August 21, 2017

Some Things I Believe about the Church (at this point)

By Chaplain Mike

As I did with the Bible, I now present five basic points in my thinking about the church. This is by no means an exhaustive list; just a summary of a few of the thoughts that shape my perspectives at this time in my own understanding. I hope they will provide fertile soil for discussion.

• • •

(1) Faith in Christ is ecclesial in its very nature.
God is saving a people, not just individuals. As babies are born into families, so believers are born into God’s family. The church is not an optional part of a Christian’s discipleship, but is of the very essence of what it means to be alive and living in Christ.

(2) Churches should be rooted in both local communities and catholic traditions.
The uniqueness of each local congregation grows out of its local setting, just as Corinth was different from Ephesus, and Philippi from Antioch. Acts and the church epistles show us that Paul adjusted his methods and language when dealing with churches in different cultural settings while remaining faithful to the Gospel. However, there are common traditions, such as “the marks of the church” noted by the reformers and others (commitment to the Word, sacraments, penance, ordained ministry, praise and prayer, and participation in the Missio Dei, for example) that should provide a Gospel structure in which each church lives out its ecclesial life in its unique setting.

(3) I do not believe in the full autonomy of the local church.
I do not understand how any church can claim it is “biblical” and not have bishops outside the local congregation to provide oversight, and fellow congregations with whom it is in partnership. If the NT shows us anything about the practice of the early church it is that local congregations and their leaders were accountable to the apostles and their representatives, and that the apostles taught them they were part of a worldwide family of congregations that had responsibility for one another. In the days immediately after the apostles, we have evidence from fathers like Ignatius that bishops continued to oversee local churches on the regional level. There should be levels of authority and administration outside the local church.

(4) The summary statements in Acts are meant to portray the ideal nature and practices of the NT church.

Acts 2:41-47
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Acts 4:32-35
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.

Though I reject the idea that the Bible is an “instruction manual” that lays out a specific pattern for how churches are to be organized and run, and though I believe there is a tremendous amount of freedom in the Spirit to live out our ecclesial life in Christ, nevertheless these texts in Acts ARE set forth as descriptions of the church in its ideal, pristine state. Luke portrays the first believers after Pentecost experiencing God’s grace and living out those basic practices of faith, hope, and love that should characterize his people in the New Covenant. I think we can learn something about what is fundamental for the church in every age and culture from these summaries.

Some of the specific practices are obviously tied to the situation and don’t translate. For example, there is no “temple” in Jerusalem where the church must meet! Also, I don’t think it is required that all Christians everywhere hold their property in common, either. What is at the heart of that, however, is Luke’s statement, “those who believed were of one heart and soul.” Personal ownership is less important than caring for those who are in my “family.” Thus, Paul would appeal later to the churches throughout the Mediterranean region to give a generous offering to assist the poor in Jerusalem without compelling them to abandon all private ownership (see 2Cor 8-9). Furthermore, we might discuss the place of “signs and wonders” in the early church and today, but I’ll save that for another time.

Here are some basic things I believe about the church that I glean from these passages:

Baptism is the church’s entrance rite. It is not an optional part of Christian discipleship, nor is it merely my testimony of what God has done for me. It is the front door of the church, through which all believers are called to walk. In baptism, God opens that door for us and extends his hand of welcome as he embraces us and ushers us into his household.

The basic elements of the church’s life are:

  • Apostolic teaching with a focus on the resurrection of Jesus (Word)
  • Sharing a common life together (Fellowship)
  • Sharing sacramental meals together (Table)
  • Sharing in liturgical prayers together (Prayer/Praise)

In the church’s common life together:

  • They practiced generous, sacrificial giving to meet needs (Love)
  • They gathered in formal and informal settings (Congregation)
  • They practiced their faith publicly as well as privately (Vocation/Mission)

(5) The overall focus of the church’s ministry should be on helping people live in the Gospel and become formed into the image of Christ. In my opinion, that means that the ministry of the church is ultimately pastoral and personal. It is not primarily to dispense religious goods and services, to provide programs and activities, to put on events and presentations. Paul stated the priority like this, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” (Colossians 1:28-29)

Comments

  1. Dear Jesus, this is even more beautiful than your statement on the Bible. An equally as non-polemical. When is your book coming out? 1-5 are all home runs with me. Number 3 really preaches one of my pet peeves, except that I’m not entirely sure that having Bishops is the only or best solution to the hyper-autonomy of pragmatic consumeristic individualistic churches that dominate the American scene.

    You do present the argument for episcopal polity well, though. I’ve read Zahl’s essay on that and he completely neglected the points you addressed. My main beef: Many protestant churches with episcopal polity have demonstrated no ability whatsoever to hold bishops accountable. Everyone needs accountability, even bishops. Surely their are other viable models between isolated autonomy and power heavy bishops. Can’t the Presbyterian model be argued from pragmatic/biblical grounds, or some remote derivative? And isn’t it a mark of Lutheran doctrine that polity ought not be a defining mark of the church?

