Little Popes


Regardless of what the Gospel of Matthew might report, the historical Jesus apparently made no provisions for how his flock should be led should anything happen to Jesus himself. He wasn't much for structure, ritual, and hierarchy. Ever since Jesus was executed, this problem of leadership has led to differences of opinion, sectarian conflicts, and irony. The ministers of God-fearing, Bible-believing American Baptist congregations are a case in point.


A Baptist minister commonly thinks of himself as the furthest thing from the Pope. American Christians have largely divested themselves of the ecclesiastical structure of bishops, their traditions, and their unusual hats. They have gone pretty far down the road of simply disowning over a thousand years of traditions built up by the Catholic Church. Respect for the pope, who is sometimes identified with the anti-Christ, is one tradition that conservative Protestants have abandoned with glee. In a way, however, the independent Baptist minister who thinks of his faith as free from the inventions of the Roman Church is actually something of a little pope himself. Like the pope, he claims spiritual authority while accepting no one else's authority over himself. Like the pope, he occupies a position not found in the Bible.


On a recent trip to Eastern Washington, I stayed in the home of a woman who attends a conservative, independent Christian church. The pastor's kids, reportedly, can do no wrong. They are allowed to act out in the church as if it is their father's feudal manor. The pastor also exercises unaudited access to church funds, sometimes for personal use. In a way, the church belongs to the pastor. In American Christianity, there is a strong congregationalist bent, which means that American Christians tend to recognize little if any spiritual authority above the level of the minister. The conservative minister, however, certainly enjoys spiritual authority over members of his congregation. Congregants are expected to accept the minister as called by God to lead them. It's this divine sanction that got my hard-core conservative Christian neighbor accused of "church shopping." He would change congregations looking for a minister that seemed right to him. Among conservative American Christians, picking a minister in this way is ungodly because it gives the lay Christian some measure of control over their ministers. Such attempts at individual authority are not appreciated, and even a home-schooling, Bible-believing man come under criticism for having the audacity to question his minister, even implicitly. While the minister has supernatural authority granted by the Holy Ghost, no one has any particular authority over the the minister. The minister is the top man, so letting his kids run a little wild only makes sense. He's even more autonomous than a feudal lord, who would always have another more powerful feudal lord above him. And this style of ministerial leadership is not just an Eastern Washington phenomenon. My late wife saw a similar case of a pastor and his family being treated like nobility at a black church in Cincinnati. There is no bishop over these ministers to keep them in line or to put their authority into perspective.


Now getting rid of bishops made a sort of sense. You don't find bishops in the New Testament. They turn up early, around AD 100, but not early enough to get into the Bible. Christians in America, especially Baptists, have championed the return to a more original Christianity, especially by deprecating the 2nd-century innovation of bishops. The problem is, independent ministers don't appear in the Bible, either. The leaders of the early churches were the "elders" or "superintendents," and each congregation had a council of them. There was no one single boss on top. Even Saint Paul, specially recruited by Jesus to be an apostle, didn't claim to be the head of the congregations he started. Nor did he leave anyone particular in charge when he traveled the Roman Empire as a Christianity's greatest missionary. His congregations don't even seem to have had elders or superintendents, just individual members inspired by the Spirit one way or another.


The problem with trying to return to a more original expression of Christianity is that individual leaders are simply more efficient than councils. They might not be Biblical, but they work better. In the second century, Christian churches from one end of the Roman Empire to the other gave up their councils and accepted monarchical bishops and individual priests as spiritual authorities. Likewise for conservative American Christians: having a single boss at the top is such an effective organizational structure that they can't give it up. The Roman Catholic Church has a pope because it works to have a top boss, and that's why the independent Protestant churches feature popes in miniature.