As I mentioned in the last post, James W. Thompson, a professor at Abilene Christian, just published The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ.
He begins by reviewing several popular theories of church mission.
Having observed the numerous attempts at reimagining the church, I am convinced that the most basic questions are not being asked. In the various strategies for reinventing the church, the theological identity of the church is assumed but not examined. The crisis of the church pertains not only to the loss of numbers but also to the fundamental question, what kind of church should survive? That is, what is the purpose of the church?
Thompson, James W. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 2). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I think this is exactly right. The need for church growth is assumed and is assumed to apply at the local congregational level. This seems obvious, but don’t we first need to be certain that our church is the sort that God would like to see grow? I mean, long before we get to growth, we need to cover faithfulness — and the church growth literature assumes faithfulness. But not all churches are faithful and not all deserve to grow. Some would serve the Kingdom better by dying — or, better yet, changing.
Thompson doesn’t go there (so far as I’ve seen so far in my reading), but we also assume that the local congregational model that we have is God’s model for how to do church. And it isn’t. In the First Century, there was only one congregation per city. The church met in multiple locations, normally houses, but these weren’t autonomous house churches. Rather, a single congregation under a single eldership met in multiple, perhaps 100s, of locations.
Consider the Jerusalem congregation. It was just one congregation, and yet it begin with 3,120 members. We are soon told it grew to have 5,000 adult male members (Acts 4:4). That puts total membership at maybe 20,000 thousand or more. Almost all Jewish men were married, and they usually had children very quickly after marriage. That at least triples the number. Add in widows and multiple children, you get 20,000 as a pretty conservative number.
And yet they were under a single eldership (apostleship/eldership, more precisely), meeting in the Temple courts but also in houses. A First Century house would hold no more than 30 — and that would be for someone pretty well off. (Today’s houses aren’t that much different. Try to hold a Bible study with 40 or 50, and unless you live in an unusually large house, it’ll be pretty uncomfortable.)
So that’s something like 700 locations in which 20,000 people met weekly for instruction and encouragement and worship (not mutually exclusive categories). Imagine the logistical problems! And yet despite how very difficult it must have been to keep up with who is meeting where, making sure the apostles rotate among all the houses, making sure a new convert finds a place to meet, etc., the church seems to have never questioned the necessity of meeting as one.
We observe the same phenomenon in Ephesus. In Acts 20:17, Paul addresses the elders of the church (singular), and yet Paul had been there for years and this was surely a church much larger than 30 members. They had elders! But just one congregation meeting in multiple houses.
In addition, there are arguments based on the Greek suggesting that the references to a “church meeting at [a person’s] home” really refer to the part of the church meeting in that house. I cover the material in these earlier posts. Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3.
If this is true (and it makes a whole lot of sense), imagine how God reacts to the constant competition and sheep-stealing that takes place in every town with more than one church. Imagine how deeply flawed our thinking must be when having dozens — even hundreds — of congregation in the same town under separate, competing elderships strikes us as good and holy — or more precisely, so obvious that we don’t even consider whether it is good or bad. To us, it just is. It’s part of our Christian worldview — invisible and so unexamined because we’ve never known a better way.
Reflect a bit deeper. The vast volume of Paul’s writings is directed toward his desire to unite Gentiles and Jews into a single church — not just in theory but in the very same congregation sitting around the very same table. It required a huge cultural and worldview (or paradigm) shift for both Jews and Gentiles. It created powerful counter-reactions, even violent protests at times. But Paul saw it as absolutely compelled by the gospel. It wasn’t merely a noble aspiration. It was how things had to be. Nothing less would do.
Let’s consider the case in Pauline, that is, Jewish OT terms. God promised Abraham —
(Gen. 17:4-7 ESV) 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
(Gen. 18:17-19 ESV) 17 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
(Gen. 22:17-18 ESV) 17 “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
God’s promise to Abraham was to bless “all the nations” through Abraham. But there’s a subtle point in 17:5: Abraham is to become “the father of a multitude of nations.” If you combine the promises, then Abraham is to be the father all the blessed nations — being all nations. And in Paul’s gospel, this is exactly what happens. We’re all baptized into Christ, we are grafted into Israel, and we become a single nation — Israel. The children of Abraham.
And if we’re one family, all spiritual heirs of Abraham, we really should share a table.
The prophets picked up on this theme —
(Isa. 2:2-5 ESV) LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, 3 and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.
(Zech. 9:9-10 ESV) 9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
(Mic. 4:1-4 ESV) It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, 2 and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 3 He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; 4 but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
One of the central, driving themes of the gospel is unity — across the planet. And we can’t even manage to be united with the other Churches of Christ in town. And it’s not the fault of the gospel. It’s our fault. Indeed, many among us don’t even desire unity because the price is too high. Just like the Judaizing teachers who opposed Paul, we love our traditions and the sense of superiority that comes with being right. Division is our means of feeling superior. Which proves us to be sinners.
(Jer. 9:23-24 ESV) 23 Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”
(Gal. 6:14 ESV) 14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
In short, and this is me, not Thompson or Wright, as we read the passages about the church’s mission, we need to read “church” as meaning “all Christians in my hometown working together.” It’s not about you. It’s not about your congregation. It’s not about your denomination. It’s about the church — the bride and body of Jesus. And there’s only one.