I’ve begun to read Walter Lowrie’s classic work The church and its organization in primitive and Catholic times: an interpretation of Rudolph Sohm’s Kirchenrecht, and less than 20 pages in I’m already encountering some thought-provoking gems. Here is one:
But no satisfying idea of the Church as a legally constituted society has ever been formulated, nor ever can be; for a legal constitution (whether jure humano or jure divino) is opposed to the nature of the Church. It is here the “visible Church” that is meant, the kingdom of God, which “is not of this world,” and never can be ruled by worldly means (by a polity conformable to the kingdoms of this world), but only by God’s Spirit. And yet the one point upon which all denominations of Christians are united (except the society of Friends [Quakers--AF]) is the belief that some form or another of ecclesiastical polity (legally constituted organization) is divinely prescribed, or at the very least is practically necessary for the maintenance of a visible Church of Christ; and, further, that some legal constitution has from the beginning been in force. (9-10)
It is somewhat shocking to hear someone so bluntly argue that the church is in fact not a polis nowadays. It’s more hip to follow the anabaptists (or at least, so it seems to me). And another:
…if the privileges and and authority which were enjoyed by a plurality of bishops in the congregation had been accounted theirs by right (in the strict sense — as depending upon a fact in the past which was uncontrollable in the present), the authority of the single bishop could not have been established, or at least not without a contest which would have left imperishable traces. Similarly, if the equal authority in the Church which was enjoyed by all diocesan bishops in the third century had been legally secured to them, — that is, if the Church had been legally organized, as the diocese or parish already was, — metropolitan, patriarchal, or papal authority could not have been successfully asserted. (10-11)
This argument is suggesting, in other words, if the earlier forms of church government were understood to be mandated by divine right, then the church never would have changed them. But they seem to have done so quite organically, which suggests that the church the whole world over in the first few centuries understood church polity to be an issue of human prudence only, not one where God had mandated only one correct answer.