July 9, 2020

Ben Witherington on Bad Protestant Ecclesiology

In his New Year’s Day post, Ben Witherington puts his finger on one of the matters that soured me on evangelicalism. Long a theological question in my mind, it became a personal and vocational issue for me when I served in my last position as a minister in a local congregation.

Witherington’s piece is about one aspect of evangelical Protestantism’s ecclesiology that he (and I) find deficient: the lack of authority, accountability, support, and a sense of belonging outside the context of the local congregation.

Ben is talking about the autonomous local church, the independent local church, the non-denominational local church in which there is too much authority given to the local leader or leaders, and too little connection to any kind of authority outside that setting.

One of the real problems which has plagued the Protestant movement from Day One is bad or weak ecclesiology. What I mean by this is that in various cases it is both unBiblical, and it is also often unworkable. It is unBiblical because there definitely is a hierarchy of leadership in the early church that extends beyond a particular local congregation, and furthermore, there is a concept of ‘church’ and its leadership structures which transcends a particular local expression of the church say in a house church or a particular local congregation.

To illustrate, he cites the scandal concerning “Bishop” Eddie Long in Atlanta’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Long’s wife recently filed for divorce in another sad chapter in the story of the charismatic minister who built a following of over 25,000 people, but who has been involved in a number of moral and financial debacles.

What went wrong with Bishop Eddie? What went wrong was not merely that there was a cult of personality in this church and too much power resided in the one local church figure. What went wrong, at it’s root, was bad Protestant ecclesiology [my emphasis]. The man had no real accountability outside of the members of the local church — no bishops, no elders, no district superintendents who were not part of that local church who could come in and remove, defrock, or discipline the man.

The evidence of the New Testament and the early church suggests a much different picture, NT scholar Witherington suggests. Though there was diversity and development with regard to the character of local congregations and their organizational structures, it is clear that they functioned both as faith communities with local leaders and as members of the broader “church of God,” under the guidance and authority of trans-congregational leaders. In fact, the local leaders were appointed by those apostles or apostolic co-workers. It is early in post-apostolic writings that the “bishop” appears in the same role, providing authoritative pastoral guidance on the regional level.

Any careful study of the phrase ekklesia tou theou in the NT makes clear that while each congregation would be seen as a fully adequate expression of the body of Christ, at the same time they were seen to be part of the larger collective entity ‘the church of God’ (see e.g. Gal. 1) and as such were accountable to the larger church and to its over-arching leaders — apostles, apostolic co-workers, prophets, teachers, and the like. At any given time, an apostle might come and correct, or rebuke, or appoint new local leadership. There was accountability outside the local congregation.

I have always wondered how those with a doctrine of “the autonomy of the local church” justify their position.

Will we ever learn that our “do-it-yourself,” entrepreneurial approach to faith undercuts the nature of NT Christianity and leads to consequences that tarnish the reputation of our Savior?


  1. I used to attend a Fundamentalist church that, though part of a denomination, believed in a great deal of autonomy for individual congregations. (Their denom has no say in how individual churches are run; they exist to ordain and network pastors, provide resources, and fund missionaries.)

    The way the leadership of this particular church defended their do-it-yourself mentality was that we Christians answer to Jesus. Not to one another. Humanity is fallen; therefore we’re not to trust one another for real accountability, because instead of forming support systems to follow Jesus, we’ll actually form support systems to indulge in our total depravity. We’ll depend on man instead of God, and go astray.

    No surprise, they didn’t believe in confessing our sins to one another either. Too “Catholic” for them. Yeah, James told us to do so, but James wrote his letter to the “twelve tribes,” (Jm 1.1) meaning the Jews, and is therefore part of a different, Law-based dispensation.

    Lots of bad theology in there. But as you can see, people can rationalize away all sorts of things.

    • Been there and got the T-shirt. The Lord’s prayer is also “old-covenant” because it conditions our receiving of forgiveness upon our works of forgiving. Puh-leeze. Jesus had no idea what He was talking about either, did he.

  2. How has that strong ecclesiology worked out for the Catholics? Oh right, the Protestant reformation because the church hierarchy wasn’t being held accountable (lets not even mention recent controversies) . The in-squabbles amongst the Orthodox and the large scale heterodoxy of large portions of the Anglican communion I think makes the case that this is just another nestalogic grass is greenerism. All power seeks autonomy, whether pope, pastor or individual church member. All power tempts to corrupt no matter who holds it, democratic and autocratic alike.

    • Kenny Johnson says

      I think I’m in agreement here. While I can certainly see danger if a church is too isolated from other churches or some kind of outside accountability…. the examples you give above are proof that a hierarchical structure doesn’t necessarily prevent corruption.

      My own church is part of a denomination (evangelical covenant), but our church is autonomously governed. The accountability comes from within. The elders are elected by the congregation and the pastor is accountable to the elders. With that said though, our church is not in isolation. We regularly partner and work with other churches. Our pastor regularly meets with other local pastors. Hes also heavily involved with our denomination.

      • Ignorance never stopped me from leaping in before, so here goes!

        I think, Kenny, that your situation and ones similar to it are not what either Ben or Chaplain Mike are talking about; you’ve got a system in place, with external and superior authority to act as a check and balance.

        What seems to be the uniquely(?) American experience is that any Joe Soap can set up his own church – either as a plant of an existing one, or simply off his own bat – and if it is successful, and if it grows, and if it gets big enough to start planting daughter churches of its own (or to trademark its name), then the problem is: who is in charge? It’s the same Rev. Dr. Apostle Bishop Joe Soap, with the body running the nuts and bolts of the operation packed with his family members or supporters, and unless there’s a big scandal, no-one has oversight or can intervene.

