Category Archives: Church History

Is This Church

 

It’s not often that I comment or interact with other blogs, but one I recently read fit so well with a recent post of my own, that it called for interaction.  My lane is exposition of Scripture, particularly that expressed in the form of devotions or meditations.  When I change out of that lane, even with posts on historical theology, it can become a long, drawn out mess.  I’ll do my best, but make no promises, especially with the length of this post (2000+ words!).  Hopefully in the end, the value of the interaction will be evident.

Having said that, a post linked by a popular blog: A la Carte – January 17 was directly related to the post I made on the principles of Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle of Worship.  In fact, the post nearly makes my point for me,  but not because we necessarily agree.  If you read that post, recall that the point I attempted to make was to highlight how those two principles should be the lenses through which we determine what a healthy church is, or what a church is at all for that matter.

In the post linked above, Tony Payne, founder of Matthias Media and co-author of the helpful book The Trellis and the Vine, uses an illustration of an elderly relative visiting his church for how our churches may differ and how they have evolved since the New Testament.  At the conclusion of this particular worship service, his relative was asked if she had enjoyed it, to which she declared, “This is not a real church”.  Payne suggests this may have been due to it lacking her traditional preferences for what constitutes a church, which includes, “prayer book service, the fact that we didn’t celebrate Holy Communion on that particular morning, the absence of organ music, or the general want of a quiet, ‘churchy’ atmosphere about the place. ”  This led Payne to consider the following questions concerning his own church’s worship service in comparison to the experiences that his elderly relative might have been more familiar with

“In one sense, it was quite true: many of the elements that a previous generation would have closely associated with ‘real church’ had been stripped away or changed beyond recognition in our congregational gatherings. Had we stripped away too much? Or, to think about it the other way, how much can you strip away and still have a real church? If we were to apply Ockham’s Razor to church, what would be left standing?”

I suppose Payne’s dilemma is not isolated to his own geographical church, or even the expressions of church in the 21st Century.  In fact, I too recently had a similar experience where I would’ve been the “elderly” relative that visited a much more contemporary worship service than the one that I typically attend.  In fact, my own wrestling with what constitutes a church service frothed over in the middle of this service and birthed the Sola Scriptura/RPW post.  It was the product of several years of thought given to this on-going, internal wrestling with what constitutes the gathering of God’s people.

Returning to Payne’s article, the next two paragraphs summarize the heart of what he is suggesting with the philosophical reference to Ockham’s Razor made above.  Ockham’s Razor basically suggests that given two options, the simplest is the most obvious or better choice.  As applied to what he is about to suggest with regards to church, what happens if we simplify it?  Contrary to this philosophical application, I want to suggest, instead of the unbiblical notion of Ockham’s Razor applied to church, what if we applied Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle?

Here is Payne’s thesis:

Let’s try this thought experiment: can we assume that the churches of the New Testament were real Christian churches, lacking nothing essential? If so, what could we ‘lop off’ our current practice of church life and still have a genuine Christian assembly (or ‘church’)?

Let’s mention the obvious ones first: no special religious buildings, no denominations, no territorial bishops, overseers or presbyteries responsible for a group of congregations, no committees, no constitutions, no weekly bulletin sheet, no announcements and no hymnbooks. So far, so easy. I’m not saying that these things are necessarily wrong or bad; they are just clearly not of the essence of what the church really is or what it needs to function well, since the New Testament had a perfectly complete experience of church without (as far as we know) any of them. And thus it would be very possible today to have a full and complete experience of Christian church, in which nothing is lacking, without any of these things.

He presses this idea further in the next two paragraphs, which themselves are worthy of full citation

What else is absent in the New Testament church that we might start to regard as a little more essential? We don’t find evidence of set prayers and orders of liturgy, for a start. There is also no evidence of the word or concept of ‘worship’ being applied to what New Testament Christians did in their gatherings. It is shocking, I know, but there are no worship services in the New Testament. In fact, there weren’t any ‘churches’ either—by which I mean that there wasn’t a special religious or Christian word used to describe Christian gatherings. They were not a new species of religious thing called a ‘church’; they were just ‘gatherings’ or ‘assemblies’, but Christian ones.

