A Few Notes on Charismatic Authority in the Early Church

One of the rising issues in scholarship concerning the character and trajectory of authority in the earliest Christian communities that is central to understanding the relationships between the ecclesial structures of these communities (i.e. churches) comes out of the work of Rudolph Sohm and Max Weber concerning charisma.

WeberBefore getting too far into this, we need to make an important distinction that this charismatic authority isn’t the same thing as what happens in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches today. Though there is some relation, there are quite a gulf in understanding.

Sohm, a Protestant German lawyer in the late 1800s, championed the notion in his two-volume Kirchenrecht that the earliest Christian communities centralized authority through the exercise of the charismatic office. For Sohm, the earliest communities operated in a kind of theocratic autonomy based around the charismatic exercise of the Holy Spirit’s influence and the churches grew tremendously. It was not until the integration of a legalist framework, or the law, that began structuring early churches that they began stepping away from the original intent of Spirit-led (not in the contemporary sense) leadership and into a more structured offices which led towards confinement in the earliest churches. When this happened, following the Apostolic era, the churches began moving away from their free nature and into ecclesiastical confinement around structured authority. The bureaucracy that arose was in contradiction to the original intent and approach of the Apostles. (I’ll be dealing with this issue heavily in my dissertation…so look for it…later in 2014.)

Max Weber is, perhaps, one of the most significant sociological figures in the early part of the 20th century. Weber built his concept of charismatic authority largely from Sohm, though with notable differences and other influences. Weber approached charismatic authority in early cultic communities by noting that some kind of supernatural or exceptional quality in an individual would build a group of followers in which that person would carry that message, cultic activity, out and eventually lead to institutionalization. (Yes, there is far more to be said here.)

It seems that in making these points, both Sohm and Weber, have rightly noted that in early communities (we can say cultic and Christian here) charismatic authority is the basis for much of their activities and practices. Since these communities lack the sophistication of hierarchal administration they default to using charisma as their primary collectivizing agent. For Christian communities in the immediate Apostolic era, the Spirit led authorization of leadership was a primary device they noted for how they proceeded to raise up and empower leadership. Since authority was seen to be first invested in Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20) and then transferred to the Apostles, it continues to be available to the followers of Jesus by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This means that the Spirit leads in many decisions about the nature and structure of the leadership in the earliest communities…including their relationship between themselves.

Now that we have documents such as the Didache available, which were not in widespread circulation during Sohm’s life, this does seem to reinforce the idea that towards the end of the Apostolic era (depending on your dating of the Didache) the false teachings of destructive prophets and self-appointed apostles necessitated more strict adherence to local community codes and offices. 

As the official office of Apostle ends (I’ll make this case soon) at the end of the first century, the routinization of clerical offices and liturgical observance in the earliest churches begins to shift towards both confinement of authority (for purification) and standardization of practices. As Clement of Rome and Ignatius present in their epistles at the turn of the second century, though autonomy continues (my postulation) between communities, standardization in office follows the form of the late Pauline ecclesiology reflected in the Pastoral epistles over the Jewish-Hellenist movement in the Petrine literature.

This means charismatic authority as a default modus operandi of the earliest communities (which were almost entirely based in house-church models) begins to shift towards ecclesial consolidation.

At the turn of the second century there is a movement away from charismatic authority and towards structured institutionalization. This changed the nature of the ecclesiological foundations for the earliest churches until the early part of the third century.

Of course, the larger challenge in the discussion of how charismatic authority in the earliest Christian communities develops centers around a few points:

– Were the Apostles charismatic agents or empowered followers of the agent, Jesus Christ?apostolic council

– If the intent of the original founders of the Church, developed since Pentecost, was to provide an autonomous confederation of communities, how did the exercise of authority (for instance the Jerusalem Council of Galatians 1-2) play out across the Mediterranean region?

– In terms of NT ecclesiology, (I do buy into pluriformity) why is there little to no references to hierarchal authority in the historical or epistolary literature of the NT?

– If charismatic authority in local communities was the initial basis for the administration of the ordinances, proclamation of the Gospel, and exercising of discipline, what caused the eventual confinement to a structured episcopal system?

– Finally, if the Apostolic era, as relayed in the NT literature, provides a picture, primarily, of autonomous churches being planted by an apostolic missionary force and then left to grow, how does this influence our current models of church planting, growth, and polity?

Of course these questions are serious and could, themselves, provide the basis for much research. Ultimately, my course is simply evaluating the autonomous nature of these confederated communities. A unique, and lengthy, task.