Church Organization – Independent or Hierarchical?

Posted: September 3, 2012 in Church History, Church Organization
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All across Christendom, there are a variety of thoughts and ideas of how the church, the body of believers, should be organized.

20120903-162104.jpgMainline Protestants, such as Lutherans and Anglicans, favor an episcopalian model; that is to say that they recognize, at least on some level, the necessity of an ecumenical body to safeguard faith. They maintain that the scripture alone are the sole authority, but they also acknowledge the importance of the uniformity of interpretation of these scriptures.

Maintaining Doctrinal Unity

In many respects, these churches maintain much of the identify of their Catholic origins. They’ve downplayed the role of tradition, but they still maintain it’s value as a teaching tool, if not an authority. For these churches, the question of church organization comes down to the degree of authority that a governing body has.

Even mainline fundamentalist churches, such as Southern Baptists, appreciate the efficacy of a convention to act as a source of doctrinal guidance. Though the Southern Baptist Convention encourages the self-governing model of church organization, it exists to help maintain a consistency of theology among those churches.

Independent Congregations?

For congregational and restorationist churches, however, the disagreement is far more pronounced. These communities reject any governing body whatsoever, and purposefully and proudly renounce associations and conventions. Individual “Bible-believing” congregations may work together on individual projects, but they would never enter into any formal association with another church body.

The reason, proponents of the congregational model say, is that the pattern of church organization and government is clear from their reading of the New Testament. For a while, I bought into this belief.

Hierarchy in the Church

Of course, nowhere does the Bible mention the words Pope, cardinals, monsignors, or a host of other “Roman Catholic” terms. Moreover, several passages seem to use “elders” (presbuteros, priest) and “bishop” (episcopos, overseer) interchangeably. Clearly, fundamentalists will say, this shows that there is no hierarchical structure in the church.

Unfortunately, in their apparent zeal to denigrate the Catholic Church and to prove their own point, they misrepresent the Catholic Church’s structure, either purposefully or negligently, and create a caricature of the true church.

Bishop, Overseer, Priest and Elder

First of all, though it is true that overseers are called elders and elders are called overseers, this doesn’t not mean the terms are interchangeable. All bishops are first and foremost priests, but not all priests are bishops. Therefore, it would be appropriate to refer to all bishops as priests first, but the designation does not work in reverse. To assume that because a bishop is called a priest is an easy mistake to make, since the Bible does not make a clear distinction. On the other hand, though, it is nowhere near as explicit on this fact as congregational fundamentalists would have you believe.

To understand this in modern terms, one needn’t look any further than any military or police organization. Everyone, from generals down to foot soldiers, proudly call themselves soldiers, and will address each other as such. They are all soldiers and police officers, though they are not all lieutenants, captains, colonels or generals.

Remember, Peter called himself an elder, as did Paul. Did this mean that they were not also Apostles? Did they cease to be Apostles when they took on the title elder? Paul also calls himself a servant (deacon), which is now understood almost universally to be a lower office than that of elder or overseer. It is fair and quite reasonable then, to say the same for bishops or overseers. Did the Apostles not exercise authority over the rest of the members of the church (or churches)? Of course they did. That is because an Apostle may be an elder, but an elder may not necessarily be an Apostle.

The Church as the Mustard Seed

It’s important to recognize that the church in the New Testament is a developing church. Though there are those who would tell you that the New Testament presents a pattern for structure and worship, an objective reading of the scripture in the context of Jewish culture and history would illustrate the early church to be more like the mustard seed.

All of the essence of the early church exists today, just as it did 2000 years ago. But just as an infant grows into an adult, the seed grows into the tree. It’s not different; it is still what it always was. At the same time, it has grown into what God had already ordained it to be.

Church Authority

One of strongest cases many fundamentalists will make is by pointing to Saint Paul’s instructions to “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All of the churches of Christ salute you.”(Romans 16:16). Paul’s use of the plural is said to be proof that there were many churches as opposed to a singular organization.

Here’s the problem with that logic, as I see it: Paul presupposes that he has an authority to speak for all of those churches. That is to say he clearly demonstrates that he believes he has the right to extend greetings on behalf of all of those individual churches. Logically, if Paul, in an inspired epistle, claims to have authority to speak for the church, then it is reasonable to infer that there must be some organization or hierarchical structure.

Perspicuity of Scripture

To say that it is “clear” from scripture exactly how the church is to be organized is intellectually dishonest at best and an outright falsification at worst. The truth is that church organization during the time the New Testament was written was still fluid; churches were emerging every day, and just as there are always problems and kinks to be worked out even today, there were obviously issues with the early church that had to be sorted out.

What is clear is that the church would grow and develop over time, and that there would be men placed in charge of the church to shepherd and keep it free from error. Notice that I did not say that they would be kept free from sin, but but only from error, in a purely dogmatic sense. Jesus promised his church would prevail, and so it has.

