What you believe about God will be determined by what you believe about his Word. The latter belief can’t help but dictate both the content and confidence in your belief about who God is and what he wills. This includes what he wills about church government. For a sobering case study of the relationship between those two sets of beliefs, consider the popular 1959 publication Church Order in the New Testament.
Its author, Swiss New Testament scholar Eduard Schweizer (1913–2007), was in many ways a man of his times. The idea that the Bible was heavily fabricated at different points throughout church history had grown among European New Testament scholars during the mid-1950’s and 1960’s. As a result, many thought of faithful interpretation as a matter of discerning and removing the many “myths” and edits that comprised much, if not most, of our Bibles. Unsurprisingly, this belief carries implications for our doctrine and practice. For example, if fabrications abound in the Bible, then much in the Bible couldn’t be considered authoritative.
To make matters worse, many scholars who went about weeding out “myths” and “edits’ ended up concluding that, in their opinion, the early church was made up of a diversity of “Christianities.” They argued that mutually contradictory doctrines and practices coexisted among early Christians, and that, in fact, these “edits” represent different “Christianities.”
Ultimately, the scholars of this persuasion who aspired to be churchmen and even pastors surmised that doctrine and practice were supposed to be continually altered as the church deemed fit. In other words, they thought that it was of the nature of doctrine and practice to eventually change.
This way of thinking about the Bible—called “redaction criticism”—was the air Schweizer breathed, and as Church Order in the New Testament shows, it seriously affected his understanding of church polity.
THEOLOGY OF CHURCH POLITY
To be sure, Schweizer isn’t all wrong. In fact, the first major highlight is the book’s research objective and the assumptions behind that objective. Even if in the end he doesn’t quite achieve that objective or achieves it only in part, what Schweizer is trying to do in Church Order is worth appreciating. In fact, my sense is that if he’d worded the title to better communicate what he was actually up to, then he’d likely receive today a larger hearing from the many evangelicals who unfortunately think very little of any book under the label “church order.”
The truth is that the book isn’t really about the steps and procedures necessary for healthy church government, and he only references those things as a means unto an end. What he’s really trying to do is interpret what these steps and procedures tell us about the church’s “self-understanding.” As he puts it, the book is about “recognizing in the actual ordering of the New Testament Church, and in what is said about it, the theological concerns that caused it to take that form and no other” (14–15).
For some, the title might seem a little misleading. Church order usually refers to directives and policies. But what’s so attractive about Schweizer’s project is that it assumes something that’s often missed by many evangelicals today: that the steps and procedures of church order really are “theological concerns.” They express a church’s understanding of itself. A failure to grasp this connection doesn’t just lead us to deem the chosen title off-topic. More importantly, it’s the reason many Christians remain indifferent toward the conversations about church polity, preferring instead “more theological” interests.
This indifference wouldn’t exist if, as Schweizer says, “when we ask about the Church’s order, we must also try to understand the Church’s essential nature” (15). It wouldn’t exist if it’s true that, as Schweizer insists, “The New Testament’s pronouncements on church order are to be read as a gospel—that is, church order is to be regarded as a part of the proclamation in which the Church’s witness is expressed, as it is in its preaching” (14). To his credit, such a high view of church polity permeates the study from beginning to end.
AN AMBITIOUS PROJECT
However, the quest to discern the ecclesiology behind polity is a tricky task, as Schweizer himself admits. It’s not surprising then to find that, though much of his analysis is agreeable, not all of it is tenable. For example, it’s true that there’s no priest in the order of NT churches precisely because they understand themselves to be exclusively under the divine priesthood of the risen and exalted Christ (173). At the same time, the fact that believers participate in the work of ministry (1 Thess. 5:11–14) and even in the solemn administration of church discipline (1 Cor. 5.4) shows that the church understands itself to share in the authority of its High Priest (192).
It’s also worth considering why the church uses the mundane word “deacon” (meaning, “one who waits on tables”) in reference to even apostles and elders. Schweizer argues persuasively that it’s because the church understands all of its members to be lowly “servants” before the Lord. The church knows that all its offices are wholly undeserved (173–174, 177–178). Again, he’s right to discern that, in the book of Acts, many Jewish disciples still embraced some Judaistic forms of worship precisely because, even as Christians, they understood themselves to be part of Israel (34–35, 47, 50). Then of course, he is only echoing Scripture when he discerns that Paul orders the Lord’s Supper to be a common meal because NT ecclesiology says that the church is the unified body of Christ (223).
