My last post was titled Roman Catholicism and I, so I am naming this sequel “Roman Catholicism and II.” Get it? Funny? No? Okay, well, I couldn’t resist. I’ve never been very good at titles.
Anyway, an Orthodox friend of mine sent me more questions in regard to my last post. He tends to be pretty private, so I am not going to give you his name. He asked me to address the questions, though, so I am not doing anything wrong in repeating his questions publicly.
The questions are really good. I’m looking forward to answering these.
1. As the early Church grew (still long before Constantine), did the early Church fathers teach that local churches don’t have to be accountable to a bishop?
No. Ignatius pushed accountability to the bishop, the elders, and even the servants (deacons) in all his letters. Oddly enough, his letter to Rome was the exception, which is almost certainly because Rome still used “bishop” and “elder” interchangeably (1 Clement 42, 44).
Anyway, Ignatius is a prime example of emphasis on the bishop. Note it is on the local bishop only, not distant bishops in other churches.
1 Clement is a letter from Rome to Corinth. The reason for the letter is that the Corinthians were fighting over the positions (plural) of elder/bishop. While I don’t remember him ever emphasizing submission to the elders, he does say that the plan of God for proclaiming the Gospel and teaching the saints is God to Jesus to the apostles to the bishops and deacons.
Clement also says that each person should serve in their proper place, and he uses the priests and Levites of the Old Testament as an example. He does all this in the context of the Old Testament without getting specific about New Testament roles other than what I’ve pointed out. He does tell any person that is in disagreement with the multitude of believers in Corinth to willingly depart if he can’t change his mind.
Justin Martyr was from Rome, and he left us a lot of writing, all apologetic towards the emperor, the Greeks, and the Jews. The report of his martyrdom is also extant. He writes like he has never heard of a bishop or elder, referring only to “the presiding one” even in his description of a Sunday meeting. That’s a little weird because he wrote around AD 150, and Rome surely had a bishop by then.
The “Didache,” a church manual of uncertain date, is very interesting. It mentions bishops (plural) and servants, but the whole manual is addressed to the members of the church:
You must choose for yourselves bishops and deacons who are worthy of
the Lord: men who are humble and not eager for money, but sincere and
approved; for they are carrying out the ministry of the prophets and the
teachers for you. Do not esteem them lightly, for they take an honourable
rank among you along with the prophets and teachers. (ch. 15)
This manual gives instructions on the Lord’s Supper and baptism without ever mentioning a church leader. It instructs the church to choose bishops and servants, not to submit to them. Many believe the manual, are at least parts of it, to be very early because it deals so much with true and false apostles and prophets. I think we’re all guessing on that subject.
So, my answer to the question is that the early Christians did teach that local churches should be accountable to a bishop. However, I need to add two points.
Although it seems best, even to me, that a bishop of a church—or the bishops if there is collegiate rule—was appointed and trained by an apostle, the Didache suggests this did not always happen. A succession of such trained bishops is a good thing, helping to ensure purity of doctrine, especially if the churches consult with each other, which they did throughout the second and third centuries.
The second point is that bishops were not seminary-trained theologians hired to oversee the church. Before the Nicene era, when one see could be dramatically more important than another, bishops did not move from place to place. Alexander, the early-4th century bishop of Alexandria, had authority over the bishops of all of Egypt as well as of a couple districts plus Libya. Nonetheless, Alexander was native to Alexandria. He grew up in Jesus there, and he was known to the Christians as a godly man and wise teacher. As Tertullian put it:
The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honor not by purchase, but by established character. (Apology 39. c. AD 200)
Choosing a bishop of Rome from men who lived their Christian lives in Poland or South America bears no resemblance whatsoever to early Christianity. Further, in the early churches, the bishop was actually an overseer and shepherd. He knew the people, and he watched over them like a shepherd should. He did not travel the world as a religious politician. If that would have happened, we can be sure he would have been anointed for that job, and a bishop would have been chosen to replace him who could do the job of shepherding.
2. Did the early Church fathers teach that anyone can organize a church, without anointing either by an apostle or by someone anointed by an apostle?
I don’t know of any comments that relate to this except Tertullian’s comment that not all the united apostolic churches were actually formed by apostles because new ones were being formed regularly.
