FIVE BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT
(That You Have Never Ever In Your Entire Life Heard Preached From A Pulpit)
by Gerald R. Thompson
Diffusion of Authority, Priesthoods & Clergy
First: Introduction; Caution
More: Spiritual Authority and the Right to Rule
Also: Church as Institution, Association & Corporation
And: The Visible Church in Real Life
Last: The Office of Pastor & Religious Corruption
THE DIFFUSION PRINCIPLE OF AUTHORITY
God hates concentrations of power. All the authority delegated by Him to mankind is spread out so that ultimately, no one is in charge of everyone else. And this is no less true in the Church than it is in the rest of society.
The Diffusion Principle of authority is that all God-given authority is diffuse, not concentrated – in other words, spread out among a lot of people – and no one is ultimately in charge of everyone else. This principle has three main sub-points: 1) God delegates authority via His covenants with people (that’s how people get authority in the first place); 2) God hasn’t given any person (or subset of people) more authority than everyone else; and 3) the diffusion of powers is the rule (i.e., there are no exceptions).
I first developed this analysis in Legal Foundations: The Framework of Law, ch. 7 (“Legal Institutions”). There, I was concerned with the really big picture – the distribution of authority among the various divine covenants, and especially between the four basic social institutions, i.e., individuals, families, the Church and nations. The idea was that God never concentrated authority or power in any one of these basic social institutions, but made them co-equal with each other and gave them non-overlapping authorities so they would not interfere with each other, and none of them could claim supremacy over the others.
Thus, for starters, God never concentrated power or authority in either the Church or civil rulers when compared with individuals and families. The two most common governmental errors, historically, have been to allow too much power to be exercised by either civil rulers or religious authorities to the detriment of individuals and families. By God’s design, true liberty is achieved only when the rightful authority of individuals and families is respected and secured by civil rulers and religious institutions.
But the Diffusion Principle does not merely apply between social institutions, it also applies within each social institution separately.
So while individual self-government is co-equal with national authority under God, all self-governments (that is, all individuals) are also co-equal with each other. God gave each individual person co-equal authority and no person has any legitimate claim to an inherent right to rule over other individuals. Commonly, we would say that all men are created equal. See also John Locke’s First Treatise on Government (1680), where he argues for the proposition that all men are born free. By this he meant all people are equally free from being ruled by others, and supported his analysis with an examination of the book of Genesis.
To this end, consider Gen. 1:28, also known as the Dominion Mandate. There, God gave mankind authority over the earth, all the fish, all the birds, and all the animals (literally, every thing that moves on the earth, with emphasis on thing). In the lexicon of the Bible, a man is not a thing, but a being (Gen. 2:7), since people are made in the image of God, but animals are not. So when we look at the Dominion Mandate, no dominion (or the right to rule) over other men (or beings) is granted. The conclusion is that no human has the inherent right to rule over another human, because such an authority would require an express grant from God, and He gave none.
Similarly, all families have co-equal authority compared to each other, and no one can rightfully claim familial supremacy over anyone else’s family. Biblically, there is no centralized clearinghouse for getting permission to marry, to have children, or to take dominion. There is no overriding patriarchy or matriarchy built into society. Thus, when two people get married they leave the authority of their parents and start a new family that has all the same inherent authority as any other family. Gen. 2:24. All families are equal, and have equal authority.
I won’t summarize the analysis here, but again Locke’s First Treatise on Government (1680) is a useful resource on this question. The purpose of Locke’s First Treatise was to argue against Robert Filmer’s book Patriarcha, which to the modern mind was a defense of the divine right of kings, a position which Locke completely destroyed. Yet, Filmer didn’t argue that the English king had special divine authority merely because he was specially chosen by God, as most people today assume. Rather, as suggested by the title, Patriarcha was essentially an argument that the king had this right as the heir of Adam (the first man) by the right of patriarchy.
Filmer argued the English king was the patriarch (or the head of the family) of the entire nation of England and stood in the same place as Adam would occupy if he were still alive. As if Adam would continue to possess familial authority over all other families of the earth, merely because his was first. So Locke’s analysis was largely a deconstruction of patriarchy as a model for the transmission of authority down through the generations. Which, for our purposes, reduces to this: no man has any patriarchal authority beyond his own immediate family. Thus we must regard all families (irrespective of time, person or place) as co-equal in authority with each other.
