Friday, July 22, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: A Change in the Whether

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Crawford Paul, who serves as an elder in an Ontario local church, has written a short post entitled “Consider Moving Your Prayer Meeting to Sunday”.

Tom: Now I’m not sure, Immanuel Can, how many churches in North America still have weekly meetings dedicated pretty much exclusively to prayer. It may not be a large number. Mr. Paul’s suggestion seems to be generally well received. But it does bring up the question of how much flexibility churches have in such matters, assuming we are using scripture as our guide, of course.

We might start by asking what constitutes a local church in the first place.

Local / Universal

Immanuel Can: A local church, eh? Well, first we’d better distinguish it from the church universal. The local church is not part of an organization. The whole body of believers on earth does have a central authority, but he’s in heaven. There is no mention in scripture of an authority for the local church lower than the Head of the Church but higher than the local elders. There are no denominations, no councils, no clergy, no extra-biblical creeds, and since the early church, no more apostles either. There is Christ, then elders and the Christians at the local church level. That’s it.

Tom: Good start. I take it you’ll probably agree with me that there is no requirement for a building, since the New Testament speaks frequently of churches in homes, and that no approval from civic authority is required, since the early church didn’t have it and remained a church regardless. So we do not become a local church when we register with the government as a non-profit or are granted tax-exempt status.

But those are the easy ones. Since you mention elders, is it possible to be a local church in the eyes of God without having elders in place?

Churches Without Elders?

IC: Scripture does seem to speak of churches having yet to have elders established. There we find “disciples”, and it’s not quite clear whether or not they were considered a “church” until the elders were in place. But perhaps they were. In any case, it’s not the norm, not a condition that is intended to persist. It seems to be a sort of embryonic state that should be remedied by the addition of elders or the development of them within the congregation.

Tom: Well, I think it’s pretty clear a chapter earlier, prior to the appointment of elders in all the churches that you mentioned as coming in Acts 14. Luke says, “There were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers.” So prior to the appointment of elders a chapter later, scripture makes reference to “the church at Antioch”. I do agree that it’s not the norm, and it’s certainly not ideal for any great period of time, but it seems to me that once believers started to meet together as New Testament churches, a (perhaps brief) period of observation and waiting on the Lord was necessary before the elders God had provided to each local church were identified and publicly recognized. Meanwhile, they are still called churches.

IC: I suppose someone could protest that it says that there were “prophets and teachers”, but doesn’t explicitly say “there were no elders in Antioch”. But that’s an argument from silence, so quite weak either way. Certainly, the apostles were around, so there was legitimate authority around. And it certainly was very early days for the Church, so a lot could be merely initial.

Tom: I really don’t think it’s equally weak either way. If there were elders in Antioch at that point, the Holy Spirit would have been setting quite the precedent in communicating his will for Paul and Barnabas to go out on a missionary journey to five gathered prophets and teachers, involving no elders at all. That would make quite a statement about the elders at Antioch, had they existed, and it would certainly make it easy on Christians who think it would be cool to take off to the mission field today and don’t see any scriptural reason to consult their elders about it.

But we can agree to disagree on that.

Simplicity of Structure

IC: Where it gets complicated is in the case of believers meeting in a home. Now, home churches are normative, it’s clear: but we might well wonder how many Christians, and in what form, make a local, informal, home-based assembling of Christian friends into a genuine local church. That’s a tough one.

Tom: Agreed. What I’m trying to get at here, though, is that while getting a local church up and running may require digging into scripture for the answers to some difficult questions, the actual anatomy of a local church is incredibly simple. No denomination required. No building required. No legal ratification involved. No leadership in place, at least initially. No lower limit on numbers, really; not that we can be dogmatic about. Very, very uncomplicated.

Simplicity of Mission

So my next question is this: Biblically, what is it necessary for a local church to do?

IC: What the local church normally does is usually understood to be summed up by Acts 2:24 — the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayers. Would you say that’s it?

Tom: I think that sounds right. Again, it has the virtue of being very, very simple. It doesn’t require money, organization, boards, committees, curriculum, appointments, consultations or programs. Is that a reasonable characterization?