However, one wonders if the Didache’s emphasis on fasting, regular recital of the Lord’s prayer, and church discipline is as significant as Schweizer says. He believes the practice necessarily implies that the first- or second-century Church understands itself to be “the company, scattered over the world, which, ‘gathered from the ends of the earth,’ finds its real unity only in the kingdom of God” (141). The church indeed is scattered abroad, but does fasting itself tell me that?
The book’s most serious blunder is his misinterpretation of the church’s practice of accepting Gentiles into church membership. Schweizer believed that this “openness of the circle of disciples” implies that conformity to “reforms, morals, or dogmatics” should not be conditions for one’s membership in a church (46). His views on the “openness” that the church showed the Gentiles seems to border on religious pluralism, which Schweizer was known to have appreciated.
Interestingly, on at least one occasion, Schweizer actually tries to discern the order underneath the ecclesiology. But again, it seems his attempt was unsuccessful. He argued that the stress on “the self-sufficiency of the Church as it stood under the living activity of the Holy Spirit” shows that the church was refusing to consider itself “an institutional church, in which a monarchical bishop wanted to rule everything” (168). But is that accurate “mirror-reading” (whereby, as an interpreter, he’s trying to discern what situation caused the church’s stress on the Holy Spirit)? It’s true that the NT church was never under a human monarch, but the question is whether the activity of the Holy Spirit implies as much.
There’s a tragic irony in Church Order’s view of the Bible. On one hand, Schweizer wants the Bible to dictate his understanding of church polity. As he reminds those plagued by the opposite of “chronological snobbery” (that is, “chronological slobbery”), “Church history will help in the task of interpretation, but it is not a second source of revelation” (19). He thus intends to derive church polity from the Bible, and nowhere else.
But, on the other hand, because he doubts or outright rejects the authenticity of certain passages of Scripture on polity, the Bible is often of no use to him when considering how a church should order itself. For example, he would happily do what Jesus is quoted as saying in Matthew 18:15–20, except for the fact that the words can’t be attributed to Jesus—and Matthew 16:18–20 is dubious at best.
It’s clear Schweizer’s alleged high view of Scripture’s authority is undermined by his low view of its faithful transmission. After all, it’s fine and good to say we’ll order our churches according to what Jesus says, but we cannot act on that conviction if we keep denying that Jesus said what he said (20, 31, 42, 49, 52, 70, 80, 188, 197).
But even those passages Schweizer considers reliable aren’t, according to him, firm directives on what the church should or should not do about its order. He believes a faithful treatment of the Bible’s material on NT polity compels us to believe that NT polity isn’t practically prescriptive, that is, it doesn’t prescribe the practicalities of a church’s order. It’s only prescriptive in that it compels us to (1) appreciate the goodness of polity in general, and (2) adopt a polity of some kind. This belief that polity is merely descriptive and never intended to be prescriptive is based on what Schweizer considers to be two unavoidable observations on the polity presented in the Bible.
His first observation is that, as the New Testament authors preached or wrote on church order, they were still in the process of forming and refining their thoughts on the matter. Thus Schweizer believes the Bible gives us no finished product to replicate. It walks us along a journey from a state of virtually no order, as evidenced in the Gospels, to further development in the churches of Revelation. As Schweizer put it, “Right up to the Parousia, indeed, the Church is constantly developing, and so we cannot brush aside as unwarranted the objection that Paul’s churches represented a provisional initial stage and only gradually developed into clear and orderly institutions” (17).
This journey was, according to Schweizer, a rather bumpy ride: Jesus, who never himself used the word “church,” “baptism,” “Holy Spirit,” or “church assemblies” (21–23), effectively left the disciples with no church polity (33), knowing that, were he to leave the disciples with a detailed order of church government it would be lost in tradition (30).
