Our study continues tomorrow evening with a look at chapter 4 of Dave Black’s book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, “Genuine Relationships.” In this chapter, Dave discusses the church as community. I wrote an extended post on it when I was blogging through the book some time ago. I recommend reading that, and paying particular attention to the definitions provided by Ruth Fletcher. I’ve quoted a key line in the featured image, but in that earlier post I quote more and discuss at greater length.
It has been some time since I posted my last installment of my discussion of the book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church by David Alan Black, along with some commentary from the books Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel, by Bruce Epperly and Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations by Ruth Fletcher. My most recent installment was actually an excursus, Is There Such a Thing as a New Testament Church?. (You can find most entries in the series by searching for the words “seven marks.”)
I find this topic as a whole, and this chapter in particular, are examples of a topic where we should read material from people outside our own tradition. We need to strip away some of the “stuff” that has gathered in our denominations and churches that keeps us from being Christ-centered. It’s easier to be building-centered, tradition-centered, or us-centered. All three of my authors suggest things that would take us away from those three centers and ask us to seek what is Christ-centered.
Dave Black cites “They devoted themselves to … the breaking of bread.” in the heading to this chapter and indicates he sees this as a reference to celebration of the Lord’s Supper (also called Communion or the Eucharist). I was interested in how many references I had to choose from in all three books. One of the key points Dave makes is this:
And how often was the Supper observed? If we compare Acts 20:7 (“On the first day of the week, when we came together to break bread….”) with Rev. 1:10 (“On the Lord’s Day….”), it seems that it was observed every Lord’s Day, that is, every Sunday. (p. 33)
Of course, the frequency is not the most important point. I would suggest that the most important point is that this is something instituted by Jesus which calls us to remember his incarnation and sacrifice for us. It centers the act of worship around the person of Jesus who is, or should be, the center of our faith and worship. Thus, “Christ-centered gatherings.” Now there is more than performing a certain ritual to a Christ-centered gathering. In fact, if your communion service is just an act of ritual, you may well have a problem in your church. Let me bring in Ruth Fletcher on this point:
Because individuals who participate in the worship life of transforming congregations will have an active daily prayer life, images and words they encounter in the corporate worship will connect them with experiences of the Spirit they have had during the week. A phrase in a song, in a reading, or in the proclamation may well remind them of a time in which they experienced a call upon their lives, a clarity of purpose, or an impetus to take compassionate action on behalf of someone else. Those moments of resonance will be what infuse the worship service with a sense of integrity and power.
Worship in transforming congregations will offer reminders of what the congregation is trying to become. (p. 134, emphasis mine)
I would note that Dr. Fletcher is part of a denomination that practices communion on a weekly basis at every worship service. The question here is the next step. Why is it that we want to have Christ-centered gatherings? I think it is because of the last line, which I have highlighted above. We come together to center ourselves on Christ, and thus to prepare to be the body of Christ in the world when we leave in whatever way the opportunity presents itself.
This is critical: If your worship service is not leading you to service, to acting as the hands and feet of Jesus, to being a witness, and to proclaiming the good news, it can hardly be Christ-centered. Certainly we focus on Jesus, but if we do so simply to get a dose of “specialness” for ourselves, to satisfy our own emotional, spiritual, and social needs we will fall short. By this I don’t mean that our spiritual needs are unimportant. They are, in fact, critically important. But they will never be satisfied unless we carry what we experience in worship out to wherever it is we go during the week.
Now think of your last worship service. How much of the “worship service” led to actual service out in the world? I suspect that it cannot be real worship in the sanctuary of a church unless it leads to the presence of Christ, through you, outside. We tread the room in which we meet as a sanctuary. It even has some architectural similarities to a temple. But it is each one of us as a group, no, better, as a community, who is filled with the Holy Spirit and called the temple of the Holy Spirit.
I would say that communion then is:
And we are the body of Christ, commissioned to be his body in the world. What better way can we have to remind us of this than to participate in communion?
