Bishops vs. Bibles: Authority in the early church.

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Snark MeterrealMID.003(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, episode 5)

The Development of authority: the role of bishop from 80-200CE

In the last installment I wrote about the rise of bishops in the New Testament church, a development that was occurring at the same time as false teachers were beginning to crop up.

In popular Christianity today a debate rages about authority in the church: the Bible (evangelicals) vs. Bishops (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, many Anglicans). In the early church there was no such debate. There was no tug of war. It was not an issue of either/or. In the second and third centuries as the church debated false teaching it was not a question, of bishops v. the Bible, because there was yet no “Bible” – no single book, but a collection of “God-breathed” or “inspired” (2 Timothy 3:16) “scriptures.” In the early church the question was about WHO gets to interpret those scriptures: individual Christians or the bishops.

“Heresy,” the word for “false teaching” comes from the Greek word, “to choose.” Today people feel free to pick and choose from religious beliefs as if they were walking down the food line in a cafeteria, “I prefer potato salad. I don’t like boiled okra.” That works well at Luby’s. It is a disaster as a test of truth. And it was decidedly un-bueno in the early church. Innovation and “choice” were not on the table: Paul repeatedly gives churches two thumbs up for “maintaining the tradition as I gave it to you” (1 Cor. 11:2, 2 Thes 2:15, 3:6).  Jude felt it necessary to write and appeal to Christians to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” Making up a religion of our own devising is something only the most arrogant and foolish would do.

Join me as the first-century turns and look the way the second generation of early Christian leaders known as the “Apostolic Fathers” maintained the message that had been given to them…

The question facing the church at the dawn of the second century: How would Christianity fare with the apostle’s successors-the first generation not led by those who walked with Jesus? This is more than an interesting question. It was a transition critical to giving us the faith and the understanding of the trinity that define the Christian faith to this day.

The Role of Bishop in the New Testament

“Bishops” (or sometimes “elders”) are sparsely mentioned in the New Testament. We have no record of Jesus speaking of the role. However, in the book of Acts, Paul appoints “overseers”* to leave behind in the churches he had started.[1] Paul, wrote and instructed two young pastors, Timothy and Titus, in what to look for in the selection of these bishops.[2] Paul, Peter, and John all greet church’s bishops in their epistles.[3] Bishops were the model of church leadership within twenty years of Jesus’ resurrection (c.50)…before much of the New Testament was written.

The Role of Bishop in the Church Age

The role of bishops expanded quickly. Their importance is seen in the writings of early church fathers…

The earliest Christian writings in existence after the close of the New Testament were from Clement, the second Bishop of Rome (after Peter’s death). Clement, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (c.95), confirmed the way apostles appointed the first bishops: “So preaching everywhere in country and town, they [the apostles] appointed their first fruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe.”[4] In Clement, we have a first-hand confirmation of what Luke told us in Acts and what we would intuitively suspect – that bishops were appointed in each town by the same apostles that introduced them to faith in Christ.

How did this second generation of Christians view bishops? Ignatius of Antioch (c100) in his Epistle to the Ephesians cues us in: He advised Christians in Ephesus to “look upon the bishop even as we would look upon the Lord Himself.[5] Don’t miss this: A disciple of John equated unity with the local bishop to unity with Jesus! In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius advises that those who do “anything without the bishop” both destroy the Churches’ unity, and throw its order into confusion.[6] For Ignatius, and virtually every other early church source who speaks on the issues, the church’s source of unity and spiritual authority went through the bishops and the apostles to Jesus himself. Ignatius also wrote, the “bishops tell us how to interpret the Bible” for “without them, there is no sacrament[7]

Second century father, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, (c180) telegraphs his concerns in the title of his treatise: “Against Heresies” – specifically against Gnosticism. In it Irenaeus argued that the unbroken teaching of the bishops proved the truth of orthodox Christianity: His argument was simple-Jesus sent out the Apostles who passed down Jesus’ teaching to us.[8]

In response to the Gnostic idea that there was “secret information” necessary for salvation, Irenaeus wrote,

For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to ‘the perfect’ apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors.[9]

Irenaeus pointed out the obvious: Why would the apostles not tell the disciples the whole truth about Jesus?

In Against Heresies 3:3, Irenaeus then went on to list the apostolic succession of bishops from the Apostles to both Clement in Rome and bishop Polycarp in Smyrna as two examples that would be well known in to all readers in 180AD. “We are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times.”[10] His argument in effect is “we can name names…there are no, and have been no secrets.” He finished the argument with a polemic: “This is the gateway of life [bishops]; all the rest are thieves and robbers.[11]

Coming on Irenaeus’ heals is Tertullian (c. 160-225). Tertullian was the first father to teach in Latin and coined the term “trinity” at the close of the second century. He followed on Irenaeus’ logic when arguing against the Monarchist heresy: “Your teaching may claim to be old. If it were, show us your apostle and the line of your bishops from him?[12]

So we see in the second century that the successors to the apostle’s, the bishops, were both the leaders of the churches and the interpreters of the scriptures. Where did they get that idea? From the apostles themselves, of course. Those outside of the touch and teaching of the bishops were “thieves and robbers.” In the debates with the heretics, it was the bishop, those who received and taught the unbroken message, who had the authority to interpret that message given to them by the apostles.

