The way I see it, the greatest problems with the church today are:
I find it interesting that these things have nothing- or little to do with doctrine or theology. Doctrine and theology are important, don’t get me wrong, however, when we look at the New Testament I think the issues have less what do we believe and more about how we are to living together.
To my mind, this is the number one problem existing in the church today. Jesus said that we would be known for our unity not our diversity. The problem is not that we have variety but that this variety comes from disunity.
I am in no way a historian, however, I do think I see a historical evolution of the church as it relates to our unity.
We see in Acts that for the first 10 years the faith of the Way was very unified. It was a Hebraic religious understanding of the life and death of Joshua bar-Joseph considered to be the Promised One of Israel. Jesus kept his message, for the most part, for his nation and for the first 10 years, his followers also kept it to their nation. Sure there were Gentiles that entered the Way, but these had to be circumcised and converted to Judaism.
In Acts 15 we see the first council gather to discuss and solve the problem in Antioch. I say council, however, it was not a council as we understand it today. There was no formal structure, no head table listening to the arguments and no smoke to let the people know a decision was made. But a decision was made. There was no need to make the Gentiles convert; their foreskins were safe.
James put it this way: “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles” Act 15:19 The Way of faith in Jesus is not dependent on a culture or in religious rituals and practices. Faith is to grow and be interpreted differently in any given cultural context. And for three hundred years these two out workings of faith in Jesus coexisted beside each other. Then Constantine happened.
Greek Christianity killed the Hebrew version, and for 1000+ years, Greek philosophy had complete reign over the development of western Christianity. And then the reformation happened. From then to now, individuals have been reading and interpreting their bibles as they see fit. The result? 30,000+ denominations. Western Christianity went from 2 to 1 to 30.000+ expressions of the faith. Variety is not bad, disunity is.
Our hope? The internet and the global community. With the invention of the printing press, individuals could read the bible for themselves. With the internet, the discussion goes global. We now can read blogs, listen to podcasts and discuss ideas on forums. We have the opportunity to workout our theology on a global scale. There will still be diversity but there is hope that we can have diversity with understanding and acceptance. A diverse unity.
We have within our congregations today, the atmosphere of denominational-ism. Our little group gathers with others of like mind. We read books by those in our group, listen to podcasts or bring in speakers from within our own group. We are quite happy having our ears itched by our charismatic ear scratchers; or our New Apostolic ear scratchers; our evangelical, our reformed, our prophetic ear scratchers. 2 Timothy 4:3
We need, within our churches, the opportunity to have real discussions and amiable debates over any and all subjects.
I don’t have any hope that we would allow a Paul in to speak a message that was not first approved by the board and elders of the institutionalized church. And if such a radical speaker got in, I dare say we would act more like the people in Thessalonica than the ones in Berea. Acts 17
Upfront, let me say that I am not suggesting that any one should up and leave the local congregation. Even though I see nothing wrong in doing this, and possibly a lot right, my arguments are not meant for this purpose. If this is to happen, and I believe we will see a mighty move in this direction within the next 10-20 years, it is up to Jesus the head of the church and authority over individuals. [The barna research group has stats that suggest that by the year 2020, the majority of bible believing/ evangelical Christians will be meeting outside of any institutional church. If this is so, any leader of said institution should take note and seek out a responsible action].
OK the disclaimer is out of the way, I give a quick synopsis of my thoughts.
I believe that the New Testament church is an organic, living body that exists outside of any organized institution. For the first 300 years, it existed in homes and public meeting places – not in religious building set aside for this purpose. With Constantine, Christianity became the state religion and received all the perks that go with it, including financial assistance and buildings to meet in.
Jesus came to destroy the sacred places – the temple; but we have re-built it. By our very actions we have made our buildings sacred: don’t run in the sanctuary, we are to take it to the alter (front of the sanctuary); we are going to God’s house. The list goes on. I don’t know of any church that doesn’t promote this mentality to one degree or another. And no degree is acceptable.
The building is not necessarily wrong in and of itself. The problem is that once you have a building, your options are limited. Now you have a mortgage and bills. (I saw Barna statistics, a number of years old and for the USA only, that said the yearly amount paid on christian buildings was $500,000,000 or some comparable ungodly number ). And these buildings are mostly vacant most of the time.
How much better stewards of what God has given us would we be if all the churches in a city were to pool their resources, have one office and meet where ever they could? Think of it. $100,000 a month could easily be saved and used to further God’s Kingdom – feed, cloth, house the homeless; help widows, orphans and single mothers; not to mention relieve the stress of manipulation on those who are needy to have to pay their tithes (it would allow us to leave the old covenant legality of tithing behind and live in the new covenant freedom of giving cheerfully).
And that’s all I am going to say about this.
Also known as the clergy/ laity split. The fact is that the New Testament plainly teaches (in my view anyways) that there should be no division of the body into hierarchical authority. The fact is, Jesus is to be the head, we are to be the body.
God wanted it to be this way from the beginning. God wanted to speak directly to the people in the wilderness but the people said to Moses: “Speak to us your self and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die” Exodus 20:19
A) Jesus taught that in the kingdom:
- leaders are not to have authority over other people.
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those that have authority over them are called ‘benefactors’. But it is not so with you, but the one who is greatest among your must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.”
– children and slaves: those specifically without any authority
- there is to be no seat of position or title.
“But do not be called Rabbi by men; for One is your teacher and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth father; for One is your father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
B) Paul and all the other New Testament letter writers do it another way. There are two things that we need to note in the letters of Paul:
- He wrote the letters not to any one or any group but to the whole body in a given place.
For instance, in Corinthians there arose many issues that need correction. And some of these issues were no small thing. If Paul were to have handled it the only way I can see it being handled today, he would have written to the elders and expressed his concerns. He would have dealt with those who had authority and ruled over the rest of the body. The fact that he wrote to the body as a whole suggests to me that he took Jesus at his word when he said that we are not to have positions of authority over another.
- Paul did not write in an authoritative manner. He did not say “this is the way it is, this is what you should do” Instead, he wrote in such a manner as to persuade them into action. In the New Testament, leaders do not lead through coercion, manipulation or authority; they led through example – example of character and of living out the truth.
“Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be reveled, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.”
1 Peter 5:1-3
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
Obey: peithō – to persuade, i.e. to induce one by words to believe [NOT the commonly used hupakouō – to obey, be obedient to, submit to]
Submit: hupeikō [only instance in NT] – to resist no longer, but to give way, yield (of combatants) [NOT hupotassō – to obey, be subject]
Your leaders: hēgeomai – to lead or to consider, deem, account, think
So Hebrews 13:17 should read:
Let your selves be persuaded by those who lead you by example of thoughts and deeds and do not resist, but willingly yield to them, for they spend sleepless nights over your soul as one who gives word…
Nowhere in the NT do we find where one person has authority over another in the Kingdom of God. They do in the world, such as governments, and we are to respect and submit to this authority. In the Kingdom the leaders are told over and over again not to hold authority over others. Any authority we do have is the authority of our godly character and as an example of living out doctrine rightly.
Elders were appointed in the church plants, not as people that rule over the others, but as recognized examples and role models. We see that decisions were made by the community as a whole and not by a set apart group of elders. Decisions were made by consensus “It seemed good to the apostles and the elders with the whole church” Acts 15:3,4,22
The church in the New Testament was built up, held together and lead by the very real presence of Jesus through the Spirit. Elders were the spiritual mature in a given church, so they may have met together as elders, but the meeting was not to figure out how to rule over the church, but to fast and pray and figure out where they stood. Then they could come before the body and try to persuade them. Every letter written in the New Testament is an example of this in action. They were written to the whole body-not to the leaders and dealt with some pretty strong issues. Did Paul write with forceful authority or in a spirit of persuasion?
This idea of Rule by Consensus could only work if Jesus truly was still alive and active in the body. If He isn’t, we do need a human to take on this role. Also, the institutional structure of the modern (third century on) church brings with it a whole other set of issues: legal -need a board; practical -need to continually raise enough money to maintain the machine.
So, though I believe it is un-biblical, as long as we have bills to pay, mortgages to maintain and fund raise, and people on the pay roll, we need to have leaders that rule over us like the Gentiles.
Books have been written on these and other similar topics from both sides of the debate. I in no way claim to have authoritative knowledge on any of the above, however, I have been in the midst of discussions and debates on line and in print, so I am satisfied in my current position.
What is the practical steps of moving toward a more biblical model of a new testament church in the form and function that I have briefly suggested above? I do not have any answers. That would have to be worked out with sweat and tears on an issue by issue, church by church case. Way beyond the scope of my opinions.
I do long for the day, though, when these issues are openly discussed and debated in order to fine the mind of Christ. And if He is still alive and active today, there would be nothing to fear in such open discussions. I do have hope.