I would like to suggest further that communion, and likely church fellowship in New Testament times was not a large amount of liturgy with a moment when a small piece of bread is provided and dipped into wine or juice, for that one moment of “communion.” Rather, when the saints gathered, they shared a meal. Many of our churches are too large to share a meal on this basis, and that in itself may be a problem. Large churches, of course, can have small groups that gather and have this type of communion. If we are to spur one another on to good works (see Hebrews 10:24), we need to see one another, hear one another, and know one another. In such a circle we can draw our community together and prepare to extend our circle.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch reminds me of the origins of the American denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). From the very beginning, Disciples of Christ have practiced open communion and have been a model for the ecumenical movement’s communion hospitality. In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Campbell, a newcomer to the United States from Ireland, was appalled by sectarianism among religious groups in the new nation. Even Presbyterians from different sects would not take communion with one another. Inspired by his vision of the New Testament church, Campbell welcomed everyone to the Communion Table. “Don’t fence the table,” he proclaimed. “Anyone who seeks to follow Jesus as the Christ is welcome, regardless of denominational background.” As early Disciples of Christ proclaimed: “We have no creed but Christ.” Our unity in Christ and our allegiance to Christ compels us to expand the circle of his love to include everyone. (p. 78)
I think that there should be nothing that does not lead us forward into a new sense of mission. But what happens in our churches? Do we feel a welcome such that we are nearly compelled to share this with others? Some may object that the call is not to the church, but if the church (building) is where the church (the body of Christ) meets, then should it not be inviting people to it as Jesus did? When Jesus Christ was here in the body, people flocked to him. He didn’t have to hunt for them because there was something there that they wanted.
We need that attractiveness and welcome in the church. Not the excitement of new glitzy programs, entertainment, and excitement, but the welcome that says that here is a place where the longing of my soul can be satisfied. Here there is not just a building but a community of people whose unity and love for one another is so special that I want to be a part of it, and that they welcome me to be a part of them.
I’ve met people who want to be prophets. Some have asked me to pray that God would call them as such. I always ask them if they are aware of the kind of life led by prophets in scripture. Is this what you really want? Similarly we need to ask ourselves about being the body of Christ. If our gatherings are Christ-centered, they will not be “me-centered.” If we are to be the body of Christ we must remember what happened to the body of Jesus, the Christ. Then, as we look to close our doors to those in need, even to our enemies, to those who hate and would kill us, we need to remember who it was that He gave his life for.
Christ-centered? We need it. We claim to want it. Do we want it enough?
One of my observations in talking to people about their churches and church programs is that they find the first moment when a book or program differs from their situation and take one of two approaches. First, they might discard the entire thing. This is fairly common. That won’t work for us. It doesn’t matter that what we’re doing isn’t working either. Second, they try to follow the program precisely, despite any differences, because if it worked for the expert who wrote the book, it has to work for them.
Neither of these is a strategy that is likely to succeed. Each person, community, church congregation, denomination (or jurisdiction within a denomination) is different. Each one will have different opportunities and perhaps a different call from God. I am passionately convinced that sharing the good news about Jesus with the world is our general calling. Whether that is going to involve a food pantry, classes, involvement in broader community outreach, collecting money for projects across the globe, or any one of a myriad of other possibilities, is wide open.
Especially in protestantism we tend to downplay tradition, but our church tradition has a role. The way you will carry out certain missions is going to depend on the history of the church congregation. We don’t all get her in the same way, and we’re not going to move forward in the same way. Dr. Ruth Fletcher, in her book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations devotes an entire chapter to choosing, to the necessity of discerning the right path and making and carrying out decisions.
