Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Biblical Scholarship In Support of Non-Hierarchy in the Church

Perhaps you have been following the very lengthy debate and commentary going on here on this blog (under the article "Response to Exploitation or Empowerment?") and over at the [Subversive Underground] e-newsletter blog article "Out of Business"?

As part of this discussion, my good friend and brother in Christ, Paul Martin, has challenged my view of a non-hierarcichal Church in the New Testament, and therefore today's expression of Church.

One of the most troublesome statements by my friend in this ongoing dialog has been the idea that "Your model of church polity is rejected by virtually every--TRAINED--biblical scholar today and over the past 2,000 years."

Here are some quotes by renowned and respected Biblical Scholars to refute this erroneous statement and lend support to my argument that hierarchy developed over time:

"In the Catholic Church there are two classes, clergy and laity . . . . This structure does not correspond to what Jesus did and taught. Consequently it has not had a good effect in the history of the Church . . . . Among his disciples Jesus did not want any distinction of class or rank . . . . In contradiction to this instruction of Jesus, a “hierarchy,” a “sacred authority,” was nevertheless formed in the third century - Herbert Haag (a Roman Catholic), Upstairs, Downstairs: Did Jesus Want a Two-Class Church?, Crossroad, 1997, p.109.

"Our survey has shown us that no cultic priesthood is to be found in the New Testament. Yet we wound up importing Old Testament Levitical forms and imposing them on Christian ministry . . . . Nevertheless in practice there is no denying that there has historically been a gathering into one person and his office what were formerly the gifts of many . . . .[This practice] goes astray, of course, when it translates to mean that only ordination gives competence, authority, and the right of professional governance. It goes further astray when eventually all jurisdictional and administrative powers in the church come to be seen as an extension of the sacramental powers conferred at ordination. In short, there is a movement here away from the more pristine collaborative and mutual ministries of the New Testament." - William Bausch, (A Roman Catholic) in Traditions, Tensions, Transitions in Ministry, Twenty-Third Publications, 1982, pp. 54, 30.

"Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism - when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts. We saw above that such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change." - D.G. Dunn, Unity & Diversity in the New Testament, Westminster Press, 1977, p.351.

"The clergy-laity dichotomy is a direct carry-over from pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism and a throwback to the Old Testament priesthood. It is one of the principal obstacles to the church effectively being God’s agent of the kingdom today because it creates a false idea that only ‘holy men,’ namely, ordained ministers, are really qualified and responsible for leadership and significant ministry. In the New Testament there are functional distinctions between various kinds of ministries but no hierarchical division between clergy and laity. The New Testament teaches us that the church is a community in which all are gifted and all have ministry." - Howard Snyder

"Prayer was offered, as in the Synagogue, but not in stated liturgical form. It was uttered freely, on the impulse of the Spirit, and was presented in the name of Christ, the Intercessor . . . The Christian faith gave rise to hymns of a new character, often produced in the heat of the moment and almost as soon forgotten; but sometimes short lyrics of real beauty were treasured and repeated . . . Chief of all these [elements] was the observance of the Supper . . . This, indeed, was not so much a part of the worship as the vessel which contained all the parts. The purpose of the Christian meeting was to hold the common meal, and to make it a memorial of Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples . . . The exercise of the spiritual gifts was thus the characteristic element in primitive worship. Those gifts might vary in their nature and degree according to the capacity of each individual, but they were bestowed on all and room was allowed in the service for the participation of all who were present. “When you meet together,” says Paul, “each of you hath a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, an interpretation.” Every member was expected to contribute something of his own to the common worship . . . . Worship in those first days was independent of all forms." - Ernest F. Scott, from The Nature of the Early Church, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941, pp.75,77,79,87.

"There are few more reliable constants running through all human society than the special place every human community makes for the professional religionist . . . in every case he disposes a unique quality, which he usually possesses for life, which alone qualifies him for his function, and beside which the mass of men are identifiable negatively as “laymen,” i.e., non-bearers of this special quality . . . One person per place is enough to do what he needs to do . . . the clergyman mediates between the common life and the realm of the “invisible” or the “spiritual” . . . No one balks at what his services cost" - John H. Yoder, “The Fullness of Christ,” reprinted in Searching Together, 11:3, 1982, pp.4-7.

