Apostolic Authority and Christian Diversity

Some weeks ago I suggested that the differences between OrthodoxCatholic and Protestant Christianity are, more than anything else, grounded in our different ways of understanding apostolic authority. Well I was thinking another way of characterizing the diversity is like this:

  • Orthodox Christian tradition – tends towards multi-lateral understandings of apostolic authority
  • Catholic Christian tradition -tends towards top-down, uni-lateral understandings of apostolic authority
  • Protestant Christian tradition – tends towards bottom-up, uni-lateral understandings of apostolic authority

Now, thinking about this I am inclined to see strengths and weaknesses in each approach. When considering essential issues that effect all Christians everywhere it seems to me there are some obvious advantages with a multi-lateral approach. Yet, when considering less essential and highly contextual issues that effect some Christians deeply and others not at all, well it seems to me that there are some obvious advantages with a bottom-up, uni-lateral approach. If you want any action this century. And coming to the top-down, uni-lateral approach, again I can seem some situations where a casting vote would be appropriate.

Now, I think this raises some interesting questions, not least being, where should bloggers draw the line on theological deconstruction if they are serious about eccumenism?

3 thoughts on “Apostolic Authority and Christian Diversity

  1. Matt – I think I’ve read this at least 4 or 5 times since you posted it, and I sense there is something really quite important here.
    When there are multiple views on an issue, each with practices that lead to highly different outcomes/impacts, I tend to wonder if it’s a both/and situation instead of either/or. Could it be that each view on hierarchy in leadership has some currency, but was only meant for specific domains or at specific times? For instance, a commuter train token won’t work for taking a bus, but both will secure some transportation.
    Our problem is that we generally try to make a part into the whole, and attempt to “spend” our view’s value in the wrong places.
    Not trying to overcomplexify things, though I likely … umm … certainly … have a penchant in that direction. But I do think that sometimes we misapply a principle in an area it wasn’t meant for.
    I’m really struggling here to come up with examples. The only one that comes to mind at the moment is the pattern I’ve noticed throughout the Bible when we’re introduced to a young adult who – as it turns out – makes monumental decisions with dramatic, history-altering consequences. Women like Ruth, Esther, Mary the Mother of Jesus. Men like Daniel, David, Timothy. Generally when such people are introduced, we meet an older generation mentor – Naomi and Boaz, Mordecai, Elizabeth, Jeremiah, Nathan, Paul. Also, often we meet some of their peers – Ruth’s in-laws, Daniel’s three friends, David’s friend Jonathan. Just as we need both peers (little or no hierarchy in the relationship) and mentors (at least some hierarchy), is it possible there are situations where we need different kinds of leadership roles put into play?
    I remember reading that the medieval Saxon tribes functioned in a highly decentralized way. During periods of peace, they were overseen by one kind of leader, but during times of war, another kind of leader was put in charge. After the wars were done, the chieftan for war was not allowed to lead during the times of peace.
    So, maybe that gives the drift of what I’ve been musing about with this post … each form of hierarchy functioning within its proper domain.
    But actually, for me, the real ‘kicker’ is your question about our responsibilities as bloggers. As one given a highly analytic mind, it’s almost impossible for me to shut off the profiling and just exist in the seeming mess-of-the-moment and be okay with it. And I find the issue of ecumenism a mess to deal with.
    I’ve been wrestling with various concepts of ecumenism for a very long time, and wandering through multiple different theological perspectives on this issue over the past 4 decades. While I believe we are to seek unity as a larger community of disciples, I also believe we must guard the right of conscience and consciousness about issues of right and wrong that matter. So, for me, it’s a tension between allowing each person to be where they are, instead of where I think they should be, and encouraging each individual to move closer toward Christlikeness in personal character and each gathering to move closter toward Kingdom culture as a corporate manifestation of the social implications of Christlikeness.
    How can I do that as a blogger, when I am passionate about particular issues and perspectives, but do not want to become the equivalent of what we call here in America, a “single issue voter.” Not everything has to be perfectly adjusted to my one view in order for us to connect …
    It’s a mystery to me, really, that I can hold the doctrines I do, and yet find myself relating without conflict and occasionally working alongside people of other Christian theologies – some of them who hold to doctrinal differences that I find particularly disturbing – or maturity levels. And yet still we relate with dignity and no demands to conform in the here-and-now as long as I sense we are aimed at the same ultimate goal of becoming like Christ. Other times, if there are extreme differences in perspectives, I’m uncomfortable up front with getting involved, so I choose not to. Maybe that’s being “chicken,” maybe it’s a wise guarding of my energy for other purposes. So, ecumenical involvement? It depends … I’m caught sometimes between being clear about my beliefs when needed (and not making an issue of it unless needed) and finding a basis for true unity when the range of irreconcilable beliefs is likely to pull things to the point of bursting apart.
    Could I recommend what I consider to be the best, most provocative and practical book I’ve read on the subject? Actually it is biographical, and I’ve read it at least 7 times: *Grey is the Colour of Hope* by Irina Ratushinskaya. An Orthodox believer, she was sentenced to seven years in the Gulag system, supposedly for writing anti-Soviet poetry in the early 1980s. But in reality, the government wanted her out of the way because of her involvement in human rights issues and monitoring violations of the Helsinki Accords.
    This book is the account of her first year in the women’s political zone, in which there were up to a dozen or so other women who shared the same, very small housing area together. The mix varied over time, but there were generally representatives of most major strains within Christianity – Orthodox, Catholic or perhaps Uniate (Orthodox believers who follow the Pope), Baptist, Pentecostal – as well as women of Jewish, atheist, and other backgrounds. Mostly imprisoned for political and religious activism, this group of women with strong beliefs offers an amazing tale of sharing life together, supporting one another even despite sometimes deep disagreements, and maintaining a level of dignity, respect, and humanity that we would hope every family, church, and nation would demonstrate.
    Unity wasn’t based on conformity of doctrine. It wasn’t really even based on what the pragmatist call “functional unity,” where you work together on activities. It was something more, something far deeper, something that both transcended differences and embraced otherness. I wonder if it was more based in hearing the stories of one another, and discerning their character and their trajectories, than on anything else. If so, then anytime we blog without the face of a specific person we know before us and looking back at us, we are writing as if in isolation and are likely to break with the unity we should be desiring and building as disciples.
    I’m not sure how well I’m doing at all of this, and I’ve had three different blogs over the past five years. But I will say this: over the past 12 months, I’ve had more of a sense that real people read what I’m blogging, and my words will affect them, for better or for worse. And that often drives me to say things I otherwise wouldn’t, for the sake of others, and to withhold saying things that I otherwise would, for the sake of others. Maybe that means I’m making progress …


