An excerpt from Chapter 9 in David Orton's book,
"Snakes in the Temple: Unmasking Idolatry in Today's Church"
Part 3 of 6
by David Orton
How did the Apostles function?
So, how did the apostles function, and who led the local congregation?
Christ anoints and appoints apostles, but apostles appoint elders.176 While the former were mobile ministries planting and caring for multiple congregations, functioning according to their relationships and the leading of the Spirit, the elders were the local resident shepherds of one congregation, functioning as a team of general overseers. However, the latter, while free, never operated independently of their relationship with the apostles.177
How did the Apostles relate to the Churches?
So, how did the apostles relate to the churches?
When the apostle wrote to the church in the city of Philippi he addressed them as “…the saints…together with the overseers and deacons” (Phi 1:1 NIV). First, he primarily addressed himself to the “saints”, the believers. Why? Because they are the “congregation of the Lord”178 – the ones set apart as the royal priesthood.179 As king-priests in the new covenant order, they are, themselves, a priestly governing class with direct access to God. Any mediation of a humanly derived priestly-pastor class between the congregation and Christ is antagonistic to the spirit of the gospel and true spiritual freedom. Neander, the great nineteenth century professor of theology at the University of Berlin, held that the development of the monarchical bishop (senior pastor) “…was unfavourable to the life of the church; and…promoted the formation of a priesthood foreign to the essence of that development of the kingdom of God which the New Testament sets forth….” He believed that it stood, “…intimately connected with … the formation of a sacerdotal (priestly) caste in the Christian church” (parenthesis mine).180 From where God sits his congregation is free – they have not received a spirit of bondage but the spirit of adoption - they have become his children.181 Any clergy-laity distinction that elevates a priestly class, or an office, whether it is called bishop or senior pastor, over Christ’s immediate rulership of his people is of the spirit of anti-Christ. This is not to say that authority should not operate in the house of God. The question is, what kind of authority?
Second, Paul addressed himself not only to the saints, but also to the overseers or elders and deacons. Nowhere in the New Testament record does an apostle address himself to the bishop or senior pastor. And this is for one very simple reason – there were none! There is no evidence in the New Testament of one person presiding over the elders of a church, let alone the congregation.182
Diotrophes – the first Senior Pastor!
In fact, the only possible allusion to a senior pastor is a negative one. The apostle John is confronted with a situation where a leader by the name of Diotrophes has not only obtained these rights but rejects John as an apostle - as a man of the Spirit.183 Von Campenhausen comments:
“The man of the Spirit, subject to no organisation and to no local authoritative body, clashes with the leader of the organised single congregation, who, it would seem, is already claiming monarchical rights for himself. He may therefore be described with confidence as a bishop, and as one that is fighting, just as Ignatius has required, for the solidarity of his congregation around himself. …Here then we come across an example of the exercise of that particular kind of episcopal authority which was to be of decisive importance in the wider development of spiritual office..”184
In Diotrophes we have not only the first recorded emergence of one leader over the others, but also a rejection of the trans-local ministry of apostles and prophets in favour of a single senior local leader - the senior minister. Both are roundly condemned. Here we have the historic seeds of a very contemporary situation - the model of a senior minister presiding over the elders and operating independently of the ascension gift-ministries of apostles, prophets, and teachers.
In Diotrophes’ case it was far more than a structural problem - it was a spiritual problem - an issue of the heart - of inner motivation.
The spirit of Diotrophes
Diotrophes “loved to be first among them”. He was motivated by an inner need to be at the centre and in control. Every leader is tested on this in their own heart – in the their need for recognition and significance. As far as we know, apart from personal ambition, there was no other issue. He loved to have the first place. This is the same Greek word Paul used speaking of Christ’s place as head of the church: “He is … head of the body, the church…so that he himself might come to have first place in everything” (Col 1:18 NASB, emphasis mine). His unresolved need for recognition caused him to unconsciously usurp the place of Christ in the life and affections of the congregation. How many times has this happened over two millennia of Christian history? In fact, our inherited structures and values have only served to institutionalise and legitimise the spirit of Diotrophes.
