Centralizing Church Authority -- Is it Inevitable?

Third essay in series on Developing a Theology of Ministry

When did the rather diffuse forms of leadership that we see present in the earliest expressions of the church, begin to centralize?  We see possible expressions of tightening of authority in Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters, but it’s not until early in the second century that we find defenses of centralized authority – in the person of the bishop.  The best example is Ignatius of Antioch.

Ignatius (d. 115 CE) was bishop of Antioch of Syria during the first two decades of the Second Century, dying as a martyr in Rome sometime around 115.  One of Ignatius’ legacies is a series of letters that give us a sense of the extent to which the church was institutionalizing very early in its history.  These letters are addressed to the churches that lay along the route from Antioch to Rome.

The church of the second century faced a number of challenges that ranged from persecution to internal divisions.  May we call Gnosticism a. heterodox challenge to the fledgling church’s identity?   But, whereas Clement of Rome, an older contemporary, seems to show no evidence of a monarchical episcopate, Ignatius offers us with a rather developed understanding of a monarchical episcopate.  Only twenty years earlier Clement spoke of a plurality of elders and used presbuteros and episcopos interchangeably, but Ignatius speaks of a separate order of bishop.  It’s possible that Ignatius spoke of what he believed should be than what was, but the idea was emerging.
Ignatius distinguishes between presbyter and bishop, offering evidence that a move from a plurality of elders to the rule of the bishop was underway.   W.H.C. Frend points out that for Ignatius the transition to the monarchical episcopate depended not on tradition or apostolic succession, but on his mystical theology.  Ignatius equated the office of bishop with Christ's high priestly role, and centering around the Eucharist.  Ignatius insisted that without episcopal authorization the church could not validly celebrate the Eucharist.    Presbyters and deacons served as subordinates or assistants to the bishop. [WHC Frend, Rise of Christianity, (Fortress, 1986), 141.  Kurt Aland, A History of Christianity,  2 vols., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 1:123.]

Since I’m interested in how we might understand Christian ministry today, it might help us to understand how this early Christian leader envisioned Christian ministry in his letters.

For Ignatius the bishop presided over the local congregation.  Since each congregation had its own bishop one might compare his view o bishop to our understanding of local church pastor.  But he was in the process of laying the foundations for a much more developed ecclesial hierarchy – a threefold ministry of bishops, presbyters, and deacons.  In his Letter to the Magnesians he spoke of the bishop as the representative of God. The presbyters replaced the apostolic council and the deacons fulfilled the outreach ministry of Jesus Christ.

Let the bishop preside in God's place, and the presbyters take the place of the apostolic council, and let the deacons (my special favorites) be entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ who was with the Father from eternity and appeared at the end [of the world] (Magnesians 6:1).  [Letters of Ignatius are found in Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (Library of Christian Classics) Westminster, 1995]

Ignatius also insisted that the bishop had supreme authority in the church.  Therefore, the church must act in concert with the bishop (Magnesians 7:1).  Ignatius viewed the obedience to the bishop as paralleling that given to Jesus himself.

For when you obey the bishop as if he were Jesus Christ, you are (as I see it) living not in a merely human fashion but in Jesus Christ's way, who for our sakes suffered death that you might believe in his death and so escape dying yourselves.  It is essential, therefore, to act in no way without the bishop (Trallians, 2:1-2). 

Ignatius placed the ministry, and especially the episcopate at the center of the church's existence.  He insisted that without this threefold ministry the church could not exist (Trallians 3).  Having defined the relationship between the ministry and the church, he also insisted that one cannot encounter God outside the church.

If anyone is not inside the sanctuary, he lacks God's bread.  And if the prayer of one or two has great avail, how much more that of the bishop and the total Church.  He who fails to join in your worship shows his arrogance by the very fact of becoming a schismatic.  It is written, moreover, "God resists the proud."  Let us, then, heartily avoid resisting the bishop so that we may be subject to God. (Ephesians 5:2-3).   

Ignatius strongly defended the oneness of the church and the link between that church and the bishops. Separation from one's bishop to join a schismatic body placed a person outside the bounds of Christianity (Philadelphians 3:2-3).  In his letter to the church at Philadelphia he stated clearly that the bishop was the guarantee of the unity of the church.  Cyprian would later develop this theme much more fully (Philadelphians 4:1).

Ignatius provides his strongest statement concerning the episcopate in Smyrnaeans 8.

Flee from schism as the source of mischief.  You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father.  Follow, too, the presbytery as you would the apostles; and respect the deacons as you would God's law.  Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop's approval.  You should regard that Eucharist as valid which is celebrated either by the bishop or someone he authorizes.  Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.  Without the bishop's supervision, no baptisms or love feasts are permitted.  On the other hand, whatever he approves pleases God as well.  In that way everything you do will be on the safe side and valid.  It is well for us to come to our senses at last, while we still have a chance to repent and turn to God.  It is a fine thing to acknowledge God and the bishop.  He who pays the bishop honor has been honored by God.  But he who acts without the bishop's knowledge is in the devil's service (Smyrnaeans 8:1-9:1).