Similarly as to nations and their governments. When God created the nations post-Tower of Babel, He did not put them in any kind of hierarchy. No nation had any more (or any different kind of) authority than any other nation. No nation had the right to rule over any other nation. There is no right of conquest, per se, and no right of nation-building in the laws of nature and nature’s God. No nation has the right to dominate any other nation either by outside force or internal struggle. As the scripture teaches, God made each of the nations on the earth, and He alone determines where each nation should dwell and how long they should live there. Acts 17:26.
Consider the opening clause of the Declaration of Independence (1776): “When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them …” What is that statement, if not a claim that this new nation being formed will, at its creation, stand on an equal footing with the most powerful nation on earth at the time (Great Britain)? And, that this is an inherent right conferred on all nations by the laws of nature and nature’s God.
Therefore, small nations are co-equal in authority with large nations, new nations are co-equal in authority with old nations, and all ethnic lines and nationalities are co-equal in authority as well.
Now let’s consider how the Diffusion Principle applies to the Church. And the very first question you should ask yourself is whether God would, could or should have dealt with the Church any differently than He has dealt with the other social institutions He has created in terms of the distribution of authority. Is God going to change His whole modus operandi of dealing with people, just because the Church is involved?
We already know: 1) God delegates authority via His covenants with people; 2) God hasn’t given anyone an unequal authority; and 3) there are no exceptions. So as to the first point, which divine covenant applies with respect to the Church? The new covenant in Christ – the best expression of which is in the Great Commission:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Mat. 28:18-20.
This is the clearest statement in the New Testament of a delegation of authority from God to man. Jesus said, in essence, “I have all the authority there is in the world, and here’s the specific authority I want you to carry out on behalf of the Church.” So yes, the Church conforms to the first point as much as any other social institution.
Who Has Church Authority?
As to the second point, we need to ask whether the authority granted by way of the Great Commission has been vested only in one person, vested only in a specific group of people, or distributed in any manner which is unequal. Who was the Great Commission applicable to?
It is apparent the new covenant in Christ was not given only to one person, because there were eleven people who first heard it, and they all stood in equal position and authority with respect to each other when it was given. Further, if the covenant was limited only to those who first heard it, that would result in a very short-lived Church, i.e., the Church would have died when the last of the eleven disciples died.
On the other hand, the covenant cannot be considered to be applicable solely to the physical descendants of any of the initial eleven apostles. The very fact the covenant is spiritual in nature demands that it cannot be made applicable to anyone by reason of biology, i.e., physical descendancy. Participation in the Church covenant is obtained only by spiritual means, that is, faith. Do I really have to prove in detail that Church authority (i.e., the Great Commission) is not transmitted to people by means of a physical birth? Rather, Church authority is transmitted to people via a second or spiritual birth. So who the physical descendants of the original disciples were is irrelevant.
Is there any way the new covenant in Christ can be taken as limited to the initial apostles/disciples and their specific designees (i.e., people they chose)? No, because a divine covenant is not an agreement between men that can be assigned to a new party like a business contract. Every person entering into the covenant must come to God directly, not through an assignment, a delegation, or by referral of an existing member, as the means of gaining participation in it. Quite simply, none of the eleven disciples could give their authority away to anyone else. All that was in their power was to invite other people to join in participation – but they did not have the authority to decide who those future believers would be.
When we consider the nature of the new covenant in Christ as a divine covenant, it is evident that it is different from other divine covenants. All of the other divine covenants – Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic – run to the natural/physical/biological descendants of the initial recipients. But don’t make the mistake of assuming (as some Christians have through the years) that participation in the Church covenant is something that can be passed from one person to another as an inheritance or via family lines. Your parents can’t get you into the kingdom of heaven.
Each person is responsible for his own sin and his own salvation. This is a principle far more ancient than the Great Commission. “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Ezek 18:20, written 600 years before the Great Commission.
Similarly, the appropriation of God’s grace and the redemption He provides is profoundly individual. “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:43. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Rom. 1:16. Neither physical birth nor infant baptism will get you there.
Therefore, each person is accountable for his or her own sins on an individual basis, and each person can only obtain God’s grace and redemption on an individual basis. Unless the authority granted by the Great Commission is also delegated to people solely on an individual basis, nothing makes sense. The nature of the problem (sin) is individual, the nature of the remedy (redemption) is individual, and the nature of the means of obtaining that remedy (covenant authority) is individual. These all have to line up, or the salvation process won’t work. The Church covenant only applies to individuals based on faith – individual faith.
