Change: Adaptive, Progressive, or Regressive?

Change: Adaptive, Progressive, or Regressive?

Or, Was the 1st-Century Church a Helpless Embryo or an Ambulatory, Full-fledged Entity?

In terms of coming to understand and practice the authentic Christian faith, for me, it goes without saying that 1st-century documents carry more prescriptive authority than 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-century sources.  Said another way:  the later the writing, the more likely that undesirable/undesired ideas crept into it.  The last blogpost probed along these lines, even to the point of distinguishing among decades and developments in the 1st century.  Could some later New Testament documents have begun to veer from the originally laid out course?

This is not so much about a hermeneutic of authorization, i.e., that specific things were/were not authorized by God, and that such things were/were not codified in the writings.  I do not take that approach.  Nor can any careful NT reader ascertain that any particular 1st-century congregation—say, Antioch in the 40s or Philippi in the 60s—was iconic.  I do, however, wonder whether the letters to Timothy and Titus, attributed to Paul, might betray a relatively early adaptation of original Christian practice viz. the roles of church leaders (bishops/elders/pastors) and servants (deacons).  For sake of discussion, I am assuming that that “original,” however elusive it might be to us today, was a good thing, worthy of some later pursuit.

[Aside:  calling attention to the relative timing (early vs. late) of Christian writings begs the question of how undesirable these blogposts of mine might be.  They are, after all, about as “late” as I can get in terms of authorship!  Here, I only intend to be comparing the canonical apostolic scriptures and the works of the so-called church fathers, not even distinguishing between the Antenicene fathers and the later ones.  Moreover, there are always exceptions to a general rule; many helpful and/or worthy passages will be found in later writings.]

If something is just born, is it only to be pitied as a helpless creature, not fully formed?  Some might think here of the long-observed “progression” from movement to sect, and from sect to denominational institution, but that is not really where I’m headed.  Larry Hurtado has recently offered a corrective to the idea that a newly born anything is necessarily to be seen as a baby.  I agree that a sense of early Christian faith and practice is crucial, and I do not relegate the nascent first-century movement to “helpless infant” or “cute toddler” status.  There is no call to apologize for, say, documented aspects of Christianity in the year 48 or 57 or 62.  Hurtado sees mid-1st-century Pauline literature as viable:  Paul, in writing his letters, presupposed that Christianity was at that time “adequately formed and fully appropriate.”  Hurtado has his “historian” hat on as he assesses this way, and the hat fits well.  It is good for later observers not to superimpose value judgments (“well, Christianity was little more than embryonic then”) that cloud or falsely view the realities of historical scenarios and changes.

Hurtado goes further in suggesting that observed changes are not necessarily “deviations from a ‘pure’ and ‘original’ form.”  Sometimes, changes may merely be adaptations of a neutral original.  To question the existence of an original ideal is admittedly uncomfortable for me, restorationist and neo-protestant that I am.  In the ecclesiological sphere, I am typically suspicious of changes that occurred well after the launching of the movement—so this bent would affect my reading of Origen, Eusebius, and Tertullian—although generally supportive of changes in organizational methodology in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Without delving into specific reasons for this apparent inconsistency, I think there are some fairly good reasons for it, at least with the types of changes I have in mind.

I affirm that changes do not necessarily imply progress.  Sometimes, change may be regressive; in other instances, merely adaptive.  Take the Windows PC platform (now perhaps more a fortress than a portal from which to see out and do one’s work) as an example.  Windows 3.1 was quite functional and seems to me to have been well tested, with little performance concern.  From the end user’s perspective, Windows 95 “progressed” yet had serious issues, some of which were fixed in Windows 98.  I found Windows XP to represent a more helpful progression, whereas Windows 7 and Windows 8 were beset by issues.  The successively opaque versions of Windows might be alternately assessed as progressive or unwisely adaptive to demand.  Somewhat similarly, while some ecclesiological adaptations of the first century were arguably progressive, the eventualities that led to the Roman Catholic institution are for me adaptive departures from the original ideal.¹  From the cultural and “market” perspectives, some changes that occurred in, e.g., the 4th century or the 6th were understandable adaptations, while others were misbegotten and fraught with apostasy.

As a historian, one should not, as Hurtado points up, arbitrarily overlay value judgments on changes.  As an idealistic Christ-ian, though, I long for authentic, pure faith, untainted by decades of darkness and centuries of clouds.  I see the composite picture of the early church as presenting a better, more viable ideal than any ecclesiological reality manifest in any later centuries, despite the sincere efforts of various reformers through the ages.  And yes, these are value judgments.  I admit it.

To read Dr. Hurtado’s blogpost, click the title below.

How We See Historical Changes


¹ For instance, I should think the Apostle Peter would be spiritually indignant if made aware of what transpired over a period of centuries with regard to his person and legacy.  Those changes might be viewed as regressive or progressive, depending on one’s viewpoint, but they were in any event substantial departures from the original ideal.

Of playpens and adjustability

The proper name is Pack ‘n Play, I think.  It’s made by Graco, and it’s Jedd’s temporary home several times during the day.  While we were traveling, he slept in it, and he did again last night when we had friends stay overnight.