        The situation of the Crystal Cathedral was nothing to do with scandals (thank God) but the same principle was in effect: it seemed to be a one-man (and his family) band. What struck me, in all the discussions about selling the property etc., was that it seemed to be an institution of itself – there didn’t seem to be links to a wider denomination or parent body. I see by Wikipedia that it was affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, but did anyone see anything about the RCA stepping in to keep it going or to take over and provide for the congregation?

        Never mind that, in cases such as Bishop Long, these are self-appointed titles of authority and I don’t see them serving to do anything more than make the person sound more impressive, claim the same relative status as that title in hierarchical churches, and put themselves beyond reproach: I am the New Testament office-holder who Paul says has the last word, so you do it my way or the highway!

        I know what’s meant by a bishop if we’re talking Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican/Lutheran/Methodist, but I don’t know what Bishop Joe means by it (other than ‘Since I’m the guy in charge, and since the title of Pope is already taken, I think I’d like to assume this title and justify by referring back to Acts’).

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          American experience is that any Joe Soap can set up his own church – either as a plant of an existing one, or simply off his own bat – and if it is successful, and if it grows, and if it gets big enough to start planting daughter churches of its own (or to trademark its name), then the problem is: who is in charge? It’s the same Rev. Dr. Apostle Bishop Joe Soap, with the body running the nuts and bolts of the operation packed with his family members or supporters, and unless there’s a big scandal, no-one has oversight or can intervene.

          More like “packed with his family members and yes-men, all of whom are personally benefiting from the arrangement.”

          And if you don’t like the way Rev Dr Apostle Bishop Joe Soap (AKA God’s Anointed) is running the show, then split off and plant your own One True Church!

          The situation of the Crystal Cathedral was nothing to do with scandals (thank God) but the same principle was in effect: it seemed to be a one-man (and his family) band.

          And when Crystal Cathedral’s founder got too old to rule effectively, it all went up in one big Inheritance Blood Feud. I’ve survived one inheritance fight; they get NASTY — remember that not even Jesus wanted to step into one (“Master, how shall I divide the inheritance with my brother?”). And the higher the stakes and the bigger the property inherited, the nastier it gets.

          And so there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth all over the OC about how Crystal Cathedral has been bought out by that Godless Cult of Romish Popery…

        • True…anyone can call themselves “Reverand”, “Pastor” or “Saint” for that matter, and it doesn’t mean a darned thing when there is no structure or hierarchy.

          …and as a sidebar, it is pretty easy to take potshots at the Catholic Church due to its size. When hundreds of self-apoointed ministers and church leaders independently abuse members in any way, shape, or form….it is hundreds of stories, If a priest is involved, it “that Catholic Church scandel”/

    • I agree Brendan.

      It is also a huge leap to compare someone like St. Paul going into unchurched lands and starting them from scratch and then assuming responsibility for those churches with the franchises of the post NT era.

      Paul’s authority did not come from some denominational credentials, but from fathering churches himself and his personal experience and knowledge.

      Also, the leadership he endorsed was raised up from the local congregations that they were to lead. They were not hired professionals sent from the head office.

      • And yet James certainly felt (and Paul apparently agreed) that the Church in Jerusalem which he headed had the authority to order worship, practice, and dogma for all those “local congregations”.

        • I would argue that the Jerusalem church never used or had any “authority to order worship, practice, and dogma for all those “local congregations””, but more importantly, even if you want to believe that they did, it would seem that the qualifications for such authority would be being taught directly by Christ, having seen the risen Christ, and having miracles attesting to the validity of your words.

          I’m all for using those standards for who gets “authority to order worship, practice, and dogma for all those “local congregations”.”

          Sorry, but graduating from an approved seminary or an appointment from a guy in a goofy hat doesn’t even come close.

      • I thought Paul’s authority came from being chosen by Jesus, through learning from the other apostles and through the special miracles God worked through him.


        • Paul was never taught by the other apostles per se. He did check that what he learned was in line with what they believed, but he was never their student or disciple. The other two are quite valid and quite absent from most of todays denominational leadership.

          Sure people claim to be called by God, but obviously this is quite a different calling than the original apostles.

    • Brendan, I think abuse of power is a separate issue, and you and those who have chimed in are absolutely right in saying it exists no matter what authority structure you have. What we are talking about here is local autonomy, which is nowhere envisaged in Scripture or in the early church.

      • The problem is abuse of power is so common. Reading the letters of Paul, it appears he had a eschatological worldview that did not give the church a long lifespan. So perhaps he never thought of the issue of abuse of power.

        I’m an afficionado of harm reduction strategies. I believe one harm reduction strategy is to have religious organizations be locally autonomous. The abuse crisis in Chicago would not have been so severe had it been one merely autonomous church, even a megachurch of a couple thousand.

      • I disagree with you Mike, it’s not a separate issue. By in large local autonomy exists as a reaction to abuse of power or authority incompetence. The American Ideal of “no king but me”, is perpetuated in our culture as a defense against outside tyranny. Until a church with a strong ecclesiology can also prove to check and balance itself, while defending the people against tyranny and/or scandal, autonomous churches will perpetuate.

        I in no way suggest that our “Bad Protestant Ecclesiology” is good or healthy, it’s just the current functioning alternative doesn’t seem any better.

        • The Catholic Church has “checked and balanced” itself over the centuries. Sometimes it’s been slow, but it has happened.

          Congregationalist ecclesiology may not be what the early Church looked like, but I see it as the logical end of Protestantism, where the individual Christian is his own ultimate interpretive authority of the Bible.

