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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ignatius, Multi-Site, and the "New Episcopalianism"


What do these guys have in common?  (A little church history experiment.)

There is a good bit of controversy about how "church government" worked in the New Testament, and it seems that within certain limits and along certain general themes, there may have been a good bit of diversity.  But it also seems pretty clear to most that in the various 1st-century churches scattered among the cities of the Roman Empire, the leaders were people alternately called elders (Grk.: presbyteroi) or pastors/shepherds or bishops/overseers.  (See for example 1 Pet. 5:1-2, where you find all the terms in one place.)  In the second century, that began to change.  The office of bishop (Grk.: episkopoi) emerged as the individual leader of the church in a particular city, and he was assisted by a number of elders/pastors, a.k.a. priests (an English word derived from presbyteroi).  You begin to see this pattern emerging in the very edifying epistles of Ignatius, for example (that's him in the picture above on the left getting eaten by lions), and perhaps also as early as the careers of Timothy and Titus.

Some have speculated that one reason for the development of a hierarchy with a bishop on top in each town is that it mirrored the organization of provincial Roman governments.  But another reason is quite simply that the church grew beyond its primitive structure.  The churches Paul planted, for instance, started out with enough people to cram into a few large houses, or just one.  But these "house-churches" (which were probably a lot like what we call "small groups" today) conceived of themselves as being one collective church in a city.  (See for example the letters to the churches in the province of Asia in Revelation.)  As there became more and more house-groups in a given city, the new structure emerged to give them some kind of organizational cohesion and keep them connected to the tradition of the apostles and the church throughout the world.

And that leads us to the guy on the right, Dave Ferguson, the pastor of Community Christian Church in the Chicagoland suburbs.  Ferguson is a pioneer and guru of "multi-site" churches.  A multi-site church is a single church that "meets" in multiple locations with a single sermon preached in all the locations either by multiple preachers or by a single broadcast message.  These things are pretty cool these days, and they're popping up all over the place—that is, if you define "all over the place" as generally affluent urban/suburban areas of large metropolises, which also happen to be the sort of places where early Christianity first gained a foothold, I think.

So it occurred to me the other day that a guy like Ignatius in the second century (or Augustine in the 5th, or for all I know my local Catholic bishop today, or maybe even John Calvin running the show in Geneva) must have thought of his church exactly the way Dave Ferguson thinks of his: multi-site.  (What do you think the lectionary is but a way of getting all priests to read and preach on the same text at the same time?)  And if he had videoconferencing technology, he probably would have used it (drawing the line at the Lord's Supper, I think).

And that made me wonder what will happen to these multi-site churches over the next 100 years or so.  Are we seeing a "New Episcopalianism"?  I don't mean a new Anglicanism (i.e., Church-of-England-ism, from which the U.S. Episcopal Church is derived) but a revived episcopal (from episkopos) church government style with what we now call the "lead pastor" as the bishop over a whole virtual "city" with simultaneous meetings in multiple places.  We might even include in this category such "networks" and "associations" as are centered at Willow Creek and Saddleback, overseen by Bill Hybels and Rick Warren respectively.

Will this New Episcopalianism take over everything and dominate the church scene in the next century or two so that there will be no independent congregations or traditional denominational structures of any sort left?  I doubt it.  But what if it did?  Mightn't that set the stage for a new evangelical "ecumenical council" attended by many or most of these new "bishops" such as that which give birth to the Nicene Creed?  And would that not enable true peer-to-peer engagement with the other bishop-led wings of the faith, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, not to mention fast-growing black churches already led by guys called "bishop"?

Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

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