status

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.

status

The Apostle Paul and the Attractional Model of Church Growth

One of the continuing controversies within church ministry circles concerns whether we opt for an attractional model or an incarnational model for church method. Helpfully, many are going for the middle “AND” route that points out how both are good models than can blend together.

Yet too often in these conversations these principles and models are discussed with allusions and indirect references to the biblical text without Corinthactually concerning ourselves with the text.

Proponents of the incarnational model often point out that the methods and systems of the attractional model are not featured in the Bible (God hadn’t invented the electric guitar yet) and thus justify their approach as the “organic” or __(insert buzzword)    biblical model. So what might be some biblical arguments for an attractional model?

Having some time to read this past week, I came across a couple of points about the nature of Paul’s “church growth method” as it related to his work in various communities. Most of these insights, below, will be coming from reflections drawn out of Robert Gehring’s excellent House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early ChristianityThis text is a recent research work that helpfully explores the centrality and design of early houses churches within the first Christian communities and how they related to each other and promulgated the growth of Christianity as whole.

At one point in the text, Gehring notes (pg 203,) a bit off-hand, that Paul had an intention method of evangelization where he specifically “targeted” (Gehring doesn’t use this word) several well to-do members of society in Corinth. Leveraging insights from such passages as

It boils down to the point that Paul had a specific church growth method as he went into towns and cities to plant, water, and grow churches in those communities. Specifically here he cites 1 Corinthians 1:14-16 where Paul points out that he baptized Crispus, Gaius, and Stephanus in the name of Jesus Christ. Later, in 1 Corintihans 16:15-17, Paul names several key leaders in the house church structure of Corinth including Stephanus. Gehring’s point is that Paul had a specific missionary target in seeking out individuals such as Stephanus who would have been wealthy citizens of Corinth. Since the primary gathering spaces for the earliest Christian communities were households, no Christian structures are known for another one hundred and fifty years, having willing converts with adequate space to hold gatherings would have been vital to the growth of churches in various communities.

As a result we can say the earliest church growth model Paul uses incorporates aspects of an attractional model. Paul had a target audience.

Now, before we press this point too far, Paul is not setting up shop in these towns to reach Saddleback Sam or Willow Creek Wendy. Instead, part of Paul’s missionary strategy would have been to seek out specific key individuals to help in growing the church. It is a form of church growth strategy, but this has limitations.

House Church in JerusalemOther examples in the Pauline literature are likely available, though limited. Corinthians, perhaps because of Paul’s deep concern for the spiritual and ethical sustainability of this key Peloponnesian city received specific attention that isn’t found in the remaining Pauline Hauptbriefen. So what do we make of this?

Well, I do think Gehring has made a good point so long as we don’t push it beyond its reasonable limits. Paul’s missionary strategy as an entry point certainly appears to have a strategic focus. He would first go to the local synagogue and then the town’s agora (or marketplace.) Since the house church structure of the earliest Christian communities was necessary for the survival of the local churches being started by the Apostles around the world, having adequate space to meet would be important. Paul’s aim was certainly to reach as many people from as many diverse socio-political backgrounds with the Gospel. However, there does seem to be a particular point here that Paul kept in focus finding at least one leader with suitable accommodations to house the church.

As Larry Hurtado has recently pointed out, the earliest Christian communities weren’t made up of poor, illiterate, commoners but there was a blend of socio-economic backgrounds. This certainly led to some troubles, as it does today. Church is that uncommon cultural commons where rich, middle class, and poor all meet and share space and faith in common.

While I do think Gehring’s points about the use of house churches across the earliest Christian communities goes a bit too far, he is right in pointing out that where they were used there needed to be accommodating individuals who could house these gatherings. Once the Christians were removed from the local synagogues and the Temple due to their heretical beliefs (to Judaism) and their constant proselytizing (among other issues) they would have needed other structures. Houses were the most common and those who held gatherings had unique leadership roles (cf. Philemon.) Edward Adams has recently put out an intriguing text that offers a more generous view in The Earliest Christian Meeting Places:  Almost Exclusively Houses?

Now, before we get too far afield, Paul’s model of church growth does appear to have a specific attractional quality to it. He sought out specific individuals to help build the church.

As Paul went out and about his missionary efforts, finding these individuals not only provided structural support for the church in a local community it also allowed an influential family to bring in other Christians. (Even today wealth equals influence.) So, while we can’t go too far in pushing this point, we can note how Paul’s church growth model had an attractional element to it. Perhaps this adds to our understanding of the “AND” position on church growth models. 

03
Dec 2013
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Church

DISCUSSION No Comments
UA-40705812-1