For the last few weeks, I’ve been studying church gatherings during various time periods from the post-apostolic times through the middle ages and Reformation and into the modern period. And, I’ve learned something interesting… it’s often seen as extremely dangerous to let just anyone preach and teach.
Early in the book of Acts, when persecution arose in Jerusalem, all of the believers scattered to the surrounding area. What did they do as they were scattered? “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4 ESV)
However, something happened over the next few hundred years. Eventually, “preaching” (in Acts, it referred to proclaiming the gospel) became the sole domain of those who were duly trained and appointed by “the Church.”
Of course, groups rose up here and there and recognized the growing problems in “the Church.” So, what did they do? They went about preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. And, they had to be stopped.
Here is one such edict responding to these “preachers” (Waldensians, in this case):
There are some who holding to the form of religion but denying its power (as the Apostle says), claim for themselves the authority to preach, whereas the same Apostle says, How shall they preach unless they are sent? Let therefore all those who have been forbidden or not sent to preach, and yet dare publicly or privately to usurp the office of preaching without having received the authority of the apostolic see or the catholic bishop of the place, be bound with the bond of excommunication and, unless they repent very quickly, be punished by another suitable penalty. (Fourth Lateran Council in 1215)
The same kinds of decrees were later issued in response to other “heretical” groups such as the followers of John Wycliffe in England (often referred to as Lollards).
But, before you start pointing fingers at the Catholics, the same thing happened during the Reformation, but this time it was the “Reformers” who began condemning the “laity” for preaching the gospel. While Luther recognized that Paul allowed all to speak and serve when the church gathered (1 Cor 14), he decided this was only intended for times of “emergency.” In normal times, Paul instructions only apply to that one (or those few) duly appointed by the church:
It is of the common rights of Christians that we have been speaking. For since we have proved all of these things to be the common property of all Christians, no one individual can arise by his own authority and arrogate to himself alone what belongs to all. Lay hold then of this right and exercise it, where there is no one else who has the same rights. But the community rights demand that one, or as many as the community chooses, shall be chosen or approved who, in the name of all with these rights, shall perform these functions publicly. Otherwise, there might be shameful confusion among the people of God, and a kind of Babylon in the church, where everything should be done in order, as the Apostle teaches [I Cor. 14:40]. For it is one thing to exercise a right publicly; another to use it in time of emergency. Publicly one may not exercise a right without consent of the whole body or of the church. In time of emergency each may use it as he deems best. (Martin Luther, “Concerning the Ministry”, 1523)
Most of us have in the past (or will in the future) run into people who proclaim something that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ or who teach in a manner that does not reflect the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the past, the answer to that problem has been simple: “the Church” must control who can and who cannot speak.
Is there another answer?