Monday, February 11, 2008

When it Comes to NT Church Life: Form Follows Function

This past Saturday, I attended an all-day workshop appropriately titled "Wineskin Weekend" sponsored by the New Testament Reformation Fellowship (hereafter NTRF).

I have appreciated much of what NTRF has had to say and have gleaned much profitable and helpful material from them over the years, especially when it has come to understanding the first-century practice of the Lord's Supper and the structure and function of the New Testament Church.

When I first encountered their website several years ago and read their multi-authored book Ekklesia, they pointed out that Paul commanded that we must not only heed what is written by letter but must also obey apostolic tradition, which they believe includes having the weekly church meeting in homes (1 Cor. 4:16-17; 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15). My thinking is that if it is true that churches must meet in homes because this is part of what is commanded in apostolic tradition, then those churches that meet in any other venue than a home are breaking apostolic tradition and therefore are breaking what God commanded through Paul. Hence, my position is that if meeting as a house church necessarily equals part of apostolic tradition, and keeping apostolic tradition is a command of God, then it would logically follow that those churches that do not meet in homes are in sin. [Updated 4-9-08: The preceding paragraph was modified on 4-9-08 to show a distinction between what I believe logically follows if meeting as a house church is a necessary part of apostolic tradition versus what NTRF believes. This was done at the request of my dear friend Steve Atkerson, editor of Ekklesia and president of NTRF. Out of respect for my brothers in Christ at NTRF, it is very important to point out that they do not believe that churches that meet in some place other than a home are in sin.]

Of course, I think such a position is problematic, and it is tackled head-on by Mike Adams in his article titled "Is House Church an Apostolic Tradition?" As an aside, I post a link to Mike's article here because some within the house-church movement who believe that it is a sin for the church to meet in anything other than a house can be quite abrasive and arrogant because they think that they've supposedly "recovered" a part of apostolic tradition that the church has missed for two millenia.

Sadly, when folks think that they've got some nugget of divine truth that the church has missed for nearly 2,000 years they often end up becoming the very thing they've attempted to avoid, namely, factious and schismatic people who portray the same attitude that God condemned in 1 Corinthians 1:10, "I am of Paul, I of Apollos, I of Cephas, I of Christ", which usually translates to, "I am of Calvin, I am of Luther, I am of Wesley, I am of the House-Church movement, etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum." Of course, I certainly have no problem meeting in a home, but meeting in a home for the sake of meeting in a home misses the point and I think some of my house church brethren have missed the forest for the trees. I'm glad to hear that NTRF has backed off on this type of thinking, at least in their verbal presentations. Hopefully in the future, they'll demonstrate this in writing as well so as to provide further clarification about their position. I think Mike Adams' article linked above would be a great place to start.

Although NTRF representatives clearly stated several times during their presentations that they didn't believe that meeting in a home is necessarily a part of apostolic tradition, they did emphasize that they still prefer meeting in a home to other places because it is a form of meeting place that adequately suits what they believe to be the proper function of the NT church.

Meeting in a home is not the issue per se, because you can still have what you believe to be one of the best looking "wineskins" (church form and structure) but if the "wine" (The Spirit-filled body of Christ) isn't there and all you've focused on is the minutiae of the form (the structure of the church) rather than the weighter matters of the function of the church body itself (i.e., the propagation of the gospel and the carrying out the 58 one-anothers of the NT), then you may have traded in the wine for the empty wineskins. In other words, you'll have all form but no function. Since the study of the structure and function of the church is one of my personal interests (ecclesiology) I have thought long and hard about the form and function of the church. My studied opinion is that when we overly focus on the form of the church, we have put the cart before the horse, which then often causes us to miss the really important thing, the function: namely, the magnification of Jesus' glory in the propagation of the gospel (1 Cor. 10:31) and the mutual ministry that is to take place amongst the people of God (Eph. 4:11-12). When the NT church functions in the way originally intended, a form that is conducive to maintaining its proper function will naturally follow, whether that form takes place in a living room, a rented room, a conference room, a building, or an igloo.

It is of utmost importance to remember that the glory of Christ and the function of the church in fulfilling Christ's mission in the world is what is really important. The form of the church is indeed important, but it is only secondary to the function of the church. Again, when the function is clearly delineated, the form will necessarily follow, albeit with slightly different nuances. I close with these precious words at the end of our newly revised Membership Covenant, which is a compilation of the 58 "one-anothers" of the NT. By God's grace, this will serve to remind us of our necessary function as the called out bride of Christ:

In sum,
we promise to honor one another, be members of one another, live in harmony with one another, build one another up, be like-minded towards one another, accept one another, care for one another, serve one another, bear one another's burdens, be kind to one another, forgive one another, abound in love towards one another, comfort one another, encourage one another, stir one another up to love and good deeds, confess our sins to one another, be hospitable to one another, greet one another, fellowship with one another, submit to one another while not passing judgment on one another, not provoking one another, not envying one another, not hating one another, not slandering one another, and not bearing grudges against one another.

We do all this because Christ has loved us in each of these ways and this frees our hearts to love one another as He has loved us (John 13:34; 8:32).

1 comment:

  1. "I am of Calvin, I am of Luther, I am of Wesley, I am of the House-Church movement, etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum."

    Jesus prayed we would be one, as He and the Father are one.

    One in Christ, and diverse of course in many tatses. Some like meat, some veggies.

    Excellent post.

    I love the last statement. If the Church could do this, Wow! What a revolution that would be, and what pleasure and glory to our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ!