There are both good things and bad things associated with having a highly structured church with unambiguous lines of authority. But I would like to make the case for “Messy Church,” where authority and structure are rather murky, or inconsistent.
Point #1. Biblically, the primitive church of the first century does appear to be rather messy. Attempts to discover the “Real Biblical” model for Church governance appears to be rather hopeless. As a Baptist, I am aware of the attempt to push all leadership roles into Senior Pastor (a single spiritual leader) and Deacons (a group of ministerial leaders). While I don’t really have a problem with this, the early church did appear to have elders with authority. It is difficult, at best, to make elders fit with that model, though many have tried. I read a book not long back (forgot the name and my copy is in the Philippines right now) that made the argument that the church of Philippi had no (formal) centralized leadership. Although the argument is based on limited information, it seems fairly reasonable since the early churches seemed to be more like house church networks. A house church network almost has to operate with a distribution of authority (although cell churches often maintain a strong hierarchy, at a cost… more on that later). The idea of a strong church leader, especially one who has a ‘vicar’ role does not seem to develop until the canon closes. Although Ignatius of Antioch (in the early second century) definitely strongly promoted obeying the church leaders, this does not appear to be a universal view (which may be why he kept on that topic with so many of his letters). In fact, the only person who seemed to try to exercise strong authority in the early church (Diotrophes in Third John) was viewed as deeply problematic by the Apostle John. But even here, John’s planned corrective was one more of persuasion than exercising authority. While there is a lot of talk today about “apostolic authority, I don’t see a lot of evidence in the Bible that apostles exercised such authority. In fact, it seems like, with the possible exception of the church of Jerusalem, apostles did not exercise much authority, if any, over the churches beyond their initial role of starting churches and assigning leaders to take over the role of guiding the church.
It is pretty clear from First Corinthians and Revelation chapters 2 and 3 that there were power blocs in churches. This should hardly surprise if the early churches were more like house church networks. Different house churches are not going to be identical. Paul specifically challenged the Corinthian church regarding the members who sought to identify themselves with various powerful leaders (described as Paul, Peter, Apollos, Christ). Paul’s corrective was not to say that one group was right and the rest were wrong, but rather that all were wrong because they were embracing a lack of unity in the church. However, the unity Paul was seeking was not a unity of church authority, seemingly, since the corrective was neither to embrace the local leader of the church nor that of an outside authority. The corrective was to identify the church as a spiritual unity, that has diversity in roles, in gifts, (and yes,) in authority. Some authority offices are listed, but not consistently. There is no formal definition of who is an apostle and who is not. One has to go to the Didache to learn that apostles were essentially churchplanters sent out of the local church who work outside of the normal structure of the church. It is also in the Didache that we learn that prophets were seen generally as traveling preachers. Within the church there are a number of terms used (pastor, overseer, shepherd, elder, (and maybe) messenger) for a spiritual leader, but the role is not clearly defined and it is not clear to what extent these terms are used interchangeably, or seen as being somehow different. It is possible that different terms suggest that different churches used different terms or operated differently. Paul describes a pastor as also a teacher, but in numerous places (in the NT as well as apostolic fathers) teacher is very much a separate position. It is not clear whether Evangelist should be seen as a role separate from Apostle. (Timothy was described as both an Apostle and an Evangelist. Philip was called an Evangelist not an Apostle, but perhaps only to try to prevent confusion with the Apostle Philip— one of the Twelve.)
If you think that I have made a weak case by simply muddying up the water— point taken. However, I rather think that muddy is the intent of Scripture. Jesus consistently wants to muddy the water when it comes to authority.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)
This is not just a passage ripped out of context that expresses something inconsistent with Christ’s view. In fact, several of the Gospels repeat this exchange, meaning they saw this as important. Jesus weakens the idea of formal power structures regularly. And the apostles did as well. Paul rarely tried to coerce others, but regularly points to people being led by the spirit. Other passages that are consistent with this include John 13:12-17, Mark 9:35, I Peter 5:1-4. In fact, the passage from I Peter focuses on leaders (elders) primarily as examples (spiritual guides). This is not unique, I Timothy 4:12 and Hebrews 13:7 also expresses leadership in terms of being an example. Paul’s guidance for Timothy with regard to who should be an overseer gives some general characteristics, but little is given to leadership. Arguably the statement regarding the ability to manage the family implies a certain capability to lead. However, the bigger issue is that one is capable to teach and being a good example.
So if those who are identified as leaders are those who are focused on Serving, good as Examples, and competent to Teach, does that mean that leaders don’t exercise any authority? No, they do certainly exercise some authority, but the early church simply did not have strong centralized leadership. It did not have a strong boundary between clergy and laity. It did not have a single form of church structure.
But suppose I am wrong here. Suppose the early local church DID have strong centralized leadership. Suppose the early church did have a strong boundary between clergy and laity. Suppose early churches did all have identical leadership structures. Does that mean that we have to embrace this? Probably not, because the canon passed down to us has kept that a secret from us. God would have made it clear in Scripture if there was “one way to do church.”
Okay, the main reason for writing this was not to say that the Bible is murky regarding power structures in the church. My main point is that such murkiness of power is actually GOOD. I simply wanted to point out that the most common argument against my proposal (“It ain’t Biblical”) is not true… or at least is highly presumptive.
Part 2 will get more into my point.