Church Renewal & Restoration
While touring the district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples about his identity. After the others fumbled through their responses, Simon son of Jonah correctly declared, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). Jesus was so impressed with his declaration that he called Simon "Peter" (Greek: Petros; G4074) and elected him to be the "rock" (Greek: petra, G4073) of his church, which will outlast the forces of wickedness (v. 18). This is the first passage in the New Testament that hints at the theological study of the church, or ecclesiology. In this essay, I evaluate Christian origins as a template for contemporary church renewal. These are the questions that I seek to answer: 1) What is the scriptural definition of church? 2) How did the first-century Christians define their church? 3) Has the definition of church varied so much throughout history that it no longer carries the same meaning today? 4) If so, how could modern Christians renew the church with a "first-century faith?"
Why the First Century?
Ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twentieth century, both the fields of biblical scholarship and Christian theology experienced a major reexamination in nearly all prior assumptions. This event also coincided with the end of World War II, after the public realized that Nazi Germany killed approximately six-million Jews throughout Europe. Together, the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Holocaust moved scholars and theologians to jettison the layers of research that caused them to overlook much of the first-century contexts of Jesus and the gospel accounts. For nearly all Western Christians—both Roman Catholics and Protestants alike—the ecclesiological doctrine of supersessionism was the main casualty of this new outlook.
Supersessionism is the notion that the church supersedes the role of ethnic Israel as God's chosen people. However, many Christians reconsidered this doctrine out of "Holocaust guilt," their consciences pricked by centuries of antisemitism that culminated in the industrial murder of Jews. Inherent in this guilt was the realization that Jesus and all of his original disciples were Jewish. Suddenly, he was no longer a mighty European king wearing a gold crown and purple robes, but a humble Jewish tradesman who lived among the working class. Christians now sought to find the "historical Jesus" in the pages of the New Testament. They even started dialogues with Jewish scholars and rabbis to learn the perspectives they missed in nearly two-thousand years of prejudice. The key facet that many Christians neglected was the presence of first-century customs and ideas that still affect Judaism to this day.
To reach a genuine ecclesiology, Christians must evaluate the first century and realize that Jesus was a Jewish man who lived in the Roman Empire. Undoubtedly, the world religion known as "Christianity" evolved in the following centuries across the globe, taking different forms in its expansive growth. Richard C. Halverson (1916–1995), a former U.S. Senate chaplain, observed,
In the beginning, the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.
Simply put, the early disciples of Jesus were Jews and gentiles who simply met together in solidarity because they encountered God himself. Each time that the Christian faith moved to a different region, it assimilated a new local flavor. While that may seem like a good thing at first, the teaching of Jesus and his apostles became too convoluted or vague with the novel additions. In the context of Halverson's remark, the church also took on a different identity each time that it crossed various lands. Considering that Jesus said, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:29-30), this is not a problem to ignore.
God sent his Son, Jesus, to the Roman province of Judea in the first century for a reason. Perhaps, he waited until Israel, the nation that he established through a covenant of circumcision, could impel the rule of law among all humankind. In the Hebrew calendar, Jesus' birth probably occurred between 3757 and 3762. Keep in mind that the "first century" is a later estimate to mark the year of his nativity on the Gregorian calendar. For Jews, their years theologically reckon the time from the creation of the world in Genesis. Jesus entered the world at the proper time in Jewish history, right when the Romans were about to not only destroy their temple, but also to disperse the Jews throughout the world. The prophet Daniel warned about this when he predicted Israel's destruction by a future empire that would be more powerful than the other three that ruled it: Babylon, Persia, and Greece (Dan. 2, 7, 8). He also predicted the desecration of the temple (Dan. 9:27; Matt. 24:15), which took place in AD 70 when the Roman general Titus (AD 39–81) sacked and looted it. To grasp the influence of the first century in world history, one only has to see how contemporary Jews approach the Western Wall, where they still mourn the destruction of the temple even some two-thousand years later. In Rome, the Arch of Titus also commemorates the sacking of the temple into the modern day. Jesus warned the leaders of Israel that the temple was in its last days, especially in his "Olivet discourse" (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). He also told how the gentiles would militarily occupy the city of Jerusalem until God decided its outcome (Luke 21:24). This only happened in 1948 when the United Nations granted the State of Israel its sovereignty, just as the world learned about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the aftermath of the Holocaust for the Jewish people.
