26 February 2012

Ecclesia Part 3: The Need For Church, and my personal frustrations with the state of the Church and Presbyterians in particular

What is a Church?

We're surrounded by buildings with steeples that claim to be Churches or to house them. It always astonishes me how the possession of a building with a sign out front grants legitimacy to a Church. For many this is the mark of the Church. For many the building is the Church.

The question must be wrestled with...what is a Church? Just because a bunch of people get together and call themselves a Church does not make it so. I've talked about this before and will do so again. But for now, I'll simply say a group that does not faithfully preach and adhere to the Bible with some understanding of what the Bible is cannot be called a Church.

That's pretty broad and for years I've wrestled with the question...maybe a nearby group is indeed a Church but they hold to many doctrines I find anti-Scriptural and therefore odious. Practically speaking because they belong to a faction which elevates these doctrines, or because their meeting-time (worship service) is so corrupted I find it hard to attend there.

But what if there's no other place to go? Some would argue we're duty bound to attend as long as it is indeed a 'church'. If you don't like it you may have to travel to get to something more palatable. But one way or another you need to be in Church every Sunday.

Normative versus Real life

I've come to the point where basically I would say a local congregation may in some sense be a 'Church' but because of their errors I cannot be a part of them. Or I might say, it's not a Church, but there are many Christians present within the group.

There's a problem with the idea that there are Christians 'outside' the Church, or Christians participating in a body that isn't a Church. Because again the normative model for the New Testament is that Christians are part of a body, assembling there and participating in its life and symbols. If they're not present, or present someplace that is not faithfully engaged in the Gospel preached and symbols that come with it...then what's their status?

Circumstantial non-compliance

But just like in Old Testament times, there are periods of exception where it's just not possible to fully comply. There were times when the faithful Old Testament saint could not attend the local synagogue or go up to the Temple. They had to absent themselves from the forms God provided. Heresy and idolatry, or sometimes geopolitics kept them away.

Rejecting Means: A reductionistic understanding of the Church

That's different from saying...I'm part of the Universal Church and that's all that matters. I don't need to go to Church. It's nice but I don't need to go. I don't agree with this view at all. Local congregating is expected. Ongoing participation in the fellowship and symbols provided at the local level is presupposed. Sometimes you can't do it, but it should grieve you.

Remnant and the Visible/Invisible distinction

For myself, I believe we live in a time of apostasy. In fact I believe most of Church history has been about a Remnant. I think it's a key Scriptural theme many have missed. I don't subscribe to the idea that we should look for a small faithful group functioning within a larger nominal or moderate or sometimes apostate body, an ecclesiola in ecclesia. No I think it's wrong to think in those terms whether they're applied to a denomination or to a culture.

This argument presupposes the concepts of Denomination and/or Christendom...both fallacious constructs. These are abuses of the Biblical doctrine of the Visible Church and consequently and sadly many in reaction have jettisoned the whole concept of the Visible/Invisible distinction which is explicitly Biblical. Romans 9.6 is a good place to start.

They've allowed the error to lead them into a doctrinal pendulum swing and they've missed out on a large part of what the Bible says about the functioning of the Church before the end of this age.

My frustration with Reformed Presbyterianism

I desperately want to be part of a local congregation. Many of the groups that once held to more Scriptural notions have apostatized over the last century or so. Small groups still meet in buildings but the Gospel is lost and talking with the people it's often sadly clear there probably aren't any Christians even there.

I'm not a Presbyterian in any way. Some might label what I hold to as a sort of Independent Presbyterianism...a local congregation ruled by elders, but this misses point of what is the essence of Presbyterianism...it rests on their creation of a mid-level form or denomination that bridges the supposed divide between the local congregation and the universal church.

Again local Congregations should meet together and maintain contact and fellowship. The congregation in Arlington could meet with the groups from Bethesda and Alexandria. They could discuss a doctrinal issue, a troublesome man who circulates among them, and many similar things. They could even produce a joint letter, but this meeting has no authority. The men from Alexandria cannot dictate to Arlington what to do even if it's done in the name of the temporary regional body. Only the Apostles had that authority and the Scriptures do not provide any model or form beyond the congregation for the post-Apostolic age. If the authority rests in the regional body then what we have is a hierarchy, a form of clericalism.

This is why the famous Independent John Milton wrote that Presbyterianism is nothing more 'priest writ large'. It's really just Episcopacy with a plural hierarchy rather than one comprised of individuals. It's just a recasting of Episcopalianism, instead of priest, we use the longer word....presbyter.

The problem is Presbyterianism claims to be Scriptural. This is why in some ways I am more hostile to their claims than that of the Episcopalian or Anglican.

