Concepts such as pattern, authority, and interpretation are essential in discussing almost any religious principle. One of the great problems in religious discussions today is that we do not take into account the different approaches to religious truth. The arguments made in this book relative to church organization are only relevant if the authority of the Scripture is recognized. Years ago I foolishly thought that if I just taught the Bible to others I could bring them to a right relationship with God. Those blank stares I received, even from some in my own fellowship, began to teach me that I was missing something. For example, the very fact that you are reading this book tells me something about your religious assumptions; namely, that it is important for you to know what the New Testament says about this subject. It is also likely that you have some views regarding the authority of Scripture similar to mine. And you probably wonder, as I do, why so many just do not seem impressed with argumentation based on the meaning of Scripture. The reason is that many do not consider the Bible to be a standard that governs conduct today. In other words, restoring the pattern of church organization is meaningless to someone who does not believe the Scriptures are a pattern. Sometimes there is deception about what is really at stake in the debate over hermeneutics and the authority of Scripture. There is also considerable doublespeak by many today who loudly proclaim their belief in Scripture while at the same time undermine the authority of Scripture by the denial of a pattern.
It matters that we know what the Scriptures teach about the organization of the church because the Scriptures are normative for the church today. A norm is an authoritative standard; that is, a principle of right action binding upon the members of a group. In what sense is Scripture binding on us today? It is binding on us today because the authority of Scripture is inherent in itself. Regardless of how we feel about it, or even understand it, it represents an authoritative model or pattern for our behavior. We may struggle to understand the model and at times we will misunderstand it but the model is still there.
Others view the Bible differently. Some believe that Scripture serves as the basis for authoritative tradition. Although Scripture is viewed as important, it is not the final authority for us today. Instead, it is used as a beginning point upon which historical traditions are added through the years. Today, we usually point to our Roman Catholic friends when we think about religious traditions; however, authoritative tradition is adhered to by a great many believers in Christ all over the world. Even within our fellowship, historical traditions can become quite strong. In most religious groups, people find validity and comfort in the religious traditions of their particular fellowship. These traditions, however, often prevent people from following God’s word: “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:13).
Many believe, either consciously or subconsciously, that God has validated these traditions as they have evolved over time regardless of whether they conform to the authoritative standard of Scripture. For example, Ignatius probably had very practical reasons for the changes he advocated among the churches. The monarchial bishop might appear to be a much more efficient system for maintaining orthodoxy than the chaos that sometimes results when the church is led by a plurality of elders. Ignatius may have thought, “If people would just listen to the bishop, then the bishop will do the right thing for the church.” I must confess that there have been occasions when things would have gone better in my ministry had I been the monarchial bishop. The job of teaching, persuading, and encouraging can be very difficult, especially if one is confronted with false teaching that is difficult to explain and refute. In addition, the good judgment of those who are new or weak in the faith is not always what it should be and this tends to make them more susceptible to practical and theological error. I have also seen elders make foolish decisions that hurt the church and, had I been the bishop, these mistakes would not have been made. This is not, however, the New Testament way of leading the church. Is the New Testament way deficient? Not really, because the mistakes of monarchial bishops can be just as bad as the mistakes of elders. The monarchial system promoted by Ignatius eventually required a greater organizational complexity to survive because the bishops among the various churches could not always agree among themselves. It also produced division, as in the case of those who had to decide whether they should give their allegiance to Rome or Constantinople.
Once the monarchial system was established, the traditions of the past sustained the system more than any practical considerations. By the time of Eusebius in the early part of the fourth century, it would have been considered heresy to suggest any other organizational form. The succession of bishops became the great Succession, or the official list of bishops that allegedly go back to the apostles. If the list goes back to the apostles, then the bishops on the list were assumed to have the authority of the apostles. The link to the apostles, represented by the traditional succession lists, carried great authority with most Christians in the time of Eusebius. This link to the apostles eventually became more important than what the apostles actually said.
Another view of Biblical authority is to suggest that culture governs the application and relevance of Scripture. This view is called cultural relativism. The New Testament is viewed as revealing the beliefs characteristic of the culture of the early church but not necessarily normative for our culture. This view would argue that the organization of the church in the first century represents the beliefs characteristic of the culture of that period but is not relevant for our day. According to this view, the church is at liberty to organize itself according to whatever model is found in the surrounding culture. Some also look at the qualifications of elders as cultural. For example, the reason men were to be elders instead of women had to do with the culture of the first century. Since our culture permits women in leadership roles, then women may serve as elders today. Cultural relativism illustrates the proverb that there is always “a way that seems right to a man” (Proverbs 14:12).
J B Myers