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The New Testament Church: The Challenge of Developing Ecclesiologies – Harrison/Dvorak (Review)

Harrison John, and James D. Dvorak, eds. The New Testament Church: The Challenge of Developing Ecclesiologies, McMaster Biblical Studies Series (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2012). 302pp. Publisher’s description. (Amazon list price: $29 paperback, $9.99 Kindle) The New Testament Church: The Challenge of Developing Ecclesiologies (McMaster Biblical Studies)


Are you hungry to cut through centuries of traditions and habits and investigate what the NT actually says about the church? Then this is exactly the kind of book you should read.

What kind of questions does The New Testament Church address? From the back cover:

Christian communities today face enormous challenges in the new contexts and teachings that try to redefine what churches should be. Christians look to the New Testament for a pattern for the church, but the New Testament does not present a totally uniform picture of the structure, leadership, and sacraments practiced by first-century congregations. There was a unity of the Christian communities centered on the teaching that Jesus is the Christ, whom God has raised from the dead and has enthroned as Lord, yet not every assembly did exactly the same thing and saw themselves in exactly the same way. Rather, in the New Testament we find a collage of rich theological insights into what it means to be the church. When leaders of today see this diversity, they can look for New Testament ecclesiologies that are most relevant to the social and cultural context in which their community lives. This volume of essays, written with the latest scholarship, highlights the uniqueness of individual ecclesiologies of the various New Testament documents and their core unifying themes.

The subtitle of this book is The Challenge of Developing Ecclesiologies. As I’ve described this book to others, I’ve been asked several times what is meant by “developing.” I’m not sure if editors Harrison and Dvorak ever answer this question directly, but I’ll hazard an answer. I think they are observing how difficult it can be to develop a good ecclesiology—a correct understanding of church. (In other words, I think “developing” is probably a verb, not an adjective.) Who finds it a challenge to develop an ecclesiology? I think the authors might answer “everyone”—the authors and original readers of the NT writings, and also us today. Finally, it is important to notice that “ecclesiologies” is plural; as noted above, a primary contention of the editors of this book is that the NT presents a diversity of pictures of the church.

The New Testament Church consists of an introduction by the editors and thirteen chapters by thirteen authors, as follows:

1. Matthew’s Vision for Jesus’ Community of Disciples—John P. Harrison

2. Ecclesiology in the Gospel of Mark—Mark Rapinchuk

3. The Church in Luke-Acts—George Goldman

4. The Church in the Gospel and Epistles of John—Thomas H. Olbricht

5. The Church in Romans and Galatians—Stanley E. Porter

6. The Community of the Followers of Jesus in 1 Corinthians—Eckhard J. Schabel

7. Heaven Can’t Wait: The Church in Ephesians and Colossians—Curt Niccum

8. “In the Churches of Macedonia”: Implicit Ecclesiology in Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians and Philippians—Jeffrey Peterson

9. Ecclesiology in the Pastoral Epistles—Christopher R. Hutson

10. Left Behind? The Church in the Book of Hebrews—Cynthia Long Westfall

11. The Community of Believers in James—William R. Baker

12. Called to Be Holy: Ecclesiology in the Petrine Epistles—Allen Black

13. The Church in the Apocalypse of John—Olutola K. Peters

Those familiar with NT studies may recognize several “heavy-weight” names (such as Porter and Schnabel), but I found all authors helpful. A few of the essays deal with questions and assumptions that unschooled conservative readers may not recognize. (What kind of a church community was Matthew written to? Do the Pastoral Epistles “reflect an ecclesiological situation that has moved from the charismatic leadership of the first generation to a third or fourth generation focused on perpetuating a consolidated body of tradition”?) But none of these matters overpower any essay, and most of them are fruitful to consider, as lenses for new biblical insights.

