The Stealth Episcopates

No, it’s not the new Dan Brown novel ;)

One of the things that we’ve been using this blog to inquire about is the concept of authority in the church. In many forms of Protestantism, churches have tended to be pretty much self-governing. The two exceptions that I can think of would be the Lutherans and the Anglicans. And latter have insisted that they constitute a via media between Rome and the Reformers. So local church government, and that’s that.

Or is it?

A funny thing in many types of social system is the tendency for power to centralize, I do not believe that this is a revolutionary or astonishing statement. What about Protestant churches? What I’ve seen in Protestant circles, especially in the era of social media and streaming online video is this growth of a set of Protestant luminaries whose influence goes beyond what a popular Christian writer or speaker might have enjoyed even a decade ago. Where at one time Christians might pile into one of the larger churches in a community to hear an author speak and then buy said author’s book and repeat such a practice, oh maybe four times a year if they were really devout about it, now it is possible to listen to the Big Name Pastor’s every sermon, read their blog, and even be their Facebook “friend” if you are among the hardcore followers.

It is possible now to be constantly measuring the local church against the church of the Big Name Pastor. What if the Big Name Pastor takes a different position than the local church pastor? Well, if you’re a confirmed fanboy (and this phenomenon seems to be predominantly male – like most fanboy-ism) you’re hearing the Big Name Pastor’s views every day, reading them, Tweeting them, and so on while the local church pastor only gets 20-30 minutes of your Sunday. The influence of the Big Name Pastors can only grow in this kind of environment.

What happens in turn is that many congregations and many denominations are likely to be swept along by this kind of influence. When one reads about Piper and Driscoll having their own personal-branded seminaries or about the reach and influence of other mega-pastors, it seems to go to the point where these men clearly have an influence on entire denominational milieux that is surely akin to the influence that someone like a bishop might have.

I know that some people like and some people dislike both Piper and Driscoll, this isn’t really about them though and whether we should cheer or jeer their ministry networks, seminaries, and publishing empires. Rather what this is about is whether or not Protestants recognize the growth of these sorts of influential, hierarchical, as-yet informal networks of church leaders as things that have the possibility of congealing into what churches in other times and places would call episcopates. At a time when many Protestants seem to be utterly disinterested in denominational superstructures, when it seems like more and more churches are less and less likely to be affiliated with any regional or national body, there may be a construction of other lines of authority already underway.