"Who is this who looks forth like the
dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun,
terrible as an army with banners." (Song of Solomon 6:10)
Some of my friends don't think I believe in "the church." I actually do. Sometimes I am critical of the institution--the way we do things when we meet together. Back when I was a brand new Christian, almost 40 years ago, the man who led me to the Lord told me to "quit taking pot shots at the church." (I have no idea what I had said at the time). More charitable friends will tell you I'm only stirring up discussion when speaking about the IC (Institutional Church). I know quite a few people who don't take part in any local church and I disagree with this position. I see local churches with elders and deacons all through the New Testament. From 1 Timothy 1, I believe the number one responsibility of the local church is teaching the whole counsel of God to all the people (1). This is in order that people find their spiritual gifts so all become involved in the work of the ministry. The Body of Christ is also to be built up until we all together "attain to the stature of the fullness of Christ"
"Plainly, Scripture is the only reliable guide we have to function properly as a human in a broken world. Philosophy and psychology give partial insights, based on human experience, but they fall far short of what the Word of God can do. It is not intended to replace human knowledge or effort, but is designed to supplement and correct them. Surely the most hurtful thing pastors and leaders of churches can do to their people is to deprive them of firsthand knowledge of the Bible. The exposition of both Old and New Testaments from the pulpit, in classrooms and small group meetings is the first responsibility of church leaders. They are "stewards of the mysteries of God" and must be found faithful to the task of distribution. This uniqueness of Scripture is the reason that all true human discovery in any dimension must fit within the limits of divine disclosure. Human knowledge can never outstrip divine revelation." (Ray C. Stedman, http://raystedman.org/hebrews2/heb2comm1.html)
The number two responsibility of the church (2) would seem to be corporate prayer (1 Timothy 2). Christians gather together not only for worship (3), but also because the Lord Jesus Christ dwells in his assembled people as a building made of living stones. God also dwells within the individual believer as His temples. (1 Cor. 6:19-20)
Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: "Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame." To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner," and "A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall"; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. (2 Peter 1:4-10)
I have lots of information on my web site concerning what I really believe about Christ's true, holy, catholic (universal) church, who is to the very Bride of Christ, (4) All this does not mean I think there are no long-term problems with the church. The visible church can be expected to come to a dismal end at the end of the age as old Israel did. (5) A counterfeit (harlot) church will dominate the first half of the tribulation period. (6) We'll see Christ's 2000 year-old "glorious church" only when we get to heaven.
Having said all these positive things about the church, the fact that the New Testament recognizes no distinction between clergy and laity is almost universally ignored. Nor is church leadership supposed to resemble the management systems of secular society (7, 8). Some years ago, when teaching pastors the importance of expository preaching, my mentor, the late Ray Stedman, plainly emphasized that church leadership was to be non-hierarchical, and servant based. I heard much later that several churches tried Ray's suggestions for running their local churches by the actual Biblical guidelines. But virtually all reverted to the old traditional top-down, hierarchical leadership style with a senior-pastor, or "mini-pope," at the top of the pyramid--they said it was because that system "works better." And all sorts of churches actually run by Old Covenant principles even today, without realizing it. For various reasons many have not yet moved into the freedom of the New Covenant Jesus put into effect as the new norm at the Last Supper. (9) Church reform is a constant task. In only one or two generations the best of churches can slump back into mediocrity. The once-great churches founded by the Apostles did not last very long.
I have a couple of dozen books on small churches and different styles of church government in my library. My favorite writer in the past year has been Frank Viola, a high school psychology and philosophy teacher residing in Florida. I drew from Frank's first two books (10, 11) in teaching a class critiquing the church last year. (12)
Frank's new book, Pagan Christianity is a real doozie. You may not agree with what he says but I found it great reading-- well-footnoted and referenced. You may not find that YOUR church comes under Frank's indictment--he aims his broadside at those "buckle of the Bible belt" mainline dead and dreary churches all of us have visited and probably not cared for very much. But get the book and let me know what you think. From the web page (13) the following quotes are provided for your amazement or amusement:
And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?--Jesus Christ
When the Lord Jesus walked this earth, His chief opposition came from the two leading religious parties of the day: The Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Those of the Pharisaical party added to the sacred Scriptures. They tacked on to the Word of God reams of human law that were passed on to subsequent generations. This body of time-honored customs, often called "the tradition of the elders," came to he esteemed as equal with Holy Writ.
