TEXT: Matt 18:20
“20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.“
Protestantism relies very heavily (some might say too heavily) upon this promise. Reading the writings of the Church Fathers from the generation immediately following the time of the apostles, it seems at first glance that many, even revered, names in the early church too often to forget this promise. This in not the case. Their interpretation was that as Christ sent the Holy Ghost to comfort believers (John 14:16), so did He ordain bishops for the church to stand in His stead. Thus, the presence of the bishop was seen as the fulfillment of this promise. Protestants who seek to return to the practices of the "early church" must recognize that this movement toward a formal ecclesiastical structure modeled on monarchy was a strong & relatively early development within the church. It cannot be easily dismissed that many early church leaders, some personal students of the 12 directly, approved of & strongly championed the institution of a formal church structure utilizing little, if any, democratic input from the laity.
For instance, the aged & revered martyr, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, saw the person of the bishop as this promised presence of Christ Himself, reasoning that one must have as much respect for the messenger as one has for the One that sent him. Therefore, he saw it as unlawful for anyone to baptize or "make love" (in the Greek it's not as kinky as it seems in English!) ie hold a "love feast"1 without the bishop present else, as Ignatius sees it, Christ is not present.2
Firstly, it should be observed that being "early" is not an automatic correlation to being "right." At first, Christians under the direction of the apostles practiced a form of communism that Karl Marx would have readily recognized, where all property, food & assets were held in common & work was volunteered by the able (Acts 2:44-47). Predictably, everybody ate heartily but no one wanted to work to grow more food (2 Thess 3:10 & 12)! Eventually, Paul would dispense with this communist schema declaring, "if any would not work, neither should he eat" (2 Thess 3:11) & that each should "eat their own bread" (2 Thess 3:12). Suddenly, there was an eager workforce enough to grow plenty of food for all. There is hardly a Christian today who would advocate communism & yet, such was the practice of the Biblical early church. This, then, is the classic example of "early" not being "right."
Secondly, it must be recognized that how much formal structure should be attached to the Church has been a plaguing issue since the departure of the apostles. It is a subject fraught with the allure of power, the trap of excess riches & ultimately a responsibility to God which, in the snare of worldly temptation, can be too easily dismissed & forgotten. In the final analysis, Luther observed, it is the individual "sheep" that is responsible for recognizing, discerning & responding to the voice of the true "Shepherd" (John Ch 10; see blog post on 10:1-5, "Emergence of the Individual"). How the bureaucracy of any given church organization argues for its preference would seem to be a more worldly matter than an individual believer need internalize for such arguments are all but irrelevant. For the individual, Ignatius notwithstanding, there is this promise from the Lord of all creation, that even if all one can do is find fellowship with but one other believer, the King of the Universe is with them in spirit, but as a body ie the Body of Christ ie The Church.
1 probably a reference to Holy Communion aka the Lord's Supper or Lord's Table
2 Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, Ch. 8; St. Ignatius of Antioch, (c.AD110); http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0109.htm accessed 8/9/10