Part 9 in the Series:
Questioning Church Authority
by Don Enevoldsen
Paul the Apostle is inevitably held up as the example of proper submission to church authority. He is the man who received direct revelation from God, performed great miracles and had more influence on the development of the church than any other person in history with the exception of Jesus himself. Yet he was willing to travel to Jerusalem and submit his teaching to the church leaders for their approval.
At least that is the version preached from most pulpits. It is based on Acts 15 and Galatians 2, both of which describe the conference held in Jerusalem to settle the question of whether or not Gentiles had to become Jewish by being circumcised before they could be followers of Jesus. Paul and Barnabas “set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles.” The reason was “for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain” (Galatians 2:2). The leaders of the church, after “much discussion,” approved of what Paul taught, and Paul continued his ministry with the support of the Apostles.
This paints a tidy picture of a church hierarchy in which authority flowed from Jesus to the Twelve and from the Twelve to everyone else. It also ignores many pertinent details in Paul’s account of the conference. When Paul tells the story, a much less autocratic structure is revealed.
The first question is why Paul waited that long to submit his teaching to the Apostles. He had been in Jerusalem many years earlier. He avoided contact with the leaders, with the exception of Peter and James, and that meeting was only to “get acquainted” (Galatians 1:18). He then spent more than ten years preaching before he came back. “I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia” (Galatians 1:16-17). If he was that concerned with submission to the church hierarchy, why did he wait for a decade? By that time, churches had been planted, teaching was established and what he had done was not likely to change, no matter what the Twelve Apostles said.
Galatians, where the Jerusalem conference is described, is the only one of Paul’s letters where he seems obsessed with pointing out that he did not get his message from any other man. From the first verse, he declares himself “sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father.” Ten verses later, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God?” And a couple of verses later:
“I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”
It almost sounds like Paul had encountered a few people who insisted he should be submitted to the church’s leaders and he responded the same way the leaders had responded to the Jewish authorities earlier. “Should I obey God or men?”
The next very noticeable point in Galatians is Paul’s attitude. Some of the things he wrote are more than a little out of place if he was completely submitted to the Apostles, honoring them and their position. He very disrespectfully called them “those who seemed to be leaders” (2:2), “those who seemed to be important” (2:6), and “those reputed to be pillars” (2:9). “Whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance” (2:6). Apparently Paul considered titles and offices, even within the church, to be external appearances, not indications of anointing. He specified that “they added nothing to my message” (2:6). The tone of Galatians suggests that if the leaders had not approved his message, he would have walked away and had nothing further to do with them.
When Peter was in error, Paul had no hesitation confronting him in public, in spite of the risk of humiliating or dishonoring the most renowned of the Twelve (Galatians 2:11-14). Peter was “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.”
Leaders of the early church exercised a very loose kind of authority over their congregations. They ruled primarily by influence, reason and example. Other members of the congregation were free to challenge leaders when they seemed out of line. Paul challenged Peter. Agabus challenged Paul (Acts 21:10-11). The truth of the gospel was more important than respect for an office.
Open dialogue, freedom to express and a sense of equality characterized the earliest church organization. Control was not an issue. That came later.
Next, Part 10: A Brief History of Hierarchy
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.