Though he places a strong emphasis on the role and authority of the bishop, the bishop's authority is localized.  Ignatius himself did not write these letters claiming authority over these churches.  He simply wrote to encourage the churches to hold fast to their leaders in dangerous times.  We do not have here any sense of a patriarchate or papalism, but the seeds seem to have been planted.

In our own day, as we watch the church hierarchy seemingly being flattened, what should we make of these developments?  Is such a development inevitable?   That is, can a community of faith exist long term with a flattened sense of church?    What are the options?


Brian said…

The link above leads to an easy to grasp graph illustrating Herbert Blumer's stages of social movements. I've found it applies to the New Testament, the post New Testament church, and very easily represents the history of disciples.

Ignatius is one of the leaders in the coalescing stage. While there are always self-serving tendencies in such developments, it is also true that the movement would have died without a strong central leadership at that time.

Of course, things are different now with social networking and what not.
Anonymous said…
In my Masters' thesis I looked at contemporary and historical house church movements. I've come to the conclusion that centralization is inevitable; flat structures are an unstable state, and do not last beyond a few generations. Niebuhr said

By its very nature, the sectarian type of organization is valid only for one generation. The children born to the voluntary members of the first generation begin to make the sect a church long before they have arrived at the years of discretion. For with their coming the sect must take on the character of an educational and disciplinary institution, with the purpose of bringing the new generation into conformity with the ideals and customs which have become traditional.

Similarly Weber's concept of the routinization of charisma is an expression of this.

But similarly there seems always to be a counter-reaction against centralization; people throughout history have hearkened back to (what they believe to be) the flat structure of the early Church, and attempted to "restore" a leaderless order. I don't think the picture that these restorationists paint of the early Church is necessarily an accurate one - there were definitely authoritative figures early on. (Paul had to go up to Jerusalem to be checked out by the top brass, for instance.)

But I believe that both through routinization and through inspiring restoration movements, the Spirit keeps checks and balances on the use and abuse of centralized power in the Church.
Brian said…
Thanks for that Simon. This Thanksgiving week I'm thankful that someone brought up Max Weber in conversation! :-)

Your thoughts are very good IMO. The current house/emergent/missional etc is nothing new except in the context of the contemporary situation. It will be interesting when we're old farts to watch the second generation systematize it.

As Simon implied, this is not a criticism of new restoration/flat movements. They bring new life into old forms. Heck, even the Roman Catholic Church has gone through many movements. (Cheers to St. Francis!)
John said…
Stepping outside of the theory of structures, bureaucratization, routinization, Max Weber, etc, might we not want to consider for a moment the will of God and the working of the Holy Spirit in all of this.

First, I would Moses calls a council of elders, Jesus calls the Twelve, the Twelve develop a practice of internal replacement. These suggest to me the possibility that structures may, and sometimes are, the will and work of God - not all structures, and not in every circumstance.

Second, I note that the structure developed by Jesus appears to serve Jesus' purposes, and as such is neither permanent in its makeup nor fixed in its purpose, but is dynamic and adaptable in both respects, adapting to circumstances. Is dynamism and adaptability then not a model for all time. Does not survival absolutely depend on an organism's ability to adapt as circumstances change, and perhaps adapt radically?

I also note that Jesus' leadership of the Twelve, and of the Jesus Movement as a whole, while authoritative, is suggestive rather than controlling or coercive. This leads me to conclude the Jesus placed a greater value on volition than on obedience. Compliance was optional and was to be obtained by pursuasion rather than enforcement. If one has no option but to comply in matters of faith, then there no role for the human heart.

Finally, the growth of monarchical structure precedes the demand for doctrinal unity/conformity - suggesting to me that doctrinal conformity may have more to do with effectuating control than the other way around. If this is true then both the monarchical episcopate and the impulse for doctrinal conformity may in fact be human inventions. I suggest that they have to do with the rather limited human capacity to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty - not that either ambiguity or uncertainty are inherently unstable, but that humans and human communities have a profound uneasiness with regard to uncertainty.

But ambiguity and uncertainty lead to innovation, change, growth and survival. I think the Holy Spirit roams most freely in the uncertainties of life.
Brian said…
Some of us see the Holy Spirit through the study of social phenomenon. Clark Williamson was very clear (and correct) that study is prayer. Study is a spiritual discipline.

Of course the faith community can experience the Holy Spirit in more abstract and metaphorical ways. That's called worship!
Robert Cornwall said…
Brian, I like what Clark said -- study is prayer!!

John, yes the episcopate and doctrinal formulations are human inventions. But, if you look at these from a broad historical perspective, the process is dynamic and evolving. What Ignatius envisioned is but part of a longer process.

But, while ambiguity is the "mother of invention," we find it difficult to live in complete ambiguity, thus we seek to find base-lines on which to judge our comings and goings!
John said…
I think you misunderstand the point of my post - I am not saying that structure is bad or that it is unnecessary, only that Scripture suggests that structures within the church can be flexible and adaptable, and that when they become fixed, they not only become less adaptable, but will begin to replace cooperation with obedience, and needlessly insist on dogmatic positions when there should be room for the work of the Spirit.

God's relationship with humanity has always been marked by persuasion and even seduction rather than coercion. When church structures are used to demand obedience and to enforce obedience by coercive means, those structures become more clearly human devices and less authentically divinely inspired.

Popular Posts