Tuesday, June 14

How church doctrines develop over time

I have always found it intriguing how Christians reading the same Bible can come up with such a wide variety of beliefs and practices about the church. I recently downloaded a free Kindle copy of John Hayward's The Book of Religions Comprising The Views, Creeds, Sentiments, Or Opinions, Of All The Principal Relgious Sects In The World Particularly Of All Christian Denominations In Europe and America To Which Are Added Church and Missionary Statistics Together With Biographical Sketches (obviously with a title like that I wasn't surprised by the 1860 publishing date!)

Of particular interest are the summary chapters of the dozens of varying Christian Denominations existing at the time of Hayward's 1860 writing (not to mention the thousands added since that time!) All claim the Bible as their source of faith and practice. Each draws its ecclesiolgocal distinctions from Scripture and sees everyone else as "missing the mark." How is it that believers professing the Ephesians 4 Pauline creed, "one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" can have so many different--and often conflicting--ideas about the church?

After years of bewilderment, I recently stumbled upon a very simple explanation of how such a wide variety of beliefs can exist within the Body of Christ. Much to my surprise it was through reading Father Zachary J. Hayes explanation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory where he points out that our understanding of church doctrine and practice hinges upon our overarching view of Scripture itself:

"While the Protestant viewpoint looks for a pure form of doctrine at the beginning of Christian history and sees any deviation from that pure form as a corruption, the Catholic viewpoint sees the beginning more like a seed planted in history. It is the nature of a seed to grow and develop...

Catholic theologians have been inclined to think of the church as a community that grows through history like a living organism. The idea of a seed and the plant emerging from the seed became common metaphors to express this sense of growth. Like a seed, the revelation of God germinates in the ground of history and of human cultures and gives rise to a plant. While this plant is intrinsically related to the seed, it still looks quite different from the original seed, just as an oak tree looks very different from the acorn from which it grew...

In terms of doctrine, this has come to mean that, while the Scriptures have a normative and irreplaceable role to play in the faith life of the church, nevertheless, we ought not to expect any one-to-one relationship between the formultations of the Scriptures and the later formulations of church doctrines..."
--Father Zachary J. Hayes
Wow! If Scripture is merely the initial "seed" from which the plant--the church--matures and grows; then yes, we can have all kinds of beliefs, traditions, and church practices.

But is Scripture meant to be only the initial seed? Is God's Word meant to be only the starting point? Where in Scripture, itself, is the church referred to using a seed metaphor?

The predominant metaphor used for the church in the New Testament is "the body of Christ" found in multiple references (such as Rom.12:5), the "bride of Christ" in Revelation, "God's household" (Eph.2:19), "chosen race", "royal priesthood", "holy nation", "a people for God's own possession" (1 Peter 2:19), but I do not find the church referred to as something that grows out of a seed.

This might not seem like a big deal, but to me the seed metaphor has enormous implications. If Scripture is just an initial seed that grows and matures into something else down through history (as Hayes describes above) then everybody is right to nurture their "seed" and hopefully mature it into something they are comfortable with. Isn't this what we have done with the church? We have made church into our own image. We see Acts and the Epistles not as blueprints, but as "seeds" that need to be developed into what they were intended to become.

I believe it is not only the Catholics who have misunderstood the church, her doctrines and practices as deriving themselves from Scripture seeds, but Protestants and Evangelicals as well. All of us tend to justify what it is we believe (or want to believe) by copying/pasting favorite proof texts about the church and making them fit our current ecclesiology. We have taken the seed found in the Bible, sowed it into the soil of history, nurtured and watered it down through the ages, and think what we have today is an improvement over what Jesus and the apostles left for us. After all, why gather in a simple home to stimulate one another to love and good works, when we can meet in multi-million dollar complexes complete with state-of-the-art technology and artificial waterfalls cascading in the foyer?

Yes, the kingdom of heaven is referred to as a mustard seed in Matt. 13:31. Faith is likewise referred to a mustard seed in Matt.17:20, and the Gospel itself as "seed sown in a field." But does this give us the right to morph original NT teaching about the church into something that goes far beyond what we find in the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles? Wasn't that Jesus primary objection to the Pharisees that they added to the Law of Moses and held people accountable for the additions? Aren't we doing the same thing today with our own church traditions and practices when we elevate them as being equal (or superior) to actual Scriptural teachings?