The error of the Sadducees moved in the opposite direction. They subtracted whole segments of Scripture-only deeming the Law of Moses worthy to be observed. (The Sadducees denied the existence of spirits, angels, the soul, the after-life, and the resurrection).
The net effect was that when the Lord Jesus entered the drama of human history, His authority was arduously challenged. The reason was simple. He did not fit into the religious mold of either camp. Jesus was viewed with suspicion by both the Pharisee and Sadducee parties. It did not take long for this suspicion to turn to hostility. And both the Pharisees and Sadducees took steps to put the Son of God to death!
We live in a day when history is reliving itself. Modern Christianity has fallen into the errors of both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
In the tradition of the Sadducees, the great bulk of first-century practices has been removed from the Christian landscape. My book, Rethinking the Wineskin, unearths some of the forgotten practices that characterized the life of the first-century church.
But modern Christianity is also guilty of the error of the Pharisees. That is, it has added a raft of humanly-devised traditions that have suppressed the living, breathing, functional Headship of Jesus Christ in His church.
Even so, the Pharisee and the Sadducee both teach us this oft-ignored lesson: It is just as harmful to dilute the authority of God's Word by addition as it is by subtraction. We break the Scripture equally by burying it under a mountain of human tradition as we do by ignoring its principles.
This book is dedicated to exposing the traditions that have been tacked onto God's way for His church. In so doing, it makes an outrageous proposal: That the modern institutional church does not have a Biblical nor a historical right to exist!
This is not a work for scholars. So it is by no means exhaustive. An exhaustive treatment of the origins of our modern church practices would fill volumes. But it would be read by few people. Although this is a single volume, it packs a great deal of history into a small space. In fact, it can rightly be said that what is contained in these pages is the summary of an entire library!
The book does not chase every historical sidelight. Rather, it focuses on tracing the central practices that define mainstream Christianity today.
Because the roots of our modern church practices are so important to grasp, I wish that every literate Christian would read this work. Consequently, I have chosen not to employ technical language, but to write in plain English. At the same time, footnotes containing added details and sources have been liberally peppered throughout each chapter. (I want my readers to know that I am not blowing bubbles or building castles out of thin air!)
Reflective Christians who wish to verify my statements and obtain a more in depth understanding of the subjects covered should read the footnotes. Those who care little for such things should ignore them.
Finally, this book can be placed alongside my first book, Rethinking the Wineskin: The Practice of the New Testament Church. Both books show two sides of the same coin. Wineskin demonstrates beyond dispute that those who have left the fold of institutional Christianity have a Scriptural right to exist. The book you hold in your hands turns that coin around and shows that they have a historical right to exist as well
From the Introduction: "As startling as it may sound, most everything that is done in our modern churches has no basis in the Bible. As pastors roar from their pulpits about being "Biblical" and following the "pure Word of God," their words betray them. Alarmingly, precious little that is observed today in modern Christianity maps to anything found in the first-century church.
Questions We Never Think to Ask: Socrates (470-399 B.C.) is considered by some historians to be the father of philosophy. Born and raised in Athens, his custom was to go about the town relentlessly raising questions and analyzing issues. Socrates believed that truth is found by dialoguing extensively about an issue and relentless questioning it. Socrates boldly questioned the popular views of his day. He thought freely on matters that his fellow Athenians felt were closed for discussion.
Socrates' habit of pelting people with searching questions and roping them into critical dialogues about their accepted customs eventually got him killed. His incessant questioning of tightly-held traditions provoked the leaders of Athens to charge him with "corrupting the youth." As a result, they put Socrates to death. A clear message was sent to his fellow Athenians: All who question the established customs will meet the same fate!
