October 29, 2020

Walls That Won’t Fall: Basics For the Local Church

watford_church.jpgIn April of last year, a well known Reformed Baptist-apologist-debater-cruise promoter announced to the world that I was “emergent.” The word was often repeated about me and the Boar’s Head Tavern fellows in general. Rumors must spread fast, because a few weeks ago an emailer in New Zealand quite familiar with the emergent church movement said that my name was frequently mentioned as a promoter of “emergent” Christianity.


I find this fascinating for a number of reasons. First, I have little or no idea what it means to be emergent. Second, I have never been to an emergent church. Third, I have no desire to promote this thing I do not understand and have never experienced. Fourth, and most importantly, I think my views on the church would raise considerable horror among some (many?) in the circles of current ecclesiastical innovators, as my positions on “What is a real church?” put me safely in the paleo-conservative classification.

How I became emergent is a matter under investigation. I suspect the most significant turn of events will turn out to be something like saying Brian Mclaren’s Jesus Creed appeals to me. The truth is (sorry Mr. Apologist-Cruise Promoter) that I have far more in common with Jerry Falwell than Rob Bell.

But the time has come to clear the air. I’m not emergent. Don’t look for me at any emergent conventions. I’d love to learn more about the various expressions of Christianity that go under the label of the emerging church. I hope to visit some worship services and non-traditional churches in the near future, and I’ll give my readers a full report. Until then, however, you could count me among the most conservative of church traditionalists, at least as far as the basics are concerned.

I have no desire to defend tradition for tradition’s sake, but it seems to me some of the things we’ve taken as part of the normal course of what it means to be church have been there all along because, well….they should have been there. They were biblical all along, and we didn’t need to reinvent anything. We may have needed to rediscover some of the basic of our church traditions. In my own Baptist, congregational tradition, that is a particular way of being church that still seems, to me, to be on target with what scripture teaches.

I think I can shake clear of my emergent reputation, at least with those who aren’t trying to find a convenient target for their next internet radio rant. Just let me talk about the church for a few moments, and I’ll be thrown out of most of the Bible studies at Starbucks and welcomed at an independent Baptist church near you.

There is much confusion today about just what the church is. What characterizes the church? Are churches necessary? Is there such a thing as church membership? Shouldn’t churches be free associations and not formal organizations? How important is the church to the individual Christian? These are some of the questions I want to examine.

(My own cursory research into the the ec indicates that it exists across a broad spectrum of denominational types, so I’m sure that there are emerging churches that will agree and disagree with everything that is going to follow.)

Let’s start with Jesus. Did he plan to “found” a church? Or is the church a thoroughly human movement that can only be associated with Jesus post facto?

This question depends largely on how we read the New Testament itself. I have no problem saying the church produced the New Testament (though God inspired it), and I have no problem seeing the implications for what the New Testament may or may not imply about Jesus and the church in those passages where Jesus actually uses the term. For instance, Matthew 16:18 or Matthew 18:17 do not settle, for some scholars, the question of Jesus’ own attitude toward the church, because the church would have been able to place whatever words it wanted into the mouth of Jesus. I accept these sayings as genuine, but for arguments sake, let’s assume they could be questionable in authenticity. Does this mean that the church was not Jesus’ project?

A closer look will reveal that is not the case. It is undeniable that Jesus called 12 apostles and spent three years showing them his version of a true Israel. That vision is nothing less than a historical movement that imitated Jesus’ and remembered Jesus. The Gospels make it repeatedly clear that Jesus had an intensive teaching agenda for the apostles, one that went into far more detail than his teaching for the common people. Why did he explain everything to the twelve? Is there any doubt that it was for the purpose of leadership in the movement he was starting?

The Gospels tell us that Jesus took the apostles to Jerusalem, took them through the passion, crucifixion and resurrection, and then taught them the place of his mission in God’s entire plan of redemption. The church was born out of an experience of resurrection witnessed by the apostles and an intense period of involvement with Jesus following the resurrection, and all of this is tied to the continuance of the “Jesus movement” into history and all the world. It is in this experience, apparently, that everything comes together for the apostles for their own understanding of the church. They understand the significance of Jesus’ continuing “ekklesia” in the aftermath of the resurrection experiences.

What do they do following the resurrection? They remain together, even though on at least one occasion, some were prepared to return home to the old life. Instead, they begin doing the very same things Jesus did during his ministry, but now in a movement that is oriented toward the Gospel of a God revealed in and through Jesus, and organized in a way that it will continue to represent Jesus in history. They testify that the power of Jesus himself continues in this movement. And at the center of this movement is something distinct from the synagogue and distinct from the temple. Look carefully, and ask if these things are matters that could have come into existence among Jewish believers in Jesus as messiah IF Jesus didn’t intentionally begin these things with such a movement as the church specifically in mind?