And that is how church doctrines get developed over time. What do you think?

21 comments:

Arthur Sido said...

It is not just in the fancy multi-million dollar edifices but in the more simple church buildings where the Body of Christ sits in silence and watches. We have stopped being a church on mission and become a weekly religious observation.

GuyMuse said...

Exactly.

Rick Carr said...

Right on, Guy. Good insights.

Stan said...

Thank you Guy,always reading and praying.

Chris Woehr Burow said...

This is a very intriguing post. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Our pastor recently spent about eight months preaching on the sermon on the mount. With that kind of investment in one sermon you'd think the congregation would be moved to action. Instead, they froze missions spending (wasn't much to begin with) and built themselves a new fellowship hall. It's gotten to the point where I just can't force myself to go there anymore. I want to go back to the original church, the way Christ intended it. Not this self-centered, religio-social experience on Sundays. You've really struck a chord with me on this one, Guy. Thanks for the post.

Wendy Meador said...

There is definitely a huge problem with that seed analogy. Because within that acorn is the complete DNA to produce that mature tree. And when that mature tree reproduces, you still get an acorn. It never morphs into something else when it is pure. Guess they Padre wasn't a farmer or biologist. Great post Guy. I think one of our biggest problems is that we allow our theology to define scripture rather than allowing scripture to define our theology.

Tim Patterson said...

Guy,

I appreciate what you are saying but I think we need to clarify that the form a church takes is not necessarily indicative that particular body is functioning according to Scripture. Quite the opposite, the biblical dna of transformed Christ-followers determines what the church looks like in a given culture. We need to be careful to distinguish between form and function of the body of Christ. The church can be expressed in many forms in different cultures through the functioning of the members as the body of Christ in that culture... just as there are many applications of the same biblical principles.

I have seen many ineffective "house churches" that were not functioning with biblical dna, just like some "mega churches" out there. There is a general misperception about mega churches. Believe it or not there are mega churches functioning with biblical dna and making a difference in God's mission/kingdom. Most people look at the mega church as a congregation, when they should look at this particular model of church as a network of related bodies... much like a network of house churches. Are there problems with this model? Yes, but there are some out there that have proven effective in certain cultures, particularly in developed countries. There are also problems with the house church model. I have been part of both, a "house church" movement and "mega church" movement... different models reach different people.

GuyMuse said...

Rick & Stan,

Thanks for stopping by and reading. I am challenged by your blogs as well. Keep up the good work!

GuyMuse said...

Chris,

Good hearing from you. I know what you mean by the frustrations of reading Scripture and yet seeing something quite different practiced by the churches we attend. I try to remind myself there is a difference between "Christianity" and "Churchianity." The structures we have created out of Christianity are what seem to distract us from living out what Christ said to do.

GuyMuse said...

Wendy,

You have just made a great quotable quote,

"I think one of our biggest problems is that we allow our theology to define scripture rather than allowing scripture to define our theology."

Look for it on FB! :)

GuyMuse said...

Tim,

Good observations, Tim. I agree with you. It just seems that too often structures (as they've been passed on generation after generation) tend to distract, rather than aid us in the mission to which we have been called. There is certainly no magic in just meeting in a home if the DNA isn't there.

I appreciate your saying, "...the biblical dna of transformed Christ-followers determines what the church looks like in a given culture..."

Tim Patterson said...

Hey Guy,

Yes, I agree structures that are like "Saul's Armor" on young Davids do distract and hinder. We don't need to focus on structure, we need to focus on modeling what it looks like to live transformed lives as a community of Christ-followers. Then the structures can be changed or we can start with new ones that will be much more effective in accomplishing God's mission for His church. The church is the means, not the end... so I am for less worry about what model of church and more concerned about obedient transformational communities of Christ-followers... whatever that looks like in the culture He has sent us to.

Skipper Pickle said...