Next up: Game. Set. Match. Why the Bishop was the trump card in debates in the early church.

 

*“Bishop” is an English version of the untranslated Greek word “Episcopos.” We do the same thing with “baptism” which is the Greek word “baptizo” which means to “immerse.”

[1] Acts 14:23, Acts 20:28

[2] 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9

[3] Philippians 1:1, 1 Peter 5:1, 2 John 1, 3 John 1

[4] Clement. First Epistle to the Corinthians. 42:7 Retrieved from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ii.html.

[5] Ignatius. Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 4. Retrieved from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.ii.html.

[6] Ignatius. Letter to the Smyrnaeans. Chapter 6. Retrieved from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.ii.html.

[7] Documents of the Christian Church. Vol. 1. 3rd ed., ed. Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 41.

[8] Ibid, 78.

[9] Ibid, 74-75.

[10] Irenaeus. 3:3. Retrieved from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.html

[11] Irenaeus. 3:4. Retrieved from:  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.html

[12] Documents, 78.

 

 

 

 

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Saying dumb things: Yet another example of catholi-phobia hurting the church

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Photocredit: globalnerdy.com

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, episode 3)

When discussing false teaching in Christianity, it is common to hear evangelicals blame the early church fathers for wandering from the gospel and accepting false teaching early on. This is really not much more than an example of Catholiphobia. You have seen Catholiphobia. That is what is going on when you hear someone say, “That seems sort of…you know…Catholic.” Which is code for, “If a Catholic does it, it must be wrong.” Dropping the Eucharist as the normative weekly worship for Christians, clergy dressing like clergy so that non-Christians know a clergyperson when they see one, and full-body worship (like marking oneself with the sign of the cross) all come to mind as examples.[1] Perhaps the biggest mistake of Catholi-phobia: dropping bishops as leaders of churches.[2]

One seminary professor of mine expressed the Protestant anti-bishop bias like this, “The problem was bishops…a problem we solved by giving the church to teams of elders in the Reformation.” For some reason intelligent, God-fearing people don’t hear the implied heresy in the accusation. What my professor was really saying is that Jesus was wrong – that the “gates of hell” did prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18) for some 1400 years until the Reformation…or some other restoration movement of the 19th century (Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, LDS) or the 20th century (Pentecostalism). It might surprise many to know that in the early church, bishops did not give the church false teachers, it protected the church against them.

It might surprise many to know that in the early church, bishops did not give the church false teachers, it protected the church against them.

This will take a bit of setup, but it is necessary to get to our final installments on apostolic succession: Bishops vs. bibles: Authority in the early church. And, Game. Set. Match. Why bishops were the trump card in early church disagreements.

Organization in the Early Church

Early Christianity is a study in organic organization. In the gospels we read of Jesus of Nazareth, a compelling and unique itinerant rabbi who spends three years going from town to town with a core-group of followers. Like the rest of the public, the disciples are fascinated by Jesus’ public teaching and healing. They, however, were given private instruction into the meaning behind his teaching and miracle working…that he was ushering in a new kingdom through a new kind of king: “God with us,” a fulfillment of the meaning behind their scriptures. Jesus did this in the ultimate of informal environments: Three years around a fire with him.

After the resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the spreading of the message of Jesus by those apostles, primarily Peter and Paul. As Acts opens, we see the Jewish disciples of the Jewish rabbi leading in predictably Jewish ways. Change begins in Acts 8, when persecution forced many to leave Jerusalem. It took nearly a decade, but the scattered disciples finally begin to consistently extend the story of Jesus to non-Jews in Antioch (Acts 11:19-20). In Acts 11, the Jewish Christians were confronted with what to do with the increasing number of gentile converts. By the end of Acts (Chapters 20 and 24) we see the beginnings of formal organization: bishops (usually translated as “overseers” by modern Protestant translators) and deacons (usually left untranslated) appointed as leaders of local churches. Another word “presbyter” (usually translated “elder”) is sometimes used synonymously. Since churches met in households you would have multiple presbyters or “elders” in a town, and a single bishop (overseer), that would “oversee” them. It was a model co-opted from Roman government. The early Christians faced other core decisions besides organizational and leadership ones, of course. Questions like: What specifically would Christian’s believe? (A question they would solve with creeds)? And what books would comprise the Scriptures? (A question they would solve with canon-which books would be included in the New Testament.)[3] But in the book of Acts, we see the earliest church engaged, not with the story of the creation of the scriptures, but in living the faith out by the human successors to the Jesus story taking the message of faith to the next generation.

