Each of the Synoptic Gospels tell how at one point in Jesus ministry, He asked His disciples “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” The disciples throw out various answers, including John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, and other prophets. Jesus then made the question personal: “But whom say ye that I am?”
Simon Peter answers and says “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”.
St. John does not mention this event in his Gospel, but the Confession of Peter, or rather of the Apostles for St. Peter was speaking for all of them, is omnipresent throughout it. For when we turn to last verses of the second last chapter of that Gospel we read:And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.
Here the Evangelist states that the reason he wrote his Gospel, is that his readers might believe the Petrine Confession. Throughout the Gospel of John, everlasting life is promised over one hundred times to those who simply “believe in Jesus”. To believe in Jesus, in the Gospel of John, means to believe that He is the Christ, the Son of God.
In the other Gospels, the Petrine Confession marks a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. It is at this point that Jesus begins to show His disciples:that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.
The Apostles, through St. Peter, had confessed their faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. By telling them about His upcoming Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, He was explaining what His being “the Christ” meant. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ being “The Christ” means that He is the One, sent by the Father, in order that those that believe in Him would have everlasting life (John 11:21-27, cf. 6:38-40). It was by dying for mankind’s sins and rising again, that Jesus accomplished this, which is why Christ’s death and resurrection comprise the Gospel – the Good News which the Apostles preached (1 Corinthians 15:1-8) and are the chief events in each of the Gospels.
In St. Matthew’s account of the Confession of Peter, there is more told than is mentioned in the other Gospels. St. Matthew records Jesus’ immediate response to the Confession:Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
What is this “Church” Christ promised to build? What is it’s nature? How is it related to the many organizations in Christendom that call themselves “Churches” today? Is one of them the Church Christ built? Are all of them the Church Christ built? Is Christ’s Church something completely different altogether?The Church in Scripture: God’s Assembly
The New Testament was originally written in Greek. The word in Greek which is translated “Church” in English Bibles is the Greek word ekklesia. The English word “ecclesiastical” meaning “of the Church, pertaining to the Church” is derived from this word. Ekklesia is the cognate noun of a word formed by combining the preposition “ek” which means “out of, from” with the verb “kaleo” which means “to call”. The thought that is expressed by that combination is “to call out”. The noun “ekklesia” then, would refer to a group that has been “called out” of something, for some purpose. Prior to Christian usage, the term was primarily political. An assembly of the citizens of a Greek city-state was called an “ekklesia”. A 4th Century BC comedy, by Aristophanes, for example is entitled the Ekklesiazousai
, which is usually either Latinized as Ecclesiazusae
or translated into English as “The Assemblywomen”. It is about a group of women, who sneak into the Athenian assembly disguised as their husbands, and vote that all power be turned over to themselves, and then create a comically dystopic socialist state, eliminating private property, arranging for the government to feed everybody from a common trough, and instituting a form of free love, where the men can have any women they like, provided they are fair about it, and sleep with the ugly ones first. (1) The “ekklesia” in this satire is the political assembly of democratic Athens.
When the New Testament uses this word it borrows the concept of “a group of people called together to form an assembly or congregation” without the rest of the political connotations. The New Testament “ekklesia” is not a democratic assembly by any means. Christ is the head of the Church, and rules as an absolute monarch. Other authorities in the Church derive their authority from Christ – not from the “consent of the governed”.The New Testament Church: Organism and Organization
The New Testament uses a number of word pictures to explain the nature of the Church. Three of them in particular are emphasized, which correspond to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Church is:
A) The Family of God (the Father)
B) The Body of Christ
C) The Temple of the Holy Spirit
There has been much discussion in recent centuries over whether the Church is an “organism” or an “organization”. The distinction is somewhat artificial. “Organism” and “organization” are obviously derived from the same root and share the characteristic of being made up of a number of smaller units which have distinct tasks and which must cooperate together for the organism/organization to function. The primary distinction between the two is that an “organism” is considered alive and natural, whereas an organization is regarded as a non-living, artificial structure, that exists to serve the purposes of the people who created it.
It is significant that this discussion, like the somewhat similar sociological discussion about the difference between a “Gemeinschaft” and a “Gesellschaft”, (2) began after the ideology of liberalism, which refuses to see any social body more complex than the individual person as being a living organism, gained influence in the Western world..
