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Descriptive and Prescriptive Ecclesiology in the New Testament

One of the continuing challenges of much contemporary ecclesiological writing and reflection is the issue concerning how the New Testament documents cast the churches of their period.

How often have we opened a text, or read an article that refers to the ‘early church’ in a singular, unified sense, or heard a speaker making a point about a particular practice demonstrated in the New Testament that should, in their opinion, be used in churches today. However, when one looks closer at the text or example they are drawing from, there is no clear teaching established with application to the local church.

apples and orangesThe confusion, it appears, surrounds the difference between descriptive and prescriptive ecclesiological statements in the New Testament. Not all things in the New Testament concerning the churches are meant for application beyond the Apostolic Age.

More to the point, many contemporary ecclesiologies make claims about the normative functions of church theology from many accounts in the New Testament which are intended to be merely descriptive. As a result, many contemporary discussions about the nature of church theology, polity, and forms take positions based on New Testament descriptions of the nature of the earliest Christian communities rather than from directed instruction about their forms. The challenge for ecclesiologists in the present day is discerning what parts of the New Testament documentation about the nature, function, and theology of the earliest churches are descriptive and which are prescriptive. Assuming that all the discussions about the nature of the Church, or churches in the New Testament have normative bearing on the form and function of ecclesiology in the present day is a dangerous and misguided approach.

To better describe this challenge one quick example is in order: There is a rising segment of Christianity in the western world that posits institutional churches buildings and established hierarchy is contrary to the intention of the apostolic founding of the New Testament Church. Instead, using the New Testament examples of house church communities, a decentralized and non-institutional house churches are the normative form for ecclesial practice in this present day and age. Yet there is a caution because the New Testament writers might be describing their context where building a formal structure was both improbable and impossible, since it would be destroyed before it was completed. House churches, in this specific point, became the regular place of meeting, just as they did with the diaspora synagogues and voluntary associations, out of convenience and safety and not because they were the planned means of God’s people for all ages.

Here is where understanding the difference between descriptive and prescriptive ecclesiology is helpful.

Descriptive ecclesiological statements, such as ones dealing with house churches (cf. Acts 2:42-46; Romans 16:1-27; Colossians 4:15; etc) are describing the conduct and nature of the earliest churches in the Apostolic Age. The New Testament writers are not concerned with making these descriptions of how the earliest Christian communities met normative for all Christianity. They are, instead, simply talking about how these communities functioned. In reality, from the earliest days of post-Pentecost Christianity, the primary way most Christians desired to meet and observe the forming liturgy was either in the Temple, in Jerusalem, or in synagogues in Palestine and beyond (Acts 2:46.)

Prescriptive ecclesiological statements, are those statements where the New Testament is instructing the churches of its era and beyond about forms and functions that are to be part of every church. Instances of this include the list of requirements for leadership offices (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; Ephesians 4:11.) Prescriptive ecclesiology exists in the New Testament and is vital to the function of a legitimate New Testament church. Some prescriptive ecclesiology also deals with the nature of the corporate, or universal Church that is established in the body of Christ.

If we don’t understand the difference between these two point, our ecclesiological work will be done in error. Part of this challenge is being willing to humbly confront the reality of the forming churches in the New Testament and the developmental ecclesiologies seen therein. While later generations will begin to codify forms and structures for the churches in the known world, by the end of the New Testament there continued to be a reasonable diversity of form. As a result, much of the time spent discussing the nature of the churches of the Apostolic Age is, indeed, descriptive. However, where the prescriptive texts exist, there is much to be learned.

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Dissertation Synopsis

After about twelve months of intensely researching, writing, and editing, the readers’ draft of my dissertation went out to my committee last week. In an attempt to explain the prolonged silence here, I’ll post up the primary approach the project and then make a few points. My goal is to use much of this research and discussion to continue promoting dialogue here as well as apt fodder for scholarly articles and other works.

The dissertation’s initial title is The Quest for the Historical Church: The Development and Dismissal of Free Church Ecclesiology From Pentecost Through the Second Century.

dissertationMy goal in working on this area is to discuss, via a multi-disciplinary approach, the nature of autonomy of the earliest Christian communities in the first two centuries. As I have been working through some discussions, as well as being part of a larger professional network in my church work, there appears to be a growing gap of literature that accurately engages the realities of the church in this period and also attempts to understand the influences on its hierarchical structure and leadership composition. Since I am a thorough-going Baptist in my ecclesiology, I am keenly interested in whether the earliest churches reflected any kind of early episcopal structures or were they congregational.

My thesis surrounded several key questions: If the apostolic intention was to create one, uniform system of ecclesiology, what happened to that system in light of the rise of the Bishop of Rome? Was this the intended system of the Apostles, or is another ecclesiological form intended? How are we to understand the diversity of forms and offices within the New Testament documents? How did the heretical teachers and false prophets within early Christianity influence the development of authority in the early Church and churches? Is a monarchial episcopacy the ecclesiological form sought by the Apostles?

Ultimately, my research has led to a number of points, not the least of which is abandonment of these kinds of categories for understanding how the churches functioned in this period. One of the primary points of the dissertation was initially evaluating the landscape of New Testament ecclesiology and demonstrating how four distinct ecclesiologies emerge among the earliest Christian communities. These four are: Pauline, Lucan, Johannine, and Matthean. Now, there are likely more sub-ecclesiologies present, and perhaps even some that aren’t mentioned in the documents of the first Christians. However, by establishing this pluriformity of ecclesial forms we start off by acknowledging that there was quite a bit of diversity at the outset of the earliest Christian communities.

Along these lines, I also evaluated apostolic authority, since that is often suggested to be one of the ways that episcopal systems mimic their use of autocracy. Through this step the conclusion is that apostolic authority is rather limited and, particularly in the Pauline usage, often given deference to the freedom of the individual. Of course external influences seem to have impacted early Christianity, just as they do today, and as it relates to the concepts of autonomy and federation between churches Second Temple Judaism and Greco-Roman voluntary associations were also considered.

long bookThe final step was evaluating the documents of the Apostolic Fathers, most specific the Didache1 Clement, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, along with other works (Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, etc.), for their ecclesiological content. Then the works of the Second Century Apologists were also surveyed, though Ireneaus and Clement of Alexandria were the primary writers to be evaluated.

In the end, I think there is a quite a good case to be made for establishing autonomy, that is the independence of the local Christian communities, as the initial nature of ecclesial relationships within early Christianity. These first communities had no means of establishing external hierarchy, no examples of overwhelming compulsion to the influence of an external leader, and do not appear to make much of other communities, even those existing within the same cities. There is some federated cooperation within these communities, but they are, by and large, isolated from each other and any notion of external influence in their structure and operations.

Now that this project is initially submitted I’m dutifully working on reinforcing some argumentation with professorial critiques in mind as well as tightening up the language. There is much to say about all of this, and hopefully in the coming months I’ll be able to work out bits and pieces on this blog.

I’d love to engage with some feedback on the ideas presented, though this is mightily limited from the 302-page dissertation.

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