As I mentioned in my last post (something I’m sure many of you know), there is a huge movement in the broader American/Western church which rejects all church authority. The Jesus-figure in The Shack clearly hints that office and authority structure in the church get in the way of one’s relationship with himself. Evangelical church-goers also sometimes have the same mindset, saying that one finds God outside of the church, that elders and pastors are of no real help to the Christian.
What’s worse – probably – is that some of these “church-institution-rejecters” cite the early church as their model, as if the early church was a homey, dynamic, organic commune with no real leadership structure. They blame later bishops and pastors for foisting a hierarchy on the church, which made it institutional. Well, to be blunt, that is just wrong. The early church didn’t float around without officers, elders, bishops, and deacons. For one example, 1 Clement, one of the earliest post-NT epistles, was written from Christians in Rome to Christians in Corinth (c. 95 AD).
In the opening, the church at Corinth is praised for her piety, hospitality, and love of truth. Then, they are commended for living “in accordance with the laws of God, submitting yourselves to your leaders and giving to the older men (presbuterois) among you the honor due them” (1 Cl 1.3). Later in the letter, the Roman Christians address some sort of revolt/schism that happened in Corinth (about which scholars arm-wrestle). Here’s their advice.
“You…who laid the foundation of the revolt must submit to the presbyters (presbuterois) and accept discipline leading to repentance, bending the knees of your heart. Learn how to subordinate yourselves, laying aside the arrogant and proud stubbornness of your tongue. For it is better for you to be found small but included in the flock of Christ than to have a preeminent reputation and yet be excluded from this hope” (1 Cl 57.1-2).
Notice that last line, which is huge. It is a commentary on Hebrews 13.17 – to not have leaders watching over one’s soul is not a good thing; there is not much hope outside of the elder-led flock. One more:
“Let the flock of Christ be at peace with its duly appointed presbyters (presbuteron). ….These are things that those who live as citizens of the commonwealth of God – something not to be regretted – have done and will continue to do” (I Cl 54.2, 4).
Later, Cyprian would say similar things, just to name one other father who knew what church order and institution meant. I find it quite odd that these “leave-church-as-institution” people always talk about kingdom, but fail to realize that kingdom is polis langauge, and where there is a King, there is order, leadership, and submission. This is God’s order, not something foisted onto the church by some unChristian brutes a long time ago.
NOTE: For similar authority language as 1 Clement above, see Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, 2.2, 4.1, 5.3; Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians ch. 2, 13.2; Ignatius’ Epistle to the Trallians ch. 2; and his Epistle to Polycarp 6.1. Finally, check out Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians 5.3b.
(Above quotes taken from Michael Holmes’ fine editorial work in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third Edition [Grand Rapid: Baker, 2007])