On yesterday’s blog, I talked about misrepresentations. And I appreciated the kind and insightful comments on that post. Some observed that this was a very different way of looking at and responding to misrepresentation.
It’s yet another example of how the Lord’s value system and way of observing things is so different from our own. We are all in “the School of Christ” together, so it’s a privilege to learn from one another.
Here is the first analysis I promised. It was written by Jon Zens, and it’s just brilliant. Amazing, even. It includes a great deal of awesome teaching also. Note that Jon, being the noble brother that he is, first sent this analysis to Jim privately, asking for his feedback.
Tomorrow I will publish an insightful analysis on the book WHY WE LOVE THE CHURCH by DeYoung/Kluck.
An Open Letter to Jim Belcher on Deep Church by Jon Zens
I read through Deep Church once, and then went through it a second time quickly. In light of your burden for unity and mutual understanding, I’m writing this letter to you – before publishing a review. I hope by now you have received the 1986 Searching Together, “Desiring Unity…Finding Division: Lessons from the 19th Century Restoration Movement” that I sent you September 30th. This piece expresses the ongoing passions of my heart. I really appreciate your emphasis on listening to and caring about what others with differing viewpoints say, and being open to learn from various traditions (p.85).
As I read DC I noticed that we had some common “friends.” You mentioned your stint at Cal State/Northridge. I attended there 1963-1965 as an art major. I became a follower of Christ during my second year there. I was born in Barstow, and lived in Canoga Park from 1956 – 1967. I had John Frame when he started as a teacher at Westminster-Philadelphia in 1970, and deeply appreciated him. I also had C. John Miller as a professor at WTS, and he had an influence upon me that was more caught than taught.
There are many aspects of DC that I would be drawn to interact with, but I’m just going to focus on the handful that I see as crucial for getting to the root of the matter.
Organic vs. Institutional
Obviously, words are used in various ways by different people with shades of meaning. It seems like you want to maintain some conception of the church as organic, but it ends up in an institutional shell. To me, it looks like you are mixing apples and oranges when you state that the church is “institution” in terms of its activities (electing officers, etc.) and “organism” when church people go out into the world as salt and light (pp.191-192). The images of the ekklesia are all connected to “life.” Wouldn’t one feel awkward saying, “This bride is an institution”? As Frank Viola notes, “Each image teaches us that the church is a living organism rather than an institutional organization . . . . The church we read about in the NT was ‘organic.’ By that I mean that it was born from and sustained by spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions, controlled by human hierarchy, shaped by lifeless rituals, and held together by religious programs” (Reimagining Church, p.32). Based on the NT description, I would maintain any notion of “the church is an institution” is an oxymoron. The ekklesia is a “new being” of life in the Spirit. To connect “institution” with a beautiful woman is inappropriate.
Why Is 1 Cor.14 Not Practiced?
You assert, “Since the Bible does not give us enough information to construct a worship service, we must fill in the blanks” (p.137). Why do we feel compelled to find a “worship service”? There is no evidence that the early church had “worship services,” as we conceive of them. The largest insight we have about a Christian gathering appears in 1 Cor.14. We have these glimpses because Paul was correcting a problem. In this passage we see (1) the whole ekklesia gathered; (2) an open meeting where everyone was potentially involved in prophecy; (3) that what was spoken had to be understood by all; (4) multiple expressions from many, “each of you has…”; (5) no mention of a sermon by one person; (6) no pulpit; (7) no leaders. You mention “the people up front” (p.139), but in the 1 Cor.14 meeting there is no “front,” as they met in homes with simplicity as a family. Indeed, while the NT does not give a lot of information about believers’ gatherings, my question is: Why have our traditions essentially jettisoned what light we do have from 1 Cor.14 and other passages? Why don’t we practice open meetings where we can express Christ together? John H. Yoder astutely observes:
Paul tells his readers that everyone who has something to say, something given by the Holy Spirit to him or her to say, can have the floor . . . . Within this freedom for all to speak, a relative priority should be given to the mode of speech called “prophecy,” because it speaks “to improve, to encourage, and to console.” It is noteworthy that there is no reference to a single moderator, “minister,” or “priest” governing the process, as things tend to proceed in most Christian groups in our time. Paul wishes that everyone might prophecy, perhaps echoing Moses’ words to the same effect in Numbers 11:29 (Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before A Watching World, p.61).
