A Handbook? Part I

εκκλήσια – Form and Function

Josh over at A New Testament Student has just written a short post that I just have to chime in on, because there is an important point that must be elaborated.

He writes:

For whatever reason, I’ve been suckered into Ecclesiology. I enjoy figuring out what exactly the “Church” is. There are a great many blogs out there dedicated to this topic. However, something I’m noticing is that they stay only within the New Testament for their views on the Church. Is this proper? Is the New Testament the handbook on ekklesia? My answer: It’s not *the* handbook…

Josh is completely right. The New Testament does not give us a specific form for doing church. There is actually very little discussion at all about what the first century church looked like. Now before anyone protests, I am quite aware of the Book of Acts. There are some discussions about form. But I do not see these descriptions as necessary for the church today. A couple points are in order:

  1. If you notice, the New Testament church in Acts adjusted its form depending upon its needs.
  2. If you read 1 Timothy and Titus, you’ll see that the focus when it comes to church leadership positions are not on form, or function, but character.

Regarding church governments today we find three major models:

  1. Episcopal: They’ve got priests and bishops. They claim that because the word for bishop is in the New Testament they have the correct model (They also point to the apostles as well for their succession in the cases of Rome and Orthodox).
  2. Presbyterian: They’ve got lots of elders. These guys point to Acts for their model of multiple elders and what have you. They also go to 1 Timothy and Titus for their models where lots of elders and deacons are running around all over the place.
  3. Congregational: These guys have large groups of people voting together for decisions. They’ve got elders and deacons, but decisions are made by the whole local body of believers. Sainthood of all believers, right!?

But what’s going on with these models?

  1. The Catholic Church and its Episcopal model arose, essentially as it is today, during the dark and middle ages into the high middle ages. You’ve got a pope, lots of cardinals, bishops, priests, and all these little people running around. But interestingly enough, it looks pretty much exactly like the feudal system. You’ve got a king. You’ve got lords. You’ve got knights and you’ve got serfs…fishy, isn’t it?
  2. The Presbyterian form developed post reformation. Its has the General Assembly at the top, the Synod, Presbytery, the Session. This, interestingly enough, paralleled the development of the Parliamentary government in England and other countries. You’ve got a House of Lords. There’s a House of Commons, and then there are all sorts of counties with their mini-governments at the bottom working with the regular people.
  3. The Congregational format for government has a group of elders and deacons and then everyone in the church voting on everything. Funny, but this looks a lot like Democracy, which isn’t surprising since it was developed by the Puritans when they came to America, successfully escaping England’s Parliament.

All of this to say that it is not the form of the church government that matters at all. Rather, it is the function of the church government that matters. That is, teaching, serving, mission, preaching, praying, ministering the word/Word.

This is why character is emphasized in the New Testament discussions of church leadership.

We should never treat scripture as if its a handbook for anything. Its an inspired AND historical document, not a handbook.

(FOOTNOTE: The above discussion is in part a result of my Systematic Theology class last year, but also significantly from discussions with my father, a pastor just completing his Dmin in Leadership Organizational Structures.)

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