The Slippery Slope of Extrabiblical Eccelesiology

24 06 2008

A quote from Richard Hanson in Viola/Barna’s book Pagan Christianity perfectly summed up a concept I’ve consistently encountered.

95% of my conversations with others about HOW to do church seem to center around this practice of reading their current model back into the biblical text.

Hanson writes –

“It is a universal tendency in the Christian religion, as in many other religions, to give a theological interpretation to institutions which have developed gradually through a period of time for the sake of practice usefulness, and them read that interpretation back into the earliest periods and infancy of these institutions, attaching them to an age when in fact nobody imagined they had such a meaning.” – Richard Hanson

This is so important to me because I believe, without this practice, so many true believers would fully embrace the design of the church given by the 1st century Apostles. But so many of us have decades worth of training which spins biblical teachings into a defenses for our current church practices. If we can at least get over this and admit that there is no biblical basis for the

  • worship service
  • weekly sermon
  • career clergy
  • church buildings

and that these are man made inventions that should only be used if we truly believe they will enhance our commission fulfillment, and not distort the Apostolic vision of the church. Only then will we finally have the flexibility to rediscover the Apostolic methods that lead to explosive, deep, natural, unstoppable Kingdom expansion.




11 responses

24 06 2008
Tim Etherington

While in general I think you have a point, I think you’ve really not done your historical research on this. Paul spoke and wrote in a context. The church didn’t simply sit and do nothing until 2Co was written and then look for Paul’s explicit instructions and start doing them. They were engaged as a church and Paul spoke and wrote into their context. Largely, Paul’s ministry was to go to a major city and enter the synagogue and preach there. Either the synagogue largely converted or a group left. There are indications, both biblical and historical, that early Christian churches were formed based on synagogue worship. That is what Christian worship looked like both in the Bible and in the first few centuries beyond.

Having said that, it is also important to notice that there were churches who were called churches into which Paul sent, for example, Timothy and Titus to pastor, appoint elders and set things in order. So where I think you do have a point is that we can think that a church isn’t a church unless it has those things. That clearly isn’t the case. However, we also must keep in mind that Paul was not content to leave Ephesus and Crete in that condition either.

As is almost always the case, the issue is more complicated than that.

BTW, I like the idea of the story formed life! That seems like a neat way to structure a disciple making program. I’ve been watching with interest. Kudos to you for thinking so creatively about this.

24 06 2008


You’re absolutely right that the church did nothing while waiting for Paul’s explicit instructions. In fact, at times-like the Corinthians church-, we’re afforded the benefit of learning from how they screwed it up because then Paul gives the Corinthians the most explicit instructions on Christian worship to be found in the N.T. If you normally read this blog, you’ll no doubt know what that conversation would entail.

I guess I would ask: what historical research disagrees with the assertions of the post?

When Paul sent Timothy to appoint elders, how does that speak to the progressive institutionalization of the church?

Thanks Tim!

25 06 2008

I definitely agree with you on a lot of points concerning the early church. I read Pagan Christianity a while back but honestly didn’t like the book for other reasons. I definitely see the vast difference between the subtle suggestions about what the 1st century church was like and the reality that we find in “churches” us today.

One major point I would make is that in the early days talking about church wasn’t a reference to a location or institution. It was about the people and the community. Today when you say church people think of a building or sunday morning services or the history of the catholic and protestant churches. I think that rediscovering the 1st century church should be based around rediscovering Christ’s and Paul’s ideas of a community based on love.

@Tim – It isn’t necessarily precisely known that Paul’s ministry consisted primarily of speaking at synagogues. Its widely suggested that his ministry was so grass roots that he in fact used his trade of tent-making as the front for his ministry and a way to connect with people. It would have been more likely for him to set up shop at the local market from which he would talk to people instead of going to the synagogue. And after all, it was Paul’s self proclaimed mission to reach the gentiles. You don’t find gentiles at a Jewish synagogue.

The point of all of this is how institutionalized and culturized our ideas of church, worship, sunday mornings, and pastors are. If you were to actually be living in those times you would have a very very different idea of those concepts.

25 06 2008

Hi Tim –

I’m also a bit puzzled regarding the historical assertions I made in the post. My main point was to highlight a common tendency.

