Sunday, April 12, 2015

Decently and in Order [Part 2]

The New Testament is not laid out like a textbook or reference manual.

If we’re honest, many of the conclusions generally drawn about first century church order and the way the early Christians conducted themselves when they met together are based on a verse or two here and there and the occasional example. Some things are very clear; others are mainly inference and supposition.

And unless we have run into a major problem in a local church we attended, our church order “comfort zone” — the type of format and order of events with which we are most at ease — is often a situation similar to whatever we encountered when we first began attending church. Less often is it based on principles personally discovered in scripture. More of us find reasons to justify the practices we are used to than are willing to seek out a church that attempts to follows the example and teaching of the New Testament.

Yesterday I pointed out that the closest thing to any sort of “template” for the ideal church meeting in scripture is found in 1 Corinthians 14. The direction given by the apostle Paul in this chapter was intended to rein in the excesses of the church in Corinth while giving maximum opportunity for the use of spiritual gift.

Prophecy and Context

The bulk of the chapter concerns the relative importance of prophecy, which was a gift of the Holy Spirit not possessed by every member of the church. Prophecy was arguably the most significant spiritual gift available in the first century. The New Testament had not been written or distributed. The scripture that we now take for granted was not available to believers in written form. This posed less of a problem to Jewish Christians, many of whom had attended synagogue and worshiped Jehovah all their lives. Much of the Old Testament was memorized and shared and even if they could not recite it word for word, a Jewish audience was thoroughly familiar with the foundation for the Christian faith. A Gentile congregation was not. In a Gentile context, prophets would have initially been much more important to the basic functioning of a local gathering of believers.

Today, prophets are superfluous. The word of God is complete and Bible teachers have replaced them. This is particularly evident from instructions in the epistles written 30 or more years into the Church Age when the generational torch was being passed. The requirement for the Lord’s servant that Paul gives Timothy is that he be able to teach, not to prophesy. The qualification of an overseer that Paul gives Titus is that he must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it”. The scripture itself is the standard by which we judge the truth or falsehood of what is said in the church.

Reading “Teaching” for “Prophecy”

Prophecy in its New Testament form cannot be credibly demonstrated to exist today. Given the glaring absence of the prophetic gift among us, when Paul explains to the Corinthians why it ought to have priority in the church, the modern local gathering is obviously not equipped to take him literally. Those who seek to make use of these instructions today are compelled to read “teaching” for “prophecy”. The two gifts serve a near-identical purpose in that both “tell forth” the word of God to his people. The absence of the “foretelling” aspect of prophecy is not something we feel keenly: after all, we have the book of Revelation.

Still, it should be evident that if we seek to follow in apostolic tradition in this area as closely as possible, we ought to observe the same restrictions on public teaching as Paul commands with respect to prophecy.

Sadly, that’s not much of a problem for us. Many modern gatherings are so orderly, predictable and devoid of spiritual enthusiasm that nobody would have reason to be concerned about the need for increased self-control among those gathering, or about the need for church leadership to be selective about who participates.

That selection has already been made by a functionary, usually a year ahead of time.

Should All Men Teach Publicly?

I do not read this passage as teaching that all men in a church are free to teach publicly, though some groups of Christians have tried it over the years with limited success. It seems the Corinthians were engaged in a pretty free-form style of meeting, to which Paul here imposes some order:

Statements like, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” are not commands for all churches everywhere. Paul is describing what the believers currently did in Corinth. He then goes on to correct their practice with “let all things be done for building up”.

Statements like “if all prophesy” are conditionals; that is, they are part of the hypothetical scenario Paul sets up in contrast to the chaos of a room full of believers simultaneously speaking in tongues. He is not suggesting that “all” are actually equipped to prophesy, that all wish to prophesy or that all are expected to prophesy.

We are at the other end of the spectrum from these Corinthians. Most modern Christian gatherings restrict public teaching to one man per gathering (and sometimes one man, period). Where Corinth had far too much spontaneous and self-involved participation that was in need of some management, we have almost zero spontaneity and minimal exercise of the gifts of teaching and encouragement with which God has blessed nearly every local gathering.