The main reason behind the temple's importance was the direct presence of God (Hebrew: shechinah). The Jewish people had the privilege of having God literally within their borders, unlike the other nations of the world. However, the arrival of Jesus represented a change to God's continued presence. No longer would he confine himself to a physical location or a specific national religion, but to reveal his will to all humankind (John 4:21-24). So when the Jews came to other parts of the Roman Empire, they brought their knowledge of the divine with them. To be fair, Jesus warned the Jewish leaders about the temple's imminent ruin. He taught that God wants all people to worship him in spirit and in truth, no matter where they live (John 4:24). The temple was going away, and Jesus would now represent the shechinah of God. This was why he promised, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matt. 18:20). This teaching was a paraphrase of the common Jewish expression, "When two sit together and exchange the words of Torah, then the [shechinah] dwells among them." When Josephus (AD 37/38–100), a Jewish-Roman historian, wrote about the temple's fall in AD 70, he testified that a brilliant light shined around the altar in the Holy of Holies for about thirty minutes before disappearing. Next, he said the brass temple gate—which was so heavy that it required twenty men to move it—opened on its own around midnight. Josephus credited this deed to God, indicating that his shechinah presence forsook the Jews so the Romans could freely enter the temple and raze it. Finally, he wrote that a booming voice filled the inner court, announcing, "We are leaving this place" (Bell. Jud., 6.5.3). Simply put, God confiscated his presence from the temple, marking the end of the age.
The Church as a Galilean Fellowship
The Holy Spirit inaugurated the church on Pentecost when each of the apostles received various spiritual gifts and testified about their faith in Christ. Simon Peter delivered a powerful sermon to a large crowd of Jews from all over the Mediterranean and the Near East. As a result, the earliest disciples of Jesus met together in fellowship and shared their belongings in common (Acts 2). Although this pattern was short-lived, they set a precedent for shared meals and giving for the church to keep long into the future. The disciples started preaching to their fellow Jews immediately after Pentecost, which happened fifty days after Jesus' resurrection (Acts 1-2). They initially described their christocentric movement as "the Way" (Acts 9:2; 18:25-26; 19:9, 23; 22:4), which was probably derived from Jesus' assertion, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Because no mortal could ever speak infallibly, and neither could they guarantee eternal life, the disciples naturally identified themselves as "the Way" toward the truth and life of Jesus. In other words, salvation in Christ is a continuous journey toward finding God's kingdom.
The breaking of bread was the most unifying practice in the first-century church. Jesus instructed his followers to remember his death and resurrection in the partaking of bread and wine, which signified his body and blood (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). The disciples of whom Christ met on the road to Emmaus only recognized him once he broke bread for a shared meal; not when they were walking with him (Luke 24:13-35). However, Jesus did not drink wine near Emmaus, but only ate bread. This is because he vowed during his final supper before death that he would never again drink wine until God's kingdom arrived (Mark 14:25). Likewise, he taught his disciples about this kingdom in a series of parables, in which marriage banquets were the central theme (Matt. 22:1-14; 24:42-51; 25:1-13; Mark 13:34-37; Luke 12:35-48; 14:7-24). The marriage dinner was an eschatological sign of God's kingdom, and the love feasts the early church shared also represented its joy for a final victory with Christ. The wedding meal at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine (John 2:1-12), also foreshadowed the church's meeting with him on the last day. So when Paul of Tarsus noticed how the wealthier members used the love feasts to exploit the poorer ones, he rebuked them harshly for their abuse of God's image (1 Cor. 11:17-22). By this time, the Way had moved from its center in Jerusalem and out to all of Galilee, Judea, Phoenicia, and Samaria (Acts 9:31; 15:3).
