What shape the church?
With the failures – in a variety of forms – within much of institutionalised churchianity many believers are now looking critically at a range of underlying issues. This essay by Steve Taylor speaks into the how matters relating to authority and church structures have evolved.
Ed preface: There are most likely several contributing factors, but the present time has seen a rise and rise in the number of believers who are unhappy which much of what they see in (heavily-) organised churchianity. The most-recent and tragic example being the very public rebellion by the national Church of Scotland regarding God's standards on human sexuality and the failure by the denomination to exercise any discipline on these issues. But at one level what were seeing are merely symptoms of even deeper problems.
Into all of this many are asking serious and fundamental questions about church structures and the modus operandii of formal church life. Many small groups of believers are now meeting together in ways which are more organic than institutional; more relational than formal; more 'priesthood of all believers' than hierarchical.
What follows are the first two chapters of an essay written by Steve Taylor. Though written over 10 years ago, it resonates into the general situation of today with as much relevance as it had then.
The document comprises six chapters, but it is being presented in 'bite-sized' chunks to allow each section to be considered separately. (See 'Footnote' also.)
The Abuse of Authority
by Steve Taylor
(see Footnote for subsequent chapters)
CHAPTER 1 - THE BACKGROUND
Our society, in common with most of the western world, bases its government and other organisations on a pyramid structure – one person is at the top, many layers sit below and the majority – the broad base – is at the bottom. It is a typical authority structure, common throughout the world over the ages.
The boss at the top is in charge and, through his many subordinates, he directs and controls his staff, citizens or members. All of us are familiar with it – indeed our everyday lives are governed this way.
The same dynamic can be found in church structures; and one of the great problems which faced the church, almost from its inception, was – and still is – rooted in this matter of authority. This issue is also at the heart of many of the problems we face today and is often the reason for the division and strife we find within Christendom. Who rules? This was also the question at the root of the contention between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day. They viewed Jesus as a threat to their authority structure! He was an outsider; a heretical teacher who failed to conform to the norm the elders had established.
In the face of Jesus’ ministry these leaders felt their power and influence was at stake (Luke 20; 1-2; Mark 11:27-33). They demanded unquestioned obedience from the people and if anyone dared question their authority or traditions, the fury of their wrath was sure to follow. This can be clearly seen in the incident of the man born blind but healed by Jesus, recorded in the gospel of John (John 9:1 - 34).
In stark contrast Jesus stated that his followers should not follow such a pattern: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 25 - 28)
In our own day the pressure to conform to the dogmas of any given religious group is seen most clearly in movements or cults such as the Jehovah's Witnesses. Such an organisation demands unquestioned adherence to the beliefs of the organisation and will use both psychological pressure and its authority structure to enforce compliance.
Closer to home however, in churches we would recognise as evangelical and orthodox in doctrine and practice, we find that the same means are employed in a slightly milder manner. Sadly, many Christian people, including clergy, when they discover that another Christian is not of their ‘brand’ or denomination, have no interest or brotherly concern for the individual. Such a reaction places upon that person a psychological pressure to conform in order to be accepted as part of the group. The same principal is employed in the world where, to be accepted as ‘one of the boys/girls’, one must fit in with the pattern of that particular group.
Once inside such a group or organisation the same pressure is employed – in the full knowledge that failure to continue to support the accepted views, or to question them, will bring upon the individual the displeasure of the leaders and members. It is just such a pressure that will keep a Jehovah’s Witness within the organisation, even although he/she has discovered that it is a teacher of false doctrine. It is to be feared that this same pressure keeps many a Christian within an organisation/church system they know to be unfaithful to the revealed will and word of God.
It is for this reason that, even within many of our evangelical churches, freedom of conscience exercised within the framework of adherence to the fundamentals of historic Christianity, becomes unacceptable. This is a dangerous drift and the result of it can be seen in many tragic situations, both throughout history and even in our own day.
Centuries ago Martin Luther, who himself was the child of such circumstances wrote: "A Christian man is a free Lord over everything and subject to no one". But he also stated: "A Christian man is an obedient servant in everything and subject to everyone". Although these statements appear contradictory, the two sides of the coin can be found in 1 Corinthians 9: 19, where the Apostle Paul says, "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible". The difference here lies between a submission enforced by men who claim a superior position and insist on subjection to their authority, as opposed to a submission and service that comes freely from the heart of the individual.
