Part 10 in the Series:
Questioning Church Authority
by Don Enevoldsen
“He who honors the pastor has been honored by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the pastor, does in reality serve the devil.”
These words might have been spoken by any one of dozens of preachers I have heard in my life. It’s usually the visiting evangelists or pastors who carry this message. They beat the idea into the congregation that if they want to please God and receive blessings from him, they need to do essentially two things. They need to give generously to the offerings, including the one for him at the end of that service, and they need to be submitted to their pastor without question. If he is wrong, that’s God’s business. Don’t question him.
“I can say this stuff when your pastor can’t because I’m going home tomorrow,” the preacher invariably remarks somewhere during the verbal browbeating. “So I don’t care if you like me.” Everyone laughs and says, “Amen.” They are convinced deep down that God will curse them if they don’t fall into line.
“Honor the pastor and you are honored by God. Rebel against the pastor and you serve the devil.” I’ve heard words like that many times over the past half century. But the quote at the beginning of this page is far older, and might give us some insight into how this omnipotence of the clergy came into being. The quote dates to the first part of the second century. With one small change, those are the words of a bishop from Antioch named Ignatius. I substituted the word “pastor” for “bishop,” but otherwise it is a direct quote from his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, written about 117 A.D., somewhere between Antioch and Rome. Ignatius was on his way to the capital city to be executed for his faith.
Seven letters are attributed to the hand of Ignatius during that final journey. While he did take a few moments to declare that he looked forward to a glorious martyrdom, and even asked that no one try to save him from it, his dominant concern in his last words of wisdom was obedience to the bishops of the church. The underlying justification for this blind, unquestioning submission is church unity. For Ignatius, the bishop is to be elevated to a place of honor in every sense.
“Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, “God resisteth the Proud.” Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 5)
In other words, he believed you cannot be submitted to God if you’re not submitted to your pastor. And you can’t be properly submitted to your pastor if you are not attending church every week. Submit to him the same way you would to God. That’s why God put him there:
“It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 6)
“It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey your bishop, in honour of Him who has willed us so to do, since he that does not so deceives not by such conduct the bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible. And all such conduct has reference not to man, but to God, who knows all secrets.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 3)
“Let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians 3)
This is all done for the sake of unity:
“Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be ye united with your bishop, and those that preside over you.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 6)
“Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion of Christ.” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Philadelphians 3)
These few samples show how quickly control became part of church life. When the church began, leaders were appointed on the basis of their proven leadership. The congregation had a part in the decision. Leaders were held accountable, both in terms of the honor they received and in the responsibility they bore publically when they acted dishonorably.
“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor… Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” (1 Timothy 5:17, 20)
That is a long way from, “be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.”
The Didache, written perhaps as much as fifty years earlier than the letters of Ignatius, encourages honor for leaders, but presents guidelines for keeping balance through holding leaders accountable. Leaders are to be honored, but also judged. The Didache described how to test those who claimed positions of prominence. If they were found to be selfishly motivated, they were to be rejected.
Once the slide toward hierarchy started, it did not take long to become firmly entrenched. Always at the forefront of the discussion was the topic of unity. Everyone wanted unity in the church, no matter what the cost. Originally, deacons, elders and bishops were treated with a certain amount of equality. That would change as greed and desire for position asserted itself.
The churches in the various cities around the Roman Empire maintained close communication, and the Twelve were held in high respect, but the churches also maintained a high degree of independence, as we saw with Paul’s interaction with the leaders from Jerusalem. By the beginning of the second century, the time of Ignatius, dioceses began to be specifically delineated. At first they formed from the union of several country churches with the larger church in a nearby city.
As the churches grew, they found that regular meetings of leaders from different areas were beneficial for communication and discussion of shared challenges and victories. Toward the end of the second century, the churches of Greece and Asia began meeting in synods twice a year, in the spring and the autumn, and by the middle of the third century, provincial synods were convened.
The more the various bishops met together, the more they considered themselves separate from and elevated above the congregations. The more they considered themselves elevated above the congregation, the more they devised dictates among themselves to maintain their positions. The terms deacon, elder and bishop, which had originally been used interchangeably, took on more rigid definitions, with a hierarchical stratification into which they fit.
The congregations gradually gave up rights and control to the bishops and elders, who multiplied the layers of the hierarchy. By the time Constantine became emperor, doctrinal debates were conducted in councils involving many hundreds of bishops from around the empire, but the final decision was often implemented by the military, and bishops who refused to submit were either exiled or murdered. Many are the cases of one group being outvoted, but gaining the endorsement of the emperor, and the availability of the army to enforce its dictates. It was all done in the name of unity. There must not be any division. Thus the trend evident in the letters of Ignatius came to its full development. Anyone who questioned the authority of church leaders put his life at risk.
Sadly, the same kind of attitude permeates church organization today. Most of the structure and organization of church that is considered traditional appeared in the development of hierarchy, and is not designed for the fellowship of believers, but for the control of the congregation.
• Seating arrangements in which everyone sits side by side, looking forward at a pastor who is elevated above the rest reflects the subconscious belief that the pastor is somehow a little bit superior.
• Services are structured to make interaction or input from any but those on stage very difficult, if not impossible.
• Teaching periodically reinforces the idea that leaders should be respected and obeyed.
• Great emphasis is placed on “unity,” the subject of sermons and exhortations that also stress obedience and submission as the way to attain unity.
This doesn’t mean churches should be drastically and instantly changed to some different structure. But it does mean members of a congregation should be aware that they have a responsibility to hold leaders accountable, especially those leaders who insist on blind obedience. Experience tells me they are the leaders most likely to be abusive.
Next, Part 11: Obey Your Leaders
Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.