Consequently, if you become a Christian as an individual, then you receive the authority of the Great Commission as an individual – without exception. Thus, in every way is the Diffusion Principle proved to be the operative principle with regard to Church authority. If you are a member of the invisible Church, you have no more Church authority than any other believer, and no other believer has any more authority than you. Personally, I find that terribly liberating.
Who Is in Charge of the Church?
Additionally, the scripture indicates very clearly that Jesus Christ is the head of His body, the Church. “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” Eph. 1:22. “… Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” Eph. 5:23. “And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Col. 1:18. See also, Col. 2:19.
But Jesus is not here on earth at present. He is the Head of the Church in heaven, but on the earth He is absent. So although the universal or heavenly Church is one body spiritually under the headship of Christ (hereinafter I will refer to this as the invisible Church), the headship of Christ is limited to the spiritual or heavenly realm.
Which means the Church is decentralized in its temporal or earthly government (which I will refer to as the visible church). That’s because no one speaks for Christ or is authorized to act in His name, place and stead to govern either the invisible Church or visible church while Jesus is in heaven. Each local body or group of believers is separate and self-governing as each sees fit. I will explore this distinction between the visible and invisible Church in more detail under the 4th Principle below.
No person or group of people is the head of the Church, because Christ alone is the Head. Thus, all churches report to Christ, and none report to each other by divine command. Which is the same as saying that all churches are co-equal, and no church has the right to rule over or dominate other churches. And in reality, how could it be otherwise? The head of the Church is absent from the earth. For the time being, His rule is limited to heaven. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jn. 18:36. This is a pretty strong argument for the lack of a divine ruling authority within the visible church.
On the plus side, each group, body, assembly, association or church is free to exercise that self-government which God both allows and encourages. Each local church is also secure in the knowledge that they are truly not accountable to any other group, etc. for how they do that. On the negative side, some groups choose to govern themselves in absolutely horrible ways. One of the major outgrowths of decentralization is the fracturing of the visible church into denominations, essentially destroying any unity in Christ which may exist in the spiritual realm.
Nonetheless, this negative impact does not operate to change reality. God has not placed anyone on earth in charge of His worldwide Church either to prevent the formation of denominations or to prevent abusive group regulation. And until Jesus returns to take charge of the Church on earth, that’s the way things will stay.
No one in the Church is a priest over anyone else. All believers in Christ have equal access to God compared to each other. Further, there is no clergy-laity distinction in the Church since there is no division in the body of Christ.
At this point, I have established a baseline principle that all believers have an equal authority derived from the Great Commission to carry out the mission of the Church. Now the question is whether there is a special class of spiritual persons (specifically, a priesthood) in the Church that would give them an unequal authority.
If you start with the assumption that there is only one true God, which is the God revealed in the Bible, then certain things follow of logical necessity. Of necessity, all other gods are false. Of necessity, the only valid priesthoods are the ones established by the one true God, and all other priests and priesthoods are false. And if the one true God should restrict the only human priesthood He has authorized to a particular ethnic nation, then by definition there are no, and there cannot be any, other human priesthoods which can later arise legitimately outside of that ethnic nation.
What I have just described is exactly the situation which the scripture indicates the world is now in. Let’s set aside consideration of the priesthood of Melchizedek for a moment (which I will come back to). God only ever authorized one human priesthood, namely, the Levitical priesthood of the ethnic Jews under the Mosaic covenant. Further, God has not established any other human priesthood since. Therefore, of logical necessity, all claims by people to be priests of God apart from the Jews (i.e., ethnic Israel) are false and invalid, without exception.
If you are skeptical of this claim, I ask you to look at the biblical evidence. How did God establish the Levitical priesthood, and to whom did it apply? For that we have to go back to the establishment of the Mosaic covenant.
“Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests.” Ex 28:1.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel. And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood. But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” Num 3:5-10.
“And you and your sons with you shall guard your priesthood for all that concerns the altar and that is within the veil; and you shall serve. I give your priesthood as a gift, and any outsider who comes near shall be put to death.” Num 18:7.