Such an incident is recorded in Galatians 2:4 - 5, when the apostle describes a situation whereby: "This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves". As Paul sums up the danger of such a situation and argues against it he affirms: "The only thing that counts is FAITH expressing itself through LOVE" (Galatians 5:6). In these words the Apostle sums up the essence of freedom in the Christian life. Here we do not find any hint of fear, psychological or otherwise. There is nothing negative, but the positive motivations of faith and love. It is in these that we find the best deterrent against wrongdoing and the greatest motivation for good works.
But the history of the church, both past and present, is evidence of the fact that, so often, we have failed to learn this lesson. Someone has written, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.
Our Christian freedom can so often be lost, not is a sudden violent moment, but by subtle erosion – so that gradually the individual Christian relinquishes the God given right to exercise his or her conscience; to think for themselves; to arrive at his own conclusions and convictions, and finally accepts a second-hand faith based on the convictions and reasoning of others.
This is very often the case when a group, a church or a denomination, through its leaders – either by inference or directly – claim to be the sole agent of understanding God's truth. This attitude and claim is not limited to the cults but can be observed in many churches and Christian groups which are, to all intents and purposes, evangelistic in doctrine and practice.
Such a situation most often arrives through a man (or men) seeking to impose his/their will and opinion upon others. The Lord repeatedly warned His disciples against such a situation. It was as a result of the corrupted tendency of the human heart for domination that the early Christian congregation was changed from a brotherhood, united in the bonds of love and a basic belief in the fundamentals of the faith, to a hierarchal system of institutionalised religion.
The basic problem therefore lies in two areas: -
1 - A misunderstanding or misapplication of biblical authority.
2 - The abuse of authority.
For the true believer, ultimately Christ alone must be the sole source of authority (1 Cor.11: 3, 12:4-11; 1 Cor 11:27-31). The roles in scripture which are so often used to justify an authority structure – Shepherd, Apostle, Prophet, Teacher, Elder etc. – are not offices or ranks in an authority structure but rather services (ministries) to be rendered to the church, Christ's body.
These services are for the up building of the church, the people of God, so that they may grow to be mature Christians; not constantly dependent on others to think for them (See Eph 4:11-16, 1 Cor.3: 1-3; Heb.5: 12-14).
Paul in writing to Timothy presents the Christian community in terms of family relationships (1 Tim.5: 1-2). Those who were older in the faith and in Christian experience could serve in a similar way to an older brother in a family. While as elder son he may be expected and entrusted to keep the instructions of the head of the family, in no sense should be presume to act as if he were the head of the family, or to make rules and regulations other than those given by the head.
So it should be in the Christian family. Christ is the head and master. He has left his instructions. We are all members of his family. The younger should be subject to the older. The older should serve in love and grace but never in a condescending and authoritarian manner.
But very early in the history of the church, the principles of family relationships and mutual subjection to one another had become corrupted.
By 325 AD we discover that a council of bishops, presided over by Constantine had produced a creed to which Christians everywhere were expected to subscribe.
What were the factors that made possible; this alteration of the Christian community from a simple brotherhood to an authoritarian church system?
CHAPTER 2 - THE CORRUPTION OF THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
The first sign of corruption seems to have come with a change in the view regarding the place and role of elders or presbyters (the Greek term for elder being ‘presbyteros’). Instead of being seen as elder brothers serving in the family, the claim that they held a special relationship with God – distinct from and superior to their fellow believers – began to emerge.
While it is true that elders in the New Testament had authority it is clear that it was authority to serve, not to subjugate others (Matthew 20: 25 – 28; Matt. 23: 10 – 11; 2 Corinthians 1:24).
The elder’s authority is seen in dealing with error by truthful argument and persuasion, in a spirit of humility and by example (Titus 1:9 - 13; 1 Peter 5:1 - 5). The principle outlined in these scriptures must always be kept in mind and other scriptures seen and understood in the light of them. For instance Hebrews 13:17 exhorts us "be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you, be submissive....” At face value one may think that this text exhorts an automatic submission to persons who takes the lead, but Jesus Himself warned against the dangers of this (Matt 23:8-12).
