OK, How Does Episcopal Rule Relate to Congregational Polity, Anyway?

An excellent friend posts a position in an intramural [American conservative evangelical] Protestant difference of practice that has engendered considerable discussion–and not a few schismatic sects–over the last several centuries:

There are many reasons for [emphatically choosing plural-elders over single-pastor congregational rule]. The primary reason, though, is that the NT’s utterly consistent testimony confirms a plurality of elders as the *only* model that can claim NT legitimacy. For one who tries to take both clear teaching and consistent precedent seriously, this matters. Is our Baptist and evangelical tendency toward a single-pastor model evidence that we have grown up since the NT era or grown away from our origins? I would strongly suggest the latter.

(source: Timothy Berg on Facebook)

Now, I had opportunity to comment a little, but I didn’t want to accidentally start a distracting brouhaha by opening up a Catholic/Protestant “front” in the conversation.  In fact, the main goal of my comments was to help stifle any arguments in the form “that’s like Catholicism, ergo it must be wrong,” which at an absolute minimum is an intellectually disabling form of argument.

Nonetheless, I found the form of argument interesting, and fraught with one or two hermeneutical problems that should be addressed.  I think Dan Wallace does a great job of laying out the case, here, and my objections are obviously going to go to framing assumptions–presuppositions–rather than to the language analysis itself (what I differ with there, I differ with only *because* the Protestant approach forecloses certain meanings).

I note with approval a useful canon of interpretation in Wallace’s article, though I would here apply it to different effect:

do not follow an interpretation which is only possible; instead, base your convictions on what is probable.

(source: Who Should Run the Church?)

Now, Wallace would of course agree with me that in some situations where the context that informs the text’s literal/historical sense is sufficiently remote from the contemporary context of readership, we have to proceed by differentiating possible readings from impossible ones.  And I would agree with him that it is a really bad idea to argue from a possible reading of one passage against the probable reading of several passages.

And I take it as given that the model we see in the New Testament involves plural “elders…in every place,” and that there is no clear rationale for distinguishing elder, bishop, presbyter, and priest from each other as clearly as we distinguish these from deacons.  With some variation from the days of James in Jerusalem, when the Twelve replenished their numbers by choosing Matthias, through the days of the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas, then Paul and Silas, as well as the missionary work of the other Apostles, we see some things clearly.  The “laying on of hands,” for example, confers ordination–and confers the Spirit to further and make evident the gift grace for service to the Body of Christ, though these two are distinguishable.  There were city-by-city organizations for ministry, and the Church derived its first impetus for organization from the synagogue.  We should all agree that the term “presbyter,” for elder, is specifically derived from the leaders in the synagogue, and that whatever variations developed were due to the unusual ministry of the Apostles, the world-altering fact of the Resurrection, and the colossal scale on which Christianity outgrew its Jewish roots and differentiated itself from movements that tried to tow it back into expectation of a restored Temple rather than the Christian work “to proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”  All subsequent developments in polity, we agree, require for their justification–if they are to bind as matters of faith or morals, to require obedience of all the faithful–the direct command of Christ or the warrant of Apostolic institution (or both).  We would probably even agree that there is a “deposit of faith” that follows directly from Christ’s teaching and His authorization of the Apostles to set in order His Church.

Where we would disagree, of course, is on whether the “deposit of faith” includes the work of Christ and the teaching of His Apostles “baked into” the institution of the Church itself, so that it includes what the Apostles taught the Churches directly, with its written component being the Scriptures, and the constant practice of all the churches being the historical context among and against which the Scriptures are proclaimed.  Intrinsic to the case for remaining Protestant is the argument, in more and less Restorationist forms, that the visible Church at some point lapsed from being the Church of the Vincentian Canon and became subject to recognition only by those who are successful in discerning the maximum coherence of teachings and practices with the Bible.  In support of this contracting recognizeability of the Body of Christ, of course, Protestant theology invariably (and, in the case of its Lollard/Hussite/Zwinglian strains, quite deliberately) contracts the importance and authority of that Body.  “Go to church” becomes a moralizing exhortation reft of any particular reason, beyond one’s own best judgment about matches between one’s own reading of the Bible and some group’s doctrinal statement, why one should go to any particular assembly of those who desire to become the Body of Christ.