So, the Levitical priests (or Aaronic priests, who were part of the tribe of Levi), were made priests according to the Mosaic covenant, which was in reality a covenant between God and the nation of Israel. And when I say the nation of Israel, I mean the sons of Israel (as an ethnic group), in their corporate capacity. In other words, people came under the Mosaic covenant exclusively as a matter of biological descent, not as a matter of individual choice (i.e., faith). You are either born an ethnic Jew, or you are not – it isn’t something you can individually choose.
Thus, all the priests were Levites, and all the Levites were Jews, so no one could be a priest apart from them. Further, the priests ministered before God in the tabernacle (later, the temple) on behalf of the Jewish people, and no one else. Bottom line: the Levitical priests were exclusively Jewish, they served exclusively Jewish people, and they derived all their authority exclusively from the Jewish law.
In contrast, the Church of the New Testament extends to the people of all nations (there is neither Jew nor Greek, etc.) Gal.3:28. In fact, the Church has been predominantly composed of Gentiles ever since the apostle Paul began his ministry. Second, no church authority is derived from the Mosaic covenant or from Jewish law. Third, all participants in the Church covenant have an equal authority to carry out the mission of the Church, i.e., the Great Commission. Fourth, no Church authority is transmitted or acquired based on physical birth.
Thus, none of the chief characteristics of the Levitical priesthood (Jewish priests, Jewish laws, tribal lineage, etc.) could possibly have carried over into the Church.
Besides, when you look at the language used in the Old Testament to institute the Levitical priesthood, there is no similar language used anywhere in the New Testament. For example, naming an identifiable class of people who were separated from the rest of the nation along ethnic lines. Or, using words like “to serve me as priests,” assigning certain functions to those people, or punishing others who attempted to perform those functions.
The reason why there is a total absence of N.T. language instituting a human priesthood in the Church is because the priesthood of Christ is both perfect and exclusive. [I do not regard the priesthood of Christ as a human priesthood – even though Jesus was incarnate in a human body and was called the Son of Man during His First Advent. Why? Because He is not acting as the high priest of the Church now in any human capacity. Ever since His resurrection, Jesus has had an immortal (non-human) body, and ever since the Ascension, He has been off-earth (in heaven). A human priest, by definition, refers to a human being on this earth.]
The priesthood of Christ is perfect, in that He is a priest forever, based on the power of an indestructible life, making his priestly office permanent. Heb. 7:16-17. Unlike the Jewish priests, Christ has never needed to make atonement for His own sins. Nor has He ever needed to make sacrifices repeatedly, for His sacrifice was once for all. Heb. 7:23-27. Plus, Christ performs His priestly duties in the heavenly tabernacle, not made by people, based on His own blood and sinless life, securing an eternal redemption. Heb. 9:11-12. Thus, it is not possible that anyone could ever do a better priestly service than He has done.
The priesthood of Christ is also exclusive and repugnant to any form of human priesthood. For “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” 1 Tim 2:5. Meaning, no one is a priest before God on behalf of others besides Jesus, and no one needs a priest for himself apart from Christ. Besides which, no one but Jesus is capable of being a priest after the order of Melchizedek, that is, a priest who lives eternally and is a priest forever. Heb. 5:6, 6:20, 7:17.
Thus, no one else can add anything of value to the priesthood of Christ which is perfect, or improve on it in any way. To the contrary, any human priesthood arising after Christ would be a step backwards, ushering in impermanence and imperfection. Which, from God’s point of view, is pointless. That’s what ultimately makes the priesthood of Christ exclusive – any other priesthood within the Church would be pointless.
Keep in mind what a priest actually is. According to www.merriam-webster.com, a priest is defined as “one authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God.” Don’t be fooled by other definitions which are limited to the administration of religious rites or the performance of certain sacraments or similar language. The mediatory function is the key to understanding the term. Implicit in the concept of performing sacred rites as a priest is the idea that not everyone can do this.
The nature of any priest – not just the Levitical priests, but all human priests – is to be a mediator between regular people (i.e., non-priests) and whatever god the priest serves. In short, every priest is a gatekeeper: regular people can’t have access to God except through the services of the priest. In modern usage the term priest is even applied colloquially to anyone who is a gatekeeper in a certain type of business.
