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Review: Niringiye’s “The Church: God’s Pilgrim People”

The Church: God’s Pilgrim People Review

Author: David Zac Niringiye

Published: 2015

Publisher: IVP Academic

The Church CoverLiving in a globalized world in this new millennium, one of the great benefits is being able to hear the voices of many from far places that might have been unheard before. In picking up Bishop David Zac Niringiye’s recent work The Church: God’s Pilgrim People, the reader is given a text that holds one of these important voices. Previously serving as the Assistant Bishop of the Anglican Diocese in Kampala, Uganda until 2012, Niringiye is currently a Fellow in the Faculty of the Social Science at Uganda Christian University working in the fields of religion, culture, and public life. Holding a PhD from Edinburgh (1997,) his dissertation was a ecclesiological-historical study on the Anglican Church of Uganda. Bishop Niringiye provides both a practioneer’s experience of being in the midst of the churches and a scholar’s engagement with a larger breadth of conversations.

In his recent work, The Church: God’s Pilgrim People, Niringiye provides a text to engage ecclesiology from both the New Testament and the Old Testament vantage points. His approach seeks to integrate Israel’s story and the Church from the New Testament and explore applications for ministry and theology in this present era. This is the primary goal of his text. As part of this approach, Niringiye also intends to keep the global church in perspective instead of isolating to the Western expressions of ecclesial life. As the subtitle indicates, Niringiye hopes to show how the biblical Church is a pilgrim people, operating across the two testaments while bringing the Kingdom of God to be in this world. Niringiye presents is a biblical ecclesiology for the reader.

To accomplish this, Niringiye’s approach is to accomplish this over eight chapters after beginning with an introduction. The text also has an acknowledgements section and bibliography; footnotes are found in each chapter. As he sets into the introduction, one gets the sense of the book immediately. Niringiye’s style is not formal, but uses a causal linguistic approach to set out his text. In terms of structure, the first chapter frames his aims for the text while also setting Hebrews 11-12 as the New Testament basis for his ecclesiological project. Chapter two traces the pattern of God’s work in the Old Testament in order to draw comparisons to the Church as revealed in the New Testament. Chapter three continues this pattern, with the post-exilic period, completing the Old Testament correlations. Across chapters four and five, Niringiye turns to the New Testament texts and specifically how Jesus instantiates the Church. The sixth chapter moves into the Acts of the Apostles as described by Luke and discusses the initial moments of the Church, focusing on its missionary activity. Chapter seven walks the reader through some of the high points of the rest of the book of Acts, before chapter eight closes the text. In this final chapter, Niringiye moves into less of a recitation of the biblical ecclesial movement, as he sees it, and more into projecting his ecclesiological vision. The eighth chapter serves as the concluding chapter for the text.

In evaluating the text, the first point worth making is that Niringiye does a good job with his task and has crafted a worthwhile text for his readers. This is a unique contribution, a biblical ecclesiology, but a contribution that is exactly that and is not to be seen as a systematic theology. One of the most important contributions this text makes to the growing ecclesiological conversation is how mindful it is of the global Church. Too often ecclesiologies will tend to favor the first world, Western expression and seem almost devoid of any interest in second or third world expressions of ecclesial community. Niringiye does not suffer from this horizon and his work accomplishes an expansion of inclusion not often seen in texts on the Church. He also makes use of life illustrations helpfully while also tying his entire effort to the text of Scripture. This is one of the most biblical ecclesiologies this reviewer has encountered. To these ends the text accomplishes its goals and presents a provocative picture of the Church that is rooted in both testaments. Because of these qualities, it is easy to commend the text, though with some noted caveats.

One of the first of these is noting that the text does suffer from a lack of depth which prohibits its use beyond a survey level introduction to some ecclesiological matters. Niringiye keeps his discussion of the Church at a basic level, so much so that it limits the scope of the text’s use in seminary or research courses. This criticism is evidenced in the eighty-two total footnotes and forty-nine sources cited in the bibliography. For this work to qualify as an academic one, which the publisher touts the text as, it would need more heft and erudition on these levels. Perhaps some of this is to blame on the relative thinness of the volume, a quick two hundred pages. Regardless, this contributes to the text’s lack of scholarly height. Secondly, Niringiye’s position that the Church finds its roots in the Old Testament expression is Israel is an ecclesiological position that many will take issue with and one that is not well defended by the author. It is difficult to see how the Church extends to Israel, even the reconstructed post-exilic Israel, as the author assumes. Perhaps investigating this topic and establishing a more credible foundation would have aided the work. Finally, the author seems to have created, for the majority of the text, simply a recitation of the biblical events he is considering, with some minor commentary, more than a self-sustaining biblical ecclesiology. There are a number of points at which non-episcopalian model ecclesiologists and parishioners will disagree with his conclusions; fleshing out this territory would certainly have benefited the text and the reader alike. Even with the biblical theology category in which the text falls, some engagement with ecclesiological concepts and discussions that are more in depth and worth exploring would certainly have aided the text. None of these issues are fatal to the text.

