Was Authority in the Early Church Global or Local?

I’ve heard it claimed quite frequently that the organized structural Church is a post-Apostolic invention, and that in the early Church, things were much more disorganized. For a long time, I believed this myself, but it turns out, it’s a pretty warrantless assumption. I was reminded of this recently, when I was reading T.S. Eliot’s The Hippopotamus. Although Eliot was an Anglican, he was very much an Anglo-Catholic, and a member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, whose stated purpose was “intercessory prayer for the defence of the Church of England against the attacks of her enemies.” The poem is staunchly Catholic in tone, and I’ll probably post it in full soon. For now, though, suffice to say that it begins in Latin, from St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Trallians. The letter is from about 107 A.D., and the part Eliot quotes reads:

In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrin [council] of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church. Concerning all this, I am persuaded that you are of the same opinion.

Eliot follows this immediately with Colossians 4:16, “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans.” The effect is to prove that the Church is both institutional and Catholic. It’s an image of the early Church in which there are offices of bishops, presbyters (priests), and deacons, and in which that institution extends far beyond the expanse of a single city — the cities communicate with one another and share the Gospel, and Church leaders (in this case, St. Paul) are able to command entire churches in various cities.

As a thought experiment, I imagined St. Paul and St. Ignatius writing these words to a modern Fundamentalist Church. I took a real-life example from the Kansas City area – Providence Independent Baptist Church (PIBC). I chose them simply because they’ve got a confession of faith which directly addresses their view of the Church, and which I could contrast with the writings of Paul and Ignatius. Their confession reads in part:

We hold that the local church has the absolute right of self-government free from the interference of any hierarchy of individuals or organizations (Matthew 18:15-17; Acts 6:3-6; 13:1-3; 14:26, 27; I Corinthians 5:1-5, 12, 13; 6:1-6; Revelation 2-3); that its one and only Head is Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18); that it is Scriptural for true churches to cooperate with each other in contending for the faith and for the furtherance of the Gospel (Acts 15:1-35); that each local church is the sole judge of the measure and method of its cooperation; that on all matters of membership, of polity, of government, of discipline, and of benevolence, the will of the local church is final.

I’ll note at the outset that PIBC didn’t pen this creed “confession of faith.” I talked with the pastor, Victor Mowery, who notes: “You do need to be aware that the wording of our confession is not original to us,” and while he made clear he stood behind the content, he notes that the exact same wording could be found in the confessions of entire groups of churchs from the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (http://www.garbc.org/) or the Baptist Bible Fellowship  International (http://www.bbfi.org/). I should also note that he felt that this post was inaccurate (I sent him an earlier version), saying, “it is clear to me that our interpretation of those scriptures is not clear to you, and that is understandable.  We simply cited in them in support of the statement, without elaborating on how exactly they support it.” I followed up with him in late August, and he still hasn’t elaborated as to what, exactly, is being misrepresented.  So if you see me saying anything about how PIBC interprets a given passage, take it with a grain of salt.  I don’t really intend to do that, though: my goal is only to show why I think none of these passages are helpful for proving local church supremacy.

(A) 1 Corinthians 5:1-15

To begin with, I find it ironic that they use 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 as support for their claim. In it, St. Paul chastises the church at Corinth for not taking action against an unrepentant fornicator, and orders them to condemn him when they next gather together. The NIV reads, “When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” The KJV says the same thing less clearly: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” So the local church wasn’t doing the right thing, then Paul (an outsider from Tarsus, and not a member of the church at Corinth) condemns their inaction and orders action. And from this, they derive… the local church is free from all external individual and organizational interference? This IS individual and organizational interference! Left to their own devices, Corinth would have done nothing. Even more astounding, Paul is interfering on an issue of membership – ordering them to excommunicate a member of the local church – an issue which Providence Independence Baptist claims in its confession is exclusively the province of the local church.

1 Corinthians 5:12-13 means the global Church, not the local church. Reading “local church” would be nonsensical, since it would mean that Paul couldn’t judge anyone other than those within the Corinthian church… even though Paul wasn’t a member of the Corinthian church himself.  More importantly, anyone reading Galatians (or any of his other letters) will see that Paul does judge the causes of Christians far afield from Corinth.  Instead, Paul is teaching that there are some who seem to be condemned by being outside of the visible Church, but which God may yet save.

(B) Matthew 18:15-18

This passage speaks of the authority of the Church over the individual. If each congregation acts as its own Church, and can render contrary decisions subject to no one, the Church has no authority — believers can just attend the Independent Baptist church down the street. So Matthew 18 means the local church only in the sense of it being part of a larger Church, which is why the chapter is Jesus talking to the hierarchy, the Twelve, not to all of His followers.

This is an important point, and easy to miss.  Protestants are in no real sense bound to, or in submission to, the Church (or even, a church).  Certainly, some will submit to whatever their local congregation says, but according to the eclessiology of Protestantism (one of the few issues on which a sweeping, “Protestants believe this” statement might be appropriate), if you don’t like your church, or you think it’s doing something wrong, you can leave.  No visible church is necessary for the salvation process. If that’s true, Matthew 18:15-17’s vision of eclessial authority is without effect.

(C) Acts 6:1-6

In Acts 6:1-6 (Providence Independence Baptist omitted the vitally important first two verses), the Twelve (again, the hierarchy) gather all of the other disciples, and gave these disciples the ability to choose their own deacons. What happens next is vital, though: they then brought these deacons to the Twelve, who then laid hands, ordaining them. Both the fact that the local church had to rely on the Twelve for permission to choose deacons, and the fact that the deacons were still ordained by the Twelve, refute, not support, the idea that the local church is autonomous.

