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.

An improper riddance of the proper

With proper-noun naming (denominating) comes more of a sense of formal organization, as detailed in the last post here.  A denominated group may manifest unwillingness to have its name questioned.  This was my experience when teaching a junior high Bible class as a young instructor in a Christian academy.  I had the one Bible class (along with band and choir classes I taught) and took them all very seriously; the worksheet below is one assignment I devised for the students.

8th grade test given during a course on the book of Acts at a Church of Christ school
Worksheet used during a course on the book of Acts at a CofC school

One would think that I’d’ve been applauded for asking the 8th graders to “go back to the Bible” to find various descriptions and labels for the church.  Not so.  The Bible class was actually taken away from me midstream.  In my view (obviously not that of a certain school administrator and, I suspect, some others with clout), this was an improper riddance of me as a Bible teacher.  More important, it was an improper pushing-aside of some very simple, yet significant, facts from scripture.

It is hurtful to be judged unworthy by the group from which you originate when you are only trying to bring growth.  Although I was over those particular wounds within a couple years, in a very real sense, a general anxiety in connection with potentially being judged improperly has remained with me.

Relatively consistently for a quarter-century now, I have been seriously interested in undenominational Christianity, relegating group names to a low berth if proper names must be used at all.  This is a small part of restoring and unifying, but it is a part nonetheless.

Subtle shifts to the “proper”

It can be intriguing and informative to learn of groups other than the one from which you originate.

Various groups, like “mine,” have had their struggles with restoration and unity.°  Many attempts to restore or reform have involved division and departure from larger, established groups, as well.  While that precedent is commendable, another trend is negative:  as far as I can tell, all reforming groups of any size have eventually become proper-noun institutions rather than bodies/organisms.  For instance,

The Church of God initially called itself the church of God to indicate its understanding of unity.  To my knowledge, no one has traced the shift from church of God to Church of God.[1]

That no one had historically traced the shift may indicate an apathy about institutionalization/ crystallization.  In other words, if one is content with membership in an institution, s/he might not even notice the subtle shift from church to Church over a period of years.  In my own musings and dreamings, I admit that I have at times been fixated on naming something I wanted to be a reality but didn’t yet exist for me.  Although I’m quite content in one respect simply to gather with Christians for discussion or study or a communion meal (to name a few things), at some point, I do wonder what to call the group or the meeting.  The gathering.  Our study.  The community group.  Our Christian get-together.  The practical reality is that we need nouns (sometimes, adjectives) when we refer to something.

When one “calls” oneself something, as an individual, he likely has a common-noun sense in mind.  I can call myself an erstwhile athlete, a dad, a husband, a teacher, a studyer of ancient texts, a musician.  All those labels have function or activity at their root.  When a group feels it should call itself something, though, a corner has been rounded, and the group probably then has a proper-noun sense in mind.  A group may be

  • a band . . . or The Balderdash Band
  • a team . . . or The Phillies
  • a duo . . . or The Dynamic Horn Duo
  • a church . . . or The XYZ Church

(In English, the indefinite or definite article helps to clarify the sense of the label.)

With proper-noun naming (denominating) comes more of a sense of formal organization.  When a proper-noun sense is the obvious intent of a church group, the lower-case “c” on “church” is incorrect.  It is admirable if a group wishes to retain a lower-case “c” sense of meaning, but actual retention is often elusive.  “The apparently irresistible urge to bureaucratize reflects a modern mind-set.”[4]

John Brooks of the Church of God (Holiness) argued that human law in the church was “not only unnecessary, but presumptuous.”[2]  The flyleaf of Brooks’s book describes its contents:  “a treatise on the origin, constitution, order, and ordinances of the Church; being a vindication of the New Testament Ecclesia, and an exposure of the anti-scriptural character of the modern church of sect.”  “Church of sect,” by the way, is Brooks’s term for the denominational system.[3]  Ironically, Brooks used the capital C in the first instance—presumably not to refer to his group but to “The (universal) Church,” as a whole, through the ages.  I would argue that any such capitalization tends to institutionalize rather than to focus on meaning and function.  When Luke wrote in Acts of “the way,” there were no capital letters employed, and I can’t be sure whether Luke a) wanted his readers to recognize a formal label for the new sect or b) perhaps was merely depicting function, i.e., this is the pathway for God’s people.

In speaking of the anabaptist (which might have a lower-case “a” sense when speaking of the dynamic, or a capital-letter sense when historically identifying the masses in a recognized movement), Theron Schlabach has noted, “The essence was radical discipleship and the ever-renewing church.  The structural pattern was non-structure, really:  to transcend the cultural and ecclesiastical structures that history had produced and to be a Spirit-led, constantly recreated people of God rather than an institution.”[5]  I say “yes” and label that good.