In Acts 11:19-24, though, we read that the Christians were scattered by Saul’s persecution, and they went around Judea preaching the Word. The result was that a Gentile church was started in Antioch. The apostles sent Barnabas there, and he was pleased with what was happening, so he exhorted them to “cleave to the Lord.”
He got Paul to help him lead, and he ended up with three other prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1) there.
So I would think that anyone can organize a church. If there were Jerusalem or apostles to come along, approve the church, and unite them to the apostolic churches, that would be awesome. That’s not really an option nowadays. Too many questionable doctrines that are required of these new churches by those churches that claim to be apostolic.
3. Did the early Church fathers teach that local churches are qualitatively better off if they’re united with one another—but that they’re nevertheless just fine if they’re operating by themselves, implementing what they perceive to be the direction of the Holy Spirit, in critical consultation with historic documents?
No. In the second century, any church that was outside the unity of the apostolic churches was a heresy. It was, in their opinion and mine, not Christian. I would apply Titus 3:10 to such a church. They—rather than an individual as Paul is discussing—are divisive, and they are to be rejected after the first and second admonition.
However, we’re not in the second century. If the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics want to claim that they have the same right to demand unity that the united apostolic churches of the second and third century had, then I guess they can treat the rest of us as divisive men who are to be rejected. If they really carry the unity and authority of the early apostolic churches, though, I think they ought not to regard us as Christians but as heretics, like the early Christians regarded the gnostics.
We, as a small church here in Memphis, reject their claim, though, and I give a lot of the reasons why on this blog (beyond what I’ve written in this post).
4. Whether part of the Armenian Apostolic Church, an Orthodox Church, or a local expression of Anabaptist ecclesiology… are any of us really doing and believing as the early Church did? If not, how do we prioritize which aspects matter most?
That’s a great question. That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?
Okay, let me say this clearly so I don’t leave readers, including my Orthodox friend, wondering. My apologies to those who are staunch defenders of papal primacy for what I am about to say.
The Roman Catholic claim to be descendants of the apostles with their authority to demand unity to themselves is, in my opinion, obviously false. If the RCC’s intent was to preserve the faith of the apostles unchanged, they have failed miserably. On top of that, their claim to papal primacy, as Vatican II and their Catechism define it, is easily dismantled and proven false. That’s a big problem to anyone who wants to be in unity with them. (I have a book coming out in the next few months on papal primacy as defined by Vatican II and the Catholic Catechism.)
I don’t believe the Roman Catholic Church is living out the second century faith.
I cannot be so bluntly disagreeable with the various Orthodox branches for two reasons. 1.) I don’t know enough about them. 2.) What I do know shows them to be significantly better preservers of apostolic tradition than the RCC.
If I may be so honest that I’m rude: for a person like me who is familiar with the Bible and the writings of the churches of the second century, the RCC has almost nothing to teach or add. I just argue with them.
I argue with the Orthodox, too, but they win a lot. I have learned a lot from them, and I expect to learn more.
Nonetheless, I think their Mariology and the way they venerate/proskuneo icons cannot be defended believably to most of us, and certainly not to me.
Okay, so back to the question. Are any of us getting it right?
Everywhere that any church is turning away from iniquity (2 Tim. 2:19), exhorting one another day by day (Heb. 3:13), taking care of the needs of the saints (Acts 2:42-47; 4:33; 2 Cor. 8-9), glorifying Jesus as the King of God’s Kingdom and the risen Son of God, and taking care of the poor and widows (Jam. 1:27), then I think the early church’s life and Gospel are being lived out.
I hope the above paragraph defines love for each other (Jn. 13:34-35) and thus includes love. I hope the above paragraph defines biblical unity (Jn. 17:20-23) and thus includes unity.
I would add that I wish that any church meeting those last two paragraphs would also hold to the creed promulgated at Nicea, but that’s me. I also wish that any non-Catholic, non-Orthodox churches would baptize for the remission of sins and for rebirth, but God doesn’t seem to care much if churches do that. He gives them grace whether their baptism is correct or not.
So those are most of my teachings on the church spilled out on one page.