The Christian ecclesial hierarchy is found even within the smallest local church (parish); every properly ordained priest (elder) is able to trace his pedigree back to the Apostles, and therefore Christ. Priests are ordained by their bishops (apostolic succession and the priesthood will be addressed elsewhere in this blog); not all priests are bishops, but all bishops are priests—just as it is reflected in the New Testament (Reflected because its organization pre-dates any “biblical mandate”.).
Every detailed ecclesial (governmental) description in the New Testament reflects the already-existing Catholic paradigm, and I will show you how your group’s best arguments fail to prove autonomous local church structures because they all presuppose the Catholic hierarchy. Your arguments are few, and so your best arguments are fewer. Edward Wharton’s book, The Church of Christ, with one and a half pages, presents what I have found to be your group’s most-used (indicative) and best arguments,1 all of which I will present to you, and I will show how a reasonable reading of the arguments’ scriptural material undermines your group’s forced conclusion.
#1: The Protestant Church of Christ presents St. Paul’s address to the elders of the church at Ephesus as proof for local church autonomy—in essence, proof that there is no Christian hierarchy; that all churches are local, and therefore, all churches are autonomous and without external influence. Wharton quotes Scripture to suggest the scope of an elder’s oversight is limited to his local church: … he [St. Paul] called to him the elders of the church (Acts 20:17), and said, Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son (v. 28).
Representative of your group, Wharton presents a scriptural example that, as he suggests, provides an example of the limited scope of an elder’s responsibility, but a reasonable view of its scriptural context reveals a hierarchical, not autonomous, world-wide ecclesial structure; and the precise wording within the passage fails to support his group’s theory (the text itself does not impose local-only restrictions: all the flock). In other words, Wharton presents his scriptural proof for “local church autonomy” by A) failing to address that an authority over the local church at Ephesus called to him (St. Paul) the local church’s leadership, and B) implying that an example of a local church’s scope of authority somehow indicates that no local churches are subject to a higher authority.
As stated, this proof is among your group’s best arguments, yet there is nothing within the utilized scriptural material that suggests local church autonomy (it addresses the local church’s lack of authority over other local churches; it does not address who has authority over local churches). The passage is read by your group as an indication that all elders were responsible for only their local flock, but the text clearly reveals that an elder (St. Paul) held an authoritative position over the elders at Ephesus. Are not the elders at Ephesus subordinate to St. Paul? Should any elder or layperson in Ephesus, then, disregard St. Paul’s epistle written specifically to them? Was St. Paul usurping the local elders’ authority? Should any modern local assembly not, then, disregard Acts 20, disregard his letter to the Ephesians, and disregard any of his other letters or instructions as extra-congregational non-Scripture?
True, the local church elders at the end of the hierarchy have no authority over other local churches, but that fact does not mean there is no authority over the local churches, which is the conclusion (and premise) of your group’s arguments. In other words, St. Paul’s leadership and the elder’s at Ephesus who submitted to his leadership, portray a model that is foreign to yours; and all the clergy within the passage present an example of apostolic, directional, and ordered governance.
Is anything other than a hierarchy of sorts reflected within this example? Does the passage not portray a dynamic of a practicing hierarchical structure? The context of the scriptural material taken for your group’s proof includes an apostolic conduit, and when read within the scriptural context, it begins to reflect a model that is thoroughly hierarchical–thoroughly Catholic:
Christ Jesus > St. Peter > St. Paul > Elders
Christ Jesus (King)
Pope (Prime Minister, successor of St. Peter)
Bishops (Successors of the Apostles, Elders)
Priests (Local Elders)
The biblical model your group refers to does not resemble your group; it resembles the Catholic Church, which has remained faithful to the order (pattern) Jesus created, and which includes an apostolic conduit that links Christ Jesus’ creation of the Church with each and every legitimately ordained priest. You should also note that this very passage (Acts 20:17-28) hints at who, and what, precisely planted the church at Ephesus. It was St. Paul who said, You yourselves know how I lived among you all the time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials … and teaching you in public and from house to house … (v.18-20). St. Paul was not only in obedience to the hierarchy; he was within it, and was vested with the authority that the hierarchy (Holy Orders), granted him.
In contrast, your group’s theory of local church autonomy is presented as a proof for world-wide church autonomy (that all churches are local, and therefore, all are autonomous and with no authority over them) and is used as a foundational defense for autonomous church plantings. After all, as your planters would argue, who is anyone, and by whose authority, can anyone protest their planting of any local assembly and assuming the name “Church of Christ”?
#2: Protestant Church of Christ teachers assert, by quoting 1 Peter 5:1,2: So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder … Tend the flock of God that is in your charge … , that St. Peter lays a limitation on the oversight of elders.