Socrates was not the only philosopher to reap severe reprisal for his nonconformity: Aristotle was exiled, Spinoza was excommunicated, and Bruno was burned alive. Not to mention the thousands of Christians who were tortured and martyred by the institutional church because they dared to challenge its teachings.
As Christians, we are taught by our leaders to believe certain ideas and behave certain ways. We have a Bible, yes. But we are conditioned to read it with the lens handed to us by the Christian tradition to which we belong. We are taught to obey our denomination (or movement) and never to challenge what it teaches.
(At this moment, all the rebellious hearts are applauding and are plotting to wield the above paragraphs to wreak havoc in their churches. If that is you, dear rebellious heart, you have missed my point by a considerable distance. I do not stand with you. My advice: Either leave your church quietly, refusing to cause division, or be at peace with it. There is a vast gulf between rebellion and taking a stand for what is true.)
If the truth be told, we Christians never seem to ask why we do what we do. Instead, we blithely carry out our religious traditions, never asking where they came from. Most Christians who claim to uphold the integrity of God's Word have never sought to see if what they do every Sunday has any Scriptural backing. How do I know this? Because if they did, it would lead them to some very disturbing conclusions. Conclusions that would compel them by conscience to forever abandon what they are doing.
Strikingly, contemporary church thought and practice have been influenced far more by post-Biblical historical events than by NT (New Testament) imperatives and examples. Yet most Christians are unconscious of this influence. Nor are they aware that it has created a slew of cherished, calcified, humanly-devised traditions.
A Terrifying Invitation: I now invite you to walk with me on an untrodden path. It is a terrifying journey where you will be forced to ask questions that probably have never entered your conscious thoughts. Tough questions. Nagging questions. Even frightening questions. And you will be faced squarely with the disturbing answers. Yet those answers will lead you face-to-face with some of the richest things a Christian can knowyou will be stunned to learn that what we Christians do for Sunday morning church did not come from Jesus Christ, the apostles, or the Scriptures. Nor did it come from Judaism. Shockingly, most of what we do for "church" was lifted directly out of pagan culture in the post-apostolic period. To be more specific, the great bulk of our church practices was spawned during three time periods: The early post-Constantinian era (324 to 600), the Reformation era (16th century), and the Revivalist era (18th-19th century).
Each chapter will trace an accepted traditional church practice. It will then tell the story of where this practice came from. But more importantly, it will explain how this practice stifles the functional Headship of Jesus Christ and hampers the functioning of His Body" (Frank Viola, Brandon, Florida; December 2002)
We Christians are creatures of habit and we all resist changing until we have to. Sometimes churches will make minor changes to accommodate changing style in music or offering seminars that deal with contemporary issues as they unfold. But as Ray Stedman often said about the church, "Come weal or come woe, the status is quo."
Will any, or even some of Frank's insights into the errors of "IC" be taken seriously? Will any of those things in the IC that are only a matter of man-made (non-apostolic) tradition ever be changed by real reforms? Frank doesn't seem to think so. Hence he tends to suggest that folks who can not longer stand their own Bible-belt churches should leave and start small home churches. (Sounds divisive, doesn't it?). This is certainly better than the official position of Heresy Harold Camping's stance. He advocates resigning from the local church altogether! (12). Harold thinks we are already in the Tribulation period right now. Of course I totally disagree with Mr. Camping on this.
My friend Mike Bates and I both wrote Frank Viola this month to ask him if he could comment further. Frank replied:
"In answer to your question, one of the men I work with is a former pastor of a charismatic church. He moved from a full orbed IC church to meetings in homes. So this can be done. however, it cannot be done, in my judgment, without an outside worker with experience in meeting this way in helping the process.
Also, the process will cause people to leave. Perhaps 50%. Most folks today aren't ready to meet in the way first-century Christians did. It's far less comfortable and predictable. And for that reason, most leaders and congregations won't do it. It takes a rare breed to lose what the IC affords."
