There is a common view that the Catholic Church is steeped in an organizational, institutional hierarchy of great depth. That view can even be found among Catholics. But is it true? As one who has spent my career in the corporate world, I am amazed when I consider how “flat” the structure of the Church really is.
There are three kinds of ordination within the Catholic Church, and all three of these roles are rooted in Sacred Scripture. The first are deacons, or diakonos in Sacred Scripture, which we can find in Philippians 1:1, and 1 Timothy 3:8-13. In the role of deacons today, they have the authority to baptize, witness a marriage, proclaim the Gospel, preach and teach, and preside at a funeral (without a Mass). While deacons are usually assigned to a specific parish, one of their primary functions is to serve the bishop in whatever capacity may be needed. A deacon is not a priest.
The second kind of ordination are priests or presbyteros (often translated as “elders”), in Sacred Scripture and can be found throughout the New Testament church (Acts 14:23, 15:2-6, 15:22, 16:4, 1 Timothy 5:17, Titus 1:5). They are associated with the apostles and their work. In the role of priests today, they can of course conduct the functions assigned to a deacon, and they can also celebrate the sacraments of Eucharist, Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. And if the bishop is not available, they can celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. I believe church history shows this role has developed as the bishops have shared more of their ministerial gifts with our priests.
The third kind of ordination are bishops, known in Sacred Scripture as the episkopos and we find in Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-2, and Titus 1:7. A bishop is a priest who has been ordained in the specific role we view as a successor to the apostles. He is the overseer of all priestly functions within his diocese, can celebrate all of the sacraments, and is the normal minister of the sacrament of Confirmation. Only a bishop can lay hands and confer the sacrament of Holy Orders and ordain a priest or deacon.
So the question might arise, where is the Pope in all of that? The Pope is simply a bishop who has been called to serve in the chair of St. Peter, who was the leader of the apostles. He receives the keys of the kingdom Christ gave to Peter (Matthew 16:19), which preserves the unity of the Church. He has primacy in the Church, and all bishops are accountable to him. But he is not “ordained” as Pope; he is the bishop of Rome; a bishop among bishops.
Other titles may certainly be conferred, but those titles don’t translate into more of a hierarchal structure. A Monsignor is simply an honorary title for a priest who has dedicated many years of good and faithful service. An archbishop has no difference in authority than any bishop; he simply presides over an archdiocese and that distinction is due to size. A cardinal is a bishop who has been appointed to the college of cardinals, who have the responsibility to elect the pope. But none of these positions translate into a different level on the organizational structure or a different type of ordination.
So in terms of hierarchal, reporting structure you have the pope, the bishops of the world, and priests/deacons who serve under the bishops. That’s pretty darn flat for an organization that has over a billion people. Each of the approximately 3000 diocesan bishops are in general a direct report to the Pope. There is some minor oversight from a province. The bishop of the province could investigate claims against a bishop and report those to Rome, or could appoint a temporary administrator when there is a vacancy of a bishop in a diocese. But the appointment and removal of a bishop comes from Rome. Of course, the Pope has some help in that regard – the Congregation for Bishops makes recommendations to the Pope he will then approve, or not. The bishop receives his authority to govern a diocese because he’s been validly ordained a bishop and because he’s in communion with the bishop of Rome (the guy with the keys from Matthew 16:19).
The form of church governance found in Scripture and in the Catholic Church is known as “episcopal.” It is hierarchal in structure and the chief authority over a group of local churches is the bishop. This is the role we see St. Paul in throughout Scripture. You can also see a similar structure in the Orthodox Churches, and some Protestant churches have retained this structure like Anglicans and Methodists.
Most Protestant churches though use a governance model known as “congregationalism” or the “autonomy of the local congregation.” This is a system of church governance in which every local church congregation is independent, ecclesiastically sovereign, and “autonomous.” These are the congregations that hire their own pastors. Some of these groups do require certain guidelines be followed and the candidates for pastor meet certain requirements if you want to remain affiliated with a larger group (like the Lutheran Missouri Synod for example). Others do not have any guidelines and leave it to the individual congregation to determine their own standards for pastorship.
Advocates for the model of autonomy of the local congregation will claim the basis for this is to be found in Sacred Scripture. I’ve reviewed the claims made where Scripture supports this many times and found them to be quite lacking. One example often given is found in Acts 6:1-6 where there was conflict between two groups over the way food was being distributed. The apostles told them to choose men from among them who would be made responsible for this task, so the work of the apostles to preach and teach the Gospel could continue without this distraction. This is most likely the seeds of the beginning of the diaconate. However, while chosen by the congregation, these men were not put in the role to pastor a congregation.
What we do see in Scripture is a passage already reviewed, where Christ refers conflict among believers to “the church” for resolution (Matthew 18:15-17). While a local congregation could implement this practice internally, what happens when the disagreement is between two believers from different congregations? “The church” has to be a known, visible entity that is larger than any independent congregation.
We see the apostles are in a role of supervision over multiple congregations. St. Paul’s letters show he established various congregations but then still retains his authority over them, even after he’s moved on. He writes to the Corinthians “Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.” (1 Corinthians 7:17) and “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:28) We would see the role St. Paul has in governing multiple congregations to be the same as our bishops today.
And perhaps most telling is when St. Paul identifies the qualifications for ordained ministry. He never sends these to a local congregation like the Corinthians, or the Philippians or the Thessalonians. If the intent had been they were to appoint their own leadership, he most certainly would have. But instead, he sends them to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:1-13) and Titus (Titus 1:5-9), those who had been ordained and worked alongside him in the faith. In fact, he specifically tells Titus “This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5) We also see Paul and Barnabas doing the same in the book of Acts – “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.” (Acts 14:23). There is simply no support found in the Bible that congregations were supposed to determine their own leadership. It fails to allow for a truly Biblical model of authority as presented in my last several posts, for what pastor can have authority over a congregation if the congregation has the ability to remove him? The only Biblical model we see to establish elders over a congregation is for them to be appointed by someone who is outside the congregation and has a larger overseer role.
My last several posts have covered the topic of the authority Christ entrusted to his apostles. But what was the intention after those apostles had died? My next post will move into the topic of apostolic succession and its Biblical roots.