Acts 2:41-47 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the apostolic teaching: these all originated with Jesus, and were put into the hands of the apostles in order to form an intentional movement; a visible church identified with Jesus in culture and history. They are the building blocks of the church, and they do not exist meaningfully in a freestyle, individualized “relationship with Jesus.”

Explanations of the origins of the church that assume Jesus himself had no intentions of founding a church are simply implausible.

I start out here to make a very basic point: Jesus followers who wish to eliminate, reinterpret or reduce the church face the problem that nothing in the New Testament is on their side. Seeing Jesus as the guru of individual Christians, or the church as some kind of accidental fan club that institutionalized a spontaneous spiritual experience, simply cannot be done without doing radical surgery on Jesus himself. A church-less Christianity requires such an edited, reworked Jesus, that the New Testament could no longer be read with any kind of integrity. This needs to be faced squarely and honestly.

I conclude that Jesus, from the outset, intended to found a continuing movement, and that movement is the church as we see and experience it, imperfectly and often far removed from Jesus, in history.

Now, we must move to two other necessary fronts: The universal/local aspect of the church, and the church’s possible disqualifying failure to represent Jesus.

The New Testament tells us that Jesus is…”the head of the body, the church.” (Colossians 1:18) Many similar references make it clear that the church is a single body, embracing all those who are “in Christ.” This universal church extends across all times and places, and is not identical with any congregation.

In this sense, all Christians are part of “the church” of which Jesus Christ is the head. This provides justification for many to say that further narrowing of the church to local, visible congregations is unwarranted and unneeded, as Christ has his church, knows his church and will not fail to bring his church to completion in the Kingdom.

The problem here is that the same New Testament speaks about local, visible gatherings as “the church” as well. Here I Corinthians is the key book.

The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. (1Corinthians 16:19)

This passage most certainly is not talking about a universal church, but about churches small enough to meet in homes.

1Corinthians 11:18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part

Paul here describes the church as something that “comes together” in a particular time and place. (This may be a large gathering of the smaller house units, perhaps for communion or for teaching.)

In Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus addresses the “church” in seven cities in Asia Minor.

Rev 1:11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

Just a few chapters later, there is little disagreement that John sees the universal church.

Rev 7:9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands…Rev 7:14-17 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (15) “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. (16) They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. (17) For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

These examples just touch on the undeniable conclusion that the universal church is normally expressed in local, visible gatherings of Christians. There is no Biblical case for a universal church that ignores or optionally by-passes the local church. While they are not identical, they “overlap” in ways that cannot be separated in normal Christian experience.

This is not to say that Christians do not exist outside local churches. They do. It is not to say that only those in local churches are saved. That would never be the case. It is not to say that the visible church is always properly related to Christ. Clearly, it is not.

Which brings me to the second point: In Revelation 2 and 3 we see that the church in history is a mixed bag. Sometime following Christ, sometimes tolerating Jezebel, the church lives with it’s savior and judge standing in its midst. Sometimes it is faithful and reflects Christ truly and beautifully. At other times, the church has removed itself from Christ and is a collaborator with evil, sin and heresy.

The church in the New Testament already shows us that there will be no perfect earthly congregation. Only when the “great tribulation” is past will the church be cleansed of its own sins. It is around the throne that we see the church triumphant. In the meantime, those who belong to Christ are never told that the faithlessness and disobedience of the church ends the movement that Jesus started and creates freelance Christianity. We are to stand apart from the sins of the church, and semper reformanda is always the calling of the church in history.

So where are we? I believe the church- the local, visible congregation- was the intentional creation of Jesus. He shaped his apostles and followers into a movement that would continue within the boundaries of baptism, the Lord’s supper and his teaching, teaching which I believe included specific instructions about the Christian movement in congregational form. Rooted in both synagogue and temple, Jesus himself transformed the meaning of the worship and symbols of Israel, now making it possible for the church itself to replace and supercede those Jewish expressions of faith with something universal, centered around himself.

The implications for me are simple: One cannot practice normal, healthy New Testament Christianity, in any kind of whole sense, apart from a visible, local congregation of Christian believers.

Now I want to characterize these gathered congregations. Is any and every assembly of Christians a “church?” What are the necessary components of a local congregation in order for it to be reasonable identified as a church?