To Mike and me this sounded like replacing an old IC system with something which was surely legalistic, inadequate, and probably worse from existed before! We pressed Frank on this, and he then said,
"Here is an excerpt from my new book which answers your question:
Can the NT Example be Applied Today?
Objection 1: Conditions are very different today in the Western World than they were in the first century. Back then the entire world was unsaved. There was no organized church. Church planters like Paul did not take born-again Christians from institutional churches (IC's) and teach them how to meet NT-style. Modern workers, therefore, cannot point to Paul as an example of what they do.
Indeed, the church of the first century existed in a virgin-soil situation. The gospel of Jesus Christ was brand new. There was no institutional church from which to draw (or rescue) Christians. Thus the bulk of Paul's converts fell into two categories: 1) those who came straight from the pagan pool. 2) God-fearing Gentiles who were institutionalized by the Jewish synagogues.
Paul's mission had two objectives. First, it was to convert lost Gentiles. The second objective was interconnected with the first. It was to form these new converts into local communities that bore corporate testimony to God's eternal purpose.
Put another way, Paul's chief goal in preaching the gospel was to form Spirit-baptized communities that corporately express the Lord Jesus Christ. Eminent scholar D.J. Tidball echoes this thought saying,
Paul's primary interest was not in the conversion of individuals but in the formation of Christian communities. G.H. Lang makes the same point saying,
An acute writer, contrasting the apostolic work with the more usual modern missionary methods, has said that "we found missions, the apostles founded churches.' The distinction is sound and pregnant. The apostles founded churches, and they founded nothing else, because for the ends in view nothing else was required or could have been so suitable. In each place where they laboured they formed converts into a local assembly . . .
Dave Norrington states, "Paul relied on centrifugal evangelism (that is, going out and speaking the gospel to non-Christians), but he did so in order to establish Christian communities. Paul formed Christian communities by fathering, mothering, and nursing the Christians that he worked with (1 Thess. 2:7-12; 1 Cor. 4:15). He showed the church how to fellowship with its Lord, how to mature in Him corporately, how to function in its gatherings, and how to solve specific problems endemic to community life."
Tragically, these are things that most Christians in the IC know little about. Imagine what would happen if every pastor in America told their congregations that they, along with the entire leadership team (including the worship leader), would abandon the church for six months. How many of these congregations would know what to do? How many would be able to plan their own meetings? How many would be able to function together with everyone contributing something of Christ in the gathering?
I do not think there exists a single IC that could meet any of these challenges. This despite the fact that these churches are populated with people who have been Christians for many years. Strikingly, being a seasoned Christian doesn't equip one to be a functioning member in a NT-styled church meeting. Nor does it prepare one to be a productive member of a Christian community. Neither does finding oneself 2000 years into Christian history and 500 years down the Reformation pike equip one for such a task.
As A.W. Tozer once put it, the modern church "is an asylum for retarded spiritual children." I would add that it is a nursery for over-grown spiritual babes who have not a clue about how to function with their fellow-brethren in a coordinated way. And why is this? Because they have never been shown how. Instead, they have been habituated to stay muted and passive. God's people, therefore, need to be unleashed and empowered.
My point is simple. The Pauline ministry of planting churches is still very much needed today. Far more goes into building a church (after the first-century kind) than leading people to the Lord. Winning converts is merely a first step. Enriching, equipping, and empowering them to get on with God in a corporate way makes up the rest of the trip.
If Paul were in America today, I believe he would convert lost souls with a view to founding local churches. Hungry Christians in the IC would doubtlessly attach themselves to his work as well. I do not believe that Paul would refuse to minister to them simply because they were "already" converted.
No, Paul would empower all of the saints who were open to him. Both new converts and institutionalized Christians. He would enrich them to know Christ, equip them to express Him corporately, and empower them to function in a coordinated way. Genuine workers in our day do just that.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Paul's passion was to establish Christian communities (churches) marked by every-member functioning. It was not to rescue individuals from hell. And I'm confident that living in 20th-century America would not hinder him from this all-consuming mission."