"Properly speaking, New Testament Christianity knows nothing of the word “sacrament,” which belongs essentially to the heathen world of the Graeco-Roman empire and which unfortunately some of the Reformers unthinkingly took over from ecclesiastical tradition. For this word, and still more the overtones which it conveys, is the starting point for those disastrous developments which began soon to transform the community of Jesus into the Church which is first and foremost a sacramental Church" - Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church, Lutterworth, 1952, pp.72-73).

"1 Cor. 14:26 gives us one form of early Christian worship. There is no mention of worship leaders or of reading the Torah. Rather each brings a song (perhaps sung in the Spirit), a teaching, a revelation. The impression is of a real act of the body, not merely the performance of a noted few. - Ben Witherington, Conflict in Corinth, p.285.

Additionally, Bruce Winter in his book "Philo and Paul Among the Sophists" (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and Duane Litfin’s "St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation" (Cambridge University Press, 1994) make the following points:

- Paul renounces Greek rhetorical techniques in preaching that are marked by exalting the art of eloquence. To Paul, these undermined the power of God and the centrality of the cross.

- Paul writes: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God …. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power….” 1 Cor. 2:1, 4-5. Winter believes that Paul had the sophists in view.
- Paul rejected the rhetorical methods of the sophists so that he would not be aligned with them in any way.

- Winter argues that 1 Cor. 1:17 focuses on the rhetorical skill of the speaker. Paul argues against rhetorical artistry because it obscures the proclamation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

- The sophists charged for their services while Paul offered his gospel free of charge and worked manually lest he be a burden to the churches.

- Paul’s presence in public and his delivery style were deficient according to the standards of Greek rhetoric (2 Cor. 10:10).

- Paul and Apollos were not judged in terms of their rhetorical abilities. Paul renounces the employment of rhetoric in preaching in 1 Cor. 1-2 because it conflicts with the message of the cross. Preaching based on Greco-Roman rhetoric displays the artistry and personality of the speaker and puts the focus on the speaker rather on Christ. This is why Paul denounces such preaching. God saves through the weakness of the cross and the brokenness of the vessel used, therefore, the gospel should not advertise the strength of the speaker by “wowing” his hearers with his rhetorical artistry. This, according to Winter, compromises the gospel.

When one says that the notion that anyone can teach, preach, or prophesy on a regular basis is unbiblical, they are dead wrong. While the NT teaches (and the authors agree) that not all Christians are specifically gifted as teachers, prophets, or apostles, it also teaches that every Christian is a minister, a functioning priest, and is capable of instructing, prophesying, and exhorting in the church.

Here are just a few examples from the NT literature itself:
**1 Cor. 14:31 - For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. [This is not relegated to prophets only. See R. Banks, H. Snyder, G. Fee, F.F. Bruce, and many of other scholars on this point.]

**Rom. 15:14 - I myself am convinced, my brethren, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. [These words were written to the church in Rome and included all believers].

**Heb. 10:25 - Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another … [Note that this has reference to the normative meeting of the church. This clearly shows us then that the congregation is active during the meeting and is engaged in exhorting “one another” and “provoking “one another” to love and to good works (v.24). There’s nothing here about passively listening to one man. The same point is made in 1 Cor. 14:26.

These and other scholarly references and sources can be found

This link (above), where I took each of these quotes, involves another online debate betweeen Biblical Scholars and Historians Jon Zens and Ben Witherington concerning the evidence for a relational, Christ-centric house church in the First and Second Century and the arguments laid out in Frank Viola's book, "Pagan Christianity".

I hope this is helpful to, if nothing else, clarify the misconception that "virtually no TRAINED Biblical scholars agree" with my view of Church polity.



Michael O'Neill Burns said...

