Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What is the Biblical Form of Church Government?

Yesterday's feast day, the Feast of the Chair of Peter, and today's Feast of St. Polycarp (an early bishop), bring up to my mind the issue of the structure and government of the Church.

During my years of training to become a Calvinist pastor, the issue of church polity was quite a live one.  Calvinists themselves do not agree on what is the "biblical model" for church government.  Presbyterian, Reformed, and Congregational denominations share a Calvinist doctrinal heritage but different governing structures.  There was more or less a consensus that the New Testament was unclear about the manner in which church leaders should be selected and what their roles were.

It may be true that the New Testament leaves much unsaid about the role of church leaders, but I don't think it is as unclear as we thought it was.  Rather, I think that what was clear was not seen by us, because it was unacceptable and unworkable for us.

I'm convinced that the New Testament shows a top-down Church governing structure in which each generation of leaders appoints the next, tracing back to the apostles.  In other words, apostolic succession.

The principle of apostolic succession is that the leadership of the Church, by which we mean primarily, but not only, the bishops, were appointed by the previous generation of leaders, and they in turn by a previous generation, all the way back to the apostles, who appointed the Church’s first generation of leaders during their own lifetimes.  Thus, the bishops are successors of the apostles in the sense that they fulfill the apostles’ role, which is one of leadership or oversight (episkope in Greek).

We see this pattern in Acts.

Acts 1:12-26, the replacement of Judas by Matthias, is significant.  It does not prove apostolic succession.  But it demonstrates two important points: (1) The apostles had a role or office, which did not necessarily cease with their death, (2) this role is described, among other things, as an episkopen, an “oversight” (“his office [espiskopen] let another take”, Acts 1:20 rsv).  Calling the apostles’ role an episkopen shows the connection between the apostles and the later leaders of the Church, who are frequently called episkopoi (in English, “bishops”: Acts 2:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:7).

In Acts 1, the church is growing already (120 people, Acts 1:15) and the apostles are short on leadership, because they are missing Judas.  So he is replaced by Matthias.  The apostles are back up to full strength of numbers.

In the beginning of the Church, they are able to perform all the roles of leadership, but this quickly becomes too much.  They appoint more leaders (Acts 6:3), by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:60), to share the burden with them.

Later yet, the Church is going to spread all over the Mediterranean, to places the apostles cannot get to easily.  Then, the apostles appoint other men to share in the “oversight” (episkopen).  These men are called presbuteroi, “elders”, from which we get the English word “priest”: see Acts 14:23

In the beginning there is no distinction between presbuteroi and episkopoi: compare Acts 20:17 and 20:28.  Later, these roles will be differentiated.  It is like tissue in an unborn baby: at first the organs are one lump of cells, but they differentiate into different organs in time.  In a similar way, the apostles had the role of bishop, priest, and deacon all wrapped in one, but these roles differentiate in time.  All clergy share in Holy Orders and at least partially in apostolic succession, since they fulfill roles of leadership originally held by the apostles.

The leadership of the early Church was always appointed by the apostles, not elected.  This pattern holds in Acts and also the Pastoral Epistles (see Titus 1:5).  Even in exceptional cases, like Paul, who is made an apostle directly by Jesus, such a person goes to the apostles to receive confirmation (see Acts 9:27; Gal 1:18; 2:1-2, 9). If you ponder this principle of appointing leaders, you will see that it is a top-down structure, and it implies apostolic succession: all the church’s leaders, if legitimate, ought to be able to trace their appointment to the apostles, handed on in succession.
Look at Titus 1:5.  Titus is Paul’s representative, his “child in faith” (1:4).  Paul tells Titus to appoint presbuteroi and episkopoi (elders/priests and bishops, 1:5, 7) for Crete in every town.  Appointing such people was something Paul used to do personally [Acts 14:23].  Now he’s passing the authority on to Titus.  This shows us apostolic succession.

Look at Acts 20:28-37.  Paul knows he is being taken away from the Church of Ephesus.  He will no longer be able to lead them, due to imprisonment and ultimately death (20:29, 38).  He passes them the torch of episkopen to them (20:28).  Again, this shows us apostolic succession.  The elders/overseers (in our usual terminology, priests/bishops) will guide the Church in Paul’s absence.


Luke said...

Great post Dr. Bergsma. I've always wondered how Protestants justify their "recruiting" and "hiring" of pastors. Having the congregation choose its pastor based on their theological / ideological preferences appears completely unbiblical to me.

Anonymous said...

The Scriptures give a pretty through view of hierarchy, from excommunication to councils to ordination to celibacy. It's just that the terminology is ancient, not modern, so it can be confusing.

Bill Heroman said...

The NT absolutely displays top-down supervision, which is to say, oversight. But that is not the same thing as government, which is to say, authoritative administration.

