From the recently published book Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition  to the Protestant call for a return to the Organic Church , a movement is afoot in the post-modern Church to deconstruct Church Orders in the name of a radical egalitarianism. The progenitors of this radical egalitarianism suggest that this somewhat leaderless (or Order-less) model of being the Church is more Biblical than any other form of Orders and polity heretofore expressed since the beginning of the first century grass-roots movement of the Church.
This brief essay will bring some balance to this discussion, by showing that all forms of Order and polity are primarily culturally derived, by explicating the schema of this movement for Order-less Christianity, and, finally, by showing that, at a minimum, the hierarchical nature of the Church is clearly set forth throughout Scripture and the use of the episcopalian form is still viable in the post-modern age.
Orders And Polity As Culturally Driven
When it comes to how a given Church body should formulate its understanding of Orders (and hence the church’s polity), there is no lack of opinion. However, over the history of the Church there has only been three basic structures of polity which have emerged. They are commonly referred to as Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Congregational.
Irrespective of where one hangs their hat from these three branches, it has been long been understood that no one form of Orders (and thus church polity) can lay claim to be solely based on the Scriptures. Citing H. Richard Niebuhr’s seminal work The Social Sources of Denominationalism, Edward Long says, the Orders and polity of “a great many of [denominations] were created by cultural and political influences rather than explicitly theological considerations.”
Thus, it should not be surprising that the rise of the Orders and polity of the oldest churches would have derived from the monarchical systems of government in their time (episcopal), the churches of the Reformation from the emerging representative systems of governments in the Enlightenment-era West (presbyterian), and the radical reformation forms which emerged from liberal democracies of the revolutionary era (congregational).
If these forms of Order and polity were derived primarily from their social milieu, then we would do well not to attempt to over-spiritualize any new forms emerging from the era of Postmodernity (radical egalitarianism).
The Movement To Order-less Christianity
The primary tactic of the radical egalitarians to deconstruct Orders has been an appeal to the Scriptures.
For many years Protestants have been calling for an Order-less Church polity, saying that to do so represents the heart of the Scripture’s call for a priesthood of all believers. This has culminated in the Emergent and Missional models of the church, which seem to emphasize ministry over ordered worship. A decentralized church is thought to be more nimble, and is more able to emulate the first century model that globally moved out from house to house as a Spirit-driven movement. Neil Cole, in calling for a new decentralized (Order-less) church, says, “The New Covenant, established by Jesus’ own blood spilled as a sacrifice, was to release a decentralized nation of priests who would multiply and fill the earth with His presence. Why then do we work so hard to reestablish the old ways with centralized buildings, priests, and constant offerings to appease the system?”
Frank Viola and George Barna echo this sentiment when they say, “The contemporary pastor is the most unquestioned fixture in twenty-first century Christianity. Yet not a strand of Scripture supports the existence of this office.”
This clarion call from Protestants has a long history, but many Catholic scholars and commentators are joining the chorus. Though calling for a slower shift to a new understanding of Orders, the well-known Franciscan scholar Kenan B. Osborne has declared the episcopalian form of Order as without scriptural merit. He says, “Nowhere in the New Testament are the Twelve called bishops or priests….”, and again, “Nowhere in the New Testament is there any indication of an ordination of the apostles to the episcopacy or to the priesthood.” Osborne, in preparing his readers for a radically egalitarian approach to a new (and multi-culturally sensitive) order, says “[O]ne will not find in the New Testament a bishop or a priest whose position and functions are identical to the position and functions of today’s bishops and priests.”
Again, it is not my intention to dispute the findings of the above authors, but to repeat and highlight that the call for the reformulation of Orders in the post-modern age may be as culturally driven as the previous forms of Orders and church polity were in the past.
Why Retain The Episcopalian Form Of Orders & Polity?
First, though it may be true that Scripture does not specifically prescribe Orders and polity, it may also be scripturally inferred that there is a supracultural principle found throughout the Bible which speaks of the hierarchical (and paradoxically egalitarian) nature of God and, hence, the hierarchical framework for organizing the worship and ministry of the people of God. Clearly, Jesus is the “Head” of the Church, the Body of Christ, and that Christ has given us earthly leaders as gifts, “… as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ….” St. Paul also spoke of a hierarchy of heavenly beings.” Hence, it may be natural for humans (made in God’s image), across cultures, to organize hierarchically.
Second, the episcopalian form is the oldest model and created by those closest in time to Jesus. I prefer Kenan Osborne’s second approach to the historical development of the episcopacy when he states we should see that “the church … is a post-Easter event, and as such, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the early community began to shape the details of structure and ministry.”
Third, there is still wide acceptance of the episcopal form today, with some variety, as practiced by the majority of Christians in the world. The World Council of Churches has even asked, for the sake of the unity of the church, for the episcopal form to be adopted by all the various sects and denominations. “Although there is no single New Testament pattern, although the Spirit has at many times led the Church to adapt its ministries to contextual needs, and although other forms of the ordained ministry have been blessed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, nevertheless the threefold ministry of bishop, presbyter, and deacon may serve today as an expression of the unity we seek and also for a means of achieving it.”
Finally, the egalitarian movement which nobly seeks to include culturally relevant modes of Orders, and which seeks further inclusion and empowerment of women, people of minority races and ethnicities, and those of different sexual orientations, would not be inherently hindered by the continuing use of the episcopalian form of Orders (ref., the Episcopalian Church USA ordinations of female and gay bishops). What needs to change for a radical egalitarianism to come to fruition is the transformation of sinful attitudes of millions of sinful people (and here I am talking about professed believers) towards people culturally, ethnically, racially, or sexually different than themselves. I would ask us to consider why we continue to assume that simply changing structures or forms will result in radical attitudinal and cultural change, and, instead, focus on changing the hearts and minds of all humanity to respect our differences by fully embracing the radical love of Christ Jesus.
(c) Paul Dordal, 2013