The church as a fellowship was not without its leaders. When the Jewish members of the Way, under the direction of Simon Peter, contested the gentiles who sided with Paul, they went up to Jerusalem to meet with James. At the council that met around AD 50, James oversaw the debate between the two apostles and presented his resolution based on the Mosaic Law's guidelines for foreigners living in Israel (Acts 15; Lev. 17-18). Simply put, James headed the Council of Jerusalem in the role of a bishop (Greek: episkopos; G1985, "overseer"). As Jesus' brother, he held much authority even among the twelve apostles (Gal. 1:18-19), especially because he stayed in Israel's holiest city to lead the church there. However, most of the bishops in the first century were local, looking over a network of household meetings in their respective cities (Acts 20:28). Whenever the New Testament writers used the word "church" (Greek: ekklēsia; G1577), they factored in all of the Christians who lived in a given city. For this reason, Paul addressed his letters to the "church at Corinth," the "church at Ephesus," the "church at Colossae," etc. The ekklēsia, in this context, was simply a gathering of believers in Christ. Moreover, the apostles knew for the overall church to survive, they needed to appoint elders in each local congregation who would preserve the Way for future generations (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). The deacon (Greek: diakonos, G1249; "server") helped the bishops and elders with the everyday concerns of individual believers (1 Tim. 3:8-13). Thus, the first-century church established a threefold pattern of bishop, elder, and deacon. However, these were functions rather than hierarchical positions. Jesus expressly forbid the apostles from seeking rank in God's kingdom (Matt. 20:26; Mark 10:43), and even Paul routinely downplayed his apostolic role in finding churches (1 Cor. 9). He also described a fivefold ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Eph. 4:11).
At the close of the first century, John contacted the seven churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (Rev. 1:11). The number seven in Judaism represents completion, fulfillment, and perfection because God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. Therefore, the seven churches in Revelation illustrated the universal church for all time and space. Jesus was telling each of his disciples to stay the course, but also to repent immediately when they err. He was the cornerstone upon which the prophets and the apostles—the foundation and the pillars—built the church of God on the "rock" of Peter's confession (Eph. 2:19-21; Matt. 16:18). In other words, Christ laid out the template for his people to follow well into the future; all they had to do was use it.
The Church as a Greco-Roman Philosophy & Institution
The formulation of the trinity was the hallmark of the church's movement into Greece and Rome. From the second to the eighth centuries, the five "apostolic" churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople met at six ecumenical councils to narrow down what all Christians should believe about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All of these cities began in the Roman Empire until the eastern side developed into the Byzantine Empire around 330. The metropolitan bishop—a hierarchical post that evolved in the second century—from each of the five cities governed the church together, meeting often to ensure an institutional orthodoxy. For the Greek-speaking bishops, they were more concerned with the intricacy of language, assuming they knew better than their Latin-speaking counterparts simply because the New Testament authors used Greek.
Conversely, the Latin bishops wanted to govern the church through jurisprudence, with close ties between the bishop of Rome and the emperor following the Edict of Milan in 313. So when the Greek and Latin bishops met at the councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, Ephesus, and Constantinople, their attempts to work together were tenuous at best. The Latins simply wanted quick resolutions that would justify the increasing power of Rome's bishop, while the Greeks were not afraid of tedious deliberation over technical language. In the doctrine of the trinity, for example, the pentarchy of churches took nearly two-hundred years to agree on the term homoousios ("of one essence") to explain the bond of the Father and the Son.
However, this uniformity of doctrine failed to bring the church together but divided it into further schism. Rome underscored its primacy, exploiting Jesus' identification of Simon Peter as the "rock" of his church (Matt. 16:18), over its discernment of scripture. The Greek-speaking bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople had their ties to an emperor, as well. However, they typically kept their churches free from the rule of an imperial bishop. The main casualty of all this Greek philosophizing and Roman legalizing were the laypeople. The bishops too readily identified the church with their position, neglecting the input of the ordinary Christian. They added rules about baptism and catechesis the apostles never taught. For example, the average newcomer had to finish two years of instruction just to receive baptism. In the first-century church, the apostles baptized initiates as soon as possible (Acts 2:41; 8:36-38; 9:18; 16:15, 33). This statement by Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 110) perfectly summarized the intolerable connection between a hierarchical bishop and the definition of church: "Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid" (Ign. Smyrn. 8). The implicit message is the bishops succeeded the apostles of Jesus as the legitimate caretakers of his church. Anyone who agreed with the bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, or Constantinople was deemed ecumenical, or "inhabiting" the universal church (Greek: oikoumenē; G3625). Those beyond their control were anathema (G331, "devoted" [to Satan]; cf. 1 Cor. 5:5), or awaiting destruction at the world's end.
