I recently posted about the Trail of Blood, a booklet based upon the sermon series by a Baptist pastor named J. M. Carroll. Carroll was preaching on the “history” of putative faithful “Baptists” from the 1st century down to the 20th. Since, according to Brother Carroll, “Baptists” did not always go by that name, he listed some “marks” by which those reading historical accounts might recognize faithful “Baptists” and their churches by any other name. He mentions, for example, that those churches would celebrate only two “ordinances,” the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and that baptism was, of course, by immersion only. He tells us that those churches would have “two kinds of officers and two only – pastors and deacons. The pastor was called ‘Bishop.’ Both pastor and deacons to be selected by the church and to be servants of the church.” And he explains that:
The churches in their government and discipline to be entirely separate and independent of each other, Jerusalem to have no authority over Antioch–nor Antioch over Ephesus; nor Ephesus over Corinth, and so forth. And their government to be congregational, democratic. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Sounds like Pastor Carroll was under the impression that Abe Lincoln was one of the Twelve, or at least one of the 72. While his historical grasp may have been a little shaky, Carroll was not alone in his belief that true Christian churches must be governed democratically. This is a common theme in independent churches, the idea that the early Christians were kind of the forerunners of the French Revolution, Christians who embraced their own peculiar version of the three theological virtues: Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité! Freedom fighters by their very God-given nature, these believers abhorred the specter of monarchy in any form. “The truth will set you FREE!” was tattooed on the left bicep of each proto-Baptist, and anyone who tried to tell them what to do could go take a hike, right up the steps of the guillotine platform.
This congregational system of government is described thus by Dr. Andreas Köstenberger (Wake Forest):
In churches practicing congregational polity authority is vested in the church as a whole, although it is a matter of debate to what extent the church is able to delegate this authority to church leaders and whether or not church leaders’ authority is derived from the congregation or directly from Christ. Typically, in a congregational system the church does the following: (1) select, appoint, and, if necessary, remove church leaders; (2) (help) guard pure doctrine; (3) exercise church discipline and decide on church membership; (4) participate in major decisions affecting the entire congregation (Dever, Display of God’s Glory, 31–43). Usually, the congregation operates in democratic fashion by way of regular church business meetings at which each member has an equal voice and vote. It is often noted, however, that some of these procedures may owe more to the political democratic system than New Testament teaching.
“Autonomy” is the watchword of these folks, just as it was that of the first Christians. Independent churches (that is, many Baptist churches, some nondenominational assemblies, charismatic fellowships, and Church of Christ congregations) may not have much to do with each other, but they do have a lot in common; they are all independently governed and egalitarian, following the system of checks and balances set up by Jesus Himself.
So, if an independent church answers to no man, who exactly does the governing? Well, probably the pastor, you’re thinking. Think again. Think: One man, one vote. Under a system where pastors are literally voted in and out of office, there is no question that the congregation retains final authority. Ponder that for a moment. The congregation – that’s Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Smith, Aunt Lou, Cousin Billy Bob and his fiancée, Nora Mae, as well as Billy Bob’s 18-year-old high school senior daughter from his first marriage – are in charge of distinguishing between orthodox and heterodox doctrine…. Should the pastor start to get “out of line,” theologically speaking, he will soon be getting into line – the unemployment line. And what makes Nora Mae believe that she has the doctrinal understanding to distinguish between all the fine theological nuances that can bring a pastor under suspicion of heresy? She’s been well educated in Biblical doctrine, dontcha know – by Pastor Jones, whom she helped elect last year as pastor of her church….
Don’t bother trying to fathom that – it won’t become any clearer upon reflection.
But it’s BIBLICAL – independent church-goers will tell you. There is no such thing in the Christian church as a hierarchy, because the Bible says:
…you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Pet 2:5
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Pet 2:9
He has proved his love for us, by washing us clean from our sins in his own blood, and made us a royal race of priests, to serve God, his Father. Rev 1:5-6
There it is, all laid out for everyone with eyes to see: THE PRIESTHOOD OF THE BELIEVER! There’s even historical documentation of how well government of the people, by the people, and for the people worked in the history of the church – the Council of Nicaea! Those godly pastors studied their Bibles, and then held a big meeting to decide the question of the deity of Christ, and the doctrine of the Trinity won by a majority vote! See how the Holy Spirit works through the Christian democratic system?
Silly you – you always thought it was something about the Catholic bishops meeting in council to guard the good deposit which was entrusted to them through the help of the Holy Spirit living in them….
So Jesus envisioned the independent church system, and instructed his apostles in democratic decision-making techniques. We know how important this was to Him from the many Bible verses in which this is discussed, verses like:
The Democratic People’s Republic of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel! (Mk 1:15)
And Jesus went from town to town preaching the gospel of the Democratic People’s Republic of Heaven. (Mt 9:35)
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the Democratic People’s Republic of Heaven. (Mt 13:10-11)
…there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the Democratic People’s Republic of God come with power! (Mk 9:1)
And let us not forget that beautiful verse that so many independent church-goers have embroidered on couch pillows:
The Democratic People’sRepublic of God is within you.
