The post on Pagan Christianity attracted several questions about what autonomy really means in the modern church world. Here are a few thoughts to add to the mix.
* I dont’ really know how the monarchic episcopy evolved so quickly from what we read in the New Testament to what we read in Ignatius, just a few decades later.
I would assume that people naturally organized themselves as their culture suggested, and they lived in a monarchic culture. Democracy and even autonomy would have been very foreign to First Century Greeks.
I think most historians consider that monarchic bishops didn’t become an Empire-wide practice until later. It’s easy to imagine doctrinal disputes and heresies pushing the churches toward a more authoritarian structure, just to run the Gnostics and such like out.
And the churches were used to being under the authority of the apostles and their emissaries. It’s only natural that some would have selected an elder of particular wisdom as “chairman of the board” — and that he’d quickly take on near-apostolic powers.
Nonetheless, it’s surprising that Ignatius insisted that baptisms and communion required the presence or approval of the bishop or the elders under him if he could not be present. Clearly, such an authoritarian structure would have been designed as a defense against heresy.
* Then again, the early church was not nearly as autonomous as we like to pretend. Paul told Timothy to ordain elders in Ephesus long after Paul has left the city.
In Acts 15:22 ff, we read of the apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church giving instructions to the Antioch church. I can understand the apostles doing this — but the elders?
* Even today, in the mission field, we expect the missionary or mission team to serve as de facto apostles for a while, providing authoritative teaching and pastoral care for the churches they plant until they are grown up and ready to walk on their own and ordain elders under the guidance of the missionary. And yet these missionaries are under the oversight of a US eldership. That’s not exactly autonomy!
The scriptures don’t lay out a plan for how we are to operate in the post-apostolic age. I mean, who appoints elders? What’s the process? How do we remove lousy elders?
What can only deacons do? Do we still have a list or order of widows per 1 Timothy 5?
I mean, I write charters and bylaws and legislation for a living — and the New Testament is quite plainly a horribly written constitution, if that’s what the writers meant to do!
I conclude, therefore, that it’s not a constitution, and we’ve been given some considerable discretion as well as the Spirit to help us exercise it. Nonetheless, I don’t think we abandon the New Testament models for governance without very good reason. Things have changed, but people are still people, and the model of shepherd-led churches is a good one.
If I could make just one reform in our system of autonomy, it would be this: I’d insist that elderships citywide work together as a single team. They should pray together, study scripture together, go to training classes together, and coordinate church work together. They should help each other, lean on each other, and love each other.
Do this one thing, and we’ll stop competing with and damning each other and instead become the single family we are called to be.
Of course, we’re too stubborn, distrustful, and just plain cussed to do it — and it’s destroying our effectiveness.
Oh … and this corollary. “We” can’t work together until we figure out who “we” are! So long as we draw the line at the magic words “Church of Christ” and then deny the salvation of all who disagree with us on anything we feel strongly about, we stand in God’s way. It’s not a good place to be.
Therefore, while I think we first invite the Churches of Christ to work with us, we broaden the invitation to all with faith in Jesus. It’ll change the world. Literally.
Imagine the leaders of all the churches in your town, meeting, praying, and studying together to find God’s will for their churches, his mission in that community, and all the churches joining hands to become one in service to God.
It’s not impossible. It just requires a little initiative.