by Henry Neufeld, owner and publisher of Energion Publications
The word “biblical” is one of the most misused words in theological discussion, possibly even more abused than the word “church.” As a linguist I must note that calling a word “abused” is itself a mite linguistically abusive, as the meaning of words is determined by the way they’re used. What I mean by “abused” in this case, however, is that these words are used in such a way, or such a variety of ways, that it’s nearly impossible to determine their meaning.
So when I title this post “Toward a Biblical Church,” I’m intentionally being obscure. What on earth (or in heaven, in the sea, or under the sea), can I be talking about? Depending on where I go in scripture, and how I approach its interpretation, I can find (or produce, as if ex nihilo) very different views of the church.
Cue expressions of horror.
If we can’t discover what the church is from scripture, or precisely how we should do church, then what good is any of it? Why read the scriptures if they do not inform us of what to do, particularly on such an important point? Yet we have honest and well-meaning people who differ profoundly on how we should be the church and how we should organize ourselves to be whatever we should be. When Allan Bevere, right here on the Energion Discussion Network, suggests we should perhaps be celebrating 50 days of Easter, Dave Black notes that his church doesn’t really do Lent at all. And they’re co-editors of the same book series at Energion, not to mention friends!
By now you’re all nodding or shrugging or getting annoyed at yet another post telling you that you can’t really know what the Bible says. What good is it in that case? But that’s not my point. In fact, I think we can get quite a lot from the Bible. It’s just that quite frequently the Bible doesn’t tell us what we want to know.
No, I’m not referring to the fact that the Bible (or the God of the Bible) will frequently challenge our comfortable assumptions and suggest that we ought to do things we’d really rather not. It does that from time to time. Rather, the Bible often doesn’t answer the questions we want answered.
In this case what many of us would like would be a divine guide to church structure. How should I structure my church so that it will fit God’s directions? Should we have bishops who appoint pastors or a congregational structure? Who should be in charge (at the human level) in a local church congregation? We take these questions to the Bible, and when it fails to answer them, we find a way to bend it to our will.
I’ve been writing a series of posts going through Dave Black’s book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church. You may be thinking I’d anathematize such a book based on the preceding paragraphs. No, I publish and personally recommend it. I am nearly done blogging through it, in fact. I’m including quotes from two other books, Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations by Ruth Fletcher and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel by Bruce Epperly. Dave is a Southern Baptist. Ruth is a Disciples of Christ district superintendent. Bruce is a United Church of Christ pastor. All of them are writing about how we should do church. All of them consulted the Bible in the process. In addition we have Dave’s book The Jesus Paradigm, and forthcoming this month The Jesus Manifesto: A Participatory Study Guide to the Sermon on the Mount by David Moffett-Moore. Lots of people are looking at what it means to follow Jesus and to be the church.
Are there differences? Yes. Are there similarities? Yes, remarkable ones. I find it distressing how few people are likely to read all three, often because they presume theological differences will negate the value of one or the other book.
There are a number of perspectives on Jesus that we find in the Bible, though all lead to the idea that we should be following Jesus. Following Jesus has many details, as well, but also many similarities. The Bible never gets around to straightening out all of those possible understandings. The way the Bible is structured tends to prevent neatly ordered answers to all our questions.
And that in itself is something I think is one of the clear messages of scripture. We have many perspectives that are understood differently by many people. We moan and groan because the church isn’t unified enough, because we haven’t figured out the same answers to so many questions.
Perhaps it’s time we consider the possibility that the Bible is accomplishing exactly what God wants it to. We complain that His Word is coming back void, and not accomplishing the purpose for which God sent it out when really the problem is that it’s not accomplishing our purpose.
God may be just fine with lots of people doing their best to follow Jesus in their own, limited way, organizing themselves in very human fashion do try to do God-sized things, and learning new lessons about working together with every passing day. Perhaps what we need in order to be more in unity is not greater doctrinal or organizational likeness, but more Christlikeness in the way we respond to our differences.
God made people in amazing variety. Maybe he wanted his church to be that way too.