Where I land in all this, for the present (and it’s been relatively consistent for a quarter-century now), is that I am one of Christ’s, weakly trying to follow; I am shying away from institutional manifestations where I find them; and I am trying to be part of a movement.

° Some restorative groups that come to mind:  Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites; Lutherans; Oneness Pentecostals; Church of the Brethren; Church of Christ and Christian Church; and various Reformed churches.  I am not intentionally omitting any group here; I suspect that most of them (even the Roman Catholics?) would lay some claim to attempting to restore or reform something at some point.  The groups I listed are a few that have, more or less, made reformation something of a hallmark.

[1] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 134.  Emphasis on letter case mine, bc.

[2] The Divine Church (Columbia, MO.:  Herald, 1891; rpt., New York:  Garland, 1984), 27.

[3] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 136.

[4] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 126.

[5] Theron F. Schlabach, “Renewal and Modernization among American Mennnonites,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 213.

Unity and restoration

Unity and restoration were both key goals of the American Restoration Movement, and of many of the more serious Christian thinkers and practicers throughout history.  These goals are often found in opposition to one another.  In other words, if one is asserted, the other suffers.

James O'Kelly

For example, James O’Kelly led a division among American Methodists in 1793, apparently largely in opposition to the religious tyranny of the circuit-riding “bishop” Francis J. Asbury.

Francis J. Asbury

Inasmuch as O’Kelly was presumably restoring, disunity resulted.  If he had opted to accede, to resign himself to something not purely biblical, restoratory goals would have suffered.

A slogan of old was “Let Christian unity be our polar star.”  Such a galactic berth for unity may be a mite too high, in the grand scheme, but certainly the Lord’s Prayer (John 17) calls for unity with passion and conviction, and we should, too.

As I bring this series to a close, I would like to reiterate what Paul said to the Christians in Corinth (a loose paraphrase of some of 1 Cor. 1:11-17):

  • separate, named groupings within a Christian body are divisive
  • even Jesus’ name may be used to divide, and divisions among Christians are not good

By extension, the denominational situation in the world today is decidedly not a good thing.  Sectarianism and denominationalism are not to be accepted without question as the approved, natural outgrowth of the spread of the gospel and of human nature; rather, these denominations are to be worked in and worked through, to the end that all sectarian names, ideologies, and creeds should be abolished, giving way to the pure messages of the scriptures, and unity based on those messages.  I wish the words of the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery were soulfully, intentionally applied to every denomination:

We will, that this body die, be dissolved,
and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large;
for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.

May restoration continue to occur, and may unity grow alongside it.  May unity be found in scriptural truth and in the truth of Jesus the Living Word.

Models for unity

Continuing from the past few days, I’ll add a few more points and will soon leave this matter of Christian unity.

Unity based on single doctrinal points (or families of related points) may be difficult to achieve, if not completely fallacious.  Water unity isn’t even attainable within the circles of the Baptist denomination(s) or the Church of  Christ, for instance.¹  Calvinistic unity, too, is elusive, as may be observed in a casual glance at the Presbyterian Church (either of them), the Christian Reformed Church, and the Lutheran Church (either of them).

Head unity is based on reasoned understandings and was stressed by Alexander Campbell and Disciples of Christ in the 19C,² but it depends on conformity of human brain activity and is not likely to occur.  Still, it probably does us good to narrow the sense of core Christian doctrine down to the facts upon which more/most of us may unite.  Many of us can agree on such facts as Jesus’ birth to the virgin Mary, His atoning, sacrificial death, His miraculous resurrection, etc.  Opinions about the facts are other matters altogether.  Never can two thinking Christians unite on every peripheral opinion, induction, or deduction about a biblical fact, but the facts themselves deserve much consideration in this arena.

False unity results when a charismatic leader describes unity and asserts it where it does not exist.  Gregarious pastor-types may seek popularity by means of downplaying differences and making things appear more unified than they are.  Glistening or syrupy sermons do not create unity.

Leroy Garrett highlights what Barton Stone called fire unity–the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Inasmuch as this means the unity given by the Spirit that we are merely to maintain (Eph. 4), it warrants attention.  It’s not a goal so much as it is a reality:   we don’t need to achieve it; it’s already achieved.  But if “fire unity” means some supra-natural manifestation of the Holy Spirit–or even vaguely refers to something like “the Pentecostal fire of Christ’s presence”–as a marker of unity, it’s clearly not very unifying and is bound to fail.

Sunday-only unity can be more difficult for some, and less difficult for others.  Whether it works depends, in part, on one’s ecclesiology in terms of the assembly–how prominently corporate Sunday activities figure into the scheme or worldview.

