A Church Without Any “Popes” – Episode #32

For much of our history, Christianity has been often been a one man show.

This is true whether we are talking about Catholicism, or whether we are talking about independent non-denomational churches.

Almost wherever you go, there is a “Pope” type figure that ultimately reigns supreme, whether it is over an entire denomination, or a local congregation. Everything that happens within that church ultimately centers around the ministry of this one individual. He is the chief leader, visionary, administrator, preacher, the one that everyone ultimately submits to, and follows.

The Rise Of The One Man Show

We see hints of this happening in the New Testament, but we really see this idea to begin to develop quickly in the writings of the early “church fathers.” For example, in his epistle to the church in Smyrnaea, Ignatius, a second century bishop from Antioch and Christian martyr, wrote the following:

See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution  of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it… See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father…

Ignatius of Antioch

It’s pretty clear from Ignatius’ letter that he thought every local church should have a bishop (or “pastor” if you will) upon whom everything centers around. The bishop is seen as holding the place of Jesus Christ in the local church. He is on top of a hierarchy, and the CEO type figure from whom all legitimate activity in the life of the church flows. So much so that Igantious cannot even envision Eucharist being properly be taken unless it is administered by an official figure that legitimizes the Lord’s Table.

And while Ignatius’s theology of this issue was far from a monolithic or universally held opinion in the writings of the early church, as documents like the Didache see the church existing in a less centralized fashion, his theology would ultimately win the day. Ignatius’s theology would eventually come to shape the way we largely “do church” down to the present day, regardless of denominational affiliation.

As a result, these days we often look to “the man of God,” “the senior pastor,” or “the Pope,” to direct all the affairs of the church. And anyone who questions such things is often considered to be in rebellion to Jesus Christ, and not is said to not be under some God’s “covering.” Such persons are often told they need to “submit” themselves to the authority of the local church, and by such, they generally mean the Pope type figure considered in charge of it all.

(For those interested in a detailed history of this development of this trend in the early church, check out the excellent book “From Apostles To Bishops” by Francis A. Sullivan.)

The Pope As “Anti-Christ”

During the Protestant Reformation, it was common for many of the reformers to call the Pope “The Anti-Christ.” Such is considered pretty distatseful and tacky today, and such charges are seldom taken seriously, as the Pope is generally seen by many as a good and ethical Christian, even if he’s not exactly a theological hit among most Protestants, especially of the Evangelical variety.

But the charge that the Pope was the anti-Christ among the early Protestants wasn’t so much about any paticular Pope and his character (though some rightfully impuned his character), but because of the specific position he claims to hold in the church.

For example, consider the following:

25.6: There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition , that exalts himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God

The Westminster Confession of 1646

From this we can see that the Westminster Confession considers the Pope as the anti-Christ because he has exalted himself into the role of the head of the Church, and has taken the place that belongs to Jesus Christ alone.

The word “anti-Christ” literally means “in place of Christ” in the original Greek. Therefore when the early Protestants charged the Pope with being the anti-Christ, this was much more than just some cheap slur, but a theological declaration that the Pope had usurped the authority of Jesus Christ as the head of the church, and he had taken an office that belongs to Jesus Christ alone.

For Jesus Christ alone is the head of the church, and for anyone else to claim to be fulfilling that role today, such would be done “in the place of Christ,” making such a person an “anti-Christ.”

And, if I might be so bold, I would say the early Protestants were in some sense right to make this charge in some hyperbolic fashion, and it should be a charge we should revise today. But, we shouldn’t simply limit this accusation to whoever occupies the throne in Rome, but it should be something that we also apply throughout the entire church, not only universally and within denominational structures, but locally as well.

Following the logic of the early Protestants, anyone occupying the role of “senior pastor” in the local church could be said to be an“anti-Christ” type figure.

Jesus Christ Alone Is Pope

In 1 Peter 5:4, the apostle Peter called Jesus Christ our “Chief Shepherd.” Hebrews 3:1 calls Jesus Christ “the” Apostle and “the” High Priest of our faith. He alone has preemenience.

That language might be a little archaic to you. But, if you were to put the term, “Chief Shepherd” into modern vernacular, the apostle Peter (who some call the first Pope) is calling Jesus Christ our “Senior Pastor” or “Pope.”

And that, in my opinion, should make anyone claiming to be fulfilling the role of senior pastor or Pope feel rather uncomfortably theologically. Are such people “anti-Christ” like the early Protestants declared? In some hyperbolic sense, I suppose that would be an accurate description (though I would not call sincere brothers as actual anti-Christs, but I use the term loosely, to depict the very real sense in which men are attempting to occupy and function in the church in a way that only Christ should).

For the Bible never describes anyone besides Jesus Christ as the head of the church, and He should exist as such both locally and universally. Nobody should ever claim to be occupying such an office in lieu of Him, simply because He is in heaven, and we are on Earth.

Indeed, it is precisiely because He is in heaven that Jesus Christ is the head of the church, both locally and universally.

These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.

Ephesians 1:19-23 (NASB)

Changing Our Christian Leadership Structures

So that begs the question, if nobody should be considered the head of the church except Jesus Christ alone, how ought the church to function when it comes to leadership and ministry?

At a very practical level, we might ask, who is in charge around here?

Such an answer is bound to make us uncomfortable. Especially as folks in the West, who understand leadership primarily in concepts and notions that look like hierarchies and pyramids. We are used to larger than life type figures and bosses who tell the rank and file what to do and how to function.

Such isn’t really how the kingdom of God is supposed to function. Instead of a hierarchy, leadership and ministry in the kingdom of God is supposed to function in much more organic and relational way.

In terms of geometric shapes, think less about vertical pyramid type structures, and think more about circles and spheres. And instead of bosses and managers and executives, think about family dynamics, like that which exists between brothers and sisters.

Jesus taught us the following:

…And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:24-28 (NASB)

“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. “

Matthew 23:8-12 (NASB)

Jesus taught us that in the church, all our earthly notions of leadership that we typically understand are wrong. In the church leadership has not only been flipped upside down, but it has also been flattened.

The only “leader” we have is Christ, and He doesn’t exist as someone that bosses us around, but exists as someone who lives to serve. And among us, we are all to think of ourselves as servants, not as visionary CEO type figures.

As Christians we are to relate to one another merely as brothers and sisters in Christ, selflessly looking out for the interest of our spiritual siblings. We are to “lead” eachother in the same way you and I would “lead” our earthly siblings. Instead of bosses, such requires something that focuses on mutually cooperating and partnering together, than attempting to do something where someone is always calling the shots.

Our “leaders” are not those whom we “follow,” but are those who empower and equip us to become the people God has called them to be. Instead of us helping fulfilling their unique vision, they exist to help others walk in the fullness of what God has called them to be and to do.

This sort of mentality leaves no room whatsoever for a one man show. And, instead of building churches that are increasingly centralized around the platform of one Pope type figure on a Sunday morning, the church ought to embrace models of life and ministry that makes outsiders wonder who is really in charge.

That way the more people look around, the more that they will see that the only One in charge around the church is Jesus Christ, and that Christ alone is our Pope, Senior Pastor, and Leader.

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Reply