Tag Archives: ecclesiology

Shelf vs. Practical Ecclesiology

From Dave Black Online (used by permission):

12:40 PM Is your ecclesiology “shelf” ecclesiology or “practical” ecclesiology? In other words, is your church willing to change in obedience to truth? Henry Neufeld has a weighty response to this question in his latest post called Seven Marks: Excursus on Change. Henry suggests seven reasons why we avoid doing what we know we ought to be doing. He uses weight loss as an example. I love his reasons! They are all impeccably logical. But, as Henry notes, they are excuses nonetheless.

This leads me to add perhaps one more element into the discussion. A new lifestyle requires new people. Most of us are locked into a routine because the people all around us are locked into the same routine. Up until a few months ago I was locked into a routine that utilized only a small percentage of my muscles. I was imprisoned in a physical and professional and social existence that cared little for health and fitness. Then I began to associate with people who were health-conscious. No, they weren’t preachy about it, but the clear message they kept sending to me was: We as human beings are body, mind, and spirit. We can’t stress one function of the self to the detriment of the others. I thus began to engage in exercises intended to get the most out of the human machine and the body/mind complex.

Most of us already have this “knowledge.” But, as Henry points out, knowledge doesn’t suffice. It never has. The rules for physical fitness are well established. They haven’t changed much over the centuries. Consult any textbook or website and you’ll find the do’s and don’ts of fitness. What we need are models, people who show us, “Here is what you can become.” We need new relationships that are uncontaminated by the old guilt and unhealthy lifestyles. As I began to associate with people who were committed to physical fitness, I found a new strength in me. My new associations revived resolutions, long since dormant, and made me set my face like flint. That quality — that ability to motivate others by your own example — is what is all too often lacking today. So you believe in elders? Even, let’s say, non-stipendiary elders? Name two or three churches that practice that today. Alas, there are so few examples. But life isn’t about thinking good thoughts. Joy is always connected with action.

So, what’s on your “change agenda” for today? Maybe you were fit once but don’t exercise anymore. Maybe you are just getting started. Maybe your church is on the verge of taking a significant step of obedience. We humans are constantly resetting goals. We are always in process. Indeed, change is a good test of normalcy. The normal human being is always striving for some ideal self.

The excuse of not enough time is just that — an excuse. Never will you have enough time to do everything you want to do. You’ve got to make a choice. You have to decide what things are presumably better than all the other things in your life. But here’s what I’m discovering. Exercise may take time but it creates time as well. The more energy expended the more energy added to your machine. Likewise, when a church takes a baby step of obedience, it finds that the next step is a little bit easier to take. Above all, let’s remember that action is always impelled by some good we want to attain. The 30-some-odd books I’ve written or edited didn’t just happen. I wrote or edited them because I thought I had something of value to say to people. Fitness programs follow this line of reasoning. The long-term benefits always come from denying our present desire to enjoy ourselves this minute. Drives may push us, but desires pull us. Until you are motivated, you will never be willing to attack the problem head-on.

Thank you, Henry, for your very provocative post. Let’s all get started in the race to which Henry is calling us. When I run a 5K, I am completely unconcerned about what others are doing. I don’t care if I’m at the back of the pack. For these few moments, I am making the effort to act, and in that sense I become the equal of anyone on this earth.

Seven Marks Interview

[Note: Seven Marks of a New Testament Church is a more recent release by Dave Black. Its topic is not the same as The Jesus Paradigm, but they dovetail nicely.]

In other good news, I see that Henry Neufeld has released the first of the interviews I was privileged to do with him in Pensacola a couple of weeks ago.

The topic was my book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church. I think you’ll enjoy the discussion. Frankly, I hope it raises more questions than it answers. In addition, Henry has begun a series of blog posts about the book — the first being on the subject of church pews (of all things). But I think he’s right. Pews are a good witness — to our lack of fellowship. They are designed to make it well-nigh impossible for us to see directly the faces of our brothers and sisters. The problem here, of course, lies much deeper than architecture — a subject that we get into in the interview. But pews are a witness that something is perhaps amiss. At any rate, check out what Henry has to say but remember that he is completely biased as the publisher of my book.

Taking the Plunge

8:55 AM When I was a kid and learning how to dive from the high dive into the swimming pool, I would stand at the edge of the diving board petrified of what lay below me. Eventually I took a big breath and — I made the plunge. “Gee, this is fun!” I told myself as I clambered my way back up the diving board steps. But the real heroes of this story are my friends who stood on the pool deck and encouraged me to step out in faith.