  2. “Could it be that each view on hierarchy in leadership has some currency, but was only meant for specific domains or at specific times?” Not sure but I’m wondering. It seems to me that all of these models have flaws if pushed too far, but equally, that each has somthing to offer the others. Despite what some say, I don’t see the New Testament as particularly procriptive on this issue. It seems to describe a situation of relative diversity.
    We have a saying here though, in the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. I think that pretty much sums it up for me. I see much scope for ideosyncratic blogging on non-essentials, but when it comes to essentials, well not so much. When bloggers claim to be ecumenical in one breath, then proceed to deconstruct the creeds that unite Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions in the next, in isolation from those other traditions, I think they risk much more than they realize.


  3. Matt,
    Enjoyed your post and Brad’s comment. I’ve actually been thinking about this all summer and not just in terms of blogging but any form of communication.
    (“Could it be that each view on hierarchy in leadership has some currency, but was only meant for specific domains or at specific times?” Not sure but I’m wondering.)
    The above statement is what I have begun looking at as varying degrees of authority and there use within different domains/communities. I enjoy your phrase in all things charity.
    It’s like we over complicate the varying roles we play and in seeking our freedom have begun to use our freedom as a weapon to subvert any kind of authority at all. Which infact, brings about bondage and using our gifts to tear down vs. building up. A lack of charity. If that makes any sense?
    For example: When blogging or speaking to other’s in house churches I’m constantly being corrected for calling my pastor, my pastor. He’s not in authority over me, because I to am a sheperd/pastor. However, within that tribe/domain/or culture he is, and it dosen’t bother me in the least. At times I find it comforting. What does bother me is constantly being thumped. Now, within the domain of work, I am a sheperd. And yet, I am also under authority by my boss. No one says, “Hey,Jesus is the only Master/boss”.
    I also believe this does stand in the way of advancing the kingdom and bringing about unity. You said,
    (When bloggers claim to be ecumenical in one breath, then proceed to deconstruct the creeds that unite Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions in the next, in isolation from those other traditions, I think they risk much more than they realize.)
    I say AMEN! It’s a total turn off and causes people to become more defensive instead of actually sharing. Our own personal preferance’s, interpretations, fences, theology, stand in the way of seeing Christ. Now all you see is the person. It’s as bad as saying, “I can love someone, but I don’t have to like them.” It’s a breach statement that’s dependent upon opinion vs. Jesus. It becomes about individualism and agenda’s.
    A very real example would be the Lutheran Missouri Synod. Our synod is going through a tranformation processes. Dialogue has begun between our leaders and those christian leaders outside our synod. Leonard Sweet was invited to share in a positive way how we can utilize our traditions to advance the kingdom. This has caused great controversy just having him speak. As I blog many times those who are more conservative in our church use the negative blogs of others,(especially in regard’s to the priesthood of all believers) as a weapon to state, “Look at what other’s in his movement say” it suddenly becomes a conspiracy. That dosen’t make them right but it certainly dosen’t help us advance.
    It also cork’s my butt because those who are lost within those denominations(which are many)respect and hold on to those traditions as very precious. When something is precious you will protect it with your life. Now you just have more division. Make’s you really understand why our defense budget is so high in the U.S.


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