Tuesday, April 28, 2009

1.3 The Incarnated Church

This is the third and final second section of Chapter 1: "The Myth of the Ideal Church."

Past posts include:

1.1 The Good Old Days
1.2 The "Platonic" Church

Now for part three, 1.3 The Incarnated Church:

Some might object to using the word incarnated for anything but Jesus Christ. The incarnation of course refers to Jesus becoming "in flesh" and comes from John 1:14, where the Word of God becomes flesh and builds its tent among us in the person of Jesus. Certainly this incarnation is the real deal, the one that really counts! When we use the word here, we do not in any way mean to equate or substitute any other sense of "incarnation" for the true Word made flesh.

There is also a danger in using the word in the way I am about to use it. When we say that the Bible is "incarnated" revelation or that the Baptist church across the street is an "incarnated" church, we run the very risk of giving off exactly the kind of Platonic vibes I warned about in the previous section. We might easily fall back into the old habit of thinking our goal is to make our local church an incarnated version of the ideal, pure church of the New Testament, where the fleshly clothing is irrelevant and what counts is the pure, invisible church inside.

Nevertheless, despite these dangers, I can't think of a better way to conceptualize the idea that each local church, not to mention each denomination and stream of Christian tradition, is an embodied member of the family of God that we call the Church. Each has its own body. Each has its own personality. Our goal should not be to make them all look the same, like some boiled down, generic Christian product. They would not have the strengths they have if they were all a clone of some fictional, proto-church.

Christian groups, like the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, are like the parts of a body. Some are the eyes, some are the ears, some are the feet. And although I'm not sure exactly which denomination might fall into the category of "unpresentable parts" (1 Cor. 12:23), I'm sure there are a few unpresentable members of the Church in every church. The bottom line is that while we tend to think of the diversity of Christendom as a weakness, we can make a good argument that it is at least potentially a great strength.

Reformed churches really get the kingship of God. Arminian churches really get God's love for everyone. Charismatic churches really get the idea of God's power to heal and to change lives today. Orthodox churches really get the mystery of a God who is beyond human understanding. If we tried to boil down all of these churches into one basic set of beliefs and practices, the Church as a whole would be impoverished, just as if all of our children looked exactly the same and had exactly the same personalities. If all churches were generic clones of each other, Christendom would arguably be blander, not more vibrant.

Ironically, the early church was also a somewhat diverse church, probably far more than we usually imagine. It is not bad that we tend to read the New Testament as an integrated text with a single perspective and picture. Indeed, perhaps we are supposed to read it in this way as a text. However, it seems doubtful that the early church looked so monolithic historically. When we look at the early church in this way, we are probably flattening out the rolling landscape of the early church.

Hiding beneath the surface--and sometimes staring at us from the surface--are hints and indications of tensions among various groups in the early church. It too was full of incarnated churches who disagreed on various things and were finding their way with the Holy Spirit's help through a whole set of new issues brought on by the resurrection of Jesus and the commencement of the last days. There may actually be greater unity in the beliefs and practices of the catholic tradition than there was in the early church. Indeed, this diversity in the New Testament helps explain why the Protestant claim to base belief and practice on the Bible "alone" has resulted in tens of thousands of differing denominations.

A great place to start looking at this diversity is Galatians 2. [1] In this chapter, Paul recounts how he consulted privately with Peter, James and John about his mission to non-Jews, the Gentiles. Paul and his fellow missionary, Barnabas, were not requiring Gentile converts to become circumcised or become Jews. He believed they could escape God's coming wrathful judgment without becoming a Jew, and he brought along an uncircumcised young man named Titus as an example.

With two thousand years behind us, it is easy to miss not only how controversial this question must have been at the time. It is also all too easy for us to overplay the agreement between Paul and James. For example, we all too easily miss what Paul means when he says Titus "was not forced" to be circumcised (2:3). The clear implication is that James and Peter would have preferred that Titus become circumcised, even though they allowed as a concession that it was not absolutely necessary.