The end result of the perfect and exclusive priesthood of Christ is the establishment of what many call the universal priesthood of believers. By which phrase is meant that all Christians have direct personal access to God through Jesus. And since access to God is the key function and purpose of a priest, every Christian is in that sense a priest, i.e., one who has direct access to God. But no, no one as a Christian can take that access to God and extend it to someone else – only Christ alone can perform that function. The priesthood of Christ, administered from heaven, eliminates any people acting as gatekeepers for God here on earth.
Alright – you have the basic argument, now let’s put it to the test. Do the scriptures confirm that every true believer – every Christian – has direct personal access to God without needing to go through anyone as a gatekeeper apart from Christ?
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand. Rom 5:1-2.
And [Christ] came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. Eph 2:17-19. See also, Eph 3:12.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus … and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Heb 10:19-22.
So, the scriptures affirm that all those who have faith in Christ have access to God. All those who have faith in Christ are members of the household of God and stand in equal position with all the saints. And all those who have faith in Christ have confidence to enter the holy places of God. I’d say that’s a pretty strong confirmation there are no gatekeepers in Christianity.
As among Christians, God gives everyone co-equal authority, and no one has any claim to a right to interpose themselves between God and any other believer as a mediator or priest. In keeping with our prior analysis, all Christians are created equal, and not only with respect to our contemporaries, but also equal to all those who came before or may come after us. “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” 2 Pet 1:1.
This equality of standing among believers gives rise to a corollary of scripture: there are no holy men – because if some are more holy than others, then all are not equal. Though to be more accurate: all people are equally unholy. “None is righteous, no, not one.” Rom. 3:10. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested … through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Rom. 3:21-24.
Notice it is not merely that all people are equally non-holy, but also that all people can appropriate redemption (and therefore all of the rights, privileges and authority appurtenant thereto) solely on an individual basis through the exercise of faith. So believers are not only equal in their inherent unrighteousness, but also equal in the extent to which grace is imputed by Christ.
As far as God is concerned, the people who originally heard the Great Commission were no more worthy to receive that authority than anyone who came after them. Nor did the apostles receive Church authority on behalf of themselves and their descendants, nor on behalf of themselves and their specific delegees, nor on behalf of any particular group or class of men (i.e., clergy). Rather, they received Church authority on behalf of all those who would later individually believe.
The net effect of which is this: all believers are equally priests before God. All human intermediaries, or gatekeepers, have been eliminated.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father. Rev. 1:5-6.
For you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God. Rev. 5:9-10.
All that I have said so far should lead you to one inescapable conclusion: in the Church there is no such thing as clergy, and no distinction between clergy and laity. Why? Because, simply put: clergy = priesthood. Let’s review briefly:
1) There is no human head of the Church. All church authority on earth is decentralized.
2) The authority of the Church is given to every individual believer – not to any group or subset of believers, nor to any leadership or hierarchy among believers.
3) No one but God can institute or create a priestly class. The only class of priests God created are limited to ethnic Israel, and he has not established any other since.
4) There is a universal priesthood among all believers in Christ which vests no one with any greater or lesser authority than that obtained by every individual believer.
5) There are no holy men, or spiritual persons, except what all believers have in common.
Yet, there is one more good reason why there is no, and there never can be, a clergy-laity distinction in the Church, namely, there are no divisions within the body of Christ.
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Rom 12:4-5.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 1 Cor 12:12-13.
God has so composed the body … that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 1 Cor 12:24-25.
There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Eph 4:4-6.
So the Church is one body; every member of the invisible Church is part of the same body, that body has no divisions in it, and this is by God’s design. Fundamentally, any distinction between clergy and laity is a form of division in the body of Christ which scripture precludes. How can there be a difference between clergy and laity without making such a division?
Plus, what is clergy, if not a claim by certain persons that they possess some authority, some leadership role, some spiritual position, and/or some holy purpose not shared by all believers? By definition, the clergy-laity distinction is one that regards believers as not all being equal. It is a throwback to the Levitical priesthood, where all Israelites were not equal with respect to spiritual authority, and where one tribe was divided from the rest.
The clergy-laity distinction sets up a de facto priesthood, at the very least. But as we will see later, very few clergy try to hide the fact they are claiming a priestly status for themselves. The comparison – no, the equivalence – of clergy and a priestly class is unavoidable.
First: Introduction; Caution
More: Spiritual Authority and the Right to Rule
Also: Church as Institution, Association & Corporation
And: The Visible Church in Real Life
Last: The Office of Pastor & Religious Corruption