The Protestant Church of Christ prefers to focus on the words Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, and suggests that St. Peter was teaching that all local churches (local elders) should refrain from mingling with other assemblies. However, the words, So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder, are dismissed. In other words, your group’s proof for local church autonomy uses a passage that illustrates how a fellow [external] elder is instructing a local church on how to behave. How then, are the local churches “autonomous” when they are dependent on an external elder for instruction? And how, of course, are your modern congregations “autonomous” when they too rely on external elders for their instructions—their letters that the hierarchy stamped as Scripture and provide the material for your group to argue against the hierarchy? Again, the Catholic model is reflected in the passage:
Christ Jesus > Apostles, Bishops > Elders
Wharton notes that the passage does in fact teach local church assemblies are entrusted to the local elders, but he fails to connect the course of how, specifically, elders are entrusted with their flocks; possibly because every example of an elder taking charge of his flock in the New Testament was orchestrated by the hierarchy, as the next proof illustrates.
#3: Representative of how the Protestant Church of Christ utilizes Scripture to argue for its positions, Wharton referred to a Bible passage to prove strict local church autonomy without supplying its actual corresponding text (more examples forthcoming). He wrote, “The local church selected her own ministers (Acts 6:1-6).” The practice is common; Protestant Church of Christ ministers posit a preference/theory, allude to a passage from the Bible, and the act of referencing a passage somehow provides ample credibility for the preference, or the citation is intended to imply that the text reads as such, when, really, it does not. If a writer summarizes her belief of what a Bible passage means, then the reference should include “cf.” (confer/compare); it is less than forthright to provide a citation to Scripture when it is not Scripture that is quoted. The passage at hand, which is a product of the hierarchy, of course, supports its creator, and not a model that in fact teaches, “The local church selected her own ministers.” The passage, not the commentary, reads:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Proch’orus, and Nica’nor, and Ti’mon, and Par’menas, and Nicola’us, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.
Wharton carefully crafted his sentence. The local churches did “select their own ministers” (Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men …), but not in any self-governing capacity his carefully crafted sentence suggests (the passage itself is quoting an extra-congregational authority). The careful reader will notice the Catholicity of the passage, because the sentence the Protestant Church of Christ focuses on is couched between And the twelve summoned the body of disciples and said, and These they [the disciples] set before the apostles, and they [the apostles] prayed and laid their hands upon them [the ministers].
What the passage reveals is Catholic, not Protestant. The Apostles (who are also elders) commanded a local church to nominate godly men for Holy Orders. Once chosen, those men were ordained (they prayed and laid their hands upon them) not by the local church leaders, but by the Apostles (the hierarchy).
Does your congregation, or any Restoration sect similar to yours, choose its ministers under the direction of the hierarchy, and does the hierarchy ordain your men? Or does your group choose its own ministers under its own direction, and then install them by the authority it has granted itself? The biblical pattern, again, emerges as a reflection of the Catholic Church of Christ:
Christ Jesus > Apostles, Bishops > Elders
There are other details within passages of Scripture that reflect the nascent Church’s behavior your group rarely draws attention to, such as Titus 1:5: Appoint elders in every town as I [St. Paul] directed you … . Surely, the sixth verse is used to argue against the Catholic Church (bishops: … husband of one wife; which will be addressed later), but your group divides the passage, blinds itself to the fifth verse, which reveals the rogue nature of the Protestant Church of Christ’s paradigm. When read in full, it is clear the hierarchy directed the installation of the elders; the local Church was not authorized to create its own leadership.
Acts 14:23, again, reflects how the nascent church selected its elders. St. Paul and St. Barnabas appointed elders for them [the churches of Derbe, Lystra, Ico’nium, and Antioch]. This example does not include any congregational input; the elders were selected and ordained by extra-congregational elders, and therefore, does not rise to the rank of a Protestant Church of Christ proof text.
#4 (and following): The remaining lesser proofs that Wharton and the Protestant Church of Christ provide are presented in the same manner as #3, which is a posited theory followed by a referenced verse without text. In other words, commentary is presented as the word of God, such as (in Wharton’s words):
• “The local church chose its own missionaries (Acts 13:1-3).”
• “The local church was instructed to judge and discipline her own members (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15).”
• “The local church was to settle her own internal problems (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).”
• “Each local church was responsible to respond to the Lord’s instruction (Revelation 2:1-3:22).”