    • David Cornwell says:

      Not to be argumentative, but most churches with this type of episcopal governance DO have this ability. They may not hold them accountable over the type of issues that you are interested in, but they have and use this ability when it is needed. This is seldom over theology, but when it comes to moral issues and lapses this does happen. It may happen in a quieter way than the great evangelical scandals.

      I’m a believer in an ordination process that goes beyond the local church. And even some denominations with a congregational type governance have these processes in place. Along with this is an accountability that transcends the local congregation. I know this because I’m part of a committee that has the final power to remove a person’s ordination, which then affects denominational standing. I won’t say more, but I know how painful the exercise of this authority can be to everyone it touches.

      • That’s not argumentative. I’m argumentative 😛
        However, it is the moral issues with which I am directly concerned, though in the end they are merely symptomatic of theological issues. The Catholic church and Protestant mainlines have perilously little to reign in offenders living in direct defiance of of historic orthodox Christian morality. When it is handled, to their credit, it is quieter, like you said. The doctrinal drifts that bother me are not niche preferences like complimentarianism, but abandonment of orthodoxy, as in denial of the divinity of Christ. That’s not an issue of MY interest. That is a central, core defining tenant of Christianity.

        I think you are dead on about ordination. Even if we deny the “sacramental nature” of Holy Orders, as a rite of the church it still needs to be practiced. Good for you for serving on that committee. Tough as it is, it is badly needed work.

  2. Number 3 was the biggest change in my church life. I couldn’t deal with the problem of each pastor being a non-accountable leader of his own congregation.

    I used to think the Roman Pope had complete authority over Catholics, but I am starting to realize he still has a level of accountability. There is no accountability for local pastors.

    • Thanks for pointing this out, Allen. I am RC and it pains me that so many other followers of Christ believe that the Pope is some sort of Supreme Ruler like one of the Roman Emporers! And the “infalliable” designation is only when speaking purposefully and publically about a grave matter of Faith and doctrine….his guess on who will win the World Cup or who has the best brushetta in Rome are simply the thoughts of a man.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And the “infalliable” designation is only when speaking purposefully and publically about a grave matter of Faith and doctrine….

        It’s the RCC version of “The Buck Stops Here”. Or all those appeals to the US Supreme Court for a final decision.

        • And, of course, we ALL know that a mere man is capable of being infallible (perfect in judgment) when it comes to faith and morals. I mean, give a man a title, even under ecclesiastical circumstances, and his imperfection just goes away!

          Sorry, but I was raised Roman Catholic and had 12 years of RC education, and even as a middle schooler I had trouble believing THAT one.

    • Kenny Johnson says:

      Depends on the structure of the church. Our church is autonomous. We belong to a denomination (Evangelical Covenant), but they have no real authority over our church. But our church is not pastor-run. We have a board of elders and those elders are elected by the congregation. The pastor is accountable to both the board and the congregation.

      Additionally, our pastor has never been a lone wolf. He meets regularly with other local pastors, is heavily involved with our denomination, has mentors, etc.

      And this… I think… is most important. Our church recognizes our pastor as a leader within the church, but (I assume) none of recognize him as being infallible or having any kind of absolute authority. If any leader in our church stepped out of line, the congregation itself would not stand for it.

      • Kenny, do you know if other Ev. Covenant churches are run that way, or is it different church to church ?? I like a LOT of what you’ve described here. Just curious.

        GregR

        • I grew up in a congregation led church. See Michael’s posting on some of the results.

          http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/james-macdonald-needs-a-business-meeting

          As an adult I discovered that there was another way. Elder led. But the problem is many of the elder led churches are really the entire RCC hierarchy collapsed into a single church. Elders are only nominated by other elders. Church is governed by said elders and special permission is required to see detailed budget numbers. And don’t even think of asking about salaries.

          I grew up in a church of about 500+ attendance on Sunday’s. THE (1) pastor new most everyone by name. And tried to visit everyone in somewhat of a rotation. The church I recently left had 17 pastors on staff for about 3500. When I left I realized that not one of them every called on me or any of my friends in the church. The congregation was there to support their activities.

  3. David Cornwell says:

    “They gathered in formal and informal settings (Congregation)”

    Other than worship itself, this is, for me, one of the most important elements of our life together. This is where we learn to know and love those who are with us. When I miss this for a while, I feel as if part of me is missing. Then I become hungry for it, and lonely in my quest. We were not created to be solitary beings. Without this even our worship on Sunday morning can become empty.