I work for a Christian school that exists as an intentional group of believers on a mission that is directly derived from our faith in Jesus. I do not believe we are a church. We participate in the church universal in many ways. We experience local fellowship and “congregational” life at times, but we are not a church.

Martin Luther said that a church existed where 1) the gospel was rightly preached and 2) the sacraments were rightly administered. Luther was saying that the church exists where there is an intentional, congregational, gathered effort to confess beliefs and define boundaries in relation to Jesus and the Gospel.

I believe this is a good way to characterize the church, and it has led me to look for four “C’s” that should characterize all gatherings of believers that seek to be “ecclesia” in the name of Jesus.

CREED: Churches should say with the church of all times and places, “This is what we all believe in common.” Certainly, at minimum, this should include the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed.

The common creedal heritage of the church is an incredible gift. “We believe” is a powerful historical expression of the continual presence and power of Jesus. Tied to the sacraments, the Creeds represent a direct contact with the very things Jesus did, taught and passed on.

It is tragic and baffling to say that thousands and thousands of Christians exist in local churches where there is no affirmation of the great common apostolic teaching on which the church is built. Growing up in Southern Baptist fundamentalism and revivalism, these creeds were neglected, ignored or demeaned as Roman Catholic errors.

If local churches do nothing else, let them say these creeds together!

CONFESSION: Within the historical evolution and development of the church, confessions have framed what Christians believed was the Christian drama of redemption. These confessions are of different kinds, differing forms and varying degrees of comprehensiveness. Some are revered as unalterable. Others are simple, flexible and general. Some confessions are imposed by denominations, while others are written by local churches.

What matters is that a local church take seriously the New Testament call to have a specific faith to confess. The pastoral letters constantly refer to the doctrine that is to be taught, passed on, and preached. True and false teachers are held to a standard. Pastors are to pass on a body of teaching. Many of today’s individualists want to ignore the New Testament’s strong emphasis on confessionalism, but there is no ignoring it. Congregations have a faith to confess.

Of course, churches differ on many things in that body of confessional truth. The tragic loss of Christian unity is a sign that the church is never complete or perfect. But we should also recognize that in the diverse confessions of hundreds of traditions, much of the truth is retained, honored and defended. I believe there is always hope for the church when any group of believers can read the scriptures and affirm a confession of their faith in Jesus.

At the same time, we ought to deplore a “hyper-confessionalism” that separates from all who differ in minute matters of doctrine. To stand aside from Christian communion is a serious matter. Confessionalism will compel us to do so at times, but I believe that if creeds and confessions are properly related, visible churches of differing confessions can share much of their life and worship together. The tragedy of a divided table and rejected Christian experience is a wound to the body of Christ that lives in unity from Jesus, but there is no reason to celebrate a fracture. We ought to seek to heal it, and where it cannot be healed, we can help one another to walk, even with a limp.

COVENANT: A Church covenant is a specific subset of a confession, dealing specifically with the responsibilities and duties of church members to one another. It is much neglected today, and may be the most controversial ingredient in the make-up of a local congregation. (One need only bring up the subject the duties of church membership to start a sizable rucus among most contemporary evangelicals.)

One of the great challenges the church faces today is the surrender of membership to the concept of the “audience.” Many churches have eliminated membership. I believe this is not only Biblically mistaken, but a critical surrender to some of the worst aspects (and idolatries) of the culture.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1Corinthians 5:1-13)

This passage ought to make it abundantly clear that there were members of the church in Corinth. They were “within” the fellowship. Church discipline would set the person- who was no longer a “brother”- outside of the boundaries of the church.

I believe the boundary “in” was baptism and admission to the Lord’s Supper (dependent on a confession of faith), and the boundary out was removal of a person from the fellowship of those baptized in Jesus’ name and the barring of that person from the congregational eucharistic meal. If this isn’t some form of church membership, then Paul is talking nonsense. This is not “free association.” It is congregational Christianity, with a clear knowledge of who is “in” and not “in” the church.

The church covenant expresses how the congregation reads the New Testament in its specific instructions to Christians regarding all relationships that reflect upon the church and its Lord. These relationships are not only within the Christian family, but with those outside the church as well. Such a covenant might speak to matters such as attendance, participation and financial support. It could affirm the church’s ministry to the poor and to missionaries.

There is potential for abuse and mischief in church covenants. The covenant I grew up reading at every Lord’s Supper said that it was our duty to abstain from the sale and use of alcohol as a beverage, a position that is nowhere taught in scripture. I have seen covenants that took away Christian freedom and meddled in areas where church leaders have no authority.

