Church structure: a non-conformist point of view – part 1: Jesus & The early church

This series was triggered by a link I posted on Twitter to an article on the BBC about a petition against women being ordained as bishops in the Church of England (CofE), as well as a comment I made about bickering over hierarchy being silly. The discussion moved on to whether non-conformist churches were any less hierarchical.

Twitter is probably not the best forum for discussion, given that each post is restricted to 140 characters. So I’m writing this to expand and clarify my viewpoint and to open up the comments for (hopefully) constructive discussion. This has turned out quite long so I’ve broken it up into several parts for easier reading.

Regular readers will be aware that I am a fairly independently-minded person and have a possibly unfortunate forte for pointing out foibles in others. I am not here attacking anyone and I hope no one who reads this thinks that I am trying to enforce my own agenda on others. I’m thinking out loud, as it were, along with all the flaws that come with it. In such a subjective area it is inevitable that my own biases will be evident, just as you will likely read this through the “spectacles” of your own biases.

What was the church as far as Jesus saw it?

It’s something that amazes a lot of people when it is first pointed out to them, that Jesus had very little teaching about the church. Indeed, I’ve heard some people state that Jesus had no intention of founding a church, claiming that one of his few mentions (I’m thinking here of Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s confession) was a later forgery inserted into the gospel as a way of asserting church authority.

There is the question of precisely what Jesus meant when he spoke of the “kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven” with some interpretations believing that this kingdom meant the church as an institution.

Neither of these extremities are views I subscribe to. In order to understand about what the bible has to say about church structure, we have to understand what is meant by the more general term ‘church’ which in the Greek is the word ekklesia. To translate this as church is controversial to say the least. Given that there were several centuries of history and tradition before the New Testament (NT) was translated into English, the idea of the church as a monolithic, controlling entity was well in place and understood predominantly as being the catholic church.

Yet the connotations of the word are for a congregation, assembly, group of people gathered together. It is certainly not a building, so it is very incorrect to point to a building and state “that is a church.” Rather, “that is a building in which a church commonly meets” is more accurate, if a little cumbersome.

Of the two verses in all the gospels in which he uses the word, we really can’t be certain what he had in mind; only extensive gospel studies can shed some light on the matter though I think all we can do is rule out various positive assertions, leaving us a range of possibilities. The closest I think we can come is that he meant a community of believers, living as people of God’s kingdom, according to the fulfilment of the Jewish Law which Jesus was bringing. But that is such a hazy statement with much more that needs clarification, it’s not conclusive.

What does seem clear is that the idea of a rigid organisation, governed by rules about who can and who cannot be leaders was not at the forefront of his mind.

The early church

The history of the early church is found in the book of Acts, which was most probably written by Luke, or at the very least, the same person who wrote the gospel commonly attributed to Luke.

So what does Acts tell us?

Reading through the first few chapters, we find an ever-growing group of believers, trying to make themselves heard in the heart of the Jewish world. There was the advantage that people from all over the Mediterranean were around at the time, as given in the account of Pentecost. The early believers were devoted to listening to teaching from the apostles and to communal living. At this point, the only hint of a structure is that the apostles were those who did the teaching, while everyone else listened. But the idea of communal living implies a very flat structure, with little authoritarianism being exerted by the apostles. They seemed more to act as administrators or facilitators, to use the modern parlance, than directors.

Acts 6 relates some of the practical problems that were created by having a large community. Out of practical necessity, the apostles made sure that there were enough helpers around for a specific task. Note that those chosen weren’t picked by the apostles, but that they effectively said “[sort the appointment out yourselves].”

Later on in Acts 14 we are told that “In every church they [Paul and Barnabas] appointed elders by laying hands on them.  They fasted prayed and commended to the Lord in whom they had believed.” This is the first sign of any structure starting to appear, but the term used for elder is presbyteros which is the same context as it is used earlier in Acts (particularly chapter 4) when it is used in conjunction with “rulers” and “scribes” and the high priest. So it seems that hint of structure had been copied from the existing Judaic structure that the early believers were already familiar with.

The book of Acts is by no means thorough in its treatment of the history of the church. For example, we really don’t know much about what happened to many of the apostles. The first half of the book has a strong emphasis on Peter, but he suddenly disappears mid-way, never to be seen or heard from again. We then follow Paul around the Eastern Mediterranean along with his helpers. While it is clear they were regarded as “leaders” of the early church, there isn’t much said about any formalism.

It seems clear that out of practical necessity, the early church did evolve some rudimentary structures which were based on those organisations they lived amongst and saw every day. There is no hint at all of the structure being considered normative, adhered to strictly in style or substance. Instead, the focus was on declaring first to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, crucified and resurrected; secondly, spreading that message to the Gentiles, inviting them to be part of the new community where was no longer to be a separation of Jew from Gentile, where all were equal in Christ. Any structure was a periphery to this, helping in the practical needs. Like scaffolding around a building while renovation work takes place; the shape of the scaffolding is dependent upon the shape of the building, varying from place to place, from culture to culture.

Coming up….

In the next part, I’ll look at some of Paul’s writings and take a *very* quick skim through later church history. Please note that all 3 parts of this mini-series were written prior to posting so if you think I’ve omitted something, it may be dealt with later on.

One response to “Church structure: a non-conformist point of view – part 1: Jesus & The early church

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