  4. Re: 3 –
    Our Lutheran congregation left ELCA precisely because the bishops were accountable to no one, and were pushing what we considered an anti-biblical agenda. In LCMC we have no bishops, but our congregation, like Kenny Johnson’s, is led by laypeople to whom the pastor is accountable.

    • Cunnudda,

      I’m hearing of some movt. of Conservative ELCA parishes to ACNA. We’d love to have you.

      Austin

  5. Very beautifully said and I would very much agree with your post. My only reservation would be in wondering how closely you equate liturgy with ritual. If by liturgy you simply mean common worship and response by the people, then I am in full agreement. There is certainly a place for ritual, but in general I prefer more free-flowing congregational prayer/praise.

    • I believe in both form and freedom. It may seem counterintuitive, but I have observed that many “free” services are more predictable than what happens in a repeated liturgy. Liturgy can also include a wide variety of styles.

      • I agree. I think both form and freedom each have a place in expressing our personal and corporate worship.

  6. Paul Davis says:

    On #3, two years ago I would have scoffed at you…

    But…

    We have been part of Church’s that where the remnants of fallouts from the model of church being run by the elders, and the pastor being accountable to them. Having a central authority can go a long ways to preventing these situations, I used work with a guy who was a church ‘Fixer’. When division arose, he would step in, take over the pulpit and pull it all back together. It took such a toll on him, that when I met him he was heading towards and atheistic belief.

    I like the Catholic model of a bishop installing priests where needed, it removes all this political nonsense that takes place (that doesn’t mean people don’t find ways around it). But it’s a more consistent model than what we have experienced for so many years in the protestant faiths, and more importantly I know that the priest has been well trained and educated for his calling.

    I didn’t like it so much a couple months ago when I found out that our Vicar was moving to another parish, but I know the other parish is getting a fine and compassionate man (the first Catholic Priest I ever met). And the new Vicar is a good and godly young man, with a great sense of humor!

    Here, here on the book as well, isn’t it time?? 😉

    -Paul-

  7. I’ll continue with the #3 comments/questions.

    For those not familiar with the bishop/parish system, how should one go about assessing and deciding which administration to submit himself under? What is the criteria? What might that mean for the typical evangelical pastor, missionary, church worker who wants to make a change, but are afraid they might get shut out, say, a teaching ministry because their accreditation does not translate?

    Also, do you think its possible that an entirely new parochial church institution, which practices the oversight you propose here, with strong evangelical and missional convictions can be “planted” for lack of a better term? Can we appoint each other as bishops? Or if we desire this sort of accountability do we need to look for it in the historical denominations that have always practiced it, i.e. Catholic, Anglican, etc.?

    (so many questions!)

    • I have the same questions, Sean.

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says:

      In the years immediately following the English Reformation, it seems that the Church of England and other Protestant churches with episcopal polity readily accepted transfers of ordained clergy from other Reformation churches that had other polity. Since then, things seem to have changed, and it’s typical for such clergy to need to be re-ordained upon moving into a church with episcopal polity.

      That said, ordination in most churches with episcopal polity is really for sacramental purposes, not for pastoral or teaching purposes. Especially in new missions or church plants, it’s not uncommon for the leader/pastor to be a layperson or someone who is training for ordination. Teaching, preaching and pastoral duties are not limited to ordained clergy.

      Truth be told, I have mixed feelings on this. One the one hand, I think there is a certain importance to the concept of Apostolic Succession when it comes to ordination. On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s quite Jesus-shaped to effectively treat folks as if their orders are invalid simply because they came from a different tradition. On yet another hand, this may boil down to a question of how we understand ordained ministry. My suspicion is that the sacramental end of things was less important immediately after the Reformation, but as these churches tried to regain a deeper sense of historicity and catholicity, they realized that they needed to have a more sacramental view of orders. Ultimately, I don’t know other than to say that it seems that folks I know who were ordained in a different Protestant tradition and are being re-ordained in ACNA don’t seem to be bent out of shape over it.

  8. Hi Mike,

    Nice post.

    You wrote:

    Sharing sacramental meals together (Table)
    Sharing in liturgical prayers together (Prayer/Praise)

    In your I think that the words sacramental and liturgical are a stretch from the passages quoted from Acts. That is not to invalidate your value placed upon them, but I think you need to look further than these passages to be able to come up with sacramental and liturgical.

  9. One other note… a hearty “AMEN” to number three. Accountability structures are very important.

  10. For commenters who have stated that their church has successfully implemented a congregational model where the pastor is accountable to a leadership team, my experience is this only works in specific situations, and usually not in the long term.