When we examine the context of Hebrews 13, we discover that the Greek word ‘peithomai’ rendered ‘be obedient’ in our Bible also has the sense ‘to trust; to be convinced; to believe; to follow’. W.E. Vine in his Expository Dictionary notes in this connection - "The obedience suggested is not a submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion".
But the apostle had in fact already qualified matters in v7 by making plain that those "taking the lead" were men who "spoke the word of God to you" of whom Paul could say: "imitate their faith".
As long as the guidance given is in harmony with the word of God and the teaching of Jesus Christ, and as long as the shepherding manifests His spirit then our response ought to be positive. But we are not exhorted to automatic or unquestioned submission to any who claim a superior authority with the right to command obedience.
However, even as the apostles had foreseen (Acts 20: 28-30), some elders lost sight of their true position and the principles laid down by the founder of the faith. Instead of giving place to God’s authority, such men began to emphasise their own. Why did they succeed? Perhaps like many today, the people then preferred to let others bear a responsibility which was properly their own (2 Corinthians 11: 20).
This form of corrupted authority in the leadership of the Church had already surfaced during the ministry of the Apostle John. He writes of Diotrephus, describing him as one who "loves to be first" (3 John: 9-10). Notice that he also expelled from the Church those who would not conform to his position. How often has this been repeated in the history of the Church, even today?
We can trace the growth of this attitude in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (AD 30 to AD 107). In them we find exhortations such as: "And ye be subject to your presbyters (elders) as to the apostles of Jesus Christ. Your presbyters preside in the place of the assembly of the Apostles. Be subject to your presbyters (body of elders) as to the law of Jesus Christ (Ignatius ‘Epistle to the Trallians’)
Teachings such as these marked the beginning of a clergy/laity distinction. Thus the doctrine and practice of the ‘Priesthood of all believers’ was corrupted; and priesthood – distinct from the main body of believers – began to emerge. This had dire consequences for the Church, the effects of which are felt even today.
The drift towards a visible centralised authority continued in the elevation of men – not only of the elders, but subsequently to one super elder. This concentration of authority in a single individual appears to have been a practical step, made in the light of an influx of false teaching. Jerome, who first translated the bible in to Latin in AD 404, states, "Gradually all the responsibility was deferred to a single person, that the thickets of heresy might be rooted out".
Thus one of the elders became the ‘Overseer’. The word ‘Bishop’ is derived from the Greek word for overseer ‘Episkapos’. Consequently, the office of Bishop was born. Ultimately supreme authority was given to the one man. In 415AD the Council of Chalcedon agreed that the term ‘Pope’ be reserved exclusively for one man - Leo the Great (AD 390 to 461). Leo bent all his strength towards gaining recognition for the Bishop of Rome as universal Bishop.
One historian records "Instead of being a humble pastor, as were the early presbyters who ministered to the flock of God, he (the Pope) is now able to hold his own with kings and beat them at their diplomatic game. His proud claim is that he is supreme over all the churches and all other Bishops" (AM Renwick, The story of the Church, IVP; Page 69).
As a result of the effort to maintain doctrinal purity, man had once again turned to the ‘arm of the flesh’, the elevation of human authority. Thus the abuse of authority by power hungry men decimated the true Church of God.
Is this not reminiscent of God's people in the OT who sought a visible head – a king around whom to rally and to whom they looked for direction? Sadly they had rejected God’s invisible rule for a visible earthly ruler. God warned them of the burden a human king would bring and the limitations he would place on their freedom, but they persisted. The same lack of faith displayed in the Jews then, is seen today in people who continue to look for some ‘visible centre of unity’ rather than be content with a faith focused on the invisible headship of Jesus Christ.
In the infant church, Christians were bound by their common faith, hope, and mutual love as members of the Christian family. They met together in their individual towns and villages as free individuals and communities, not dominated by any central authority. However, within fifty years of the Apostles things had changed radically.