We also find no example or imperative for Sunday being the ‘right’ day on which we should meet, or any other day, for that matter. We know they met regularly, but in what configuration and frequency we aren’t sure. In fact, we struggle to find any distinction between a regular large gathering of the congregation (what we would call the Sunday Service) and any smaller gatherings that may or may not have taken place (what we would call ‘home Bible study groups’). We find no formal system of church membership, nor any set procedure or system for the structuring of leadership and governance within the congregation. (Certainly, New Testament Christians belonged to or were ‘members of’ particular congregations, and these congregations were led and governed; I am simply saying that we know next to nothing about the structures, procedures and practices of membership and leadership. So a particular model of membership or leadership—whether it be the Anglican, Presbyterian or Baptist models—is not of the essence of church.)

The reason why I’ve quoted him so extensively is because I want to clearly present the argument he is making.  Payne is saying let’s strip away everything we’ve come to know and expect from our traditional “worship services” down to what the New Testament describes and see if what we have left could in any real way be called a “church”.  The principle that is driving this, for him, is Ockham’s Razor, i.e. simpler is better.  In my previous post and in others, I am suggesting the exact same thing as Payne, only my driving principle is Sola Scriptura and its derivative The Regulative Principle of Worship.

Let’s see what Payne concludes.

Before proceeding, he adds the following caveat, “Let me make sure I am not misunderstood: I am not for a minute suggesting that we attempt to recreate a complete, working model of a New Testament church”.   This caveat seems important.  Payne is suggesting that we examine our current practices in light of what the New Testament describes, but then says we should not attempt to use that as a model.  He suggests that doing so is a return to “primitivism”.  Instead, he is saying that this exercise is just a thought experiment to see  how many “extra-biblical details, structures, and practices” have been added to our concept of church.  I’m a little troubled by the “primitivism” comment, because it comes off a little too “evolved” for my tastes, as though the New Testament church was either ignorant or undeveloped on what a real church should look like.  My questions for Payne would be, “Has God commanded how He is to be worshiped?  If so, who gave us permission or liberty to add the ‘extra-biblical details, structures, and practices’?  Does the New Testament provide a model for a church?  And if so, is this model sufficient for us? ”

I’m proposing that given their proximity to Christ, their relationship with the Apostolic ministry, and what is recorded for us in God’s Word about their practices, they are not “primitive”, but instead are exemplary.  Though we are suggesting the same “thought-experiment”, Payne and I are driven from different motivations and certainly arrive at different conclusions.

Here are his concluding statements

Well, here’s what Ockham’s Razor has reduced us to: we could have a group of Christian people (of any size), with a qualified elder or overseer (or more than one, appointed or elected, we care not how), meeting in the name and presence of Christ in any location, at any time of day, on any day of the week, with any frequency (so long as it was regular and often), at which time they spoke and heard God’s word together (through Bible reading, preaching/teaching, prophetic encouragement, etc.), and responded in prayer and thanksgiving, with the result that God is glorified in Christ and the people edified.

Again, let me be clear.  I am suggesting the exact same thought-experiment as Payne, strip down all of the traditions and pragmatic layers that have crept in and clouded our notions of what a church should be, down to the foundation of the New Testament church and then see what we have.  This bare-bones foundation is what he summarizes in the paragraph above.

The difference in our theses is that Payne sees this stripped down model as the product of philosophy, Ockham’s Razor, and has no desire to pursue what he’s found.  I am suggesting that this stripped down model is the product of Scriptural Authority, namely Sola Scriptura and specifically how it applies to our worship as defined by The Regulative Principal of Worship, which as a reminder states that whatever is not commanded by God, or given as an example, in worship, is strictly prohibited.  If this stripped down model is what God has either commanded or given as an example, then who are we to add or subtract from it in the name of preference.  With a little more nuance (as perhaps defined by 1 Corinthians 11-14), I would agree with the assessment that Payne has made on what the New Testament church “basically” looked like .

