It is VERY hard to divorce from our heads all that we “know” about the church already from experiencing what we have grown up with, and to NOT read into the scriptures reinforcement for these (mis)understandings by twisting scripture, pulling single verses completely out of context, etc.
Tellingly, Titus was told to appoint elders in every city, not in every congregation or home where they met. Paul did the same when he revisited churches that he previously founded. A plurality of elders, then, serves the local church delineated by a locality. This statement raises many functional questions:
1. Does the local church really mean a geographically “local” church in an area (the only biblical usage I can find, never do I see multiple churches in one locality in scripture)? Or, does it mean a group of people who organize themselves together separately from all other Christians in the same locality (the common practice throughout Christendom)? Are such divisions in a geographical location the kind of thing Paul railed against in the immature, Corinthian church? Is it the kind of activity Paul called hereticks–those seeking to draw followers off to follow them separately.
2. If “local” church means a self-identified sub group of Christians who band together ACROSS localities (the common practice throughout Christendom) as a separate “church” apart from all other Christians in all of those local areas, then where in scripture do we see this pattern even once?
Next, integrating existing hierarchies and authority structures becomes immediately necessary if we want to consider it now “one church” in that locality, but YET continue to maintain the current authoritarian, positional leadership in multiple congregations that we now have. Leaders would have to work through who is in charge of what, where, when. Most leaders would feel like someone was stepping on their turf; some would be interested in expanding their influence (let’s assume to do good). It would be likely the layered clergy/denomination varieties of organization (presbyterian, congregational, or episcopal) would emerge if leadership remains in the current model(s). There would be much pressure for “leaders” to be somewhere near the top, in charge of everyone else. And, who will still get paid, how much? Who decides?
In other words, rediscovering biblical patterns for the church also requires rediscovering biblical patterns for leaders; in fact, biblical patterns for all believers; and all gladly and trustingly under His active leadership. The requisite “new” wine for “new” wineskins, or all attempts to return to biblical models will burst.
This doesn’t begin to address the substantive issues and objections the “laity” would have with all this. They are comfortable separating the secular from the sacred and enjoy the freedom from substantial spiritual responsibilities to serve others, not imagining or expecting that they could function as ministers along with holding jobs (as should all). The design we are discussing presents huge impositions on both clergy and laity.
3. If rediscovering biblical patterns for the church finds that all those in a locality are considered the church in that locality (as we have in the epistles, Acts, and Revelation), then we are left to understand how that functions–and we have the scriptures to aid us in that, but very little experience or extant models to draw from.
One of the things complicating this is the difficulty we have in divorcing our thinking that leadership in the church is positional/hierarchical, organized generally the same as any leadership structure the world uses (but, of course, benignly dictatorial by a single leader or a group of leaders). “We all know” someone has to be in charge “at the top” to get things done. Right? Well, Jesus didn’t think so in Luke 22:25-27:
“25 And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.
26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
27 For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.”
One important step in rethinking the local church from a fresh biblical perspective, is to go back to a biblical leadership model for the church–one that eschews hierarchy, position, and authority, and embraces instead relational experience over time to provide trust and persuadability among one another. To consider a community of saints that foundationally begins with mutual submission and mutual ministry expectations among all the saints as normative.
NT leadership resides in Jesus Christ. His leadership is spread throughout the saints, so that leadership on the physical level doesn’t come from above or beneath, it comes from within. Elders (overseers, pastors, bishops) are those who, by their manner of life and by the experiences of the saints over time, have earned respect by their care and service. They are then in a position of public influence and persuasion, but not of positional power of an office like we have in the world.
Who is then “in charge?” The same person who was always (supposed to be) in charge — Jesus Christ, the Head of the church. But remember, a core foundation is that we all endeavor to be in responsive submission to Him who loved us and died for us, and therefore to each other and with recognition that God has engifted every saint to be of mutual service to each other. In that scenario, elders have substantive influence, but not control: not the power to decide on behalf of some laity subgroup, nor to serve in lieu of the saints functioning. So, elders will have much influence, and they should be wiser, more experienced in observably following Him through difficulties and in sacrifices. But no one becomes a child in the community–a “laity.” Consensus needs to be built, not commands issued.
In the end, unless the Lord dramatically turns the churches–the saints–upside down, the best we will achieve is some hybrid, where the worldly infused church models are accommodated in some way by those who are set free to follow Jesus and feel connected to all saints everywhere, but especially those in our locality, and especially those with whom we have frequent interaction and influence. It will take real trust in the Head of the church to begin to live out NT church principles in the midst of chaos and foolishness.
Impossible? Yes, without Him. We can still strive to hear, “Well done…”
(NOTE: This post was a response to a question on my friend Alan Knox’s blog, “I think the key to this entry (besides the lack of distinction between “clergy” and “laity”) is this: “All Christians are called upon (and expected) to minister.” That would it take for churches and Christians today to move towards this way of life in Christ?” His question was prompted by a post from an entry in “Dave Black’s un-pseudo-blog-type-thing”. (See entry #2 from Monday, April 4, 2011 at 11:54 a.m.) reproduced here:
2) Eric Carpenter calls on Christians to take a stand. Read Too Much For Any One Man. The New Testament gives no suggestion that there is any distinction between clergy and laypeople. All Christians are called upon (and expected) to minister. In the New Testament, moreover, leaders came from within the Body and their leadership was always corporate and shared. There are few aspects of Christianity that demand a more radical reappraisal than its ecclesiology, if we are to be obedient to the call of Christ. If we are prepared to take the Scriptures seriously as the foundational documents of our faith, this will mean a complete rethinking of the wineskins and a return to the guidelines for Christian ministry as set down in the New Testament.