Calling in the Romans

In the middle third century a Church council assembled at Antioch and deposed the local bishop, Paul of Samosata. Paul appears to have taught that Christ was a mere man infused with the divine, a view at odds with the dominant consensus about Jesus’ pre-existence. Unfortunately for the council Paul held a government position and also had the backing of the queen of Palmyra. The other bishops were consequently unable to actually dislodge him until after the Roman emperor Aurelian defeated the queen and reasserted control over the eastern empire. The bishops applied to Aurelian to pry Paul loose and the emperor deferred to the bishops of Italy and Rome.

“Vexilloid of the Roman Empire” by Ssolbergj

Discussion of this incident seems to focus on the theology as well as accusations of abuse of position and self-enrichment recorded by Eusebius [1]. But the ties to civil government clearly made the problem more difficult for the early church to address — they provided Paul with resources to resist the other bishops. An underlying issue is summed up in a comment in the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. The behavior of Paul “offers significant evidence that urban churches were seeking men of power and culture for their bishops.”[2]  This points to a similarity in functional usage between the activity of civil government and the office of bishop.  The latter had become compatible with the exercise of autocratic authority.

The office of bishop seems to have originally been anchored in a plurality of leadership and by this time it was clearly losing that character. One cause put forth as an impetus was a need for strong leadership in the second-century theological controversies. Other contributors have been suggested. I recently found an argument by Joanna Dewey that posits writing and literacy as a mechanism of control which facilitated “…the shift to manuscript-based authority and to the hegemony and control of Christian churches by a small, educated male elite.”[3]

I am fairly new to academic writings on the early church but so far most of what I’ve read seems to look right past issues of process and structure.  For example Dewey has some very interesting things to say about orality in the first-century church but also appears to overstate the usefulness of writing in the exercise of control. In the context of ancient Rome she writes that the “…administrative letter was the essential tool for regulating the empire’s business…”[4]

Which appears to simply ignore practical realities of time and distance  communications in the ancient world.[5]  I would suggest instead that the essential tool for regulating the business of empire was loyal and reasonably competent local administration. Given this there is a better candidate driving the development of monoepiscopacy and its subsequent dysfunctional compatibility with autocratic Roman power. These are rooted in general observations on organization that seems to apply to the church as well.

Once any group of people expands beyond a certain point in numbers and scope of activity some degree of organization becomes necessary. It allows for specialization and cooperation, increasing the reach of the group beyond what individuals are capable of.  This can grow up organically at small scales as individuals are found to have aptitudes for particular roles.  Such organic development seems to characterize the apostles’ call to recruit people to administrate the distribution of support to widows. But in the centuries following this nascent bit of organizing something clearly went off the rails.

The activities of large numbers of people are not well administrated by informal methods. Whatever the actual initial impetus for monoepiscopacy, the efficiency of the expedient would rapidly lead to consolidation of function as an organizational form. It’s not difficult to see where this would come from. Monarchy was a familiar form in the ancient world. And administration of Roman provinces was carried out by governors who combined supreme civil and military authority.

In all fairness the early church didn’t have much in the way of alternative examples. But an inherent conflict exists between the tendencies of autocratic forms and what Jesus had in mind when he called leaders to be servants. Autocratic leadership forms (and styles) work best when the leader is both highly directive and able to cultivate initiative on the part of subordinates who are both loyal and competent. This is an organizational thought process which does not seem inherently conducive to either pastoral ministry or the cultivation of community. With the right leaders it might be theoretically possible to navigate.

But salt in the inevitable bits of sloth, hubris, and avarice, along with assorted other vices and things come apart. Sloth is perhaps the most insidious as it is common, easy to camouflage, and locks other problems in place. As all organizations grow and roles differentiate, individuals and groups with specialized tasks rapidly become used to doing things in particular ways. There are a limited number of things anyone can attend to and sloth provides a powerful incentive to attend to as few things as possible. Which means most people and groups will cease to look beyond their specialized roles and become highly resistant to changing those roles.

When change inevitably becomes necessary this puts specialized roles in the larger group out of sync with each other, spawning conflict.  This in turn, creates an incentive for competition within an organization as individuals and groups seek to reinforce their specialized roles. In hierarchical structures some will seek to improve their position within the hierarchy at the expense of others — the more energetic and adaptable among them will be the most successful at this. This competition puts individuals and groups at cross-purposes with each other, and with whatever the original goals of the larger group may have been.