The offices/functions you list are not primarily given as directors, commanders, or initiative takers. They do not "govern" in the sense of what we call "leadership". They oversee. They watch. They shepherd. They equip. They protect. They disciple. They serve. But they do not "govern".

They do not manage. They supervise.

Certainly, teachers teach, with whatever frequency. But a congregation is supposed to be equipped for the ministry. At least, according to the NT.

But then, I don't believe Christian believers should necessarily try to be just like the early church.

Matthew Kennel said...

Thanks Dr. Bergsma. I like the analogy to an unborn baby. In fact, given that I took an entire class on Development of Doctrine that focused on Newman, I can't believe I didn't think of the analogy. Thanks for shedding some light on this!

Anonymous said...


Catholic Bishops govern, teach and sanctify. They are governors, teachers and sanctifiers. Because they are vicars of He Who is the One Governor, Teacher and Sanctifier: Jesus Christ, God in the flesh.

Luke said...

I think that is a false distinction Bill. "Supervising" or "overseeing" necisarily entails "governing." Just as a father must "govern" his family by issuing commands and orders to protect it from danger, so to do the "Fathers" of God's flock "govern" the family of God. Love requires one to act for the sake of the beloved. Of course, Bishops delegate their authority, taking advantage of the gifts which the Spirit gives, but they alone have the responsibility to protect and guide God's flock.

Bill Heroman said...

Thanks for the comments back, and forgive me that I won't argue semantics. But just for the record, brothers, let me make clear that I don't think Protestant or independent Bible Church Pastors are any more or less "Biblical" than Catholic Priests and Bishops.

And again, I say we don't necessarily have to be "Biblical". If you base church polity on scriptural principle, you've got better arguments, imho.

But if John wants to argue that the present-day clerical hierarchy is solidly modeled after the pattern of activity represented by these glimpses of office(s)/gift(s)/function(s) in the NT, well, I just flat out don't see it at all.

Blessings and Joy

Louis said...

Thanks Dr. Bergsma. That is a topic of interest to me.

Interestingly I used to believe that the Successor of Peter (the Pope) was in the Apostolic "line" of St. Peter, meaning that if you were to trace the pope's ordination lineage you would end up with Peter. Of course that is silly. The Sucessor of Peter, as I understand it, means that he succeeds Peter in his ROLE as shepherd for the whole church. The replacement of Judas by Matthias shows that succeeding does not necessarily mean having been ordained by that very apostle (since Judas was already dead when Matthias was chosen!).

I believe strongly that authority is integral to succession. I once asked a very zealous cult member in Boston (12 Tribes) if in his community anyone can decide to appoint himself teacher or leader. He said with passion, "NO! He has to be appointed by one with authority."

"Oh", I said, "then who appointed the founder of your group? Who gave him authority?" (founded in the 1970s).

"Good question" as he pondered. Then he claimed that maybe he received his authority like Paul.

"But even Paul went to Jerusalem to submit his teachings to the apostles. So to whom did the founder go?"

He realized that that could be an issue. Somehow the conversation ended...

Louis said...

When I had some Jehovah's Witnesses over my house, I decided that before we went further in our "study" we had to establish our authority, or since they presumed to come to teach me they had to establish theirs. "Jesus sent us" they said.
"Yeah but how? Through an organization?"
They were not ready to go there.

We then took up their assumption of the the canon of the Bible. I challenged them to tell me how this canon came about. Unfortunately, we got sidetracked in talking about Deuterocanonical issues. That was a mistake. I should have stuck to the first point about authority. If someone comes to your door claiming to have the insight into the fulness of truth and will ask you to change your whole life, they better have an the authority for that. Unfortunately we eventually lost contact.

There seems to be an apparent tension between Galatians 1 and Galatians 2. In chapter 1:16b-18 Pauls says "immediately I condescended not to flesh and blood. 17 Neither went I to Jerusalem, to the apostles who were before me: but I went into Arabia, and again I returned to Damascus. 18 Then, after three years, I went to Jerusalem to see Peter: and I tarried with him fifteen days."

The first part of the passage seems to be saying that he did not even see a need to check with the first apostles (which could make verse 18 more powerful in its implications for why he felt he wanted to see Peter-
despite not seeing the others-showing that Peter held an esteemed role of authority in his eyes.

Chapter 2 seems to support more the idea that he needed to submit his teachings to the "pillars" James, Peter and john or at least to get confirmation of his teaching by them.

So on the one hand (Chapter 1) he seems to be saying "I did not even need to submit to the first apostles" (granted he was trying to emphasize the divine origin of his message) and on the other (chapter 2) he seems to be saying that he felt he needed to go get confirmation of his teaching from the pillars James, Peter and John.

