The church and its earthly rulers

By Simon Barrow

This article, revised in early 2002, started life as one of a series of talks on the theme ‘What Future For The Church?’ in 1999. My aim was to develop an argument against ‘high’ church and sacerdotal pretensions from within a radical Catholic tradition, and then to offer a positive re-visioning. By dethroning a certain over-wrought view this piece is not intending to’knock the church’ but to restore its glorious modesty and rightful utility. I oscillate between hope about the church’s calling and the fact that its foundations lie outside of itself — and despair about the actual form it often takes. But I refuse to give up, or fall prey to mere idealisations.

Recently I have had to sit through a number of anxious Anglican sermons concerning ‘sound leadership’ in the church and the need to maintain ‘proper order.’ Such ruminations are often part of a sad and bitter rearguard action against women priests in sections of the Church of England. But they also have a wider purpose – to reinforce a hierarchical (‘high’) understanding of church as an allegedly indispensable component of Catholic thought, and to reinforce the centrality of strictly reserved sacerdotal ministry to the preservation of authority. I am as unpursuaded of the theory as I am of the reality of this particular vision of church.

In the most recent exposition I heard, the homilist was keen to give his top-down ecclesial instincts a fulsome endorsement from the biblical tradition. So kingship in the Hebrew Scriptures was proclaimed to the congregation as ‘blessed by God’: an unambiguous good, apart from a few human failings and foibles that were nothing to do with the nature of the institution itself, he claimed.

There was no reference to the Israelite order of kings being, in essence, the direct offspring of a piece of flagrant disobedience on the part of Yahweh’s followers. There was no recital of the disasters that befell the monarchy at the hands of the imperial big boys: Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Persia, and Rome. The ‘of course the text reminds us that we shouldn’t have to need this’ caveat about hierarchy was evidently well meant. However, it seemed to have no thoroughgoing impact on the ecclesiology that emerged.

Monarchical loss and the apostolate of hope

As Walter Brueggemann points out in his magisterial ‘Theology of the Old Testament’ (Fortress, 1997), it was very largely the awkward prophets (passim) and various genealogically dubious heirs (e.g. Genesis 19. 30-38, Ruth 4.18-22, 1 Kings 14.21 etc.) who sustained ‘the line of David’, not the kings or priests. God loves bastards and oddballs too, it seems; perhaps even more than the dead weight of the officially respectable.

In fact, as Tom Hurcombe points out in a recent article (‘Distestablishing the kingdom’,see below), the whole Hebrew successionist narrative is littered with irony — and with the inexorable breakdown of the monarchical and nationalistic systems upon which Yahweh’s people were tempted to rely. Many simply could not grasp the awkward fact that God’s purposes pointed in a quite different direction, towards communion rather than compulsion or contract.

By comparison, Jesus has turned out to be a most unkingly King. His domain upsets all earthly kingdoms. Though he came to be seen as a breakaway figure in ancient Judaism, his intention seems to have been to restore the Jewish belief in God as the only ruler, at a time when many had forgotten what extraordinary disasters both their southern and northern attempts at monarchy were. So we cannot simply extrapolate the language of kingship as Christians applied it to Jesus and use that to justify the resumption of monarchical rule.

Maybe this is a vital (and hopeful) lesson for the church to heed today, when Protestant Christendom is so evidently unraveling and the Roman magesterium is visibly cracking. Loss of status and power is painful for some. But it may be that we are being offered the possibility of a better way if only we can see it.

What some still perceive as immovable, however, is the weighty foundation stone of a certain Apostolic Order from on high. It turns out, however, that the rock of Peter (Matthew 16. 21-27) — frequently misinterpreted in terms of church as a kind of ‘ontological reality’– is about something quite different from this in its originating context. For what it actually heralds, in the light of St Matthew’s preoccupation with Jesus as the ‘new Moses’, is the transmission of the faith of a prophetic movement. It is the prophetic succession that provides the context in which the real identity of the Jesus the Christ becomes known. He is not a founder of church or empire, but the person in whom religious and political power gives way to the threateningly gentle reign of the Crucified One.

Note the names in the genealogy the Gospel provides for Jesus. They are not priests. When Christ is described as what we now call a ‘priest’ in the New Testament it is as the embodiment of a transformed servant community that abolishes sacrifice and signals impending doom for a narrow religious dominance. Similarly, the New Testament documents presuppose a ‘priesthood of believers’ as the basis for developing particular, supportive ministries of leadership and inspiration. The primary ordination remains baptism, as the Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeecks pointed out in his extraordinary book, Ministry. The New Testament language of ordinatio is very different to much of what has come after. This is not to say that we should copy an earlier (supposedly ideal) model, but that we should be suspicious of the manipulation of sacred texts to support our instititions.

Back to St Matthew. The subtle historical irony of ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven’ is that it has frequently happened, and sometimes disastrously so! That is rarely noticed by those who expound on this text. Nor is the anachronistic nature of the word ‘church’ placed on the mouth of Jesus by the redactor.

But rather than seeing the subversive ‘Jesus movement’ as the primary authenticating basis of church, the elaborate edifice we believers subsequently built upon it, hierarchical exegetes wrongly equate this term with individuals, and the institutional Church (capital ‘C’) with Paul’s ‘Body of Christ’.

All this is in danger of making a Procrustean mess of both the historical texts and of the historical tradition — the kind of mess many of our churches have been self-interestedly perpetuating for far too long. The hierarchs sadly mistake being preserved in truth with being preserved in aspic.

