Over at Nick's Catholic Blog, Nick and I have gotten on a rabbit trail from a post he did about imputation of righteousness. The particular trail started when he commented about the possibility of the re-unification of the church, and I responded with the idea that while I'm all for believers to work, play, and worship in unity of spirit and behavior, I'm not so sure that institutional unity is even desirable. We then segued into the question of apostolic succession and the authority of the church, which obviously Nick sees as important, and I(equally obviously?) see as dangerous.
I'm picking up the thread here so as not to run too far afield for Nick, and also because my last response turned out to be longer than his comment settings will allow. I hope you will read the discussion comments linked above, before trying to pick up here.
Anyway, this post is in response to the questions in these comments of Nick's:
Nick:...the danger of not having hierarchy (a thing very clearly indicated in the NT, and OT) is that of having the masses determine doctrine, whether individually or by majority. This makes truth a matter of popularity contest, or worse yet having the "teacher" be subject to the "students." Either he is a bishop with authority or he can be overturned by those he is guiding. It's a slippery slope because then "authority" loses it's meaning.
Nick, this is a great discussion. Thanks for engaging!
I see your concern with the masses determining doctrine. My counter would only be that the bishop is still a sinner before God under the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ, and no ordination changes that. So he's just as susceptible to error as any other believer--no less, but also no more--and therefore the risk of him going astray is equivalent to that of the flock under his oversight...and perhaps more so if he's not accountable to them. It's a balancing act, to be sure, but in the final analysis it comes to a definition issue: If I correctly understand you (and correct me if I am wrong), you are saying that by virtue of being ordained into the episcopate of the true church, the bishop is protected from making that error, unlike the laiety. I contend, to the contrary, that just like the laiety, he is susceptible to all the same temptations and error as the rest of us, perhaps compounded by the illusion of supremacy conveyed to him by his position. Those two definitions are fundamentally at odds, and we can only agree (if I am correct) that this is a point where we disagree. You fear authority "losing its meaning," I fear the exercise of authority that ought not to exist.
Nick: One of interesting passage in this regard is 2 Tim 4:3, where Paul warns against those with "itching ears" who will elect teachers who will say what they want to hear. Also, I'm not sure how your system would mesh with a clear example like Acts 15 and 16:4.
2 Tim. 4:3 is true by empirical observation as well as biblical authority...we don't have to look far to see people tailoring "truth" to their convenience or pleasure. I find it compelling that the defense Paul offers is in verse 2--which you might interpret as exhorting Timothy to exercise his authority (am I correct?), but I see as Paul warning Timothy to stay grounded in the truth of "the word." In other words, I see "sola scriptura" as the one thing that is offered to Timothy as an anchor against the tides of opinion. Bringing my own assumptions to the text? Perhaps, but I think it's consistent with Pauline teaching.
Acts 15 is important, and you are right to bring it up. Clearly when there was a dispute among different believers, they appealed to the apostles and elders. This is right and good and biblical. It is interesting that in verse 22, we see that it was not only the apostles and elders, but also "the whole church" that is related to have decided what to do, apparently in Spirit-led consensus. It is also possible that an authority-based answer was necessary due to the authority-based problem being addressed (the demand that Gentiles follow Jewish law). While a good model, it does not necessarily follow that this account justifies a complete ecclesiastical system. However, if I ever saw an ecclesiastical system that met in open session and (apparently) solicited the input of "the whole church" I might also be more positively inclined toward it. There's a vast chasm between consensus and fiat!
Nick: To me, if the Church is the Body of Christ, with Him as it's head, the Church is indefectible and guarded against a tainted Gospel by definition (1 Tim 3:15; Mat 16:19).
I confess I don't see what 1 Tim 3:15 brings to bear on the discussion, so I can't respond to that one. As to Matt. 16:19, you know well that Protestants and Catholics interpret that passage radically differently--you see it as establishing the apostolic succession of Peter, we see the "rock" as being the confession of Jesus as the Anointed of God..."for no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11).
I can only say that I really don't want to start listing examples because I DON'T want to get into Catholic-bashing, but surely you acknowledge that your church (along, I insist, with all the others) has in fact committed serious errors in the 2000 years since Jesus? Isn't that a historical, empirical fact? How do you reconcile that with an indefectible church with Christ as its head? It's easy for me, holding that the church whose head is Christ is not the human institution, but rather all everywhere who call on his name and seek to follow him in all their brokenness. But if you are looking for the standard of an unsullied theology and an authoritative institution that holds it, how do you reconcile this with the bloody, sinful history of the institution?
And to your last question, I don't trust someone who waffles on the basic truth of Jesus Christ. But I, somewhat opposite of you I guess, run screaming from any group that DOES claim to have the whole truth without error. I consider that claim to be proof positive of corruption...whether the authority is the papacy or the fiat of the individual, self-righteous independent Baptist minister doesn't matter to me, either one is wrong when they refuse accountability to honest confrontation from scripture. This, again, is probably a point on which we'll agree we disagree.
But I will reiterate in closing, that this does not in any way cause me to write off those who've chosen to put themselves in that church. As I've said before, I've found Jesus' followers in all kinds of places I expected far less, than just in a church with which I don't agree. And I know the Lord seeks such to follow him!