If that were all that was involved in this distinction, the Scriptural references to the Church as the “body of Christ” would seem to settle the matter in favour of the Church being an “organism”.
There is more to it than that, however. Those who emphasis that the Church is an organism wish to stress that the Church is a living body and that the people who make up the Church are connected to each other by spiritual ties of relationship, centered around a common faith in Jesus Christ. This is in accordance with New Testament teaching. There is Scriptural support, however, for the idea of the Church as an organization or institution as well. The stress here, would be upon the Church as being orderly and structured, with an established chain of authority. This is also found in the New Testament.
It would be most accurate to say, therefore, that the Church is both an organism and an organization.The New Testament Church: Both Local and Catholic
In the New Testament the Church is both local and catholic (universal). St. Paul’s epistles were written to local Churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi and Thessalonica (he also wrote epistles to individuals such as Timothy, Titus, and Philemon). The second and third chapters of the Revelation of St. John contain letters to seven local Churches in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), the Churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The Book of Acts records the ministry of the Apostles, and how they, especially St. Paul, preached the Gospel and planted Churches in various cities throughout the Greek-speaking world of the time.
The New Testament also uses the expression “the Church” in a broader sense to encompass all Christians in all local Churches. In 1 Corinthians 12, for example, where St. Paul describes the Church as Christ’s body, he is clearly speaking of more than just the local Church in Corinth. Consider for example, verse 28:And God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.The New Testament Church: Visible and Invisible
That local Churches are visible Churches is non-controversial. You can go to a local community, identify such-and-such a Church, point out that it meets at the corner of This Street and That Street, that the Rev. What’s-His-Name is it’s pastor and that John Churchman and Susie Parishioner are members. In the Reformation, however, a debate arose over the nature of the catholic or universal Church. Is it visible or invisible?
The Reformers took the position, formulated most fully by John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion
, that the catholic Church is invisible. What the Reformers meant by saying that the catholic Church was invisible, was that it consists of true believers and only true believers. A person joins the Church the moment they believe the Gospel and everyone who believes the Gospel is a member of the Church even if they are marooned on a desert island and do not have the opportunity of being baptized, worshipping and fellowshipping at a local Church, and taking Communion. Meanwhile, those who are baptized, communicating members of local Churches, if they do not truly believe the Gospel, are not actually part of the catholic Church. Thus the catholic Church is “invisible” in that only God absolutely and accurately knows everybody who is in it, and everybody who is not.
Needless to say, the Roman Catholic Church, disagreed. It insisted that the catholic Church is as visible as the local Church. The Church began as a single local Church in Jerusalem, led by the Apostles themselves, then as the Gospel spread, Christian Churches were founded in other communities. These too were under the authority of the Apostles, who ordained bishops to lead the new local Churches in their absence. A bishop is an “administrator” or “overseer”, which is the literal meaning of the Greek word for bishop, episkopos. To ordain is to consecrate a person for a particular task and delegate to them the authority to do that task, by the laying on of hands.
Thus, the visible local Churches of the Apostolic era, were organized into a visible catholic Church, led by the Apostles with the bishops as their representatives in local communities. When the Apostles passed away, the college of bishops succeeded them as the leaders of the catholic Church.
So who was right, the Reformers or the Roman Catholic Church?
It would seem that both were right because they were talking about two different aspects of the catholic Church. The catholic Church of the New Testament is both a visible organized body under the leadership of the Apostles, and an invisible spiritual body whose membership consists of all believers. It could be argued, furthermore, that the errors of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are largely the result of confusing these two aspects of the Church, a confusion that is inevitable when you deny one of the two aspects.One Church?
There is a problem that arises, however, when we assert that catholic Church is both invisible/spiritual and visible. The identity of the invisible universal Church is fairly straightforward – it consists of all true Christians. Where do we find the visible universal Church?
It is fairly obvious, when we look around us, that Christian Churches are not all organized into one fellowship. We have Roman Catholic, Ukranian Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyerian, Reformed, Methodist, Mennonite, Pentecostal, United, Churches, etc.
Yet unity is the first mark of the Christian Church. The Nicene Creed states “I believe one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church”. The Creed’s language, here as everywhere, is Scriptural. When the Creed was drawn up during the Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea (325 AD) and Constantinople (381 AD) the Church was united in both its visible and invisible aspects. It was less than a hundred years after the Council of Constantinople that the first major division in the visible Church took place.
