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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Muddled Polity


When I was in Brazil as a missionary in the early 2000s I had occasion to talk to some Mormon missionaries. They showed me a simple outline of a church on paper that had been cut up and laminated. Each part of the church represented a role, and as you put them together you built the church. There were quite a few pieces, from general members at the bottom, up through bishops, stake presidents, quorums, and eventually to the First Presidency at the top, which includes the 'President and Prophet' of the church. I liked the idea of the little organizational puzzle as a teaching tool so well that I made my own. Except in my case, I went from what I believed the Bible taught on the topic.
"The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ." — Ephesians 4:11-13* 
From a more traditional wing of an already conservative stream of the Stone-Campbell Movement —that is to say, within the independent Christian Churches — I had become persuaded that while apostles and prophets are no longer present, local churches should be led by an evangelist (or more), and by a plurality of elders, with deacons administrating the physical maintenance of the church building and with things like food pantries. This is what I saw being described in the letters to Timothy and Titus, the 'Pastoral Epistles.' The 'pattern' I saw there is what I just described. Presybters/bishops/elders/overseers/pastors/shepherds (all interchangeable terms for the same role) followed by deacons/servants. I took it so deeply to heart that my ordination certificate even said 'Evangelist.'

It wasn't just Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles that persuaded me. There were also some writings from the early church that backed up my belief.
"And this they did in no new fashion; for indeed it had been written concerning bishops and deacons from very ancient times; for thus saith the scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith."1Clement 42:4-5 (J.B. Lightfoot) 
"Appoint for yourselves therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not lovers of money, and true and approved; for unto you they also perform the service of the prophets and teachers. Therefore despise them not; for they are your honourable men along with the prophets and teachers." — Didache 15:1-4 (J.B. Lightfoot)
It's an inescapable fact that to whatever extent the plurality of elders organization was ever used, it fell very quickly out of favor.
"Since therefore I have, in the persons before mentioned, beheld the whole multitude of you in faith and love, I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed." — Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 6:1 (Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson)
"In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church."Letter to the Trallians 3:1-2 (Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson)
The 'monarchical episcopate' was the commonly accepted polity of what became considered orthodox Christianity from a very early date. In it, the church has a bishop who rules over presbyters (thereby splitting one role into two), and below them, deacons. It went from being a method of local church leadership to covering entire towns, with a single bishop running the show, and presbyters leading individual assemblies of Christians. It is now the format for Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and several other communions of Christianity. Bishop, priest, and deacon.

Here's the problem I see with all of the above. The majority of New Testament scholars agree that the Pastoral Epistles were not written by the apostle Paul, and the authorship of Ephesians is debated and doubted as well. These were forgeries prepared by people with specific agendas. Given the content they seem to have meant well generally, but they faked authorship to gain wider acceptance of their writings. Although some still say that this was an acceptable practice in those days, it most certainly wasn't. Forgeries were as loathed by the educated of Roman times as they are by scholars in ours. Like conspiracy theories among right wingers in the contemporary United States, writings like these were accepted fairly uncritically by most Christians in those times.

It makes sense that we don't find record of widespread acceptance of the plurality of bishops/elders model in the early church. It's unlikely that most were planted with any notion of such a form of leadership, and it's doubtful that those Paul himself started received any such instruction. Acts describes him setting apart 'elders in every city,' but lays out no criteria for those elders. Comparing the short length of time it took him to appoint elders with the detailed standards of the Pastorals, which seem to assume some length of time as a Christian for consideration, I get the impression that Timothy and Titus were written at a time when the church had been around for perhaps a generation or more.

What Paul actually wrote about roles in the church has less the feel of formality and more of description. He was simply observing what he saw in the life of the church.
"And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. So preaching everywhere in country and town, they appointed their firstfruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe." — 1 Corinthians 12:28 
Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement churches have the Timothy/Titus model in their DNA. Among contemporary independent Christian Churches we tend to see pastors hired by churches that have boards composed of elders, and deacons as a secondary role to elders. Most a cappella Churches of Christ eschew the practice of referring to their hired ministers as 'pastor,' instead preferring to use the term 'pulpit minister.' I always found this funny when I was at Harding University, because you certainly don't find 'pulpit minister' — or even pulpits for that matter — in the Bible. As for the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, they use the nomenclature found in independent churches, but more often than not welcome women into all roles.

As a Unitarian Universalist and former Stone-Campbellite I find this all every interesting (obviously), but unnecessary. From our congregationalist roots we've inherited the practice of hiring a minister or more and running the local church through an elected board. Generally there's a congregational meeting at least once a year, where members can vote on matters considered important. Aside from that, there's some variety in how UU congregations operate. Many don't have full-time ministers, or are entirely lay-led. Others have ministers and trustees, but also lay ministers. The UU congregation where I'm a member has a triad in leadership, composed of two ordained ministers and an executive director, with a board of trustees. We also have volunteer roles for chaplains, RE teachers, small group facilitators, and more. We aren't bound to a particular model, and can adapt as circumstances require.

Over the long haul we see Christian churches doing the same. Timothy and Titus haven't stopped denominations with an episcopal system from carrying on with their tradition, and even claiming deep antiquity for it reaching back to the apostles. These books also haven't persuaded that many other churches to follow their 'pattern.' Like most of the Bible, they are understood in whatever way seems most convenient, or neglected altogether. After all, if someone took all of it seriously, they really wouldn't know what to think at all. 

* Unless otherwise noted, Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.