Potential Benefits of Applying These Principles

If we genuinely derived our authority for our meeting format from the New Testament, our meetings might look a lot more like this:
  • Gift Rather than Training: “Let two or three prophets speak.” Paul does not simply say “let two or three men speak”, or even “educated men”. Teaching is a gift to specific individuals, just as prophecy once was. Not every man has it, and those that don’t should never feel pressured to pretend to. (How to establish who has a teaching gift is a subject for another day.) More importantly, even years of seminary and a degree from a respected Christian institution cannot confer a teaching gift: only the Holy Spirit does that. A modern meeting modeled on 1 Corinthians 14 will have more than one speaker, but will not become an opportunity for every man to weigh in indiscriminately.
  • A Consistent Train of Thought: “Let the others weigh in on what is said.” One criticism of open Bible studies has traditionally been that increasing the number of participants increases the tendency to wander off down rabbit trails rather than stay on topic, leading to disorder or at least decreased coherence. But here Paul instructs the other prophets to restrict their commentary to what was said by the first few. A modern meeting that follows this pattern will not be a collection of random opinions, digressions and anecdotes. Instead, even though more than one man is involved, each will be led by the Holy Spirit and each will defer to the others as necessary so that a coherent, authoritative doctrinal or narrative thread will emerge. In short, they will stay on topic.
  • Maximum Variety and Opportunity: “You can all prophesy one by one.” In context it is clear that this means those who had the spiritual gift of prophecy could take turns exercising it for the benefit of the church one after the other. Paul does not say that they can all do this in a single meeting of the church, though in a small group that might be possible. Depending on the size of the modern local church, this “one by one” opportunity for gifted teachers might take a number of weeks to work out, and it would certainly do away with both the rationale for a pastor and any justification for paying one.
  • Checks and Balances: “The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” If we were to attempt this in a modern meeting, the principle of submission to one another would dictate that all Bible teachers learn to accept the things they teach being legitimately supplemented, modified or corrected by other gifted teachers. This is not something our egos accommodate easily today, but I would suggest the sort of independent spirit that resists any qualifications on our words has no place among God’s people.
Challenging the Status Quo

Could such a format be more effective than one man ministry? I leave it to your consideration. If the objective is to fill 45 minutes consistently and predictably, a pastor will certainly do the trick. You will get your weekly introduction, three major points and a conclusion, if you still want one by the end of the sermon.

But how can one man or even a series of different men compete with a dialogue between a number of gifted brothers with complementary strengths and areas of expertise? He (or they) would have to be exceptional, and my experience is that many are not. And how can one man compete with the conviction that falls on a group of Christians when a roomful of respected teachers all agree together?

More importantly, which model has the greatest biblical authority?

I spent a week last summer at a Bible conference with a number of careful and experienced Bible teachers. We heard many solid messages, moving and well exposited. By far the most profitable meeting of the week was an hour in which all four speakers fielded questions from the floor on subjects raised in previous messages. There was consistent respect and an appealing deference to one another displayed by these Bible teachers, as each handled the questions most appropriate to his experience and field of study. They left us wanting more. Everyone I spoke to felt it was time exceedingly well spent.

Admittedly not every local church has a group of solid, veteran Bible teachers to work with. But why would we? Handling all the teaching ministry in a local church is not something for which most men are willing to bear responsibility. Those that are willing are often least equipped for it. If the options open to gifted men are do it all or don’t do it at all, human nature will opt for the path of least resistance.

But what if the load were shared more equitably?

Is the 1 Corinthians 14 method potentially open to abuse? Certainly, but no more so than the one-man system. The single pastor method has been tried all over the world for hundreds of years. When it works it can be effective, but too many times it is a miserable failure. And when it succeeds, does it do so because it is a good system, or because we have a gracious God who desires to feed his people?

The Corinthians model has its critics. I’ve met them and debated them. They’ve got nothing much good to say about the open style of meeting, wherever they have seen it tried.

My question to them would be: Have you seen it tried biblically?

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