Now, I mention that because Dan Wallace, who is an *amazing* scholar of the text of the New Testament, and whose work at CSNTM is exemplary–would that such work was being done among Catholics!–as well as my estimable friend Tim Berg and many another participant in such conversations, inherits the same block in his understanding that I inherited.  A massive wall of negation surrounds Protestantism, and it is sourced from the narratives of hundreds of years of polemic and rationalization.  I wrote many, many pages on assumptions very similar to these:

In Ignatius (an early Christian writer who died in c. AD 117), at the beginning of the second century, already a monarchical episcopate exists.  It is interesting that Roman Catholics especially appeal to this as a model for their practices (since they rely on the tradition found in patristic writers like Ignatius far more than on divine revelation).  Those who deny the Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles (i.e., 1-2 Timothy and Titus) also see the pastorals as reflecting a one-elder situation (=monarchical episcopate) because they regard the pastorals as having been written during the time of Ignatius.

But evangelicals should not consider arguments from either camp as weighty.  In particular, if we equate either what the early church fathers practiced or believed as totally in line with the New Testament, then we have some significant retooling to do in our churches today.  Some examples:

Didache (c. AD 100-150)–gives several regulations about baptism and fasting, much of which is pure legalism.  (For example, in one place he says, “Let us not fast as the Jews do, who fast on Mondays and Thursdays.  Instead, let us fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”  In his discussions of baptism, he argues that cold water is better than warm, etc.–all arguments that have nothing whatever to do with the biblical revelation).

Most early church fathers (i.e., 2nd-3rd century AD) didn’t have a clue about grace, eternal security, the gospel.  The church very quickly degenerated into basic legalism.  It was not until Augustine that the church recovered some of this.  But then it fell into the dark ages, waiting for a young monk from Germany to nail his protests on the door of the Wittenberg Church.  Dr. Ted Deibler (former chairman of Church History at Dallas Seminary) used to say, “the one thing we can be certain of learning from church history is that we learn nothing from church history.”  He meant by this that we are on very dangerous ground if we assume uniformly correct theology from the church fathers.

Allegorical interpretation and eschatology: Origen and his school in particular promoted a view of scripture which was quite fanciful.

In sum, the argument for a single leader of each church is especially persuasive to Roman Catholics because it did occur throughout church history.  Yet, such traditions can never replace the Word of God.

(source: Who Should Run the Church?, emphasis added)

Now, I’ve intentionally bolded three sentences that exist to maintain the “wall” against Catholicism that is inherent in limiting the “possible” meanings of the New Testament language about leaders in the Church so that congregational polity with either single-pastor or plural-elder principles appears “probable.”  It is only after we have decided on congregational polity, after all, that the semantic field in which we must find places for bishop, presbyter, elder, etc. is discernible.

Let me repeat those emphasized sentences, explicating the negation in each:

  • “Catholics…rely on the tradition found in patristic writers like Ignatius far more than on divine revelation”–the negation here concerns “divine revelation,” namely, “Ignatius and the fathers do not provide sound evidence of the proper understanding of divine revelation.”
  • “Most early church fathers…didn’t have a clue about grace, eternal security, the gospel”–the negation is explicit, and flabbergasting.  If one means that the early church fathers do not have an American conservative evangelical faith in many respects, then that is assuredly true; but at the minimum we would have to make a case-by-case examination of the divergences.  After all, it remains possible that the martyrs were more credible than are today’s Christian book publishing cartels, does it not?  Of course, given that the same councils that defined the Trinity also declared that the united voice of the fathers on any point of Biblical interpretation was definitive, it will go hard with any movement that attempts to define and defend orthodoxy as a transmissible body of the faith, rather than a series of ad hoc persuasions.  Indeed, evangelicalism has spent a generation or so awakening to its difficulties in this regard.
  • “Such traditions can never replace the Word of God”–Again, the negation here is that the “traditions,” i.e., the united voice of the fathers, the universal practice of the Church, the unfolding of the deposit of faith, are somehow to be read over against “the Word of God.”  But how should this even be possible, if the Word of God is Jesus Christ, living, and the Word of God is Jesus Christ, written in the Scriptures?  The resurrected Jesus Christ, speaking to His Apostles in person and recorded in the Scriptures, says “I am with you always,” and His Church replies, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection, until you come again.”  How would it be possible for the Scriptures to function without the living Word of God, or for there to be a tradition properly called Christian apart from those Scriptures?  It just won’t do.

The problem for those functioning on the other side of these negations is threefold.  We’ll set aside the first, which is that when examined head-on, they just won’t hold up.  They misrepresent Catholic tradition, or Scripture, or history, or some combination of these.  Believe me, I know this can get bad.  I’ve been there myself.

Second, there’s a hermeneutical problem that I think is both cause and consequence of this barrier for many contemporary evangelicals, one that gets worse the more deeply one reads into the fathers while trying to remain loyal to one’s Protestant forebears.

