In spite of what so many think…

In spite of what so many think, the NT doesn’t draw up how a church should be run. And in spite of what many think, most especially the high church types, how a church was to be run or organized or structured was not clear for several centuries. This doesn’t throw things up for grabs so much as it leads us to be more cautious in our claims.

Where does the “authority” lie in your church? In the pastor, in the congregation, in the presbytery, in the bishop? What do you think the NT teaches? 

For instance, “catholic” types often speak of how quickly the churches were run by bishops and how influential bishops were and how early the bishopric was established… and the next thing one wonders if they wore robs, had a ring to be kissed, tossed incense on high holidays, and had a secretary and a car budget. This is why we need studies like that of Everett Ferguson, The Early Church and Today (vol. 1). I just read his chapter on “congregationalism” in the earliest churches where his argument is not so much forceful or dogmatic as it is logical and based on evidence.

And the evidence, he contends after sorting through plenty of texts from the 1st to the 4th Century and beyond, leads him to four suggestions:

1. The local church was the basic organizational unit of the church (not the bishop).
2. The local church was the essential decision-making body (not bishops).
3. The local congregations related to one another as congregations and not through their bishops.
4. The local congregation wanted the right to choose its own bishop.

Now all of this would take plenty of evidence to prove, and it would increase the length (and readability) of this post, but let me just mention a few sources:

Even when Nicea was promulgated local churches didn’t always agree, reflecting some local church consciousness and a lack of authority been laid at the door of a council or the bishops. Nicea happened but it was rendered authoritative only in a local setting when the local church affirmed it.

Early correspondence, say 1 Clement, is a letter from one church to another (not, in the text, from Clement to another leader). The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a letter from the church at Smyrna to the church in Philomelium…

With Cyprian we begin to see bishops corresponding with bishops to communicate with churches.

Bishops were appointed by churches not by other bishops. 1 Clement 44.

In 343 Western bishops in Sardica wrote to Emperor Constantius II that each congregation should have the authority to choose its own bishop.

Church leaders — bishops, presbyters, deacons — were appointed to a church and not to the universal church (for the first few centuries) and they could not “translate” to another congregation (Chalcedon, canon 6; Nicea, canon 15; Antioch, canon 21). This is a kind of congregationalism.

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  • david carlson

    What I find interesting is the push by some of the TR to demand that the NT establishes a church polity. because of course if it did we would only meet in homes or Jewish synagogues

  • Scot, do you think you could do a future post/s explaining what authority and function a bishop had and compare it to the common 16th and 17th century Anabaptist polities?

  • craig cottongim

    Scot, I think you are a closet Church of Christer 🙂 Just teasing. I deeply appreciate your ministry, and the many speaking engagements you hold with Restoration Movement events. I hope to sit in on your preaching lectures at Lipscomb next month!

  • Interesting.

    As I became a Christian in an Evangelical Church, I was under the impression that Catholics got everything wrong and Evangelicals were right in every respect.

    Now I realize that almost every Christian denomination has strengths and weaknesses.

    This particular finding might undermine catholic traditionalism but there are many things whithin the Bible itself which is at odds with widely held evangelical beliefs.

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • One of the biggest contrasts that I see in the NT with today’s incarnations is belied by the kind of familial language that was preferred in the NT compared to the ours today when it comes to clergy vis a vis the rest of us. The overwhelming familial moniker used in the NT, *even when apostles speak to rank and file of churches*, is “brother.” Indeed, Jesus himself didn’t speak often on how “leadership” would/should work in his church to come, but when he did, he contrasted these very familial terms of “brother” vs. “father” and told his would-be apostles that they should think of themselves as “brothers” (and help/insist others do the same). I would say our typical mental and lingual category for church leaders is exactly the opposite: father.

    One of the central problems plaguing the modern church is that both leader and layman alike want to keep putting leaders into the “father” categories in our heads instead of the brother category. There are many, many costs of this expressly prohibited way of thinking, and one is that whole congregations routinely get turned into and/or treated like children who don’t/can’t take responsibility for or ownership of the Church family.

  • Amanda Holm Rosengren

    I wish that more people recognized your point that “the NT doesn’t draw up how a church should be run.” To me, the important question is regarding accountability: who is the church/pastor/bishop accountable to? If there’s no accountability, it seems to me that that system is less than faithful to the principles established or hinted at in Scripture.

  • david manafo

    thanks for this highlight, very valuable insight.

  • Steve

    I think its worth noting that we don’t speak of those local churches who disagreed with the findings of the Council of Nicaea by saying “Oh, they disagreed, but that’s OK. The body of Christ is diverse.” Rather, they are remembed as “heretics”.

  • Fred

    But, my pastor made a video and showed it to the congregation this weekend, and he assured us that when the elders speak in our church they speak for God. So, the NT must be clear on these matters because we are a biblical church.

  • scotmcknight

    Fleer said I am an “honorary member.”

  • scotmcknight

    Outside my ken.

  • craig cottongim


  • ao

    Love the post. Great opening point. It’s ironic to me (and maybe other CoCers?) that you started with, “In spite of what so many think, the NT doesn’t draw up how a church should be run”, given that the conservative wing of Churches of Christ, to which Everett Ferguson belongs, would argue that indeed the NT does draw up how a church should be run, and moreover, that church organization is a doctrinal issue that separates members of the One True Church from all other churches. I’ve never been in a CoC that taught otherwise.

  • Thanks for this post.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I concur with the main points, but the irony is if the Church was ever to survive and spread through the Middle Ages, a more centralized authoritative structure was key. Just like how the Articles of Confederation were a sh^&show, showing the need for a strong federal government, I think Christianity would’ve not survived, or if it had, come out as something quite different, if it had followed some quasi-SBC format of independent churches.
    A lot of Protestants ignore that fact while loving to rail on about how big and corrupt the RCC and Orthodox churches were.

  • llrmiller

    Perhaps you are right, we can never really know. But I would also argue that the SBC “confederations” might be a better incarnation of the church now. . .
    Now that most of us can read.
    Now that many of us have far more education than a priest in the Middle Ages.
    Now that most homes (granted this is a 1st world argument) have Bibles. Now that there is Twitter :).

    Perhaps heirarchical churches were the best for that moment in time. Just as feudalism might have been the best form of government for such a time and place. Certainly we can appreciate the past (love cooking over an open fire) while moving on (electric ovens are better environmental and health options for our increasing population).

    Anyway, I don’t have anything against an RCC or Orthodox church, but I do think church leadership needs to realize that my grandparents felt the need to remain within a certain denomination. My generation does not. My husband and I have lived through church scandals, seen the abuse of priests, etc. We don’t have that kind of loyalty towards any denomination.

    I think church leadership needs to grasp that If their members feel that there is another church that is doing a better job of loving God and loving others in the community then no one feels bound by the traditions of our ancestors to remain in a given congregation. Nowadays people will move churches, or at least restructure their giving. I’m sure this is fraught with it’s own problems, but I do think we need to acknowledge the day and age in which we live.