(D) Acts 13 and Acts 14:26-27

These passages both deal with the commission of Paul and Barnabas, and it’s actually sort of striking – Paul is an Apostle, but still must be sent by the Church. The leaders of the church at Antioch are told by the Holy Spirit to set apart Paul and Barnabas, so they lay hands on them and send them. But Paul and Barnabas are still sent by the entire Church… or else, it’s the church at Antioch telling the Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, Romans, etc., what to do. So again, this is the local church as part of a Catholic Church, or it makes no sense. Read this within the broader call of Paul’s call and mission and you’ll see what I mean. If he’s just an emissary of the Antiochian church, Antioch is trying to control the global church (which, of course, PIBC rightly says they can’t). This passage correctly establishes that the local church can act as a tribunal. Nobody refutes that. But where it says only the local church can act as a tribunal, I just don’t see. After all, Acts 15 shows a global Church Council, capable of passing judgment on moral issues, binding upon all the churches. Besides, any tribunal’s judgment is only valid if it can be enforced. Within the secular court system, local courts must enforce other local courts’ judgments (full faith and credit clause for between states, extradition treaties for those outside the US, etc.). If they didn’t, law enforcement would totally fail. If you could avoid a guilty verdict by simply stepping into another jurisdiction, it’d be virtually impossible to have any rule of law. So again, this only makes sense if the local church is part of a universal Church.

(E) 1 Corinthians 6:1-6

1 Corinthians 6:1-6 correctly establishes that the local church can act as a tribunal. Nobody refutes that. But where it says only the local church can act as a tribunal, I just don’t see. Besides, Acts 15 shows the Council of Jerusalem judging matters for the universal Church.  Additionally, any tribunal’s judgment is only valid if it can be enforced. Within the secular court system, local courts must enforce other local courts’ judgments (full faith and credit clause for between states, extradition treaties for those outside the US, etc.). If they didn’t, law enforcement would totally fail. If you could avoid a guilty verdict by simply stepping into another jurisdiction, it’d be virtually impossible to have any rule of law. So again, this only makes sense if the local church is part of a universal Church. That’s why, going back to the point I made in (B), the Protestant vision of the Church renders these passages null.

(F) Revelation 2-3

Revelation 2-3 deals with the fidelity of different local churches. Interestingly, all seven churches in question were all geographically close to one another. The prevailing view is that these are the seven churches under the Apostle John’s authority, as he served as their first Apostle-bishop. Nowhere is there even a hint of them being the highest authority. I can say, for example, that a given Catholic parish in Kansas City is very devout and another is very lax. Does that mean there’s no bishop? Of course not.

Summary of “Local Church Passages

So the Scriptures PIBC think support their position just don’t — at least two, in fact, refute their position (1 Corinthians 5:1-5 and Acts 6:1-6), while at least four more (Matthew 18, Acts 13-14, 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, and 1 Corinthians 6:1-6) are sensible only if the opposite is true. The final proof text, Revelation 2-3, likely hints at the authority of the Apostle John as bishop over seven different churches, but really doesn’t say anything doctrinally on the authority of local churches at all.  Again, they may have some novel interpretation of what this ought to look like, but my point is just that no, whatever PIBC and anyone else might think, that’s not what the passages mean, objectively.

On the Other Hand…

Now consider Colossians 4:16. To be consistent, Providence Independent Baptist would have to condemn both Paul and the Church at Colossae for meddling in the internal affairs of the Laodicean church, and condemn Paul for meddling even within the affairs of the Colossian church, since they’re not part of Antioch or Corinth. They’d also have to condemn Ignatius of Antioch for interfering in the affairs of the Trallian church. As for what Ignatius actually writes, well, it contradicts what they teach quite plainly – their mission statement says of the local church:

… its two offices are that of pastor and deacon, whose qualifications and duties are clearly defined in the Scriptures (Acts 20:26-31; I Timothy 3:1-13; II Timothy 4:1-2; Titus 1:6-9; I Peter 5:1-4).

Ignatius was teaching that there were three offices: bishop, presbyter, deacon. And given that Ignatius taught that apart from these offices, there is no Church, these are pretty important details to get wrong. T. S. Eliot actually omitted the most striking thing Ignatius says, but it’s immediately before the second he quoted:

For, since you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, you may escape from death. It is therefore necessary that, as you indeed do, so without the bishop you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall [at last] be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They are bound, therefore, to avoid all grounds of accusation [against them], as they would do fire.

So the bishop isn’t just somebody you choose for yourself. He’s someone with real authority over you, like it or not. Ignatius also makes it clear the hierarchy: bishop is above presbyter, who is above deacon. And without the bishop, you should do nothing. In contrast, Providence Independence claims that the “one and only” head of the local church is Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Obviously, there’s much more in the way of Scriptural and Patristic support which refutes the notion that the local church is the highest authority. These ones I chose just because Eliot referenced them, and I think they’re sufficient to prove my point. To be clear, my point in all of this isn’t to pick on Providence Independent Baptist Church. I know they mean well, and I am quite confident they’re helping lead souls to Christ and salvation. I imagine that their errors are innocently made. Nevertheless, I think they’re gravely in error on a number of points of doctrine, and I think it’s worth refuting the myth that the early Church was a disorganized place, or a place organized only at the local level. Rather, this was an interconnected network of churches bound by the same confession of faith. Everything we know from Scripture and from the writings of the Early Church Fathers support this notion time and time and time again.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the post, I will be referring to it often as I am continually bombarded with anti-catholic questions and comments–this being one of the topics. God bless you for your time and efforts in putting this together!

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