Jedd travels well.  He’s generally pleasant while riding in his car seat.  Oh, he might grump a little, but it’s over within 5-10 seconds.  He looks out the window, smiles, responds when one of us pats his legs, talks a little, plays with a few toys….  Although Karly put Jedd on a schedule within a few weeks of his birth, he’s also been accustomed to a lot of change in his life.  When we’re home, it’s more or less a routine, but there are always changes.  Jedd does well with all this.  He goes to sleep in his playpen just about anywhere.  He sits facing front in the car as well as he sat facing the rear.  He crawls here & there, sometimes scoots around in his walker after breakfast, and sometimes he does that after dinner (that’s “supper” for you in the South).  So many people have held him since he was 2 weeks old that he readily reaches out to interested “strangers”; he of course has his favorites, but he’s happy with just about anyone.  He takes new experiences well.  (See below!)

At the ripe old age of 12.9 months, Jedd is already comfortably entrenched in a mode of change.

Churches would do well, too, to be entrenched in a mode of constant change.  It’s better not to need to worry–or even think–about a minor change in the order on Sunday morning, because you are sort of  accustomed to “never knowing what to expect.”  Imagine being just fine with a steady stream of adjustments.  It’s not that there would be no constants, no security.  No, it’s that there would be enough change every time the Christians assembled that every gathering would feel fresh and meaningful.  Almost paradoxically, change would itself bring comfort.

Would this be change for change’s sake?  Well, if regular change helps to make a child pleasant and agreeable, and if providing that M.O. for him could be said to be intentionally inflicting change so he’ll be better able to deal with whatever comes at him, then so be it–both for a child and for the church’s assemblies.

Let our churches be comfortably entrenched in a mode of change.

Specific corporate changes

Might there be changes I’d like to see in churches that already feel they are doing things differently. Why, yes!

Let’s start with the Lord’s Supper. Those churches that feel (perhaps to our surprise?) they are already pretty progressive in this area might be doing something like coordinating the preceding prayers with a song or two … or maybe the church is now “innovatively” separating the collection from the Lord’s Supper when for years these events have come in uninterrupted sequence.

Progressive developments I might look for in this sphere:

  • opting for the entire congregation to move toward the table to receive the bread and juice, avoiding the “officiating server” element altogether
  • the intinction method as a variant
  • consciously including aspects of communion time that have not recently received focus … for example, if the church always thinks about remembering Jesus a la 1 Cor. 11 (which is read in probably 30% of Church of Christ buildings on any given Sunday), then add a horizontal consciousness of the currently human Body of Christ, or encourage a future-look toward ultimate redemption
  • following the example of the so-called Last Supper by
    • meeting in the evening, in an upper room
    • relaxing around a table in small groups
    • eating a traditional meal together, pausing for observance of the sacred Body and Blood, and/or
    • singing a hymn before the congregation goes out to pray

Personally, I’d prefer not to have a Judas involved in each communion time. 🙂

In worship planning, for those churches that have members gifted and interested, I would like to see effective teams of heads and hearts working mutually on content, sequences, and methodologies. “Worship team” would then taken on a new significance–not a group of somewhat talented performers who can lead musically, but a group of people whose hearts are given to core worship experiences, and who desire earnestly to help provide others with deep experiences.

In ordering “the service,” I might go so far as to suggest that all churches accustomed to printing/projecting the order would cease and desist. (Believe it or not, some churches seem to think they “get” worship merely because they print an order, appearing more “orderly” than they have for years.) Churches that have never done so should start. Some congregations need more spontaneity, and others need more thoughtful planning.

Assemblies as a whole would contain more worship content–in song, in prayer, in spoken word, in times given to meditation. Any traditional liturgies employed should be transcended by meaning. While there might be a few samenesses–such as one leader’s always closing things or leading most of the music–rarely, if ever, would the order of events be the same this week as it was last week.

Small groups would be the place where most of “church” happened (instead of being an add-on time-taker in the lives of us too-busy saints). Shepherds (elders/pastors/bishops) would sometimes refuse to meet for the purpose of discussing business, dedicating themselves rather to the care of souls. Few paid preachers would exist, and sermons would be more special and focused, because they wouldn’t occur all the time. When they did, there would be mutual response time, guided by a shepherd. Deaconesses and deacons would deac, and elders would eld. All would minister to one another. Families would plan devotional experiences for the church. Christian living would be pondered in community, and lives would be changed for the better each week. Men and women would reach in, out, and around in small trios and quartets, devotedly holding each other accountable for changes needed in each life.

OK, I went a little crazy there. I won’t retract the dreamy generalities, but I’ll close this with a bit more specificity.

I’ve been in churches that think they’re really innovative when they have a sermon broken into 2 or 3 segments, with scripture readings preceding or following each segment. OK. That’s probably good, as far as it goes. Those churches might be encouraged to expand on this idea for a period of a month or two. Each spoken lesson (sermon) could be tied to a scripture that was a) read orally by a capable reader, b) prayed over by a shepherd who knew both the context of the scripture and the focal point of the succeeding message, and c) silently meditated on prior to the sermon, d) exegeted by the preacher, and e) prayed about again.

