- What about the fact that the NT churches had obvious problems? Are we wise to try to emulate them?
This is a very common objection must be tackled in some detail. At base the objection is this: the early church clearly had many problems — a reading of some of Paul’s letters or of the first few chapters of Revelation makes this abundantly clear. When it comes to ecclesiology, for instance, might it not be the case that post-biblical developments in church organisation (which still have their `roots’ in scripture) have developed precisely to provide safeguards against some of these problems. In this way the emergence of hierarchy, the prominence of the pastor in Protestant circles or the priest and bishop in Catholic circles, the clergy laity distinction, and so on, may well be developments prompted by the Spirit in order to ensure order, to safeguard doctrine, etc.
If we take the word `church’ to denote a particular gathering of people (rather than something more general) the objection may be nuanced a little further — which New Testament church are you trying to emulate? The church in Corinth?, the church in Galatia?, the church in Rome? Each of these had significant problems. Suggesting that there is some perfect 1st century church that we must emulate is to ignore the clear biblical evidence that no such church ever existed.
In response to the latter point it should be made clear that I am not proposing some particular 1st century Christian grouping be emulated slavishly. Nor am I implying that the 1st century church taken as a whole was or is perfect and should, as such, be emulated. Finally, I am not postulating the existence of some theoretical perfect church that can or should be emulated. However, to say this is not to say that there is little or nothing in the praxis of the early Christians that we can emulate. Recall that in my first post my programmatic statement was that `the New Testament documents give a reasonably clear picture of what early church practice was and what the teachings of some of the early apostles (especially Paul) were with regard to these issues.’ So, from the NT we can learn at least something about each of the following:
- what the teachings of Jesus and the apostles were;
- what the self-understanding of the early believers was;
- how they attempted to put this into practice (even when they got it wrong); and
- how they were corrected when they did get it wrong.
From this we can think about
- how we might learn from the experience of the NT church — including how we might learn from the mistakes made and the corrections given; and
- how we might attempt to live in our context in the same sort of way that they did in theirs.
A larger issue of hermeneutics is raised here — how do we use scripture to inform our own practice? Can we read Paul, for instance, and extract a number of timeless abstract principles that can be applied in the present? If so, why are we presented with information about early praxis at all (including problems and mistakes)? If not, how do we apply scripture? I want to deal with this and other issues in a future post but a brief discussion is relevant here. As is often pointed out, the NT is not a systematic theology. The Gospels and Acts present us with various narratives and the other books (the various epistles and Revelation) are rooted in and proceed out of the narrative of the early church (given, at least in part, in Acts). So, to take Scripture seriously we must take it seriously in the form in which it presents itself. If narrative really is important then our task must be to see how the early church acted (and reacted) and what their teachings were and then to try to discern why they acted as they did, discern why they made the mistakes they made, discern why the corrections take the form they do and finally to decide if Christian praxis in the modern context should look substantially the same as, or dramatically different from, Christian praxis in the 1st century.
My contention, and I must attempt to substantiate it in a future post, is that the praxis of the Christian was in the 1st century, and should be in the 21st century, non-hierarchical, egalitarian and communitarian and that the NT documents provide the basis for a workable model to emulate in this regard. If we attempt to live in our context as the earliest Christians did in theirs the same pattern should emerge — that of real community, existing in the power of the Spirit and demonstrating in and to the world the very love of God.
I feel that many of the post-biblical developments in ecclesiology and much of what we take for granted in the way that we exist and act as Christians today (particularly in our gatherings) does more harm than good — stifling the active participation of most individuals (especially women) and replacing the vibrant (if sometimes flawed) community we find in the 1st century with a rigid hierarchical system which, even when populated by well intentioned people, mitigates against the manifestation of that community of the redeemed characterised by love that the earliest Christians sought to embody.
Reading back over the last few posts I realise I’ve been presenting the hermeneutic/attitude of `NT Christianity’ as if it were an original idea of my own. This couldn’t be further from the case. The attitudes I’m outlining are certainly not original or particular to myself, although they do characterise the attitude I was brought up with in my local fellowship. Much of the way I think about the Christian life — even when I feel I have arrived at some of it through my own searching, thinking and praying — is due to the values instilled in me by my parents and other members of my fellowship. Some of what I am talking about is central to the house church movement and some of it may be found in parts of the emerging church movement. Like I said in my first post, although you can find Christians of most stripes who would agree with most or all of what I’m saying I still find that I am on a slightly different wavelength to most of the Christians I talk to. This series of posts is largely an attempt to put into words some of my own thoughts and attitudes and to see if any of it holds water.
A recent and interesting, if sometimes annoyingly rhetorical, example of many of the attitudes I’ve been talking about may be found in the recent book Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. This book really is worth a read. In it Viola and Barna trace the history of many common and accepted church practices and show that their origins are mostly in pagan culture rather than Jewish culture or the Bible. The argument they make is not that non-Biblical influences are necessarily wrong — they state this at the beginning of the book although their rhetoric sometimes would make it seem that this is what they’re arguing and it has been caricatured as such in reviews. The substance of their argument, however, is that if a practice has no Biblical warrant it must be examined carefully to see if it is really helpful. They (and I) feel that many of the practices considered (the emergence of a clergy, the order of worship, the proliferation of church buildings, etc.) are often not helpful and, indeed, are often quite harmful.
Other examples of the attitudes I’m outlining can be found within certain segments of the emerging movement/conversation. Many emerging Christians have a suspicion of the post-Constantinian compromise and a desire to rediscover the centrality of a missional community in the Christian life.