It is also noticeable--and probably typical--that Acts chooses not to tell us about the subsequent blow up between Paul and Peter at Antioch, where Paul so much as calls Peter a hypocrite for not eating with Gentile believers simply because they are Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-14). A careful comparison of Acts with Paul's writings repeatedly gives us the impression that Acts softens such conflicts consistently, especially between Christians and various governmental bodies. For example, Paul himself tells us that a representative of King Aretas, a secular authority, was waiting to arrest Paul (2 Cor. 11:32). Acts only tells us "the Jews" were, a quite different enemy altogether (Acts 9:23).

It is thus unlikely that in Acts we are seeing anything like a videotape of the early church. Indeed, if we had second volumes to Matthew, Mark, and John, they would likely differ as much from Acts as its first volume, Luke, differs from them. We are not in any way finding fault with Acts for the fact that it is artful in its presentation and that it means to portray the early church in a particular way. We rather find fault with those who insist the book of Acts to conform to our standards and expectations. [2]

On the one hand, therefore, we are correct to see the church of Acts as an ideal church. But it is 1) an ideal church in the first century and even then it is 2) only one such ideal church. It does not straightforwardly present us with an ideal church for the twenty-first century. For example, it is unclear that it is ideal for every church in every time and place to advocate its members sell their excess possessions and redistribute them, as in Acts 2:44-45. It is not immediately obvious that the economic practices of an agrarian community that believed itself to be living in the days immediately preceding Messiah Jesus' return would apply directly to a quite different community accustomed to two thousand years of growing old and dying after seeing grandchildren and great grandchildren grow up and grow old themselves.

And even in the first century Acts does not present us with the only ideal church even in its day. It does not, for example, give us Paul's ideal church even back then. We find enough theological differences between Paul and Acts to recognize that Acts is not giving us the ideal church even for its own time. For example, Paul never mentions the letter James sends out to the Gentiles in Acts 15:22-29. Clearly Acts understands this letter to provide the final, unified answer for the church on the matter of requirements for Gentiles. [3] But when the issue of meat sacrificed to idols actually came up at Corinth, Paul never mentions this letter, even though it was a perfect opportunity to give "the ideal" guidelines on the subject.

But Paul never mentions it. Indeed, the "don't ask where the meat came from" policy he sets down (1 Cor. 10:23-30) contradicts James' seeming insistence that a Jew make sure he or she does not inadvertantly eat such meat. Paul apparently continued to disagree with Peter and James on issues of purity just as he did at Antioch in Galatians 2:11-14, long after the "Jerusalem Council" of Acts 15. [4] Given Paul's general style, he would have surely told us if he convinced Peter of his position after calling him out in front of the whole church.

But Paul says nothing of the sort in Galatians and gives us no indication that he ever came to agree with its "ideal" policy. He even indicates that Barnabas took the other side in the debate (Gal. 2:13). It is thus no surprise to find Paul and Barnabas going their separate ways in Acts 15:36-41. Predictably, Acts does not tell about the blow up at Antioch. It only tells us that Paul and Barnabas disagreed about whether John Mark should accompany them. But the coincidence of timing seems too great not to be related. Clear differences continued to exist between the theology and practice of Paul and the core apostles, including on the issue of whether "works of law" played a role in God's acceptance of Jewish Christians. [5]

We not only have a tendency to downplay the differences between Paul's theology and that of the Jerusalem leaders. We also have a tendency to paint Paul's opponents as non-Christians. Paul of course contributes to this tendency by calling them "false brothers" himself (e.g., Gal. 2:4). But Acts seems to disagree with Paul on whether they were "in" or not. Acts calls them "certain from the sect of the Pharisees who had believed" and gives no indication that they were anything but true believers (15:5). [6] Indeed, Acts feels perfectly comfortable with Paul calling himself a Pharisee in the present tense near the end of his ministry (23:6). When James takes Paul aside in Acts 21, James considers these zealots for the Jewish Law to be Christians (21:20), even though they clearly have a much different understanding of the role of the Jewish Law in the life of a believer than Paul did.