Still, covenants are much needed in today’s churches. Congregations should make clear what it means to be part of a specific congregation. In American culture, individualism has left many of us illiterate in regard to be basic life in a community. A covenant, written with wisdom and used as a means of positive encouragement, is a blessing to any church.

CONSTITUTION: Now, as further evidence I am caught somewhere in what is considered the dark ages of church life, I will state that the relationships that exist within a congregation will best glorify God when they are expressed in a covenant document like a constitution. (Names matter little for any of the Four C’s.)

A church constitution describes the workings of congregational leadership and authority. It is an interpretation of what the New Testament says about what churches do together. For instance, a constitution would state and pass down the process for calling a pastor or electing deacons. It would specify the relationship of the congregation to its minister, other congregations and the state. It would describe the responsibilities of financial officers, and make clear how authority in the congregation is expressed.

Because many ministers have the tendency to abuse power and dominate congregations, a constitution serves as a covenant document protecting a church from abuse by a minister who has lost his perspective on being a shepherd and a servant.

A constitution sometimes seems to be unnecessary if “Christians just love one another.” Such reasoning ought to make it clear why a constitution is important. It allows churches to survive their own sins and failures, and continue as a body of believers. If a church has serious commitments to mission, service and witness, a constitution will be a great blessing.

A church that refuses to have some form of by-laws or a constitution is still a church, but it is not a wise church, and it is not a church that is seeking to be Biblical in all that it does. God is glorified in ways that sometime seem very unspiritual, but simply doing the right thing is sometimes very “ordinary,” and very needed.

So, here’s my view of the church: Jesus intentionally began it and shaped its basic form. One cannot practice New Testament Christianity in a healthy and full way without participation in a church. A church is not just a universal description of all Christians, but a local, visible gathering of Christians with allegiance to the creeds of the larger church, confessions built on its own reading of the Bible, covenants that describe the responsibilities and privileges of explicit church membership and a constitution that covenants the leadership functions of the church in an orderly way.

I care little for church facilities or names. I do not have particularly strong feelings about how the church expresses its worship in a particular culture (as long as God in Christ and the Gospel are at the center.) But I am convinced, more than ever, that we ought to be serious and intentional about the life of the church, even if it is ten friends meeting at a coffeeshop. At some point, a church faces choices of how it will express its life, carry out its mission and do all things to the glory of God.

I offer these ideas in the hope that the many young evangelicals drawn to the emerging church will, as they remake the church for postmodern culture, ground these churches in a pattern that shows forth Jesus and the ecclesia-koinonia described in the New Testament.


  1. Definitely. I think your last paragraphs hit the nail on the head. Most of the emergent church that I have been a part of were not at all against those things that you speak against in this post, but rather had something to do with either reaching a certain demographic (ie a “pomo” church for twentysomethings…I have problems with this on a host of other levels – where are the elders in such a church? but in effect, this apporach is not unlike planting a church in an unreached people group – adapting the practice, but not the theology, to a different culture) or stripping away traditions that were in and of themselves biblical, but perhaps no longer necessary. For example, one church I was a part of did away with sunday school (a tradition originally billed as a literacy program, not a Bible study) and instead offered small group Bible studies throughout the week in peoples homes. When these emphases are the reason for the emergent church, I’m all for it – anything that can help people connect to God better.

    My biggest criticism of the emergent church (coming from a big fan of it): sound doctrine. It is so easy to not preach Christ crucified, but to sound good preaching social justice or styles of worship. In the spirit of “becoming all things to all men that I may save some” we are quick to throw out church tradition and practice that is good, such as wisdom and discernment from godly older members.

    To be honest, though, I see great things coming from the emergent crowd. BMX and skateboarding groups of believers, multi-ethnic worship services (Mosaic LA), a revitalized urban ministry, excitement about the hebrew language and practices (a big thanks to Rob Bell), a growing integrity among believers (xxxchurch.com), Christ’s love being shown in tangible ways like through social issues and kindness to those segments of society that have traditionally been shunned by the church…I’ll take this advances to the kingdom any day.

  2. dennis laing says

    Michael: Excellent Work! Good job of not tearing down what you do not fully know, and holding fast to the things that really matter.

    Steve: Great post. It adds some perspective to some of the unbalanced and unfair critiques of the EC out there in blogland. Although I’d love to be as COOL as Rob Bell (not being sarcastic… the guy is great), I am not. Rob is an amazingly gifted speaker who delivers the Gospel powerfully, but untraditionally. He’s the real deal. This will probably get me FLAMED and burned at the stake: Some, NOT ALL, of the EC bashing, is simple jealousy cloaked in the pious tradition of legalistic bulls**t. Many (NOT ALL) of the most disparaging critiques are merely small-minded, mean-spirited, faultfinding jealous preachers who hide behind their old and tired visionless and over-comfortable ways. They are collecting a paycheck from the church for 25 hours of sermon prep and 25 hours critiquing, being the self-appointed guardians of truth!