I find that learning to trust God for change in our very traditional churches is like learning how to dive. The hardest part is simply letting go of our doubts and reservations and trusting God. Let’s say your church is currently having to decide between take a step of obedience to what the Scriptures clearly teach or else maintaining the traditional set-up. You may agonize over your uncertainties and insecurities, but the easiest way forward is simply to step out and take the plunge. God is there to support those who trust, not in their own security and certainty, but in His.

In this regard, I find it interesting that Paul mentions three groups of Christians in the Thessalonian church (see 1 Thess. 5:14). There were the “idlers,” the “fainthearted,” and the “weak.” Let’s look at the “idlers” for just a moment. The term Paul uses here often carries with it the notion of “not in order, not conforming to the established law or practice, being insubordinate.” Apparently these people were insisting on their own way and were “out of step” with Paul’s injunctions. Some perhaps were also lazy and were refusing to obey the command of Paul to “work with your own hands.” In any case, these good folk had to be dealt with, and dealt with directly.

Now please notice the verbs that Paul uses with reference to each of these groups:

  • The idlers are to be “admonished.”

  • The fainthearted are to be “encouraged.”

  • And the weak are to be “upheld.”

There is something very important going on here, and it is easy to miss. The verbs must match the nouns. In other words, we fail in our duties should we, say, admonish the fainthearted or uphold the idlers. People in rebellion against God are not to be coddled. They are to be admonished (noutheteo). This verb is a Pauline word, occurring 7 times in his writings. It always has a sense of correction, but the correction is always based on instruction. It can never be correction alone or instruction alone. And it is never to be done in a vindictive or judgmental spirit.

If you are a church elder, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There will always be people who will refuse to obey the Word, so steeped are they in tradition, or in sin, or in whatever. Sometimes these people have been in the church for years and years and believe they are above reproach — and correction. But the fact is that none of us is ever above correction in some area of our walk with Christ. We all act against the will of God in some form or another. But that is no excuse for passivity.

Another observation, and it too is vitally important. Please, please note that Paul is not telling the church leaders to “admonish the idlers.” A thousand times no! His exhortations in this verse have the whole church in view (“We appeal to you, brothers and sisters ….”). This means that, while our congregational leaders will obviously play a huge role in moving the church forward in obedience to God’s Word, the obligation to instruct and correct each other is ultimately the responsibility of the whole congregation. This means that I, who am not a local church elder, still have the privilege and responsibility of speaking up when I sense the Lord is leading me to offer instruction and correction, under the leadership of my elders of course. There is no evidence that Paul would have ever delegated this responsibility to the leaders alone.

Now think about your own local church. Many Christians find it hard to obey the simple teachings of the Scriptures. Moreover, they find it hard to accept advice, instruction, or correction from others. In such situations, Paul exhorts the members of the church to speak truth to one another and to do so in a patient and long-suffering manner. Let there be instruction! Let there be correction! Let’s move forward as congregations into those areas of obedience that are clearly taught in God’s Word. Our churches will be happier and healthier if we do so — together.

9781631990465

(From Dave Black Online, used by permission.)

11:30 AM I see that yet another book on New Testament ecclesiology is about to be published. I’m all for that. Every tradition of the church needs to be tested by every new generation of Christians. Does this mean that your church, or mine, can go back to the beginning and start all over again, ab initio? Hardly. Truth always comes to us in vessels of clay. That’s why, regardless of what our convictions are on “how to do church the right way” (and I have some very strong convictions, as you know), the structures themselves will always be relative. Some will scrap the institutional church completely. (I did this back in the 60s when I was part of the Jesus Movement.) Others will seek renewal within their churches. (This is my current stance on the matter.) But the tabula rasa approach is, in my view, utterly unrealistic. Christians can never build a new church from scratch, no matter how hard they try and regardless of how many times they assert that they are following “the” New Testament pattern. Right structure does not always result in proper functioning. “Simple” churches can easily turn inward, relativizing the importance of the Great Commission. Worse, they can become lifted up with pride, belittling the institutionality of the church. I’m reminded of the old German saw, “Operation glänzend gelungen. Patient leider tot.” There is no reason why churches of the Reformation should not be open to the possibility of rethinking the wineskins that Jesus talked about so much. My own local church has made tremendous strides in recent years to adopt what we consider to be a more biblical form of church structure and practice. But that’s not the real issue. By their fruits we will know whether a congregation is practicing the Gospel. The crisis in world missions today is not due to faulty structures alone. Rather, what lies at the root of the trouble is confusion about our priorities.

The Lord has much to say to us today. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev. 2:7). Does my heart respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”? Does your heart respond like that? We Christians ought to be setting the world on fire. Alas, it’s so easy to go from fire to frost, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to pat ourselves on the back over our ecclesiology.

