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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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A Few Notes on Charismatic Authority in the Early Church

One of the rising issues in scholarship concerning the character and trajectory of authority in the earliest Christian communities that is central to understanding the relationships between the ecclesial structures of these communities (i.e. churches) comes out of the work of Rudolph Sohm and Max Weber concerning charisma.

WeberBefore getting too far into this, we need to make an important distinction that this charismatic authority isn’t the same thing as what happens in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches today. Though there is some relation, there are quite a gulf in understanding.

Sohm, a Protestant German lawyer in the late 1800s, championed the notion in his two-volume Kirchenrecht that the earliest Christian communities centralized authority through the exercise of the charismatic office. For Sohm, the earliest communities operated in a kind of theocratic autonomy based around the charismatic exercise of the Holy Spirit’s influence and the churches grew tremendously. It was not until the integration of a legalist framework, or the law, that began structuring early churches that they began stepping away from the original intent of Spirit-led (not in the contemporary sense) leadership and into a more structured offices which led towards confinement in the earliest churches. When this happened, following the Apostolic era, the churches began moving away from their free nature and into ecclesiastical confinement around structured authority. The bureaucracy that arose was in contradiction to the original intent and approach of the Apostles. (I’ll be dealing with this issue heavily in my dissertation…so look for it…later in 2014.)

Max Weber is, perhaps, one of the most significant sociological figures in the early part of the 20th century. Weber built his concept of charismatic authority largely from Sohm, though with notable differences and other influences. Weber approached charismatic authority in early cultic communities by noting that some kind of supernatural or exceptional quality in an individual would build a group of followers in which that person would carry that message, cultic activity, out and eventually lead to institutionalization. (Yes, there is far more to be said here.)

It seems that in making these points, both Sohm and Weber, have rightly noted that in early communities (we can say cultic and Christian here) charismatic authority is the basis for much of their activities and practices. Since these communities lack the sophistication of hierarchal administration they default to using charisma as their primary collectivizing agent. For Christian communities in the immediate Apostolic era, the Spirit led authorization of leadership was a primary device they noted for how they proceeded to raise up and empower leadership. Since authority was seen to be first invested in Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20) and then transferred to the Apostles, it continues to be available to the followers of Jesus by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This means that the Spirit leads in many decisions about the nature and structure of the leadership in the earliest communities…including their relationship between themselves.

Now that we have documents such as the Didache available, which were not in widespread circulation during Sohm’s life, this does seem to reinforce the idea that towards the end of the Apostolic era (depending on your dating of the Didache) the false teachings of destructive prophets and self-appointed apostles necessitated more strict adherence to local community codes and offices. 

As the official office of Apostle ends (I’ll make this case soon) at the end of the first century, the routinization of clerical offices and liturgical observance in the earliest churches begins to shift towards both confinement of authority (for purification) and standardization of practices. As Clement of Rome and Ignatius present in their epistles at the turn of the second century, though autonomy continues (my postulation) between communities, standardization in office follows the form of the late Pauline ecclesiology reflected in the Pastoral epistles over the Jewish-Hellenist movement in the Petrine literature.

This means charismatic authority as a default modus operandi of the earliest communities (which were almost entirely based in house-church models) begins to shift towards ecclesial consolidation.

At the turn of the second century there is a movement away from charismatic authority and towards structured institutionalization. This changed the nature of the ecclesiological foundations for the earliest churches until the early part of the third century.

Of course, the larger challenge in the discussion of how charismatic authority in the earliest Christian communities develops centers around a few points:

– Were the Apostles charismatic agents or empowered followers of the agent, Jesus Christ?apostolic council

– If the intent of the original founders of the Church, developed since Pentecost, was to provide an autonomous confederation of communities, how did the exercise of authority (for instance the Jerusalem Council of Galatians 1-2) play out across the Mediterranean region?

– In terms of NT ecclesiology, (I do buy into pluriformity) why is there little to no references to hierarchal authority in the historical or epistolary literature of the NT?