          • The check and balance of the Roman church hasn’t happened in a vacuum. It’s not like the major imbalances have been checked solely through internal processes. When people en-mass defect or the local judiciary enforce common right and wrong, that’s not a proper internal check.

          • Again, I’m NOT arguing that Protestant ecclesiology is healthy. I am arguing that neither is the Catholic Episcopal government. Hence my grass is greener comment.

      • If there was indeed some form of central government going on in the NT church then it would mean that your only choice was to submit to the one true church made up of the first apostles. That is a far cry from choosing some denomination of your liking to submit to. that is “is nowhere envisaged in Scripture or in the early church”.

        The reality is that while submiting to an outside group may give one the SENSE of “authority, accountability, support, and a sense of belonging outside the context of the local congregation” it does not necessarily make it a reality. I don’t think the church needs or should use power/force based authority, but those other aspects do not require anything more than having healthy relationships with other churches, both locally and globally.

    • Actually, this is reminding me of the Theory X and Theory Y theory of management developed by Douglas McGregor. (I had to do these kinds of things in a module of my latest adult education course – don’t ask. Business jargon and management-speak and buzz words almost had me, as a lover of good English, crying. The neologism satisfice nearly had me rising up with pitchfork and torch in hand in a one-woman peasant mob revolt).

      I’m more of a Theory X tendency myself, so that’s probably why I’m happy as a Catholic with our hierarchical system. I worked for a Theory Y style boss, who was a lovely bloke to work for generally, but holy sweet Divine, it was like nailing jelly to a wall to get a final decision from him. He took consensus management to an extreme, which mean us peons were left tearing out our hair while he put off a final word on anything and left it up to us – which would have been fine, except the organisation didn’t allow the lowly to have the final word, it had to be our boss who signed off on things.

      Theory X and Theory Y are often contrasted, with Theory Y being touted as the preferred model, but as McGregor originally pointed out, you need elements of both.

      • Goodnes, is someone still teaching McGregor??? Had to learn that twaddle in college in 1976-78 while earning my BA in Business.

  3. It also doesn’t help that “the lack of authority, accountability, support, and a sense of belonging outside the context of the local congregation” runs hand-in-hand with a lack of authority, accountability, support, and a sense of belonging inside the context of many local congregations. Two sides of the same coin of the “theology of glory” that exalts the individual at the expense of everything else — including God.

    We all need people around us, and God above us. Neglecting one of them is dangerous; neglecting both … explains a lot about modern American Christianity (if it can even be called Christianity at that point).

  4. There are some good points in this article. With mega churches being led by narcissistic personalities we are going to see some incredible falls in the years to come, or churches coming apart. I guess many fundagelicals didn’t learn from the Jim Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggarts situations in the 1980’s. In addition to scandals, today we have mega churches and I wonder when people die off or retire…what will happen? What will happen when Mark Driscoll leaves Mars Hill? John Piper Bethlehem Baptist? On and on it goes…. There is little accountability and maybe that’s why some of the outrageous theology pops out of John Piper and Mark Driscoll. I can’t imagine a pastor in the Methodist, Lutheran frame work publishing a book like Driscoll’s “marriage book”. There would be checks and balances in place.

    It also goes back to the fact that power corrupts, and many men can’t handle it. Checks and balances are in place for a reason in most professions or lines of work. The medical, sports, and many aspects of business have checks and balances for a reason. We have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a reason to check and make sure drugs are of high quality and safe.

    Fundagelicals needs a checks and balances system. This also could prevent spiritual abuse and shepherding. And looking back I am amazed how many ministries failed to have checks in place. They’ll make members submit to leadership, and yet the leadership won’t submit. There’s no leadership by example. Heck I think of how I submitted to accountability in Crusade and yet it became a one way street. Guess who took the whippings?

    Now….on the flip side you can also show that just because there is checks and balances in the system with bishops, leadership structure etc.. that always doesn’t work either. Case in point look at the Roman Catholic Church. Did it’s leadership structure prevent the pedophilia scandals that rocked the church? No.. Did it prevent alter boys from being raped and sodomized by corrupt priests? No….Did the scandal give cover for those conducting the abuse. Yes…. With the way the Catholic church moved around molesters it just encouraged and dragged out the toxic behavior.

    • Eagle, You seem to have an issue with “mega-churches”. While I do see many of the potential problems outlined by both Chaplin Mike and Worthington, there is a little too much generalization in your comments to make me comfortable.

      I know the leaders and pastors of a couple of “mega-churches”, although they are on the small side of that scale. Narcissistic? Not even close. I’ve seen that particular issue with churches in all sizes, leadership philosophy or doctrine.

      You are correct, however, that left unchecked, power does or can corrupt. The question seems to be what is to be doing the “checking”,

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      guess many fundagelicals didn’t learn from the Jim Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggarts situations in the 1980?s. In addition to scandals, today we have mega churches and I wonder when people die off or retire…what will happen? What will happen when Mark Driscoll leaves Mars Hill? John Piper Bethlehem Baptist?

      Unless they have a son ready and groomed to Inherit the Throne, probably the same thing that happened with Crystal Cathedral or second-generation Islam — an Inheritance Blood Feud/Struggle for the Throne worthy of Dune or I, Claudius. Or what happened with Scientology — a coup-from-within by the Most Extreme True Believer.

      Except I don’t think Mark Driscoll will leave Mars Hill voluntarily. I figure he’s going to go down hard in a sex scandal — kind of like Ted Haggard did.