What happened then? Was the Creed no longer true? Where is the unity of Christ’s Church to be found?
It is here that we see that the Roman Catholic position during the Reformation is untenable because it is overly simplistic. The Roman Catholic insisted that because the Church is “one” that it, and no other, must be the “one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church”, and for evidence of its claims pointed to its institutional continuity with the Apostolic Church. It’s bishops were the duly ordained successors to the Apostles in an unbroken chain of succession, its Creeds were the Creeds of the undivided Church, and it faithfully practiced the sacraments ordained by Christ.
One major problem with the conclusion the Roman Catholics drew from this is that these things are not uniquely true of the Roman Catholic Church. They are not uniquely true of the Roman Catholic Church today and they were not uniquely true of the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago either. Each of these things could also have been said of the Oriental Churches (Syrian, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, etc) and of the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian, Serbian Orthodox, etc.) at the dawn of the Reformation. Since the Reformation, it can also be said of the Church of England and by extension the worldwide Anglican Communion, the Methodist Episcopalian Churches, and a number of Scandanavian national Churches that adopted Lutheranism in the 16th Century, such as the Church of Sweden.
None of these Churches were started by people going off and starting up their own sect from scratch. The Oriental Churches became separate from the rest of the Church when they rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, which the rest of the Church accepted. They accused the rest of the Church of Nestorianism, the rest of the Church accused them of monophysitism, and both sides went their separate ways. Each group subscribed to the Nicene Creed, practiced the sacraments, and was led by bishops in direct Apostolic succession.
Then in 1054 AD, the Latin-speaking Churches of the West and the Greek-speaking Churches of the East, quarreled over the text of the Nicene Creed. The Latin Church had a word in their version (filoque – “and the Son”) which wasn’t in the Greek version. There was also an argument over degree of authority of the bishops. The bishop of Rome was already beginning to claim that as the successor to St. Peter he had authority over all the other bishops, and the Eastern Church wasn’t buying it. So in 1054 the Greek and Latin Churches declared each other to be anathema and went their separate ways. Again, they both subscribed to the same Creeds (with the exception of the one word), practiced the same sacraments, and were led by the same bishops that had led them prior to the Schism.
In both of these instances, the Churches were the exact same Churches on either side of the divide were the exact same Churches they were before except that now they weren’t in fellowship with each other.
In the 16th Century, King Gustav I of Sweden separated the national Church of Sweden from the Roman Catholic Church in 1526. In England, Parliament separated the national Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church at the behest of King Henry VIII in the Act of Supremacy of 1534, and again in 1558 at the behest of Queen Elizabeth I (the first Act having been repealed during the reign of Mary I. (3) In both cases, the Churches were removed from fellowship with Rome intact, led by the same bishops as before, subscribing to the Ecumenical Creeds, and practicing the sacraments. This all remained true of both of those Churches when they adopted Protestant doctrine later in that century (the Church of Sweden accepted the Augsburg Confession and became Lutheran, the Church of England adopted the Protestant 39 Articles) for basic Protestant doctrine is not in conflict with the Ecumenical Creeds.
So even at the dawn of the Reformation, the things which the Roman Catholic Church pointed to in order to back up its claim to be the one true Church were not uniquely true of the Roman Catholic Church. They were also true of the Eastern and Oriental Churches, both of whose orders and sacraments the Roman Church recognizes as valid. After the Reformation, they remained true of certain Protestant Churches as well. This the Roman Catholic Church has denied, but it has no legitimate basis to do so.
So what does all this tell us about the unity of the catholic Church?
It would seem that the unity of the Church, that quality of the Church whereby we can say that it is “one”, must lie in its invisible, spiritual aspect, rather than its visible aspect. The Roman Catholic denial that the Church is invisible then, is most foolish indeed, for it comes close to being a denial of the one of the four marks of the Church in the Nicene Creed. If the Church is not invisible, united by a spiritual unity that exists in Christ, then it is no longer “one” and cannot be said to have been “one” since 451 AD. Unless, of course, we say that the Church in its visible aspect, is one in the way a tree with many branches is one. That is how the 19th Century Anglican theologian, Sir William Palmer, brilliantly explained the unity of the visible catholic Church. (4). He spoke of the catholic Church as a tree with three branches – Orthodox, Roman, and Anglican. I would be more generous (5) and include the other orthodox (6) Protestant Churches as well, but apart from that I have no quarrel with Palmer’s view.High or Low?
