The Church continued...
WHAT IS THE PATTERN TO FOLLOW? Learning from History
The study of the history of the Christian Church is an amazing journey. I've taken only a few baby steps. The New Testament itself is obviously our primary guide, but a look at the subsequent experience of the Church through the centuries is worth the effort. An old book, The Pilgrim Church by E.H. Broadbent, Marshall-Pickering UK, first published in 1931, provides a fascinating overview of the rest of the story. It’s hard to find, but I recommend it.
The pilgrim church, that authentic communion of believers faithful to the Gospel and Spirit of the New Testament has a rich and well-documented history. In some periods, it has survived and blossomed virtually under the radar of the dominating empires and visible church hierarchies. In other cases, it was a movement of reform publicly engaging the institutional authority of the church.
Whenever it was vital and growing, it was marked by certain characteristic assumptions: 1) The headship and sufficiency of Christ, 2) The authority of Scripture, 3) The priesthood of every believer, 4) The call to personal Godliness, 5) The guidance of the Holy Spirit through gifts distributed broadly among the believers, 6) The lack of division between clergy and laity, 6) Great joy, even in suffering, and 7) Humble service to each other and outreach to the lost.
Such assemblies and movements grew like wildfire across the continents in the early centuries. The Walldenses in Southern Europe, the Bogomils of Bosnia, The Paulicians in Byzantine-ruled Turkey and Syria are examples. Later, in the wake of the Reformation, Anabaptists and Moravians and Mennonites in Europe, and countless other groups carried the torch. Marginalized by official church historians, these amazing believers are a testimony to the grace and power of God through His Body, and are truly the forebears of the Bible believing Church today.
Interestingly, reform movements only faltered when they themselves turned back to patterns and practices vigorously resisted earlier. The Mennonite mission to Russia in the 1800s is a great example. Beginning as a grassroots revival and missions outreach, in Russia over time it became institutional, rigid and hierarchical—and worldly. It had to be corrected and rejuvenated by a new gathering of Russian believers, faithful to New Testament teaching and eagerly embracing the above assumptions.
Whenever the headship of Christ became the headship of men, the priesthood of the believer was compromised by elevation of the clergy, the leadership of the church taken from the Holy Spirit through His gifts to the body and given to pastors and councils and inner rings of human authority, and whenever the Scriptures became a tool in the hands of ambitious shepherds for the control of the sheep, the results were predictable: 1) Godliness declined, 2) Spiritual fervor diminished, 3) Evangelism slowed, 4) False piety and form replaced real experience of God, and always, without fail, 5) A new “pilgrim church,” more faithful to the original model sprang up like a fresh green shoot in a spiritual desert.
“I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” That’s the amazing resilience and durability of the Church. It just keeps coming back.
This is not to say that God was unable to accomplish anything among the authoritarians, that there was not spiritual fruit within the established Church, even in some of its darkest years. Missionaries continued to go out, Christ was preached, and the great mystics Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich and others from those years have left us spiritual treasures in their writings. God had His true invisible Church even in the midst of a compromised visible one.
Later, men like the Wesleys saw great revival in England while themselves in some ways mimicking the hierarchical system of the Anglican church in their structure. The question finally is not what is God able to do in spite of us (obviously much), but what does the Bible teach foundationally on the nature of the Church, and how can we live it out? Can’t we admire John Wesley’s command of the Gospel, stand in awe of the move of God through his preaching, and still concede that maybe he was weaker when it came to the subject of the nature of the Church? Even when motives of preachers were highly questionable, Paul in Philippians rejoiced when the Gospel was preached. We can do the same.
Greg Ogden’s book The New Reformation: Returning the Ministry to the People of God, Zondervan, 1990, put many of these ideas in a more modern ecclesiological context and foresaw the rumblings of change some feel today. While not a theological work, George Barna’s Revolution, Tyndale, 2005, is in a way a prescription for a similar reformation in the way we engage the local church in America.
To be continued...