Category Archive: Theology – Ecclesiology
In Acts 2, we are told of the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers. And they sold their possessions and goods and distributed to all, as any had need.”
Richard Paquier comments on the interrelationship here between the church’s adherence to the apostles’ teaching, the church’s common prayers and partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and the church’s care for the poor:
These three aspects of the common life of the first believers, even if clearly distinguished from each other, are nevertheless very intimately connected.
The breaking of bread and the prayers, therefore, include necessarily the teaching of the faith and the declaration of the word; worship is done in a brotherly agape [love] and includes perhaps already an offering for the poor (cf. I Cor. 16:1-2).
It is in prayer and in the fraternal and sacramental communion that the congregation nourishes its life in Christ and draws its strength in order to witness to the outside: it is there as well that the impetus is given to those charged with the dedication of themselves to their less fortunate brethren.
When worship is neglected or degenerates, witness to the faith and charitable works dry up; and inversely, a church that is no longer missionary within its environment and gives only parsimoniously to help the poor, proves that the worship it celebrates is merely an empty formality (Dynamics of Worship, xviii-xix).
As James Jordan points out (in the passage I quoted here), the communion of saints is not that I am connected to you and you are connected to me, but that you are in Christ and I am in Christ and we are united in Him. He is the connecting link between Christians. Jordan’s application had to do with the possibility of speaking to the saints and asking them to pray for us. But what he says also bears rich fruit for our comfort when we lose loved ones.
When a loved one dies, so much is left unsaid. We want to tell Grandpa how much we love him. We wish he could know what we’re doing. Sometimes, we wish we could ask his forgiveness for wrongs we’ve committed. But there is no indication in Scripture that our loved ones in heaven are now watching everything that we do, let alone that they can hear what we might say to them.
But then our communion with Grandpa was never first and foremost our family relationship or the fact that we could see him face to face or that the words from our mouths could reach his ear. Our communion with Grandpa was first of all in Christ: He was in Christ, and so were we. And that hasn’t changed. Jesus is still the connecting link, and Jesus does see what we do and hear what we say. Which means that if you have anything you want to say to Grandpa, you can tell Jesus about it and ask him to pass the message along.
Can Grandpa hear you? Scripture doesn’t say. But Jesus can, and he can and will pass on any message that he thinks it best to pass on. Which is a great thing to tell grieving grandchildren who wish they could say one more thing to Grandpa.
Building on what he said (in the quotation here) about the communion of saints being in Christ — the communion of saints is not that I’m connected to you and you’re connected to me, but that I’m in Christ and you’re in Christ and we’re connected in Him — Jim Jordan makes an application with regard to our unity and community as the church.
Building up our community in the church includes obeying commandments (e.g., the “one another” passages in Paul’s letters). There are things that the church ought to be doing and there are good practices we can adopt. But those practices and our obedience to the various summonses we find in the Bible aren’t the source or basis of our unity and community. We aren’t together because we share these practices but because we are in Him, and if we want community to grow, we need Him to work: “We must go through Christ, and then we have communion with everyone else. If we have a lack of communion here, we must go through Christ to get it with others.”
C. S. Lewis, writing to Don Giovanni Calabria, 20 September 1947, on how God uses hardships and even enemies to bring about the unity of the Church :
Common perils, common burdens, an almost universal hatred and contempt for the Flock of Christ can, by God’s Grace, contribute much to the healing of our divisions. For those who suffer the same things from the same people for the same Person can scarcely not love each other.
Indeed I could well believe that it is God’s intention, since we have refused milder remedies, to compel us into unity, by persecution even and hardship. Satan is without doubt nothing else than a hammer in the hand of a benevolent and severe God. For all, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God: Judas and Satan as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.
Even now we see more charity, or certainly less hatred, between separated Christians than there was a century ago. The chief cause of this (under God) seems to me to be the swelling pride and barbarity of the unbelievers. Hitler, unknowingly and unwillingly, greatly benefited the Church! — The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis, 35, 37.