The Church as a European Culture
The Great Schism of 1054 marked the church's expansion further into Europe when the Greek and Latin bishops mutually excommunicated each other. The first branch chose the name Orthodox while the second preferred Catholic. They split Europe nearly in half, with the Latins taking the West and the Byzantines left with the East. Typically, each side kept to themselves, although regions such as the Balkan Peninsula often proved to be tinderboxes of conflict due to their mutual occupation. The only difference between the modern ethnicities of Bosnian, Croat, and Serb is the former state religion of their past alliances with the Ottomans, Romans, or Byzantines, respectively. Because of the Ottoman—and by extension, Islamic—threat against the Byzantines, Rome often enjoyed the unimpeded rule of the continent until the Greek missionaries Cyril (c. 827–869) and Methodius (c. 815–884) converted the Slavs. From that point forward, the Byzantines would no longer be the key Orthodox menace, but the rugged and ominous Russians—the "third Rome."
During the Middle Ages, the Catholic and Orthodox churches infiltrated every area of European culture. They created the first universities, and the Bishop of Rome—or "Pope," as the Catholics now described him—served as the kingmaker throughout the West. Not to be outdone, the Muscovite bishops grew closer to the Russian emperor, the new "Caesar" (Russian: czar). In effect, the universal Christian church now became a series of national and ethnic churches, with the primary focus on internal politics than the teaching of Jesus. Even with the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when thousands of Western Christians separated from the Pope's authority, these "Protestants" still organized their churches along national and cultural boundaries. Martin Luther (1483–1546) was the Reformer for the Germans, John Calvin (1509–1564) for the Swiss, Johannes Polyander (1568–1646) for the Dutch, John Knox (1514–1572) for the Scots, and Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) for the English. However, the final result of the Reformation was not the continuation of a "first-century faith," but the worst violence and warfare that was without parallel in Europe until the World Wars of the twentieth century. There were massive population shifts and refugee crises in nearly two-hundred years of fighting over religion. These conflicts included the Peasants' War (1524–1525), the Schmalkaldic Wars (1546–1547), the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648), the French wars of religion (1562–1629), the Dutch Revolt (1572–1609), the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), and the English Civil War (1642–1651). Granted, there were more causes of this violence than just religion, but the participation of the clergymen and theologians in these campaigns shows exactly how compromised the church had become. Jesus taught his disciples, "Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. . . . Thus you will know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:17, 20). The inculturation of the church not only caused warfare, but also a gradual march to secularization.
The Church as an American Enterprise
The success theology that many Christians know as the "prosperity gospel" is unique to the United States, except for the countries that learned it from American missionaries. However, the church as an enterprise began with the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when the Puritans and other Protestant minorities fled from Britain to avoid religious tensions. While the citizens of continental Europe suffered through two centuries of nearly endless war, many Britishers absconded to their overseas colonies to avoid religious oppression. From the outset, the Puritans were a sect in the Church of England who blended Calvinist and Anabaptist ideas. They did not think the Articles of Religion were a fair treatment of their ecclesiological concerns, especially Article 38 that dismissed their call for the abolition of private property in favor of a collective economy. They believed that all Christians should emulate the apostles, who shared everything in common (Acts 2:44-45). When Thomas Cranmer, writer of the Articles, upheld the objections from the landed gentry, they scorned the Puritans well into the next century. As a result, about 15,000 Puritans migrated to America between 1620 and 1642, where they could form their society. The vast majority were middle-class families who thrived in Britain. Their goal in founding Massachusetts was expressly religious, hoping to create a "city on a hill," alluding to Jesus' call for the church to be an obvious example of righteousness (Matt. 5:14).
