Category Archives: Church structure: a non-conformist point of view

Church structure: a non-conformist point of view – part 3: Present day & the future

Present day

Looking around the world today, there are a myriad of different churches, run in all sorts of different ways. If anything, different church structures are the boundary lines that delimit many denominations; certainly far more than any theological differences. Indeed, if you take a random sample of church websites and compare their statement of beliefs, you would be very hard pressed to determine what denomination they are based on that alone.

Some churches, such as the CofE are extremely large and do try to ensure uniformity across their individual congregations. Many other churches are not so stringent, opting more for membership of parachurch organisations. Those I have been involved with, at one time or another and to a greater or lesser extent, include the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), Fusion, Youth For Christ, Youth With A Mission, The Icthus Fellowship and New Frontiers. All of these have different structures to them. But is any one of them right? Is any of them outright wrong?

I would say the answer is ‘no’ to both questions. Some may be questionable in the sense that there ought to be questions asked about whether the existing structure is totally appropriate for the individual churches’ needs, but I think it unwise for any one to think that theirs is superior to any other.

I despair over the rows about women in leadership. The argument against is mainly based on 1 Tim 2 when stripped of all historical context and read as a stand-alone normative instruction. I consider this view to either represent a lack of nuanced thinking on the issue or an excuse by which to preserve and enforce a pre-existing prejudice. Yet the problem the anglican communion faces is trying to preserve unity whilst satisfying those who stand on opposite sides of the divide. Yet it seems to me that ideologically the church has already split, in spite of whatever pronouncements come from the upper echelons of command and the fact that the Synod has yet to vote on it.

The troublesome thing is the idea that the church seems intent on placing unity above all other considerations. Of course, unity is important but in my view it shouldn’t be the driving force behind major decisions. I cannot escape the observation that there are parallels with the Ephesian church that John writes to in Revelation. In spite of many good things (and let’s not downplay all the good that the anglican church has had since the Reformation in many countries) the love seems to have gone out of the debate. It has been replaced by legality and argumentation. Going back to John, he wrote “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.”

As a relative outsider to the denomination, all I see is the public face of anglicanism; in other words, I see what the public sees, besides what goes on behind closed doors. Of all the characteristics that could be used to describe this public face, love is not among the first words that come to mind. Schisms are painful and can cause a lot of hurt to individuals. My parents were part of an anglican church many years ago where a small group of people challenged the status quo within that congregation and were consequently kicked out. Even when my parents went back to that same church 40 years later, when nobody was left who was present at the time, the schism was still talked about with some bitterness. Yet the group that left established the New Frontiers and Kingdom Faith churches, both of which have borne much fruit!

Of course, my own words may be read as equally unloving and that I may be guilty of spotting a speck in my sibling’s eye whilst the ignoring the plank in mine. This is not meant as a statement of condemnation, but as a prod to hopefully make you think. It’s not my intention to unnecessarily offend, so please don’t take this the wrong way!

The future?

All of the evidence presented can be interpreted in a number of different ways. I have attempted to give my interpretation, based on my understanding as it stands. There are other interpretations, some of which I have very roughly sketched, but there probably more which I have not given due consideration to here.

It seems to me that when we consider the models that have worked, and one which hasn’t, the key to keeping a church well-structured is to allow that structure to be organic in style. The church is made up of people, living in many different circumstances, in multiple cultures, across the world. The church is a) made up of people, b) meant to serve both those inside and the church and c) meant to be the “bride of Christ” whatever we mean by that bizarre phrase.

Beyond that, I don’t think it’s wise to be too strict on what shape this ought to take. To stick to traditionalist forms risks making churches anachronistic and out of touch. In a rigid hierarchy, the tendency towards thinking in terms of power instead of service becomes all the more prevalent. There is also the risk that church structure then starts to reflect class structure, with the top level (bishops, archbishops, popes) being the aristocracy, the other church leaders as the middle class and with the “laity” being the working class.

That is not to say that churches ought to be without structure. That flies in the face of both scripture and good sense. Rather, there needs to be a recognition of what church ought to be and what it is there for, with the structure then being that which exists to support, but not direct, the achievement of those goals. This is then highly dependent on the geography, history and culture of any given community. A “one-size-fits-all” model of church will be fraught with problems. What works in inner city London will be very different from what works in rural Norfolk and will again be different from what works in a Brazilian favela.

Change for the sake of change is equally as bad an idea as tradition for the sake of tradition. So I wouldn’t advocate any church having a massive sea-change in its organisational structure. That is likely to needlessly upset a lot of people and be more trouble than any gradual change. I also wouldn’t advocate any church sticking rigidly to what it already has, nomatter what. Rather, it seems both biblical and sensible for each and every community to consider what they consider the purpose of the church to be. Talk to others and collate knowledge, experience and understanding. This can then be applied to the individual community to suit the needs of both those inside and outside the church. This will inevitably be different for each community, but this need not result in any great amount of disharmony. Depending on your views on eschatology, and here I betray mine a little, we will all be unified at a later time where there will be no more denominations and we will be able to see clearly, no longer as through a dim glass as we do now.

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. But in the spirit of christian unity, I finish with this quote:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.”
1 Corinthians 12:12-14

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.

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.