Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Congregationalism, and reading the Bible

I think congregationalism is the Scripturally mandated form of church order.  To clarify, by congregationalism I mean that way of ordering a church whereby ultimate decision making is vested in the local congregation, guided and led by its elders and served by its deacons.  There are two types of argument I would advance in favour of this position, and since they are the two types of argument which I think are important in any theological discussion, I wanted to outline how they work.  I'm only hinting here at the structure of the particular arguments themselves; mainly I'm trying to show how theological argument needs to work.

The first sort of argument is called 'the Bible says...'  This sort of argument is not difficult to understand.  In the case of congregationalism, it would consist of pointing out a few key passages which describe church order in the first congregations.  We could point out that Scripture describes and prescribes the appointment of elders and deacons, and mentions no other church officers.  We could also point out that in several instances Scripture points towards the whole congregation being involved in decision making - for example, church discipline in Matthew 18:17.  I would also want to go to Acts 20, and see how Paul, foreseeing his absence, commits the churches to the word of God and not to any other officer or group of officers standing above the local congregation.  In short, the Bible says that churches are run congregationally.

For many Christians, I guess that's the end of the conversation.  But I do not think that any solid case can be built this way.  It is one thing to be able to quote the text of Scripture, and quite another to be able to show how it applies today.  There is a need to show why the Bible says what it does, and for that we have to go behind the apostolic teaching to see how it relates to the central concerns of the gospel.  I am assuming here that the Biblical authors are theologians, and I am assuming a particular understanding of how they thought and wrote.  I do not think we are to imagine all of the Bible being direct oracles, written down.  I don't think Paul got his teaching about eldership directly from heaven.  I think it is a reflection on the gospel - on the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  So what the Bible says hangs together.  It is all related to the gospel, and understanding how it is related will help us to understand how it applies now.  The connection is not always spelled out, or sometimes even hinted at.  But we can try to think from the starting point - Christ - to the end point - this specific teaching - and work out what goes in between.

As an aside, this is why it is very hard to work out how to apply passages of the NT which seem to have no connection to the gospel, or a connection which is now obscure.  I am thinking of women covering their heads, for example.

When it comes to congregationalism, I think there is a Christological and a Pneumatological point to make.  The Christological point is that Christ runs his church.  Jesus the King governs his church.  This has implications for how we understand church order.  For starters, we can't make it up - it is not up to us to derive structures which Christ has not mandated.  Moreover, we must have structures that reflect the fact that Christ is actively involved in the church, and leave us open to his guiding.  I think congregationalism makes sense in this context.  The Pneumatological point is that every Christian has the Spirit.  The officers of the church do not have a monopoly on wisdom, or on hearing from God.  Congregationalism seeks to reflect this.

It is the combination of the two arguments that wins me over.  The Bible says it, and I can see that what the Bible says makes sense in the light of the gospel.  The application in this case is straightforward; since nothing important has changed in the circumstances surrounding the question, the Biblical guidance and instruction stands as it is.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Located Church

" will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighbourhood.  It will be the church for the specific place where it lives, not the church for those who wish to be members of it - or rather, it will be for them insofar as they are willing to be for the wider community.  It is, I think, very significant that in the consistent usage of the New Testament, the word ekklesia is qualified in only two ways; it is "the Church of God" or "of Christ", and it is the church of a place.  A Christian congregation is defined by this twofold relation: it is God's embassy in a specific place.  Either of these vital relationships may be neglected  The congregation may be so identified with the place that it ceases to be the vehicle of God's judgement and mercy for that place and becomes simply the focus of the self-image of the people of that place  Or it may be so concerned about the relation of its members to God that it turns its back on the neighbourhood and is perceived as irrelevant to its concerns."

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

If the former neglect is the danger faced by Anglican congregations in particular (although not by any means exclusively), the latter is the great danger for free churches.  We tend to be drawn from wider areas, made up of people who have opted out of the parish system for theological or personal reasons.  The temptation is to say that it doesn't matter - geographical location is less important to people nowadays   That is certainly true, but the question is whether it is a trend we should be fighting.  I suspect that Newbigin is right.  Without a geographical focus, our churches become private members clubs, which attract people like us.  Our evangelism begins to be directed only to our friends and colleagues, and large numbers of people whose lives do not throw themselves in the way of a Christian are overlooked.

