Monday, November 30, 2009

The church and the New Testament model

An interesting question posed at the 9 Marks blog and one that elicited a distressingly small amount of conversation. The post by Greg Gilbert, Boring Post on Whether We Are Obligated to Follow the Apostolic Model Laid Out in the New Testament in the Organization of our Churches, asks an important question and one that really should have generated more conversation on a blog dedicated to talk about the church (it is called “Church Matters” after all). Gilbert draws from a book by 19th century Baptist William Williams, Apostolical Church Polity. Williams makes the case and Gilbert agrees that we should adopt the principle that the Bible does tell us plenty about the apostolic model of the church. The problem of course is how to apply that principle…

Obviously when you adopt a principle like the one Williams is talking about here, you run up against things in the New Testament that make you stop and think. Wow, should women wear head-coverings? Should we be raising the dead in our services? Is decision-making by consensus (Acts 6) or majority (2 Cor 2)? I think when we're confronted with questions like those, there are two options: You can either wrestle with those texts and faithfully try to figure out what's meant to be normative example and what's meant to be extraordinary narrative, or you can throw up your hands, toss the principle in the trash and say, "See? It's hopeless. What a stupid principle."

That, I'm afraid, is where people tend to go way too quickly. But look: If we think it's true that Jesus cares what his church looks like, and that he has good reasons for what he wants, and that he even might have left us an example of what he wants in the Scriptures, we better be darn sure we're right---we better spend a lifetime making sure we're right---before we say, "Nah, there's nothing there. Either Jesus doesn't care after all, or if he does, he hasn't let us in on it. So here's what I think will work best . . ."

There is the rub, isn’t it? Even if you recognize that the apostolic pattern of the New Testament church is accessible and even necessary, applying it becomes a lot harder. I think Greg is dead on; most people when confronted with this truth tend to just throw up their hands, chuck the apostolic church (or explain it away) and revert back to tradition.

I don’t think that the New Testament provides (or intends to provide) a checklist of how to “do church”. There are a number of commands and restrictions (do not forsake assembling together, I do not permit a woman to teach) but generally what we see are examples and principles. What we are given are plenty of sources for how, and perhaps more importantly why, the church gathers together and what the church did when it met together. What was important to the church in the earliest days, when it was not a comfortable and complacent event? What does that tell us about what we should prioritize? I think if we ask those questions with an open mind, we will find the New testament to be a goldmine of principles that can guide us when we look at the church. It can also be a sobering journey to see how far we have strayed. Regardless, I think the truth of the matter is that the church is precious to Christ and how it gathers is terribly important to Him and (should be) to us. Something so important was not left to chance or the devices of men so let us once again turn to the source to see what Christ would have us do.

Bookmark and Share


Jeremy Lee said...

There have been a few of these issues come up in the church I pastor: plurality of elders and divorce/remarriage of elders. I am often frustrated when I get the response we can't possibly do it that way. I firmly believe that the New Testament sets the pattern for the contemporary church, which she must follow.

Arthur Sido said...


I agree. The question then becomes: how far are we willing to take that? How critical an eye are we willing to turn on not just the local church but ourselves?