The prosperity gospel begins and ends with the "Christian nation myth," the misuse of Christianity as the basis of American national religion. The Puritans, who were middle-class, prided themselves for their work ethic, taken from Calvinist theology. They read Paul's charge for the Colossians to work for God instead of the recognition of their supervisor. The next verse presents the guarantee of reward and inheritance (Col. 3:23-24). Theologians describe this concept as the "Protestant work
ethic," which also implies that God predestined some people to be rich and others to be poor. The entire framework of the American national religion is that God elected the United States to be his "city on a hill," and that he led out his new people from the tyranny and blasphemy of war-torn Europe—a new exodus for a new Israel. This is the doctrine of supersessionism to the greatest extent, or the replacement of the Jews as God's elect. Together, the Christian nation myth and the Protestant work ethic became a "manifest destiny," that God willed the United States to span the choicest regions of North America. This was the convenient narrative that justified everything from the chattel slavery of Africans, the genocide of Native Americans, the abuse of laborers, racial discrimination, to a smug foreign policy. John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937), who was Baptist and one of the richest men in the world, best typified the church as an American enterprise when he said, "I believe the power to make money is a gift from God . . . to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. . . . I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow-man according to the dictates of my conscience."
Conclusion: The Church as a Renewed Fellowship
In the liturgical text of Psalms, David wrote about praising, blessing, and thanking God in the "great congregation" (Pss. 22:25; 26:12; 35:18; 68:26). He also testified about God's saving help, faithfulness, salvation, and steadfast love (40:10), accompanied by his "glad news of deliverance" (40:9). In the Septuagint, a Greek interpretation of the Old Testament, ekklēsia is the same word that English-language translators render as "church." For David, this was the great congregation of Israel over which he ruled. Interestingly, Paul and other New Testament writers chose the term ekklēsia over sunagōgē (G4864, "synagogue") because it more accurately linked the Way to an expanded definition of Israel rather than a physical building. Likewise, the church praises and gives thanks to God for his faithfulness, salvation, steadfast love, and the glad news of deliverance—the gospel—in the name of Christ Jesus. The church is at once the immutable fellowship of Jesus' disciples, as well as the eschatological wedding feast of God's kingdom. So, Christ's mission through his church is to honor God and to inaugurate his eternal Sabbath. What this means in the real world is that Christians should pursue the Holy Spirit even in their most difficult moments, balancing correct teaching with a genuine concern for all human beings. Thus, the rule of prayer is the law of belief, meaning the church only fulfills God's intent when it connects with him regularly. This happens in common prayer by those who strive for truth in the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-21), in the sacraments of baptism and communion, and especially in the forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31) and the care of the poor (Matt. 25:31-46).
The true definition of church is neither a hierarchy nor a physical building, but the temple of Jesus' body where God reveals his direct presence (John 2:21). His disciples are much smaller temples of the Holy Spirit, forming a collective whole (1 Cor. 6:19). On the last day, Christ will marry his church in God's heavenly city, a new Jerusalem from which he will never remove his presence (Rev. 21:2, 9). In the meantime, Christians are to stay alert for Jesus, their bridegroom (Matt. 25:1-13). To do this, they must learn to be faithful disciples, not just converts to the religion of "Christianity." The Greek mathētēs (G3101; "disciple"), which arises from the same root as the word "mathematics," refers to someone who counts the cost and then makes a personal commitment (Luke 14:28). To be a citizen of God's kingdom, one must adopt the narrative of Jesus' life and teaching as their personal story. Therefore, the goal of renewal must bring forward the true church, the one that is worth getting up for. Jesus commissioned this ekklēsia to baptize and to create disciples, to immerse them in God's vast history of deliverance and healing (Matt. 28:19-20). The church that deserves awakening is not a good idea, an organization, a culture, nor a business, but a fellowship of God's people living under the Holy Spirit's counsel.
Blessed are you, O LORD our God, King of the universe, for you show those in error the light of your truth so that they may turn to the path of righteousness: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's church may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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