Is there anything to be said for the fact that most of the people you quote are members of a traditional model of Church? Also, you bring up Paul talking about rhetoric; and I think if anything it seems to be the non-denominational pastors who tend to get too rhetorical and 'culturally relevant' with their teaching. If you go to a Catholic mass, all you do is read/sing scripture, and the Priest gives a short/simple homily in relation to the text. To me that seems to fall in line with Paul's critique.
Also, there is a clear tradition of internal critique within these churches. For one example, Catholic theologian Henri De Lubac (made a cardinal after his death) was put under question by the Vatican for some of his writings due to their 'dangerous' content and tendency to question the established order, but eventually, through prayer and patience, the Church realized the truth in De Lubac's work and he went from outcast to Cardinal. The point here is that De Lubac did not 'leave' the Church because he disagreed with the overall structure, he was a patient and faithful bride of his mother, the Church, and eventually this faithfulness came to fruition. (There are similar stories for many catholic theologians, esp. the liberation theologians).

I think the point here is that these important figures in the faith were faithful to the Church, even when they took issue with individual teachings. It seems as if the debate being set up here is a bit either/or. Either we submit to some authoritarian hierarchy, or, we have 'real', 'organic' christian community. I think a serious false dichotomy is being set up here. Let me give a personal example to clarify. I got to mass every sunday. It's usually quite solemn and very traditional. We sing hymns, read scripture, share the sign of the peace, take the Eucharist, pray, and leave. Tuesday night I meet with other young Christians (and a priest) where we sit in a circle, read scripture, discuss it together, and pray together, usually followed by pints afterwards. Wednesday nights I attend a casual student mass, which is preceded by a meeting for a social justice society. We read scripture, pray, and take the Eucharist. Afterwards we sit around and openly discuss the faith with a priest, and usually, we all go out for drinks afterwards.

All of this, in what many see as the most 'hierarchical' form of Christianity known to man.

So clearly, this either/or dichotomy doesn't hold up. I would venture that I get to spend more time in community and open conversation than many who are a part of non-establishment type Churches, with Priest that are much more open to debate (both spiritual, theological, and political) than the average evangelical pastor.

Obviously I agree with much of what I gather to be your vision for the Church (genuine community, concern for the poor, justice in the community, honest worship), but I really just don't understand this need to break so radically with traditional forms of Church to do that. Especially considering the entire social justice tradition emerged from traditional Christianity. It's odd that young people are so excited about the 'new monasticism' movement, as if its something innovative, when the holy orders have been doing this for over a thousand years! It seems like if we want to move forward as a Church, we need to utilize the resources of our wonderful (and troubled) history, rather than perusing a false novelty.

All that said, I really appreciate you facilitating this debate, and especially your effort to do some research to further back up your points. I still agree with you (in general) about what Church should be like, I guess I just don't see the need to so radically break with tradition to get there.

God bless you sir.

Keith Giles said...


First of all, how are you doing? I really miss talking with you and it would be so good to see you and hang with you again. Will you ever come back from England and visit us?

Thank you for your gracious tone here. I wanted to respond to your comments above and elsewhere regarding this issue. I know you're a lot smarter than me so give me a little grace as we engage in this dialog, my friend.

To begin with, you ask: "Is there anything to be said for the fact that most of the people you quote are members of a traditional model of Church?"

Response: Well, I only assembled these quotes and posted them here because our mutual friend Paul Martin suggested that no TRAINED Biblical Scholars agreed with my position that hierarchy emerged after the first century. I have produced evidence that many Biblical Scholars from many different theological backgrounds do agree with me that hierarchy wasn't present in the early NT Church. Simple as that.

Hopefully you are not asking me to produce Biblical Scholars who agree with this point AND who also practice organic/simple/house church gatherings? Would that really do anything to convince you further? I really doubt that it would, and it's not the actual point anyway.

My point here is simply that TRAINED Biblical Scholars acknowledge that the NT Church was relational, organic and shared leadership among the people as the Holy Spirit filled, empowered and guided each person in the Body of Christ.

