In Defense of the Church, part the 1st

So I promised you a series of posts on the institutional church and ecclesiology and things like that, and instead delivered a post on the differences between the Word of God and the word of God. Like I’ve said before, I won’t apologize, as I consider my most recent post incredibly important, but I will now deliver upon that which I had promised.

At this present moment in history, there exists rather a large group of men and women who would identify themselves as Christians and yet fervently disassociate themselves with the institutional church and everything that it entails. According to Wikipedia (everyone’s favorite repository of collective knowledge) this movement can loosely be identified as the Emerging Church and is incredibly diverse, including Christians of all stripes, ranging from post-liberal to conservative to neo-charismatic or even reformed. What these highly theological disparate Christians can all generally agree upon is this: “the deconstruction of modern Christian worship, modern evangelicalism, and the nature of modern Christianity.” Fun times.

Essentially, the Emerging movement can be divided into two broad camps: those who want to “return” to some kind of early church setting, meeting in house churches and being lead charismatically by the spirit in the moment, and those who want to abandon the church altogether in an attempt to experience God in their communities and everyday lives (i.e. Starbucks or the golf course). For the purposes of this post, we will deal only with the former and deal with the latter in a second installment. It is my hope to demonstrate (historically and theologically) why both of these streams are both incredibly short-sighted and incompatible with the witness of scripture (all while attempting to genuinely listen to their concerns).

Let’s begin with the first stream, those whom I have taken to calling the “early church restorationists.” Their argument is fairly simple. The church that blossomed in the first century CE (that is, the church before Paul or Constantine or Luther or essentially anyone else except for Christ) is exactly the church that Christ intended and instituted, without the forms of liturgy or clergy or anything else. To these Christians, the church is intended to be as it is found in the early chapters of Acts, meeting in simple house churches, sharing meals and property, and being led in worship by the Spirit.

It sounds wonderfully romantic, especially to those of us living in the modern age, to live like Galilean fishermen (I heartily reject the term ‘peasant’ based on significant archaeological evidence, but that’s an argument for another day) and experience brotherhood (to be fair, there really wouldn’t be much sisterhood if we went all the way back to the first century) and share our lives in Christ. But let’s be honest, it’s not as romantic as we sometimes crack it up to be. The early church was incredibly far from perfect, and I’ll give you just two brief examples. Look at Acts 5. The early church doesn’t get much earlier than Acts 5, and yet Ananias and Sapphira are already messing things up. They lie to God and are stricken dead on the spot. It seems we had hypocrites (a type of people it seems the emerging church particularly loathes) in our midst even then. Or let’s look at the book of 1st Corinthians, at the church that Paul describes there. (For the sake of the emerging audience, we’ll ignore Pauline theology completely and simply glean what we can from the text about what the church at Corinth was like). The church there was fractured by various groups who claimed the authority of various teachers. They occasionally engaged in the worship of idols or the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. One man was sleeping with his stepmother as an exercising of his Christian freedom. When the church came together for a common meal and the celebration of the holy Eucharist, some were becoming drunk while the poor went away without any food.

Do let’s go back to that first century church.

But let us also consider the church at Jerusalem, which, besides the whole mess with Ananias and Sapphira, has a much better reputation than the church at Corinth. It was this church that Acts 4 describes as having everything in common, and this church that most in the emerging movement seem to want to emulate. And yet as the book of Acts progresses, everyone gets more and more organized. The Apostles take steps to more clearly define their roles by appointing deacons to distribute food to the widows while they continue to preach and teach. There’s even an ecumenical council, the so-called Council of Jerusalem, to decide what to do with uncircumcised Gentiles who convert to Christianity. James even seems to be elevated to some position of authority, as it his judgment that is finally adopted by the council. So by about 50 CE we have a delineated clergy, an ecumenical council and someone with the authority to lead that council; seems like a pretty organized and rather effective church body. It is incredibly inauthentic to the text to say that first century Christians all lived in some kind of completely egalitarian commune and were all lead to worship daily by and in the Spirit.

That leads me to another point: the leadership of the Spirit. Many in the emerging church eschew typical Christian worship services for house church services that typically involve a very egalitarian and loose style: whoever feels called to sing or speak or teach, can. This creates manifold problems. The very first being the issue of orthodoxy. If anyone is allowed to sing or speak, how in the world do we know that person is even aware of the basic tenets of Christianity? If anyone in the service is allowed to lead in songs (which are extremely important in the education of Christians) how do we know that perversions will not creep in? This is tied to a second issue: authority. Under what authority do those teaching or singing teach or sing? Have they been vetted by an institutional body? Do they have credentials or even basic knowledge? You wouldn’t want an untrained doctor performing surgery on your brain, so why in the world are people insisting on allowing untrained Christians to teach or elucidate scripture?

Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to discount the ability of God to work in powerful ways among those who may not possess or have access to education or training, but I think it is entirely irresponsible of us to kind of just wait for the Spirit to *poof* give us a PhD in theology in the middle of a house church session when we in America have educational opportunities available to us. The architect who designed the house didn’t wait for the Spirit to poof, nor did the printer who made the Bibles or the luthier who made the guitars. And yet for some reason, the Spirit will always poof into a house church worship setting and lead us. Call me whatever you like, but God gave us brains and pens and typewriters and universities and such for a reason. Let’s utilize them and not get bogged down by this highly disorganized worship model. Besides, why can’t the Spirit lead the pastor and music minister of a mainline church as they prepare the worship on Tuesday? Why must the Spirit always be leading in the moment?

Continuing in this egalitarian, unorganized vein, I must say that it is as short-sighted as their historical argument. An unorganized group of people will never perpetuate itself. It will never expand, never reach out, never be stable or tenable in the long term. A group without a leader is without a critic, without someone with a vision, without someone who remembers the purpose of the organization. A group of people meeting in a house church will soon fall into a pattern. There will always be those who will speak up more regularly, those who will lead a song most willingly, those who will pray without much wheedling, and soon they will become the leaders. People will expect the speaker to speak, the singer to sing and the prayer to pray. The complete lack of organization will eventually produce that which it fears: organization.

And for the record, I’d like to say that organization is a marvelous thing. I’m glad that my church is organized enough to send groups to build churches all over the country. I am ecstatic that if I ever have children, I will be able to drop them off at children’s church, know that a lesson and a snack has been prepared and that qualified individuals are watching over them. I love deeply the fact that my pastor spends many hours a week organizing his thoughts into a sermon that he then presents at a carefully planned worship service, rather than rambling for thirty minutes and tossing in some buzzwords every now and then. I am overjoyed that there is a system in place to vet pastors, deacons and all other kinds of clergy and servants within the church, so that I can know that they are qualified and equipped to teach and serve in the name of God and his church. I revel in the organization I find in the church.

Still, don’t let my critical attitude toward the ecclesiology of the emerging church make you think that I am deaf to their critiques. Though they don’t have a solid understanding of what church is, they do have a solid understanding of some of the things churches should do. For example, their clinging to the early church model powerfully points out areas of praxis where the church is clearly lacking. The communal sharing of property in Acts 4 is a beautiful expression of the love we should have for one another and the disdain with which we should treat our personal possessions. The common meal, as it should be practiced, is a similar expression, and the sharing of lives at table is always a sacred thing, something we should continually strive for. Their commitment to ancient practices like the passing of the peace, labyrinths, meditation and the like reveal a commitment to a deep spirituality and an awareness of certain parts of Christian history that are vital to our continued existence. They know community and spirituality, they just don’t yet have a handle on ecclesiology.

We’re not in danger of losing the church. I am not saying that the existence of the emerging church is going to lead to the end of Christianity as we know it. What I am saying is that emerging ecclesiology (a term I use very loosely) is short-sighted and historically misinformed. These emerging Christians do community really well, but they’re pretty fuzzy when it comes to good theology. If we listen to each other, maybe we can strike a better, more historically authentic, balance.

What do you think? Is the emerging model of ecclesiology a tenable one? Is it orthodox? How do you feel about organization? Does it stifle the leadership of the Spirit? Let me hear you.

    • Michelle
    • June 9th, 2010

    Very good points about how the early church was a lot more organized than people give it credence for–you make your case well. However, I think your points about Ananias and Sapphira and about the man sleeping with his step mother are not necessarily supportive of your point–those seem to me to be more examples of human failings that wouldn’t necessarily go against what emergents are trying to do–I think that they would admit that even the most perfect form of a church (or lack of form as the case may be) cannot create perfect people.

    Tangentially, I wish that it were easier to clearly delineate what “good” Christianity is and what “not as good” Christianity is…all the different sects make my head hurt…and I hate conflict, especially with this recent Anglican-Episcopalian so-called moratorium. I feel like the ridiculous hippie girl in Josie and the Pussycats…or like a Coke commercial– :gets out her tie dye and flowers and starts petting small animals and singing Beatles songs:

      • aaroncarr72
      • June 11th, 2010

      Michelle, you probably have a point with the Ananias and Sapphira reference. But I think my citing the man in Corinth does spill in to my larger argument, though I may have failed to make it clear. Essentially, Paul establishes the church at Corinth sometime around 25 CE, stays there for a little while, but then heads off to found some other churches. Without a centralized leadership, without a leader with solid knowledge of orthodox theology, things begin to fall apart. People begin to take theological concepts to an absurd extreme, or simply have no knowledge of them. Disorganization breeds heresey. We may not be able to create perfect people, but we can at least try and give them a solid foundation for action.

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