Church structure: a non-conformist point of view – part 2: Paul and later developments

Paul’s view

When it comes to church structure, one of the most explicit texts may be found in 1 Timothy. As with Jesus’ statement to Peter that Peter’s declaration of Jesus’ Messiahship should be the rock upon which the church should be founded, so there are some who propose that much of Paul’s pastoral letters are forgeries. For a more detailed look at this issue, and my critique of it, please see here.

Without having the space to present a thorough discourse on Paul’s view of the church, I shall try to be disciplined in restricting to those that refer to what we might think of as “hierarchy.”

I Tim 3 gives instructions on the qualifications for overseers (episkopous) and ministers (diakonous). Again, how these words are translated often reflect one’s own view, as they are often translated bishops and deacons, respectively. Such translations, however, are very anachronistic as the modern connotations of those latter words are loaded with centuries of history and tradition which were not present when Paul was writing in the 1st century.

Yet this still doesn’t seem to prescribe a set hierarchy. Rather, these are instructions for the type of people who ought to be in roles that seem to have already existed. In other words, Paul isn’t saying that there must be overseers (bishops), but rather he assumes that if there are overseers (bishops) then this is how they ought to manage themselves and their family. The same is true with the ministers (deacons). There is no imperative of how many there ought to be or of the scope of each of their ministries. For example, it doesn’t specify whether an overseer has oversight over a single community or over multiple communities in a given geographical area.

That is not to say there isn’t a hint of a kind of rank. Implicitly an overseer must oversee and therefore has some “higher” position than others. Yet the model of leadership that Jesus demonstrated and taught was radically different from that which existed in either Judaism or in the Roman military that would have been familiar in the region at that time. With the gospel being passed around predominantly in oral form (with the possibility of some written gospels being available at this time) it is likely that any church community would have been familiar with the topsy-turvy notion of leadership as service, exemplified by Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet.

A little later on, Paul asks that the elders be given double honour (Greek: time, pronounced tim-ay) which has connotation of respect, value, nobility or cost. So Paul may have asked that they be given double-pay, especially when you consider what he goes on to say in verse 18. So again, there are hints of kind of structure, but it is by no means prescriptive. So far, it follows very much what we might consider “common sense” but with the idea of a leader a servant still pervading the thought process.

We cannot discuss Paul and the church without looking at 1 Corinthians 12. In particular, to look at verses 27-31. To get the right picture, it has to be understood in context. Paul has been writing to the believers in Corinth about spiritual gifts within a wider context of correcting what appears to have been quite a dysfunctional and chaotic church. So in some respects, the whole book is about church life and the way individuals ought to act as part of the communal body.

This is the first time we see the notion that church structures may be something that are not man-made, but are God-ordained instead. Then there may be hints of a structure. To some it may be very clear since Paul writes “first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…” but this may be simply the order in which they were appointed, rather than saying that were appointed to be a hierarchy. What may blow a hole in this theory is the idea of prophets being appointed after apostles. After all, the notion of the apostle was one that Jesus began when he sent out the disciples (apostle meaning ‘one who is sent out’). Yet the prophets were around in the Old Testament as well. So we may have the possibility that Paul is acting as something of a revisionist and possibly claiming that the likes of Abraham or Moses were apostles. Otherwise, how could the apostles be appointed before the prophets?

From my perspective, I really don’t know. There are several ways this could be understood, but I can’t see if any one of them is more convincing than any other. So I will stay agnostic on this point and, as ever, I welcome any reason or evidence that any of you can provide which may help clarify the matter.

Later developments

As christianity spread outwards from its central base in Jerusalem, so the number of churches grew. It seems likely that the structure the churches adopted was dependent upon the cultural norms in which they found themselves. So in Jerusalem and Judea there was a mirroring of the Jewish hierarchy, but with a much “looser” structure that suited a new community finding its identity. Further afield, the churches were more Hellenistic in nature.

By the turn of the century, there does seem to be a development of hierarchy that is more definite in shape, though varying from place to place. If you read through later non-canonical sources such as the writings of Clement of Rome, The Didache or Ignatius of Antioch, you will find a variety of terms used such as prophet, overseer, elder, etc. Yet there is no agreement on who takes precedence over whom.

The need for some kind of structure was clear. If christianity was to be some sort of proto-anarchist community, how would orthodoxy be preserved? Several New Testament books make reference to guarding against false teaching (though we have little idea about what precisely was being taught) and the later patristic period, most notably exemplified by the writings of Tertullian, were replete with defences of orthodoxy and attacks on heresies. This does, of course, depend on the idea of the existence of a “Pre-Nicene” orthodoxy; an idea not universally accepted. Personally, I think it did exist but that it cannot be condensed into creedal form. Rather, it is to be found in the totality of the canonical New Testament. Others may well disagree with me on this.

What is clear is that over centuries a definite system was built up which ultimately ended up with what we would recognise as the catholic church which made its home in Rome just as the previous Empire was declining. This was no longer a church as the apostles would have recognised it, but an organisation that exerted rule by decree rather than teaching with gentleness and respect. There were many additions tacked onto christian teaching, such as the forbidding of marriage of the clergy which, according to Paul, is something enacted by “liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron.” The nadir was reached with election of Rodrigo Borgia as pope.

It was no wonder that having veered so far from anything recognisable as christianity that the Reformation occurred shortly afterwards. Amongst the many reforms that happened (mostly theological, some political; more than can be dealt with here) was what would be done with church structures. Some churches opted to copy very closely the catholic model; this is highly evident in Anglicanism. Other churches opted for less hierarchical structures, such as the Quakers and the Methodists. But in general, the point was that there was a return to the early church where practicality was the driving force, whilst being aware of not concentrating power in a limited number of individuals, where temptation and opportunity for megalomania is heightened.

Coming up…

Having left this part with a bit of a loose end, I will come to a conclusion in the final part of the series. Here, I’ll look at the present day and give my own view (remember that I speak only for myself, not for any individual church, denomination or organisation) as to the future. Within this, I’ll also be making clear my mind on the issue of women in church leadership, the topic which prompted me to write this mini-series.


One response to “Church structure: a non-conformist point of view – part 2: Paul and later developments

  1. I can’t comment for the Catholic Church- but you seem to have bypassed a very real sense in the structured church that the different roles are simply that. All ordained elders in the Church of England remain deacons.. you never get ‘promoted’ out of that. You are still set aside by a local community to fulfil a specific set of functions in the life of the church if you are then ordained priest or made Bishop.. its only the capitalist bit of us that still wants to see this as hierarchy.. because we believe in promotions and better pay the further you go and all that..

    You probably also want to look at the experience of the Orthodox Church..