Those who profess to follow God have a long track record of struggling with power. From the entrance of sin those who have some connection with God, either by profession or historical connection, have largely not had a clear idea of where spiritual authority comes from and how they should relate to it. This blog post highlights the history of the struggle, with a particular emphasis on developments of the last 2000 years. Despite our human tendencies, God proposes self-governance, not centralized power, as His preferred solution to sin-induced chaos.
Protestant Christianity can be said to be simply a 500-year history of fights, splits, accusations, heretical teachings, and chaos. Despite countless attempts to bring some order to the chaos, the arguing continues. This battle, however, traces back to the beginnings of Christianity. Following Jesus’s ascension, the apostles warned that false teachers and false doctrines were lurking (Acts 20:29–31; 2 Cor 11:13–15; 1 Tim 4:1–3; 2 Pet 2:1; 1 John 2:26). One would think this would have been the preferred time to establish a creed or a doctrinal statement and designate those who be responsible for assuring adherence to the creed. Instead, the consistent message of the apostles was to study the revelation of the Jewish Scriptures (Acts 17:11; Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:6, 11; 2 Tim 3:15–17; 2 Pet 1:19–21). There were already false teachers in the lifetime of the New Testament writers who misused the writings of the apostles (2 Pet 3:15–16) but the centralization of power to confront the false teachers developed after the time of the apostles.
The early church faced a number of false teachings. Some of the more prominent were Gnosticism (secret knowledge was necessary for salvation), Montanism (Montanus was the Holy Spirit), Sabellianism (God is only one manifested three ways, not three), Arianism (Jesus was a created being), and Pelagianism (humanity can achieve heaven through our own power).[i] A bishop in Lyon, named Irenaeus (c.125–202 A.D.), in his efforts to counter Gnosticism, suggested that the solution to the false teachers could three-fold: (1) centralize power in the bishops as the successors of the apostles who received the oral tradition not recorded in Scripture, (2) codify church tradition in creeds, and (3) make church tradition and Scripture equal sources of authority.[ii] These ideas continued to develop and grow as the church continued to face persecution from without and false teachings from within.[iii]
The bishops called church councils to discuss the issues facing the church and to formulate creeds both to reflect their understanding of church tradition and to confront the false teachings. The central power of the church moved from the people, with multiple elders overseeing the churches, to the bishops who were deemed to be the successors of the apostles.[iv] This centralization continued to lead to greater prominence among certain bishops to the point that to this day there is an argument between the Eastern Orthodox who argue for a historical pentarchy and the Roman Catholic Church who argues for Roman primacy. The disagreement is not over whether or not there was centralization of religious authority, it is over who were the centralized authorities.
There were dark times in the Dark Age (Saeculum Obscurum A.D. 904–964) when corruption was rife in Rome and the only concern was power seeking and self-indulgence. This was followed by the schism in 1054 between east and west in which both the Eastern Patriarch and the Pope excommunicated each other. This apex of the corruption of those in power not only places a blot on the history of Christianity but also points to the dangers of centralizing power. The church had appointed to itself the authority to define doctrine for the people and then those in power did not even abide by the very teachings they imposed on the people.
The church had appointed to itself the authority to define doctrine for the people and then those in power did not even abide by the very teachings they imposed on the people.
The revolution brought about by the Protestant Reformation has at its center the issue of authority. One historian of the Protestant Reformation wrote,
The idea that lay at the heart of the sixteenth-century Reformation . . . was that the Bible is capable of being understood by all Christian believers—and that they all have the right to interpret it and to insist upon their perspectives being taken seriously. Yet this powerful affirmation of spiritual democracy ended up unleashing forces that threatened to destabilize the church, eventually leading to fissure and the formation of breakaway groups.[v]
He goes on to write, “Protestantism took its stand on the right of individuals to interpret the Bible for themselves rather than be forced to submit to ‘official’ interpretations handed down by popes or other centralized religious authorities.”[vi] The idea of the individual having the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves apart from the teaching authority (Magisterium) of the church was a revolutionary idea at the time.
As one Roman Catholic theologian looks at the Protestant Reformation he agrees with the issue regarding authority, but he makes an insightful comment about the state of Protestant churches since the Reformation.
When the Protestant churches seceded from Rome, they seceded from the teaching office, and the Roman understanding of the teaching office was not adopted in the Protestant churches. The abandonment was not total; the Protestant churches wrote confessions of faith, they reached doctrinal decisions by synods of bishops or of ministers, and they enforced doctrinal conformity at times with a rigidity equal to the rigidity of Rome.[vii]
This is unfortunately true. Despite the ideal of the Protestant Reformation, the tendency even among Protestants is to follow in the same steps that have taken place time and again throughout history. Power is centralized to prevent chaos, confront threats, and root out dissent. The assumption is always that if power is centralized, then it helps the group to remain united, focused, and in a position to successfully confront the real or perceived threat.
