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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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A Few Thoughts on the CDC Births Study

Millennials are having babies. Yes, this is certainly true. Since Millennials are the primary segment in the age range that is most likely to give birth (what my grandmother called the “fertile years”…enunciating each syllable mind you) this conclusion is broad and simple.

A recent CDC study on the trends associated with Millennials births, and other age segments which mean Gen-Xers, has some preliminary conclusions which are helpful for us who are in church ministry. Their report surveys the birth rate and other factors around births for the 2013 year. Here are some quick highlights:

1. There were 3,957,577 births in the United States during 2013.

2. The birth rate was 62.9 births per 1,000 women which is slightly lower than 2012 and represents a birth rate in older womenrecord low fertility rate. This is something that statisticians and demographers have been watching carefully, western fertility rates have been steady falling for some time now. It represents a coming shift in global population growth over the next three or four generations if unchanged. Equally concerning for these experts is that the birth rate for women in their early twenties has dropped to 81.2 birth per 1,000 which is also a record low. However, birth rates for women in their thirty and forties rose again, by 1%, to 98.7 births per 1,000 women. This is a developing trend which is worth paying attention to for a number of reasons listed below.

3. The non-marital birth rate rose again to 44.8 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44, though births to unmarried women is statistically the same from 2012.

4. The replacement rate of births within the population continued to fall below the replacement level. That means the generation being born right now will likely be smaller than Millennials, perhaps considerably smaller.

 

A couple of quick observations from this study note that the birth rate in women between 20-39 is continuing to decline the United States. This is not surprising. If one adds the filters of women who college or graduate degrees and their place in the workforce the rate likely falls off more significantly. For many women in the United States, the primary goal of their post-high school lives no longer is finding a husband and being in the home, but it is getting their degree(s) and finding their desired career. This is a generational shift that many of our Boomer church members will not entirely understand.

Likewise, with the massive increase in cohabitation among Millennials, and the ready access to contraception this is also lowering the child birth rate. Some women are waiting until their late thirties to early forties to consider beginning families, and many times having a suitable male partner is ancillary to this later life quest.

There are plenty of other conclusions one can likely draw from this data. However, we in the Church should note these trends particularly as they intersect with those we are trying to reach. The new traditional family would be considered highly un-traditional several decades ago. Yet our goal in reaching those far from Christ isn’t to scold them or require them to conform to some older relational paradigm. Instead it should be to understand where they are coming from and craft new ministries that relate and connect well with them to draw them towards faith in Christ, whether a new faith or renewed faith.

Studies like this one from the CDC only help us better configure our ministry in this way.

17
Jul 2014
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Church

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Jesus Didn’t Need a Local Church, and other poor conclusions

One of the continuing discussions about the nature of ecclesiology and missiology concerns how various New Testament figures related to their contemporary churches often comes to the conclusion  that this figure didn’t use a local church for ministry. Usually this argument is angled towards the point of the building of the local church more particularly missing.

The point goes something like this: Jesus didn’t need a church building to do His ministry.

And sometimes looks like this: Paul doesn’t invite people to his local church to preach the Gospel to them.

Jesus ApostlesI suppose the point here is that institutional buildings are not part of the original, New Testament intent for the church(es) do go about its/their ministry. Of course, this is poor way of going about making this point historically and theologically.

To begin, we note that Jesus began His ministry, according to Luke, in the religious institution, and building, of His day: the synagogue. Luke 4:16-30 shows that, following His baptism, Jesus goes to the local synagogue in Nazareth and reads aloud from the Isaiah scroll, then performs a kind of midrash on the text. This would have been the natural step for a new rabbi in the Jewish community.  Now, the response is likely not the norm, but nevertheless, Jesus begins His ministry within the established building, and form, of the religious system He came to renew.

As a second point, we also recognize that Jesus often goes to the synagogues, and even the Temple, throughout His ministry as a starting point for ministry in a community. (cf. Matthew 13:54; Mark 3:1-5; 6:1; John 6:28-59.) This is not to say that the synagogue was to become the primary organizational centers for Christianity, though they certainly informed much of what would become the local churches. The synagogue was also, for Paul, a starting point in his travels and apostolic missionary work (Acts 17:2; 19:8; etc.)

We’d also be remiss not to point out that Pentecost is the inauguration, or beginning point, of the Church. Since Pentecost happens after Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, it would have been hard to Jesus to start His ministry in an organizational form that didn’t exist.

Of course the final, and perhaps most important point, is that these kinds of statements purely earliest communitiesmisunderstand the nature of the earliest Christian ecclesial structures. Since no formal, distinctly Christian buildings appear to have existed prior to CE 300, it is hard to say that any New Testament figure either had a church building or did not have one. As Gehring has thoroughly worked out, local homes became the primary gathering places for almost all Christians by the middle the first century. This is not because the house was the preferred method, surely not the normative method, but it arose out of necessity when the earliest Christians were forcibly removed from synagogues and Temple.

So, these house based community gathering places became the epicenter of much of early Christian worship, ministry, an fellowship. The earliest Christians frequently gathered in these places, likely at multiple points during the week, and they became their “local churches.” Though they would go out to spread the Gospel and do ministry, as well as business and life, the local churches are where they inevitably returned.