Motherhood, apple pie, and "the church" are perennial topics of discussion which never end till doomsday comes. If you'd like to chime in and discuss your opinions and views on "the church," the perfect discussion room is the Paraclete Forum Bulletin Board hosted by Mike Woodward and Laurie Martin Stedman, http://www.paracleteforum.org/cgi-local/beeboard.cgi. (I've forewarned Mike and Laurie).
Elaine Stedman, who ought to know very well about "church reform," adds the following,
"Begin with the basic premise that this reader (Elaine) is probably more dense than most. That done, consider that same reader partnered with a church reformer for more than 40 years. Moving right along...having now read your quotes from Viola, and recalling the themes of such as Body Life and Authentic Christianity, I still cannot think what a template for a "biblical" church would look like. It almost seems that FV has one, but having read your quotations I am no nearer to even grasping what his template might be. IMO someone who had never read Body Life or Authentic Christianity might conclude that FV is a reincarnated Martin Luther. At least PBC was modeling the biblical principles and that gave some amount of visibility to the vision. Is Viola's vision so perfectionist that if it materialized only sinless angels would qualify as members?
It is one thing to stand inside the church and be a compassionate advocate for change as you are; it is quite another to stand outside and sabotage the whole structure. I wish I felt less uneasy about the repercussions of Viola's idealisms, and what you and Mike have, I believe correctly, perceived as legalistic formulations. I am quite convinced, for instance, that churches have individual personalities, just as each of us does. These cannot be stuffed into a mold and labeled "biblical". God loves variety, and I think we should not risk the loss of it in the application of biblical principles. It ain't easy bein' biblical. Simple, but not easy."
Only God can change the system. However, there are very good reasons for us as individuals to constantly change the way we live if we want to be used by God. One of the big deals in dealing with our Sovereign Lord is that He does exactly as He pleases. He goes by the Book whether we do or not. When we impose our own structures on the church, the Lord ignores them and finds other ways to get His work done. The true Head of the church is patient, gracious and long-suffering. But, since He does not change, we must. When we resist coming into line with the way He works and moves in the world we'll eventually find ourselves irrelevant (like the UN?)--left behind. Having said all this, I am not advocating open revolt or radical changes all at once--they would probably do more harm than good. All I am saying is that I found Pagan Christianity refreshing--a good reminder of the greatness of our God and our tendency to prefer something less than God's best for us. God will win, hence we followers of Jesus Christ ARE His glorious church. Jesus will get us where He wants us one way or another.
Do you hear them coming, brother,
Thronging up the steeps of light,
Clad in glorious shining garments,
Blood washed, garments pure and white?
'Tis a glorious church without spot or wrinkle,
Washed in the blood of the Lamb;
'Tis a glorious church without spot or wrinkle,
Washed in the blood of the Lamb.
Do you hear the stirring anthems,
Filling all the earth and sky,
'Tis a grand, victorious army,
Lift its banner up on high!
Never fear the clouds of sorrow,
Never fear the storms of sin.
We shall triumph on the morrow,
Even now our joys begin.
Wave the banner, shout His praises,
For our victory is nigh!
We shall join our conqu'ring Savior,
We shall reign with Him on high!