IC: Yes. Now, another argument from silence is going to be raised by the other side here: namely, that while it might be true that those are the comprehensive responsibilities of the early church, there isn’t a prohibition expressed about going beyond those four basic functions. They will say, then, that adding to them isn’t prohibited, so more recent innovations — clergy, denominations, worship leaders, Sunday Schools, and so on — are fair adaptations to modern life. Your thoughts?

The Flexibility to Innovate

Tom: Well, it’s certainly possible to make such arguments. I have no issue with quite a bit of flexibility about how we decide to carry out each of those Acts 2 areas of church life in a modern context. But such flexibility is not infinite: it is limited by the direct commands and principles given us in the New Testament.

So my problem with, say, salaried twenty-five year old men just out of seminary functioning as one-man “pastors”, for instance, is not that what they are doing is outside or beyond the four basic functions listed in Acts 2. In some ways it isn’t outside them. It’s a way of passing on the apostles’ doctrine, right? My problem is that communicating the apostles’ teaching through that method and that method alone (i) circumvents the priesthood of all believers, (ii) bottlenecks the teaching gift God has given that local church or curtails its development altogether, (iii) creates a role that has no precedent anywhere in the New Testament, (iv) turns giving into a mechanistic exercise rather than an organic expression of love, and (v) frequently makes use of novices to do the job elders should be doing.

IC: That’s a good point. When we innovate, we rarely think about — or even are in a position to predict — what damage it will do to the essential functions of the church. It’s only later, after we’ve made all the mistakes and then institutionalized our folly that we could actually reflect back and see what we’ve caused. But by then, it’s often too late, since we are very reluctant to rethink our institutions if they have been, in any measure, “working” for something we wanted. So by colouring outside of the lines in this way we can end up a long way from healthy.

Outside the lines, we have no lines at all. Once we start innovating, there are no longer any lines by which we can measure what we’re doing.

Fear of Change

Tom: Right. I totally agree. We should always think very carefully about innovating, with resort to the Head of the Church for wisdom, for this exact reason: we don’t know the unintended consequences of our choices down the road.

That said, I don’t think we should be paralyzed by fear of change. Not at all. But we need to ensure that we are not changing or subverting core church principles, just applying them in a new cultural or social context. And if an application is not working, we’re completely free to scrap it — not that human nature finds it easy to let go of the “works of our hands”.

IC: No indeed. The very purpose of innovating or adding something is to meet some perceived need. And in some rough way, our innovations always do that. Once they’re performing some habitual function for us, it’s very hard to think of letting go of them and having to come up with a different way of behaving.

Tom: In the case Crawford Paul describes, moving a midweek prayer meeting to Sunday night doesn’t seem to have created a scandal. Good for them. Obviously that particular church was ready for a change. I have seen situations, though, where what appears to be a relatively innocent suggestion intended to help a church to better accomplish its mandate from the Head of the Church has met with outright hostility.

Countering Resistance

So I’m asking, as a person wholly committed to maintaining New Testament church principles but also well aware that we need to change some of our methods to cope with things like shorter attention spans, changing work patterns, worsening vocabularies, a disinclination to read, cultural differences, and so on … How do you deal with regulars in a local church who simply will not countenance any changes at all?

IC: A haymaker to the head? No, just kidding. You have to decide if what they are griping about has anything to it or whether they’re just griping because it’s unfamiliar. To a certain extent, you try to accommodate people; but if their gripes are unreasonable, others continue to be put out by their intransigence and they can come up with no scriptural rationale for standing in the way of change, then you just go past them. Let their gripes fall where they may. You’ve got to do the right thing anyway. That’s my take. Yours?

Tom: Me? You’re here to answer all the difficult questions, aren’t you? I think it depends who you are. If you’ve just started attending that church, maybe stay quiet and let the chips fall where they may. If you’ve been there a long time and have shown character and dependability, it may be worth putting your concerns in front of the elders. If you’re an elder, I guess you have to balance your concern for the “old guard” with your sense of what’s right for the coming generation and ultimately do what you believe is closest to the heart of the Lord. I’m disinclined myself to just “go past” people, but I wonder if sometimes you don’t have to for the sake of the whole church.

I suspect Moses ran into these sorts of things …

IC: Human nature. It never changes.

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