This group of Christians thus did not disappear after the Jerusalem Council. We find Paul likely referring to them in Philippians 3 as the "mutilators of the flesh" (3:2). We would follow perhaps the majority of scholars who believe Galatians still addresses this group within the church some time after the Jerusalem Council (e.g., 5:10). Indeed, we would argue that the strong tendency for many evangelical scholars to argue for an early date for Galatians flows in part from the drive to tidy up the diversity of the early church and, indeed, the New Testament itself. Rather, a diversity of opinion on various key issues continued throughout Paul's ministry and beyond. As late as 2 Corinthians 10-13 and Romans we still see Paul dealing with Christian groups that oppose Paul's understanding of the gospel.

So even in this small cadre of texts we find at least three distinct perspectives that in our century might easily be three different denominations. First there is Paul who puts no priority on the Jewish works of law that were the stuff of inter-Jewish debate. [7] Then there are Christian leaders like James, Peter, and to some extent even Barnabas. They agree with Paul that a person does not need to be circumcised to be accepted by God, even though they think it preferable. They thus diagree with another group of Christian Jews who believe Gentiles cannot be sure of salvation unless they become circumcised.

But even if James and Peter agreed with Paul on the Gentiles not being forced into circumcision, they disagreed on what was appropriate for Jewish believers. For them Jews were still fully obligated to keep the particulars of the Jewish Law. Like the author of Acts, they insisted Jews remain in obedience to the Law (Acts 21:24). They did not agree with Paul's sentiment that "to those under the Law I became as those under the Law (though I am not under the Law), that I might win those under the Law" (1 Cor. 9:20). They are perhaps best represented in the New Testament by the Gospel of Matthew (e.g., Matt. 5:19) and the letter of James.

Yet Paul was not the most "liberal" of the early Christians. It is quite possible that some of the teaching he struggles with in the Corinthian church actually came from Apollos. Did Apollos tell some of the Corinthians that it was okay to eat at a pagan temple because "an idol is nothing in the world" (1 Cor. 8:4)? Certainly someone in the Corinthian church thought that this fact made it permissible to eat at such a table if you truly had faith that "there is no God but one" (1 Cor. 8:4). And Paul does not contradict them completely. He only suggests that to eat at a pagan temple was to eat at the "table of demons" (1 Cor. 10:20-21) and thus was not recommendable.

This segment of the early church does not have a clear voice in the New Testament, unless it would be in the sermon we call Hebrews. Perhaps it found expression in the Gnostic Christianity that would develop in the late first and early second century. The other trajectories also continued. Conservative Jewish Christianity would perhaps continue as the Ebionites and Nazarenes of the second century. Meanwhile, the "catholic" Christianity of Clement of Rome and Ignatius seems somewhat of a mixture of Pauline and Petrine Christianity. History, and presumably the Holy Spirit, would eventually declare this last "denomination" in the early church the one God endorsed for the long haul until Christ's return.

The point of this entire discussion is to show that the early church involved distinct pockets of belief and practice just like the church today. It was a collection of embodied churches, incarnated churches. It did not have everything figured out. The impulse to read Acts as a straightforward picture of the ideal church both ignores the diversity of the New Testament church as it really was and forgets that Acts itself was written for an incarnated church of its own time. It is a very important portrait for the church today for us to engage as Scripture with our eyes wide open. But it is not the only such portrait in the New Testament, and it is an ancient portrait that we must of necessity connect with care to our world in our context with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The chapters that follow try to do exactly that. We consider the diversity of practice in the Church today and connect it to the practice of the early church. But we do not do so with the absolute assumption that we must correct current practice and bring it back into line. God has allowed this diversity to arise. And for Protestants, for whom the drive to "get back" to the early church is strongest, it is important to realize that we are the ones responsible for the current diversity in the first place. The practice of the Church universal was largely the same throughout the world until we came along with our pretenses to get back to the Bible. Our efforts to get back have not come anywhere close to what we thought they would. They have fragmented the Church, rather than giving us a uniform understanding of what Church belief and practice should be.