I don't know how much longer the Church of England as we know it will be with us.  I do know that in many parishes the gospel is not preached.  We in non-conformity will need to be more than just the alternative.  We will need to be churches for places.

Monday, January 14, 2013

How Jesus Runs the Church

I recently read this book, which is an interesting manifesto for Presbyterian church government.  I was hooked by the title, and the way in which the title is presented.  The cover is set out as if it was meant to say 'How to Run the Church', but has been scribbled on to give the actual title.  In that respect, it's a great rebuke to the way many people Christians think about the communities to which they belong.  The church is not a human creation, and it is not up to us to decide how it should be organised or run.  This is something I've felt pretty strongly about for some time, so I was excited to get a look at this, even if it was going to be arguing for a form of ecclesiastical polity which I knew in advance I was not likely to find convincing.

Alas, I find myself disappointed.  On the one hand, my disappointment derives simply from the fact that this is a book very much in the Reformed tradition.  Don't get me wrong, I love that tradition.  But far too often during this book there were points when I wanted argument based on Scripture, and instead I got the Westminster Confession or the Book of Church Order of the PCA.  I understand that this was not intended to be a polemical book, but a manual of instruction for Presbyterians.  Still, the approach concerns me.  It seems to be standard amongst the Properly Reformed to produce works which pay lip-service to the idea that the Westminster Standards, being human productions, are of course not infallible as are the Scriptures; and yet there is rarely any indication given that this is taken seriously in practice.  In fact, the various documents stemming from Westminster are cited with absolute authority, as if somewhen in the 17th Century the Bible was clearly and perfectly understood and its teaching distilled once and for all into perfect form.  Disturbing.

The bigger problem(!), however, is that the book does not describe how Jesus runs the church.  A more accurate title would be 'How Jesus provides a constitution that will allow the church to run itself'.  It seems to me that Christ plays the role of an ecclesiastical Lycurgus here; he gives laws, creates offices, provides structures - and that is all.  The actual running of the church is completely handed over to 'church courts', which frankly sound terrifying.  (As an aside, I am sure it is not coincidence that the 17th Century in England was all about constitutions.  The church here sounds a lot more like a Commonwealth [the author uses this word, in fact] than, say, a family).

I wonder whether we can actually see a set of connected problems in the Reformed theology of this era.  I think I see parallels between the ecclesiology and the doctrine of Scripture - a thing is set in stone, and then left to work itself out...

I realise this is all getting rather grumpy over something most Christians don't care about - namely, church government.  But it is because church government is something that Jesus does that this really matters.  Maybe more on this shortly.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Last day of Christmas

A passage from Church Dogmatics has been stimulating me greatly over the last couple of weeks. For those interested in such things, it comes from IV/2, p42.  Here are some highlights.

"God did this [assumed human being] without ceasing to be God.  He differentiates himself from all false Gods (among whom the god of Islam is especially characteristic in this respect) by the fact that he is not a prisoner of his own exalted status, but can also be lowly - not in the surrender but the affirmation of his divine majesty."

In other words, God does not do something un-Godlike when he assumes human nature and unites it to his own in Jesus Christ.  He is not giving himself away in giving himself to us.  He remains God.

"He exists even in himself as God, not only in the majesty of the Father, but also and in the same reality and Godhead as the Son begotten of the Father and following Him and ordered in accordance with Him.  In itself and as such, then, humility is not alien to the nature of the true God..."

Because God is, in himself, the Son who obeys as well as the Father who commands, humility and service are not strange things to him, taken on only in the incarnation.  Humility as well as majesty is proper to God.

"We can only say that in its great inconceivability - always new and surprising when we try to conceive it - this reason [that is, God's mercy] is holy and righteous because it corresponds to the humility of the Eternal Son as it takes place in the supreme reality of the intra-trinitarian life of God himself..."

So without taking the wonder out of the incarnation, we can say that it is grounded in God's being, not as something he must do of necessity, but as something which corresponds to his eternal character.

Why does this matter?

Firstly, it matters because the incarnation is revelatory.  In Christ, we see God.  That could not be the case if the incarnation - the humility of Christ - were basically alien to God as he really is.  We would look at Christ and see something other than God, something that God has made himself - mercifully, to be sure, but not revelatory.

Secondly, it helps us to know what it means to be godlike.  Imitating our God will mean humble service.