  • If one thinks that what is done on Sundays is central and non-negotiable, agreement on those things is necessary for peace, as it were.  By conscience, some insist on conformity in all things observable during the Christian assembly.³  This scenario may be difficult to imagine in reality (or it may almost be assumed by those who by personality or conviction are bandwagon believers), but I have found it to exist commonly in the churches of the ARM.  It may be experienced rather shallowly in suburban and urban areas, but it is experienced nonetheless, and a measure of conformist peace may be reassuring.  On the other hand, this kind of unity is at once elusive and illusive.  A false “blueprint” conception of the New Covenant writings may be at the foundation.  The scriptures were not written to provide a precise pattern for church behaviors, although they do provide many guiding principles — and certain specifics — for all aspects of living.
  • If one thinks more relationally, i.e., how I believe in relation to the sister or brother sitting in front of me or beside me, then corporate activities take a back seat.  Large-scale aspects may be agreed on, or not, and the relationships will continue to be primary.  As the ultra-rightist, Reaganite, Commie-hating character Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox, Family Ties) once articulated it when considering a Russian chess opponent, “It’s easier to hate a country than a person.”  Stated in the positive, it’s also easier to love and accept a sincere, individual believer, than an entire, off-base denomination or a large-scale corporate practice not based in scripture.

Perhaps a blend of extroversion and introversion is in order here:  thinking soberly and biblically about what is done when Christians gather together, yes, but also emphasizing individual relationships and the discipleship of individual souls alongside the large-scale stuff.

One more installment, tomorrow:  Unity and Restoration–a plea


¹ I understand that a Baptist forbear, John Smyth, immersed himself.  If he did that for the sake of church membership, as many Baptists today call for it, I’d be shocked.

² The Barton W. Stone “side” of the ARM does not seem to have emphasized rationalism as much as the Campbell side.

³ Further in the Sunday-unity model, there may be implications for discussions in lobbies and in Bible classes:  agreement on a list of items is either assumed or inflicted.  Dissent is either absent or kept under wraps.

Uniting Christians

When we ponder unity, we may be considering the uniting of entire denominations with other ones, or entire local congregations with other ones, or simply — most significantly, I think, as an introvert! — the way individual Christians accept and interact with one another.

Churches and denominations may be labeled “inclusive,” which of course implies that other ones are exclusive.  Ecumenical churches would tend to be more inclusive, but the exclusive/inclusive dichotomy does not necessarily parallel the ecumenical/non-ecumenical one.  Nor does the conservative/liberal contradistinction necessarily predict aspects of unity among believers.  It is possible, in other words, to be biblically conservative without being relationally exclusive.

Leroy Garrett wrote recently on the so-called Lunenberg Letter of Alexander Campbell:

It is when differences are allowed to make a people quarrelsome, hateful, and factious and thus exclusive — drawing the line of fellowship — that divisions come. Exclusivism has been the culprit, and when we look for its beginnings in the Movement we find that its roots had been there all along. From the outset Alexander Campbell talked about “uniting the Christians in the sects,” which inferred that he believed there were Christians in the sects,  but to some of his followers this appeared to conflict with what he had been saying about baptism by immersion being for the remission of sins.

This gave occasion for the Lunenburg Letter, which became the basis of an ongoing controversy that began in 1837. A lady in Lunenburg, Virginia, one of Campbell’s readers, wrote to him about this apparent contradiction. In view of what he had taught about immersion how could there be Christians in the sects if they have not been immersed, she asked, and sharpened the question by asking him to define a Christian.

After warning against being an “ultraist,” noting that any command can be distorted through overemphasis, and insisting that the devotion of the heart means more than outward forms, Campbell gave the definition the woman asked for: “But who is a Christian? I answer, Every one who believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God, repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will.”

Alexander Campbell’s “Lunenburg letter” is a seminal document in the American Restoration Movement.  It shows not only Campbell’s developing thinking, but also his willingness to engage a serious question from someone apparently to his right — a statement about unity in itself!  Moreover, Campbell’s definition of “Christian” is worthy of careful thought.  One belonging to Christ (= “Christian”), says Campbell, has a personal belief in Jesus, and makes necessary changes in life.

The final phrase in the response–“according to his measure of knowledge of his will”–is of clear significance.  It is much easier to be in practical, accepting unity with individuals if we can allow for individual measures of knowledge.  In other words, something may be utterly clear to me (and I may or may not be right about it), but if my sister’s or brother’s “measure of knowledge” is different on some point, that matter is better left between that person and God.  This principle has come to be known as the “principle of available light.”

Next:  a few misc. (finer?) points about unity