- Isn’t it arrogant to suggest that the church may have, or has, got it so wrong?
This question breaks down into a number of sub-questions that I want to address in turn:
- Are you claiming that your understanding of the NT and of ecclesiology in the NT is authorative in some way and that others have, for thousands of years, simply not understood what you claim to understand?
- Is it reasonable to ignore almost 2000 years of church history and suggest that the church was misguided throughout?
1. Am I claiming some sort of special knowledge or some special authority?
First, the straight answer: no, absolutely not.
Second the slightly snarky answer: this is the sort of accusation that those who are heavily invested in the status quo always level against those who challenge the status quo — `what makes you so special that you feel you can challenge what so many have accepted?’. To refute this one need only point out that the status quo as it stands will most likely initially have been established as a challenge against a previously prevailing status quo. So, for instance, Martin Luther and many of the other reformers made so bold as to question many of the prevailing ideas of their day — indeed they reached back behind them to Augustine and to Paul. Much of what might be construed as essential doctrine in Protestant circles today involved a challenge to several hundred years of Church teaching and practice at the time.
Third the full disclosure: I am convinced that the interpretation of Scripture and, indeed, everything else related to attempting to follow Jesus, attempting to obey the Father and attempting to live in communion with the Spirit, occurs within the context of community — in the context of the ecclesia. As such, I must always hold my own interpretations lightly and must seek to refine them in dialogue with other believers. So, I am not claiming special knowledge about the practice or belief of the early Christians nor am I claiming any special authority for my interpretation over and against that of any other Jesus follower. In fact, I think it is probable that the beliefs and practices of the early Christians are well understood (and always have been, more or less) by most theologians and biblical scholars and, often, by many or most non-academic Christians if they have taken the time to study their bibles. Moreover, I do believe that most individual Christians attempt to put into practice what they learn (with varying degrees of success, of course). So, I am not claiming any special knowledge per se. However, I am claiming that for much of its history the church (and individual Christians) have embraced a hermeneutic that postulates an essential difference between the era previous to the closing of the canon and our era (after the closing of the canon). This hermeneutic allows church practice to diverge greatly from the practice and teaching of the early church even when the church is attempting to be faithful to scripture. What I’m calling `NT Christianity’ is the rejection of this hermeneutic, not the claim to special knowledge or special interpretive authority.
2. Is it reasonable to ignore almost 2000 years of church history and suggest that the church was misguided throughout?
First the short answer: it is certainly not reasonable to reject 2000 years of church history. However, criticism of church practice throughout this history does not entail rejection of this history.
Second the slight bit of snark: I might again point to Luther and the reformers as an example of people who suggested that the church had been misguided in fundamental ways for hundreds of years. For most of these reformers this did not entail a rejection of that history.
Second the longer answer: I do not reject history. I am not declaring the last 2000 years or so to have been bunk. To illustrate this, a study of the practice of the early Christian Celts in Ireland — the way in which they managed for hundreds of years to keep the distinctives of their culture while embracing the gospel in a very radical way — has been of great importance to me and to my friends. I will not even bother to give other examples — history provides manifest examples of God revealing himself in the church and working with and through the church over the past 2000 years. This makes it entirely impossible to reject this history. However, to suggest that there may have been fundamental problems is not to suggest that there were not many triumphs. In the same way, to suggest that much or most of contemporary Christianity may have its ecclesiology wrong is not to suggest that God can not, or is not using contemporary Christians. However, it is impossible to deny the serious problems of modern Christianity — for example, one need only read John 17 and listen to Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity and then compare it to the present situation. As such, it cannot be arrogant to attempt to identify a source of these problems or to suggest potential solutions to them.
I should point out that one thing I feel the reformers did a very bad job of reforming was ecclesiology. More radical groups like the Anabaptists made more of an effort in this regard. The reformers largely retained many of the received ecclesiological forms and those changes they did introduce were, by and large, still in thrall to the idea of Christendom and the notion of the church as an institution. Subsequent Protestants have, of course, made substantial changes (for example, the rejection of infant baptism by Baptists and others). The notion of Christendom was really only challenged in the early parts of the 20th century as sweeping changes in society made it manifestly irrelevant.