For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow… Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 1 Cor 3:4-7; 1:13
The question of Authority in organic expressions of church fellowship gets to the heart of a common and sometimes stifling concern for Christians who are considering a more organic approach to church life. To address this question, we can observe the following in light of the passage cited above: Today we have, figuratively speaking, replaced Paul and Apollos with our denominational preferences for our authority. We are meant to be one in Christ, and submitted to Him by way of our submission to one another, in love. It’s not that true authority can’t be found in institutional churches, but you may have to look a little harder for it, and it most certainly can be found outside of that kind of structured environment.
What are we saying when we choose to take comfort under the authority of a denominational construct, and proclaim that it can’t be found in a small, humble gathering of authentic believers submitted to one another in love? To suggest this actually indicts the logic surrounding institutional authority: Are we not replacing God with man? On what basis would we claim that God’s authority only exists in a carnal 501c3 construct? What is it about that institution that so impresses us that so many only recognize God’s authority there? Is not all denominational authority ultimately passing through mere men? And if, in those cases, it ultimately rests with God anyway, what difference does it make when that authority takes an “organic”, non-501c3 path? In submitting ourselves to one another properly, we are ultimately submitted to our Lord. That kind of authority does not depend on carnal institutions. In fact, relying solely on institutional authority can very easily lead to a false sense of security. Can error and abuses of authority be found in organic churches? Absolutely. But those same errors and abuses are found in traditional churches as well, and believers must be prepared and equipped to discern this – wherever they occur. It may be safe to assume that more discerning and testing goes on in small, organic gatherings than in large, institutional churches… and that’s a good thing! How easy it is today to believe that what is spoken is true because it was spoken from behind a pulpit to a large crowd of hearers! In a small group setting, it is generally accepted behavior to discern and interact with what is said, discussing and challenging along the way, if necessary.
While elders and prophets are the prescribed biblical model for the administration and leadership of the church, that biblical model of leadership and guidance is meant to be applied at a city level – not a congregational level. If you search the pages of scripture you will find this to be the case. Moreover, we must not replace vital “one-anothering” and adminstration of the spirtual gifts, intended for all believers, with spoon-fed activities and programs, leaving the bulk of our spiritual sustenance up to a professional clergy. (If you were to ask most pastors today, most would say they’d like to see more people in their congregations taking personal responsibility for their spiritual growth.)
As believers, if we look to the top of a denominational structure to be spiritually authoritative, we make a significant error in biblical and doctrinal logic. We are instructed to submit ourselves one to another. In doing this, we make ourselves transparent before those who can most plainly see our need. Proper authority comes much more through the Holy Spirit, operating in horizontal relationships, than it does through hierarchical organizational ones. There is great danger associated with replacing organic, Spirit-based authority with organizational authority. It both 1) minimizes the identification of believers as priests and their responsibilities to one another, and 2) ascribes to carnal organizations a function which ultimately belongs to God, and is to be carried out by all believers. In fact, there are clear benefits to submitting to true spirit-based authority. With organic church, for example, reliance on spiritual gifts and taking personal responsibility for spiritual growth is a vital element of fellowship, regularly incorporated into the life of the believer. And it’s difficult to hide it if it’s not happening.