The above refutation of the Roman Catholic position will not satisfy some evangelical Protestants. Such evangelicals would say that by acknowledging the Ecumenical Creeds as the basic litmus test of orthodoxy, the importance of the practice of the sacraments, and the episcopacy as the legitimate successors to the Apostles, all of which I did in the course of writing that refutation, I have conceded too much to the Roman Catholics. The kind of evangelicals I have in mind tend to see “low Church” ecclesiology as going hand-in-glove with the Reformer’s insistence upon the supreme and final authority of Scripture and therefore being an essential part of Protestant evangelicalism.
Dr. Martin Luther would have disagreed. So would John Wesley. The former was a Roman Catholic monk who attacked corruption in the Church, but who wished to reform it from the inside. The latter was a High Church Anglican priest, who preached the Gospel leading to spiritual revival on both sides of the Atlantic. Dr. Luther shook the dust off of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. Wesley, after his famous conversion experience at the Moravian meeting at Aldersgate, stressed the importance of personal conversion to justifying faith in Jesus Christ. These two things – the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone and the emphasis on personal conversion – more than anything else define what we call evangelicalism today, and the two evangelical leaders most associated with these concepts had a high view of the Church.
At this point it is necessary to define some terminology. The terms “High Church” and “Low Church” referred originally to two different camps within the Church of England. The popular conception of the difference between the two is that “High Churchmen” wanted the Church of England to be more Catholic, whereas “Low Churchmen” wanted it to be more Protestant. This is not entirely accurate, as the original High Churchmen tended to be Calvinist supporters of the Elizabethan Settlement, the evangelical Wesleys were Arminian High Churchmen, and there were differences, as well as overlap, between the High Church position and that of the Oxford Movement, which started the Anglo-Catholic revival of the 19th Century. However, inaccurate as it may be, the popular conception of the High and Low Church within Anglicanism led to the broader application of these terms in which the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are said to be “High Church” and non-episcopal, evangelical, free Church Protestants are said to be “Low Church”.
For the purposes of our discussion here, a low view of the Church will be defined as a theology which understands Christianity to be first and foremost a personal faith, a matter between the individual person and God, and which understands the function of the organized Church to be primarily, if not solely, the support of the individual believer in his personal relationship with God. In a low Church ecclesiology, Apostolic authority survives in the writings of the New Testament alone, and in no way in the corporate body which is the Church.
The high view of the Church will be gradually explained as we look at why the low view is wrong.
Errors tend to arise by taking truths to extremes. That is the case with the low view of the Church. In recovering the Pauline doctrine of justification, Dr. Luther correctly taught that each of us are invited to personally put our faith directly in Jesus Christ and His finished work of salvation and to find full assurance of our acceptance with God in Him. The New Testament does not teach, however, that believers are to practice their faith in isolation from other people. Rather, the Christian faith is to be practiced in communion with other believers, as part of the community of faith that is the Church.
The low view of the Church arose in part, because many Protestants drew unnecessary and invalid connections, between the doctrine of personal justification through faith, and the individualism that had arisen in Renaissance humanism and which was already developing into what would become classical liberalism. Liberalism would teach that the individual is all-important and that corporate institutions of society, from the family to the state itself, exist only as voluntary contractual arrangements among sovereign individuals. Low Church ecclesiology could be said to be the theological expression of this false view of the relationship between individual persons and corporate social institutions.
The low view of the Church also has roots in a misunderstanding of another of Dr. Luther’s doctrines.
Here are Dr. Luther’s famous words at the Diet of Worms in 1521, when asked if he would recant his writings:Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me
The Latin phrase that is used to identify the position that Dr. Luther took here is sola Scriptura, which means “Scripture alone”. Note, however, where the word “alone” appears in this speech. It does not occur after “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures” but after “I can believe neither pope nor councils”.
What Dr. Luther was emphasizing here, was the absolute authority of the Word of God, over the Church of God. He was not rejecting the importance of tradition, or suggesting that the Church has no authority over believers, or that Church authorities have no legitimate authority. Rather he was saying that all of these authorities are subordinate to the authority of Scripture, because Scripture is the Word of God.