His concluding paragraph highlights both our agreements and our differences

You might want to describe this ‘cut down’ New Testament church a little differently, or add extra things. But here’s the point: what things do you currently regard as of the absolute essence of church—things without which you could not imagine church being ‘real church’—things that, in fact, are accidental, traditional or cultural details that could be otherwise? And could any of these things be changed if the times, seasons, purposes and circumstances of your fellowship suggested that they should be?

Payne is asking the right questions, but the basis for how one answers, according to his reasoning above, would circle the church-wagon back to big three: preference, pragmatism, or tradition.  Following this out logically, we would arrive at exactly the same conclusion that his elderly relative did, “This is not a real church” for anything different than what we were used to.

Where Payne fails in his thesis is his failure to address and apply the authority of Scripture, though perhaps this error is made unwittingly, I do not want to judge him in this matter.  I’m sure if he were asked if he holds to Sola Scriptura, he would answer in the affirmative, as so many professing evangelicals would.  The difficulty is when you actually have to put that into practice, particularly when it goes against the big three.  We far too easily fall off of the path that Scripture has provided and take our own paths of preference or tradition.

Here is my own concluding statement.  I’m suggesting that the New Testament provides exactly what a real church should look like.  If this is true, then it is incumbent upon us to move from a “thought-experiment” to putting what we have found into practice.  The problem is, are we faithful enough to evaluate our current practices in the light of Scripture; obedient enough to put what we find into practice; and courageous enough to stand firm in the face of criticisms, even when they come from other professing Christians?

Reviving the Doctrine of Church Studies

 

It’s been a few months since we visited our ongoing study regarding the form and function of church.  We left off with an introduction to the universal concept of church as defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646.  Recall that generally speaking, the doctrine of the universal church finds chief support in Matthew 16:18 as compared with Matthew 18:17, though as we’ll soon see, whether rightly or wrongly some other verses are brought into the mix for support as well.

Additionally, in that last post, we looked at three key issues which have been the source of debate and disagreement regarding the nature of a universal church theory.  They were:

  1. The theory of the universal church conflates the concept of the people of God (church) with the concept of ekklesia (gathering), the New Testamen Greek word that is translated as church in our English bibles..
  2. The theory of the universal church, at its core, asserts too much continuity between Israel and the Church.
  3. The theory of the universal church is rooted in equating the church with the kingdom of God and the church with the family of God.

We left that post with anticipation of a historical look at this theory’s development and to hopefully determine whether any of these objections have merit.  That is where we find ourselves today, reviving our studies on the doctrine of the church.

In order to accomplish this historical review, we’ll lean heavily on the overview provided in the Systematic Theology of Louis Berkhof who provides a succinct history on the doctrine of the church.  I’ll be quoting him extensively as a solid, well-respected, point of reference, but ultimately to show how some of the conclusions we may reach are not unique, but have at least been mentioned in times past.  It of course does not mean that by citing him that we necessarily have come to agreement with his conclusions.  Generally speaking, Berkhof’s conclusions are typical of the Reformed tradition.

By way of continuing our review, in order to resume our series here, and as an introduction to Berkhof, we will follow his outline beginning with a well thought out introduction to the meaning and use of ekklesia in the New Testament (Old Testament as well).  For an expanded study, our post on this issue may be found here: What is an Ekklesia?

Berkhof writes,

“The New Testament also has two words derived from the Septuagint, namely, ekklesia, from ek and kaleo, “to call out,” and sunagoge, from sun and ago, meaning “to come or to bring together.”  The latter is used exclusively to denote either the religious gatherings of the Jew or the buildings in which they assembled for public worship, Matt. 4:23; Acts 13:43; Rev. 2:9; 3:9.  The term ekklesia, however, generally designates the Church of the New Testament, though in a few places it denotes common civil assemblies.” Pg. 555-556

As in our study, Berkof points out the two significant terms in the New Testament which find their roots in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), sunagoge (synagogue) and ekklesia, which as we’ve mentioned is translated into English as church.  After doubting the validity of deriving the meaning of ekklesia from the compound of ek and kaleo, Berkhof adds,