The Rise of Heresy

Very quickly, “strange ideas”[4] also reared their head. These were predictable: First, as I just pointed out, the young Christian church was still organizing itself. There were no New Testament scriptures.  The urban, diverse and, early on, rather under-educated Christians had no written source of authority to which to appeal.[5] Second, the witnesses to Jesus left a degree of vagueness about the exact nature of Jesus’ relationship with the Father (was Jesus God “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” or was it, as Jesus also said, “The father is greater than I.”) Belief had yet to be systematized. Third, Christians had opened the door to increased confusion by our evangelism methods. We were using Greek and Roman philosophers to explain and validate the new Christian faith to the Greco-Roman world.[6] Some folks took this too far and moved from explanation to syncretism-melding the two. Fourth, surely some were intentional false teachers, unscrupulously and opportunistically taking advantage of Christians’ reputation for generosity.[7] But mostly there was a lack of discipleship due to Christianity’s rapid spread. Evangelistic success led to a shortage of mature Christians to see to the training of new converts in the faith. The earliest of the “strange ideas,” Gnosticism, held that it was necessary to learn the “secret knowledge of their spiritual essence” in order to receive salvation.[8] The big question was: How would an emerging movement face conflict? And to what source would they make their appeal?

The answer will surprise you.

Next up: Bishops vs. bibles: Authority in the early church.

[1] I am not critiquing the actual theological problems with Rome, such as allowing the tradition to actively overrule scripture through modern dogmas such as papal infallibility (1869), or the Immaculate Conception (1854) or the over-reactions of the later meetings of the council of Trent against the very reactive Protestants (1550s-1560s).

[2]This is an area that most Protestants, steeped in a materialistic worldview, generally don’t see as anything near a central issue. For sacramental Christians, touch and teaching both are quite important.

[3] Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. (London, Penguin Books, 1967), 41-44.

[4] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 1. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.html. Book one lists the bizarre beliefs of many heretical teachers.

[5] Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity. (Peabody, Mass, Prince Press, 2008. 50-51.

[6] Starting with Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17) Christians struggled with the question of how to communicate faith to people who don’t accept the authority of the Scriptures.

[7] Gonzalez, 51.

[8] Robinson, B.A., “Gnosticism: Ancient and Modern Beliefs & Practices”, http://www.religioustolerance.org/gnostic2.htm

Mormon bishop to the Mega-Church: “Thank you!”

“You have no idea what a gift you are to us.”

Several years ago I overheard a conversation in a restaurant that was so provocative I could not help first listening in and then eventually horning in.

It was late on a Sunday morning. In the booth over my left shoulder was a man who said he was a LDS bishop and his friend. They were discussing the service they had just attended at the largest church in Arizona. Fascinated at his viewpoint, and being aware that the Mormon church is still growing while Protestant numbers are waning, I turned around and engaged him in conversation over coffee -mine, not his.

He said, “I think the mega-church will be the best thing to ever happen to the LDS. If that is the best you have to offer, you are in big, big trouble.”

I pointed out, “Tens of thousands are flocking to those types of churches. They seem to be very effective.”

His insights on the mega church stopped me cold:

“They may have a lot of people coming in the front door but they surely will have a big back door with people escaping out. People will eventually want more than they are offering.”

The biggest problems?  He said…

-You make takers. We make givers.

-You are entirely focused on the individual. We focus on building a community.

He then described our churches as market-driven and led by focus groups rather than convictions. He called out two things in particular: Segregating our age groups and catering to people’s preferences.

Segregating: “What are you thinking putting all of the youth in a separate building and not letting the parents in? 16-year old Jenny needs to be sitting next to 80-year old Mrs. Jones in church. When Jenny shows up in her modest clothes, Mrs. Jones tells her, “Good job!” When Mrs. Jones needs help getting groceries out of her car, she calls Jenny. We make communities. You make people whose whims are catered to. What are you doing to actually help families?”

Catering to preference: “And another thing. You do music people like, with bands. We do bad music, sometimes on an out of tune piano, led by a retired music teacher. Our music is weird. It teaches people that they are part of something different from the world.

We make people who give rather than take and who know they are different and are part of a set-apart community. You blur the line between the church and the world. We emphasize it. 

Finally he said, “In thirty years, you guys won’t exist. We will be the only game in town.”

Was he right?

Surely he had very little expectation that the gathering of Christians is to worship the triune God and bring him glory. But does the mega-church? Is there a back door wide-open filled with people inoculated against the very Gospel our mega churches work so hard to communicate? Have we created a cult of the individual rather than a community of givers?

Please do not read my critique as an indictment on motives or on size per se. There are large churches working hard to be about others (see: www.mission68.org). The mega-church people that I know want to honor God and reach people for Jesus Christ. However, I fear we have embraced an ethic of short-term pragmatism. The mega-church has embraced a biblical message divorced from biblical and historically Christian methods. This is dangerous territory.

Next up: Why the “Saddleback movement” works for the over 30 but not those under it. And, Potential ways forward for both the church and the youth program.