Of course, from an independent church point of view, a church hierarchy, one with deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals and (shudder!) a pope, is just of the devil, as Martin Luther went to great lengths to point out in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church:
How if they were compelled to admit that we all, so many as have been baptized, are equally priests? We are so in fact, and it is only a ministry which has been entrusted to them, and that with our consent. They would then know that they have no right to exercise command over us, except so far as we voluntarily allow of it. Thus it is said: “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” (1 Pet. ii. 9.) Thus all we who are Christians are priests; those whom we call priests are ministers chosen from among us to do all things in our name; and the priesthood is nothing else than a ministry. Thus Paul says: “Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (1 Cor. iv. 1.)
Luther was of the egalitarian opinion that God had never intended for certain people to exercise real, meaningful spiritual authority over others. And there’s Biblical precedent for that, too – Numbers 16:1-3.
Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took action, and they rose up before Moses, together with some of the sons of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen in the assembly, men of renown. They assembled together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?”
And where did Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi get this idea that Moses and Aaron couldn’t tell him what to do? From the Bible – Exodus 19:5-6!
Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine, and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi and his buddies deduced from God’s statement recorded in Exodus 19:5-6 that
since the nation of Israel was “a kingdom of priests,” God had not established a ministerial priesthood to lead his people, and therefore Moses and Aaron “have no right to exercise command over us, except so far as we voluntarily allow of it,” as Luther, son of Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi and his buddies liked to phrase it. Things didn’t end too well for old Korah, come to think of it….
When Moses heard this, he fell on his face; and he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, “Tomorrow morning the LORD will show who is His, and who is holy, and will bring him near to Himself; even the one whom He will choose, He will bring near to Himself.
Thus Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the doorway of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the LORD appeared to all the congregation. Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.” But they fell on their faces and said, “O God, God of the spirits of all flesh, when one man sins, will You be angry with the entire congregation?” Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the congregation, saying, ‘Get back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.'” Then Moses arose and went to Dathan and Abiram, with the elders of Israel following him, and he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing that belongs to them, or you will be swept away in all their sin.” So they got back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the doorway of their tents, along with their wives and their sons and their little ones. Moses said, “By this you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these deeds; for this is not my doing. “If these men die the death of all men or if they suffer the fate of all men, then the LORD has not sent me. “But if the LORD brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the LORD.” As he finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah with their possessions. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. Numbers 16:4-5, 18-33
The thing independent church-goers often get confused about is the fact that the Bible doesn’t actually teach the doctrine of the “priesthood of the believer.” Check out those verses again – it’s the ROYAL priesthood. This makes sense, since Christ is our King and we His co-heirs. The Kingdom isn’t a democracy – it’s a monarchy, and the royal household is administered by the royal steward, the master of His palace (Is 22:20-23; Mt 16:18-19) who acts as the King’s representative. As Jesus never declared unto Simon Peter in Matthew 16: “I will give you the keys to the town hall of the Democratic People’s Republic of Heaven, where you shall hold interminable meetings at which each believer will have an equal voice and vote!”
Just as the Israelites were “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” so too Christians are “a royal race of priests.” Just as every Israelite under the Old Covenant was a “priest” and yet still subject to the ministerial priesthood God established under the leadership of Aaron and his successors, so too Christians under the New Covenant are all “priests” and yet still subject to the ministerial priesthood God established under the leadership of Peter and his successors. And thus, as Christians we need never pray “For Thine is the Democratic People’s Republic!” It’s God’s Kingdom we’re citizens of, where rightful authority is a given, and obedience is a virtue, a Kingdom in which the admonition “Obey your leaders and submit to them” has real meaning, rather than the vertigo-inducing “obey your leaders and submit to them until you happen to disagree with their interpretation of the Bible, and then vote them out of office, or split the church, or find a church whose leaders are preaching something more in line with the way you read your Bible, at least until you happen to disagree with them and then start the whole sorry cycle all over again….”
It’s the Catholic Church, with a pope, with bishops, with priests and deacons, a hierarchy which unites every parish with every other parish into one Church, one Body. It’s not a hard concept. Remember, all that liberté! égalité! fraternité! stuff doesn’t always end real well, and (Brother Carroll’s beliefs notwithstanding) Christian it ain’t. Unity is the theme of God’s Kingdom, a unity rooted in the same Faith and the same blessed Hope that Catholics of whatever parish share, a unity that stems from Love. And yes, that necessitates a hierarchy, to serve and to shepherd us, to direct and to discipline us, to love and to lead us royal priests safely into the Kingdom of God.
On the memorial of St. Ulrich of Zell
Deo omnis gloria!