Monday, August 18, 2008

The Church: What She Is, and How She Acts

By the middle of the second cent-ury, each local Christian church was led by a single bishop whose ministry was considered to carry apostolic authority. On his way to martyrdom in Rome in 110, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote to the church in Tralles:

"... when you obey the bishop as if he were Christ Jesus, you are (as I see it) living not in a merely human fashion, but in Jesus Christ's way.... It is essential, therefore, to act in no way without the bishop, just as you are doing."
And to the church in Smyrna he wrote:
"You should all follow the bishops as Jesus Christ did the Father.... Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.... Whatever [the bishop] approves pleases God as well."
Whether they were correct in their assessment or not, it appears that the early post-apostolic Christians thought that their bishops carried the same authority that the original apostles held: If they forgave sins, those sins were forgiven; if a thing was bound on earth, it was bound in heaven.

Now for this to "work," of course, it had to be determined whether a so-called bishop was in fact duly ordained through an unbroken succession reaching back to the apostles themselves. Unlike in movements such as Calvary Chapel in our own day, in which ordination is largely a logistical exercise in paperwork (for kicks, I still have my Calvary ordination card in my wallet, complete with Chuck Smith's signature), ordination in the early church was a serious matter. The reason for this was bound up in their belief in the church's apostolicity and catholicity. When a bishop or group of bishops spoke in an official capacity, their word was considered infallible, for "he who hears you hears me," Jesus had promised.

What drives the Catholic view of authority, as well as the Protestant one, is their respective understandings of what the church actually is. Is it an invisible entity with various local expressions, or did Jesus actually found a visible, institutionally-united church that could be pointed to with a "Lo! It is here," or "Behold, it is there"?

How we answer this question will determine how we answer a score of others, as I hope to demonstrate in my next couple posts.