A better phrase to express Dr. Luther’s position, would have been “Scriptura suprema”. The reason the phrase “sola Scriptura” was to express a truth that corresponds to justification by faith. If each of us can find peace with God by personally and directly trusting Jesus Christ as our Savior it follows that all truth necessary for our salvation is contained within the words of the Scriptures. This is what “sola Scriptura” originally meant.
The Church of England stated it like this in the sixth of its Thirty-nine Articles:Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation
This is a very different concept from the idea that the corporate body of Christ, the Church, has no authority over individual believers.
It is important that we distinguish at this point between institutional authority and authoritative divine revelation. It is Christian doctrine, that God has provided a full revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ and a full written testimony to that revelation in the New Testament. When we speak of the authority of Scripture we speak primarily of its authority as revelation of Jesus Christ and the will of God – how He wants us to live and how we can find forgiveness for our sins through Jesus Christ.
The authority of the Church is different in nature. It is institutional authority. It too, however, comes from God and we know this upon the authority of the New Testament.
The fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles begins by telling us that certain men had come to the Church in Antioch from Judaea telling the Gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. Sts. Paul and Barnabus then went to Jerusalem to ask the Apostles for a ruling on the matter. A council was called, of the Apostles and the elders, and after much argument, and hearing the testimony of St. Peter then of Sts. Paul and Barnabus, St. James convinced the Council to write letters to the Gentile believers, and send emissaries telling them that they would not burden them with the Law of Moses, but just that they avoid meats offered to idols, blood, things strangled, and fornication.
A number of things are clear from this. First, the Apostolic Council relied upon revelation from the Holy Spirit to make their decision. Divine revelation, therefore, is a higher authority than the Church. Second, the Apostolic Council clearly believed they had the authority and right to make this decision. Finally, the New Testament endorses that belief.
Did that authority die with the Apostles and the completion of the New Testament canon?
The New Testament itself gives no indication that that would be the case. What does the history of the early Church tell us?
In the early centuries, the doctrine of Christ was challenged by a number of false teachers, just as Christ warned the Apostles, and just as the Apostles warned the Churches in the New Testament epistles.
What was the Church’s response?
A number of specific bishops contended against particular heresies (St. Athanasias against Arianism for example), but ultimately the Church had to call ecumenical councils, pattered after the Apostolic Council of Acts 15, in order to authoritatively settle these matters. It was in these Councils that Arianism, Docetism, Pelagianism and all sorts of other isms were declared heretical, and the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the Person of Christ were defined. The ultimate statement of Christian orthodoxy, the Nicene Creed, was the product of these Councils.
This would seem to be rather clear evidence that the Apostolic authority of the Church, survived the death of the Apostles.
Why is all of this important?
It is important, because as the low view of the Church spread throughout Protestantism, those ancient heresies have been reborn. Arianism and modalism have been revived by sects who use arguments invented by low Church Protestants in order to attack doctrines like the Trinity and the deity of Christ that orthodox evangelicals would understand as being essential to Christianity. Outright Pelagianism was revived by Charles G. Finney in the 19th Century, yet he is regarded as a hero rather than a heretic throughout evangelical circles. If the Church did not succeed to the authority of the Apostles, why should we accept the declarations of its Councils that Arianism, modalism, and Pelagianism are heresies and not sound doctrine? Because they are unscriptural? Who are you to say so? Why is your interpretation of the Bible more trustworthy than Charles Taze Russell’s?
Thus, attacking the authority of the Church in the name of “the sole authority of Scripture”, ends up undermining faith in the authority of Scripture. For if everybody’s interpretation of the Bible is valid, which must be the inevitable conclusion if the interpretation of the Bible is a personal matter between the individual believer and the Holy Spirit, then nobody’s interpretation of the Bible is valid. Here we find one of the most important reasons for the decay of faith in Biblical authority in recent centuries.
So far, in defending the high view of the Church I have expressed that view in terms of the Apostolic institutional authority of the Church as a corporate body. The authority of the Church and authority within the Church are different matters, although they are obviously connected to each other. Upholding the authority of the family would be a rather meaningless gesture if one did not also uphold parental authority within the family.