    • I don’t think that churches can possibly construct a perfect system of checks and balances, but we at least ought to try to do better. I like your analogy to the corporate world. The church ought to at least have these types of systems in place: Pastors have way more power than many CEO’s because they are spiritualized positions of leadership. CEO’s even answer to many people. To insist upon autonomy seems contrary to the ethos of the Biblical injunction for us to submit two one another. I blame Chuck Smith and the Moses model: “Don’t lay a hand on the Lord’s annointed!” pretty much provides spiritual sanction to endless abuses.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Pastors have way more power than many CEO’s because they are spiritualized positions of leadership.

        And the fact they claim to speak for GOD elevates everything — Everything — to Cosmic Importance.

  5. I too have always wondered why it seems to be a boast that “we are independent”. Even if the new testament wasnt replete with examples of denominational structure I would still be hesitant to join those who boast of their independence. Collective wisdom is a great blessing.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Over thirty years ago, I experienced how a “we are independent” Christian Fellowship could go off on a weird tangent and go sour. (Combination of Gospel According to Hal Lindsay and Shepherding/Discipleship Movement, closed-off compounds and all.) Without an outside Reality Check, there is no limit on where or how far you can drift.

    • Great thought! However, even collective wisdom is subject to over-influence by negative trends. Helpful, but not invincible. I would say that collective wisdom is always beter than hyper-independence.

  6. Ted Michael Morgan says

    Amen, I recognize the complexity of the matter but yes. I very much respect Professor Witherington, by the way. I do not know of any perfect system but we Disciples of Christ has learned the hard way some problems with our traditional polity. i do not understand the UCC though I have belonged to a UCC congregation and only the angels could possibly understand Presbyterians!

    • In their effort to have an OCD strictly Biblical organizational structure, Presbyterians often needlessly complicate things. However, the underlying principle of ecclesial “connectionalism” is right on the money, and even congregationalists can recognize and appropriate this in ways that do not violate their sovereignty.

  7. Ted Michael Morgan says

    have learned

  8. I am myself a congregationalist whne it comes to ecclesiology. I think this modela is the most biblical and, also, the most missional. This, for me, is the ecclesial application of Ellul’s “Think global, act local”

    What I can see too is that my Roman Catholic friends long for more autonomy for their parishes and regret the heavy hierarchy of their Church. A heavy hierarchy which, BTW, did not do much good in terms of “authority and accountability” in the paedophilia scandal…Just like the bureaucracy of most mainline churches did not help those denominations to remain faithful to the Scriptures.

    • Once again, Tom, exactly how it works out is another issue. However, without some organic and accountable relationship to the larger church, we are asking for trouble.

    • The way it works in Catholicism is that the diocese, not an individual church or parish, is the basic autonomous unit. The local bishop is the ultimate authority for the governance of his diocese.

      Of course, the bishops are supposed to act in unison as a body, under the leadership of the Pope. He too is a bishop – the bishop of Rome. A list is drawn up every three years, by a conference of bishops of each country or by the bishops of an ecclesiastical province, of priests or religious who they consider suitable candidates for the episcopacy. If a vacancy for a bishop in that country arises, the Pope selects one from the list, taking advice and recommendations of the bishops into account.

      The Code of Canon Law states:

      “Can. 375 §1. Bishops, who by divine institution succeed to the place of the Apostles through the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, are constituted pastors in the Church, so that they are teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship, and ministers of governance.

      §2. Through episcopal consecration itself, bishops receive with the function of sanctifying also the functions of teaching and governing; by their nature, however, these can only be exercised in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college.

      Can. 378 §1. In regard to the suitability of a candidate for the episcopacy, it is required that he is:

      1/ outstanding in solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence, and human virtues, and endowed with other qualities which make him suitable to fulfill the office in question;

      2/ of good reputation;

      3/ at least thirty-Five years old;

      4/ ordained to the presbyterate for at least Five years;

      5/ in possession of a doctorate or at least a licentiate in sacred scripture, theology, or canon law from an institute of higher studies approved by the Apostolic See, or at least truly expert in the same disciplines.

      §2. The definitive judgment concerning the suitability of the one to be promoted pertains to the Apostolic See.”

      This means that styles of governance vary; bishop X of diocese Y may be an old-style Ultramontane who has no qualms about giving a belt of the crozier to anyone he considers out of line, while his brother next door, bishop A of diocese B, is a pussy-cat who lets liturgists run rampant and wouldn’t excommunicate the Devil.

      Funnily enough, it generally turns out that people living in diocese Y would prefer a bishop in the style of bishop B, while those living in diocese A would like someone more in the mould of bishop X. Until they actually get one like that, that is, when they immediately start complaining and praising the late incumbent.


    • How on earth could you ever say that congregationalism is Biblical? Where does the Bible ever even hint at this? I don’t even find the concept of “local congregation” in the NT, but more of a “geographical family.” Churches were addressed by city, not meeting location, though we have good reason to believe meetings happened at multiple locations withint he city.

  9. To me the question of bad or weak ecclesiology and looking for a place to worship God in Spirit and Truth is the same question as the question of unity among the body of Christ. And when I was considering the idea of a home church I would answer this question that the concept of unity is based on the fact that we are all Christians (those of us who believe in Christ) and so we are invisibly united in Him. But for some practical reasons the idea of a home church did work for me and my family – basically we were too loose and disorganized finally stopped meeting altogether.

    And so my search for a spiritual home continued and I was struggling with the question whether I would be able to swallow the idea of the Pope having the final authority in the Roman Catholic church as this would be the easiest option for me and my family because we have plenty of Roman Catholic parishes around us. But finally I decided that I was not able to swallow this pill – no offense to my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers – and decided to investigate how I could become practically connected/united to the Orthodox Church as I like their theology and especially the idea that the theology of the Orthodox Church is based on consensus of more than one individual having all the power, in fact it is based on the consensus of the whole undivided church of the first millennium – I guess to many this will sound like some form of Orthodox propaganda.