    In the back and forth between pastor and leadership team, the pastor has inherent advantages. 1) He hears private confessions 2) He is aware of different personality types and how they deal with leadership 3) At some point, he always succeeds in getting his own people on the leadership team 4) The congregation often develops a strong loyalty to him 5) Staff report to him 6) He has the power of the pulpit

    The elder/leadership team had inherent disadvantages 1) Usually consists of lay leaders with their own jobs and life issues 2) May not have proper business/leadership experience 3) Usually do not have experience managing and dealing with people 4) At some point, the congregation fails to trust the elder/leadership team, and lets the pastor replace them with his own people

    In the end, the pastor with strong personality can always win if he plays the game correctly. .

    • Keen observations. So then accountability in this model rests on the pastor’s desire for it. In other words the pastor must be serious enough about his integrity to openly invite oversight in an honest fashion.

      As a pastor in this model, I admit it’s difficult to sustain this.

      • I believe the big historical change in congregational churches (especially Baptist) was that as churches developed large staff that reported to the pastor, it became much more difficult to maintain lay leadership team.

    • Domineering or weak personalities in the pastor or deacons/elders will always tend to create problems.

  11. one interesting aspect of the Acts 2-4 expression of how church was done, it was not with a NT bible or even a well developed theology…

    apart from the Apostles’ teachings & the connection with their Jewish roots, the overall characteristic of the early church was very sincere love, unity & although not directly indicated, it seems they actually ‘enjoyed’ each others company…

    without any doctrinal compartmentalization, those early believers simply ‘expressed’ their faith in the fashion it is recorded for us to appreciate. it was not intended to be the precedent to be emulated in methodology, but surely it was their joy (what?) & love & selfless sharing that was really radical…

    and their social interaction of dramatically different tiers of groups would have been way beyond anything experienced before. the status of women & children & slaves & the inclusion of Gentile believers very, very, very radical. more so than i think we give credit to from our perspective looking back…

    yet the fact that there were living Apostles that continued signs+wonders not to be minimized either. and how that dynamic was to be carried out thru succeeding generations something to wonder about as was also pointed out in the article…

  12. The system did not seem to work very well for the Catholic church as Bishops covered up hundreds if not thousands of pedophile priest for decades. Where was the accountability?

    “..Gospel and become formed into the image of Christ. In my opinion, that means that the ministry of the church is ultimately pastoral and personal. It is not primarily to dispense religious goods and services, to provide programs and activities, to put on events and presentations.” – Chaplain Mike

    Chaplain Mike you seem to be against services, events, programs and presentations. Can’t all of those fit in with Acts 2? Can’t there be fellowship, prayer, teaching, serving and giving involved in church services, programs and presentations? Also, Acts 2 and 5 indicate that they met in homes also for fellowship and to preach/teach the good news. So the ideal church would meet at their main meeting places and in homes.

    • John, of course most churches are going to have services, events, programs, and presentations. That’s part of what people who organize together for ministry do at times.

      I’m talking about emphasis here. Please believe me when I say that I have seen a huge change in the 30 or so years that I have been in pastoral ministry, from pastors who saw their calling as being shepherds to the flock and caring personally for their congregations through personal ministry, pastoral visitation, etc., to an emphasis that has turned pastors into professionals, leaders and managers in the style of corporate business, who have little to do with the people of the congregation. They serve mainly to give “vision,” “strategize,” “run the church,” preach to large crowds, and be the “face” of the organization in public events and marketing efforts.

      It is that context that I made my remarks.

  13. Mike, isn’t that why the apostles in Acts 6 set up a deacon system to begin with? So that the practical needs could be met while they could spend time praying and teaching? So you’re telling me that the old way where everything revolved around the pastor (one person) was better? The pastor has to do all the work, visit all the people, disciple all the people personally and so forth? First, that is not even a Biblical concept (going back to Moses) that one person does all the work. Second, won’t that burn a person out? Third, won’t that limit the potential for a church to grow or are all “spiritual” churches suppose to be 100 people or so? Finally, isn’t one of the points of discipleship to train others in the gifts and talents they have by God so they can USE them IN and OUT of the body of Christ? Some people are very gifted in visiting the sick, following up on visitors or praying for people. The more people involved in being a part of the ministry the healthier a church is going to be. Actually, I find the old model was one where the pastor was the “professional” – hey pastor is the professional so only HE can visit the sick, pray for the hurting and so forth. You assume that pastors of large/mega churches don’t visit the sick or spend time with people – but many do that. It’s just that they have many lay pastors/people that HELP out so that a church can grow. Look, some folks like smaller churches and some folks like larger churches. To me its all good. I know small churches where the pastor is abusive and very controlling. I know small churches that are very cold and uncaring – that is why SOME of them are small! There are large/small churches that are doing wonderful things – why not just leave it all that?

  14. #3 gives me the greatest problems.

    “Bishops” outside of the local congregation is not even described or alluded to in the NT narrative. Paul’s apostolic fellow workers were quite a different critter.

    T