The reason I wanted to emphasize this right now is that quite frequently we think we cannot benefit from something like “apostolic teaching” or “the Word of God” unless we absolutely agree on what it is and how we’re going to deal with it. But just amongst the books that I publish, we have Dr. David Alan Black, a Southern Baptist Greek teacher (and full-time missionary, he’d insist!) and Dr. Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor, seminary professor, and a process theologian who are both going back to the same place: Acts of the Apostles. Now I’ll tell you that if you read both of their books, something I urge you to do for reasons beyond the fact that I publish both, you’ll find quite a number of things they disagree on and quite a number of points of different emphasis. But in a church that is often drifting and dying while repeating the same behaviors that led it to its current malaise, that one similarity is enormous. Let’s look back at the early church. Let’s ask what made Christianity what it is. Perhaps there is something there that would help us.
Now one interpreter might be looking for a definitive, apostolic pattern to apply and follow. Another might be looking for a series of commands that one can carry out. Another might be reading the story and asking how are stories might relate. Yet certain things come out of such a study, and certain things result from going to the source.
I’m very protestant in ethos. I’m not at all interested in things like apostolic succession, in the sense of a series of people who had hands laid on them by a person who had hands laid on them leading back to the apostles. But I’m very interested in seeing what those early apostles did. I’m very interested in connecting my story to theirs. There is nothing about that process that is mechanical or that allows me to depend totally on someone else’s work.
Dave makes this point in the interview as he talks about us teaching one another. Why am I comparing what Dave has said with what two other authors have said? Is it so that I can sell more books? Of course I want to sell more books. I’m never going to lie to you and tell you I don’t care about selling books. But that’s not the key reason. I started publishing to do this. I wanted us to teach one another, to do on a broad scale what Dave is talking about in the local church (where I also want to see it done). I want is to help one another learn. I hope we find ourselves challenged.
There is nowhere that I want to see this more than in our use of the Bible. How is it that we can begin to see more of this individual Bible study in the church? And let me specify here by “individual” I mean “individual in community.” Let’s avoid two serious errors: 1) That Bible study is individual without any community control or involvement, and 2) That Bible study is a communal affair that can be handled by an expert passing out information. The reason I named a series I publish “participatory” in spite of the number of people who thought that word was too long, is that it is individuals participating in community who have the best possibility to find the message for themselves, their churches, and their communities.
Ruth Fletcher comments on this. Note how she doesn’t propose the same type of study for all types of churches.
Even though this is an age when people care more about what the church does than what it believes, transforming congregations know they must lessen the gap between people’s experience of God and the church’s teaching about God if the church is once again to become a reliable source of wisdom. Beliefs matter. Transforming congregations that are creedal churches help individuals discover a deeper truth in the words they recite; those that are non-creedal churches create safe space where individuals can work out their own guiding beliefs. They create space within their own tradition where people have the freedom to honestly express doubts, to say what they do not believe, to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers, and to wonder about the mysteries of the universe. (Thrive, p. 91)
Bruce Epperly has a similar idea:
The first followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They were a church whose spirituality was truly holistic. They prayed and they studied, and discovered study was a form of prayer. We need thinking Christians, who take theological reflection seriously, who ask serious questions, and challenge unhealthy and superficial images of God and human experience. (Transforming Acts, p. 48)
If you think the various visions are distant from one another consider this: What would happen to the church in America if we were to focus on studying the early church looking for insight into how to be a church following Jesus in the world today? I think that a number of wonderful things might happen despite how we decided to approach the question and the hermeneutical principles we took to the effort. Do I want us to debate such hermeneutical principles? Absolutely! The do make a difference. I think one of the greatest things we can do is to consider and discuss that issue seriously. But if we started at that point, we’d already be devoting ourselves, in our own limited ways, to the apostles’ teaching. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
The section on this mark in the video begins about 15:30. I’m not setting the video to the starting point, as I suspect most who are willing to invest time in the video will watch it as a whole once.
The second mark of a New Testament church according to Dr. David Alan Black is Christian baptism. He explains why he explicitly uses the term “Christian” with baptism. There’s a distinction there that’s important and Dave discusses it. Here’s the video. The discussion of Christian baptism begins at about 08:45.
