagine if Messiah Jesus had been able to come to a nation completely ready to hear his message, so that when God dispersed them in the new covenant, there would have been millions of people with centuries of training, ready to do the work.

    There's no blueprint because the kingdom is moving FORWARD into new situations all the time. God is always pouring the new wine of the Spirit into our communities, and a blueprint would be just an old wineskin. No, I believe the blueprint is Jesus' identity and mission.

    in HIS love,

  10. Pingback: Pagan Christianity and Church Autonomy « One In

  11. Alan says:

    God chose to have Israel led by judges. When they cried out for a king, God saw it as rejecting himself as king (1 Sam 8:7). But he relented and gave them a king, and warned them that they would live to regret it. Later he told them he would return them to a system of judges (Isa 1:26) God's preference was clearly not for a centrally controlled hierarchy over his people.

    When Paul called together the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he charged them with protecting the Ephesian church. They were commanded to protect the church from false teachers, including those that might arise from their own number. That implies that they had ultimate authority over the teaching and shepherding of that flock. Even Paul himself would never see them again. He was passing the torch: The Ephesian church was leaving the nest and becoming autonomous.

    After the beginning of the Christian church, It didn't take long to return to a hierarchical system. Most scholars hold that at least some of the alleged letters of Ignatius are not genuine. Unlike the Ignatius letters Justin Martyr's description of the church polity includes no mention of a bishop over the elders in the church. It is not until the time of Irenaeus that the single bishop over the church was clearly established as the norm in the churches. And it was much later that there was a pope over the churches. Once again God's people had their king, and once again they would live to regret it.

  12. Jay Guin says:

    I agree that there are many forgeries attributed to Ignatius. Wikipedia gives a list of letters considered genuine, with links to the full text of each, at

    And even these letters describe a bishop who stands in God's place and whose authority is essential to baptism and the Lord's Supper.

    To double check my conclusions, I've referred to Everett Ferguson's Early Christians Speak. Ferguson is thoroughly conservative. Ferguson notes that Ignatius refers to himself as bishop (overseer) of the church of Antioch and Polycarp as bishop of the church of the Smyrnaeans.

    Ferguson concludes that the single-bishop model had spread across the Empire by the end of the Second Century. However, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria all refer to the bishop as being an elder — evidently the chief elder.

    Irenaeus did not consider all elders bishops, however, and went so far as to interpret Acts 20 as referring to a gathering of bishops from several churches, as it did not occur to him that "bishop" might refer to the elders at Ephesus!

    By the time of Origen (early 3rd Century), bishops were no longer elders but a separate office — and this was universally accepted.

    (Ferguson 174-177).

  13. Jay Guin says:

    Here are some additional thoughts on autonomy from October 2007

    The post deals with the fact that the New Testament describes as a single "church" all Christians in a given town, under a single eldership, and yet meeting in separate houses.

  14. Nick Gill says:

    Umm… Paul COMMANDING the Ephesian elders cannot ipso facto imply that they have ultimate authority over the teaching and shepherding of that flock. If they had ultimate authority, they would not be accepting Paul's commands for that flock.

    And the idea that apostolic authority supercedes autonomy does not explain why the Gentile congregations would take James' letters (either in Acts or in the letter we call James) as authoritative.

    I'm not trying to deny the idea of autonomy; just trying to show why that particular example doesn't work for me.

  15. Nick Gill says:

    PS – Over on Fumbling, I've posted a link to a very pithy and useful review of PC that you might find interesting.

  16. Melina says:

    Nick, agreed that the NT congregations accepted direction from the apostles and their reps. The question I have is what was/is the plan after the death of the apostles.

  17. Nick Gill says:

    Not much different than the plan during the lives of the apostles.

    Authority showed itself in two ways: depth of service to the community (Mk 10:42-45; 2 Cor 10-11) and harmony of doctrine to the apostolic gospel (Gal 1:6-12; cf. Rom 1:1-7; 1 Cor 15).

    One whose life and teaching do not consistently and substantially harmonize with the gospel of Jesus Christ was to be rejected.

  18. Jay Guin says:

    Nick didn't give the link to his post on Pagan Christianity. It's

  19. Gary Cummings says:

    Dear Pope Jay I,

    I knew you had some insidious plot starting this website-to become the first "official" Church of Christ Pope. Thanks for admitting that! You have my vote for pope.

    Gary "the mad-Anabaptist"

  20. Jay Guin says:

    If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve. The job requires wearing too much lace. 😀

  21. Gary Cummings says:

    A Southern pope,
    I think that had already been tried or at least aspired to by a few editors.

  22. Gary Cummings says:

    Spoken like a Southern politician, elder or ….gulp-lawyer!

  23. Gary Cummings says:


    Many theologians and scholars believe that Christ would return either before or by the time of the death of the apostles.
    They did not expect the world to go on another 2,000 years.

    Now the last of the apostles died, the Parousia did not happen, Jerusalem along with Israel was destroyed, and the church was dispersed into the world. But the end did not come.
    This is why the Apostolic fathers are important. They had to deal with the delay of the Parousia. Tp paraphrase Gilkey: "Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, and all we got was this [lousey] Church!"

    Warren Lewis, probably the most brilliant theologian produced by the Stone-Campbell tradition, stated that the creation of the office af the bishop and even the Pope was by the work and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He may be right.

    That being said, I am still a congregationalist, as that best fits what the local body of Christ should be: local ministry and local leadership. We no longer have apostles, as the first century did (unless we accept the office of apostle for now!)

    I spent a few years with the Mennonite Church and the churches have overseers outside of the local church. These people are outsiders, who have no true idea of the local church poiltics, and they have to resolve the problem. Actually what I have seen happen is non-resolution of problems-one or the other parties in conflict either shut up or leave. That is not good.

    The local eldership is still the best model if we look to the New Testament. If we decide not to look to the New Testament, which may be a viable way, then other paradigms of leadership are available.

    Just my random thoughts.
    Thanks and God bless,

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