    But the main thing I wanted to say is that in my view if we try to answer the question of good ecclesiology solely based on the information we have in the Bible we are missing a lot of things. The early church had to fight a lot of heresies and if we neglect the information contained in the church documents after the first century we are bound to repeat the mistakes of the early church and we will never have a good or strong ecclesiology and so while the Orthodox church is far from being the perfect church I believe it is the one true unified church of Christ on earth that continues and stands firmly on the tradition of the Church founded by the first Apostles and I wonder how anyone wants to develop good or strong ecclesiology while neglecting the tradition or history of the early church. And I guess my question is: are these early church documents historically credible or is it only some church propaganda?

    I would be interested to hear what people like N.T. Wright who to me is a credible church historian would tell us on this topic?

    • The West had some unique elements the East did not share, especially after the city of Rome fell and the Western portion of the Roman Empire essentially ceased to exist, even as the Eastern portion continued for centuries longer. The West, remember, was largely the “frontier” of the Empire and unlike the East, it had but a single patriarchy. Moreover, throughout that period in the West we call the “Dark Ages,” it was essentially the Church alone providing any sense of larger order and stability. While the Patriarch of Rome was never completely disconnected from the rest of the Church (until the split, of course, which despite the often used date of 1054, was really a process that occurred over an extended period of time), it was substantially isolated from the rest of the Church and faced pressures and forces the East did not. I’m not an apologist for Catholicism and tend to lean toward the Orthodox side of the story. But I can look at the things happening throughout the West and understand some of the forces at work. And, frankly, those of us in the West are indebted to the work of the Catholic Church throughout the Dark Ages.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        As I said once to Fr Orthocuban, while the Eastern Church was developing more and more elaborate liturgies under the protection of the Emperor in Constantiople, the bishops of the Western Church were dealing with a “Road Warrior without the cars and gas” situation where they were more often than not the ONLY legal authorities in the area. (Most of the Royal Families of Western Europe began as the bosses of the biggest and meanest local bandit gangs when everything went belly-up.)

    • Amen! I have often wondered about Eastern ecclesiology and polity. It seems that despite many differences, they are still “one church” and work together. Would it be technically possible for a Protestant denomination to clone Orthodox organization? Would it work as good for us as it did for them? From the outside looking in, it seems that they don’t have nearly as much organizational innovation at the expense of peace as us Westerners do. Can any Orthodox point me to a good book on the topic (and while you’re at it, an Orthodox presentation of Eucharistic theology)?

      • I’m not yet Orthodox (my family and I have been visiting local Orthodox churches and are seriously praying about converting), but the best book on Orthodox Eucharistic/sacramental theology I’ve come across is “For the Life of the World” by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. For a more general intro to the Orthodox, their organization and history etc., Met. Kallistos Ware (formerly Timothy Ware) has written two great books called “The Orthodox Church” and “The Orthodox Way”.

  10. A note I made in recent coursework was Reformed/Presbyterian churches, even w/ their elaborate system of council, classis, synod, essentially look like the neighborhood independent church. What is the nature of authority in a Reformed church? The “leading of the Spirit” is nothing more than a majority vote. Then, again, papal elections are the same way, but I digress.

    Basic presuppositions are in order here. Western theological development from Nicea onward is entirely in the Constantinian model. A church court makes a decision and the power of the state enforces the decision. The Reformers still relied on this most basic presupposition. Only in the aftermath of the American & French Revolutions was the Constantinian use of power effectively broken which has allowed the flowering of the pluriformity of churches. The power of the civil magistrate to control ecclesiastical gatherings and regulate public worship can no longer be relied upon to keep outliers in check. Theonomists cannot stand this, but i digress again.

    The point raised in the article is a valid point but until ecclesiology really wrestles with the fact that the Church is back in the ante-Nicean age will anything seriously emerge. And systematic theology sheds a Newtonian approach and Einstein’s general & special relativity is inserted…but I digress even more…

    • In the ante-Nicean age, the church was overseen by bishops, and had been since the days of the apostles. It had nothing to do with Constantianism.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Besides which, whenever I’ve heard the term “Constantianism” (man that’s a mouthful), it’s always been in the context of Denouncing Romish Popery, usually in the Mormon-esque view of Church History where everything went off the rails into Great Apostatsy until Our Founding Apostle Joe Soap revived the One And Only Original New Testament Church bla bla bla.

      • That was a time when Cyprian could say with all humility that the Bishop was in the Church and the Church was in the Bishop. It was a time in church history where the Church was considered sacramental.

        Evangelicals have divorced themselves from the historical framework, coming instead to embrace the sacralization of autonomy, the privatization of faith, and the institutionalization of self. This is the logical conclusion of anti-clericalism and volunteerism: a loose group of atomistic individuals forming the basic identity of the Church, not that the Church is a unity to which individuals are sacramentally related. Accepting discipline? Forget it; it means moving down the street in a huff to the next church.

        On the flip side, authoritarianism has simply been substituted for authority. We’ve seen Paul Crouch say he doesn’t care about doctrinal “doo-doo”, 100% Hyles lapel pins as required church attire, private entrepreneurs building their stand-alone mega dream-empires, and dictatorial parachurch media celebrities – entirely independent of church structure – policing the camp for legalistic adherence to their pet social issues. Administering discipline? No, it usually means getting kicked out for not getting along.

        It’s a normal day in evangelicalism.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Accepting discipline? Forget it; it means moving down the street in a huff to the next church.

          Or “planting” your own church like Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard did when they got in trouble.