There are several things that Dave says about baptism that I fully agree with. He believes in baptism by immersion of believers, i.e., people who make the choice to be baptized. He also believes baptism should immediately (or very closely) follow the decision. I also, however, believe that this is an area on which there should be a great deal of tolerance for differences.
For example, I attend a United Methodist congregation. The norm is to baptize infants and then confirm them as youth. I grew up in a church (Seventh-day Adventist) where one dedicated children as infants and then baptized them when they made their own decision. I made my decision to be baptized at age 9.
While I strongly prefer one option, and many of my reasons are the same as Dave’s, I am quite able to be a member of a church where the practice is different. I would note that the United Methodist Discipline does allow for baptism by immersion, so a United Methodist pastor can practice believer’s baptism by immersion. He or she could not, however, refuse to perform infant baptisms, at least as I understand it. I know that some Methodist pastors are quite dogmatic on the point. My preference would be to see a quite open choice. For example, if a family prefers some kind of baby dedication, where is the problem? Again, I also know a number of Methodist pastors who would go along with that.
I’m going to refrain from arguing the biblical material on this. I think Dave has gone over that quite well, and in this case I am substantially in agreement.
Let me bring in short quotes from our other two authors.
Ruth Fletcher brings in a completely different issue that may cause some concern to United Methodist readers, or those from any other church that has a fairly high view of sacraments. I’m quoting from Thrive, page 141:
As the church finds its way into the future, the role of clergy will shift even more than it already has. Although some ministers will preach and lead worship, many will give their time to training lay people as worship leaders and small group facilitators. Although some will offer pastoral care, that care will extend beyond the members of the church into the neighborhood. Although some will teach, that teaching will focus on equipping individuals to serve in various roles both inside and outside the church. The sacramental tasks of baptizing, leading in communion, presiding at weddings and funerals increasingly will be shared with people beyond those who are ordained.
Here I would have to say two things. First, I personally don’t see that baptism should require an ordained person. Second, as a member of a community that requires that an ordained person carry out any baptism, I will not put my first belief into practice. That is a matter of submission to the community. While I would forcefully argue for and even insist on using the community’s permission with regards to the method and time of baptism, I would also argue that where my community has a firm position, I should, as a member, live in accordance with that rule. Nevertheless I do believe that every member should be in ministry, and that ordination should not be reserved for one gift or set of gifts but should be for all. We should lay hands on and commission every member to minister using their gifts.
Let me continue with a slightly longer quote from Bruce Epperly in Transforming Acts (p. 85):
Such dramatic experiences – whether evangelical or mystical in nature – are not normative for all Christians. Some of us are born Christian. As cradle Christians, we are dedicated or baptized as infants, and then grow in grace not by drama but through a gentle, day to day walk with God. Nevertheless, most of us eventually face moments in which we have to say “no” to one way of life – or certain behaviors or lifestyles – to say “yes” to another.
Providence is both gentle and dramatic. We can experience God, while we are playing with our children and looking across the table at a beloved spouse or friend; we may also discover God in the storms of life, helpless yet saved by a power beyond ourselves.
Third, Paul’s Damascus road experience invites us to connect our spiritual experiences, whether at worship, at camp, or on the road, with discovering our vocation and mission in life. Paul is clear that his mystical experience was not an end in itself, but an invitation to a new self-understanding and vocation as God’s messenger to the Gentile world.
Bruce is talking about the dramatic conversion experience of Paul, which relates in some ways to baptism. Numerous times I’ve encountered people who do not remember a time when they did not know Jesus. They don’t recall a particular decision moment, because they were believers from as early as they can remember. In some ways, my own view of baptism as a thing to be chosen by believers relates to my own experience. I grew up in a Christian home, but I distinctly remember the time when that belief became mine rather than someone else’s. It was no longer my parents’ faith. It was mine. That was at my baptism.