Since we have a problem finding sound churches, and since in the past I've identified with the larger body of Reformed thought, we've attended Presbyterian Churches. In the past I've been a 'member' both in the OPC and PCA, and even briefly attended a seminary considering entering their faction. After extricating myself from these groups I all but swore I would never have anything to do with them again.

But we've found ourselves once again in a situation where we have nowhere to go to Church. For years we drove over 90mins. to a PCA. Gas prices, over 200,000 miles on our vehicle and a growing apprehension and dissatisfaction with the teaching caused us to finally give up on that.

After knocking about for a few years trying various but dubious options, we found out about a closer PCA church plant. I don't like bouncing between congregations, but we're not doing it because we're church shopping or looking for better programmes for our kids. We're trying to find something we can sit through. If after four weeks I'm dreading Sunday morning, then something is wrong. Usually in most Churches we're gritting our teeth through the carnival they call worship waiting for the sermon and hoping it will be something substantive. More often than not we're disappointed. When our children were young or when I was single I could put up with much more. I would just read my Bible during the 'entertainment' portions of the meeting and try and ignore much of what was happening.

But now I find I'm having to spend an hour de-briefing my kids after each meeting. In addition, having almost nothing to talk about with the people afterward also is a disappointment. We're not Republicans (or Democrats), we're not into sports, and I'm not interested in talking about my work, insurance (or lack thereof) or retirement plan (or lack thereof). The one thing I want to talk about is things related to the Kingdom of God. Only in Reformed congregations have I been able to find others who are also keen to engage along these lines.

So why are we there? To fellowship? There isn't really any to speak of. I also have to be careful. Though I hope to influence others in a good way, by gently bringing up things, or gently and humbly disagreeing...the reality is, I don't have authority there and I can't come in with the object of taking over. If I'm in direct contradiction with the doctrine the leadership holds to, then I probably ought not to be there. I'm talking about Dispensationalism, the doctrine of Salvation, the Sovereignty of God, America, Politics, and all those issues. I can bring things up and carefully discuss them, but I have no right to come in and undermine other leaders. If I'm speaking the truth, then fine, speak it, but that's from without the congregation. Maybe I hope people there will leave and go elsewhere...that's a legitimate desire. But I shouldn't try to stir the pot within.

So if we're not fellowshipping, we're not worshipping, we're not being fed from Scripture....why are we there? We end up asking that and eventually in some cases we leave.

After being frustrated for awhile we heard about this local PCA start up. Not the PCA again! But what are we to do? Stay home? We've tried Bible studies in the past and people are very interested but most are unwilling to leave their local bodies. They're involved there in the programmes and music and so forth. Meeting in a living room, fire hall, or hotel seems depressing and un-churchlike to them. I pray as things get worse more people will awaken to some of these issues and begin to feel comfortable rejecting these institutional and cultural forms which have been imposed on the Church. We should feel equally comfortable meeting in a barn or the woods and frankly the Church often has throughout the ages. The New Testament Church doesn't need (or want) buildings, sound systems, crosses, organs, pianos, pews, stages, pulpits, or any of it. These things are just examples of what I'm often calling Judaizing and Paganizing. Going back to Old Testament forms already fulfilled or borrowing from the culture.

I'm not saying you can't sit down or that the speaker can't stand at a podium. But the notions of Church architecture, worship music, and using 'gifts' for performance are based on serious theological flaws. Much of what happens today is rooted in entertainment with the people in the pew being the audience instead of God Himself. The Puritans with all their flaws understood the Church was the body and the building was simply the meeting house. The reason it was bare inside was not because they were stodgy and anti-culture. Far from it. It was rooted in a theology that understood far better than today why we are meeting and what it is we're doing there. They understood the only props, the only helps, the only symbols we need are the one's God has given to us...the Bible, water, bread, and wine.

We've been attending the PCA. It's nice to be able to sit through a meeting and not grit your teeth. We don't agree with their denomination or denominationalism. I hardly see eye to eye with the people on much of anything...but at least they're keen to talk and think. It's refreshing.

Part 4


Jim C. said...

Hey Proto,

Coming from a Presbyterian/Reformed background myself, I can understand perhaps on a deeper level than those who don't some of what you've said in these posts. Bureaucracy is never without its weaknesses. While it provides order, structure and stability it can also serve as a breeding ground for elitism, formalism, nepotism and in some cases outright corruption. The church certainly needs to guard herself against it.

Having said that, I believe the opposite extreme of pure congregationalism has its dangers as well. While there is nothing preventing a local congregation from cooperating with another one in a common spirit, there is also nothing compelling it to either - and I've also been a part of congregations that anathematize everyone else and stand alone and they're borderline cults. Their pastors and elders have dictatorial power - and there's no higher body to hold them accountable.