If we preach weekly sermons people tend to assume the Sermon on the Mount or Paul’s public preaching is a biblical argument for that practice.

If we have a weekly worship service we might point to the daily gathering of believers at Solomon’s portico as a biblical defense etc.

What I’m suggesting is that it is unhelpful to read our modern experience back into these things as if they are equivalent to contemporary practices. Why not begin by trying to construct a clearer picture of what actually happened in the 1st century and readily admit when a practice of our’s is extrabiblical. That doesn’t make it wrong, it just means it is inappropriate to think we can find biblical support for it.

25 06 2008
Tim Etherington

You know, this is a complicated issue for me. There is a lot involved with it. Perhaps, I knee-jerked a bit but with Viola and Barna equating these things with Pagan Christianity, I get frustrate. Those things aren’t pagan.

Jeremy, would you be willing to have a blog to blog discussion about this? Comments don’t seem to be the best format. I could put my fuller response on my blog with a link here and you can respond in kind. Not a debate, I think we fundamentally agree, but just a dialog or discussion? Your call brother.

26 06 2008

Tim – sure, this is quite an important issue.

Viola’s tone is extremely I agree. Painting all contemporary Christian practices with one brush as Paganism creates unneeded hostility. Some practices have been influenced by other cultures and sometimes it has been helpful and other times it has distorted something essential.

I’m far more interested in reconstructing a true picture of early church practices and deeply understanding the theological significance of each so we can make far better decisions about how church forms effect functions.

26 06 2008
Tim Etherington

Excellent! This is an issue I’ve wanted to chew on this for a while. I’ll get a post together and post a comment once it is done.

23 07 2008

“I’m far more interested in reconstructing a true picture of early church practices and deeply understanding the theological significance of each so we can make far better decisions about how church forms effect functions.”

Me too! I sometimes get frustrated that we have to relearn what should be as natural as breathing – relearning the Biblical Participatory Gathering. I’m thinking that we have already been given what we need to accomplish this, We only need seek one mind. Check out this passage.

NIV 2 Peter 1;3 His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

Here’s my effort to kick this off: “One Way”

29 07 2008

Hi Glenn,

Thanks for the article and your thorough study of the Word. The discipline of the Gathering is a very challenging thing in our day and it takes considerable training, unlearning and experience to feel comfortable participating.

In addition to what you wrote in the post I would add a couple of thoughts –

1. It’s OK to ask the Holy Spirit what he wants you to bring BEFORE you come as long as you continue to submit that leading to the Spirit while you are there. This has been a helpful weekly discipline for me.

2. We also encourage the sharing of testimonies for the purpose of building up the body. A very important verse to us is – 14:3 “But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” So we encourage words whose purpose is for strengthening, encouraging and comforting.

This practice is so lost to history that we need to keep working with one another to figure out how to resurrect it and practice it in a way that builds the body up.

4 09 2008
josh knoechel

This question can go for anyone but I was reading 1 Corinthians last week when I came upon 1 Corinthians 9. The theme of the chapter is Paul asserting his rights only to illustrate how he laid them down for the sake of the Gospel. One of the rights he claims is the right to be paid and supported for proclaiming the Gospel. I think he talks about it throughout the whole chapter but it is most explicit in verse 14:

“In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”

My question then is, “is it accurate to say that there is no Biblical basis for career clergy?”

My understanding of the passage is that those who proclaim the Gospel can expect to get paid for it but that Paul demonstrated the value of laying down that right. The passage doesn’t seem to mandate this practice though.

I’m not nitpicking but I need questions like this answered to be able to restructure Biblical “church” in my mind. Thanks to anyone who has any insight on this and sorry to resurrect an old conversation.

14 10 2008
Jeremy Pryor

Great question Josh. My take is there’s a massive difference between someone feeling called into “the ministry”, going to seminary and creating a life-long, total dependence on the church for their sole support and what the first century Apostles did.

I’m not against financial support for 5-fold, I’m against treating ministry like a career. Its great when someone draws support for a few months or a few years when they are needed but having no means of supporting yourself or your family other than ministry creates an unnatural dilemma. The career minister becomes awkwardly trapped when a divergence occurs between their calling and what ministry activities will support his family. Every person needs to develop a “trade” that is useful and can provide income during seasons of less ministry activity and to diversify his streams of income. I write about this a lot here –

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