Necessity of Structure

When Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter (which, by the way, means “rock,” but more on that later), he said “and on this rock, I will build My church.” The word build suggests growth and development. He did not say “on this rock, I establish My church,” or “create My church,” and he definitely did not say “on this rock I manifest once and for all My clear New Testament pattern of church organization, but I’m going to be really vague on the details save for a few hints you’ll have to piece together from a few letters from an Apostle none of you have met yet and who won’t be an Apostle until after I’ve left Earth.” Instead, He said He would build His church.

Also, pay very close attention to the word church, used in the singular, rather than plural. Clearly, Jesus intended to build one church, as opposed to several churches. This is made even more clear by the fact that He prayed that the church would be unified. (John, Chapter 17)

Council of Jerusalem

The Council of Jerusalem is perfect evidence of the existence of and need for a hierarchical structure. Though Jesus had left the Earth physically, the Acts of the Apostles shows there was still a clear need to answer questions and settle disputes. To do so, the apostles came together, discussed the special circumstances that came along with bringing Gentiles into the church, and settled on a solution. Interestingly enough, they did this without referring to scripture.

They made a decision that was not taught in scriptures, based upon the guidance of the Holy Sprit. It was not until after the decision was made that James checked and informed them that their solution was not unscriptural. That is to say that James verified that the decision was in agreement with the scriptures; he did not, nor did the other apostles, look to the scriptures for their answer (Acts, Chapter 15), nor did he cite proof texts for the new doctrine.

Teaching Authority and Apostolic Succession

Of course, this is no way meant to say that we needn’t look to scriptures for answers; rather it demonstrates that certain men have been given authority to make decisions that are not explicitly taught in scripture.

The New Testament is full of men exercising authority over various churches; otherwise, what is the purpose of the letters of James, John, Peter and Paul? Of course, fundamentalists will say that they exercised authority because they were Apostles and that they had no successors; how things were left when they died were as they were to remain.

This argument, too, falls flat. The notion that the apostles did not appoint successors is entirely unscriptural. In fact, one of the first orders of business for the remaining apostles after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension was to replace the apostle Judas. This was done, as chapter 1 of Acts states, in accordance with the scriptures, which stated “Let another take his office.” Some translations state “his bishopric let another take.”

If there had not been a need for apostolic succession and organization, there would have been no need to appoint a new apostle. However, the original apostles clearly saw the importance of continuing their office and passing it on to future generations.

Church History

Anyone who is an honest seeker of truth would do well to study Christian history. When you do so, you will not find independent, underground groups of bible Christians whom the catholic church has put down through the ages. Yes, there have been groups whom the church has sought to suppress, but a careful examination of these groups’ actual beliefs would reveal them to be quite heretical to almost ever Christian sect today.

What you will see is that the church as a whole existed as one structure for more than 1,000 years after the pentecost. It was not until the Catholic and Orthodox schism occurred in the 11th century that there was any notion of a break with the church. Even in this case, both groups maintained distinctively catholic practices. The unsuspecting fundamentalist would have a hard time differentiating between the two if he were to walk into one or the other’s church today, and in fact there are many catholic groups who are in full communion with the catholic church who practice Eastern Orthodox Rites.

Structure Makes Sense

The simple fact is that humans need hierarchy and structure. They need guidance, reassurance and the knowledge that someone is in control. One needs to look no further than their own job to see how necessary a hierarchical structure is; if there were no CEO, no vice president or no office manager, people wouldn’t do their jobs. They’d do whatever they felt like. They may think they’re doing the right thing, and they might even point to a company’s policy manual to prove their point. It takes someone in charge, though — someone with authority — to implement those policies, to guide the workers in the direction they need to go, and to keep everyone on the same page.

Guiding Us to All Truth

If you’re thinking that the Holy Spirit guides all believers into truth, I will agree with you to an extent, because I believe with all my heart that the Holy Spirit guided me back to the Catholic Church and I know without a doubt that there can be no explanation for my wonderful wife’s reception into the church other than divine providence.

At the same time, though, I’ll ask you to consider this: as I write this line, all over the country there are independent bible churches in the throws of potential splits because of a disagreement with the local leadership. The problem is, there is no one to take the dispute to. Without a final arbiter or higher church authority, there can be no resolution. This has played out time and again within so many independent Christian communities. One need only look in the phone book under “churches” to see the consequences of denying the need for a hierarchical structure.

Take it to the Bible?

If you’re now thinking to yourself that if all those folks would only read the Bible they’d see the light, remember this important fact that cannot be overlooked: they’re thinking the same thing about you. The bottom line is, we all think we’re right. That, more than any other reason, is why it’s so necessary to have a clear structure — a chain of command so to speak — so that we all stay together in Christian unity.

When one sins among us, where does Jesus tell us to go? To the scriptures? Surprisingly, no. Instead, he says:

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:15-18 NASB)

The Church That Jesus Founded

This clearly demonstrates that the church is a living, authoritative structure, unified in doctrine and teaching, with the authority to bind and loose. Only one structure has stood the test of time and can make the claim that it is in fact the one church founded by Christ. That is the Holy Catholic Church.


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