As I've said before, you continously demonstrate an aptitude with theology and a host of other subjects and are clearly of sound mind. However, others who have spoken similar words in the past - viz. restorationists - eventually chose to walk down irreversible dark paths and form their own churches, which evolved into psychologically abusive cults. Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, Herbert W. Armstrong and Sun Myung Moon come to mind - and their organizations have destroyed countless lives. I recall visiting a Watchtower Bethel once, about 40 minutes away from where I live. Pioneers live, eat and breathe there and the tour I took was surreal. Quite scary, actually.

Again, I wouldn't even think to put you in the same category as those men mentioned above. Far from it.

Two questions, though: first, how does a congregationalist assembly protect itself from the authoritarianism of a charismatic leader and secondly, how is what you've said different from restorationist theology?


Jim C.

P.S. Are we going to see a Part 2 of your personal story/educational background sometime soon? Interesting stuff.

Protoprotestant said...

Jim C, your comments regarding these matters I think are both insightful and wise. I hope you don’t take what I’ve said in a personal way. Yes, I’m being pretty harsh but I’m also trying to make a point.
And you’re correct, extreme Congregationalism can also be troubling. I’ve been to those Baptist Churches where the Pastor is nothing more than a Congregational Pope, and I’ve been to the kind that operate just as you said…they’re the only ones.
The solution? Well, usually there are some other doctrinal issues at work there that are driving that impulse within them. The most immediate example for me is something like KJV-onlyism. That’ll do it for sure. In that case, even that congregation ‘reaching out’ a bit won’t really help.
I think a plurality of elders is essential. The one Pastor set up is a bad thing. You’re bound to have a personality cult and even though Independent Baptists shrink in horror…yes they have their form of clericalism as well.
Presbyterianism does prevent this…but so does the ‘Independent Presbyterianism/Congregationalism’ I’m advocating. I haven’t brought the Savoy Declaration into question, just because I’m not inclined to head that direction, but in a broad sense, that’s where I’m coming from.
As far as the cultists…they’re making quite different claims then what I’m making. Some of their critiques are valid. That in no way means I endorse them. For example, I can read EG White’s critique of the Medieval RC Church and agree with much that’s being said. Even Finney, the great Pelagian heretic, when he’s slamming Presbyterianism, I have to admit some of what he’s saying is correct. But then it’s where they go with it.

Protoprotestant said...

There’s always going to be people that take some truth and head off in the wrong direction. There are probably many others (like you) that can appreciate some or most of what I’m saying on these matters but are uncomfortable where it goes, and may think I’m taking a wrong turn at some point. That’s fair and I’m more than willing to listen.
As far as Restorationists…I guess would say the same thing. I find them very interesting, though my reading of them has not been too extensive. In some ways I think they were doing a good thing. They were Bereans. The problem is they were also Post-Enlightenment Rationalistic Americans and brought all that baggage with them. They established a few presuppositions at an early point regarding what they believed to be logical and fair…regarding Sovereignty and Free Will and kind of ran with it. And sadly the resulting Semi-Pelagianism came to dominate. As far as some of their ecclesiology…from what I’ve seen, I don’t have that much of a problem with it. I know their teaching on Baptism (being salvific) upsets many. My issue with it would be their claim to exclusivity…oh and that they’re credobaptists. I’m quite solidly in the Paedo camp. Their NT exclusivity goes too far and they miss how the NT relates itself to the OT.

Protoprotestant said...

I don’t know that the Church is ever going to get it all correct. There are always circumstances and dynamics at work, other factors that mess things up. But we should keep trying. I’m concerned with Presbyterianism that it has established itself as un-reformable. In fact with so many of these issues I see the other side (theological liberalism, heresy, cults, new fads) as almost driving the narrative. The theological conservatives are almost forced to craft their theology in response (a negative direction) instead of positive development. That’s not true in every case. There are some developments within the Reformed world. It is I think hands down the most intellectually vibrant wing of Protestantism…which in part is why I can’t entirely stay away.

Anonymous said...

The book The Christian by Brit Arthur Wallis greatly influenced me soon after being born again. We fellowshipped for years with a great group of christians who were all committed to doing things as scripturally true as we could. It is NOT easy--it really requires dependence on the Holy Spirit and it really requires much more true daily community and love and transparency and mutual submission in the fear of the Lord than most people are willing to give (our culture is SO individualistic and privatistic.)

Forms, structures, and bureauacracies are turned to when it gets "impractical" or "impossible" to maintain church life in the daily organic relationships in the Spirit. But to justify moving to them out of pragmatic necessity is wrong, in my opinion.

Especially to deny the Lord's Table unless an ordained man-credentialed person administers it, rubs me very wrong! I am all for ordination, a biblical concept, but not for unbiblical hoops of man's credentials that put roadblocks to the faithful entering into the most fundamental covenantal means of grace and identity!

What follows is a parenthetical on water baptism:

We were, and I still am, rejecting paedobaptism as a biblical means of "entering" the church. Now I am open to consider the arguments for baptising infants, though no one has ever laid out anything that has any merit to me, but still yet, while I would agree with infant dedications, I reject using the word "baptism" for infants. It is because of what I see as the biblical meaning of baptism, which is identification with Chrit's burial, putting away the dead flesh of the old carnal man after regeneration, obedience to the second aspect of the three-part gospel explicitly stated in Acts 2:37-39. Baptism means immersion in dye, taking on the nature (color) of the dye, so that the fabric cannot ever go back to its unbaptised (undyed) condition. Baptism occured in the Old Testament in type in the Red Sea crossing, wherein the pursuing enemies of Egypt--a type of Sin--were forever destroyed from being ever able to recapture the Israelites. We see a type again in the laver of washing in the tabernacle. Blood,water, spirit; over and over again we see the three-part gospel, historically performed by Jesus as stated by Paul in 1Cor.15:3,4. How we obey the gospel Acts2:37-38. Romans 6 also classic text on baptism.

All that is to say that I don't think I or "New Testament restorationists" of my lifetime are saying baptism is salvific in and of itself. But biblically, it IS part of the plan or means considered normal for new testament living. I also contend that it is a great grace--a sacramental power, SO much more than an outward sign--I think the powers and principalities see it and understand it so much more than reformed protestantism (but as your faith, so be it unto you.)I would say at this time I am still an advocate of "believer's baptism" because I see it is an action taken willfully in obedience to apostolic doctrine in conjunction with repentance and faith on Christ.

There is the matter of whole households being saved, of the covenant for children of the righteous, and such, and I would love to discuss with you about these things sometime, about how you've come to peadobaptism. I probably don't have all the angles, but usually people can only argue and hate on this issue. What a joy that I feel I can even begin talking about baptism here without being instantly pidgeon-holed,scorned, or misunderstood!

The baptism issue plays a big part in the larger issue of church form.

Protoprotestant said...

Hi Victoria,

Sorry I took so long to get back to you and everyone else. Deadlines at work have left me little time for the computer…and sleep.
Your first paragraph is of course correct. The number one argument I get from people who oppose me on these polity and membership issues is that it doesn’t work. People are the faulty element to the equation. Individualism and a lack of love lead to it all breaking down.
True. It’s an awesome thing for a group of people to work together in fellowship. Although I stand with you and I’ll say ONLY the Holy Spirit can do it. Coming up with some kind of system or form doesn’t fix it either. It can just lead to…empty forms which to be honest is what I often find. I find people who know a lot about a faction and its workings and are proud of it…but haven’t been taught Biblical doctrine or how to work through it. If they do….well they might start asking a lot of questions and challenging the guardians of the form. Sorry if that sounds a bit cynical with regard to Church leaders…but I’ve seen it more than once and when you catch pastors being candid, they’ll sometimes admit it.
I also agree with what you said about the Lord’s Supper. I too believe in ordination and offices…but not clericalism. I don’t think it should be a free-for-all. The book of Titus seems to allow for a process….Paul instructs him to set in order the things that are wanting or lacking and to ordain elders. Apparently these congregations were functioning even though everything hadn’t been properly established. It’s interesting because to me it in part rejects both the clerical model and the free-for-all model. It allows things to be transitioning but a young congregation needs to be moving toward establishing things properly.
That’s the kind of sick little secret about the PCA we’re at right now. Even though we’ve been meeting for months and now have an ‘ordained’ pastor…it’s technically not yet a ‘church’. He’s ‘installed’ at the mother-church, he’s just preaching (a couple of weeks ago it was called exhorting) at our meeting. We have no supper because we’re not yet considered a viable congregation. I wish they would just say that but it’s hard to ‘market’ your Church when people can’t come and ‘try it out’.
Personally I hold to the idea that we should have communion every time we meet. Some would charge me with being superstitious about it. Actually I do make a bigger deal about it…in a covenantal sense. That’s why I think we should have it every week but on the other hand they seem to be the ones who have made it into something it’s not…by making it ‘so special’ that we can only have it on occasion so people don’t take it for granted. To me we have the Gospel every week…the Word. The ordinances or sacraments are just the Word portrayed with a symbol.
The infrequent communion argument to me is like arguing we should only preach the gospel once a month or four times a year because people might start taking it for granted.

