Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Modeling after the New Testament Church? 3

... continued from Saturday
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This entire line of questioning brings up a very important question. To what extent are the biblical narratives description and to what extent are they prescription?  Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, in their well known book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, suggest that stories in the Bible do not tell us how to act unless we can show somehow that their authors intended us to take them that way. [1]  For them, our default sense should be that the biblical stories are simply telling us what happened, not that we should act the same way.

On the one hand, you can see the common sense of what Fee and Stuart are saying.  If the purpose of Luke-Acts is simply to tell us how things happened, then the story does not make any claims about whether things should have happened that way or not.  Just because Judas betrayed Jesus doesn't mean that we should.

This is a very important point because there is a kind of false but very common intuition in the church today that our goal should be to do everything the way the New Testament church did.  If they had deacons then we should have deacons.  If they ran churches by a board of elders then we should.  If they didn't eat with Christians who were doing immoral things then we shouldn't.

The problems with this approach go well beyond the fact that description is not prescription. There is of course the point Fee and Stuart are making.  Just because the stories of the New Testament describe the church acting a certain way doesn't in itself mean that we are being instructed to act that way. They cast lots to chose the highest leadership of that moment.  Should we do that at our top church conferences--identify two or three final candidates and then roll the dice?  They sold all their extra possessions and redistributed the resources to those in need?  Should we do that as well today?

Maybe we should.  As we'll see at the end of this chapter, there are often are good reasons to think that biblical story tellers meant for us to imitate certain characters and actions in the story and avoid others.  Nevertheless, Fee and Stuart's basic point seems valid.  We have to be discerning in which parts of the story are models and which parts are simply the story.

However, there is a more significant reason why we should not just blindly imitate the New Testament church when it comes to the how they did things.  Even though the Bible is for us, it was not originally written to us.  The way the early church structured its leadership, as well as the way they did many other things, had to do with certain underlying goals and principles. But the specifics of how they accomplished those goals and principles had everything to do with the historical and cultural context in which they were playing them out.

Anyone who has spent any time in another culture knows that while the underlying principles are the same, the "how" to accomplish them often differs widely.  In that sense, doing today exactly what they did in the early church may not get to the goal at all. Does men greeting one another with a kiss in church today accomplish the same goal as it did in the early church? Does subordinating wives to husbands have the same connotation today as it had in the early church?

In the end, it is foolish to think that we should structure churches or manage our money with the same specifics as the early church or ancient Israel did.  Unless we live in the third world, most of us live in a dramatically different cultural context than they did. Doing the specifics of what they did doesn't accomplish the same purpose as what they did if those specifics do not do the same thing today. We might actually end up working at cross-purposes to the biblical purposes!

A great example of this principle is the Jewish practice of not eating meat and cheese at the same meal. They take this practice from Exodus 23:19, which says not to cook a young goat in its mother's milk. We do not know for sure why the Law prohibits this. Perhaps it had something to do with the Canaanite religion that surrounded ancient Israel. What is certain is that it had nothing to do with eating meat and cheese on the same plate.

So Jews continue to do something today that almost certainly has nothing to do with the purpose of the practice in the Bible. When Christians try to apply aspects of the Bible today that had everything to do with their ancient context, they end up looking just as foolish, perhaps even immoral at times. Those who used the Bible to argue against abolishing slavery in the early 1800s were of this sort, as we can see clearly today in hindsight.  Today, those who insist a husband must be the head of the wife may very well being doing the same.

You are welcome to meet in house churches if you want or only use the kinds of instruments that existed in the first century.  Women can cover their heads with a veil.  But these actions don't have the same meaning today that they had back then.  Such practices come off as awkward at best and work at cross-purposes to the gospel at worse...

[1] How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 118-19.

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