See, when you cut off the applicable meaning of the Scriptures from the history of their use and interpretation, denying the divine authority under which they were retained and compiled and canonized, the centrality of the liturgical and ecclesial uses of the Scriptures, etc.–when all of that becomes history helpful only in ascertaining the state of the text, which is then to be interpreted literally on its own horizon (by some historical-grammatical or historical-critical method) and then “applied” by a series of ad hoc persuasive utterances directly to the contemporary situation–then you flatten the meaning of the Scriptures considerably.  It ceases to be possible to understand the canonical form of Scripture *as* interpretive, for one thing; attempting to recuperate the canonical sense of the Scriptures will require some elaboration of the theory of inspiration that is impossible to source from Scripture, a faintly “possible” but wildly improbable theory of illumination.  As a matter of reasoning from the history of the Church, it will be simple cherry-picking:  the Fathers will be right where they agree with my reading of the Scriptures, and dispensable where they don’t.

In this flattened reading of the Scriptures, it ceases to be possible to see both what the Apostles wrote and what they did–to see not only the teaching in support of the fact, but the fact itself, as relevant expressions of a divinely granted authority that we all, when we are honest, agree the Apostles had.  In this flattened reading of Scripture, it never ceases to be necessary to maintain a distinction between the infallibility of the writers of what were generally recognized and eventually canonized as the Scriptures and their fallibility, even when teaching with great authority, otherwise; but it must always be rejected as inconsistency (even as wildly improbable, absurd) that their successors had at the very least a considerable advantage over us in recognizing the difference.

Which brings me to the third problem, which is that this set of negations makes it impossible to account for the actual history of the Church.  Wallace comes close to conceding this, because he is a good enough student of history to know that it all comes down to one throw, here:  either the tradition he inherits is correct, and all visible Christianity was wildly corrupted from the death of John until after Diocletian’s persecution and Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, at which point Augustine somehow revived it from coals; or Ignatius of Antioch, the close associate of Polycarp who was probably John’s own disciple, who certainly could have known the Beloved Disciple and certainly was a monarchical bishop of an Apostolic See (Antioch), knew more than a twenty-first century Christian, however astute, about what Christ’s own Apostles had taught and done about ordering the Church that Jesus founded in them.

If nothing else, bear in mind that Ignatius lived and moved among the parts of the Church that had known immense investment of first-generation Apostolic time and teaching and suffering, that had been producing martyrdoms since the first missions there, and yet had enjoyed multiple Apostles teaching there over decades.  These were not places where faint words had been remotely heard and possibly misconstrued; they were the places addressed in letters like St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, which addresses no major pastoral problem–but urges them to avoid divisions, an urging given still more emphatically in the letter St. Ignatius wrote to the same church.

If crucial concepts–concepts constantly discussed, no less–were not only developed in less definite forms, but mangled badly enough to disqualify the fathers as authentic interpreters of the faith, then what happened to the Church that Jesus founded, in the generation immediately following his Apostles?  There is no tension between resisting anachronism in theology (the tendency to grab sentences from Scriptures or patristic texts without regard for the historical unfolding of Christ’s teachings) and affirming that the Apostolic Fathers must have been generally right about those things they regarded as central and that their successors built on.  There is considerable tension between “upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” and the view that after the Apostles not the world, but the whole visible church herself, promptly lapsed into such grave error that their witness is disqualified–and did so until Diocletian, Constantine, and Augustine led us into light.  Diocletian’s persecution did Providentially provide the impetus for canonizing and defining many things which otherwise might conceivably have dwelt in obscurity, and Constantine’s legalization of Christianity provided the space for historical efforts to realize a Gospel-ordered cosmos to begin (and err, and struggle, and begin again, and so on).  And Augustine is surely a great light to the Church, perhaps alongside St. Thomas Aquinas as the twin epochs of Christian thought since the twilight of the Apostles.  But St. Augustine surely would not agree that his testimony was over against the early fathers (though surely he did not mind correcting mistakes when he found them); and still less would he agree that his efforts were contrary to a high view of a presently united Church (living and dead), with a monarchical episcopacy centered in Rome!

As St. Augustine says,

It follows after commendation of the Trinity, “The Holy Church.” God is pointed out, and His temple. “For the temple of God is holy,” says the Apostle, “which (temple) are ye.” This same is the holy Church, the one Church, the true Church, the catholic Church, fighting against all heresies: fight, it can: be fought down, it cannot. As for heresies, they went all out of it, like as unprofitable branches pruned from the vine: but itself abideth in its root, in its Vine, in its charity. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

(source: NPNF1-03. [sermon to Catechumens on the Creed])

And here is the problem for my friends who strive to be faithful while laboring under the negations imposed on them by generations of Protestant polemic, and regarding which Catholic apologetics are often profoundly unhelpful.  (I, personally, want to kick every apologist who responds to sola Scriptura by arguing that Scripture isn’t that important, or is useless unless you have someone looking over your shoulder to tell you what it means.  I mean, have these people *read* the Magisterium on the subject of Scripture?)