From this evidence (in the NT) I feel called to return to this form of "being Church" rather than attending one. It's my personal calling and choice to do this.

ALSO: I have no problem learning from those who are within the Traditional Church. I have not taken any vow to only read house church material or listen to organic church gurus. Like you, I was introduced to Jesus in a traditional church and it's also where I was encouraged, baptized, trained and (eventually) licensed and ordained into the ministry of the Gospel. I do not have a grudge against traditional churches (meaning, the people within those churches). I do have a problem with the methodology wherin one man (clergy/priest/pastor) is elevated above all the rest (laity/brotherhood/family of God) on the basis of the evidence in the NT, and the historical record of the early Church - which these Biblical Scholars affirm wholeheartedly. I cannot be moved if they do not personally worship this way because I am not following them, I am following Jesus and the Bible is my map.

Secondly, you make a point about rhetoric which I don't really care to debate either way, really. Our house church doesn't engage in formal teaching or preaching week to week so, to me, the discussion isn't that relevant or sexy. I think the only real point here is that the early church didn't value preaching sermons as we know them today.

Third, you refer to "a clear tradition of internal critique within (Catholic) churches" and cite an example of a theologian who humbly continued to serve the Church for years while they debated his status and teachings- eventually shifiting their opinion of him and his teachings from "dangerous" to "acceptable".
This is all well and good and I am glad, for him if nothing else, that he was eventually vindicated for his insights. However, if the Church practiced a New Testament form of Church, this issue could have been settled in an afternoon, or perhaps a week, as everyone freely shared, listened and prayerfully examined the teaching against the Word of God. It's the hierarchical structure which prevents any new perspectives from being introduced or accepted (or rejected) freely. Just an observation, nothing more.

ALSO: Your point about how this man didn't "leave the Church" is telling to me because I wouldn't say that I have "left the Church" either. As I understand it, I AM the Church (or part of it) because of Christ in me. Therefore the only way I can "leave the Church" is to renounce Christ and abandon my faith in Him. Now, I might decide to worship elsewhere or gather with a different group of believers than before, but that wouldn't (in my mind) be an example of someone leaving the Church. We are the Church.

Fourth, you make a point about a false dichotomy regarding submission to authoritarian hierachy and "real" organic Christian community. I like your example and I am very happy for you that your worship and gathering experience is so robust and well-rounded between traditional Mass and informal gatherings with other believers (although a Priest is present at both - as an aside, would you feel comfortable meeting without that Priest? Do you believe he MUST be there in order for this gathering to be called "Church"?). However, I would say, based on the evidence of the NT, the history of the practice of the first century church and the testimony of trained Biblical Scholarship, that you can have hierarchy if you really, really prefer it, but that it's not part of the essential, original DNA of the NT Church as Jesus founded it or as the Apostles promoted it.

You say, "Obviously I agree with much of what I gather to be your vision for the Church (genuine community, concern for the poor, justice in the community, honest worship), but I really just don't understand this need to break so radically with traditional forms of Church to do that."

It's ok if you don’t see it or if you're not feeling called to this, Mike. Really, I am not trying to convince anyone to come over to my side. Seriously, I don't even believe that it's possible for me to argue someone into this. Either you feel called to this sort of thing by the Holy Spirit or you don't. I make no judgements against anyone who does or does not, by the way. I realize that house church is not for everyone and I have numerous friends and great, awesome brothers in Christ who are not compelled to gather in this way and they are still my brothers and friends (yourself and Paul Martin included).

I have not said "You are wrong and I am right" anywhere, have I? I know that my articles call into question the validity of our traditional practice and hierachy, but I believe that I can do that without creating a "Right/Wrong" category - at least that's my hope. My aim is to ask the questions and allow people to think and respond appropriately.

Let me address your last two statements and then I'll be done here.

First, your comment about social justice emerging from traditional Christianity is incorrect. You and I both know that social justice emerged as a core value in the Church at her inception. We can read the Gospels and the Epistles and the book of Acts and see that social justice was, and is, a fundamental, foundational component of the Church of Jesus - and let me say again that this same Church wasn't anything like the "traditional" church we have today.