 

Discontinuity Old Testament to New

10:28 AM Henry Neufeld has just posted two essays about the book of Hebrews and its instruction about the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). Someday I would love to have a public dialogue with Henry on this subject. Any way, I have for many years been a big fan of Henry’s and I deeply respect him as a churchman, language scholar, and publisher. I think by reading his essays I better understand where he stands. He cares deeply about the Old Covenant (as I do) and is absolutely correct in saying that we Christians must never denigrate the Hebrew Scriptures in any way, shape, or form. So where do we disagree?

Well, I tend to see more discontinuity between the Testaments than Henry does. My theology, if you will, is more along Anabaptist lines than Reformed on this subject. The Reformers were unwilling to make a radical break with the past. Their churches remained established and the parish system was maintained. By contrast, the Anabaptists understood the example of early Christianity and the teachings of the New Testament to be the binding norm for Christians of all ages. For example, the Anabaptists argued that since infant baptism could not be found in the New Testament, it could not be used in a movement trying to emulate the life of the early church. To them the rite was non-apostolic and therefore an insidious shame to genuine Christianity. However – and this is a vital point – the real issue in baptism was not simply a return to the New Testament pattern. Rather, it involved a promise to walk in newness of life, that is, to live according to the Word of God by refusing to let sin reign in the mortal body. In other words, the local church, entry into which was through baptism, was to be a community of saints. The Anabaptists argued that without such concern for morality and genuine repentance, a slipshod practice of spiritual laxity would inevitably result. For the Anabaptists, only the New Testament contained the explicit teaching of Christ and His apostles. The Old Testament was not rejected, of course. It was simply subjected to the doctrines found in the Gospels and the Epistles. According to Pilgram Marpeck, the Old Testament must be distinguished from the New Testament as the foundation must be distinguished from the house. John Kiwiet summarizes Marpeck’s hermeneutics as follows (I give both the original German along with my own English translation):

Der alte Bund war eine Zeit des Suchens und des Dürstens und erst der Neue Bund eine Zeit des Findens und Stillens. Die Verheissung an die Alten geht im Neuen Bund in Erfülling [sic]. Die Finsternis wird zu Licht und der Tod zu Leben. Es ist wie der Unterschied zwischen gestern und heute; das Alte ist vorbeigegangen, und das Neue ist gekommon.

The Old Covenant was a time of seeking and thirsting and only the New Covenant a time of finding and stillness. The promise to the ancients finds its fulfillment in the New Covenant. Darkness turns to light and death to life. It is like the difference between yesterday and today; the old has gone away, and the new has arrived.

Marpeck’s point is that revelation was progressive and partial before Christ. He felt that the Reformers had mistaken the foundation of the house for the house itself. Marpeck’s two-covenant theology was based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the Epistle to the Hebrews, which taught that the highest court of appeal for all teaching concerning the church was the New Covenant. In short, he argued that the Scriptures must be interpreted Christologically.

Of course, I am not arguing that Henry fails to interpret the Bible Christologically. But I know some who do. This is one reason the Anabaptists looked with disfavor on professional pastors whose support came through tithes in the parish system. (Note: Henry has published a book by David Croteau that challenges the notion of tithing called Tithing After the Cross.) Unlike Old Testament Israel, their leaders were laymen, since Christ’s offering as High Priest was deemed to be exclusive. Their pastors, moreover, were chosen by the entire congregation according to the pattern established in the New Testament (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28). They were supported by voluntary offerings (though many indeed supported themselves). As for the place of meeting, lavish sanctuaries were no longer necessary since Christ had abolished the Old Testament priesthood. John Darby, one of the founders of the Brethren church, encouraged the construction of simple chapels or assemblies with architecture that emphasized the priesthood of all believers. Pulpits and platforms were avoided. A typical chapel was a square room with a table and chairs for the speakers. Darby insisted on sitting among the members during the service and standing among them when he spoke rather than from behind the table. (Henry will recall that I requested to do the same when I spoke at his Methodist church in Pensacola several years ago.) The Anabaptists denied the significance of church buildings since physical structures were irrelevant to God. The buildings themselves were emblems of mere formalism. Large stone structures could never replace the true church of Christ that is comprised of two or three living stones gathered in His Spirit. They felt that with the addition of large numbers of extravagant temples the church had compromised with worldly standards of success. The Anabaptists energetically condemned this “externalization” of the Body of Christ.

