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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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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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Luke’s Jewish-centric Ecclesiology

Combing through some research on an upcoming presentation on Second Temple clerical Lukan Jewishnessforms in early church ecclesiology, I came across two examples of existing leadership structures that caught me by surprise. As I’ve been working through the four unique ecclesiologies in the New Testament (Pauline, Lukan, Johannine, and Matthean) one of the points of differentiation between Pauline and Lukan, which are close, seems to be Luke’s abiding concern for locating the work of the burgeoning Christian communities within a Jewish context. (There are other points of difference though.)

Perhaps this is why, at the end of Acts we are left with church communities focused around rising presbyteries (though what happens after CE 70 is a mystery.) Yet I was taken aback in noting two forms of leadership structures in the Essene communities of Qumran. Specifically:

1. The necessity of having at least 120 families in a community to allow for it to have its own council which is seen in Mishnah Sanhedrin 1.6. It is peculiar that, in Acts 1:15, Luke points out that 120 people (though the Greek here, ἀδελφῶν, literally means “brothers” indicating households) were present with Peter as the first meeting of the followers of Jesus takes place. Why would Luke use this rather precise number when, only one chapter later, he approximates the number added to the Church to some 3,000?

2. Later on in Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas go before the Jerusalem Council (a scene which corresponds to Paul’s retelling in Galatians 1-2.) This council is reported to have three principal leaders by Paul (who cites them as “pillars”) in Galatians 2:9. In Luke’s recording of the events he notes that Peter is present and that James, the brother of Jesus, is occupying a leadership role over the elders. Now, if the council in Jerusalem corresponds to the council regulations laid out in Qumran (1 QS 8:1f) this would indicate an additional connection with the Jewish context out of which the earliest communities arose. If Paul’s observation is correct, that James is included with the other two apostles, perhaps the three apostles were serving alongside twelve elders in a kind of early Christian Council.

It is curious, given the two examples above, that Luke’s ecclesiology wouldn’t have been embedded in a specifically Jewish context. Perhaps more than any other of the above four ecclesiologies, Luke best represents the Jewish context out of which the earliest Christian communities arose. As a result, Luke’s understanding of ecclesiology, which gives more of a leadership role to the twelve disciples, then Apostles, in his Gospel and initial portion of Acts. This describes how the earliest communities considered themselves a natural extension of the Jewish communities in Palestine and throughout the Diaspora.

Of course Luke also is the final historical discussion that places the worship patterns of the earliest communities in the Temple of Jerusalem (and also the Diaspora synagogues.)  Paul only references them as places where the Jews, or historic Israel, conduct their cultic worship.

Just a few thoughts. The developing ecclesiologies that are cast across the New Testament provide a healthy picture of the natural development which was occurring in these diverse communities. Perhaps Luke’s ecclesiology does represent more of a Jewish focus than the others. More studies to follow.

12
Mar 2014
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Theology

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Why Believers’ Baptism is the Biblical Model

Several months ago I was provoked to developed an extended discussion on believers’ Baptism of Jesusbaptism as the model for the New Testament church.

In four points, I develop a case for Believers’ Baptism (why some might call credo-baptism) as the model of both the New Testament and the earliest Christianity:

1. The biblical case for baptism is of believers, by immersion, following their conversion.

2. The theological case for baptism only leads to baptism of believers, by immersion, following their conversion.

3. The historical case for baptism shows that the earliest Christians only utilized baptism for believers, by immersion, following their conversion.

4. The archeological case for baptism shows that for the earliest Christians their worship venues and structures provided for baptism of believers, by immersion, following their conversion.

Through these points of discussion I contend that the model of the earliest Christians, and as a result the New Testament, was baptism of believers by immersion following their conversion.

Since the baptism discussion will likely come up in any number of settings for the local church, it is helpful to present my position in advance of future discussions. Perhaps this will aid your own preparations. This paper was developed for use by both clergy and laity alike, and though it does not aim for scholarly acumen it perhaps might contribute in that era as well.

Here is the paper, hopefully you will find it edifying and strengthening.

Believers Baptism Paper – Garet Robinson

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Was the Early Church of Acts a Communism?

Reading along for some background data concerning the organization and polity of the earliest Christian communities (there are none earlier than Acts) and I came across a wonderful point from Carsten Colpe:

Christian CommunismThis social structure is not a form of “communism” if one means it the communal possession of the means of production, for the private property of the Nazaraeans, from which a profit is realized and distributed, is maintained (in distinction to the Essenes). Also, this social structure is not a form of “egalitarianism,” since everyone received according to need. Finally, this social structure is not a form of “collectivism,” since there was neither communal production nor central administration of communally produced income. If one must use a modern sociological term, one may speak here of a “consumer cooperative” – yet with the absolute restriction that participation was voluntary (5:4) and the relationship between supply and demand was not regulated by contract. It is also possible that the example of important benefactors – only the Cypriot Barnabas and the local Ananias (4:36; 5:1-2) are mentioned by name – has established standards, by which the individual again and again, yet differently from case to case, is oriented towards the members’ mutual obligation to support each other financially.Carston Colpe from “The Oldest Jewish-Christian Community” pg 91 in Christian Beginnings: Word an Community from Jesus to Post-Apostolic Times edited by Jürgen Becker.

I rather agree with his point, and to the secondary point that present day political monikers (-isms) are difficult to ascribe to antiquity with high levels of congruity. Anyways, since there are a bunch of folks getting way too worried about Pope Francis’ “socialism” we should also note that the earliest communities were not inherently capitalistic either. The entire nature of the economy at this point was so mightily different than what we experience it is hard to characterize in present day terminology.

However, we can say that the early communities were voluntary associations of messianic believers who collaborated to promote hospitality among each other and care for the poor and indigent outside their ranks.

This isn’t communism or socialism.

04
Jan 2014
POSTED BY Garet
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Church

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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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