Secondly, your comment here kind of hurts: "It seems like if we want to move forward as a Church, we need to utilize the resources of our wonderful (and troubled) history, rather than perusing a false novelty."

The awesome, relational Family of God we see in 1 Cor 12-14 and Hebrews 10 and the book of Acts is a "False novelty"? I disagree, and apparently so do all of these TRAINED Biblical Scholars and thousands of house church practitioners across the fruited plane and beyond.

Again, I love you Mike. You are one of my heroes in the faith. I admire your heart, your passion, your devotion to Christ and your compassion for the poor. You are a true brother in Christ and if we had an army of Jesus Followers just like you the world would be a much better place.

Next time you're in Orange County I'll buy you a cappuccino at Keane's Coffee and we'll bounce these ideas around a bit more.

Blessings and Peace,

-PS - I also wanted to make a comment on something you said previously about how those in the Catholic Church were better participants (not just specators) because they partake in communion/Eucharist once a week. To me, this isn't the kind of "participation" I am speaking of. I am speaking of a shared gathering where everyone -six year olds and 80 year olds and everyone in the room - has an opportunity to share, to lead, to encourage, to teach and to exercise their spiritual gifting every single time they gather. To me, that's "participation". To me, sitting and listening to a sermon, or a homlie, and taking communion would still be "spectating" in comparison.

Michael O'Neill Burns said...

I must start by saying I'm very sorry that what I said towards the end came off hurtful, that wasn't the intention at all, and I think bad grammar/phrasing on my part is to blame. I didn't mean to imply that those biblical accounts were false novelty, and I think if anything I was maybe responding to some of the comments on the earlier thread, but I'm sorry that came off wrong.

I really appreciate your comments on all of this, and know that in all seriousness you are the closest thing I've met to someone living like a saint, and all more 'academic' disagreement aside, I honestly wish more people, regardless of church affiliation, would take up the radical commitment to Christ that you have.

I think many of the comments I made in that last post were written with comments made (not by you) on the previous thread in mind, but looking back I now see it comes off as more critical than it was intended. And just to clear one specific point up, I definitley did not mean to imply that you have in ANY way 'left' the Church, so I'm sorry it came off like that.

If anything, I think I was just trying to point out that things aren't all bad in the hierarchical church, mostly because previous comments (not your own) implied that the catholic church was a cult, which I took a bit personally.

I hope this clears thing up a bit Keith. Thanks, as always, for being an amazing example of faith and humility, no matter our differences in ecclessial preference, you'll always inspire me to take the commands of Christ more seriously.

I think with many of these issues I struggle sometimes with balancing out a theological and a practical perspective. On the one hand, I want to make sure I'm attempting to practice a form of Christianity that is theologically informed, but on the other hand, I know that placing too much emphasis on the theological side of things while neglecting the practical action of the faith can lead to the risk of being like the man who kept all the laws yet still couldn't give away all he had and follow Jesus. Conversations such as these help remind me of this constant struggle.

And to answer your first question...Things are going pretty good over here! I'm hoping to make it out to california this winter while I'm in the states, so if I do I'd love to get together and hear about everything you have going on these days.

Thanks again for being gracious with me Keith, I really appreciate it.


Michael O'Neill Burns said...

one other thing for sake of (maybe) keeping conversation going...

You commented that participation in the eucharist still counts as a spectator activity in your mind. Here is what I wonder though; without a sacrament that binds the entire (global) body of believers together in the one body of Christ, how can we ever have a 'catholic' (small 'c') Church? It seems like if every church an independent/organic church, there would be a lack of global community. This would seem to cause issue when, for example, in other parts of the world groups of Christians are struggling with oppression/poverty/disease/etc and have no global community to rely on. One thing it seems that the traditional church structures offer is a global network of believers who are all grounded in the body of Christ. Now, I know many don't recognize this, but when properly understood the sacrament literally binds us to all other believers and makes us responsible for their needs. This then has huge implications for the way we consider things like social justice, community, and war. For example, theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said "when christians kill christians, its not murder, its suicide"; because when we properly participate in the church we all become a part of the same body in a quite literal sense. In the same way, if a sister is the global church is starving, I'm starving, and need to figure out a way to help.

