Americans are an independent lot. The original colonists left the old world for the new. Their revolutionary successors in the 18th century formalized that independence with a war and constitutional documents. The American desire for independence helped to propel us west beyond the wilds of Ohio, across the plains, and eventually across the Rocky Mountains and to the pacific coast. However valuable that impetus may be politically, economically, and culturally it is more problematic ecclesiastically. In the history of salvation the church was connected and the churches (particular congregations) were connected to each other, not merely in a casual way or in a merely consultative relationship but in a genuine, organic relationship in which decisions taken together in assemblies had authority.
The other alternative, to which Christians have been tempted has been a monarchical model where a single leader makes decisions in a hierarchical pattern. The biblical evidence, particularly in the New Testament leads us away from both of these approaches, however. In the NT we see neither disconnected congregations nor a top-down organization.
There are clear New Covenant precedents for regional (and even larger) assemblies of Churches, considered as one “Church.” God gives a mandate for a larger system of Church co-operation and government in Acts 15. A council of Church elders and Apostles was called in Jerusalem to decide the question: what must a Gentile do to enter the church? In verse 19 we see the conclusions of James which the Council adopted:
It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood.
Now look at verse 30 where we see that Apostle Paul and Barnabas have been delegated by the Council to deliver the decree of the council, notice the reaction of the recipients: The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the Church together, and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.
Notice the context. The Apostle Paul who received his gospel not from men (Gal 1:12) but directly from the ascended Lord Jesus, is delegated first by the visible, instituted, Church in Antioch to go to Jerusalem. This is no casual gathering of believers which sent Paul and Barnabas, but a rightly ordered gathering whose authority Paul recognized. That means that Paul submitted to the will of the local Church to have this question decided by the larger body. Paul himself was “sent” by the Church. The Apostle recognized that the Lord has given the broader Church authority (derived from the Word of God) to decide questions in the Church according to the Scriptures.
Here is the first regional assembly or general synod. At this synod there were missions reports, speeches, discussion over the meaning of various passages of Scripture, even heated theological argument (vv.7–11), and finally agreement. The assembly concluded that circumcision is not necessary for salvation. Converts were exhorted to avoid sexual immorality and sacrifices offered to idols.
The assembly drafted a letter which was taken around to various Churches and presented as the decision of the body. This is not just an advisory decision. James considered the decision of the Council binding on all those to whom the letter was to be sent. Notice that in verse 22 it is the “whole church” which has sent Paul and Barnabas. Thus the larger assembly assumed that it had authority to delegate Paul and Barnabas as ambassadors for the larger, visible, connected, Church which had arrived at a unified conclusion.
Because the decision was binding the Churches received with joy, since now Gentiles could be let into the Church without the whole Old Covenant dietary law being imposed on them. These churches were in some official arrangement so that the delegates to this council had real authority, just as the Elders and Pastors in 1 Timothy have real authority derived from Scripture.
Another consideration in favor of connectionalism, that is, organized visible connections between local Churches is the way Luke uses the singular Ekklesia to describe several bodies at once. Acts 8:3 says that Paul was going about destroying the Church in Jerusalem, which consisted of more than one congregation, yet is spoken of as one body.
Another important passage is Acts 9:31. There is a difficulty here because there is a textual question. The Textus Receptus (the Greek Text behind the Authorized Version of 1611) and the Majority Text (the Greek text behind the New King James Version) reads Churches.” The oldest and most reliable manuscripts, however, read “Church.”
It is significant that Luke uses the singular to describe several local Church bodies in the region. He apparently feels comfortable speaking of several Churches as though they are one. Luke speaks this way because he conceives the various Churches as being bound together in unity under the authority of the Scriptures.
There are civil and cultural virtues in the American desire to be independent, virtues that should not be abandoned but Christians have a dual allegiance. We live, Calvin said, under a “twofold government.” As we think about Christ’s church and kingdom we must distinguish it from our life in the civil and common realms. All of our life is under God’s sovereignty and authority but the distinction between the these two aspects means that we must think about the visible church differently than we do about our civil and common life. Thinking of the visible churches as connected, as a church, is one way in which we may have to think differently. The congregations, their pastors and elders, and their members are together in one body locally but they are also together in one body in an organic relationship with other congregations in regional assemblies and beyond.
This connectionalism is a good thing. In recent years we have seen the rise of a new crop of entrepreneurial, charismatic personalities as church leaders. They have gathered around themselves large congregations and sometimes multiple congregations in multiple campuses. Some of these organizations seem to be taking on the character of a multi-national corporation and the pastor the characteristics of a Wall Street CEO. To whom are these mega-church leaders accountable and how? In the modern period businesses (e.g., corporations) tend toward what, in ecclesiastical usage, would be called episcopacy, or the rule of the organization by a single leader (bishop) in a top-down, hierarchical pattern. That may be changing, in some places, in business. Some high-tech businesses seem to be adopting a more collaborative or collegial approach. Nevertheless, the episcopal model reigns supreme in business and civil leaders. In civil polity rule by one leader is called monarchy. The church probably learned this pattern from the state and took it over in the late patristic era and it became the dominant model in church government in the medieval period.
One of the complaints by the Reformed about the organization of the medieval church (episcopacy) is that it was unbiblical and tended toward corruption. The medieval papacy was chock-full of examples of what happens in the church when a monarchical figure is unchecked by a collegial authority. The popes knew this and most of them expended great energy to marginalize the councils. Ironically, it was often those bishops who had been the strongest advocates of the authority of councils who, once elected to the papacy, became the strongest opponents of the councils. In recent years, in American civil politics, we have seen senators who, as senators, were advocates of the prerogatives of the Senate but who, upon election to the presidency, seemed to forget all about their earlier concerns. This is human nature. That tendency is one reason why Scripture nowhere grants unchecked episcopal authority to a single individual. The New Testament pattern is always a collegial or presbyterial exercise of authority. The authority is genuine but limited. In the NT ministers and elders are accountable to one another and to other gatherings of ministers and elders. There are no CEOs or monarchical bishops in the NT churches.
Finally, the NT pattern of the collegial or presbyterial exercise of genuine authority should be an encouragement to those Christians who have suffered abuse at the hands of pastors and elders. It happens. Over the years I’ve had correspondence from believers who’ve been abused or ignored by pastors and elders. The temptation is to abandon the church. If you’re suffering from such abuse or neglect I hope that you will not give in to this temptation. Christ established his church for you. It is broken but there are remedies. One of those is complaint and other is appeal. If you’re in a connectional, collegial, presbyterial church you may complain against an unjust action to the original body (e.g., the local elders). If they do not respond or if there is no resolution you may complain or appeal to a broader assembly and in Reformed churches there is yet another assembly (synod) to which you may appeal. I have seen instances where the case had to be appealed to synod and where there was a good outcome. It takes time and perseverance but remarkably God does use these mundane procedures for your good and for the encouragement of the whole church.
So, there is an alternative to the solo bishop, whether he’s wearing a robe or a sweater and sandals. There is an alternative to the isolated congregation—which has also been known to devolve into a sort of episcopacy. It’s in Acts 15 and throughout Scripture.