Was there ever anyone with more integrity, and who made greater demands, than Jesus Christ? Yet look at the catholicity of His practice: He ate with publicans, harlots, and sinners, and He took nursing infants into His arms and thus to Himself. Who complained about all this? The Pharisees.
How could Jesus, the spotless Son of God associate with such evil people? Simple: They were (a) members of the visible church, even though that church was borderline apostate (run by Sadducees and Pharisees). They were (b) not excommunicate from that visible church. They were (c) willing to listen to what He had to say.
Now, of course, after they listened for a while, most of them departed, not willing to persevere. They excommunicated themselves. But initially, they were welcomed according to the catholic principle we have outlined. Notice that Jesus ate and drank with them. It requires a clever bit of nominalism to miss the sacramental implications of this. Pharisees, beware! — James B. Jordan, The Sociology of the Church, 15.
In a footnote, Jordan adds:
Beware indeed! Jesus reserved His most ferocious threats of hellfire for those who refuse to recognize other Christians. See Mark 9:38-50 and also Numbers 11:27-29. Jesus articulates an important principle of catholicity in Mark 9:49-50. The man who has salt in himself — the fire of self-preservation and humility — will be a peaceful man, esteeming others better than himself, and with that attitude he can correct the wayward (15n9).
While I’m posting Spurgeon quotations, I may as well post this one, which I came across recently in an old back-issue of Credenda/Agenda:
I know there are some who say, “Well, I have given myself to the Lord, but I do not intend to give myself to any church.”
Now why not?
“Because I can be a Christian without it.”
Are you quite clear about that? You can be as good a Christian by disobedience to your Lord’s commands as by being obedient? There is a brick. What is it made for? To help build a house. It is of no use for that brick to tell you that it is just as good a brick while it is kicking about on the ground as it would be in the house. It is a good-for-nothing brick. So you rolling-stone Christians, I do not believe that you are answering your purpose. You are living contrary to the life which Christ would have you live, and you are much to blame for the injury that you do. — Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon at His Best (quoted in Credenda/Agenda 3.2).
Here’s part of aÂ Christianity TodayÂ article on Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.Â Church planters, take heed:
Jonathan MacIntosh was one of those young, confident, immature pastors. As a new church planter in 2004, he showed up for an Acts 29 boot camp looking for guidance and funding. His church had struggled to grow past 40, despite strong lay leadership. Driscoll asked him why. MacIntosh blamed his over-churched town in Mississippi. Driscoll didn’t buy it.
“Then he looked at my wife and said, ‘Ashley, honey, you tell me what’s going on in your opinion. I want you to be honest with me. Look me in the eyes and tell me the truth,'” MacIntosh recounts. “At first she gave stock answers. But then she completely broke right there. ‘My husband is off doing this church-planting thing. I’m stuck in this job I hate, slaving away to support us. People are in and out of our apartment at all hours of the night. I’m losing my husband to this thing. I’m miserable. It’s sapping my joy for life, my love for God, and my respect for my husband.'”
At that point, MacIntosh was pretty sure Acts 29 would not subsidize his church. Then Driscoll unloaded on him. “You’re a good-looking, eloquent, hip, Bible-teaching, Jesus-loving [wimp].” MacIntosh remembers Driscoll telling him. “You think you can lead and love God’s bride when you can’t lead and love your own bride? The issue with your church is you and your marriage. Everyone knows it. You’re photocopying your marriage. That’s your church, and that’s why it’s jacked up. How dare you.”
“Man, it was beautiful,” MacIntosh says.
Driscoll told MacIntosh to take his wife to a nice restaurant, find a hotel room, and send him the bill. Now MacIntosh works for Acts 29 and evaluates church planters. When we met at Driscoll’s home, he opened his wallet and showed me a picture of his baby daughter.
“God used that day and that encounter to save my marriage,” he says. “It was a wake-up call from Jesus.”
