Monday, August 05, 2019

On running the church, then and now

One of the interesting things about reading John Owen on the question of church is picking up some of the similarities and differences between his situation and ours.  When it comes to the role of elders, Owen has three main things to argue: firstly, that churches should have elders(!); second, that elders should not be put over people without their consent; and third, that elders have real authority to rule and manage the church.  I think it would be fair to say that his stress falls on the first two points, without neglecting the third.

The backdrop, presumably, to this arrangement is a prevalent clericalism and authoritarianism in religious matters.  The semi-reformed state of the Church of England before the Civil War - and in many ways the worse situation after the Restoration - meant that the most familiar form of running the church would have been episcopalianism.  The break with the Roman understanding of the clergy/laity divide had not been made with anything like the decisiveness or clarity required.  So one of Owen's main targets is the parish church, to which a person is legally assumed to belong purely by virtue of their habitation within the boundaries of the parish.  This brings a person of necessity under the rule of a pastor (vicar, priest, whatever) who derives his authority from a bishop - and moreover it does so without the person's consent.

Owen regards this as a form of spiritual tyranny.  Both the singular nature of the pastor - Owen devotes a great deal of space to the importance of having 'ruling elders' alongside him - and the lack of consent make the arrangement entirely illegitimate.

On the other hand, against those on the radical wing - remember that Owen had significant and very negative encounters with Quakers during his time as VC at Oxford - Owen has to assert that elders really do rule (1 Tim 5:17) and have a responsibility for managing the church (1 Tim 3:4-5).  They do this as ministers and not as absolute rulers - they can appeal to people's consciences, but they have no coercive power - and nothing they do is legitimate if it isn't ultimately designed to display Christ's authority and not their own.  Owen maintains that there is no ultimate authority in the church save that of Christ, and elders can only act under him.  Their authority is not inherent in them, but is simply the ministerial exercise of Christ's authority.  (Neither is their authority delegated to them by the congregation; rather, the church, in endorsing elders, recognises Christ's gifting of them and his appointment of them to office).  The limits of their authority are made most obvious for Owen by the fact that anyone can freely withdraw from a local congregation if they judge the elders not to be ruling in Christ's name for the good of his people.  Still, the (delegated, limited) authority of the eldership is maintained.  It is established as a sign of the authority of Christ himself.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  The clericalism of the past is largely dissipated, and the parish structure has long been bereft of legal force and is now in complete breakdown - the most lively Anglican churches are functionally 'gathered churches' rather than parish churches.  The radicals of Owen's day have largely wandered over the centuries further and further away from orthodoxy, and their heirs barely claim to be Christian anymore.  But the threats to a biblical form of church government haven't gone away: on the one hand, an authoritarianism (usually, let's face it, promoted - perhaps unconsciously - by ministers, but more often that not with the connivance and cooperation of congregations) which exalts the 'man of God' over the congregation, neutering whatever 'lay elders' there may be and leaving all the reins in one pair of hands; on the other hand, a democratisation, which (often by an appeal to the Holy Spirit - cf. the old Quakers) denies the form and order of the church as it is prescribed in Scripture in favour of a kind of free-for-all.

I suspect that in today's climate Owen would have found that he had to lay more stress on his third argument.  So used have we become to democratic mechanisms - and so thoroughly has democracy come to be equated with goodness in our culture - that it is hard to argue for the authority of elders without sounding like you're arguing for authoritarianism.  It's a fine line to tread.

So, in answer to the question 'who runs the local church?' I think I'd want to say something like this:

The Lord Jesus governs his church, being enthroned in heaven and present by the Holy Spirit, and he has established within his church elders, who are to govern as his ministers, with the consent and counsel of the whole congregation.

Plural eldership.  Congregational consent - and counsel, active involvement (Owen doesn't have much to say about this; he is also a product of his time, and has not totally shaken off clericalism).  All in recognition of the fact that Christ rules, in the present, by his Spirit, and that this is the form which he has directed for the government of his people.

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