The changing face of the Church

14 09 2008

The first people to follow Jesus after he was raised from the dead had a tough time doing so. They had none of the institutions we have today. They didn’t have their own buildings, PA systems, paid ministers, or even freedom of religious expression. Studying how they managed to change the society around them without appealing to any of the conventions we have today can be very helpful. Especially for those of us in New Zealand, and indeed anywhere the state has become secularised. We truly live in a post-Christian world.
Pauls epistles provide us with some great insight into how these first century Christians conducted themselves in such a hostile environment. So in that vein of thought I recently re-read Mark Stroms “Reframing Paul”. The first time I read it I was spellbound; unable to put the book down. The second time I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth over some the points he raised. Having attended a lot of Mark’s public lectures I was surprised to see how radical his views were. The book is a fantastic tour through the ideas and culture that shaped the Graeco Roman world. He does a fantastic job of showing how Paul message fell outside the boundaries of Judaism, and Graeco Roman Philosophy. Paul was more akin to a Jazz musician than a lawyer. He was great at improv. He was very concerned for those in the ekklesia, and at times put aside theological correctness for the sake of unity. Even those of us who understand a great deal of theology must wrestle with this wisdom.

But the first century does not translate that well into the twenty-first century. While there may be similarities, I would caution anyone to draw straight from Pauls letters and extrapolate out to the present day. We have two millenia of Christian thought that we can draw on at a moments notice. We have libraries of books, an endless source of information on the internet, and thousands of Churches we can attend. We stand on the shoulders of all those who have gone before us. These first century Christians were stuck with Pauls letter and a few shreds of Matthew. Occassionally someone had a scroll of Psalms or Isaiah but that was about it. We look back at them and think they had it easy having seen Jesus in the flesh, but for the above reasons I think we have it a lot easier. Jesus himself said “Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe”. The first churches met in houses and shared a meal together. Very few, if any, were theologically trained. They met to strenghten and encourage each other in their Christian walk. They sang songs, read scripture, and shared stories. The whole gathering was primarily centered on fellowship.   

Some of the things Mark had to say about the Church today were unnerving to say the least. He pulls no punches when it comes to the level of order in Church claiming it gags the grace-full conversation. He claims order is rooted in the pastors need for control. He also claims we miss the richness of a Grace-full conversation by sitting passive in Church. But the system or solution he advocates sounds like total anarchy. Mark envisions a Church without monologue sermons, without paid clergy, and without much of what we have come to know as Church i.e. No structures. Apparently the Church preaches Grace from a position of rank status; we preach Grace but demand performance. While true at times it is a terribly one sided picture. In fact he is quite emergent in his ideas. The problem is that these same ideas were around in the 60’s and 70’s with the advent of the hippies and the free love generation. They abhored any of the conventional structures of the day. They were totally rebellious then, and we have a generation of Christians being taught similar rebellious values. The crux of Marks arguement comes late in the book and from then on his purpose becomes clear: “The system no longer works for many people. ” Is that our concern these days? Making the system work for people? Making it user friendly for the customer? Changing methods is one thing, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is another. Personally I felt Marks arguement was too one sided and radical to actually bring about any change or lasting good.

In defense of common sense we must come to realise that we do not gather on Sundays solely for the purpose of meeting our own needs. It is simply not practical to expect a once a week gathering to do that. We can change styles and methods of getting the gospel message accross but lets not abandon the whole system. Is order such a bad thing? In light of post modernity its easy to see how the New testament church appeals to so many today. Its relational, its radical, its counterstructural, and it fits with the emergent culture of today. But as Rob Bell rightly insists, the New testament Church is not the authority on how things should be done. The Church has been and always will be an imperfect organisation made up of imperfect people trying to live out this crazy gospel existence.
Churches still gather for fellowship, and there are ways and means of connecting people to the Church. Home groups are a great way of doing this. People can gather to express honest concerns about their walk, scripture, and just about anything in life. People share life together during the week and then when it comes to Sunday there is more fellowship within the body. So what if we are passive during the Sunday service! We sit passive in universities and learn things, we sit passive in conversations when listening, we sit passive at jobs from time to time. Passivity is sometimes a normal part of life.

But my main reason for favouring order is that when it leaves a church heresy creeps in very quickly. There are too many wolves in sheeps clothing hiding within every congregation. Remove the order and these wolves will lead many astray. Sometimes we need to forgo our desire for less structure in order to ensure the truth is proclaimed. While Mark is genuinely concerned for those who have been hurt, burnt or abused by the current system, the abuses do not invalidate the system. In previous posts I have showed what happens when small gatherings are abused. The effects are the same. We can show the world, and those inside the Church, the transforming power of God’s Grace, and the work of the Spirit within us by forgiving those who hurt us. By the worlds standards we have every right to hold grudges but the love God has shown us through the death and resurrection of His son no longer allows us. The Spirit who dwells within us no longer allows and convicts us.  Lets talk about methods and styles, but lets not let those discussions turn into a reason to rebel. Lets talk about faith in the everyday, lets allow our pastors to be human beings and to be authentic in front of the congregation, but lets not remove all pastors, theological training, and ordination to appease our desire for “freedom”. The Church for all its faults is still something instituted by God himself.

For those who are on the fringes and have been hurt by the Church my heart goes out to you. But throwing in the towel and calling the whole system bad, is not the way forward. We need to work together to forgive, reconcile and love each other. May we truly live this scandalous Grace and model it to everyone we meet.




2 responses

17 09 2008
m slater

Greetings Grant,
Thanks for the update and critique of ‘Reframing Paul’, I recently picked up a copy but have not yet read it. When I do read it I will be more aware of his take based on what you wrote here.
This ‘dump the structure of the church’ idea seems to come up a lot recently, such as in Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church, but like you I think that is not the answer. There are of cource many things the church needs to revaluale and change, like here in the US the way the Church has tied itself so much to the state and party loyalties. However, even in the early church there was a structure, and the idea that we should not have a head speaker/pastor has been tried before. What happens without fail is that someone who is good at teaching and/or has a dominant personality just becomes the unofficial head speaker/pastor, in the end it just does not work like that.

18 09 2008

Yeah its a bit of the post modern emergent vibe in my opinion. Today I think people are too keen to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes this emergent movement reads like a marxist social revolution, in other forms its a lot more tame. Doctrinal concerns aside, throwing out Church because it doesn’t work for some people is not the answer. I think people just need to get over themselves sometimes. Sure there are real hurts and forgiveness needs to take place but its a two way street. People who want to throw out the way we do Church are often, in my opinion, harbouring grudges and unforgiveness over what happened in their past.

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