Today, the nonsensical false notion expressed by an eighteenth century liberal that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” has become widespread. This is not, however, where authority comes from, as attested to by both common sense observations and Scripture. Within the family, parents are not voted into their positions of authority by their children. Their authority within the family must come from another source.
The Scriptures also clearly teach that the authority of civil government comes from God. St. Paul’s words in Romans 13 cannot be legitimately read any other way. The doctrine of the divine right of kings is the plain teaching of the New Testament. Liberal, democratic, propaganda would have us believe that this doctrine leads to tyranny. It does not. Legitimate authority can be abused, but the idea that a ruler holds his authority by divine ordination does not logically translate into a licence for that ruler to oppress his people. If a ruler gets his authority from God, he is also accountable to God for how he uses it, something else which is clearly taught in the Scriptures.
It is actually the “bottom up” theory of authority which leads to tyranny. A ruler ordained by God is held accountable to a higher authority. A democratic government derives its authority from “the will of the people”. “The will of the people” is just a fancy way of saying “the force of numbers”. Democracy is a form of “might makes right” and it is no coincidence that as democracy has become the dominant principle of government over the last few centuries, governments have become far more intrusive into the private lives of their people than they ever were before. Democratic governments, do not flinch at sending their bureaucratic henchmen to invade the homes and businesses of ordinary people, and boss them around in every area of their lives. No king, governing by divine right, would ever have dreamed he had the authority and right to do such a thing.
If true civil authority is “top down” from God, one would certainly expect the same to be true of ecclesiastical authority, and that is precisely what the New Testament teaches. Christ, commissioned His twelve Apostles and gave them authority over His Church. As the Church grew, the Apostles ordained others to assist them in the leadership of the Church. Ordination in the New Testament consisted of the Apostles laying their hands on people to signify that they were conferring authority on these people, either for specific tasks (as is the case with the establishment of the deacons in Acts 6) or to lead specific Churches in the Apostles absence. In his pastoral epistles, St. Paul taught those he had ordained in this way, like Timothy, to do the same to leaders they would in turn train up to assist them. Ecclesiastical authority, was to be passed on from those who possessed it by direct commission from Christ, the Apostles, to others, through the laying on of hands.
It is possible to overemphasize this. Some teach that if a Church does not have bishops in a clear, unbroken line of succession, going back to the Apostles, that it is not really a Church. That is going too far. The Gospels record that at one point St. John told Jesus “Master, we saw one casting out devils in Thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us” and was told “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” In one sense, all that is necessary for the Church to be present is for two or more believers to gather in the name of Jesus, for Christ promises His presence wherever that happens.
Among Protestants today, however, even among those who consider themselves to be conservative evangelicals, we are far more likely to encounter a low view of the Church and of the ecclesiastical authority passed on by ordination than the opposite error.
(1) Auberon Waugh wrote in the October 3rd, 1975 issue of The New Statesman
: “It is a waste of time to make jokes about the women’s movement, partly because there is no way for the most febrile jester to improve on his raw material, partly because Aristophanes made all the best jokes on this subject 2,366 years ago in Ecclesiazusae
(2) This discussion began with Ferdinand Tönnies’ 1887 treatise on the subject, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft
. The terms are often translated “community” and “society”, although this is an oversimplification.
(3) It is a bit different in the case of the Methodist Church. The first Methodist bishop was Thomas Coke. Coke was ordained by John Wesley, who was a priest within the Church of England. Wesley had been ordained a bishop by Erasmus of Arcadia, a Greek Orthodox Bishop, in order to validate the orders, because the bishops of his own Church were refusing to ordain clergy for the New World at that time.
(4) Sir William Palmer A Treatise on the Church of Christ: Designed Chiefly for the Use of Students in Theology
(London: J.G.F. & J. Rivington, 1838).
(5) This word is chosen to avoid the use of the word “liberal” and not to imply sympathy with the hybrid of postmodernism and Christianity taught by Brian Mclaren.
(6) By “orthodox” I mean adhering to the doctrines of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. That means actually adhering to the doctrines. Reciting them with mental reservations like “well, His body is still in the grave, but I suppose we could say He rose again, because He is living in His disciples hearts” at the part that says “and the third day He rose again from the dead, according to the Scriptures”, does not count.