Protoprotestant said...

But then of course on the other hand…I can push the covenant aspect and tie both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in with salvation. In some ways I hold to both a ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ view of these things. I find most people (I’m not saying you, I’m just speaking in general) seem rather confused about these issues. They really are almost superstitious about it.
As far as Baptism…this may seem like I’m dodging it but I guess I’ll just have to ask for your patience. I’d love to dive into this and actually hope to. It’s on the short list….which means I could get to it in 2 weeks or 2 months…it depends how things go. I plan (God willing) to dive into that issue at which point I’ll try and address the issues you raise here. To answer you is going to take about 6 comment boxes. I’d rather just deal with it in a post and then we can paste your comment in there or something. I know you’re a regular reader here…so I’m sure you’ll still be checking in over the weeks and months ahead.
We probably aren’t going to agree but perhaps I can do what I seem to do best…stretch people a bit, make them think about it.
The big issues are…what is baptism? What does it mean when someone is baptized? The whole question of means…which I know isn’t very popular…which is strange to me because this tension between means and substance is so prominent in Scripture…and of course what is the relationship between the Old and New Testament? Total continuity? Total discontinuity? Some Continuity/some Discontinuity? Or…Total Continuity and Total Discontinuity? That last one’s a contradiction someone will say….I disagree. It’s not a contradiction when you don’t subject it to a certain type of thinking…a type of thinking that for us Westerners is practically in our genes.
More later on this….perhaps I’ll try to move this topic up the list a bit.

As always thanks for writing. Despite our differences I always feel like you're something of a kindred spirit!

Anonymous said...

Yes, John; I believe we agree so much more than not! Of course, that is as it should be if we are really in the Church, the family of God.

I'm encouraged that you also seem to have a "higher" view of baptism and the Supper than many current evangelicals. I believe there is a grace, a sacramental-ish grace; though of course "as is your faith, so be it unto you." If you think something is merely a symbol, that's all the power it will have for you, or to be more precise, all the power you will subjectively take from it.

And yes, less time now to be on the computer on my end too. I love you, Brother, and being aquainted with you and reading your posts is a true blessing to us.

eliyahu said...

Brother, I am wondering why you find it necessary to just grit your teeth and sit through a meeting filled with falsehoods and errors, exposing your children to them and become even more disillusioned and disappointed, all to keep up the idea that every sunday you have to attend in order to be pleasing to God? Why would you consider that to be fellowship, which is sharing? Or pleasing to God? The fruits you described don't sound good.

Concerning church organizational difficulties, perhaps the reason the lack of apostles presents such a problem for the church today is that such a belief has no actual scriptural basis; as you said, scripture gives no model or form beyond the congregation for the post apostolic age. That may be because the form for us to follow is actually the one in the scriptures; apostles and all. Just a thought.

I've been there too, and good fellowship is hard to find, and consists of much more than sunday at "church". I've had great fellowship, and it's real friendships and people you grow along side of in real life.

Protoprotestant said...

Glutton for punishment?

I always to be careful that I'm not just writing off the church and falling into some kind of self-centered way of thinking.

No sadly it isn't fellowship. In many cases there are Christians there and in some sense, they are churches and that being the case I feel compelled to try and be there.

But sometimes it's impossible and perhaps even counterproductive.

I've definitely know real and profound fellowship but often these are friends that I don't see on a regular basis. I think the NT assumes we'll be congregating but I don't think we 'sell out' just to check that box.

As bad as things are I do believe that we're on the treshold of a time when more people will 'punch out' of the tradition dominated institutions and we might start seeing some small and numerically unimpressive but spiritually mature fellowships within homes.

I hope so.

eliyahu said...

My brother, I sympathize with you. When we are aware of and contrary to a Constantinian church/state complex, we are often targets of the institutional church, long addicted to this smack, and totally unwilling to admit they have a problem. Try telling them tithing can't be required in the New Testament, and prepare to receive the left foot of fellowship.

But I hope you will reconsider feeling you have to grit your teeth through falsehood and deception in order to please God who has taught you better.

Also, I know you know that anything true about God we learn and desire is given by Him undeservedly drawing us to Him, and that these folks need His grace to desire more of God as much as we do everyday; He will hear our prayers for them, even if we're not attending their functions. And that grace given gives us more of His grace.

I hope you'll consider being open to meeting occasionally with some you don't agree with as a form outreach for you and them, but not forced into an unproductive tradition that just irritates your spirit with error and grief. He gives His beloved rest.

much love brother:

Eliyahu BenYsrael