One of the real problems which has plagued the Protestant movement from Day One is bad or weak ecclesiology. What I mean by this is that in various cases it is both unBiblical, and it is also often unworkable. It is unBiblical because there definitely is a hierarchy of leadership in the early church that extends beyond a particular local congregation, and furthermore, there is a concept of ‘church’ and its leadership structures which transcends a particular local expression of the church say in a house church or a particular local congregation.
If you want to see the sort of thing that goes wrong when you have too much authority at the top of a local church and too little accountability from outside the local congregation consider the following story from the NY Times.
The structure of the early church varied from place to place, and was a work in progress. Some congregations appear to have been more pneumatic in character some less, but all of them had inherited certain things from their Jewish mother religion, one of which was the use of elders in positions of leadership in their local meetings. We see these not only in Acts (see the Ephesian elders in Acts 20), and in Paul’s letters (see Phil. 1 and the Pastorals), but also elsewhere in early Christian literature (read 1 Clement, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the letters of Ignatius, and Papias who constantly seeks out ‘the elders’).
Elders, as the Pastorals indicate were appointed to local congregations by church authorities who planted churches— either apostles or their co-workers. In other words, there were trans-congregational leaders who had authority over multiple local churches.
What happened after the apostolic era? Already before the end of the apostolic era there were ‘episkopoi’ or overseers/bishops. We can see this in a text like Phil. 1 written about A.D. 62 or a little earlier. Notice how the leaders are greeted separately from the rest of the congregation. At the root of all this growing structure in early Christianity was a belief that: 1) the church of God was a collective entity and it would not be assumed that any local congregation or house church had autonomy when it came to decision making on major matters, such as its leaders. 2) There was no voting on calling a pastor or anything of the kind in the first century A.D. Leaders were appointed by authority figures in the early church. They did not appoint themselves, much less dub themselves prophets or apostles or the like. They had to be recognized as such by the larger church and its leadership. Otherwise, they would need to be dubbed false prophets, and pseudo-self-appointed apostles.
Any careful study of the phrase ekklesia tou theou in the NT makes clear that while each congregation would be seen as a fully adequate expression of the body of Christ, at the same time they were seen to be part of the larger collective entity ‘the church of God’ (see e.g. Gal. 1) and as such were accountable to the larger church and to its over-arching leaders— apostles, apostolic co-workers, prophets, teachers, and the like. At any given time, an apostle might come and correct, or rebuke, or appoint new local leadership. There was accountability outside the local congregation.
If even Paul was accountable to the apostles in Jerusalem, ‘lest he run in vain’, then we should not expect it to be otherwise with us.
So, back to the story from the NY Times. What went wrong with Bishop Eddie? What went wrong was not merely that there was a cult of personality in this church and too much power resided in the one local church figure. What went wrong, at it’s root, was bad Protestant ecclesiology. The man had no real accountability outside of the members of the local church—- no bishops, no elders, no district superintendents who were not part of that local church who could come in and remove, defrock, or discipline the man. Finally, only scandal caused him to lose authority and standing in his church. Scandal however is a harsh taskmaster, and not a proper regular normal thing that one could count on to correct leaders gone astray. I know of a case where a minister got away with having all sorts of illicit affairs with women in his congregation for decades until he retired. Finally, it bothered his conscience enough that he repented and came and apologized to the congregation. Had there been better external checks and balances for that church, it would not have taken so long to set things right. Think on these things.