How can it be that the Church should have labored so long under such a privation of sound teaching, should have managed to canonize the Scriptures while her own governance and theology were so utterly wrongheaded?  What would it mean for Jesus to tell that Church, “the Comforter, when I send Him, will lead you into all truth”?  How can it be held that the Trinity, the Incarnation, the rejection of Arianism and Pelagianism and Donatism and Semi-Pelagianism and Montanism and Manichaeanism and Marcionism and, and, and–that the Church got all of these right, and canonized Scripture correctly, but did so in such radical ignorance or corruption of teaching that it is disqualified as an interpreter of Scripture throughout that whole history?  In what way does this not immediately devolve into a cherry-picking scavenger hunt through Church history, one that directly anticipates the postmodern condition so literally as to suggest that Protestantism itself is coterminous with the modernity which has inflicted that decay upon itself?

And now we’re back to problem one:  No, no, it just won’t do.  That can’t be true.

Now, after all that–taking all that as prolegomenon to the work at hand–let me try to recommend a simple understanding of what is both “possible” and “probable” when we observe the unity of the New Testament with the actual work done by the Apostles, as reliably witnessed by their immediate disciples and the very Successors of the Apostles (like St. Augustine) relied on by our Protestant friends as important Christian teachers.

The really essential thing that is ignored in pretty much all congregational-polity exegesis of the Scriptures is that most of the language about the organization of the Church in the New Testament does not address a single congregation at all.  It is addressed, and this is how the Church has always understood it, to the local Church, that is, the Church as organized in a particular city.  Think about the way the Acts of the Apostles are organized; yes, they met “from house to house,” and they also assembled in the Temple, but the Church in Jerusalem had a head (James) who was part of a global authority (the Twelve).  In Antioch, there was the apostolic presence of Peter, who had to be reckoned with when Paul thought things were being done incorrectly.  “In every place” there were elders–presbyters, synagogue-like leaders recognized in the existing community and ordained “by the laying on of hands” to assist in the Apostolic work and lead the local communities.  No matter which words you use, during the time of the Pauline Epistles (which does not, by at least twenty years, comprehend the whole of the Apostolic Age) there were clearly levels of authority–Christ’s own Apostles, those they ordained, and those ordained by those ordained men, and all those in distinction from deacons, and from other helpers in the work.

Now, it is a fact of Church history that the term “presbyter” came to be used slightly differently in different Apostolic Sees, different regions of the Church as it came to be by the end of the 2nd C.  That is fine.  There is also diversity of usage within the Scriptures, as is made evident by the difference between “elder” in synagogue parlance, “elder” in a general communal sense, and “elder” in a sense that pretty clearly means bishop/priest.

And, in fact, the Church has no theological need to be embarrassed that “presbyter” clearly means bishop, episkopos, in one place and time–and just as clearly means “priest” but not “bishop” in another–and seems to include “deacon” as well as “priest” in another.  The word is, after all, more general in sense than these specialized terms.  It would therefore take its local sense from the place, time, and situation of writing; and that such things could diverge over time is no surprise.  But still more to the point, the Church herself understands the priesthood as one thing, existing in a diversity of manifestations.

The priest is an authorized delegate of the bishop, ordained as a presbyter but not as a bishop.  He participates in the bishop’s ordination, because the bishop and priests (and, as understood for many centuries in Roman Catholic practice and teaching, also the deacons) are all called together to teach and rule one local church, that is, the whole network of parishes and religious institutes that make up a See, the Church “at Ephesus” or “at Rome” or “in Oklahoma City.”

So we do believe in a plurality of presbyters and an essential singularity of ordination within each local church.  The bishop and priests are called *together*, with one ordination in various degrees of fullness.  To see the essential similarity between the New Testament Church, that is, the one Jesus founded in the Apostles and upon “this Rock,” and today’s Catholic Church, you need only adjust your definition of “local church” back to the one St. Paul would recognize:  “the church of God which is in Corinth…among the Thessalonians…in Ephesus…

And then perhaps it will be easier to acknowledge what St. Paul meant in these and similar texts:  1 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 3:7-10; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Timothy 1:6-7; 1 Timothy 3:14-16.

(for further reading, try this article on Apostolic Succession and this one on Biblical support for the doctrine.)