In a relatively short period of time, calls for loyalty and submission to a visible authority had increased to such a degree that the overseer's were instructed that it was their work to: -
"Order things properly and that of the brethren to submit, and not to disobey. Therefore submitting, they shall be saved". The same instruction went on, "whoever disobeys your orders disobeys Christ" (The Clemintine Homilies, Homily 11 Chapter 66 &70).
This kind of reasoning, that the presiding overseer represented Christ, and therefore whatever he instructed should be taken as though it came from Christ, created a severe stranglehold over a congregation. In many cases such leaders were not ‘examples to the flock’ and did not display the humility of mind and servitude of spirit demanded of an under - shepherd of Christ's flock.
Many people today, as in the past, accept without question that submission to a religious leader is identical with submission to Christ Himself. This has resulted in the removal of freedom of conscience and of a sense of personal responsibility before God. In such a situation the need for testing all teaching, for arriving at an individual conviction of truth, and exercising ones conscience, is discouraged in favour of an unquestioned submission to a constituted human authority.
The ultimate destiny of such a drift from God's intended order, towards a structure based on human authority, removed the church from its original form – that of a simple brotherhood, united by a common faith and mutual love – to a religious institution with defined boundaries, beyond which there was, ultimately, no salvation.
It was by these means, that the teaching of the Bible – that salvation is a gift of God, appropriated by faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross – was added to, enlarged upon and extended beyond its bounds. No one could be saved, it was now said, if they were not within the ‘Church Organisation’ and subject to a Bishop or overseer. Even Augustine, while recognised as the greatest Christian of his age, taught that there was no salvation outside the visible Catholic Church!
The reason it is important to grasp these lessons from history, particularly at this present time, is because in many places, God in His grace in restoring the pattern of the New Testament.
Many small groups today are not attached to any form of central authority, but are operating within the principals of mutual faith and love, in submission to the rule of Christ. However this pattern of fellowship and interaction is not an innovation or a departure: it is the clear picture painted for us vividly in the book of the Acts. And ‘the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:47).
Footnote: The subsequent chapters will (d.v.) be published in fairly-quick succession (allowing a period in between for any responses to be addressed).
Remaining chapter outlines are as follows:
Chapter 3: Born in Persecution: covers the advent and rise of the 'state' church and the imposition of 'religion' and 'churchianity' on the early believers.
Chapter 4: Puritans and Independants: The disaffection which expressed itself in the post-Reformation centuries with over-arching control by denominations.
Chapter 5: The liberal church: the rise and growth of unbelief.
Chapter 6: The Drive for Unity: false ecumenism
Chapter 7: What is the church anyway? Includes question relating to what the church is, and what it is not; and also when is a church not a church? The concluding question asks: "What is hindering God's blessing on today's church?"
Steve Taylor is a former police officer living on Skye where he has co-lead the Excel Church in Portree since its inception. He is a member of the editorial board of Christians Together.
Steve is author of a history of how God worked on the Island of Skye in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Skye Revivals covers 'the shattering events that occurred in Skye between 1800 and 1860, when the religious, social and educational face fo the Island was transformed as a result of spiritual awakening.'
(Author: Steve Taylor
See feedback for this article
Articles in this group
I will set a Plumb Line amongst My People
When the foundations are faulty it is pointless to fiddle with the superstructure. The problem needs to identified and remedied before the building can be soundly restored. (Author: )
It's right to allow calls to gay ministers
Amongst all the hoo-ha surrounding the Church of Scotland’s decision on gay clergy, the folk of Queen’s Cross were and are – at one level – totally within their rights to call Scott Rennie. (Author: Christians Together)
Once saved; always saved
The 'Platypus Challenge' series kicks off with the question: 'Once saved; always saved'? (Author: The Editor)
Easter; myths and traditions obscure amazing truths
Passover, Calvary and Easter; how the true wonder of it all is veiled from Jewish eyes and under-realised and distorted within the Gentile church traditions. (Author: Christians Together)
What is Next for Rick Warren?
Roger Oakland sees the drive for 'peace and unity' as the bait which will draw Christian churches and believers into a multi-faith mix. (Author: Roger Oakland)
Q 'n' A sessions after Sunday sermons?