In all, this is a good text and the community of Christ is benefited by the work. Niringiye’s voice is one that should be included in the larger ecclesial discourse of the global church. Though some stylistic issues will inevitably challenge readers, particularly his penchant for lists, when one looks beyond these minor trivialities there is a quality text to read. Niringiye’s work is best suited for a lay, undergraduate, or as a secondary course in the seminary level.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be interacting with some points from the text and hopefully expanding on some key issues that Niringiye brings up the in text. Stay tuned.

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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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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
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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.

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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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When Did Apostleship End?

Is the office of Apostle still functioning in the Church and churches? Who gets to appoint Apostles? What is the nature of the Apostolic gift or office? If Apostleship ended, when did this happen?

These are important theological, specifically ecclesiological, questions that are becoming increasingly relevant. In the disparate sectors of the Church across the world, we are seeing more individuals attach “Apostle” to their name. We are also hearing about individuals who have “apostolic” type ministries, while also hearing a clamoring of a return of an Apostle-like individual to help lead the Church and churches. We live amid confusing times.

In the study of the formation and development of the historical Church there is certainly a period where the Apostles existed and had ministries which thrived. Particularly in the testimony of the New Testament, we see a group of leaders who went out and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and catapulted this minor sect of Jewish millenarians into the largest worldwide religion. Luke, the author of the Gospel and likely writer of Acts, frames the first century understanding of the nature of the Apostles through the two volume work.  

The Apostles of the Church remain a group that is spoken of often, but still linger in the fog of historical understanding.

For many historians and theologians, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the Apostles. One particularly important document during the first century that illustrates this shift towards the earliest churches agreeing to end the office of the Apostle is that of the Didache. Likely written between 75-90, the Didache is an early manual on church polity, liturgical instruction, and instruction on worship. In the instructions that are part of the Didache, there is much space devoted to the

As we survey the literature from the turn of the second century until the Council of Chalcedon Gogulet Chartin 451, usually the parameters given to the patristic era, we see that there are no references to an ongoing office of the apostles and that nearly all the references are historic in nature.

In his book, The Primitive Church, Maurice Goguel provides a helpful chart demonstrating how the earliest Christian documents deal with the various offices through the early part of the second century. When considering how the earliest documents reflect the status of the Apostles, it becomes clear that once one gets through the Johannine Gospel the references to the Apostles become historical.

It would appear that the early Church made a conscious decision to end the formal office of Apostle by the end of the first generation of the Apostles. Since there are no references to Apostles as an ongoing office past the pre-70 New Testament documents and only a passing reference in the Didache, it is reasonable to posit that the earliest Christian communities found anyone attempting to claim ongoing apostolic authority dubious and dangerous. It is likely that the office of Apostle was indeed expanded beyond the Twelve, there seems to be plenty of New Testament evidence for that, this expansion seems to be wholly contained within the first generation of apostles.

There are indeed implications for our present day ministry environment here as well. Perhaps the most significant question is that if the office of Apostle has indeed ended, or has been closed are there other offices in the New Testament era which have also gone away? And does this possibly show us the nature of ecclesial office was indeed being shaped by the times and necessities of ministry in their era.

As well, it would seem anyone attempting to apply the label of “Apostle” to their own ministry would need to be challenged if they are assuming the same authority of the Apostles. The early church, likely up until Nicaea, spurned the application of the label Apostle to heterodoxical teachers.

So, it seems that the nature of the office of Apostle was one that received direct application in the New Testament era but not outside of it. Likewise, the early Christian communities, scattered around the Mediterranean region (and beyond) seem to have formed some kind of consensus that the office ended when the last Apostle (perhaps John depending on one’s views here) died. As a result, while we can look historically to the way in which an Apostle would have functioned and gone about their missionary work, the office and label are no longer available to anyone today. It is indeed an important historical reminder for how we are to function today. Most certainly we can look and see that the authority of the Apostles bears no new revelation and is best understood through their inscripturated testimonies available in the New Testament.

03
Jun 2014
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

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