– If charismatic authority in local communities was the initial basis for the administration of the ordinances, proclamation of the Gospel, and exercising of discipline, what caused the eventual confinement to a structured episcopal system?

– Finally, if the Apostolic era, as relayed in the NT literature, provides a picture, primarily, of autonomous churches being planted by an apostolic missionary force and then left to grow, how does this influence our current models of church planting, growth, and polity?

Of course these questions are serious and could, themselves, provide the basis for much research. Ultimately, my course is simply evaluating the autonomous nature of these confederated communities. A unique, and lengthy, task.

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What Happened to the Apostles?

One of the vexing issues left when you read the post-Pentecost accounts in Acts and other New Testament literature is that most of the 12 Apostles disappear. Though some major figures continue, the rest of the twelve are outside the view of the New Testament.

As I was doing some more (as if it ends) dissertation reading in Streeter’s  The Primitive ChurchI noticed that he points out a third century pseudipigraphal document, The Acts of Thomas, that makes a curious note concerning what happened to the 12 Apostles following Pentecost. Here’s the passage from the Acts of Thomas:

1 At that time all we the apostles were at Jerusalem, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the tax collector, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Cananean, and Judas the brother of James: and we divided the regions of the world, that every one of us should go to the region that fell to him and to the nation to which the Lord sent him.  2 According to the lot, therefore, India fell to Judas Thomas, which is also the twin: but he would not go, saying that by reason of the weakness of the flesh he could not travel, and: I am a Hebrew; how can I go among the Indians and preach the truth?

Streeter, after appropriately noting the specious nature of the reference, does make a note about how it is helpful in framing a possible picture of the dispersion that existed following Pentecost. The 12 Apostles, representative of the 12 tribes of Old Testament Israel, went into dispersion to accomplish the Great Commission and charge in Acts 1:8.

The idea that the Apostles remained consolidated in Jerusalem for the next several years is certainly reasonable. Acts 9, perhaps occurring within two years of the resurrection, details Saul’s conversion and entrance into ministry (before being sent off in Acts 9:30.) The dispersion of the earliest Christians into regions beyond Jerusalem and Judea becomes more clear as it seems Saul, who later became Paul, had someone to go to in this distant place.

In the rest of the New Testament, there is a growing sense that the earliest Christian communities are indeed growing outside of Jerusalem as the Apostles, or at least early adherents, are moving away to capture the commission of Christ. While they seem to be around for the Jerusalem in Acts 15:6-21, though it isn’t immediately obvious if this means the original 12 Apostles, there is also the issue that Paul had to, at point after his return from ministry abroad, submitted himself to a council of Apostles per Galatians 1:11-24.

Perhaps here we consider that the Apostles referenced is not always synonymous with the original twelve but that an Apostolic Council, or a collegium of Apostles, would meet regularly to consider new leaders and aid in the direction of the earliest communities. This seems a reasonable point given that Acts 15 mentions the idea of Apostles and elders in some kind of council.

As a result, it would not have been natural for the New Testament to continue to include specific references to the 12 Apostles if they weren’t in view of the authors. For instance, if Thomas did go to India (and was often referred to as Jesus since he was Jesus’ identical twin…or not) it would be outside the normal development of texts primarily written about events in Judea to include him in their narrative. Perhaps, if for no other reason, the exclusion of the Apostles from the rest of the New Testament is a helpful authenticating device to show the truthfulness of the New Testament documents. While many Gnostic and pseudepigraphal texts attempt to draw the Apostles back into the ministry of the early church, the truthful New Testament texts represent an authentic picture.

Other texts indicate that the Apostles did indeed seek out regions for their ministry in the earliest days of Christianity. This would certainly account for the spread of Christianity across the Mediterranean region, Africa and Asia. While the Acts of Thomas is not a definitive text for what actually occurred, it likely has some data to provide for shaping the earliest Christian developments.

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