He argues that the primitive church (as represented in Acts) had no new order to separate it from Judaism, at least initially (47). The truly distinguishing features are the church’s suffering and Israel’s relative ease (42), its evangelism to the nations (45, 46), and the priestly duties it expects of all believers (47). Eventually, the primitive church adopts from John the Baptist the rite of baptism, and sometime later repentance becomes closely associated with it (40).
According to Schweizer, different NT authors often times make unique contributions to this developing church order. For example, Matthew, writing four decades or so after Christ, introduces the idea that a church is a corpus mixtum¸ containing wheat (visibly and invisibly) and tares (visibly) (52, 56–57, 141–142). Luke presents baptism and other rites as requirements for church membership (68–69, 76), and is careful to see apostleship as an office that cannot continue through the centuries because it belongs exclusively to eye-witnesses of Jesus (69–70). Paul introduces the idea that a church is “the body of Christ,” and, being priests in their own right, there’s no such thing as the “ordination” of a few (101). The author of the pastoral epistles (whoever he might be) has developed the practice of church discipline (82) and completely rejects vestiges of Judaic worship (77); this happens after “decades, perhaps even a century of development” (79). Schweizer goes on to argue that Peter (111), John (123, 127), and other writers repeatedly amend the burgeoning church order of other writers.
Note, however, that Schweizer conceives of the development as ongoing “right up to the Parousia,” that is, right up until Christ returns (17). He implies, therefore, that far from being a temporary circumstance that marked church polity for a time, development is inherent to church polity. It is, by definition, semper reformanda, and, accordingly, contemporary church order cannot be considered fixed.
What compels Schweizer to believe this idea of perpetual reformation is his repeatedly stated conviction that the living Spirit was the catalyst behind all the aforementioned development in first-century church polity. His reasoning seems to be that because the Spirit worked to establish church polity and because the Spirit is still with us, he must still be working in the area of church polity. Thus, as surely as this Spirit remains and works among us today, we must be open to the possibility that church order can change today by the Spirit’s leading (75, 99). As Schweizer puts it, we must “repeatedly learn afresh” (104).
All possible evidence to the contrary is then summarily explained away. The Pastoral Epistles’ emphasis on maintaining traditions need not deter us. In Schweizer’s view, this fixity or “one-sidedness” was merely situational, necessitated by historical pressures of the day and no longer to be assumed as the way to go about polity. The rigid way is not the right way just because it’s observable in a NT book (87–88).
“One-sideness” in the apostolic fathers and later church history is no cause for concern either. As Schweizer asks, in church history “Do not these regulations acquire in the course of development an importance that they did not originally have” (87, cf. 204–205)?
Secondly, even if we were to conclude that a particular NT author decided on a settled form of church order, Schweizer would still hold that polity cannot be prescriptive. He would contend that one verifiably settled form of church polity was just that: only one of several adopted by different authors at different churches. As he put it, “that even in the New Testament Church there are side by side at the same time in the same geographical area groups with a quite different form, phenomenologically speaking: the conventicle beside the national church” (138).
The important caveat he makes is that, though inconvenient at times (169), this diversity is neither accidental nor a matter of confusion. The Holy Spirit is the church’s guide in establishing church government. Therefore, the “unregulated enthusiasm” with which church polity developed in the New Testament was the Holy Spirit’s doing; the diversity of polities that resulted from this “unregulated enthusiasm” is to be attributed to the Spirit (17-18). As he maintains, “Belief in the living Spirit of God through the centuries does not mean belief in unmistakable progress in one direction” (18; emphasis added).
For proof of this diversity Schweizer cites passages such as 3 John 9, since Diotrephes’ opposition to the elders apparently shows that, he is establishing an unprecedented episcopate of some sort (138). The Pastoral Epistles provide further proof of diversity, says Schweizer. The church to which these epistles were first addressed are marked by a fixed structure, but that fixity is due to the fact that the author and his church are being tempted by gnostic teaching to abandon sound doctrine (87). In actuality, the overwhelming majority of NT material on polity points to more fluidity, meaning that while most churches embraced a church order in flux, others—or at least the one in the Pastoral Epistles—attempted to maintain a very specific order of governance. Schweizer concludes: “We cannot escape the plain statement of fact—that churches lived side by side which regarded themselves differently on essential points, and which therefore adopted a very different order” (138).