Finally – and here is where I’m quite positive Henry and I would agree (based on the books he has published, many of whom are authored by “nobodies” in the world’s eyes, like my wife) – in Anabaptism appeal was made to the plain man’s judgment, unspoiled by the university. Those who toiled with their hands (craftsmen) or who worked in the soil (peasants) were presumed to be more receptive and teachable than those who had been corrupted by the folly of worldly wisdom. Here a certain irony arises, of course, for among the radical thinkers of Anabaptism there were not a few university trained men whose knowledge of the Scriptures and of the original languages of the Bible were unsurpassed. I think of my fellow Basler Conrad Grebel, who studied at the Grossmünster in Zürich for six years before becoming one of the 81 students to register at the University of Basel in the winter semester of 1514. At Basel he lived in the bursa (college) that was under the direction of the city’s leading humanist scholar, Heinrich Loriti (Glarean). From Basel he traveled to Vienna to continue his studies, and from there to Paris. Perhaps the Anabaptists’ attitude toward scholarship was based to a degree upon their work ethic. Hard work was considered a virtue. The peasant who worked with his own hands in cooperation with God’s nature was thought to have keener insight than the scribe with his multitude of books. So the Anabaptists might argue: “How can those who know the Master miss His simple and straightforward words in Matthew 23 condemning the use of honorific titles?” To the Anabaptists, use of such titles seemed the very culmination of worldliness and power. Their message was simple: Let the Reformers cling to the old ideas of Christendom. We will seek a thoroughgoing restitution of the church as it had been before the rise of Constantine.

Again, I’m not sure that Henry and I are very far apart on this subject. Indeed, we share very similar visions of the kingdom of God. Where we might differ is in our ecclesiology. The sixteenth century Anabaptists challenged the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed establishments of their day. (Sorry, Henry, but the Methodists weren’t around quite yet.) Centuries later Barth and Brunner would question the church-state system from within. Why, then, should it surprise us today when Christians engage in responsible criticism of their own denominations? The goal of the Anabaptists, as has often been said, was to cut the tree back to the root and thus free the church of the suffocating growth of ecclesiastical tradition. That this goal is being revived in our day should be the cause of great rejoicing.

 

What a New Testament Church Ought to Look Like

4:02 PM I’ve always despaired of coming up with any exhaustive list of what I believe a New Testament church ought to look like. The notion of a royal priesthood captures well, I think, my overall perspective of the composition of an authentically New Testament congregation. I have frequently argued this point on my website and in my more recent print publications. However, there are several strands in this perspective that bear unraveling, if only in a tentative way. The following list is a good place to start. Continue reading What a New Testament Church Ought to Look Like

A Primitive Ecclesiology

As you know, I’m involved in writing projects up to my eyeballs. One book I am currently writing is called Godworld. (I think I’ll subtitle it something like Enter at Your Own Risk). Over the past few days I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic. Emerson once noted in his Journal that “Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.” For many years a considerable portion of my time has been devoted to the problem of ecclesiology. Being stubborn by nature and a professor by training and education, I hold to the notion that the status quo is rarely acceptable. John Wesley wanted his movement to recover the full message and power of what he called “the Primitive Church.” He was an ardent student of early Christianity. Wesley also studied the Anabaptist groups and the Moravians. Wesley and his followers knew that awakening interest in the church without bringing people to pursue Gospel living was a waste of time. When pre-Christian people talk about “church,” unfortunately they often refer to people whose alien language and jargon have nothing to do with the real world in which these same people live. Christians dress and act in abnormal ways. Their traditionalist churchianity is a language no one seems to understand. The New Testament, by way of contrast, calls Christians to “exegete” the culture that God entrusts to them and to indigenize their faith — witness the 18th century Methodists who wrote Christian hymns to be sung to the tunes people loved to sing in the public houses. As for missions, the New Testament calls all of us — clergy and laity alike — to live out our faith in our mundane professions. (Few are called to seminary!) We are to penetrate the culture for Christ and thus fulfill the second commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The love of which the New Testament speaks is not so much a feeling as a disposition of good will and service toward others, including people outside our own social networks, nationality, and race. We are to love others as God does. It is just as important that we love the lost as it is to believe that Jesus died for our sins. Growing into the likeness of Christ is essentially “downward mobility.” Because people matter to God, they matter to us. The goal is not mere conversion but bringing people to full devotion to Christ. Evangelism is therefore normative for God’s people. It is simply living and sharing the amazing good news about Jesus in one’s own sphere of influence. This is the process I want to be involved in. It is the process of entering this amazing Godworld — and doing so at our own risk! I want to be involved in this Godworld, not because I am a professor in a seminary, but simply because I am a follower of Jesus.

“Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.” I would not pretend that I am yet consumed with a love for the lost as Jesus was. I have, however, begun to travel this downward path of Jesus. Just as all Christians have been joined to Christ and participate in His life, so all Christians are called to the ministry of witness and invitation.

Think about it.

(From Dave Black Online. David Alan Black is the author of Energion titles Christian Archy, The Jesus ParadigmWhy Four Gospels? and the forthcoming Will You Join the Cause of Global Missions?. Used by permission.)

Get the Focus Off the Externals

12:50 PM Do you remember the words of missionary martyr Jim Elliot?

We are “sideliners” — coaching and criticizing the real wrestlers. Oh that God would make us dangerous!

I thought of these words today when I read this comparison between being “imprisoned” by church traditions and literal imprisonment for the sake of Christ. As many of you know, I often travel to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East assisting the persecuted church. I have seen the suffering, up close and personal. As much as I deplore many of our unbiblical church traditions, I find the comparison unhelpful and inaccurate. Of course many of us feel trapped in our manmade traditions. And yes, we are called to suffer for the sake of Christ (Phil. 1:29). But the suffering of the persecuted church is, in my mind, in another category altogether, and I will continue to do whatever I can to make Americans who are cozy sitting in their padded pews (or on their living room sofas) as uncomfortable as possible about it. Not only do I make no apologies for it, I think that with every passing year it becomes more and more obvious to me that the most important thing we can be doing in our churches — regardless of our ecclesiology — is to get rid of our lukewarm insipid faith and take up the cross of self-discipline, suffering, and real sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel. If I have any prayer for the readers of my blog, it is that God will use it to help you take steps in this direction in your personal and congregational life. Jesus is calling all of us to a radical lifestyle lived from obedience that affects the world. With tears in my eyes, I say that as long as we are content to live out a religion of externals (home church versus institutional church, the Lord’s Supper as a full meal versus the Lord’s Supper as bread and cup, etc.), we will continue to miss the mark. Never in the history of the world has there been so much discussion about the church and Christianity but, I feel, so little real knowledge of God. Jesus made it clear that His mandate for each of us is to do the will of the Father by going into the fields just as the Father sent Him (John 4:34-38). This means that “missions” is not just one of several options for our churches. God is not asking us to give money to missions. He is asking us to make missions the central passion and thrust of our lives and congregations. When I think of your church, is that what I think of? Or of my church? Tragically, many of us have developed a church-first mentality that is distracting us from our main task. I should know, because I have been the chief of sinners in this regard.

There is a way out of this mess. New Testament Christianity is not reserved only for super saints who are doing all the “right” things church-wise. It is for every believer, whatever your church structure, whatever your location or occupation, whatever your circumstances in life. Jesus wants to live His life through us in the world. The only question is: Will we let Him? Our problem today is that we want it all, and we want it now. But we have to choose our priorities. Yes, I will continue to call us back to the Scriptures as far as church life is concerned. But my constant prayer is that God will help me to do it with a broken heart and with a renewed willingness to make a deliberate calculation to accept sacrifice and suffering for the sake of following Christ.

For more on this subject, see my essay Paper Perfect Churches.

(HT: Threads)

(From Dave Black Online. David Alan Black is the author of Energion titles Christian Archy, The Jesus ParadigmWhy Four Gospels? and the forthcoming Will You Join the Cause of Global Missions?. Used by permission.)

Reading for a Church Leadership Workshop

11:02 AM On Dec. 4 I will be holding a church leadership workshop in Durham, NC. I thought you might be interested in the reading assignments that must be completed prior to the workshop. If you are interested in the topic, you might want to take a look at them yourself. You can print out the list and check off the boxes as you complete your reading.

□ The Book of Acts.

Essays by Alan Knox:

1. Elders (Part 1) – Introduction Continue reading Reading for a Church Leadership Workshop

Changing in a Grace-Filled Way

1:02 PM This week in our Greek 3 class we exegeted Phil. 4:1-9, a passage full of references to the need for unity and cooperation in the cause of the Gospel. I want to say from the start that I have tremendous respect for my students who are trying to effect changes in their churches. I deeply appreciate the fact that they want to go about the process in a way that is conducive to unity and does not fight against it. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do think it is wrong to force change without at least doing our very best to build a consensus. Commenting on harmony in the church, Howard Marshall (New Testament Theology, p. 347) writes:

Such harmony could arise in two ways. One possibility is that there is considerable toleration of different points of view, so that people do not fight over differences of opinion on nonessential matters. The other possibility is that people are united because they are in agreement about how they should think and act.

Continue reading Changing in a Grace-Filled Way