    What I like about Michael’s article is that he doesn’t bother correcting every aberrant group out there; he shares what the New Testament says! If any group wants to be a New Testament church, the words of scripture will correct them as they stumble along trying to obey. If the group/church/preacher doesn’t care what the New Testament says, no amount of cajoling or persuading will move them/him.

  3. Here’s a pomo sounding comment for you: I resonate with this so much it’s scary. My wife and I attend a Free church in MN, and were heavily involved in an eventually failed “pomo” ministry. It started out with good intentions, but over the short years of its life, I (I’d say we, but I dare not speak for the heart of others there) stumbled over my own pride and turned from being part of a community of people serving each other and worshipping God to putting on a good show. We (this is true of the group in general) got so focused on “looking” like something that would appeal to post-Christian culture that it took priority over the basics.

    God was good to us, and the whole thing came to a head and collapsed. Out of that, a small group of us wanted to continue to function as a small-group community in our church, but needed to take a break, repent, and get back to God’s plan. We spent the entire summer meeting to pray and eat together – nothing else.

    Oddly enough, one of the last sermons that was preached was on Acts 2:42, and that became a rallying point for us. Now our ministry goes by that name, and we focus on those things: prayer, fellowship, breaking bread, and being devoted to the apostles’ teaching.

    I still have sympathies to the emergent/emerging conversation, but more now out of the desire to act as an ambassador for Christ to that culture. But, through this site, BHT, NT Wright, JI Packer, CS Lewis, Celtic Christianity, and others, I’m starting to have an appreciation for the Church througout history. I don’t have the disdain for traditions that I once had. When used properly with reverence, traditions are quite beautiful. (Thanks for turning me on the Book of Common Prayer, BTW.)

    I hope you continue in this line of thinking, Michael, because the Church, especially the American, suburban, evangelical branch of which I am a part, needs to hear it.

    God bless,

  4. Histrion (Jay H) says

    > I’d love to learn more about the various expressions of Christianity that go under the label of the emerging church.

    Well, see, there’s your sin right there. I’ll never forget what an arch-conservative co-worker told me about 15 years ago. I had just said that conservatives and liberals should perhaps consider learning things from each other, and he replied, “Anything a liberal has to teach me is something I don’t want to learn.”

  5. Thank you for a very clear clear summary, Michael.

    My main problem with the “emergent church” is that I cannot see what makes it any different from the church throughout the ages which again and again found new ways of preaching the gospel and reaching various sub-groups of the society around them.

    Apart from that I still have not found out what this group is emerging from. Perhaps someone here can enlighten me.


  6. Histrion (Jay H) says

    > I have seen covenants that took away Christian freedom and meddled in areas where church leaders have no authority. Yeah, can everyone say “Shepherding Movement?” I knew you could. :-/

    I have a couple questions, Michael, if you don’t mind answering them.

    1. Can you clarify the distinction you’re drawing between creed and confession?

    2. When Luther said that a church was somewhere where the “sacraments were rightly administered,” assuming he didn’t mean sacrament in the Roman Catholic sense ;-), what was he referring to, exactly?

  7. Your ecclesiology is very much in line with the late Jim McClendon, who was a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Fuller up to the time of his death in 2001. If you’re not familiar with him I would invite you to read his 3 volume Systematic Theology Ethics/Doctrine/Witness. He was one of the coauthors of a document called the Baptist Manifesto that hammers out many of the details of a NT church you identify.

    Tim Adams

  8. Creed= ecumenical creeds, i.e. what all Christians believe. (Apostles/Nicene)
    Confession: what a particular family of believers confesses as the faith taught in the New Testament (Westminister, Augsburg, BHM)

    Luther meant that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (at least) were rightly/scripturally administered. He is talking about defining boundaries of a church by who is allowed in (baptism) and who is in communion with their fellow Christians at the LS.

  9. i The church was born out of an experience of resurrection witnessed by the apostles and an intense period of involvement with Jesus following the resurrection, and all of this is tied to the continuance of the “Jesus movement” into history and all the world.

    Absolutely Michael, however I’d like to add a further point as regards the resurrection experienced by the apostles and our response.

    We receive the apostolic witness of the Resurrection in the Community which receives the teaching of the apostles. We receive the New Testamnet, and we receive the Old Testament, as an aid to understanding what the New Testament is about. Indeed, we cannot understand what Jesus was doing, or what the resurrection meant, and means, without seeing what it was that formed him and was his background.