If you are going to try to make the argument that the early Church, or some New Testament figure, distanced themselves from institutional forms of religion, you’re simply missing the reality of history or knowingly distorting the truth. This is not to say that monolithic, high Church Catholicism was evident in early Christianity, but it does point out that the churches of the first several centuries had more to do with local church ministry, based in a physical community, than some contemporary commenters allow for them.

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Arius was a Mega-Church Pastor

Obviously this is a fun way of framing a historical discussion. However, in the times when Arius lived, it probably isn’t too far off from reality. Obviously not all mega-church pastors are heretics, but Arius was both a mega-church pastor and a heretic.

AriusArius (CE 260-336) was a significant figure in the Trinitarian disputes surrounding the First Council of Nicaea in 325. He suppressed the divinity of Christ in relation to that of the Father, as well as Jesus’ uncreated, pre-existence. Yet, he had a significant following even as a parish priest in Alexandria.

In the period when Arius was working and deploying his heretical theology, the Church, or churches, were undergoing increasing consolidation of institutional functions and formally identifying the historic doctrines that had lead the Church through the previous several generations. Because of teachers like Arius, the Church began to see the need to formally set the doctrinal boundaries and clarify for all believers what is and is not acceptable theology.

As Epiphanius of Salamis describes him, Arius was a skilled orator who, being tall and athletic, had crowds fawning over him. He possessed a superb intellect, sharp wit, and had an aesthetic lifestyle that made him appealing to many of his day. (Against the Arian Nuts, 49.1-3) Ephiphanus also comments that Arius had taken a large number of individuals from the Church at Alexandria to form his own following (Heresies 69.3.) It is suggested that it might well have been several thousand followers which, given the times, is a substantial following.

Arius might well have been considered a mega-church pastor. But he was also a heretic. 

The lesson here isn’t that all mega-church pastors are heretics, clearly they are not all heretics. Frankly, of the four mega-churches where I’ve been able to serve on a staff role, all the pastors have been thoroughly orthodox and wonderfully evangelical. (Evangelicalism not being a megachurchcondition of orthodoxy.)

It should be mindful for us, though, that just because someone has a large following, or has been able to secure a massive facility to house their annual gatherings of their followers, this does not justify their theology nor their heresy.

Recently, several times recently, some significant leaders is certain wings of American Protestantism have put out Tweets that are laden with heretical theology. In response to criticisms, their various followers will often justify their leaders’ tweets by pointing to their numbers and “success” in ministry. It is not, however, actually a reasonable way to proceed.

Just because someone is able to amass significant followers does not inherently mean they are justified in whatever they say. It is a crude veneration to think this is the case.

Instead, their statements are to be tested along with the rest of us. Now, I’m not suggesting every pastor needs a PhD or even an MDiv to be considered legitimate to accomplish ministry. Though these degrees don’t hurt our ability to pastor, being able to articulate and affirm the core theological doctrines of Christianity have always been the first test of worthiness for a pastorate. We must recognize that in the qualifications for leaders lists which are provided in the New Testament, the test of orthodoxy is still at the top of these lists. If a leader fails to meet this orthodoxy, no matter how much they “mean well” or “are successful” they have failed to meet a primary qualification for being an under-shephered of Jesus Christ.

Arius was a mega-church pastor, but he was rightfully rebuked and banished by the first ecumenical council because of his failure to articulate the proper theology that honors Christ.

May we remember his example and do the same.

11
Jun 2014
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Apologetics

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Sermon: Live for a Change

On May 25, I was thankful to asked to preach for the Edge service at Sugar Creek Baptist Church. The current message series at Sugar Creek has been on the Hall of Fame of the Faithful in Hebrews 11. Faithfulness is a central concern of this portion of Hebrews and I wanted to discuss how the author of Hebrews was dealing with this topic just prior to, and immediately following the eleventh chapter.

Sermon5.25

One of my life verses is Hebrews 10:39, “For we are not those who draw back and are destroyed, but those who believe and are saved.”

As the writer of Hebrews, likely using a popular sermon from the time and adding epistolary openings and closings to the text. As they move from describing the lives of who have lived faithfully in the history of God’s people, the next move is to discuss how we are to not be held back. In Hebrews 12:1-2, the author reminds us of the many witnesses around us and our need to move forward an not be held back by that sin that “so easily ensnares us.”

This idea of an ensuring sin, that sin which plagues us and doesn’t let us move forward, is a reality we all must deal with in our lives. One way that this sin is exampled is found in Numbers 14:1-10 where Israel, upon hearing the poor report of the spies, falls into disbelief and unfaithfulness. In the midst of their despair they desire to go back to Egypt, back to the thing that had held them back in their slavery.

Ultimately we all want to be free from our sin and live in faithfulness. The hope of faith in Jesus is that he delivers us from that sin and moves us to new life. Our hope is found in that freedom from the slavery of our ensnaring sin, and not in fear and despair.

I hope this is a blessing for you today.

04
Jun 2014
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Church

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