The apostle Paul advised his audience to 'check him out'. Surely contemporary preaching should be subject to the same scrutiny? (Author: Christians Together)
Sexuality, eschatology, Israel: and falling leaves
A recent letter from a believer outlined these issues as important when looking for a spiritual home amongst the range of churches and denominations. They are vital issues in our day. (Author: Christians Together)
Countering the Insider Movement: a new film
The newly-released film 'Half Devil: Half Child' is a response to the tendency to compromise God's Word in order to reach those of different religions and cultures. (Author: Christians Together)
What we are not hearing from God's Word
Joel Rosenberg offers some notes on prophecy and eschatology; subjects which he believes are vital and yet not being widely taught. (Author: Joel Rosenberg)
Voting: the great church splitter
‘One person; one vote’ may be the preferred option in a democratic situation but it has no place in the body of Christ. (Author: Christians Together)
Facts about Islam
Dr. Peter Hammond outlines the normative progression of Islamic influence and behaviour in countries in relation to the demographic statistics. (Author: Christians Together)
Ten things everyone needs to know about Islam
Dr. Emil Caner sets out some of the basic facts regarding what is by some, judged the fastest-growing religion on the planet. (Author: Dr. Emil Caner)
Obstacles to Spiritual Growth: An Overview
An introductory session to a 6-part teaching course on the 'blockages' and difficulties which disciples of Jesus face in the road to maturity and righteousness. (Author: Christians Together)
The Platypus Challenge
A previous article related to those ‘awkward’ (Platypus) verses which do not fit comfortably within some traditional theological frameworks. This present article sets out a mechanism to address the issue(s). (Author: The Editor)
Every belief system has its pet doctrines and dogmas; but some of these need to be challenged. The exception proves – or disproves– the rule. (Author: Christians Together)
The problems afflicting Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) are continuing to run over the concerns that basic words such as ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ have been removed in order not to offend Muslims are growing. (Author: Christians Together)
To whom it may concern
With whole denominations moving into open rebellion against God and His Word, believers are being left shaken and unsure of how to respond. (Author: The Editor)
Truth, error and deception
The world with its deceptions and error is a dangerous place for any Bible-believing Christian to be: sometimes it is even more dangerous in the church. (Author: Watchman)
What to look for in a church
As more and more believers are finding that existing church structures, practices and teachings are inadequate and/or flawed it is important to examine some basic characteristics of meeting together. (Author: Christians Together)
Will the church be all-conquering before Jesus comes back?
Two different and opposite theological systems both see the church as coming to assume a dominant position over the nations; but is this view biblical? (Author: Al Dager)
Something biblical; or just more of the same?
In the present collapse within society and within the church there is great potential: the potential for rebuilding from the foundations or merely seeking to restore that which has failed. (Author: Christians Together)
Clericalism is killing the church
While there are many sincere and conscientious believers in pulpits who are labouring diligently in their calling, the unbiblical clergy/laity divide is killing the church. (Author: Watchman)
Rick Warren builds bridge to Islam
Al Dager of Media Spotlight magazine looks at the issue of compromised faith as 'America's Pastor' Rick Warren works towards syncretism with Islam. (Author: Al Dager)
Passion Week/Last Supper/Traditions
Chris Hill speaking on the events of Passion Week. He speaks on the Last Supper and the nature of that meal, the question of which day was Jesus crucified and touches on the problem of 'traditions' (Author: Chris Hill / Christians Together)
Are we really caring for one another?
Has the body of Christ succumbed to the common view that the primary provider of welfare and care for believers is the secular state rather than the church of God's people? (Author: The Editor)
Reformation document is damaging the church
A document drawn up by the Westminster Parliament in the 17th century has profoundly influenced the Reformed churches since that date; biblical in part only, it is severly damaging the church today. (Author: The Editor)
Reformation; Sacraments; Babies and Bathwater
Subsequent to the ecclesiastical upheavals of the 15/16th centuries, many Christians who are sick today are turning to highly-dangerous spiritual practices. (Author: Christians Together)
Off Message: attacks from the inside?
