byW. Rance Darity
A considerable gap exists between the church today and the original Christian movement. Many Christians have seen this for a long time and responded accordingly. Many more of us would benefit by bridging the gap.
In the following dialogue with the early church, I have labeled today's popular perspective as "myth" and theirs as "fact." I feel justified in appropriating such "loaded" words mostly because of our boasted assumption that we are "biblical people." But myths are not deliberate falsehoods intentionally meant to deceive. Rather, in this case at least, myths are unconscious assumptions absorbed from our religious/cultural environment. "Demythologizing church" is not a trivial pursuit but a reckoning with critical distinctions.
Listen carefully as we interact with a church without clergy, salaries, special buildings, and denominational divisions (maybe even pulpits and collection plates were missing). Ask them why so many of their ordinary men and women were so prominently involved as apostolic co-workers, prophets, and teachers. Wonder at their simple "faithful sayings," informal dialogues, spontaneous evangelism and church growth, as well as devoted hospitality and material sharing!
Myths of Clericalism
Myth # 1: The church is to be composed of a trained clergy and a committed laity.
Fact: The New Testament has much to say about commitment and instruction but does not make any artificial distinctions between members of Christ's body such as "clergy" and "laity." All members are to serve each other and no one is given the singular status of the professional minister.
Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:7-16; 1 Peter 4:9-11.
Myth # 2: The church needs the services of a single servant of God, set apart as the pastor of the congregation and duly ordained by an official church body, to guide and instruct the members in spiritual matters.
Fact: There is no record that the early church set apart such men to be pastors, granting them central authority and full responsibility to lead and guide the other members. Christ himself is the Shepherd of the sheep and he has gifted all the members to serve one another on the basis of love and devotion. Some are gifted to teach, some to lead, some to show hospitality, etc. Nowhere in the New Testament is "the pastor" singled out for exclusive attention or honor as is done in the traditional church order.
Matthew 23:8-12; 1 Corinthians 12; 14:26; James 3:1,2.
Myth # 3: Churches need to depend upon the wisdom and care of one man (priest or senior pastor) whom they can look to as God's spokesman in the difficult and delicate matters of congregational leadership.
Fact: Besides the ordinary mutual care of the members of Christ, the early church often had the help and guidance of servant-leaders referred to as elders and supervisors who, due to their maturity and example, qualified as loving undershepherds. Where these were present there was usually more than one, but this constituted no ecclesiastical hierarchy, such as developed later in church history.
Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-15; Titus 1:5-9; Acts 20:17-35.
Myth # 4: Practicality and wisdom dictates that the church should disregard the early church practice of a universal priesthood and ministry in favor of the tried and proven clerical pattern.
Fact: The vitality and growth of many of the earliest Christian churches spoken of in the New Testament ought to serve as an effective argument that the traditional method does not possess a proven superiority over the original pattern. Further, there are many examples of non-clerical churches past and present to serve as influential and worthy models.
Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; Romans 16:1-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22.
Myths of Male Privilege
Myth # 5: Women are to be excluded from the preaching/teaching ministry on the basis of clear New Testament teaching. Modern efforts to ordain women to the ministry are violations of the biblical norm and an evidence of modernistic compromises.
Fact: The New Testament is silent about the need to ordain either men or women into the roles of preaching and teaching. A long history of ecclesiastical and social factors created the male-dominated clerical system entrenched in most major branches of Christianity. Further, there is unambiguous Scriptural testimony to gender non-discrimination in the teaching ministry of the early church.
Acts 2:17-18; 18:26; 21:9; Philippians 4:2,3.
Myth # 6: The New Testament silences women in the church as a necessary regulation owing to the God-created headship of men, the need for order, and the natural weaknesses of women.
Fact: Though this position has wide currency and the prospect of Scriptural support, it is fatally weakened by the broad occurrence of women participating in New Testament ministry and the explicit universalizing of Christian service in the gift of the Spirit. Both Luke and Paul strongly argue for the eclipse of old divisions of race, rank, and sex in the new creation of the Spirit. This is especially pronounced in the Lukan account of the ministry of Jesus and the early church. The narration of women who follow, witness, minister, travel, teach, prophesy, etc. is made explicit in the declaration that the Spirit is poured out on all people and that men, women, and young, sons, daughters, and servants will prophesy. The New Testament's prohibition of women speaking in church is variously interpreted by competent exegesis as owing either to local and temporary circumstances or to Paul's quoting the opponents of women in 1 Corinthians in order to rebuke them for acting contrary to his practice. In either case, the overwhelming support of Scripture favors teaching and leading as a shared privilege among the sexes.
Luke 1:39-55; 2:36-38; 8:1-3; 10:38-42; 11:27; 23:55-24:12; Acts 2:17-18; 18:26; 21:9; Romans 16:1-4, 6,7, 12; Galatians 3:28,29.
The Myth of Precisional Orthodoxy
Myth # 7: The faithful church is committed to uphold Scripturally-derived doctrinal standards and bring these distinctives to bear upon the fellowship and ministry of its members and leaders. Therefore the use of creeds, confessions, and doctrinal statements as the basis of fellowship and the standards of its ministry are required.
Fact: The New Testament in general knows nothing of the denominational administration of the body of Christ, nor does it elicit any evidence of the exacting doctrinal standards variously required by traditional church policies. The new life in Christ evidenced by minimal standards of credibility was the basic grounding of New Testament fellowship and not the highly doctrinaire theological traditions and orthodoxies that would characterize the later periods of ecclesiastical history. All who had faith in Christ were jointly recognized and informally included in these early house churches and local gatherings. Together the various members grew in their understanding and service in Christ. They did not put down in writing a pure body of divinity to be the criteria for future members. Rather, they evangelized and baptized spontaneously, welcoming to their fellowship tables the least and the last. Rigid concern for doctrinal standards grew in proportion to the effort to formalize and control this spontaneous growth throughout the world. As theological perspectives, these criteria serve as useful instructional models; as doctrinal prerequisites, they obstruct full fellowship and divide Christ's body.
Acts 2:38-47; 10:28-34; Romans 15:7; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; Galatians 3:26-29; Ephesians 4:1-6; Colossians 3:11-17.
True Grace Ministries