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?

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