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Christianity Institutionalized

The early Christian communities in which each individual Christian felt and had real responsibility for the furtherance of God’s kingdom were gradually transformed into top-down, class-structured organizations in which the Christian’s responsibility was transferred to a leadership elite consisting of a comparatively small number of clergymen. This began early; it was the clergy as leaders rather than as representatives of the ecclesias that participated in the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. Later, the Roman Catholic Church formed and instituted a hierarchical priesthood that placed a series of intermediate authorities between the believers and their Lord.

The Reformation and the Protestant institutions that followed did not correct this. They did much to expose the corruption and serious doctrinal heresies of the previous regime but failed to restore the ecclesia communities and their original concept of self-government. They perpetuated a condition which, in contradiction to what Scripture clearly teaches, retained the class structured church system that interfered with the one-to-one relationship between Christ and Christians.

How did this deplorable situation come about? How did something that began so well degrade to such an extent? Edwin Hatch gives us some insight:


Then the Christian was indeed a ‘member of Christ’, a ‘king and priest unto God’. The whole body of Christians was upon a level: ‘you are all brethren’. The distinctions Paul makes between Christians are based not upon office, but upon varieties of spiritual power… There was a vivid sense, which in later times was necessarily weakened, that every form of the manifestation of the religious life is a gift of God – a charisma, or direct operation of the Divine Spirit upon the soul… [1]

Hatch didn’t see the elders in the community as office holders. They were merely practicing the gift God gave them (1 Cor. 12). He then pointed out some of the reasons behind the change:


… Early in the third century rose the question of readmission to membership of those who had fallen into grievous sin, or who had shrunk from martyrdom. For many years there had been comparative peace. In those years the gates of the Church had been opened wider than before. The sterner discipline had been relaxed. Christianity was not illegal and was tending to become fashionable. The fashionable church-goers accepted the easy terms which the State offered to those who were willing to acknowledge the State religion. Suddenly the flames of persecution shot fiercely forth again. The teachers of Christianity defended those who ‘lapsed’ on the theological ground that Christ did not call on all men to be partakers of His sufferings in the flesh. When the persecution was over many of the ‘lapsed’ wished to come back again…

In the earlier days each separate case came for judgment before the whole Church. The certificate of a confessor was of the nature of an appeal which the Church might upon occasion reject. But persecution sometimes rendered it impossible for the Church to be gathered together. The Church officers took it upon themselves to act for the general body. They readmitted the lapsed without consulting the community. That which had begun in a time of emergency tended to become a rule in a time of peace… The pure spouse of Christ was in peril of her virginity. The Churches for which some of them had sacrificed all they had were beginning to be filled with weak brethren who had preferred dishonor to death… There was a long and determined controversy… It was agreed on all sides that readmissions just not be indiscriminate. If the earlier usage of submitting each case to the tribunal of the whole community were impossible, at any rate individual presbyters and deacons must not act without the knowledge and approval of the president. This rule was in many cases resisted… but it ultimately became so general that the bishops came to claim the right of readmitting penitents, not in their capacity as presidents of the community but as an inherent function of the episcopate…[2]

Several things about the early ecclesia communities are evidenced here:

  1. The decision-making body was the entire community. This is in keeping with the notion that the Holy Spirit, working through the community as a whole, governs the body.
  2. Re-admission of apostates by independent action of the elders was resisted by the community. They saw such actions as beyond the authority delegated to the elders.
  3. The bishops, instead of acting as presidents that reflected the will of the community, acted independently. They aggregated authority to themselves without the approval of the community.

We see here how important it is to adhere strictly to God’s word. The ecclesia at first resisted the change but eventually, after a long and determined controversy, gave in. It was a first step which, once taken, paved the way for further steps that were easier and easier to take, leading inevitably to a full-blown clergy-laity structure. The early ecclesias began well but failed to hold fast to their original independence and, while they perhaps still could have recovered it, succumbed instead to a degraded internal structure. True, the circumstances were extremely extenuating and one could be tempted to argue that they didn’t have a choice. This, though, is to shift the blame to God who is never wrong and never tests us beyond our abilities (1 Cor. 10:13).

