Does the New Testament Church (“Ekklesia”) Exist Today?
As everyone who has read my blog for very long knows, one of my favorite Christian theologians is Emil Brunner (1889-1966). When I was in seminary (1970s) his three volume Dogmatics was widely used as the primary textbook for courses in systematic theology in American seminaries—including the one I attended and graduated from. Later I discovered that is Dogmatics was really mostly a compilation of his thoughts in earlier monographs on theological subjects. Some of them were The Mediator (Christology), Man in Rebellion (Theological Anthropology), The Divine Imperative (Christian Ethics), and The Misunderstanding of the Church (Ecclesiology). Brunner was, without doubt, the theologian who introduced so-called “neo-orthodoxy” (not a term he embraced) or “dialectical theology” to British and American theological audiences in the 1930s. As late as the 1970s, a decade and more after his death, his Dogmatics was widely read and studied. There is a small revival of interest in Brunner today and I’m glad for it. I think Brunner had and still has much to say to us.
I’ve written about Brunner here before, so I will not go into any more detail about his overall theological method or specific doctrinal proposals. Here I want to use his The Misunderstanding of the Church and the chapters in his Dogmatics 3: The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation to muse about church life especially in the West—Europe and North America.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Recently some Christian friends whom I have known for many years confided in me that they struggle to find a church that has the qualities they expect—especially anything resembling what we read about the church, the “ekklesia,” in the New Testament. I empathize with that struggle. Of course, they and I recognize that it is probably not possible to recreate that first century church exactly as it was then in twenty-first century America. On the other hand, it seems to us that it should be possible to approximate it and that most churches we know about do not seem especially concerned to even attempt that. Or, on the other hand, many claim to have achieved it but we are not convinced.
We, my friends and I, are restorationists in our ecclesiology. We believe, contrary especially to many “high church” traditions, that at least approximating the restoration of the New Testament church as it was, as much as possible in this very different cultural context is an ideal even if an impossible one. In other words, we believe churches should at least try. (Note: We are not “Restorationists” in the sense of belonging to the variety of Protestant Christianity that traces its roots back to Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone—the so-called “Stone-Campbell” or “Campbellite” tradition.)
Brunner argued in Dogmatics 3 (and somewhat also in The Misunderstanding of the Church) that it is impossible to recreate the Ekklesia of the New Testament today; it is gone forever—at least until Christ’s return. However, I’m not entirely convinced that he was right. Yes, I agree, that with regard to the “trappings” of church (buildings, church polity, having hymnals or not, etc.) it’s not even important to try to recover and restore the New Testament church. But I agree with Brunner that the true “essence” of the Ekklesia then was pure fellowship in a very broad sense of “fellowship.” (Here no one should assume his or her idea of fellowship is what was meant by Brunner or by me.) Brunner meant that the New Testament church was especially marked by communal fellowship with God through the Holy Spirit centered around the living presence of Jesus Christ in their midst and by God’s people, filled with the Holy Spirit, devoted and committed to Jesus Christ, enjoying life shared together in Christian life and faith. According to Brunner, a definite “falling away” from that primitive Christian fellowship that especially marked the New Testament Ekklesia took place in the later first century and early second century as the Christian churches of the Roman Empire took on the character of a sacramental, clerical institution. In brief, according to Brunner, the church gradually but also fairly quickly became defined more as where the bishop is than where the Spirit is.
Jumping to today…. Of course there are many churches that do not have bishops in any formal sense. And there are church that have bishops where that is simply a translation of a New Testament word (episkopos) and where it does not have any of the later meaning. The word is not what is important in this conversation. The point is: institutionalism. Even a church that eschews formal, hierarchical leadership can be mired in institutionalism to the extent that institutional traditions and forms smother the fellowship as described above.
However, I would remind Brunner that “institutionalism” and “sacramentalism” and “clericalism” are not the only evidences of lack of New Testament Christianity in today’s Christian churches. Perhaps in American, anyway, the main evidence of that lack is the fact that most people simply attend and do not really participate and do not even really know each other except as acquaintances in the “church.” The idea of sharing life in intentional Christian community, “deep fellowship,” is often considered a mark of a “cult.” I suspect that for many American Christians today, any church that exists pretty much like the New Testament church would be considered something of a “cult.”
Clearly the New Testament church had two practices largely and perhaps intentionally absent in the vast majority of American churches: deep sharing of life together and church discipline. Of course one could add to those two practices certain characteristics such as expectation of the powerful and life-transforming presence of the Holy Spirit resulting in radically changed lives and even miracles. Almost all of my students from Africa and Asia tell me that they quickly notice how different American churches are from theirs “back home” and these are some of those differences.
To be perfectly honest and blunt, knowing this will offend some readers (and possibly even some friends so I apologize already and in advance), it seems to me that the vast majority of churches that seem, on the surface, to have come close to recovering the New Testament Ekklesia, have what I will call “cult-like quirks” that drive people looking for a New Testament church away. What do I mean by “cult-like quirks?” Well, and here I am thinking of some churches I know that claim to have recovered in themselves the spirit of the New Testament Ekklesia, for example they “take on board” some practice, making it too “large,” that can only be regarded by even most Christ-centered, Spirit-filled Christians as fanatical such as “personal prophesying” or (some time back especially) “slaying in the Spirit” or “leg-lengthening through prayer” or “exorcism” or…. I could go on naming numerous such oddities that have nothing to do with Christian fellowship, life together around Jesus Christ energized by the Holy Spirit, or the New Testament Ekklesia generally.
A problem for my friends and me is that we once—long ago—actually did belong to a church that seems to us to have been very much like the New Testament Ekklesia. Oh, they and I would not deny that it had problems, but at least for a time we experienced there true Christian fellowship, the powerful and transforming presence of the Holy Spirit elevating Jesus Christ in our lives together, accountability and loving church discipline, sound biblical teaching and preaching, deep Bible study, healings of body and emotions, and outreach to those in physical and/or spiritual need. Truly then, in that place and time, almost everyone who knew of that church said of it: “Look how they love one another.” Numerous visitors testified without prompting that “When I walked in the door for the first time I felt something I’ve never felt before.” I realize that many people will sweep this claim away as mere super-spiritual superstition, but my friends and I agree that, at least for a while, that church seemed to be “saturated” with God’s presence in an undefinable and even supernatural way.
I could go on talking about that church, but I will stop and just say that I know something of the New Testament Ekklesia can be recovered today. I’ve experienced it. But my friends and I agree that it is extremely rare.
What would it take to experience the New Testament Ekklesia recovered today? I believe it cannot happen through intentional programming alone. What it requires is a communal agreement to open up to it and invite the Holy Spirit to do it among them. That plus leadership with New Testament-based wisdom to guide and steer the church away from the natural tendency—in such churches—for what I called “cult-like quirks” to invade. It requires a communal openness to risk the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. It takes a willingness, even eagerness, to let go of traditionalism (the dead faith of the living) and be transformed.
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