Lost in Translation? Modern user-friendly Bible versions; or paraphrases; or corruptions of God's Word? You choose. (Author: Berean Research Institute)
Depression and the Christian (2)
Depression is a problem from which Christians are not immune. However the response to and 'treatment' of the malady should be markedly different from those of the secular world. (Author: Christians Together)
Depression and the Christian (1)
Jesus said that He those who were to follow him would enjoy life in all its fulness (John 10:10). In this context should Christian disciples suffer from depression. Johan Tangelder has written on the subject. (Author: Johan D. Tangelder)
Prophecy fulfilled: rumours of wars arising
Much of the prophetic passages relating to future events have been reduced to the point of meaninglessness leaving the body of Christ weakened and unprepared. This article seeks to speak into that void. (Author: Wilfred Hahn: Eternal Values Review)
Is the church heading underground?
With increasing pressures from new legislation and growing constraints on freedom of speech, how will Christians and churches respond? (Author: Christians Together)
A situation; a request
A recent letter to Christians Together sets out a situation and makes a request. Perhaps you can help; or maybe you are in the same situation. (Author: Letter to Christians Together)
Leaven in the lump, and tares amongst wheat
The parable of the wheat and the tares is sometimes mistakenly offered as a biblical justification for the resigned acceptance of error in the church. The problem has an ancient root. (Author: Unknown)
When everything shakes, in whom do we trust?
Widespread error and apostasy across the spectrum of organised churchianity has caused many believers to question of what or whom to trust. (Author: Christians Together)
David Pawson's Fireside Chats
In a completely new venture David Pawson is broadcasting 'Fireside Chats' with the fist focussing on the riots in Britain in 2011. (Author: Christians Together)
Putting a stop to Cessationism
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit has, and continues to be a subject of much controversy, mis-understanding and abuse. In a day when the Christian church needs to be all the God intends for her, Ray Borlase defends his corner. (Author: Ray Borlase)
Don't read this...
Warning: clicking on this link could result in damage to your status, raise your blood pressure, cause your knee to jerk and challenge a lot of what you have been taught (Author: Watchman)
Is there anything wrong with Rob Bell's gospel?
J. Lee Grady suggests tha the controversial book 'Love Wins' by very popular author Rob Bell celebrates God's love but drifts dangerously into Universalism. (Author: J. Lee Grady)
The 'Left Behind' doctrine relaunched
With a fanfare of publicity the 'mega best-selling' Left Behind series of books is being re-launched.The question is whether today's Christians are taking their doctrine from their Bibles or from popular fiction. (Author: Christians Together)
Sound Doctrine for the Remnant; a resource for believers
A free 'Christian library' resource offering teaching material on DVDs and CDs. The ministry aim is to strengthen 'the Remnant' in the days in which we live. (Author: Christians Together)
Christian Survival Resource
A section of the Christians Together website aimed at being a resource for Christians in the 21st Century facing church fragmentation and false teaching. (Author: )
Kingdom Now teaching: beware!
With many movements it is difficult to define exactly what they are and believe. This article is a recent example of what Kingdom Now theology teaches. (Author: Example of Heresy)
Thank God: someone has said it at last
It is very very sad that it needs to be said. It's also very sad that no one has said it before. It's only an American who could say it: at last someone has..
(Author: J Lee Grady)
Kundalini spirits in the church?
Andrew Strom has expressed strong concerns about what he sees as the worst invasion in church history of deceiving spirits into the body of Christ. (Author: Christians Together)
Study Bibles: danger handle with care!
A Study Bible can be a very useful and convenient tool in exploring the Word of God. However there is a very real and unavoidable danger when using one. (Author: Christians Together)
The Shack; huge help or subtle heresy
In our microwave dumbed-down culture are enquirers and Christians helped or led into heresy by the easy-read attractions of 'Christian' novels and allegories? (Author: Watchman)
The 'Emerging' Church and Straw Men
The (so-called) Emerging Church presents a confusing picture, and offers huge possibilities for misunderstandings as Christians debate 'church in the 21st century'. (Author: Christians Together)
Disarming of The Church
“Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe." The words of a 18th-century politician with relevance for the church of the 21st century (Author: John Green)