Why is it that virtually every advance of Christianity throughout history was not sustained but faltered at some point? Is there a common cause for this? Why does the early enthusiasm fade away so soon? To a great extent it is due to an attitude typical of lay Christians, one that sees kingdom work as short-term and temporary. They get involved, gain some victories, feel that the battle has been won, and then go back to sleep, leaving the bulk of the work to others. The lay Christian in this class-structured environment doesn’t see himself as personally involved in a life-long, never-ending struggle. Rather, he sees long-term kingdom-building activity as the minister’s life-work and not his own. He sees his role as financial support and perhaps being ready to step in and give a hand when it’s needed. Instead of taking an ongoing, active part himself, he leaves the bulk of the work of building God’s kingdom to the clergy: pastors, missionaries, and others in “full time Christian service.” He fails to realize that full time service is required of all God’s people, full time, that is, in the sense that defending and building God’s kingdom should always be a concern. This responsibility should be so present in mind (Isa. 26:3; 2 Cor. 10:5) that the believer is always ready to speak up and take appropriate action whenever and wherever it is needed. This ever-present readiness of all Christians to defend and build God’s kingdom everywhere and anywhere is what is either lost or greatly subdued in the divided, clergy-laity church system. This is an extremely significant loss. It boggles the mind to think of how much more progress might have been realized and how different the world might be today had all Christians remained the full-time workers they began as and were intended to be.

Christ commands all Christians to participate in the teaching of the nations. How are they to do this? Why, through communicating to everyone they can in any way they can the nature of their faith and why it’s so important to obey and live by The Ten Commandments. This task is far too great, and is in fact impossible, for a small cadre of clergymen. It requires the active participation of all believers. Yes, of course some will be able to focus on the task a greater percentage of their time but the task cannot be left entirely in their hands. When it is—well, we see the result.

When Christians are part-timers, the total effort put forth in support of the defense and advancement of Christianity is eventually reduced to only a small fraction of what it could and should be. The typical Christian ends up spending almost all his time on personal matters and little or no time in activity that bears on the building of God’s kingdom.

But the issue isn’t just the lack of time spent; part time Christians often fail to speak up or take action, even when little or no time is involved. They tend to leave the defense of the faith to a small cadre of clergymen that they see as God’s chosen, responsible, and oh so much more capable agents for such work. The problem with this is that action typically cannot be delayed; an immediate response to a question or a challenge is normally required and when it isn’t forthcoming the damage is done. When God’s law is impugned or ignored and nothing is said by God’s people, the observers go away with a lower opinion of Christianity. A myriad of such events continually demean and erode the faith; they take place in the culture at large. outside the influence of the clergy.

The message of the kingdom, instead of being defended and supported by all Christians everywhere, is restricted to the elite few and limited to the houses of worship. The Gospel in its broad sense, instead of being proclaimed throughout the population and ringing from the rafters of every public place is restricted to the few churches that preach it and where few of those that most need to hear the message are ever to be seen. The faith cannot prosper and grow when its development is left to an elite and the great majority of Christians are only minimally involved in promoting and defending it.

When Christians understand and then feel and act in accord with their God-given responsibilities, they are rewarded by a sense of knowing that they are doing what they were created (and then recreated) to do. They sense an affinity with their Lord and know they are an essential part of His plan to save the world. In every circumstance they face, they see themselves as God’s redeemed servants, His emissaries, chartered to do their part in the teaching of the nations. Every experience is a challenge and an opportunity to serve the Lord that rescued them, remade them, and assigned them to represent Him in this world. They see that their work is significant and, to please Him, they do it as well as they can. The result is that much is accomplished and the kingdom progresses and grows by leaps and bounds.

When they abdicate and delegate this task to the clergy (as they have done for over a thousand years) this sense of purpose fades away. The believers may feel they should be doing more but the sharp incentive isn’t there; they rationalize their responsibility away, transferring it to the full-time Christians, the clergy. They view themselves as part-timers; some will usually respond to calls for help temporarily but when the crisis passes, they relax, return to their other interests and leave the long-term work to the clergy.

The mere presence of a clergy class is sufficient to so demotivate the great majority of lay believers that their contribution to the furtherance of the kingdom dwindles to a tiny fraction of what it could and should be. The almost universal disposition of lay Christians when they see the need for the expression of the Christian perspective on a particular issue is to leave it to the pastor or an elder. After all, they rationalize, this is their duty; they have the proper stature and are clearly so much more knowledgeable and capable. As a consequence, the appropriate and sometimes very much needed, words or actions are rarely invoked.

This two-layer church system, consisting of clergy and lay persons, now pervades the entire Christian world. Because of it, lay Christians for centuries, have generally not paid much heed to Christ’s command to seek His kingdom as their first priority in life (Matt. 6:33).

The clergy is at fault here; they have not only failed to make their congregations aware of this responsibility that Christ has placed on every member of His body, they have preached a false gospel. Christ did it all, most of them say; all you need to do is believe in Him and you get a free ride to heaven. This of course is a half-truth; yes, salvation is by faith alone but Christ tells His body, all believers, to bear the cross and follow Him (Mark 8:34). There is much more to being a Christian than just believing and going to heaven; there are responsibilities and work to do after one is saved.

[1] See: Edwin Hatch, “The Organization of the Early Christian Churches,” London, 1887, pp. 44-45, View online at:

[2] Ibid, pp 72-77.

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