This issue of centralized power is so deeply rooted in Western Christianity, one Reformed historical theologian wrote the following in a frequently-cited blog post of the book Is the Reformation Over?:
Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day. It would seem, however, that if Noll and Nystrom are correct, many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church.[viii]
The tendency of human beings is to cede responsibility to someone else rather than to take personal responsibility. Protestant Christians are—in too many instances—following the same path of centralization of authority, and abdication of personal responsibility to read the Bible and connect directly with God, that has been the hallmark of human tendency throughout history. It is particularly those professed Protestants who object to Roman Catholicism that should be clear on not only disagreeing with some doctrinal issues but also examining the structural issues that are at the foundation of the tendency toward centralization and pick up their Bibles and read them. The democratic approach to the Bible that has been characterized as the dangerous idea at the heart of Protestantism does indeed have its risks—arguing, bickering, schisms—and there are significant numbers of Protestants who are taking the plunge and “crossing the Tiber”.[ix] Protestants should be clear on what makes them Protestants and live a life of personal Bible study and adherence to what the Bible says.
Decentralization of religious authority, however, has a long biblical history to build upon. The biblical record demonstrates God’s preference for decentralized religious authority. In the beginning, God gave clear instructions regarding obedience to His principles and at the same time gave freedom of choice to His creatures to submit or not. The instruction was to not eat of the tree, but the tree was prominently present in the midst of the garden (Gen 2:15–17; 3:2–3). (One would think since God was going to allow a choice, He could have used a Nudge [libertarian paternalism] strategy and made the option to do right much easier by putting the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in a more obscure, less-accessible place.) The first humans chose to disregard God’s instructions and eat the fruit. God’s response was to expel them from the garden and allow them to experience the consequences of their sin (Gen 3:16–24). The history of humanity has been the exact opposite approach to God’s, for when humans have engaged in self-destructive activity the human response has been to restrict their movement and make more rules to attempt to keep the “deviants” from deviating in the same way again.
God repeated a similar approach with ancient Israel as he had with Adam and Eve. God gave them the law at Sinai that was to govern them as they went into a Promised Land. The law, particularly the law in Deuteronomy, outlined God’s expectations of His people, and the circumstances under which they could remain in the land (Deut 30:11–20). God anticipated, however, that the people may not choose to continue in the theocratic structure He was setting up. He made provision for restrictions on a king if the people decided to imitate the nations around by setting up a monarchy (Deut 17:14–20).
Once the people entered the land, Joshua passed away and did not leave a successor (Jdg 2:7–10). The time period of the judges was characterized by a cycle of disobedience, chaos, and renewal at the hands of a judge whom God called (Jdg 2:11; 3:7; 3:12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1). The book of Judges further emphasizes this cycle, and the frustration it brought, by the phrase that appears twice, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Jdg 17:6; 21:25 ESV).
The last judge was Samuel. Samuel’s call from God involved telling his caretaker and mentor Eli that his sons were corrupt and would face God’s judgment (1 Sam 2:12–17; 3:10–18). Samuel did not learn the lesson, and his own sons turned out to be corrupt as well (1 Sam 8:1–3). The people responded to Samuel’s attempt to appoint his sons to succeed him by asking for a king (a centralized power) to bring some stability to the chaos (1 Sam 8:4–5). Samuel warned the people, on God’s behalf, that the king would centralize power, build a bureaucracy, incorporate conscription to staff a standing army, and raise taxes significantly to fund the centralized government (1 Sam 8:10–18). Despite Samuel’s warning, the people chose the monarchy (1 Sam 8:19–22). Once God chose the king, and he was coronated, the people began to regret their decision, but Samuel instructed them to follow God’s other commandments and it would go well for them (1 Sam 12:19–25).
The monarchy was as best disappointing for Israel (and later the divided monarchy). The kings who at least tried in some significant way to follow God were: David (1 Kings 3:6), Asa (1 Kings 15:11), Jehoshaphat (2 Chron 17:3), Uzziah (2 Kings 15:32), Jotham (2 Chron 27:2), Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:3), and Josiah (2 Kings 23:19, 24).[x] As a result of Israel and Judah’s unfaithfulness, God eventually took them out of the land (2 Kings 17:6, 23; 2 Chron 36:15–21). Following the return from captivity, the Jews were under the control of the foreign empires of Persia, Greece, the Ptolomies, and the Seleucids. There was a brief autonomy under the Hasmoneans for 80 years, but the Romans came and defeated Aristobulus (Mattathias) and his brother Hyrcanus, the last of the Hasmonean line.
Jesus came to establish a new kingdom based on new ideals that did not continue the earthly theocracy. The clearest description of the standards of his new kingdom with regard to authority is found in Matt 20:25–28. Jesus specifically distinguished between the standards of earthly nations and the standards of His kingdom. Jesus said that the model of the earthly nations was centralized authority that dictates to people whereas His kingdom was to be characterized by service. Jesus’s ideal was that all would follow God of their own volition and out of that commitment to God would flow service to fellow humans (John 13:34–35; 15:12, 17).
May Protestant Christians truly follow the Jesus we profess to follow and read our Bibles, serve others out of a commitment to Jesus, and consciously avoid encouraging or calling for centralized religious authorities to exercise well-intentioned but misguided efforts to get other people to “do right.” Let us place the authority in our lives and encourage those around us to make the Bible, and the Bible only, our rule of faith and practice.
BIO: Daniel Royo has served as a pastor for 15 years in Virginia and Maryland. He is married and has two sons. Daniel currently resides in Maryland.
[i] For a short summary of these various false teachings, see this page.