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An Ecclesiological Thought on Mars Hill’s Dissolving

Mars Hill LogoMany things have been changing in Seattle over the past several months with the challenges presented to Mars Hill Church. With the resignation of Pastor Mark Driscoll, it has been an important time to pay attention to what is going on ecclesiologically with their church. Since Mars Hill was such a significant model for many churches inside and outside the Acts 29 network, particularly with details about eldership and polity, any shift in this mega-ministry will have reverberations throughout evangelicalism.

Today, the leadership board of Mars Hill made the decision to dissolve the church and allow the various multi-sites to create either regional units or autonomous local congregations. You can read about this decision over at the ChristianPost.com site.

This decision is significant and historic. Having just completed my dissertation on the role of local church autonomy in the first two centuries, seeing this kind of shift, as sudden as it has happened, is poignant. As the leadership board of Mars Hill Church has made this move to dissolution and approved a plan to create autonomous churches, they are opting to reinforce a more mindful New Testament model of church that values the nature of the church in the first century. It is an important and helpful moment.

Mars Hill has been a major influencer, on the level of Saddleback, Willow Creek, Northpoint, and some others, on the contemporary ecclesial environment of evangelicalism. It can be said the Pastor Mark Driscoll has been as much an ecclesiological influence as other aspects of his theological ministry. With Mars Hill deciding to dissolve corporately and allow the remaining campuses to take on their own, independent identities, this marks one answer to a lingering question about the multi-site model in contemporary evangelicalism.

Mars Hill’s situation was unique; it was a church with 15 campuses across 5 states. It existed as an autonomous (or free) church ecclesiologically but did not accord that same autonomy to its multi-sites in these ranging locations. One question that seemed to always exist for Mars Hill, and that exists for other multi-site churches, is: what happens with the leader, or major figure, leaves the church? Mars Hill has provided a poignant answer.

For those who fall into a free church, or independent, model of NT ecclesiology, each local church is networksunderstood as an independent congregation that is to be free from external pressure and influence in all matters of governance, finances, and even theological decisions. While associations and networks are free to disfellowship local churches who fall out of accord with them, they are not permitted to have authority in that local congregation. Instead, the members of that local congregation are the ultimate decision makers for all these matters related to their, and only their, local church. (My particular concern is not to address all multi-site churches, indeed many are well within the NT model, but instead to point out that when a local church creates campuses outside of a natural region (where they could easily assemble as one body) they step into a dangerous area ecclesiologically.)

Many multi-site churches, specifically those with campuses outside of their local region, tread a fine line of violating local church autonomy for their extended campuses when they deny these aspects of local governance. These churches end up resembling more of an episcopal parish system than a congregational ecclesiology.

Of course it is also notable that many multi-site churches are personality driven and assemble many followers and members based on the senior pastor who is the primary communicator. Mars Hill was one of these kinds of churches. Their decision is, as a result, notable.

I am thankful that Mars Hill has made the theologically, and ecclesiologically, bold step of releasing their campuses to go off on their own. May we remember to pray for this larger corporate body of Mars Hill and then also for the, now, independent congregations that used to be part of this church. May we also continue to pray for the restoration of Pastor Mark Driscoll to ministry, surely he deserves this and we are better for it. This is a significant move that will, prayerfully, have an impact on how local congregations throughout Christianity better understand and apply the NT model of congregational (or free) church polity. We are stronger as we accurately reflect a proper NT model.

 

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Oct 2014
POSTED BY Garet
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Dissertation Synopsis

After about twelve months of intensely researching, writing, and editing, the readers’ draft of my dissertation went out to my committee last week. In an attempt to explain the prolonged silence here, I’ll post up the primary approach the project and then make a few points. My goal is to use much of this research and discussion to continue promoting dialogue here as well as apt fodder for scholarly articles and other works.

The dissertation’s initial title is The Quest for the Historical Church: The Development and Dismissal of Free Church Ecclesiology From Pentecost Through the Second Century.

dissertationMy goal in working on this area is to discuss, via a multi-disciplinary approach, the nature of autonomy of the earliest Christian communities in the first two centuries. As I have been working through some discussions, as well as being part of a larger professional network in my church work, there appears to be a growing gap of literature that accurately engages the realities of the church in this period and also attempts to understand the influences on its hierarchical structure and leadership composition. Since I am a thorough-going Baptist in my ecclesiology, I am keenly interested in whether the earliest churches reflected any kind of early episcopal structures or were they congregational.

My thesis surrounded several key questions: If the apostolic intention was to create one, uniform system of ecclesiology, what happened to that system in light of the rise of the Bishop of Rome? Was this the intended system of the Apostles, or is another ecclesiological form intended? How are we to understand the diversity of forms and offices within the New Testament documents? How did the heretical teachers and false prophets within early Christianity influence the development of authority in the early Church and churches? Is a monarchial episcopacy the ecclesiological form sought by the Apostles?

Ultimately, my research has led to a number of points, not the least of which is abandonment of these kinds of categories for understanding how the churches functioned in this period. One of the primary points of the dissertation was initially evaluating the landscape of New Testament ecclesiology and demonstrating how four distinct ecclesiologies emerge among the earliest Christian communities. These four are: Pauline, Lucan, Johannine, and Matthean. Now, there are likely more sub-ecclesiologies present, and perhaps even some that aren’t mentioned in the documents of the first Christians. However, by establishing this pluriformity of ecclesial forms we start off by acknowledging that there was quite a bit of diversity at the outset of the earliest Christian communities.

Along these lines, I also evaluated apostolic authority, since that is often suggested to be one of the ways that episcopal systems mimic their use of autocracy. Through this step the conclusion is that apostolic authority is rather limited and, particularly in the Pauline usage, often given deference to the freedom of the individual. Of course external influences seem to have impacted early Christianity, just as they do today, and as it relates to the concepts of autonomy and federation between churches Second Temple Judaism and Greco-Roman voluntary associations were also considered.

long bookThe final step was evaluating the documents of the Apostolic Fathers, most specific the Didache1 Clement, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, along with other works (Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, etc.), for their ecclesiological content. Then the works of the Second Century Apologists were also surveyed, though Ireneaus and Clement of Alexandria were the primary writers to be evaluated.

In the end, I think there is a quite a good case to be made for establishing autonomy, that is the independence of the local Christian communities, as the initial nature of ecclesial relationships within early Christianity. These first communities had no means of establishing external hierarchy, no examples of overwhelming compulsion to the influence of an external leader, and do not appear to make much of other communities, even those existing within the same cities. There is some federated cooperation within these communities, but they are, by and large, isolated from each other and any notion of external influence in their structure and operations.

Now that this project is initially submitted I’m dutifully working on reinforcing some argumentation with professorial critiques in mind as well as tightening up the language. There is much to say about all of this, and hopefully in the coming months I’ll be able to work out bits and pieces on this blog.

I’d love to engage with some feedback on the ideas presented, though this is mightily limited from the 302-page dissertation.

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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.

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