          …100% Hyles lapel pins as required church attire…

          Just like the Great Leader/Dear Leader lapel buttons as required North Korean attire?

      • I’m Anglican. I get it regarding apostolic succession. But you missed the point. Since Nicea, bishops relied on the emperor/king/prince to keep aberrant theology at bay. And woe to the above if they did not cooperate…the threat of excommunication hung over their heads. But now the church is toothless to enforce decisions or prevent individuals from going their own way and it doesn’t know how to fix that. It’s totally based on the willingness of individuals to accept the authority of the leadership. I mean, look at evangelical churches and divorce. How many people have changed churches because the church said the divorce was not considered biblical? If the state could be relied on to maintain orthodoxy, where would the autonomous churches be? Or the divorce rate, for that matter?

  11. In their great book “Christianity Reborn, The global expansion of evangelicalism in the twentieth century” (ed. Donald Me. Lewis, Studies in the History of Chritians Missions, Eerdmans), one article speaks about “self-appointed evangelical authority”. It is well worth the read.

    I you want to see the ultimate expression of this phenomenon, come to Africa where the locals call them “one-man churches”, meaning that they are lead and directed by just one man – not even a board or council of elders. The stuff that is going in on some of those churches is not just bad theology, but some of it is immoral and even illegal. In one country, the government has told the more established churches that it will act at some point. But the variety of protestant theology leaves the churches without a platform for action.

    While one part of me agrees wholeheartedly with Pastor Brendan (except for the grass-is-greenerism part), another part tells me that something is deeply wrong with an ecclesiology that lets any man set up a his little private church, make money off it, preach what he wants, and be accountable only to himself. There must be more options for ecclesiology than Pastor Brendan implies (Catholic or what we have now).

    It seems to me that we have combined good, healthy reformation ecclesiology with Western individualism gone haywire and instead of a wonderful new hybrid we got a dangerous weed.

    • I don’t think that there’s any real way to avoid the issue of people going off and doing their own thing. That has been happening all throughout history. I think there are more avenues for it to prosper now because of the internet and mass media, but it has always been around. I think what Witherington is reacting to is that there is a lack of a coherent authority structure for many people that allows them to turn and say, “this is wrong!”. People may come to that conclusion by themselves or whatever, but it’s not always cut and dry.

      Personally, I think the that the bell has been rung already, and it’s not going to be un-rung. I don’t see most Protestants ever submitting themselves to a broader church authority, at least not western ones. We value our individual freedom too much. Even Christians who do claim to submit themselves to authority will defy it when they feel it’s necessary.

  12. I am making two comments because this one is of a different nature.

    I have worked with churches in Africa founded by non-denominational missions. Those mission often did wonderful work. But their non-denominational character poses some limits to their effectiveness. I will use an anecdote rather than a formal description of the problem.

    During and immediately after the devastating civil war, I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo with several Congolese churches founded by non-denominational missions. In typical fashion, when their work marvelously resulted in numbers of converts, the missions established a Congolese denomination the belonged to. So far so good.

    Then two things happened. A war came and the missionaries left. But before that they were leaving anyway because their work was done. The mission was rightly moving on to less evangelized places. When the war came, the church leaders found themselves facing huge problems they had no idea how to solve. So they contacted the mission headquarters. But the mission headquarters had no office to deal with church affairs, nor did it have any interest or expertise in such matters. For all intents and purposes, the newly born church was now an orphan.

    The good news is that African Instituted Churches (AICs) are filling in the gaps. Some of them seem to have figured out how to be biblical and relevant to the situation. The best one develop networks and fellowships of churches that have some authority over local congregations. So they seem to have developed some ecclesiology. All that is great, but it would have been even better if the non-denominational mission had a solid program to help the churches it founded make that same transition. Oddly, they do not seem interested in studying and understanding how the AICs did it. So they will probably make the same mistake next time.

    All of this relates back, I believe, to the insufficiently developed (I would not say wrong) ecclesiology prevalent in many evangelical churches (including my own) with the result that the missionaries who were sent that those who run the head offices of non-denominational missions do not put in place some of the things that would have made the churches they planted even more successful. I know that I had to rethink my ecclesiology in order to be effective as a missionary in Africa and I see colleagues sometimes making less than optimal choices because of their unexamined ecclesiology.

    My point? Weak ecclesiology leads to weaknesses in mission.

  13. I like Ben Withering a lot. Apart from N.T. Wright, he’s one of my favorite Biblical commentators. I do agree with what the spirit of what he’s saying here, but I wonder how it really makes a different. If you look at the Protestant denominations which do have a more defined authority structure, those are ones are in the greatest turmoil at the moment. The denominations are being torn apart at the seems by issues like gay marriage, women in leadership, etc. I guess on one hand, it is rare that “superstar” pastors come out of these denominations, but I also think that they don’t really do anything to prevent it from happening in a lot of cases. If someone has aspirations of striking out on their own, they will do it apart from seeking ordination in a denomination. It’s just that there seems to be no shortage of people willing to follow these types of pastors.

    I don’t know that there’s a real cure for this. It really will take Christians saying “enough is enough”. Some have certainly done that, but there’s still a lot of people who haven’t. I’d like to say that creating theologically educated Christians (in the informal sense) is the answer, but I don’t think that’s it. The idea that we can educate ourselves out of problems is an inherently American way of approaching problems that doesn’t really play out that well in the real world. I just think it will take a lot of patience and getting dirty on the part of more mature Christians being able to help their brothers and sisters in Christ come out of these abusive churches.

  14. I’m going to agree with the folks arguing that having a hierarchy hasn’t kept the Roman Catholics (I don’t know enough about the Ruthenians or other Eastern Catholics) from making a muck of a lot of things in their history leading up to current events.

