Medieval Europe’s clergy were a powerful bunch with little to hold them in check – except the Pope and the king. I sympathise with Denis Diderot, who wrote in the eighteenth century that “man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”.
For England, it was a return to biblical theology that helped achieve the beginnings of such a liberation, at least from the clergy’s long-standing monopoly on truth. The bible had been kept out of lay hands and parents were expected to teach their children the Lord’s Prayer in Latin (or were burned to death for doing so in English), while the established church presented itself as the only means to salvation. The distribution of the scriptures in English made it possible for ordinary English people to read and interpret God’s word for themselves, and to see which teachings of the established church were at variance with scripture.
The difference of these two approaches to God’s word underpins how an evangelical church is built. Evangelicals can be found in many denominations in this country and around the world, such as the Pentecostal, Baptist, Anglican, United Reformed and house church movements. An evangelical church can vary somewhat in its structure according to denomination and culture.
But all such churches will share a belief that the word of God is their ultimate authority, not man. Moreover, all evangelicals believe that God has chosen Jesus to be the only go-between for man and God. There is no other priest who can act as mediator – all believers have direct access to God through Jesus.
Jesus himself appointed twelve apostles as the founders of the church and the apostles appointed leaders in the churches they founded. Bishops provide valuable help as overseers, but power rests with the local churches (the people, not the places), the nerve centre of God’s family and of gospel work. Within the individual church, the pastor is charged with teaching the word of God, but the congregation must test his teaching against the words of scripture and dismiss him if he refuses to teach faithfully. The pastor is also charged with care for the congregation, particularly for their spiritual welfare, though this should be shared with others.
The bible describes the church as a body, with Christ as the head and each person having a function within the body. The emphasis is on the different individual roles contributing to the successful working of the body, rather than on any hierarchy of believers. This is because all are sinners, all are under Christ and all are part of Christ’s body. One biblical writer imagines a hand that wishes it were a foot and an ear that wishes it were an eye, as he tries to encourage his readers to serve God with the gifts they have. If the whole body were an ear, how would it hear, he asks?
There is but one body of Christ and it is made up of many parts – elders, teachers, encouragers, the exceptionally prayerful, musicians, administrators, those skilled in hospitality and many others besides. Over them all, even the pastor, is the word of God.