    The context in which he gave his teaching and lived his life was nurtured by the Jewish Scriptures. All this means receiving the Old Testament. The witness of the apostles that we have received is a witness which includes the Old Testament so that they, the apostles, can explain to us, what was the full significance of the happening on that Sunday morning after Jesus had been killed.

  10. >Jesus followers who wish to eliminate, reinterpret or reduce the church face the problem that nothing in the New Testament is on their side.

  11. impressive post Michael — we all know your a scholar(and fairly traditional) you just went to SBTS pre-Mohler so your a little more liberal than the average TR and sometimes more biblical than the average TR (sometimes Cruises and Debates are less biblical than the average TR but thats for another post) –this post was pretty biblical thanks for being clear

  12. GerryBreshears says

    This is good stuff, though I find the four C thing really forced. Is there really that much difference between Creed and Confession? Covenant for a community makes sense, but constitution? What of Community of the Spirit or mission or fellowship of prayer? You note Acts 2:42, but seem to reduce it quite a bit.

    There’s a distinction that’s being made between Emerging and Emergent. Emerging is people with a confessional, experiential, missional approach to church. Confession is biblically based and consistent with historic orthodoxy. Experience is a genuine, growing relationship with God through Jesus and a regenerating, sanctifying work of the Spirit. Missional is the sense that we are here to live Jesus like in the culture as well as in the community which is the church. People involved include the Rick McKinley of Imago Dei in Portland, Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill in Seattle and such.

    Emergent is superfacially the same, but has largely given up the confessional side. Beginning largely with a postmodern approach to truth and knowing, they abandon Bible as authority in favor of following the mission of Jesus to help hurting people. Leading on this is Brian McLaren who can write a Jesus Creed (http://www.anewkindofchristian.com/archives/000231.html) without a single reference to incarnation or deity of Jesus. The emergentvillage web community is part of this along with Doug Padgit and similar folk.

    So I, too, am into confessional, experiential, missional community of the Spirit.

  13. Creed: What all Christians MUST believe (Nicene/Apostles)

    Confession: What a particular communion or congregation believes (Westminister/Augsburg/Three Forms of Unity)

    This is an important distinction, and I keep having to repeat it. Why is it hard to understand?

    Constitution=leadership. How do you have a church without stipulating -legally- things like:
    -how to call/dismiss a pastor
    -how to have a congregational meeting
    -how to handle money (who can spend, etc)
    -How officers are elected

    If you haven’t thought about this, your church may just be “playing” church, because these relationships are all new testament matters are should be handled explicitly and ethically. A constitution is the way to do that.

  14. Spot on. I have been discussing this entire issue of creeds and confessions lately on my blog.

  15. GerryBreshears says

    The difference between Creed and Confession is certainly valid — important even. Knowing that there are things to die for (Creed) and things to divide for (Confession) as well as things to debate for (things we wrestle with, sometimes with growls in the congregation/communion) as well as a LOT of things to decide for (who cares in the spirit of Rom. 14) is essential for the life of the Spirit.

  16. Michael wrote: Constitution=leadership. How do you have a church without stipulating -legally- things like:
    -how to call/dismiss a pastor
    -how to have a congregational meeting
    -how to handle money (who can spend, etc)
    -How officers are elected

    If you haven’t thought about this, your church may just be “playing” church, because these relationships are all new testament matters are should be handled explicitly and ethically.

    For the most part, I was with you (or at least understood what you were saying), until you made this set of statements. Where are any of those four examples you gave specified in the New Testament? (You said they were “new testament matters”, so I assume you see a correlation somewhere.) I see appointing elders, I see qualifications for overseers…I don’t see electing officers, calling/dismissing a pastor, having congregational meetings (other than instructions regarding corporate gatherings for the purpose of edification, instruction, etc.)…

    I want to see what you’re saying here, Michael, but you seem to have taken legal issues of a corporation and called them “new testament matters.”

    steve 🙂

  17. The NT explicitly tells us to do what is legally expected of us. That ought to settle the matter right there.

    The NT shows congregational elections in Acts. Without a constitution what is a majority?

    It is NT to stipulate who will handle money.

    It is NT to stipulate treating pastors with honor, and I assume that means fairly and not allowing them to be mistreated or to become dictators.

    The book of Acts describes the sale of property athat was donated to the church. What if the church decided to buy property? Is that anti-New testament? Who has that power? Church elected officers should have their power and responsibilty spelled out.