And as with #3, a complete reading of each passage pre-supposes the Catholic hierarchy. The object of your group’s theory (not only self-autonomy, but the eradication of the Catholic model) is its goal, yet your group’s supportive proofs are straw men; they do not reduce the Catholic paradigm, but rather, support it, because the Catholic Church agrees with the actual content (not Protestant commentary) of each passage (she agrees with what she wrote and stamped as Sacred Scripture).
The Catholic Church’s hierarchy does not micro-manage the daily functions of each parish, nor instruct who, among her parishes’ members, might become missionaries, and she does not deny the local church the ability to form any decision or judgment; but rather, she grants each local church the freedom for such activities. In other words, the very fact that each local church is free to manage her own affairs in any regard is a result of the hierarchy’s authority, and freedom in some cases does not translate to parish self-rule in all cases.
Furthermore, and as with every scriptural proof that might be drawn by your group, these supportive texts, internally, historically, and logically pre-suppose the object that they are designed to eliminate: the Sacred Magisterium of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church—the real Church of Christ.
Where does the Protestant Church of Christ’s wish for local church autonomy (which, of course, translates to world-wide congregational autonomy) come from? Does it come from Scripture? Which Scripture? Not one scriptural passage your group produces supports its theory. What the Scriptures reveal, however, is thoroughly Catholic. Properly ordained ministers were called; they did not grab what should be handed, they did not appoint themselves, nor were they appointed by a community outside the communion of St. Peter and the Apostles. The Apostle John reminds his audience that legitimate Church authority rests in the Apostles, and he condemned specific people who like to put himself first … [and] … does not acknowledge … authority (3 John 9). Catholics believe that God, through His Church, calls men to ministry and that self-ordained ministers, or ministers ordained by communities that are not in communion with the nascent Church, are false Apostles, possibly putting themselves first. But still, the Protestant Church of Christ demands that its model is “biblical”.
The historical reality of your group’s birth in 19th century Kentucky sheds light into the mystery. Protestant Church of Christ preacher Leroy Brownlow, from one of his 1974 sermons (with more than one million copies distributed, as claimed), offered insight into your group’s Americanism and kingdom-shaped expectation by likening its ecclesiological preference for self-rule with a political model:
Autonomy is defined as “right of self-government; a self-governing state; an independent body.” In the first century each congregation was such … . There was no tyranny of one church over another. The church in Rome or Jerusalem had no authority over the churches in other communities. Men outside the congregation had no right to exercise authority and power within the congregation. The elders and deacons in one congregation had no authority to exercise despotic rule or any other kind of rule over the elders and deacons in another congregation. Each church was free and independent … .2
Words like “tyranny” and “despotic” reveal a bias that reveal a foundational starting point for the Protestant Church of Christ’s ecclesiological model. The Catholic Church of Christ is a different kind of kingdom, it is Christ’s kingdom, and proper followers of Christ do not compare Christ’s bride to tyrants or despots; nor do they build their own communities out of fear of tyranny or build for themselves a model that history has proved to simply not work.
Both Wharton and Brownlow conclude their arguments for church autonomy by reiterating their group’s founding (reincarnational) premise: apostasy. Concluding Wharton’s one and one half pages of proofs for local church autonomy, he wrote, “Local church autonomy is the safety valve against full-scale apostasy.”3 Brownlow wrote, “The wisdom of God is seen in such an arrangement for his churches … . If one became affected by evil practices, other churches would not be so affected.”4 But is the “wisdom of God” found within so many contradicting Protestant communities who have adopted the premises of autonomy and private-interpretation, who argue among themselves, cannot find communion with each other, teach vastly different doctrines, have exploded into hundreds of denominations and groups that refuse to be called denominations? Is Jesus’ prayer for unity found within the broad umbrella of non-Catholic Christianity detectable? Is it not obvious that in order for a man to raise his Bible overhead and plant a congregation that believes just as he believes, he must first insist and persuade others that the hierarchy is a hoax? One model is apostolic; the other is entrepreneurial. One is reflected in the Scriptures; the other is not. One is Jesus’ intent; the other is represented by groups that believe their that model is true simply because they want it to be true.
If the “Bible only” provides a command, example, or inference for the Protestant Church of Christ’s model, the group has not yet presented it in any manner that its shoppers can discover. What your shoppers are able to find, however, is an oft-repeated preference, a theory, lots of rationalizations for self-called positions, but no scriptural support. If the Scriptures support your model, then the passage(s) have evaded all of Christianity for centuries until your group discovered it, yet refuses to share it or direct anyone to it.
All written material is property of Patrick Vandapool. All rights reserved.
1 Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1997), 85-87.
2 Leroy Brownlow, Why I am a Member of the Church of Christ (Fort Worth: The Brownlow Corporation, 2004), 39,40.
3 Wharton, 87.