    I’m also going to add to that that I think it’s healthier for individuals to have the option of attending many autonomous churches rather than having a smaller number of non-autonomous churches. Many smaller churches means that the individual gets a broader selection of tenets to choose from; means that harshness of practice or discipline need not be abided because one can go to another church; and means that while idiots may harm their individual flocks, the only ones they harmed are those that chose to be harmed (other than the children and Jim Jones-like isolationist sects) by continuing to attend that church.

  15. David Cornwell says

    My distaste for total local congregational autonomy has grown over the years with example after example of calamity. Local churches falling to scandal or some type of church fight that leave it hopelessly divided are so many as to be beyond counting. A structure of accountability that extends beyond the local church doesn’t always stop these things, but does provide a medium through which order can be restored without starting all over again. Many times it is simply a matter of having someone with authority come in who can listen, think clearly, and provide solutions.

    The early church had wisdom beyond which we seem to never approach. They had an inspired system of checks and balances that provided a counter weight to local ego advancement (inbred sin?). They were interested in advancing the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of some puffed up local pastor surrounded by gaseous sycophants.

    This doesn’t mean that any system is perfect. Our human nature remains with us regardless of structure. But it does provide a means of order and correction. It doesn’t eliminate the pain, but most of the time it doesn’t kill the patient either.

    Thanks to Ben Witherington for bringing this to our attention once again. And to Chaplain Mike for relaying it to us. An excellent way to start our new year.

  16. Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

    The thing I dig about Worthington’s article is that he’s looking at the issue from the way it was run in the NT and in the early Church. The pragmatic arguments for “Well, how did ________ work out for _________?” don’t hold much water to me. I mean, we can look at the worst cases from any group/denomination/polity and compare it to the best from our preferred alternative all day without doing much more than exercising our typing fingers. To me, the real issue is how can a perspective that says that the autonomous local congregation is the basic unit of Christian Community be supported from Scripture without resorting to hermeneutical gymnastics. Throw in the witness of the early Church (say, first two-to-five-hundred-years) and the issue becomes pretty dang settled. Bottom line is that that model is a total innovation, which is really problematic for people that want to claim the high ground when it comes to faithfulness to the authority of Scripture.

    • Bingo.

    • kenny johnson says

      I’m not convinced that the NT provided an absolute how-to guide on church structure for all time.

    • One has to be selective of which passages are given more weight, rely on sketchy extra biblical proofs, and make plenty of liguistic decisions to come to any conclusion about church models are truly the NT model. THEN one needs to decide what is prescriptive and what is simply descriptive.

      I personally think that Paul spending 3 weeks in certain cities and then having only written contact afterwards borders on neglect, but that seems to be what happened in certain cases. Should we work that way in missions?

  17. Not to dump on Eddie Long too much (because his issues are merely a symptom) but not only is the “Bishop” title a farce, but the “Doctor” title is as well: he received it from an now-defunct unaccredited university run by another televangelist. Televangelism and big-named ministries are littered with diploma-mill and honorary doctorates.

    I agree with a lot of the commenters that this isn’t a uniquely Evangelical problem. The non-autonomous churches have shown their own problems with keeping both the megalomaniacs and bad teaching out. In addition, it hasn’t helped various mainline Protestant churches from capitulating to Westernized thinking such as rationalism and deism.

    Yet I also need to agree – what Chaplain Mike is talking about is a real problem, and it’s a problem for the Evangelical Church. Too many self-styled people want big names, big ministries, and minimal submission. The idea that someone might be told “No” by someone who “doesn’t get their anointing” or whatever the line is can fuel the distrust of authority here.

    Individualism is a serious, detrimental problem in the Evangelical church. When it comes in the form of thinking that you and your church are accountable to no one outside except your personal Savior (and maybe a few others for tax purposes), you’re ignoring not only church history, but Scripture as well.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Not to dump on Eddie Long too much (because his issues are merely a symptom) but not only is the “Bishop” title a farce, but the “Doctor” title is as well: he received it from an now-defunct unaccredited university run by another televangelist.

      i.e. The same way President Field Marshal DOCTOR Idi Amin Dada received his doctorate.

      Televangelism and big-named ministries are littered with diploma-mill and honorary doctorates.

      As in “the Larry-Moe-Curly System” where Larry awards Moe his doctorate, Moe awards Curly his doctorate, and Curly awards Larry his doctorate? (Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk…)

  18. This is a frequent topic of discussion between me and a Catholic coworker and friend. The bottom line is that there are weaknesses in both systems, but far fewer where there is a hierarchy external to the local congregation that brings accountability. Everyone knows the spectacular failures of the Catholic church because in its structure things get written large by nature. What fewer see is the many, many smaller hurts and injustices and abuses petty power grabs that happen when there isn’t a larger accountability structure. I’ve been on the receiving end of those and let me tell you, there is no worse feeling that realizing you have no recourse against someone who is hurting you and others.

    • But the pew sitter always has the ultimate authority. He or she can leave and go elsewhere. Even within a family, husbands can’t coerce wives and wives can’t coerce husbands into attending any specific church.

      Sure you may not get the original wrong righted, but you can make your point and publicize the egregiousness of the offense in the hope of attracting out others in solidarity.