In Trees and Thorns, James Jordan points out that on the Sixth Day God creates man first and then plants the Garden.Â God did not create Adam already in the Garden.Â He didn’t create the Garden first and then create the man and move him into the Garden.Â He created Adam first and then He planted the Garden.Â That order must be significant.
It appears that God wanted Adam to see Him planting the Garden.Â After all, Adam was himself going to be a gardener and would start out “serving and guarding” Yahweh’s own Garden.Â Later, when Adam went out into the world, he would serve the ground, growing grain.Â But later still, he would be able to plant his own garden, his own orchard, where he would grow his own fruit.Â First God buildsÂ His sanctuary-house; later, Adam would build a house for himself.Â By creating Adam first and then planting the Garden while Adam watched, God was establishing patterns for Adam to follow.
So, God sets up the garden-sanctuary and putsÂ Adam into it, just as God sets up the Church and puts us into it.Â Adam watched God build His garden-house, and learned something about building his own garden-house.Â Similarly, from studying how God has set up the church â€” her structure, government, financing, etc. â€” we learn how to set up our own domestic and national governments.Â This is why the Bible spends so much time on Church government and law, and comparatively little on national government and law.Â The Church is the nursery of the Kingdom, and the principles we learn in the Church are to be carried forth in the transformation of family, state, and other institutions (p. 27).
A few weeks ago, I reread James Jordan‘s booklet Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future.Â I had read it before, during my first pastorate, and I recall liking parts of it but finding that much of it went over my head.Â Perhaps I’ve grown a little taller, so to speak, because I caught much more of what Jordan is saying this time through.
And it’s well worth catching.Â Some of Jordan’s books are theological studies or exegetical studies.Â But every now and then, he puts out something that is a bit bigger in scope.Â There’s exegesis in Crisis and there’s certainly a lot of theology, but this booklet also deals with what God is doing in the whole of history.Â It’s the kind of thing that may make you say, “Huh?Â I don’t know about this” at first, but may on second or third reading make you say, “Huh.Â So that’s what’s going on.”
The booklet starts by talking about how the Trinity is revealed in Genesis, as the course of the narrative twice moves from Father/worship/Garden stuff to Son/brother/land stuff to Spirit/witness/world stuff.Â So, Jordan argues, does the course of Israel’s history, which is a microcosm of world history.
That last point is crucial.Â God wants us to be able to understand the times (1 Chron. 12:32), which means understanding our place in history and something of where history is going, and doing so in the light of Scripture.Â Scripture, of course, doesn’t address the context of North America in the beginning of the 21st century.Â But as we study the history recorded in Scripture, from creation to the flood and from Abraham to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, we learn the wisdom we need to understand the whole of world history.
World history, Jordan argues, drawing on the work of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, follows the same basic pattern.Â It moves from tribalism to a kingdom period to a time of empire.Â Then, the empire breaks down, sometimes into kingdoms but sometimes all the way down to the tribal level again, before the cycle starts over.Â That breakdown is not a bad thing, something we ought to fight against and oppose.
That’s what’s happening in America today.Â Western civilization (the “empire”) is breaking down.Â So is “America,” if not as a nation then at least as an idea.Â Lots of people are going to celebrate the Fourth of July tomorrow, but that celebration doesn’t mean as much to people today as it did to previous generations.Â It’s largely a day for parties and fireworks.Â Some people, especially Christians, want to preserve America or restore Western civilization.Â That’s not all bad, but it’s not bad for things to break down into a tribal form either.
What matters to people more and more is their local context, their group of friends, their tribe.Â Interestingly, as I was reading this section of the book, I saw a report on TV about the Red Hat Society.Â The women in this society eat together, sing together, comfort each other in times of difficulty, and so forth.Â What is that if not a tribe?
The church, too, Jordan argues, has gone through these periods, from a more tribal form in the early church to a kingdom form in the medieval period to an “empire” form after the Reformation.Â But now we’re entering a time when people don’t know the God of the Bible or his laws.Â At the very same time that the world around us is entering a sort of tribal period, the church also has come through the cycle and is poised to return to a tribal period, too, which means that God is giving us a great opportunity for evangelism and world transformation.