    It is not anti-NT to be legal, open, truthful and fair. Due Process is a godly way of being open and honest. Churches in America have a horrible reputation in this area, and their lack of agreed upon processes and responsibilties is why.

  18. See, that’s where my understanding of what you’re saying breaks down. Did the churches in Acts have a constitution? Were they a legal entity? One may say, “No, because they didn’t have that option available to them.” Yet you present their functioning as regulative (and I do not necessarily disagree). So, it doesn’t seem that the legal entity is the answer. I have seen much abuse of power and “due process” within “properly-structured” churches who had all their ducks in a row legally, by-laws in place, etc. That hardly solves the deeper problem of whether or not the Holy Spirit is allowed to direct the affairs of the church.

    “The NT explicitly tells us to do what is legally expected of us.” Two thoughts here: 1) Churches are not under any legal obligation to incorporate in the US, unless they want to a) own property as a corporation, or b) give tax deductions. (There may be more reasons, but those are the two biggies) It is not something that is legally “expected”. 2) If doing what is “legally expected” is the blanket principle, would you be aligned with Paul Crouch, Luis Palau, and others who claim that the Chinese house churches need to respect their government and register “for protection” by the Communistic government?? (http://theologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2005/11/religious-freedom-in-china-hardly.html)

    “The NT shows congregational elections in Acts. Without a constitution, what is a majority?” I assume you are referring to Acts 1:23-26 or 6:5-6 — are there other “congregational elections” that I’m missing off the top of my head? So, to answer your question, I would say again, two things: 1)Did they hold their elections based on “a majority”? And, if they did, 2) Did they have a constitution to define said majority? I don’t see the relevance of your question to your point there. You imply that it can’t be done well (or perhaps at all, and you suggest later that it may not be “legal, open, truthful and fair”) without a constitutionally-defined majority. So how did they do it?

    “It is NT to stipulate who will handle money.” — No real argument with this one, although it assumes that this must be a legal designation. Perhaps you reason from the standpoint that if it is not a legal designation, it is open to corruption. Again, I think this is a reach, because if there is corruption in the church, legal designations will mean very little from a spiritual standpoint. There are larger issues at play that, according to Scripture, shouldn’t even be played out in front of a secular court.

    “It is NT to stipulate treating pastors with honor, and I assume that means fairly and not allowing them to be mistreated or to become dictators.” First of all, you have assumed that “elders” in the NT means “pastor” in our system of doing church. That’s actually a big assumption, considering that the word “pastor” is used in Ephesians 4, but is not the word used in the “honor” passage to which you refer. But, aside from that change in terminology, I agree completely about treating elders with honor and not mistreating or allowing them to become dictators. However, this was not one of the points that you had made that I countered. You said that it was “new testament” to have constitutional guidelines to “call/dismiss” a pastor. That’s a completely different point, and one which I still fail to see NT support for.

    “What if the church decided to buy property? Is that anti-New testament?” First of all, let’s not paint with such a broad opposing brush. I have not said anything you mentioned was “anti-New testament”. There is a big difference between saying that something does not appear to be taught or regulated by the New Testament, and saying that it is “anti”. BIG difference. Reality: There is no record in the NT of churches buying property. So what does that mean? Well, in this case, it does mean, as I stated earlier, that a church would need to enter into the legal entity condition, then. But to say it’s “new testament” to enter into that legal corporation entity is stretching it. I just want you to make the case without stretching it to sound “biblical”. That’s all. You made a claim, I am asking for support for your position in an effort to understand.

    “Due Process is a godly way of being open and honest. Churches in America have a horrible reputation in this area, and their lack of agreed upon processes and responsibilties is why.” Correction: Due Process is a legal way of trying to protect against not being open and honest. But if we need the law to “enforce”, or even to safeguard against dishonesty, we have far greater problems. If you want to go the corporate entity route, then go ahead. I see no biblical injunction against it. But don’t claim that you are doing the “new testament” thing or the “godly” thing. Just call it what it is.

    You imply that churches who do not go the route of incorporating and becoming a legal entity may be “anti-new testament” or even “ungodly”. To be fair, you did not state that outright, but that seems to be the foundation of your response here. But what I have seen, Michael, is that corporation, constitution, etc. has done nothing to prevent the problems that exist in American churches today. Maybe if we actually put Christ at the head of the church and not Roberts Rules of Order or some constitution we might write, we might be able to get somewhere. The church in Acts seemed to work out its issues to great success without having a legal constitution! Why is that, and how is it possible?

