Saturday, August 6, 2011

Leaving & Staying in Faithfulness: looking at various church ages & movements

The biblical church

Someone commenting on my post, about my church leaving the PCUSA and my staying, asked some thoughtful questions. With the understanding that I might be misreading some of the questions or that my definitions may change his questions, I will attempt to answer them with several posts. His questions:

“None of us is so wise and righteous that we can dispense with the instruction and correction of the larger body of Christ. Yet, what do we do when we think the larger body of which we are a part has failed to correctly discern the spirit? Do we strike out on our own? Or submit to the larger body?

What does it mean to be loyal to the church? Is it loyalty to the worshiping community of which I'm a part? Or is it loyalty to the larger web of connections across the region?”
I wrote of using historical movements to explore these questions but first I want to look at biblical thoughts about what it means to be in submission to the larger body when their discernment doesn’t seem right. And of course right up front we have to say biblically that church councils had the last word and the correct word in deciding theological disputes in scripture. That belongs to the apostolic witness.

But there are important ideas to gather from reading about those councils in Acts. Luke records two councils that dealt with theological issues and both have to do with Gentiles becoming Christians. One was to explore how that could be possible, (Acts 10:34-11:18), and the other was to ask what was required of the Gentiles in order for them to be in the Church (15).

Peter’s vision and God’s actions of pouring out the Holy Spirit on the Gentles was a part of that first discussion but the important point here is that all was wrapped up in scripture and the person of Jesus Christ. We have a record of what Peter preached to the Gentles. The cross and the resurrection was the gospel preached, as was the fact that Jesus is “judge of the living and the dead.”

The amazing statement in this sermon is that “all the prophets bear witness that through his name everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.” There is respect for scripture and no pluralism. For the Gentiles this was true conversion; the sinner turned to Christ. God blessed the receiving of his word with the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Jerusalem Council agreed.

The second Council met over whether the Gentiles needed to be circumcised. The text states there was “much debate.” That’s good! Here the council looked at what had already occurred. God had brought salvation not only to the Jews but also the Gentiles. But more importantly the Council turned to the authority of Scripture and the promise of God which was once again Jesus Christ.

God was rebuilding the tabernacle of David. (Amos 9:11 also Jeremiah 12:15)[1] That is, David’s house would be rebuilt and that rebuilding came about by way of the Incarnation, the Son of David, who was also David’s Lord. The house would include those Gentiles who were called by the lord’s name. Always scripture, always Jesus Christ; the Church, the body of Christ is formed and unified around the living Word and the written word. Church councils and bodies must not ignore this.

There is one place in the New Testament where the text refers to a group of people who have left their original church body. That is in 1John. John is writing to a group of Christians, a local body, who have been troubled by a pseudo-Gnostic group of people. The heretical group has evidently left the Church. The author writes:

They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. (1John 2:19)

This is an interesting case and it has been used wrongly against people who have left one denomination for another. But it must be seen in the context of 1 John. John is very clear; the people who left, the false teachers, are Antichrist. F.F. Bruce states that “the early Christians recognized Antichrist not only in the enemy who attacked them from without but also in the enemy who seduced them from within.” [2]

John gives a description of those who can be classified as Antichrist. They deny that Jesus is the Christ. And he implies that they were teaching an elitist form of salvation based on knowledge rather than Jesus’ death and bodily resurrection. The point is that in this local church some false teachers had tried to seduce the believers and had probably taken some with them when they left. But the faithful persevered, and John’s letter was an encouragement. But many times false teachers stayed and seduced whole churches. Bruce writes:
There is an ominous note in Paul’s Miletus address to the elders of the Ephesian church, when they were warned that from their own ranks ‘will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them’ (Acts 20.30). An outstanding example of the threat presented by syncretistic tendencies to the unique essence of Christianity is the ‘Colossian heresy’ which, only a few years after Paul’s Ephesian ministry, was rife in the church of Colossae and other cities of the Lycus valley … which is refuted in the Epistle to the Colossians (c. AD 61). Worse was yet to follow: a landslide away from apostolic teaching is implied in the words of 2 Tim. 1.15, ‘You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me.’ [3]
While Bruce goes on to show how there was improvement after the landslide, we find once again, in the letters to the seven churches of Asia, in Revelation, a description of a church where many had given themselves over to false teaching which included sexual immorality. (Rev. 2: 18-29)Jesus warns Thyatira that he will judge both the teacher and her followers if they do not repent. And yet there are those who have not followed the false teacher or her teachings. They are given promises by Christ and told to hold on to what they already have. And he had already commended them for their faith, love, service and perseverance.

So what I am trying to get at here is a picture of the New Testament Church where the complexity of multiple options for membership and authority did not really exist. Those who were faithful either watched false teachers leave, undoubtedly in a huff and with their new recruits, or they watched their churches fill up with heretical agendas and simply persevered still faithful to the Lord of the Church and the doctrines of the Apostles. And some Churches disappeared altogether.

The larger body of Christ is always that body that listens together to apostolic teaching which includes the whole word of God. Such listening is done under the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the church listens to his word, which is the written word, the Bible. Loyalty involves first of all the Lord Jesus Christ. That loyalty to Christ includes his word. When a denomination listens to the ethics of the culture over and above the word of God they are not acknowledging the Lord of the Church or the authority of his word.

Individually we do not strike out on our own, but I think it is possible to trace God’s gathering of his people together for his purposes throughout church history. It is messy and not at all systematic but nonetheless the providential care of the Lord of the church is there. I want to look next at the Reformation; some myths or half truths might be put to rest. And I think we will see a place for the individual but always in union with Christ and with fellow believers.

[1] For a posting I wrote on the Jeremiah text see, The Great Speckled Bird of Jeremiah
[2]F.F. Bruce, The Epistles of John, (grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans 1970) 68.

[3]Ibid, 14.

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