And the Holy Spirit also teaches us, doesn't He?

I hold a certain amount of confidence in His ability to correct "those who have ears to hear" in keeping us from straying too far from what is sound. Just as I maintain my confidence in the Scriptures as God's word even though I have studied the process of assembling the canon and find it sort of scary... :)

Aussie John said...

Guy,

Wendy said it well!

GuyMuse said...

Tim,

Another great phrase (you're on a roll today!) obedient transformational communities of Christ-followers ...that for me is an excellent defintion of what a church is.

GuyMuse said...

Skipper,

The problem for me is not with the Scriptures, it is what we seem to add to the Scriptures that causes my head to spin. But, yes, I believe along with you that the H.S. has a way of keeping us from going too far off the deep-end!

GuyMuse said...

John,

Yes, Wendy said it well, didn't she?

Bob Cleveland said...

The BF&M says that a church is a local assembly of baptized believers. That's good enough for me.

And I don't think God is anti-big-building, either. He's the one that drew up the first plans for the Temple. And yes, I know that we're to worship in Spirit and truth, but even the early Christians met in the Temple courts when they could.

Further, it's up to the local autonomous body to determine where it's going to meet.

WRT varying doctrines, I reiterate my earlier comment .. that God is casting a net wider than any of us would cast, given our own devices. We'd likely attract people pretty much like ourselves, but God has much bigger ideas than that.

Thankfully.

GuyMuse said...

Bob,

What I was hoping to get across in this post is show how so many Christians reading the same Bible can come up with so many different beliefs and practices about the church.

These beliefs and practices are backed up, of course, by verses that support what it is we believe.

What I was trying to say is that the RC at least admit they don't have to find verses to back up their teaching. The Bible is the initial "seed" that over the ages has grown up into a plant. This plant looks a lot different from the original seed, and that is OK because, that is what seeds are supposed to do.

But when it comes to church doctrine, can we view the Bible as merely a starting point for something that is supposed to develop far beyond what we see in Scripture? That is what I feel we have done over the ages since Jesus and the apostles laid down the blueprints.

In several places in his writings, Paul makes reference to the ways things are done "in all the churches." He seemed to think there was a standard that should be kept.

I personally think we are running ahead of Scripture on many matters of ecclesiology. That doesn't make them sinful, but it does raise barriers. In much the same way the Pharisees added to Scripture and went beyond what is said, and then elevating that teaching to being equal to Scripture.

Bob Cleveland said...

Someone once said that, as the Bible is infinite, and we are finite, we cannot comprehensively grasp it. Our minds are not big enough to get "clear around it", so to speak. So, to paraphrase the old adage, our stance on some things is just going to depend on which infallible scripture we ignore.

That generalization seems to cover a lot, but I don't want to ignore any scripture. But I do know that infinity is big enough to tell one group to meet in houses, and another to build a big building. One group to sing and shout and clap, and one group to be silent and reverent. One group to manifest sign gifts, and one group to shun them.

That does put the serious follower in the uncomfortable position of having God sometimes tell Him something, that somebody else doesn't think He told him.

Another thing may be the (self-centered) attitude that "if God didn't tell ME to do something, He doesn't tell ANYBODY to do that. Being an insecure sort, I gave up that thought long, long ago.

I get in trouble quite frequently for examining all our collective habits in the light of scripture and pointing out where scripture doesn't indicate something's proper. Instance: our speaker last Sunday was selling stuff in the lobby of the church, and I know what Jesus' attitude was toward those who would make His Father's house a "marketplace" or "house of merchandise". But they sold a bunch of books and DVD's anyway.

Oh well. Apparently, Proverbs 16:2 means what it says.

GuyMuse said...

Bob,

Your comment, I get in trouble quite frequently for examining all our collective habits in the light of scripture and pointing out where scripture doesn't indicate something's proper... is what is behind my writing this particular post. The problem isn't with Scripture and what it says, the problem is with all that has been added to Scripture. The Scripture "seed" has been planted into the soil of history. This seed blossoms and becomes something quite different from the original seed. My problem is that we reject the original seed for the new blossomed plant.

Thanks again for your insightful comments.