    Sorry for the very lengthy post, but I think that these points deserved some fair response.

    steve 🙂

  19. How a church complies with legal expectations in a particular political environment will vary. We ought to do all we can to be honorable. Not all laws are moral or ethical, however, hence the house churches are not under a moral obligation to be legally conformed.

    Pastors and elders are interchangable terms in the NT. Your accusation about my “assumptions” are unfounded.

    You are right that no church is obliged to have a constitution. They are obligated to do what is right, and if it doesn’t seem right to you to have agreed upon processes that honor the relationship of congregation and leadership then fine. Join a church where the pastor and elders tell everyone how they are going to do everything.

  20. Not a very surprising opening. A well known Reformed Baptist-apologist-debater-cruise promoter (probably the same one) announced to the world recently that 16 people aren’t truly regenerate. Now the question becomes is which is worse in his eyes. 😉

  21. That was a cruise particpant (and a friend, I hope)

    The PROMOTER has his own internet radio show.

  22. Michael: I largely agree with what you’re saying here. A couple of small points though:

    1. I’d distinguish “creed” from “confession” in a slightly different way, namely that a “creed” is simply that part of a church’s confession which is used in public worship. From a Lutheran point of view, we regard all our confessions as declaring the apostolic faith of the church: it is not simply a case of saying “the creeds say the bare minimum, then there’s our own particular emphases on top of that”. Though of course we recognise the empirical fact that we share the creeds with other churches in a way that we don’t share our other confessions.

    2. I really don’t like the idea of adding a “covenant” to the mix. If people are willing to sign up to the church’s confession of faith, that should be enough. As for the behavioural side of it, well as Luther put it, the ten commandments give us plenty to keep us occupied without adding our own behavioural codes. Of course, that doesn’t exclude the need for discipline in certain (usually pretty extreme) cases, but a church covenant isn’t necessary for that. People have the ten commandments, the sermon on the mount and the NT epistles – they can scarcely plead ignorance.

  23. New to this … enjoyed your thoughts re: the church … I enjoy the challenge of properly defining what Christ initiated.

    One simple musing in regards to the discourse on your essay is the challenge by SteveS … what I find most intriguing is how many can challenge what someone from the Emerging view or any other thought process as not being biblical or at the very least being extra biblical by reading in or leaving out … which is necessary and important … although when challenged you yourself about some extra biblical comments, in a very healthy non attacking way, you’ve been more apt to dodge it as each our own point of view … “if it doesn’t seem right to you to have agreed upon processes that honor the relationship of congregation and leadership then fine. Join a church where the pastor and elders tell everyone how they are going to do everything.”

    I might be off here, but I don’t think SteveS is saying that … just looking for a bit of clarity in your actual teaching on the need for constitution as a BIBLICAL MANDATE.

    Please don’t take any offense, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your insights, and that of those commenting … keep up the healthy stretching for those of us endeavoring to follow Christ as part of the BODY!

  24. nicholas anton says

    One problem with reciting the creeds as they are is that many of us do not fully agree with most of them, unless we allegorize them as many do Scripture. “I believe in one baptism for the remission of sins…” does not address Spiritual baptism as some suppose, but water baptism. This line became part of the Nicene Creed because of and after the dispute surrounding Arius. After Arius and his crew had been disenfranchised by the church, many were afraid for their eternal salvation, because they had been baptized by a heretic. The church therefore decided that the sacrament of baptism when performed according to the Trinitarian formula was efficacious even when performed by a heretic. No second baptism was necessary. Therefore, “One baptism” simply designated that one did not have to be re baptized in order to be saved. That is also why the Anabaptists were severely persecuted by the Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists alike.

  25. Michael, sorry, but as a certified antinominan, I’m with Steve on this one. There are groups that make an argument against things like incorporation on nearly the same grounds that you would argue for them.

    A constitution is a contract. Someone as opposed as you are to transactionalism should be able to see the problem with churches having a constitution.

    The problem with specifying all these formalities becomes instantly clear when you run into a situation where someone in the congregation falls into sin; things quickly devolve to “what does the Book of Order [say|mean] about …” rather than “Is this behavior good, and if not how does the Spirit direct us to act toward this person?”

  26. An oldie but a goodie.

    The anti-constition hoopla that I missed first time around reminds me of “no creed but Christ.” Sounds nice, but so does giving a million dollars to every man, woman, and child in the country. It’s ultimately impractical.

    One may have a written constitution, or an unwritten one, but as a practical matter there must be some agreed-upon method of handling disputes. We have many examples in the N.T. upon which to draw, which helps.

    It’s really simple, and people seem to be looking for ways to make it confusing for no good reason. Maybe they should go on a cruise and relax. 🙂