Ralph E. Hudson, (1843-1901) (Ephesians 5:27) Listen this hymn at http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/g/l/glorchur.htm
1. On Preaching and Teaching, http://ldolphin.org/oratory.htmloratory.html
2. Corporate Prayer is Not an Option, http://ldolphin.org/prayoption.html
3. What is Worship? (Two classic sermons by Ray C. Stedman), http://ldolphin.org/worship.html
4. What in the World is the Church? Rediscovering the Body of Christ, http://ldolphin.org/church2.html
5. The Church at the End of the Age, http://ldolphin.org/church.html
6. The Dragon lady, by Ray Stedman, http://raystedman.org/revelation/4208.html
7. Leadership in the Church, by Paul Winslow, http://ldolphin.org/topdown.html
8. The Lord and His Church, by Ray Stedman, http://raystedman.org/misc/lordchur.html
9. Authentic Christianity, by Ray C. Stedman, http://raystedman.org/authenxnty/
10. Rethinking the Wineskin: The Practice of the New Testament Church, http://www.ldolphin.org/viola.html
11. Who Is Your Covering? A Fresh Look at Leadership, Authority, and Accountability http://www.ldolphin.org/viola2.html
12. The Church in the Mirror, http://www.ldolphin.org/mirror.html
13. Pagan Christianity, by Frank Viola, is available from http://www.ptmin.org/
Books: C.S. Lewis has been a favorite writer of mine for four decades. Recently I've been listening to his books in audio format (from http://blackstoneaudio.com). Audio tapes are a great way to take in Lewis' rich insights by ear. I find I miss a lot when reading because I tend to skim the text, and my attention span is also short!
Classes. My week-night Palo Alto Bible class is ready to launch into Jeremiah week after next. The Wednesday Brothers of Thunder men's group is now moving into an exciting, life-changing study of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians--Socrates' "the unexamined life is not worth living" sort of thing. Sundays I am currently teaching Genesis 1-11 in the Forum Class at PBC, Palo Alto. This is an exciting class with a good number of solid and well-informed Christians coming regularly. Several younger students have joined and they seem to ask the best questions. I'm putting the MP3 audio files on my server for your edification, amazement, or amusement, http://ldolphin.org/audio.html, near the bottom of the page.
My dear friend of several decades, Australian astronomer Barry Setterfield, now living in California, at last has more time to devote to his studies of the effects of the observed decrease in the speed of light over time. This is work he started a quarter century ago. Among other implications, it would appear that the true age of the universe in real time is about 8000 years--which translates into about 14 billion years in atomic time. [I don't consider the age of the universe a major plank of the Christian faith, but a peripheral issue not worth dying for. For my personal views on the age of the universe see http://ldolphin.org/Uage.html.] Many papers on this, subject plus great discussion sections are to be found on Barry's web site, http://setterfield.org. The technically minded can read the Discussions section.
New or revised articles on my web site will usually be found at the top of my library page, http://ldolphin.org/asstbib.shtml. Archived newsletters are found at http://ldolphin.org/news/.
This week I finally caught up opening and reading last year's Christmas cards, would you believe? Apologies to friends who would like to hear from me by snail mail! As best I can, I do answer all my email myself. This involves many hours each day of very challenging and very rewarding work. In addition I work closely with The Paraclete Forum -- a team of PBC-related evangelical Christian Cyperspace men and women. We respond to email from folks searching for God and we seek to help people with their theological and apologetics questions. Email to our team will get a personal answer from one or more of us. Email to: email@example.com. Our web site, http://paracleteforum.org features a bulletin board and archived lively email discussions. I got started in Christian apologetics on Internet back in 1995. At first we all thought the main Christian use for the Internet would be making sermon libraries available. We have since learned that many people come to the Lord as a result of email discussions, many others get real help with personal struggles or questions of doctrine and apologetics. The Cyberchurch is not a substitute for Sunday morning at 11 o'clock, but God is doing great things in this new medium. Let us know if you'd like to get involved.
I also hope all of my friends are acquainted with Glenn Miller's
A Christian Think Tank, the best apologetics site anywhere,
Contributions: I am supposed to be retired but in fact have never been busier--nor happier--in my life. I am very grateful for the financial help of friends who help me stay actively answering email, growing my web site, teaching the Bible, and spending lots of time with individuals. Your contribution can be addressed to Peninsula Bible Church (include a note that it is for my ministry support). 3505 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA 94306. I do not receive a list of contributors so I am not able to write thank you notes. Your prayers are highly valued above all else.
Sincerely, Lambert Dolphin.
March 13, 2003. Web Archive for these newsletters: http://ldolphin.org/news/