There’s a lot more in this book and I’m tempted to quote it all to you, but I won’t. I will urge you, especially if you’re a pastor, to read and meditate on and digest what Jordan is saying here.Â It’s something that may give you a new outlook on your work and on the purpose and calling of the church.
Having said that, I will, however, quote this from the close of the book, as Jordan calls the church to “total Bible saturation”:
We will not experience total Bible saturation if all we do is attend Church and hear sermons.Â The Church must take the bull by the horns and set up classes to raise up a generation that is saturated in the Bible, a generation that has a re-formed common sense and that is operating in terms of that vision and worldview.Â This means setting aside time for this, week by week, and producing materials to help accomplish this task.
This educational task must be accomplished in churches that have recovered the original “tribal” vision of the Church: a community of enthusiastic singers gathered by real elders (old men) at a table.Â Such a local church must have a vision for the local community, not be constantly harping on national ills.Â Such a church must be planted in a place, and reach out with a vision of the New Community of God to all the lonely, isolated, and dispairing people round about, people who are experiencing the many forms of death.Â Such a church must have something to offer in the way of a new community, and to do this she must know her songs, be feasting at her Lord’s table, and have elders who can provide her a real government.Â The modern conservative church too often has nothing to offer but doctrine, cold ideas.Â The church must offer wholistic life to wholistic people (pp. 45-46).
Screwtape on small groups and small churches:
Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal.Â
Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true.Â We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, pp. 40-41).
I don’t recall when I first read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.Â Perhaps my father read it to the family at some point, but that would have been years ago and I’ve forgotten almost all of it, all except the occasional snippet I’ve read elsewhere.Â Now, for the past week or so, I’ve been slowly reading through it for the first time as an adult, savoring a couple letters a day, and it strikes me as arguably Lewis’s wisest book.Â There’s wisdom packed into virtually every page of these letters from a senior devil to a junior tempter.
Take this, from an early letter, about the “patient” having entered the church:
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself.Â Do not misunderstand me.Â I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.Â That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.
But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.Â All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.Â When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him a one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shappy little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print.
When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided.Â You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours.Â Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.
It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains.Â You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side.Â No matter.Â Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool.Â Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somewhat ridiculous (pp. 14-15, paragraph spacing added).
Now there’s a sense in which it’s right to talk about the church, of course, and I might have a higher view of the church than the author of this article does.Â There are certainly things that Jesus does through the church, so that it would be wrong to distinguish Jesus and the church completely.
But that isn’t the point of the article.Â Rather, the author warns against trying to attract people to your church by presenting infomercials for your church which emphasize the various programs the church offers and which make it seem as if these are the reasons for being there: “Our church is doing this and this!Â I used to hate church, but since coming here, I love it!”Â And so forth.
The danger, says the author, is that we present a false view of the church.Â When people want to join the church, they need to hear the truth.Â In particular, the author says, they need to hear two warnings.
First, “you will encounter some difficult and unpleasant people.”Â Â There are people in church who are going to rub you the wrong way.Â We welcome in people who aren’t always loving, who are sometimes abrasive, who are even just plain weird.
Second, “The church you join is not always going to be like it is today.”Â You might join because you have a great time with the church’s baseball team.Â But in a couple years, that team may be disbanded.Â You might love the pastor’s preaching, but he may take a call to another church a year after you join the church and you might think every sermon the new guy preaches is a dud.
If our talk with people who are new to the church focuses on the church and what it’s doing and what it’s done for us and what it can do for them, we will not only open them up to disappointment when they discover the church isn’t what they thought it was; we may inadvertently encourage them toÂ focus on the church without focusing on Christ.Â We don’t want them to join because they think we’re the perfect people or because they think that our programs will meet their needs.Â We want them to put their trust in Jesus, not just in us.
Again, we mustn’t fall into a false dichotomy hereÂ (“Jesus OR the church”), but there’s a lot of good, honest stuff here about the church and the dangers of marketing it.