COC #19: Argument #1: “Acts 20 Disproves Hierarchy”

#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 tying the Church together; 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). 

Indicative of your group, Wharton presents a scriptural example that, as he suggests, implies 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 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 (St. Paul) over the local church at Ephesus called to him 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 elders 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 scriptural content your group utilizes within itself provides proof of an apostolic conduit, and when read within its 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 holy order Jesus created, and which includes an apostolic conduit that links Christ Jesus’ 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. 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”?