Autocratic structures are inherently dependent on capable and energetic top leadership to counter sloth and reign in competition in order to stay on mission. This dependency increases as the structure grows in size and in the scope of activity. The dependency also builds in a high vulnerability to the avarice of such leadership, as well as a high vulnerability to the avarice of energetic subordinates, if such a leader is lacking.  The vulnerability can be mitigated by reliance on rigid codes of behavior, such as in military organizations, but this brings problems of its own.  Autocratic systems can rapidly come to be all about giving and following directives, and competition over who is giving directives to whom.

The only remedy for the misbehavior of an entrenched autocrat such as Paul of Samosata is the application of raw power. The bishops were obliged to find a more powerful autocrat and they called in the Romans.

The foregoing ought to be a cautionary tale for modern churches and para-church ministries, particularly large ones. We have had a couple of millennia to come up with better ways to do administration but we’re really no different. All modern administrative structures have at least some autocratic aspects. And all have the tendency noted above to reinforce specialized roles at the expense of the overall group. This causes an organization to drift toward stagnation and this drift increases with size.

Large organizations are likely impossible to run any other way. And attempts to counter this in modern corporations, such as by using oversight by an independent board, bring additional baggage. Most churches in the US likely borrow such corporate forms from the culture without giving them a second thought.

Churches call their governance various things (such as elder or deacon boards) but most of them are likely a functional and legal board of directors of a state-charted non-profit corporation. This governing board is bound to legal and ethical obligations that are independent of the organization’s defined structure. And some of these obligations encompass further imperatives that can potentially operate at cross purposes with a church’s ministry.

One example (among others) might illustrate this. Board members have ethical obligations to donors which drives a duty to investigate allegations of mishandling of the funds and assets of the corporation. Board members consequently have an obligation to hear the allegations of good faith whistle-blowers and protect them. It is not difficult to imagine scenarios where this might conflict with what Paul the apostle says about handling accusations against elders.

Most churches probably just muddle on through issues of organization and do just fine at small scales. But a failure to engage the inherent characteristics of organizational forms at larger scales is apt to result in one of two dysfunctional outcomes.

In the first, the church (or para-church ministry) becomes “an institution” and solidifies in harmful ways. Modern practices have mitigated the nastier effects of competition for control and position once characteristic of autocratic administration. But individual and group tendencies to settle into the familiar can freeze specialized roles in place like a glacier in an alpine valley.  Those roles might still be in motion.  But don’t wait around for them to produce anything.

In the second, actual requirements of the forms are ignored and chaos ensues. In the US this might involve blurring of the obligations inherent in a non-profit entity. Corners get cut, particularly when conflicts of interests are involved. Sometimes liberties are taken. If enough of this happens some injured party files a lawsuit, which is a modern US version of calling in the Romans. After all, the government created the tax-exempt entity in the first place, along with the obligations that go with it.

These outcomes are not mutually exclusive and a crisis precipitated by the first can initiate the second. Neither of them are conducive to building community.

I am not suggesting we can dispense with organization.  But unfortunately organization aggregates human frailty, and different organizational forms aggregate frailty in different ways. What I am suggesting is caution about the baggage that comes with organizational forms, and asking questions about the limitations in our approaches to issues of numerical growth and growth in the scale of our activities.

So someone doesn’t have to call in the Romans.


[1] The Church History of Eusebius.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Volume 1 – Enhanced Version (Early Church Fathers).  Editor Philip Schaff. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2009 Kindle Edition.
(Kindle Locations 21771-21790).

[2] Frederick W. Norris. Paul of Samosata.  Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Editor Everett Ferguson.  New York: Taylor & Francis, 1999. Print. Kindle Edition 2013 (Kindle Locations 34343-34344).

[3] Joanna Dewey. Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Eugene: Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2013. Kindle Edition, p. 4.

[4] Dewey, (p. 6.).

[5 ] Round-trip messaging durations in ancient Rome were measured in weeks and months.  This  constrains the practical utility of letters to narrow uses such as broad policy guidance, or to address specific and non-urgent problems raised about the scope or authority of specific local officials.   The broader use of an administrative letter, particularly in the case of the emperor and a distant governor, is as an a not too subtle reminder of who is actually in control.  The obsequious tone in some of Pliny’s correspondence to Trajan is highly suggestive.

Granted, written material is more reliable than oral messages and probably did facilitate  the sprawl of the Roman power. But writing itself is not inherently necessary to run an empire. The Inca may have got on just fine without it. They used knotted and colored string Quipus for administrative recording. These may have also served as a form of writing media but the mechanical nature would be very limiting, and probably not that useful beyond administrative record-keeping.