Also, one last question. Maybe I'm being naive here, but didn't the Church put together what we know as the bible a few hundred years into the game? So is there anyway to ground non-institutional Church in the bible, when a Church council put the bible together? In this way it seems like affirming the bible requires an a priori affirmation of the historical Church, no?

Keith Giles said...


I can't tell you how your graciousness blesses me. Really. Thank you for not allowing this debate to get personal or change the way you and I love one another as brothers in Christ. That means more to me than winning an argument or making my point.

So, to answer your two comments/questions I would affirm your points about the Eucharist/Communion. My comment about how sharing the Lord's Supper would still be "specatatorship" was probably too strong. I don't mean to diminish the importance of sharing this with the Body because it is very, very important as you point out. My concern is that Followers of Jesus not stop at church attendance and weekly ritual but take their faith into their actual lives, learn to put the words of Jesus into actual practice, love their neighbors as themselves, share what they have with those in need, etc.

To you second comment/question regarding the Bible, I would just point out that the canonization of the Scriptures didn't create anything new, it simply recognized what was already shaping the Body for the previous 300 years. The Creeds weren't written on the spot, they had been repeated and preserved in a verbal tradition for centuries long before they were assembled into a written document...and they were preserved, repeated and passed on to us by a non-hierachical, family-based church.

Honestly, the reason I write what I do and share what I've learned is because I seriously hope to set Christians free to experience and know a freedom in Christ that I, personally, never experienced in the traditional church.

My struggle has been to find the words and the methodology to fully express the experience I've had and to shed light on the forces that prevent many from seeing or understanding the freedom I've known.

I hope that doesn't come across sounding elitist or condescending. It's not intended to slam anyone, but again, this is my struggle. How do I express the good stuff without making others feel like I'm putting them down?

Maybe there just isn't a way to do this? I don't know.

Again, thanks for your kindness and I look forward to that coffee and hang time soon.


Paul said...


I do not doubt that you are, earnestly, excited about what your are learning. I was pleased to see you write, in your last comment, "How do I express the good stuff without making others feel like I'm putting them down?"

May I humbly suggest one way to achieve this? Can you cease using cynical language? You have said previously that you utilize such a technique only on your subversive underground blog to, if my memory serves me, "afflict the comforted." Yet you write the following not in your own blog, but in Seed Stories:

"In today's American church what matters is being successful and being successful means putting butts in the seats."

Regarding your play on the "7 habits of highly ineffective pastors" you write,

"Preach and go home. Let someone else do the pastoring. That's what 'Associates' are for."

"Just copy what the big-guys are doing. It's bound to work, or at least put more butts in the seats."

"There's a reason 10% of the people in church do 90% of the's pastors like you!"

"...Works like a charm and keeps their butts in your seats doing nothing rather than in some other pew across town doing nothing."

My views are informed by the cannon of 2,000 years of historical Christian theology, which reject your views on ecclesiology. Yours align with Frank Viola and those in the popular (emerging church) genre. But this has never been my main concern.

My concerns are about your methodologies.

You are free to express your findings with passion.
But can I convince you to stop insulting others along the way?

You are not free, as a member of Christ's body, to attack it.


Keith Giles said...


If anyone reads the entire article you quote from -- "7 Habits of Highly Ineffective Pastors" -- they will see that, after my tongue-in-cheek riff on how ineffective pastors behave, I follow it up with a suggestion of 7 great habits for pastors to follow if they want to touch people and serve their flock.

I understand that you don't approve of my style or my methods, and I am sorry for that. But my aim is to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted" and that means means making the comfortable temporarily uncomfortable long enough to look at themselves in the mirror.

Frankly, no pastor should be offended if I criticize those who think that success is equal to putting butts in the seats-- unless they recognize themselves in that subset, and then of course they will be upset with me.