And one more … this time, showing how much of a curmudgeon I can be, but truly with a view toward more connectivity in our assemblies:  I would that church leaders would avoid speech crutches like “Good morning” before every comment of substance.  A simple omission like that would only go so far, but replacing the over-used “good morning” greeting with a spiritually sensitive, connecting or focusing phrase.  Something along these lines, after the singing of “A Mighty Fortress”:

Yes, as Luther wrote, our God is truly a mighty fortress.  As I begin to pray, may I encourage you to stand before this God, amazed in your spirits at His grandeur.

How’s that? (I could go on.) Does any of this resonate in the experiences of others out there, or is it just my over-sheltered soul that needs these kinds of changes?

A Once-Ailing Word Is Healed

Change? Why? You’re just asking for trouble. Whaddya wanna do—upset the apple cart?!

Before us stands our never-shifting God—transcending our sociological as well as our vaguely Biblical, deeply ingrained tenets. Ultimately, He does not change. But somewhere within His eternal identity, paradoxically, is the source of our deep-down drive to change.

“Be holy as I am holy,” He had a servant write (and rewrite hundreds of years later). Surely the power to be transformed into someone holy emanates from Someone Who already is. And similarly, the reason for changing anything—daily habits, personal attitudes, methods, ways of worship, any church routine—is rooted in the God of the Universe. Because it’s quite a bit easier, I’ll write today about the church stuff instead of about personal holiness, but the principles may be more cross-applicable than one would initially think.

The worship of God is not a rule of safety—it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable (A. N. Whitehead)

As I’ve been through the doors of perhaps two or three hundred church buildings over the years, I have noticed a couple of truisms related to traditional ruts and the perception of change:

  1. No two churches are exactly alike, despite the sense of some that they are using a scriptural blueprint.
  2. Churches are much more similar to each other than they sometimes think; those churches that have the gift of thoughtfully approaching method and doctrine are likely to think they are more progressively different than they really are.

We must be anchored, grounded, rooted in reality … and certainly in scripture. But I find that the message most churches need to hear is that it is perfectly all right to do things differently. There is no reason to be fettered to the past, if the past is of human invention. A couple dozen years (or a couple centuries, or even a couple millennia!) of tradition do not an immutable doctrine make.

The freedoms some churches feel they enjoy are so encased in tradition that they are really not very freeing after all. I speak here, for instance, of the many churches I’ve visited that warn me in advance, with a knowing, liberated grin and a wink, that “we do things a little differently here.” The anticipation of a truly progressive church treat wells up within me, and I begin to hunger for what I have not yet experienced on a regular basis. I grow moderately envious … “Wow, sounds great,” I think to myself or say out loud. “You guys sound really thoughtful and as though you give such great attention to meaning over method. I can’t wait for the assembly tomorrow morning.” But when I experience said assembly, almost invariably, the “doing things differently” amounts to little more than singing two songs instead of one, or having the announcements last instead of first.

As we are compelled and convicted by our God, we change . . . if we are disciples of integrity, that is. The changes we make are sometimes costly in terms of human relationship, human security, and human affirmations received. But we change not for humans—not for others, and not for ourselves. We change because something in our core demands it. Our soporific minds hunger for depth. Our bored bodies crave involvement. Our catatonic spirits yearn for meaning … and for passionate engagement in worship. Even (especially?) the contented souls among us need change in order to grow.

Change. The concept is viable and credible. Once ailing, it has been nourished and treated with the Great Physician’s pure Word and with a guiding Spirit. It is healthy, whole, and ready to do its work.

Lord, where we need to change, we commit to changing for You and You alone. We will adjust our worship practices in order to honor and glorify You better. We agree to modify all our behaviors because You need them modified. And we wish to be servants who will never, never hold onto anything we originated if it means relinquishing something You originated.

You are worthy of our attention, our submission, our devotion, and our constant worship. Transform us daily into Your image—so we can be more like Your Incarnate Son, and more like the eternal spirits we will be because of Your marvelous grace.

Now hold on there!

It does a soul good to have this question asked of it periodically:  What am I holding on to?

In my years of congregational life as an adult, I have often observed a strong tendency to hold on to things that do not merit such tenacity.  I have been guilty, too.

There is One worthy of our clinging, though . . . one holy Being that deserves our stretching, our grasping, and our gripping.  The past, the present, and even the future are not to be iconized.  Only our God should be clutched tightly to our hearts.

Change, as we all know, is often resisted.  Though many of us are in favor of Godly change, even we tend to resist it.

It is unfortunate that change is so uncomfortable.  Change requires energy, devotion, and thought.  But Godliness is not inextricably associated with comfort, and true discipleship is not a bedfellow of lethargy, lukewarmness, or mental inactivity.

God needs us to be adaptable.  He needs vessels of a malleable material.

And so change should be a mode, a habit.  (If we are ready at any moment to adapt as we hear Him saying important things to us, then we will have no trouble being flexible with less important matters such as assembly patterns and other weekly, congregational matters.)

Hold on to God!  Be willing to let go of anything else if He wants you to.  Be changeable and open.  But hold on to God.