We are thus arguing in this book for a "generous ecclesiology," one that recognizes that none of us are strictly ordering ourselves according to the practices of the early church and that we should not condemn each other for our differences in these areas. We should not try to follow the early church in every respect since we live in a different time and place. And even the early church itself differed in various key respects.

There should rather be a strong family resemblance between us and the early church, as well as between churches today. We will not all look the same for we are all particular churches, and none of us are the universal or ideal church. None of us can be since such a Platonic ideal does not exist. There are only specific churches living out the gospel under the power of the Spirit in specific times and places. When we recognize that the universal, "invisible" Church must always be a visible, incarnated church, we will be more generous toward Christian groups whose beliefs and practices differ somewhat from ours. And we will not mistake our group for the true Church or for the kingdom of God come to earth.

[1] The four perspectives I lay out in the paragraphs that follow are very similar to those set out by Raymond Brown and John Meier in their, Antioch and Rome: Cradles of Catholic Christianity (Paulist).

[2] A number of comparisons between Luke and the other gospels, as well as between Acts and Paul's writings, make Luke's artistry clear. A good place to start is to compare Luke 24 with Acts 1, where you get two quite different impressions of the time after the resurrection. If all we had were Luke 24, we might very well think that Jesus arose and ascended to heaven on the same day. But in Acts 1 we are looking at a forty day period. We find a similarly striking contrast when we compare Luke 4:14-37 with its likely parallel in Mark 6:1-6. Given these examples, it is very easy to see Acts 15 as Luke's artful presentation of the same basic events in Galatians 2.

[3] We can tell Acts considers it programmatic by the way James brings the list of requirements for Gentiles back up again in Acts 21:25.

[4] Although it is difficult to say, perhaps most New Testament scholars would equate the meeting Paul depicts between him and Peter, James, and John with the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. If so, Acts 15 would once again reflect the kind of artistry with which the book of Acts presents complex sequences of events in simplified and somewhat idealized ways.

[5] It is important to recognize that Paul's detractors both real and imaginary in Galatians, Romans, and 2 Corinthians 10-13 were all Christian Jews, not non-believing Jews. I believe the same is true of those he speaks about in Philippians 3. These disagreements over how to be justified, found acceptable to God, were "in house" disagreements among Christians.

[6] And Acts 8:9-24 shows that a person could even be baptized and not be a true Christian.

[7] There is significant disagreement among scholars as to the precise meaning of "works of law." Suffice it to say, the kinds of works Paul has in mind in Galatians are very likely the things he talks about in the letter, things like circumcision (5:2) and sabbath observance (4:10).


Bill said...

Great post, Ken. Definitely a few sentences I'd edit. But overall, fantastic. Thanks very much.

"Artistry" is a great term. Is that yours? I do think Luke simplifies and cleans things up, but I'd say "idealizes" is too strong.

I generally agree with you about "back to the bible" often being a pretense. That said, there are indeed *elements* of NT practice that are too often totally absent from mainline xianity today. The spirit of those elements may be more essential than we can tell (for the lack of having much experience).

As you know, my main beef is what Jon Huss died for, the *practical* priesthood of all believers. But Luther said he didn't have a mature enough flock for it. Full disclosure: what tortures me is wondering whether Luther was right. Ah, what to do?

With passionate interest in the topic, therefore, thanks again for this series so far. :)

Ken Schenck said...

Artistry is my word, Bill. It is my way of affirming the beauty and elegance of Luke's presentation without either tying it to precise historicity or seeming to denigrate it. I absolutely love Luke-Acts. It is a brilliant instance of inspired apologetic history.