“Deissmann (1866-1937, German Protestant) would simply render ekklesia as ‘the (convened) assembly,’ regarding God as the convener.  Because the idea of the Church is a many-sided concept, it is quite natural that the word ekklesia, as applied to it, does not always have exactly the same connotation.  Jesus was the first one to use the word in the New Testament, and He applied it to the company that gathered about Him, Matt. 16:18, recognized Him publicly as their Lord, and accepted the principles of the Kingdom of God.  It was the ekklesia of the Messiah, the true Israel.  Later on, as a result of the extension of the Church, the word acquitted various significations.  Local churches were established everywhere, and were also called ekklesiai, since they were manifestations of the one universal Church of Christ.”

Here we may observe a few noteworthy points, namely the recognition that ekklesia refers to the “convened assembly” and that Christ’s use of ekklesia, from Matthew 16:18, alluded to those who were “convened” or gathered around Him.  That’s an important point that is often neglected and may aid to ones understanding of whether Matthew 16:18 is a universal church reference or not.  Remember that this particular verse is often championed as evidence of universal church, i.e. that Christ’s use of ekklesia here necessarily implies that He is talking about the whole community of God’s people.  Contrary to this, Berkhof is describing it as the actual fellowship of those around Him, beginning with the twelve.

After this, Berkhof begins his descriptions of these various uses or connotations of ekklesia in the New Testament, the first of which he discusses is the most frequent usage.  According to him the most frequently used meaning of ekklesia “designates a circle of believers in some definite locality, a local church, irrespective of the question of whether these believers are or are not assembled for worship.”  Here, Berkhof concludes that an ekklesia may be an ekklesia, even if they are not actually gathered together.  Additionally, he concludes that regardless of whether they are gathered or not, geographic location is still a determinant factor.  He then lists several passages as examples for gathered and ungathered, which I’ve included below.[1] This of course brings up an interesting point of discussion, which we’ll take up another time, namely, is a church a church when it is not gathered.

The second use of ekklesia in the New Testament, he concludes, sometimes “denotes what may be called a domestic ekklesia, the church in the house of some individual,” citing instances of this word in Rom. 16:23; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15, and Philemon 2.  Along a similar line, Berkhof notes that at least once, Acts. 9:31, the word is used in the singular to denote a collection of churches from Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.  This usage is a debated passage and as he points out, “this does not yet mean that they together constituted an organization such as we now call a denomination.”

His final two uses, again by way of review for our own study here, are critical towards understanding the issue at hand, namely whether it is accurate to speak of an universal church, and if so, what exactly this should refer to.  He states, “in a more general sense the word serves to denote the whole body throughout the world, of those who outwardly profess Christ and organize for the purposes of worship, under the guidance of appointed officers.”  With some hesitancy, Berkhof suggests this is found in 1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28 and possibly the intention for the use of ekklesia in Ephesians.  Interestingly, he doesn’t cite Matthew 16:18 as so many do, so we’ll need to examine these additional references if we’re to find evidence of a universal theory of church.  Finally, he states that the word in its “most comprehensive meaning signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Savior.”  He cites some examples that I’ve listed below.[2]

Wit this point, let’s recall the actual meaning of the word under discussion here, namely ekklesia, which refers to a gathering and note too the most frequent usage cited above.  Would it therefore be proper or accurate to refer to the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, or whether or not they have been united to Christ or not (saved) as the ekklesia, i.e. church?

Summarizing then these uses of ekklesia in the New Testament, at least according to Louis Berkof, we have the following

  1. A convened assembly with God as Covener.
  2. First used by Christ in Matthew 16:18 – a reference to those convened about Him.
  3. A circle of believers in a definite geographic location.
  4. May or may not be gathered together (for worship), meaning that they may be called a church whether they are physically present together.
  5. Ekklesia in the New Testament often referred to a gathering in a particular house of an individual.
  6. Ekklesia may generally refer to the collected body of believers throughout the world.
  7. The most comprehensive meaning of ekklesia refers to the whole body of believers, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been united to Christ.