  19. did the early church deal with the same problems we do today? did they wrestle with same-sex marriage considerations or child abuse issues or greedy leaders or those given over to too much drinking??? unwanted pregnancies, STDs, unemployment, etc.???

    did the simple qualification of entrusting oversight to congregations to those men of ‘godly’ character actually mean something quite different then than what we might consider critical today???

    then what about the uber-authoritarian New Apostles & Prophets today that are supposed to ‘restore’ right authority in the Church today? and they all crave to display their God-given appointments with supernatural powers demonstrated at some point in time…

    Lord, have mercy… 🙁

    everyone seems to recognize deficiencies in the particular tiered arrangement of authority that some deem necessary, but smothering, while others champion peer relationships that are meant to bring some semblance of accountability, but are toothless when actual discipline is warranted…

    not sure what the answer(s) to this predicament is, but without people of godly character at the helm of whatever layer or title or position overseeing others, the abuses will continue to be headline news. the problem of accountability, or lack thereof, will be much greater than what it appeared to be in the early church because it is too easy to be self-appointed, self-ordained, self-promoted & at times, very successful from a business perspective today. if that isn’t the best of The American Dream, i don’t what is! and i think it is the bane of our American, independent, high-standard-of-living culture we must continually be on guard against… 🙁

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      then what about the uber-authoritarian New Apostles & Prophets today that are supposed to ‘restore’ right authority in the Church today? and they all crave to display their God-given appointments with supernatural powers demonstrated at some point in time…

      “Supernatural powers demonstrated” as in raising themselves from the dead and/or making an image of themselves come to life and order that all who do not acknowledge them as The New Apostle be killed?

  20. I couldn’t agree with this article more. Having experienced the worst of congregational autonomy, I am happy to be in a place where the Pastor is required to teach within orthodoxy. I understand that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but there is no way to have any organizational structure within a church where power is given to nobody. The alternative, un-organized religion, is not an improvement either. Placing power in the hands of those higher up the ladder can help ensure that more qualified and godly men make the important decisions. Congregational autonomy is the root cause of entrepreneurial religion, period. Without this, so many harmful movements within evangelicalism would likely never have happened. Ever notice that whenever a “new move of God” goes through the church, leaders leave their denominations, and new groups are formed? Why is it that no “movement of the Holy Spirit” ever seeks to unify the organizational structure of the church? I understand that the unity of the Church is a unity in Christ and not a uniformity in polity, but shouldn’t our structures at least TRY to reflect the spiritual reality?

    That being said, my only problem with “high-church” polity is the rampant examples of how churches have failed to hold bishops accountable. Sure it’s easier to check the local guys, but both in the RCC, the ELCA, and TEC, anyone failing to do their duty (protect congregants against child molesters) or heretics leaving orthodoxy (do we even need names here?) are never called on the carpet, and given the choice to repent or get out. Our leaders need to walk in repentance and model it for the laity or they never will. Is their any such system where local AND regional leaders are all held in check and given the voice to speak the hard truth in love to one another WITH authority?

    Though it is certainly far from perfect, it seems to me that Presbyterian polity comes the closest to realizing this ideal.

  21. I, too, “have always wondered how those with a doctrine of “the autonomy of the local church” justify their position.” I attend a Bible Church with weekly average attendance of about 1,000 in a town of about 35,000, so it has no small influence on our community. So far there has been tremendous solidarity/unity but I wonder how much of that is due to the almost papal authority of the Senior Pastor. Deacons and Elders are voted on by members at the annual meeting but all potential leaders are nominated by the current leadership and the Sr. Pastor has the final approval of each nomination (most members probably are not aware of this). I also wonder about the authority of the Elder Board to ordinate pastors other than “mimicing” the early Church’s laying on of hands – but where is the unbroken line of such laying of hands back to the Apostles?

    • I can understand the unbroken line thing as far as it helps to promote and insure the integrity of the gospel as it is passed down through time from generation to generation. Even then I wonder if even a line of ordination isn’t subject to the same dynamics as the rumor game, with reliability growing less the further down the line you go.
      However, I just can’t buy into succession of ordination as if it were some kind of spiritual aristocratic bloodline, with the importance being placed on being in the line of succession or holding a particular title, rather than on how well one upholds the truth and passes on the integrity of the gospel.
      Or maybe that’s just my Protestant heritage talking.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I also wonder about the authority of the Elder Board to ordinate pastors other than “mimicing” the early Church’s laying on of hands – but where is the unbroken line of such laying of hands back to the Apostles?

      But Apostolic Succession is so ROMISH!

  22. Here’s my question: If you happen to be a small independent, non-denom church fellowship, where the heck do you go for leadership and accountability?
    We’re what you might call an open or simple church — basically a group of former home-churchers that have recently acquired a building, name, and bank account. We’re very basic and bare-bones, both liturgically and doctrinally. As far as leadership, we have three elders (myself included) and pastoral duties are pretty much divided between the three of us — and so far we’ve been able to proceed on mutual consent without any major disagreements or divisions.
    Essentially, we’re a group of people who have been serving and worshipping together for years, we get along pretty well, and so far we’ve been able to function more like a family than an organizational structure. We’re not opposed to growth, but we’re not really interested in becoming a big fish in our local church pond.
    We’ve got relational connections with a couple of other local church bodies, but neither of those is really any more structurally sound or stable than we are.
    As far as the bigger, more organizational non-denom churches in our area, those are mostly governed by one, CEO-style pastor without any leadership structure above him — and, knowing some of these guys, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable going to them for leadership in any case. Besides, they’d probably be more interested in swallowing us whole than serving as a resource for accountability.
    As far as denominational pastors in our area, some of them are pretty solid — but, then again, I’ve never heard of a denominational pastor serving in an accountability/mentor role over a non-denom fellowship, not without requiring that fellowship to come under the institutional umbrella and everything that goes with that.
    With all that said, I’m asking you, my fellow imonkers, who would you turn to for accountability and oversight in my situation?