Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ten Propositions on Authority in the Church

Lists of propositions seem popular so here goes...

1. No particular way of governing the Church can be historically traced back to Jesus or the apostles.

2. The Church should at any particular time in history be governed in such a way that the method of government reflects the Gospel in that time.

3. Continuity throughout the ages is part of the identity of the Church, part of its message and part of its raison d'être. This can be communicated by the way the Church is governed, i.e. by a distinct continuity in its ministry.

4. The form of government in the Church is part of the spiritual Identity of the Church. It is not "merely administration". It must conform to the general rule that should always be a mark of the Church: that it reflects what the Church believes life will be like in the coming world.

5. The Church needs authority with various geographical scope. There needs to be governing with local, regional and global jurisdictions. The primary function of the different levels of Authority in the Church is to be a symbol of the catholicity of the Church.

6. The notion of a hierarchy in the sense of a ladder of power where everyone submits to those above and rules over those beneath is at odds with the general sense of just government today. Since it is not based on the bible it should be avoided in the Church today.

7. The notion that some people have authority over others based not on merits or insight but on office is incomprehensible today and should be avoided.

8. The general principle of distribution of power in the Church should be to try to minimize central authority and maximize local authority: The Church should trust its regional and local bodies to be able to make informed decisions that maintain orthodoxy. Again, the primary role of the global authority is symbolical.

9. The general principle of local authority should be to trust and support the individual to make choices in his or her personal spiritual life.

10. The Church should strive to reduce the power of individuals over other individuals in all areas and at all levels of the Church. This way she fulfils the commandment of the gospel that "if you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others".


byron said...

Patrik: thanks for these stimulating theses.

7. The notion that some people have authority over others based not on merits or insight but on office is incomprehensible today and should be avoided.

I was puzzled by this one. If authority is based on merits or insights (not positively stated by this thesis, but implied?), then is the church to be a meritocracy? Much more needs to be said about the nature and scope of authority, and Jesus' radical re-working/inversion of greatness and service, but I am not sure that office doesn't remain a useful conceptual tool to remind us of grace: that we do not lead due to our own abilities. 'Leaders' are gifts of the risen Christ (Eph 4), and while there will be a process of discernment of gifts in the body's self-governing, this is a self-governing from the head (that is, Christ).

Not sure I'm being particularly coherent, but my basic point was that I was under the impression that the notion of 'office' was developed precisely in order to affirm grace. We may need to reconsider what the term means, but I'm not yet convinced it has expired from usefulness.

Patrik said...

I'm merely pointing out that people today have great difficulty accepting leadership from a person that cannot motivate that leadership in some way, eg. greater theological insight, pastoral experience and so on.

Your point of Office expressing grace is good (see §4). The question is if the kind of office that exists in the major churches today really does express this (and not, for example, the belief in divine election of the few to rule over the many...)

However, see proposition ten.

WTM said...


I have greatly been enjoying thinking with you through your various posts on ecclesiology. I wanted to raise one nit-picky and one substantial question to you:

Picking a nit: Do you understand your #1 thesis to be in keeping with the historical record? Or, are you bracketing off continuity of historical development and simply saying that nothing we have today was instituted in its current form by Jesus and the apostles, even though they all (and some more closely / directly than others) developed out of the practice of Jesus and the apostles?

Something that might be substantial: I cannot help but feel that you have capitulated quite a bit to a modern notion of democracy in your general discussion about ecclesiastical authority. Moving through your theses I noticed a continual emphasis on making decisions and cultivating meaning at the lowest possible levels, while the highest levels exist only for “symbolic” reasons. Isn’t one of the major tasks of the higher levels to keep the lower levels accountable? This overall tendency is also present in your comments about structuring authority based not on office but on merit (insight). Are you tying merit / insight to giftedness and call, or is this simply economic / boardroom meritocracy we are talking about here? Finally, your discussions of ecclesiastical authority seem to be directed toward thesis #9. I could develop what I would consider an acceptable account of your 9th thesis (that ecclesiastical authority, etc, exists to provide moral space and the covenantal context within which each Christian is free to exercise freedom-for God), but that account is missing (or at least nothing more than latent) here, which could leave one with the impression that the church simply exists to empower individual spirituality.

Patrik said...

wtm, thanks for you thoughtful comments.

Yes, I am referring to our best knowledge of the historical record. I don't see any one way of governing the Church in the NT, and it seems it took quite a while for the Bishop-presbyter-deacon pattern to emerge throughout the church. I placed this as my first thesis, because unless we recognize this, there is no point in continuing the discussion.

I may have capitulated to the modern sense of democracy, but so has the world. And for very good reasons! Of course we must keep some distinction between democracy as an ideal and democracy in practice (mass elections of representatives who get to manipulate people for a certain period of time). The latter obviously has some faults, but democracy understood as the right of the individual to decide over one's own life as long as it does not limit this right for others is the most Christian way of governing a group of people I have found: It is based on the notion that each individual is valuable, a notion that can be tracked back fairly easily to Jesus Christ.

When I speak of merit I obviously mean nothing of the sort a corporation would look for in a leader or administrator. But authority today has to be earned, it is not for the Church to give to certain individuals. The Church simply does not have that power any more. And thank God for that.

Looney said...

Patrik, your point 10 somewhat deals with what is getting me worked up these days: accountability. The church needs leaders, but a system of accountability seems crucial to me.