Any thoughts on those passages? Can someone today, like the founder of the Twelve Tribes or any other new denomination or church-like community claim that just like Paul was selected apart from the other apostles he too was especially called and anointed? In my eyes, obviously no because although Paul was an exceptional case, he still recognized the authority of his brother apostles especially that of Peter and was willing to submit his gospel to him and the other pillars. Any new so-called prophet that rises today claiming to have a direct appointment by the Lord must be able to submit to the apostles, that is to their successors today. Would the so-called prophet be willing to submit or does he think he is the end-all? Even Paul was not the end-all.

What do you think?

John Bergsma said...

@bill: Yes, I guess that's what I do want to argue. The Church is much larger, and the burden of administration is much greater in modern society. Priests and bishops are hopelessly overworked. But I do not share what I sense to be a cynicism about the "clerical hierarchy." I know probably a couple hundred priests and half a dozen bishops personally, and they have a pastoral heart. They know that their mission is to preach and pastor, and they try to do so. They all feel bogged down by the weight of paperwork and organization that comes from having a functional role in modern society.

John Bergsma said...

Louis: A short and inadequate response: Paul is an exceptional figure, who receives authority from the risen Christ--yet even he concedes that it was eventually necessary to go to Peter and present his gospel "lest he had been running in vain." Then he receives the "right hand of fellowship", a sign of ecclesial communion. So I would say: perhaps it is possible for someone to receive authority through a supernatural encounter with Christ, but were that to happen today, such a person would have to establish communion with the Bishop of Rome before I would trust his authority. God is not a God of disorder, but of peace.

Louis said...

And as I went through the references you gave, in Galatians particularly, that was exactly my conclusion too. I like the further clarification of emphasizing Paul's saying "lest I had been running in vain" which indicates that although he received his authority directly from the Risen Christ, he nonetheless felt that he needed confirmation from Peter. Wow! The implications are huge. The extraordinary experience he had did not remove the necessity to be confirmed by and be in communion with Peter. If a prophet is truly from Christ he will be with Peter, because Peter is the one with the keys. Beautiful!

Bill Heroman said...

John, thanks for the reply. I had hoped the term "clerical hierarchy" didn't necessarily carry a negative connotation. I'll admit having used it that way elsewhere, yes. But here, honestly, I was just trying to be precise in description.

In all sincerity, I support your priests and their hearts. As far as I'm concerned they can all govern on, just as long as they Govern via God. I sometimes wish I felt content under such benevolent government, and you have no idea how deeply I mean that.

But on the topic of your post, historically speaking, I just don't see "government" in the hands of the New Testament 'officers'.

Growing up in LA, I'd gathered the traditional Roman Catholic view was that church polity developed over time, via God's guidance, and that the Catholic Church today is what the early church naturally grew to become. But until this post, I'd never seen nor heard a Roman Catholic defending the position that priests and bishops match the new testament pattern.

Did I miss that? Was it not well known, even among Catholics? Or is this approach somewhat new?

Bill Heroman said...

LA - meaning Louisiana (Baton Rouge)

John Bergsma said...

Dear Bill: Thanks for the comments. The Roman Catholic hierarchy may seem complex, but in the final analysis there are only three roles: episkopos (overseer), presbuteros (elder), and diaconos (deacon). Etymologically, the English terms "bishop," "priest," and "deacon" are directly derived from the Greek words. These are all terms employed for leaders of the Church in the New Testament.

In your objection to "government" in the hands of "officers", I'm not sure exactly what you are getting at. Do you think the early Church was not governed? Or that its leaders didn't exercise authority? What then should we make of passages like Heb. 13:17: "Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account." But I feel like I'm missing the point you're trying to make, so feel free to clarify.

I would agree with the description, "the Catholic Church today is what the early church naturally grew to become." It's an article of the Catholic faith that the fundamental structure of the church's hierarchy--for example, apostolic succession and the threefold division of offices into episkopoi, presbuteroi, and diakonoi--comes to us from the apostles and is reflected in an early form in the New Testament itself. It may be that Catholics in recent times have forgotten or overlooked the relationship between the Scriptural record and the Church's practice, but the points I made in the post were being made by St. Francis de Sales in the Reformation period, and probably others even earlier.

Bill Heroman said...

John, I deeply appreciate the education in that last paragraph.

On the difference we still have, I can't do much better than "supervise not manage".

I think there were ones in the churches of NT days who exercised authority, but I believe it's more accurate to view such exercise as being occasional, not regular. Also, I don't think "over" equates to "lead". I don't see "lead" or "leader" overly much in these NT passages; and yet today, people use the word "leader" as if synonymous with elder/shepherd/overseer. It's just not.

A leader directs, taking charge. A shepherd shepherds, which is very different, most of the time.

John Bergsma said...

Dear Bill: I don't understand the distinction that is being made, but that's OK, I'm content with not being able to understand everything! :) God bless you and yours and thanks for reading the blog and giving feedback!