It would seem as though Schweizer is interpreting ecclesiological differences to imply ecclesiological development—and, since many of the NT writers are contemporaries, the differences also imply diversity. His argument depends on differences.
However, Schweizer fails to consider a real possibility raised by Jonathan Leeman: what if the differences are nothing more than “emphases,” in which case these “differences” are different facets on the same diamond, different aspects of the same polity? As Leeman argues in Don’t Fire Your Church Members:
Suppose epistle 1 emphasizes polity structure x, while epistle 2 emphasizes polity structure y. Why would a scholar say, “there is no unitary pattern,” instead of saying, “x and y are both necessary, and each epistle writer emphasized what was necessary for the circumstances of his own letter”? (14)
In order for Schweizer to conclude that the differences represent diversity he has to ask and answer Leeman’s question.
More fundamentally, however, at times his arguments for ecclesiological differences between apostles are based simply on a failure to consider all that a New Testament writer has spoken on a particular ecclesiological matter. For example, he argues that “Paul, unlike Matthew cannot . . . see the [visible] church as a corpus mixtum,” but supposes that everyone who has become a member of the body of Christ is saved” (96). But there are passages in the Pauline corpus that indicate that he does in fact believe the visible church will have believers and unbelievers in it at any time (2 Cor. 11:26; 2 Tim. 2:16–19).
Another fundamental flaw of Schweizer’s arguments is that they assume too much from a New Testament author’s silence. Several of his arguments are, in fact, arguments from silence. When Schweizer observes that a particular Gospel writer doesn’t make explicit reference to a particular doctrine or practice and then infers the apostle doesn’t believe and/or rejects that doctrine or practice, he commits a junior logical fallacy. The fact that I don’t mention my belief in something doesn’t mean I don’t believe in that thing. We therefore cannot assume that because John doesn’t refer to spiritual gifts in his Gospel (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 14) that, consequently, in John’s polity, “the various gifts of grace no longer exist” (124). What the silence does make clear, however, is that addressing the subject of spiritual gifts as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 16 was, for John’ purposes, unnecessary.
Similarly, even in the highly unlikely event that we must accept Jesus’ references to “the church” in Matthew 16 and 18 as unreliable textual variants, we cannot assume that Jesus never imparted to the apostles a form of church polity. In order to draw that conclusion from Jesus’ silence, we’d have to be sure that the Gospels relate all the words and all the teachings Jesus ever imparted to his disciples. But John 21:25 makes clear that there were “many” things that Jesus taught that could, at the author’s inspired discretion, be left out.
In summary, readers are likely to find Schweizer’s arguments for perpetually developing polity unpersuasive, because they depend on faulty arguments regarding differences among the apostles. What Schweizer failed to do was prove that one NT author believed something that another NT author was unaware of, and he certainly failed to prove that one NT author rejected something another NT author accepted.
Such contradictions are, of course, theologically impossible. For even in the extremely unlikely event that Jesus never used the word “church” during his earthly ministry, we cannot deny that the apostles’ idea of “church” and “church order” comes from him. All their ecclesiology came from the Spirit of Christ inspiring them to write, as Schweizer himself is willing to admit (38). If, then, the apostles are Christ’s ambassadors, their polity is Christ’s polity, and to propose the existence of contradictions within inspired, apostolic polity is to propose contradictions in the mind of Christ.
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McKim, Donald K. Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2007.
Leeman, Jonathan, Don’t Fire Your Church Members. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016.
 Note that the word “Church” (with a capital “C”) is in Schweizer’s discussion of the corpus mixtum a reference to the visible church universal. Reformed theologians have certainly espoused the notion of a universal visible church (WCF 25.2), but it is unconventional (it would seem to me) to use the word “Church” (with a capital “C”) to refer to that notion of a universal visible church. In Protestant theology, “Church” (with a capital ‘C’) usually refers to the invisible church universal—not the visible church universal. Thus, at times Schweitzer might be mistaken as suggesting that even the invisible church is a corpus mixtum. In actuality, however, he’s arguing that the “Church Visible” is mixed, the (local) church visible is also mixed, and Paul, unlike Matthew, doesn’t quite realize that.