I suggest that moving toward deep ekklesia would involve enjoying a body meeting where all the priests can function. We are missing great blessings by retaining “worship services” that focus on and are led by “those up front.” Traditional services have “filled in the blanks” with practices that do not foster and enhance NT perspectives concerning the Body of Christ.
William Barclay (from the very formal Church of Scotland) made this remarkable observation based on his study of 1 Cor.14:
The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came with a sense that he had both the privilege and obligation of contributing something to it (The Letters to the Corinthians, 1st edition, 1956, p.150).
Again I must ask, is it hermeneutically responsible to disregard the weight of 1 Cor.11-14 and fill in the blanks with practices that fly in the face of what is revealed?
Why Isn’t Our Lord’s Supper A Meal?
“Weekly Communion” is a practice of your church. You call it several times a “sacrament.” To apply this word to the Lord’s Supper, given its origin and meaning, seems inappropriate and misleading (cf., Leonard Verduin, “Sacramentschwarmer,” The Reformers & Their Stepchildren, pp.132-159;Vernard Eller, “The Lord’s Supper Is Not A ‘Sacrament,’” Searching Together, 12:3, 1983, pp.3-6).
Emil Brunner in The Misunderstanding of the Church (1952) did a masterful job of showing how a simple meal in the early church became a “sacrament” controlled by an ecclesiastical institution (pp.60-73).
Properly speaking, New Testament Christianity knows nothing of the word ‘sacrament,’ which belongs essentially to the heathen world of theGraeco-Roman empire and which unfortunately some of the Reformers unthinkingly took over from ecclesiastical tradition. For this word, and still more the overtones which it conveys, is the starting point for those disastrous developments which began soon to transform the community of Jesus into the Church which is first and foremost a sacramental Church (pp.72-73).
New Testament scholarship is united in acknowledging that the early church remembered the Lord in a meal they ate together (Daniel Doriani, “Wasn’t the Lord’s Supper Originally a Feast?” Christianity Today, March 18, 1983). You note that in your celebration, “Even though people come forward as individuals, it is done as a community – a covenant-family meal” (p.140). How do you have a covenant-meal with no food? Don’t people sit at, not come forward, for a meal? When the Lord commenced the remembrance time, it was in the setting of a full meal, not a snack. Why have we abandoned the blessing of eating together in anticipation of the future supper of the Lamb and his Bride?
Why Is Preaching Central?
It seems that no matter how you slice it – in the traditional, emergent, or your view – the sermon still remains intact and central. I do not see how deep ekklesia can blossom until this tradition is dealt a death-blow. There is no NT evidence of the “centrality of preaching,” as it came to be practiced in church traditions (cf., David Norrington, To Preach or Not To Preach? The Church’s Urgent Question, Paternoster, 1996, 130pp.; and Anglican Jeremy Thompson, Preaching As Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow? Grove Books, 1996 & 2003, 68pp.). The pulpit-centered architecture of most churches has no roots in the Biblical revelation.
In order for everything to focus on the sermon, the participatory body meeting described in 1 Cor.14 must be eliminated. There are 58 “one-another’s” in the NT, and there is not a whit about the centrality of “the pastor.” Yet the pastor and his sermon is what “church” revolves around in most cases. Why? Why do we push aside that which has some sound basis (1 Cor.14), and elevate that which has no foundation in Scripture? Dr. Henry R. Seftonobserves:
Worship in the house-church had been of an intimate kind in which all present had taken an active part . . . . [This] changed from being ‘a corporate action of the whole church’ into ‘a service said by the clergy to which the laity listened.’ (A Lion Handbook – The History of Christianity, Lion Publishing, 1988, p.151).
The early church was about the saints gathering around Christ in their midst. Jeremy Thompson correctly notes in his chapter, “A Theology of Preaching As Dialogue”:
According to Paul’s understanding, participation in the community centered primarily around fellowship, expressed in word and deed, of the members with God and one another…. This means that the focal point of reference was neither a book nor a rite but a set of relationships, and that God communicated himself to them . . . primarily through . . . one another.
