A priest friend of mine reached out to me yesterday, and asked, “Remember in the book of Judges how ‘there was no king at that time in Israel and every man did what was right in his own eyes’ [Judges 17:6; Judges 21:25]? Now does it seem to you that that state of affairs is endorsed or condemned by the book?” His reason for asking was that, incredibly, he had (in the course of preparing a homily) stumbled upon a Protestant professor apparently claiming this chaotic state as a model for Church governance. Sure enough, Professor Stan Patterson of Andrews University has an essay in the Journal of Applied Christian Leadership claiming:
It could be said of the early Christian period, “There was no central governance structure in those days and every man did what was right according to the Word, the admonition of the Apostles and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
God is our ruler
There was no centralized human leader in the time of the Judges and every man answered directly to the Creator as the leader of their nation. Each person behaved according to his or her personal commitment to the covenant of obedience and faithfulness to God (Judges 17:6; 21:25). This seems like a risky approach to corporate faithfulness and even national order but it was clearly Gideon’s understanding of the governance structure of Israel—no human king! National faithfulness was simply an aggregate of the faithfulness of each Israelite. Lest we mistake the Judges for centralized leaders in possession of corporate authority, we should be reminded that the judges were charismatic figures who arose for specific deliverance missions or assumed civil mediation responsibilities but had no governance authority or power to tax.
Of course, anyone familiar with the Book of Judges should recognize that this state of affairs isn’t presented in a praiseworthy way. The Book begins by describing how the Israelites’ unfaithfulness prevented them from succeeding in their conquest of the Promised Land (Judges 1:1-36, 3:1-6). It then describes how the judges were God’s response to Israel’s faithlessness, but that the Judges were of only limited effectiveness, since the people promptly returned to chaos and idolatry (Judges 2:16-19):
Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the power of those who plundered them. And yet they did not listen to their judges; for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed down to them; they soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and behaved worse than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them; they did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.
There’s a lot that could be said here. First, the Book of Judges presents the faithlessness, lawlessness and anarchy (and resultant moral relativism) of Israel in this period as awful, and the deeds described in the Book bear this out. Patterson instead seems to present it as a time of “national faithfulness,” and a prefigurement of the early Christian Church. Second, the Book of Judges presents the Judges as real (albeit limited and non-hereditary) rulers over Israel. Patterson flatly denies this.
The problem here isn’t one professor’s bad exegesis of Judges (and I should point out that most Protestants get that Judges isn’t glorifying the days of king-less lawlessness). Rather, it points to a deeper and more important misunderstanding of the role of Church governance. The most important mistake that Patterson makes is saying that Israel and the early Church didn’t have rulers because “God is our ruler.” In contrast, the Book of Judges explicitly says that “Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge.” In other words, Scripture presents God working through the leaders He chose, whereas Patterson makes the all-too-frequent error of assuming that we have to choose between following God or following earthly Church leadership.
The Biblical Model of Church Governance
Protestants often assume that the monarchical structure of the Catholic Church is due to Catholics relying too much on structure of the Roman Empire and not enough on the structure established in the Bible. Perhaps it would be better to say that it’s Protestants who are overly indebted to the structure of the United States and Western liberal societies, to the extent that they’ve ignored that God established a Kingdom, and not a Democracy. Look at how the People of God were governed throughout all of history:
- Adam and Eve: Adam and Eve are entrusted with the care of all creation, with Eve serving as Adam’s “helper” (Gen. 2:18). After the Fall, due to sin, the husband becomes more of a ruler over, than a collaborator with, his wife (Genesis 3:16). One aspect of the Fall seems to be that Adam and Eve allowed their relationship to become skewed, with Adam shirking leadership. That would seem to explain why part of the Lord’s rebuke of Adam is that “you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you” (Gen. 3:17).
- Noah: God leads His People to salvation from the Flood through one man who had God’s favor, Noah (Genesis 6:8) who led his family onto the Ark (Genesis 7:7).
- The Patriarchs: Whether it be Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, etc., we see God continuing to lead His People through specific patriarchs, individual heads of the family. Notice that the Biblical familial structure is monarchial. The mother and father are entrusted with the care of the family, while the children are instructed “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12). So children are subject to their parents. But responsibility ultimately rests with the husband and father, to whom even the wife defers (Ephesians 5:22).
- Moses. God brings His People out of Egypt through Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, but final earthly authority rests with Moses. Miriam and Aaron get jealous about this, complaining “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:2). The Lord vindicates Moses, declaring that “he is entrusted with all my house” (Nm. 12:7). Miriam is cursed with leprosy until Moses intercedes for her (Nm. 12:13), and Aaron entreats Moses for mercy to avoid punishment (Nm. 12:11).
- The Old Testament Priesthood. Governance is entrusted to the Priests and Levites, but there’s ultimately one man accountable, the High Priest. This annoyed Levites like Korah, who rebelled against Moses and (the High Priest) Aaron by saying that “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3). In other words, Korah is the first Congregationalist. And for this insubordination to the Divine structure of governance, he and his followers are swallowed up by the earth (Nm. 16:30-32).
- The Judges. As we’ve just seen, God periodically saved His People from lawless anarchy by raising up a particular Judge to govern them. When that governance wasn’t there, the People fell into the worst sorts of sins imaginable.
- The Kings. God governed Israel through His Kings. Sometimes, those Kings were righteous, other times not. But whether or not they were righteous, they still had a special holiness attached to them (holy means “set apart”) simply by virtue of being ordained Kings. This is amply demonstrated in 1 Samuel 24. David is on the run from King Saul, who has gone mad with jealousy and wants David dead. David resists the opportunity to slay his sleeping pursuer, declaring “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to put forth my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s anointed” (1 Samuel 24:6). When Saul is eventually slain, David has his killer executed, declaring “How is it you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (2 Sam. 1:14).
- The Kingdom of God. Turn now to the New Testament. Remember that democracies and republics existed prior to the first century. Athens had a democracy five centuries before Christ, and the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire in 27 B.C. The Scriptures show that the Jews were aware of both Greek and Roman culture, so these structures of governance wouldn’t have been unheard of. And yet Christ comes proclaiming not a Democracy of God, or a People’s Republic of God, but a “Kingdom of God” (Mark 1:15) and a “Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 3:2).
- The Governing Authorities. Speaking in the civil context, St. Paul gives these instructions: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2). That doesn’t mean that every particular structure of governance is equally good (much less that every form of governance is Divinely instituted) but it does put to bed the lie that the early Christian Church was to be an ungoverned place. That’s total foreign to the New Testament view of authority and obedience.
- St. Peter and the Apostles. Christ ordains Twelve Apostles, empowering them with authority (Matthew 10:1-15). There is something revolutionary about Christian Church governance, which is that those who rule over the Church are to do it for our good rather than their own. At the Last Supper, He tells them “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27). This admonition presupposes that the Apostles are “in authority,” but that they need to ensure that they’re exercising servant-leadership.But in case that weren’t clear enough, Jesus then promises “You are those who have continued with me in my trials; as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:28-30). Notice, of course, that the Apostles are called to a monarchical authority, not a democratic one. And then Christ singles out one of the Twelve for a special mission: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you [plural], that he might sift you [plural] like wheat, but I have prayed for you [singular] that your [singular] faith may not fail; and when you [singular] have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31-32). In other words, the whole Church is entrusted to the Apostles, and the Apostles are entrusted to Peter. Even Protestants like Keith Mathison concede that Simon Peter was the leader of the Twelve, and he’s listed first in every New Testament listing of the Apostles. Back in 2011-12, I wrote a six-part series laying out the Biblical evidence for Peter’s leadership of the Apostles (Parts I, II, III, IV, V, and VI), so that’s all I’ll say on the point for now.
So throughout the Old Testament, the basic pattern is clear: God leads His People through one person, or through several people who are ultimately accountable to one person. Authority is top-down (children don’t choose their parents, the Israelites don’t choose their Kings or Judges, etc.) and the buck stops with a particular individual. Where this structure is challenged, whether that be by Miriam and Aaron or by Korah, the challengers are rebuked (or worse).
When Jesus comes proclaiming a Kingdom of God, He doesn’t suddenly change the Divine preference for this structure of leadership. He instead emphasizes that it is to be exercised in service, and then shows what this leadership looks like perfectly by laying down His life on the Cross for His Bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:25). And it certainly sounds, from the Biblical evidence, like He entrusts the task of Church governance to the Apostles generally and St. Peter particularly.
So how does the early Church react? Does it descend into the sort of holy anarchy described (or imagined) by Professor Patterson? Quite the contrary. Pope Clement of Rome, writing in 96 A.D. (while the Apostle John is still alive!) describes the orderly transition from Christ to the Apostles to the bishops and clergy:
The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith. [cf. Isaiah 60:17]
In other words, Pope Clement testifies to a continuity in top-down Church leadership beginning with Christ and spreading through the Apostles to the rest of the Church. St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John, will write the Ephesians (c. 107-110 A.D) to say things like:
Wherefore it is fitting that you should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also you do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung.
Now the more any one sees the bishop keeping silence, the more ought he to revere him. For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household [Matthew 24:25], as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.
So we have, from Clement, the idea that top-down governance is established by God and continued in an unbroken way, and from Ignatius, the idea responsibility for each diocese ultimately falls to one man, the bishop. St. Irenaeus, writing c. 180 A.D., then makes this same point on a global level, that responsibility for the Church falls to one church, Rome (and its bishop):
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
Now, you might disagree with Pope Clement, Bishop Ignatius, and Bishop Irenaeus. But you should recognize that (a) they’re describing something in continuity with the way that God dealt with His People throughout the Old and New Testament, and (b) they’re describing something radically different from the lawlessness that Professor Patterson claimed characterized the early Church.