A new vision of church serving the demanding catholicity of God

An alternative, liberating Catholic understanding of church – one that has faced the rightful challenge of Anabaptists and others – might say something like this instead:

1. According to the Gospels God comes closest to us in Jesus’ proximity to real, suffering human flesh. This means that the organized Body of Christ, as ekklesia and sacrament, is authentic only when it serves both the crucified and the Crucified. When it serves other purposes it betrays its only basis for existing – the life of its Lord.

2. While the ‘Jesus movement’ cannot be equated with ecclesial institutions, it is not just about individuals fixated on Jesus either, though it has sometimes masqueraded as that.  It is first of all a solidarity for marginalized, believing people (the community of the Beatitudes) as they discover their God-given worth in defiance of the those dominating religious and political mediations that Jesus so forcefully challenged. He even endured state execution at the hands of those same powers, because he denied their right to rule at the expense of those whom God had called. His vindication was theirs too. Historically, the victimizing ‘religion of power’ has sometimes borne an uncomfortable resemblance to what we have named ‘the Church’. But it does not have to be so.

3. In order to fashion what Elizabeth Fiorenza has called ‘an ekklesia of equals’, Jesus’ companionship practice seems to have been that of preferential, though not exclusive, love of the outsider. His community intended a holy egalitarianism. (‘Call no-one father’, ‘it shall not be so among you’, ‘I call you no longer servants but friends’, ‘the first shall be last’, and so on.)  We may struggle with this in a complex and ambiguous world, but we certainly cannot use or bypass it to legitimize a hierarchical order in Christ’s name.

4. We need to remind ourselves that Jesus did not found ‘the Church’, his later followers did. And what they (we) have founded will withstand the world’s storms only insofar as it is — in whatever fleeting measure — a sign and sacrament of something much more important than itself, namely the coming reign of God. For loyalty to God’s freedom movement is what constitutes ‘the true church’ (Jon Sobrino). This is sometimes found in the least likely places, just as it is often absent in the most expected ones.

5. The church we have inherited is therefore a heuristic response to the dynamic but reliable Gospel in our changing present, rather an ontological order determined from the past. This means that true Apostolic succession is primarily about faithfulness passed through the people of God. It is not about what Hugh Montefiore has amusingly dubbed the ‘pipeline grace’ of authority conveyed through an office. The latter may help if it advances the former, though the evidence of history is that it sometimes has not. So God has bypassed it where necessary. What we need today is not solidified hierarchy but a mutually accountable ecumenical space for an evolving sensus fidelium. Authority must flow from a vulnerable, committed rediscovery of the lived Word.

6. This principle also applies to the threefold Catholic order of deacons, priests and bishops — which is a temporal instrument to help the transforming movement of Christ to endure by means of a ‘routinization of charisma’.  Its blessing is not that it is unchangeable, but that it is enabling and provisional. For its spiritual welfare it must never be allowed to forget its own inherent limits. It needs constantly to be confronted and reformed by the subversive memory of Jesus (Marcus Borg). It also needs to contemplate the benefits and claims of other systems for achieving the same ends, including the avowedly non-hierarchical fellowship of the Society of Friends.

6. The church’s modus vivendi is (or ought to be) service not servitude; the compelling discipline of lived integrity, not the compulsion of a ‘command system’. The key issue is not ‘who among us will rule?’ but ‘what kind of leadership, to what and whose ends?’

7. Arguments and debates about ‘primacy’ and ‘headship’ are invariably anti-evangelical. An ecumenism that focuses on how to resolve them on their own terms is liable to be unfaithful to the impulse of God in the world, which concerns the welfare of the oikumene, the whole inhabited earth. When the church argues too much about its own authority and order it has lost the plot, substituting what is of secondary importance for what is of primary worth.  The goal of organic unity is no longer appropriate. What is urgently needed is visible inter-communion, witness and service.

8. Only when the church discovers the radical demands of God’s domain in the world will it also discover an adequate basis for its unity. The sign of this will most likely be unity-in-diversity, the tangible integrity of difference, mutuality in distinction, and ‘dispersed authority’ rather than the resuscitation of a Roman (or some other) quasi-imperial system.

9. There will be no Temple in God’s new creation. So we had better start getting used to this fact! For according to the Johannine Christ, ‘One day we will worship neither in Jerusalem nor on this mountain, but in spirit and in truth.’  We live in an era of the Spirit, a moment when for the first time in human history we have an opportunity to scan the spiritual genealogy of humankind. This is not a time for retreat, retrenchment or reaction.

10. Of course we have to accept the limits imposed on our churches and us by the need for effective organisation, the impact of ‘gifts differing’, and simple human waywardness. But we must be aiming for church as pilgrim and catalyst for a new creation, not church as institution, an end or kingdom in itself. The church should seek to transcend its own forms. To refuse to use exclusion as the basis for group identity, for instance.. Claims to catholicity (Eastern or Western) should be about the breadth and depth of transformed relationships, not the pyramidal heights of aspiration.

11. In summary, the key issue for the church of Christ is to discern and respond, collectively and ecumenically, to where the Spirit and truth is. Self-perpetuation is not the right course and mere survival is not enough. To give life, the church may even have to die like its Lord. It will certainly need permanent reform in order to keep up with the pace of an abiding Gospel in a changing world.


Marcus Borg, Jesus, A New Vision (Harper San Francisco, 1991).
Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress Press, 1997).
Tom Hurcombe, ‘Disestablishing the kingdom’, in Ed. Kenneth Leech, Setting the Church of England Free (Jubilee Group, 2001)
Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals (Crossroads, 1994)
Edward Schillebeecks, Ministry (SCM Press, 1970).
Jon Sobrino, The True Church and the Poor (SCM, 1986).

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