Your unhealthy elevation of the importance and effectiveness of sermons is revealed when you were impressed with the Biblical maturity of the adults in the house church you visited, and attributed this to pulpit oratory – “Clearly, these are folks who have been around the church many years and have heard lots of solid evangelical sermons” (p.169). Apparently you cannot conceive of people being Biblically literate unless they hear sermons. Are you aware of the many people who have testified that their understanding of Christ in the Scriptures rose exponentially when they were part of open meetings where all participated?
“Clergy/Laity”: The Unchallenged Doctrine
Again, whether traditional, emergent, fundamentalist, liberal, your “third way,” or even heathen religions – they are all infected with what John H. Yoder called, The Universality of the Religious Specialist. The traditional clergy/laity distinction cannot be found in the NT, but in post-apostolic history it became the linchpin of the ecclesiastical system. Since the visible church assumed the validity of the clergy/laity divide, it goes unchallenged in almost all Christian traditions. Deep ekklesia is unable to flourish unless this mistaken notion is rooted out. John H. Yoder has highlighted this problem:
But in every case he disposes of a unique quality, which he usually possesses for life, which alone qualifies him for his function, and beside which the mass of men are identifiable negatively as “laymen,” i.e., non-bearers of this special quality. Normally one such person is needed per social group . . . . One person per place is enough to do what he needs to do . . . . In Catholicism he renews the miracle of the sacrament; in magisterial Protestantism he proclaims the Word as true preaching . . . . But in every case it is what only he can do right, and it is that function around which that happens which people think of as a “church.” It is, in fact, his presence which is the presence of the church; he is the definition (sociologically) of the church . . . . No one balks at what his services cost (“The Fullness of Christ,” Searching Together, 11:3, 1982, p.4).
You suggest in Deep Church that “ordination” needs to be taken seriously. I suggest that the traditional ideas surrounding “ordination” are unbiblical, and only feed the chasm between clergy and laity (cf. Marjorie Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, Eerdmans, 1980).
It would seem, Jim, that when the sun goes down at the end of the day, you end up with a view of church that is an upgraded version of the traditional elements of church – a pastor, a sermon, ushers and sacraments.
For me, deep ekklesia is found in a book like Reimagining Church. An overview of the author’s journey is found in Frank Viola’s “Deep Ecclesiology,” From Eternity to Here (pp.291-305). Of course, church is much more than meetings. But in terms of the issues in your book, a vital starting point is to meet around Christ in openness:
Corporate Display. The church is called to gather regularly to display God’s life through the ministry of every believer. How? Not by religious services where a few people perform before a passive audience. But in open-participatory meetings where every member of the believing priesthood functions, ministers, and expresses the living God in an open-participatory atmosphere (1 Cor.14:26; 1 Pet.2:5; Heb.10:24-25; etc.) From Eternity to Here, p.283.
In your endnotes a few concerning items appear. You say, “For Barna and Viola the biblical record is all we need . . . . [they say] all we need is the Bible and the record of the first-century church” (pp.227-228). What happened to Sola Scriptura? Don’t we believe that everything post-apostolic must be judged and evaluated by biblical revelation? Didn’t Luther say when he took his stand before Catholic leaders that he was captive to God’s Word? There are five Solas in the Reformation slogan. Aren’t they meant to stand alone with absolutely no additions?
Further, you aver that Viola “rejects the Great Tradition (classical orthodoxy) as nothing but pagan accretions” (p.228). That is a very misleading statement. Frank holds to the first tier of orthodoxy you describe in your book, specifically the three creeds you fully cited on pages 55-58 in Deep Church. You seem to be sending mixed signals. You opt for the importance of two tiers (one tier we can all agree on, and a second where all our differences can be discussed) for the advance of unity, and yet in your remarks above you seem to mean much more than the first tier when you say “classical orthodoxy.” Frank accepts the first tier, and documents the assimilation of pagan elements into the visible church as history moved on.
Pagan Christianity never says “all we need is the Bible” the way you portrayed it, and he does not deny “classical orthodoxy” as you defined it. If his books are read carefully, such notions will not be found in them. He certainly does believe that many key post-apostolic developments in the visible church structures (tier two) are at odds with the biblical revelation, and provides ample documentation for this conviction.
Jim, thank you for considering these perspectives. So much more could be said, but these points cover some foundational issues. What are your thoughts?