Pagan Christianity and Congregational Autonomy, Part 2

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.

A suggestion

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.

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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16 Responses to Pagan Christianity and Congregational Autonomy, Part 2

  1. Daniel Burns says:

    Jay, There is a group of youth ministers/pastors in Palestine, TX that work like this. they see themselves as the youth pastors of palestine, with the responsibilities to bring students to God first and then help them plug into where they fit best. If students are hopping from church to church they are confronted with love by a few of the ministers. They handle things really wel with a great love for students.
    I enjoy reading you blog, reading your thoughts. thank you. I cant tell you how I found it.
    Daniel Burns

  2. Alan says:

    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.

    Amen, Jay!

  3. But is it morally wrong to have (or serve under) a hierarchical system of church government? Is congregational – or even city-wide – autonomy morally superior?

    I have another problem, and it's with Pagan Christianity? (the new version; the only one I've read).

    Why is the church model that Barna and Viola insist upon the one at Corinth? If we want to resort to true first-century primitivism, why not the church at Jerusalem at the end of Acts 2? Why not meet every day – at homes and at our places of worship? stick to the apostle's teachings, have fellowship, pray, break bread, and even sell our possessions and give to the poor?

    To me, all of the debate over church structure falls into the category of time misspent. Go be Christ to the world, and let church be church … whenever, wherever Christians gather to worship and serve God. Let the shepherds lead by following Christ, and let the flock follow.

    Apologies to Dr. McCoy in Star Trek VI, but this ain't rocket surgery.

  4. I have been struggling with this for some time. At present I see this as the problem: We look at Scripture as a book of rules or as you stated a constitution. I'm not sure God intended that which is "written on the heart" to be a new set of rules. Maybe we ought to trust Jesus rather than in our own understanding. Perhaps it is getting Jesus right rather than getting the pattern right. Thanks

  5. Jay Guin says:


    I think the ministers have hit on the heart of the gospel — we don't compete with brothers. We don't divide. Rather, we cooperate to serve God's mission. Competition, rivalry, disputing among Christ's churches completely miss the mark.


    Morally wrong? I don't think so. I can't imagine God damning every Christian in Antioch because Ignatius was their only "bishop." Just so, I don't think Alexander Campbell's congregations were damned because he was their only elder.


    This idea that the NT is a constitution has been deadly to our movement. Rather like the US Supreme Court, we try to divine answers from words written for entirely different reasons, and so we find ourselves reading our own culture and personalities into God's word.

    The focus is not only on Jesus's teachings, but on his work. He showed compassion and brought healing everywhere. He preached gospel and kingdom, not church organization and worship patterns.


    On the other hand, I do think a fresh look at these examples is helpful and powerful. If we step back from the constitutional model and try to see them as an outworking of the Spirit through God's people, everything changes.

    Elders, for example, are those gifted to be shepherds and overseers, as recognized by those they serve. Just so, a teacher is someone whom the church recognizes as gifted to teach. It's not complicated and this view pushes us to ordain whose gifted in these roles, rather than a nice man who's not a brawler or given to much drink.

  6. Melina says:

    a neighorboring town had a Prayer Day in which the organizers invited every group in town that appeared to be professing any form of christianity. It was a struggle for many involved since they had major issues with some of the groups. nonetheless the invite went out to every group. Many did participate. The idea was just to bring everyone together to pray for the town and do some outreach. I believe it happened twice. I'm not sure what if anything it did for ongoing unity but I cheer the folks for giving it a try.
    As for working together citywide, I do have some sensitivity to the issues of ego and power. I've seen some sad results when brothers focus on who's in charge and who's overseeing the larger group or project.

  7. Melina says:

    Quoting Jay: <<>>>

    Very Big Amen to that. I'd get scared though if the group started appointing officers or presidents or electing/selecting committees- basically trying to become a hierarchy. In fact there should be a conscious effort to avoid that by, for example, rotating any organizing duties by alphabetical order or lot. Or better yet, the elders building relationships one-on-one as a start. Maybe that's what you mean, I'm not sure if you mean personal friendships or organized meetings.

  8. Nick Gill says:

    LOL You didn't title this one Part 2 or Continued or anything, so I just had a painful eye-crossing trying to figure out where all my comments went and why none of this looked familiar! 🙂

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Oops. 😳 It's all fixed now.

  10. Jay Guin says:


    I wrote,

    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.

    "Single team" does not imply hierarchy. It just means working together toward common goals, those goals being set by prayer, study, and conversation, not by a bishop or such like.

  11. Jim says:

    I just read the sequel to this book Reimagining Church. It's great! Better than Pagan Christianity.

  12. Charles McLean says:

    Elders of the church in the city. Some of us have been calling for this for years. So glad you mentioned it, Jay.

    But you are correct in pointing out a pretty high hurdle, that is acknowledging who "we" are. We have unfortunately shrunk that pronoun over the years and it needs some letting-out.

    I believe that there is a catalyst available for such a thing as you suggest… it is the "restoration" of the work of the apostle in the body of Christ. But that's another story…

  13. Charles McLean says:

    Jay’s more recent post on this topic brought me back to this. Jay said something I have a second thought about. He posted, to my enthusiastic applause, that one reform he would suggest would be that elders in a city come together and function as a team. He then said that hat the reason that elders in a city cannot come together and function as a single team is that we are “too stubborn, distrustful, and just plain cussed to do it”.

    I cannot argue with this conclusion, but I wonder if this does not bear more reasoned examination. About what are we so stubborn and distrustful? Specifically, I mean. What is it that we have with which no one can be trusted? IMO, what Jay is describing here is simple fear. And the first step in addressing fear is to ask, “All right, EXACTLY what is it that you are afraid of?”

    Some fears are rational, but can be addressed proactively or correctively. Some fears are irrational. And some stated fears are intended to mask other, more base personal concerns.

  14. Alabama John says:

    Afraid of?
    The fear that by banding together in any fashion would lead to head Elders and then progress to a hierarchy like the denominations have.
    This could be a start away from each congregation being independent and that cannot be allowed. Best to stop it before it even begins !
    I have asked at a business meeting that since there is no authorization for a church to remain without Elders that we ask the big church down the road to loan us three until we get some qualified ourselves. They could place membership easily because they actually live closer to us than where they are Elders now.
    This was met with a resounding NO WAY! They had rather have an unauthorized business meeting with sorry folks like me being in effect fill in or substitute elders for which there is no authorization.

  15. Todd Collier says:

    When I came to Virginia as a missionary a decade ago our little group had no elders and no one even remotely interested in being so qualified. I did not wish to work “without a net” so I approached the elders of a congregation to hold me accountable for my ministry. The folks I was working with went nuts. How dare I do such a thing? Well eight years and later and that eldership remembered my request and hired me without even advertising a need for a minister (unique cirsumstances). Autonomy is over-rated. Accountability isn’t.

  16. Charles McLean says:

    Todd, that sounds like real life to me. Great story.

    Unfortunately, what AJ relates sounds more like the Sanhedrin than the Council of Jerusalem. We fear we might lose our place, whatever that is, however mean and powerless– just as the Sanhedrin in John 11 worried that they might lose what diminished rule they were alloted by Rome if the Jewish people followed the Messiah. We like our self-rule; or at least as close to it as we might be able to manage. Better to be the Senator from a molehill than to serve someone else in a palace, I suppose. How we got from our example of a Servant King to a scrabbling desire for the most microscopic influence and autonomy, I simply do not know. This is one of those “base concerns” that troubles me, I suppose.

    Todd speaks of true accountability. I have to confess that the entire concept was foreign to me– a lifelong member of the CoC, and a full-time preacher– until I left that denomination. I learned about it later, and changed dramatically — but not without considerable resistance, and friction with my Father.

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