After giving an overview of how the meaning of the English word “church” was transferred to the use of ekklesia, which we looked at earlier in this post, Berkhof overviews other scriptural concepts that refer to the people of God (i.e. Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit, New Jerusalem/Jerusalem above, Pillar and ground of the truth) and then opens up his section on The Doctrine of the Church in History.  Here is where we will pick up in the next post for the purpose of understanding how this concept of the universal church has developed in history.

In the meantime, you can get caught up on this series here:

[1]Assembled: Acts 5:11; 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19,28,35; Not assembled: Rom. 16:4; 1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 2:14

[2]Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18,24

The Reformation of Luther

 

Today, October 31, 2017 is the day that will be universally celebrated as Reformation Day, specifically the 500th Anniversary of the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenburg with the goal of generating an academic debate.  What followed were a series of events wherein Luther rejected the unscriptural practices of the Roman Catholic Church, upholding Scripture alone as the sole instrument of faith and practice.  As we’ve already seen, on the day when Luther nailed his theses there is a high probability that he was yet to be genuinely saved.  So, before God could use Luther in the way that He intended at the time and place that He intended for the purposes that He intended, Luther was in need of a reformation of his own, a personal reformation, one that could only be wrought by a divine work of God in the heart.

It has often been said that before God uses a man to do a widespread work of revival and reformation, He first does a work of reformation in that same man’s heart.  Such is certainly the case with Luther.  The controversy in which Luther eventually found himself, namely questioning the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and her leaders brought about by their improper use of indulgences strictly for the sake of financial gain, forced him to the Scriptures to search for support of this teaching and subsequently support of his own position.  Once here, Luther concluded that Scripture was the ultimate authority, not the Church.

Recall that in his own words, Luther considered himself a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church and a faithful servant of the Pope, as of 1517 at least (though as we will see later, possibly as late as May 1518).  By October 1518, Luther was in direct defiance of the Pope.

Citing Luther’s interviews with Cardinal Cajetan on October 12, 13, and 14 in 1518, Phillip Schaff writes, “Catejan treated Luther with condescending courtesy, and assured him of his friendship.  But he demanded retraction of his errors, and absolute submission to the Pope.  Luther resolutely refused, and declared that he could do nothing against his conscience; that one must obey God rather than man; that he had the Scripture on his side; that even Peter was once reproved by Paul for misconduct (Gal. 2:11), and that surely his successor was not infallible.”

By March 13, 1519 Luther had declared, regarding the Pope, “I know not whether the Pope is antichrist himself, or his apostle; so wretchedly is Christ, that is the truth, corrupted and crucified by him in the Decretals.”

How then can Luther make such a drastic turn about in 18 months?

Our answer is coming.

Finally, for the point of our discussion here, on April 18th, 1521 Luther stood before the new Emperor Charles, 6 Electors (Princes over City-States; including his own), “The Pope’s legates, archbishops, bishops, dukes, margraves, princes, counts, deputies of the imperial cities, ambassadors of foreign courts, and a numerous array of dignitaries of every rank; in one word, a fair representation of the highest powers of Church and State.  Several thousand spectators were collected in and around the building and in the streets, anxiously waiting for the issue.” (Schaff, Vol. 7, pg. 300)

What began as a “innocent” attempt to generate academic debate had now morphed into the entire Roman empire against one man who once claimed them as his own.  It was here, at the Diet of Worms, that Luther uttered his now famous defense and for us, answers the question of how reform was conducted in his own heart.  Schaff again recounts the moment for us, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience.” (Vol. 7, pg. 304-305)

Before Luther could act as the spark that would ignite God’s reformation, he was first in need of God to do a work in his heart.  This work was performed by God’s Spirit working through the Word of God to enlighten and illumine the mind of Luther to the truth’s of Scripture.  The overflow of this is seen in Luther’s words above, “I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures…my conscience is bound in the word of God.”

Much like Josiah 2100 years earlier and every other “reformer” that God has raised up for His own glory, Luther was the product of divine grace working in the heart.  This work of grace was and always is the first reformation and for Luther, it was his most lasting reformation.  From beginning to end, reformation, whether internal in the heart or on the world’s stage, is entirely a work of God.

To God Alone be Glory.