The Israelites of Judges had no permanent system of government. It was a loose confederation of the twelve tribes, each with their own way of doing things. Someone was raised up as having godly authority to lead them whenever they were threatened by another nation. Having organized militias and achieving victory, he (and one she) continued to “judge” Israel during a period of peace and fidelity to God. The people invariably fell away from godly ways, triggering the next foreign threat and a new judge. Of all the judges, only Deborah was described as being one before a threat was made known. The succession of judges came to an end with the prophet Samuel, also a judge, through whom an institutionalized kingdom came into being. That’s the basic structure in the time of judges.
Underlying the basic structure of Judges was the conviction that God had been their only king through the long passage from Egypt, and God alone would appoint someone to be God’s representative to lead them as needed, but not to be king over them. To do otherwise would violate their special relationship with God. Good intentions aside, the people were unable to remain faithful to God, and not every judge had God’s approval. It was a messy affair that worked by fits and starts. They may have arrived in the promised land, but it wasn’t working out as expected.
Like the Israelites of Judges, Christians in the time of Acts had no permanent way of organizing what it meant to be an assembly of God’s people (the Church), which was understood to be a new type of promised land that would fulfill the unrealized hopes of the old. It wasn’t a place but a new life of intimate communion with God and one another, wherever they were. They had been led not by a prophet, but by God incarnate in Jesus Christ, their true and only king. Moreover, to be one of God’s people was no longer limited to descendants of Jacob; it was open to all who chose to join. Authorized leaders were raised up to serve as judges, as various threats and opportunities arose, but with a difference. They had to have been commissioned by Christ himself, or by prayerful discernment and the laying on of hands in direct succession from the original apostles. It was an informal system with vague territorial jurisdictions and little institutional structure. Like the Israelites of old, the time came for that to change. The end of the informal structure of the early Church is hinted at in Acts, made more obvious in the pastoral letters, and confirmed by the second century letters written Ignatius of Antioch as he was on his way to Rome to be executed.
The Church of Acts was commissioned by God not to acquire territory, but to declare peace and reconciling love. Its “judges” were to proclaim the good news of God’s redeeming love to whomever would hear it, and prepare successors to take their places as judges, or as the text calls them, presbyters, deacons and bishops, terms often used interchangeably. Congregations often struggled to remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ when all about them pagan religions ruled by the authority of the Roman Empire, and, like the ancient Israelites, had to be called back. But they persevered, and Christ alone remained their king. In that sense, the Church in the time of Acts revealed what the promise of a promised land looked like. Could it last?
It was unavoidable for the ancient federation of Israelite tribes to become a nation governed in the usual way by a king. In no other way could it become a unified people identified by their shared faith in God rather than their tribal loyalties. We know the story of how hard it was for a people to cease being tribal Hebrews and become Jews, a people of God unified by their religion no matter where they lived. In like manner, it was unavoidable for Christianity to become an assembly (Church) of a new people of God unified by their religion no matter where they lived without also creating an institutionalized structure to carry it from generation to generation and across national borders.
The history of the Church following the time of Acts is as rocky as the history of Israel following the time of Judges. Interdenominational rivalries, subordination to civil rule, engagement in religious and civil wars, and odd ball turns to other gods while still claiming Christ’s name has given us no better claim to be a people of God. Yet, for all the trouble we’ve put God through, ‘he’ hasn’t given up on us. The redeeming power of Jesus continues as the beating heart of the Church. Faithful disciples continue to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus guided by those truly ordained by the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are already living in the promised land, even if not fully experiencing it. It is not ours exclusively. It is a land of open borders. Anyone may enter. Our holy obligation is to welcome all who enquire.