Developing a Biblical Ecclesiology
One thing you will notice, I think, in countries in which Christianity has been present for at least three generations is the development of traditionalism and formula thinking. The first generation of Christians is aflame for Christ and zealous for evangelism and good works. The second generation is somewhat less zealous, and the third is even less so. There are two reasons, I believe, for this retrogressive pattern. First, creedalism becomes a substitute for living faith; and secondly, the Scriptures are no longer mined for truth as they once were. Of course, not every evangelical movement has demonstrated this pattern, but many have.
There is, I think, a biblical solution to the problem, and that is for each generation of Christians to return to the pure milk of the Scriptures and indeed to the living Christ Himself, who leads His church through His Word and His Spirit. The question is not, “And I a good churchman?” but “Am I following Jesus, His words and His ways?” Life-service must replace mere lip-service. We must move from decision-making to discipleship. In particular, I think we must go back to the roots of our faith, namely the teachings of Jesus and His apostles. To do so, however, may require us to throw off the yoke of ecclesiastical tradition and its suffocating institutionalism.
I recall studying the life of Ulrich Zwingli, the great reformer of Zurich, when I lived in Basel in the 1980s. He and his followers were ardent admirers of the humanist scholar Erasmus, and they eagerly read and studied the document Erasmus had made available to the entire scholarly world in 1516 – the New Testament in its original Greek. Unlike Zwingli, however, his Anabaptist disciples were willing to take the words of the New Testament more literally than their leader. These erstwhile adherents of Zwingli cared little for the traditions of men, be they Catholic or Protestant, unless these traditions squared with the revealed mind of God.
As they studied the Scriptures, they began to press for a return to the clear biblical witness to a believers’ church. They were strongly persecuted for it. How dare they question this new and infallible institution? Their reply was that Zwingli had erred by refusing to reject tradition as consistently as he should have. The Anabaptists, simply by reading the Scriptures for themselves, came to oppose any sort of clericalism and institutionalism. Primitive Christianity, they argued, knew no such thing. They held up the New Testament and the book of Acts especially as models of church life. They abolished the clergy-laity division, and church leaders were no longer considered a separate class of professionals. Local church autonomy was everywhere introduced, as opposed to denominationalism. They began to call themselves “brothers and sisters” in keeping with the Lord’s injunction in Matt. 23:8. Moreover, they were deeply committed to missions. For them the church was not a country club but a serving and witnessing community. For all this, they died by the thousands as martyrs, persecuted to the death by the ecclesiastical authorities whose biblical fidelity they had dared to question.
The solution, then, to the problem of ecclesiastical retrogression might well be found in a renewal of Anabaptist theology, especially its insistence that tradition must always bow to the Word of God as apprehended through the Holy Spirit. I believe this is a key issue facing modern Christians, so much so that it has become a central tenet in my teaching in countries in which evangelical Christianity is a fairly recent development (e.g., Ukraine, Romania, S. Korea, Ethiopia, China, etc.). In these places a soggy acculturation to the spirit of the times is threatening to replace the vibrant faith of the first generation of believers. I’m afraid that without a conscious effort to model our beliefs and actions after the New Testament, the underlying malaise will not soon go away.
For this reason, Bethel Hill Baptist Church in Roxboro, NC (my home congregation), is pleased to sponsor a seminar on the church to be held Saturday, March 21, 2009. The speaker will be Alan Knox, editor of The Assembling of the Church and an elder at Messiah Baptist Church in Wake Forest, NC. Alan will speak on the subject, “Developing a Biblical Ecclesiology,” and all are invited to attend this free event. It begins at 8:30 am with breakfast and concludes at 12:30 after a panel discussion and a time of Q & A. Look for additional announcements here and at Alan’s website.
I look forward to seeing you on March 21st.
January 15, 2009
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.