Ecumenical Consensus, Conciliarism, and Radical Autonomy, by The Reverend Joey Odell
The Supernatural Decision-Making of the Holy Spirit-filled Body of Christ
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift…
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,[e] to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
~ Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
The Apostles Creed, derived from the “Rule of Faith” that was a common baptismal declaration in the second century of the church, states, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints”. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, completed in 381 AD, and then edited to its final form for use in the Western Church, states, “and I believe in one Holy Spirit,”…”in one holy catholic and apostolic church”. The church, from the beginning, has understood the value of ecumenical consensus. The historical councils all relied, not upon the declaration of a single charismatic leader or a (non-existent) pontifex, but upon consensus among the designated assembled representatives of the churches. One important feature of the early Councils is that they affirmed the decisions of prior councils, indicating an agreement beyond merely that of the present representatives of the church. As true universal participation was rarely, if ever, possible due to military, political, and economic factors, the church in the post-apostolic age understood that the assembled leaders of the church were truly representative of the supernatural body of Christ in all places, even if a representative from a specific region was not present. Until the Great Schism of 1054, it was an uncontroversial truism of the church that the most important decisions about doctrine and practice were settled with conciliar (of a council) ecumenical (of the whole Church) consensus.
In fact, the Great Schism was not strictly theological, though it is sometimes described as a split based upon the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit. The division occurred because the Filioque was added to the Nicene Creed at a local meeting, the Synod of Toledo. The Bishop of Rome later declared that the decision of that Synod applied to the entire church catholic, and the combined churches of the East rejected this innovation as ahistorical and unauthorized. After 1054, while the East continued to make decisions ecumenically (though without representation from the West), the West relied more and more upon the Bishop of Rome to make decisions for the Western Church. Admittedly, this practice was more akin to the medieval English monarchy, where a king only had the “authority” to make decisions for the kingdom if he had the support of a large portion of the nobility and/or the military might to back up his decisions. However, since most of the Western Church saw value in a consistent and clear form of decision-making in a tumultuous time in the West, papal supremacy became the accepted method, made formal after the defeat of the conciliar movement in the late medieval Roman Church.
It is against this backdrop that the Protestant Reformation erupted. The clear conflict between passages of Scripture and the doctrine or practice of the Western/Roman Church led to multiple breakaway groups that secured the support of kings and princes. Most of the early Reformation leaders and groups also believed in some variation of a conciliar decision-making process for doctrine and practice, which can still be seen in the churches most closely aligned with the Magisterial Reformers – Anglican Communion, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and the national Reformed Churches. Yet, it has been a radical arm of the Reformation whose decision-making ideas have gained perhaps the majority ground in the West in modern times. The Anabaptists and their descendants, who refused the authority of anyone outside their local congregations, represent not only the majority ecclesiology in the Protestant west, but likely also the majority opinion even in churches which are not congregational in polity.
This idea, that only a local church can make decisions for itself, has devolved in accordance with its principles – to where the individual believer, armed (ideally) with the Holy Scriptures and the assumed agreement of the indwelling Holy Spirit, is the sole authority for the orthodoxy of their faith and life. According to this view, the studies, explanations, disputations, and agreements of the church in other times and places – a church that had the same Holy Spirit that the current believer claims to follow - is of no consequence. What matters is that the reason and experience of the modern man infallibly informs his reading of Holy Writ, and his conclusions about how to understand, interpret, and apply the commands of God to his own life are necessary and sufficient.
While the truth of the general ability of a man to recognize an error exists, the elevation of this individualized awareness to the ultimate expression of Christian doctrinal authority is novel, steeped in a unique western secular individualism, denies multiple truths that the church has understood from the beginning, and is fraught with peril. It denies natural law, the pervasiveness of sin, and the reality of a man’s limited knowledge, limited experience, pride, and refusal to admit wrong or change his ways. It pretends that a man’s culture, family, education, and personal biases have little, if any, weight upon his theological perception and judgment. It assumes that God the Holy Spirit speaks so clearly to one individual about matters of doctrine and practice that he is able to clearly understand and elucidate those ideas, while the same Holy Spirit in another believer (who thinks he has the same understanding of the Divine) cannot be perceived with the same clarity. This radical autonomy denies the supernatural Body of Christ, in which each believer has a specific role he or she plays, and instead substitutes the individual as the entire Body…or at least as the head, heart, ears, mouth, and hands!
Such an idea is certainly appealing to the sinful heart of man – ‘I have the connection, spiritual knowledge, and wisdom of God through the Spirit to determine sound doctrine and practice. I don’t need anyone else to instruct me.’ However, this conviction only leads to division, ecclesial endorsement of sin, and the reduction of morality and ethics to personal preference cloaked in spiritual language. As a quick reading of church history will show, all heresies have their verses, so the claim that each individual will come to a correct reading and understanding of Holy Scripture has no historical basis, and it certainly has no Scriptural foundation from the perspective of the ancient and universal Church.
The church of Jesus Christ knows no such expression of Christian liberty, either by individuals or by church authorities. Martin Luther himself wrote of Christian liberty as the liberty to obey, not the liberty to decide what is right, good, true, and beautiful. Consider the Jerusalem Council in Acts chapter 15, where Peter is not only not the leading apostle, but the letter sent by the council lists no one apostle as a single authority. Instead, the Scripture states that “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” constituted the authority for the decision. Furthermore, the letter sent is from “the apostles and the elders”. If the authority of Peter was sufficient, why did James head the council and why did Peter need to make an argument at all? If the authority of any single apostle was sufficient, why is the reference to authority to that of “the apostles”? And, most demonstrative of the established use of the conciliar method from the very beginning, if apostolic authority alone is sufficient, why bother mentioning the affirmation of the elders, or even of the whole church?
We see this idea of ecclesiastical authority over and over throughout history – the ecumenical consensus at Nicaea I; and Nicaea I cited repeatedly by future councils. We see the Councils after the first five centuries still attempting to operate by consensus; and the Eastern Church rejecting those further councils because of the lack of a truly conciliar model. We see, even after the fracture of Protestantism, conciliar-style efforts to gain consensus, such as the Synod of Dort, and attempts by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and John Calvin to bring the Protestant churches together in a “godly synod” to demonstrate conciliar agreement against the Roman Council of Trent. The actions of bishops today, who appeal to the authority of jurisdictional autonomy to justify their defiance of conciliar authority, whether diocesan, provincial, or some other jurisdiction – whether they be the Germans or Maltese bishops in the Roman church, or progressive or evangelical bishops in the Anglican Church – their actions demonstrate that there is not only nothing new under the sun, but that the Puritan model of ‘individuals deciding for themselves what the Scriptures mean’ is not limited to those who reject the episcopacy.
Faithful members of God’s Εἰς μίαν, Ἁγίαν, Καθολικὴν καὶ Ἀποστολικὴν Ἐκκλησίαν, and especially members of the worldwide Anglican Communion, should reject such radical autonomy and instead, embrace and operate by the Biblical and ancient model of conciliar ecclesial governance.
The Rev. Joey Odell, Chaplain (Major), U.S. Army, serves as the Regiment Chaplain for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He holds an M.Div. in Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, an M.A. in Psychology from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, and a B.S. in Chemistry from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He has been married to his wife Carrie for eighteen years, and they have thirteen children. His book, Faith is Not Blind, was published by Westbow Press in 2018.