Does Christ really have the first place in the leadership of the church? In sentiment, yes. But, in reality, no - man does. We have usurped Christ’s position as head of the church. Is it any wonder the body of Christ is crippled? Human control, exercised in the spirit of Diotrophes, has severed us from the central nervous system of the Spirit. The history of the Christian church is characterised by leaders who resort to less than worthy means to obtain a less than kingdom object – their own advancement. This is not to say that every leader that has occupied church office is of the spirit of Diotrophes. Quiet the opposite, multitudes of worthy men and women of God have served the Lord through traditional church positions. But, whenever, positions of official power exist, the falleness of human nature, to whatever degree, will find it difficult to resist. Where there is a lack of anointing to fill the office, seduction and manipulation operate, to both obtain and maintain a position. Spiritual gifting is self-evident and will make a way in the hearts of God’s people. But, where a leader without the anointing aspires to an office, self-promotion and manipulation are inevitable. And if the more subtle arts of flattery and innuendo do not work the spirit of Diotrophes will resort to slander and the use of naked power. Diotrophes used “wicked words” (3 Jn 10 NASB), “maliciously accusing” (Goodspeed) John. Feeling that his position was threatened he maligned John’s character (whether openly or covertly we don’t know), seeking to undermine his credibility in the eyes of the congregation. When this didn’t work he resorted to raw power: “…he refused to welcome the brothers…” and “…stopped those who wanted to do so and put them out of the church” (v. 10 b). He refused to receive the apostolic team sent from John, and exerted his senior ministerial power in putting those out of the church who wished to do so. The central nervous system of Christ’s body, the men of the Spirit - apostles, prophets, and teachers - was severed. With the rise of one leader over the others, not only was the congregation cut off from free association with the apostles, it was also cut off from the head of the body, Christ himself.
Paul’s Prophetic Warning
Calling the elders (remember, the office of senior pastor didn’t exist) of the church in Ephesus together for a conference Paul prophetically warned them: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!…” ( Acts 20:29-31 NIV). Jesus also warned about pseudo-prophets who would arise, looking like sheep and smelling like sheep, but inwardly be ravenous wolves.185 They would be predatory - hungry and looking to satisfy themselves. However, these “wolves in sheep’s clothing” are not wild-eyed off-the-map cult leaders. Jesus said they look like sheep - they look harmless. They wear business suits, speak in tongues, and preach on Sundays. In fact, Paul said they would arise from among themselves – from among the preachers and the elders!
How would they be recognised? Firstly, by their inner wolf-nature - their ravenous self-life would feed on the flock for their own survival. Second, they would ‘arise’ from the team of elders. They will raise themselves above their peers seeking pre-eminence. Third, they would “draw away disciples after themselves”. Just as Ignatius advocated, the bishop or senior pastor becomes central to the unity of the congregation,186 developing a cult of personal-loyalty. Lastly, they would “distort the truth” to develop their personal following. This is not necessarily false doctrine. Their preaching and teaching may be doctrinally sound - remember they look and sound like “sheep”. But they twist and distort the truth in their personal dealings to gain the first place over other leaders and the congregation.
By the turn of the first century Paul’s prophecy was fulfilled. The plurality of elders was overtaken by the singularity of one senior minister – the office of bishop. And, through the advocacy of men such as Ignatius and Cyprian what can only be described as an aberration was mainstreamed into the life of the church.
…to be continued …
176 Acts 14:23; Tit 1:5
177 See Watchman Nee, The Church and the Work, Vol 1,2,3, for a biblical and practical explanation of the apostle and his relationship with the churches; also Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, p 159 ff
178 The old covenant church, in assembly, is designated, “the congregation of the Lord” (see Deut 23:2ff), or in Hebrew the qahal; which is rendered about 100 times in the LXX (Septuagint) by the Greek word ecclesia, from which we derive our English word ‘church’. The qahal refers to the whole congregation assembled either for war, worship, or government.
179 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 1:6
180 Neander, Church History, Vol 1, P268-269
181 Rom 8:15
182 Some view James, in Jerusalem, as a senior pastor. However, the question needs to be asked whether the Jerusalem church or the Antioch church is the normative model of the Gentile church. In any case, there is no explicit internal evidence that shows James occupying the position of senior pastor (bishop). As the Lord’s brother, a witness of the resurrection, and as an apostle of the parent Jerusalem church he understandably carried significant weight. He was recognised by Paul, along with Peter and John as a “pillar” of the church (Gal 2:9).
183 3 John 9
184 Von Campenhausen, p 122-123
185 Mt 7:15
186 Von Campenhausen p 101
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Copyright © David Orton 2007