I’d like to share with you excerpts from three chapters, to give you some more feel for the value of this book. First, the conclusion from Goldman’s essay on Luke-Acts:

Luke’s contribution to New Testament ecclesiology is unique in that he is the only writer to combine an account of Jesus’ life and ministry with an account of the church that followed thereafter. What is noteworthy in these two accounts is that the church that Luke describes in Acts looks like the Jesus that was described in the Gospel. The most important aspects of the ecclesiology of Acts can be traced back to Luke’s Gospel. Like Jesus, the church follows the leading of the Spirit, includes outcasts, helps the poor, and practices table fellowship. This is the best description of Luke’s vision of what the church should be. One searches in Luke’s narrative in vain for detailed descriptions of worship practices and church organization. Rather, Luke describes the church as a community of believers in Jesus who continue what Jesus “began” to do and to teach—God’s longtime kingdom purpose for human beings taking place on earth as it is in heaven. (p. 57, emphasis added)

Excellent insights! Goldman’s insights help answer a common question about Acts: Did Luke intend for us to imitate the church patterns that we find in this book? Well, if Luke intentionally portrayed his “Acts” church as imitating his “Luke” Jesus, then, yes, clearly we should imitate the Acts church in its imitation of Jesus.

My next excerpt is from Hutson’s essay on the Pastoral Epistles:

The Greek term ἐπίσκοπος (overseer) was used in both Jewish and Greek literature for various positions of responsibility and direction. in the PE, the overseer is analogous to a head of household (1 Tim 3:4-5, but we should not press that analogy too far, as if an overseer has the absolute authority of a Roman paterfamilias. On the contrary, the church in the PE is God’s household (1 Tim 3:15), and the “overseer” is a “steward” or “household manager” (οἰκονόμος, Titus 1:7). A household manager was a slave with management responsibility but was not himself the head of household.

…The qualities of a good overseer begin with “irreproachable” (1 Tim 3:2) and end with “a good testimony from outsiders” (3:7). These concepts bracket the paragraph… In this context, the rationale, “lest he fall into the condemnation and a snare of the slanderer” ( διάβολος, 3:6) seems to refer to a human critic rather than the devil.

…Like the overseer, the deacons (διακόνοι) must have an excellent reputation for conduct and character, but their duties are not spelled out. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the word root (διάκονος, “servant;” διακονω, “serve;” διακονία, “service”) is either literal, serving food (Acts 6:1,2; Luke 4:39; 12:37; Rom 15:31; etc.) or metaphorical, ministry of the word (Acts 6:4; 1Cor 3:5; Eph 3:7; etc.). The latter seems to be more in view here, in that deacons are to be grounded in “the mystery of the faith” (3:9) and Timothy himself will be a good διάκονος (1 Tim 4:6) precisely in his role as a teacher (cf. 2 Tim 4:5; 1Tim 1:12).

…The relationship between deacons and overseer is not specified, though deacons may have been assistants to the overseer, much as a synagogue was led by a “chief of synagogue” (…Acts 13:15; 18:8) who was assisted by a “minister” (…Luke 4:20; Acts 13:5…). In this capacity, it is worth comparing Timothy as a “server” to Paul in Acts 19:22. In any case, this is how Hippolytus understood the relationship in the third century. (pp. 179-80)

I like Hutson’s balanced observations about the authority of an overseer. This excerpt also provides examples of how a book like this can challenge our interpretive assumptions, giving us new ideas to test. Who is “the slanderer”? What was the role of a deacon? Other examples in this same essay: Did deacons include women? Are Timothy and Titus really examples of bishops? What was Paul really concerned about when he wrote “husband of one wife”? I don’t have to always agree with Hutson’s answers to benefit from his questions.

Westfall’s essay on the church in Hebrews helped me see a theme I have mostly missed in that book:

Pastoral Care in a Time of Crisis

The call to the believers to growth is part of one of the three major themes in Hebrews… The commands are: “Let us enter the rest” (4:1, 11), “Let us press on to maturity” (6:1), “Let us consider how to stimulate each other to love and good works” (10:25), and “Let us run the race” (12:1). However, pastoral care is manifested in concern for every believer as the church moves forward spiritually—this insistence that all members exercise pastoral care is the most dominant ecclesial theme in Hebrews. This is particularly interesting in view of the pervasive individualism in North American Christianity. We may tend to read the passages about goals individualistically, particularly since the author does not hesitate to use imagery drawn from athletic competition.

…In 3:7, the author applies a command in Psalm 95 directly to the readers: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion!” But when the author further applies it to the church, the focus is placed on concern for others:

Watch out, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God, But encourage one another daily as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by sin’s deception. (3:12-13)

Again, in the face of crisis, the people are called primarily to pay close attention to each other’s spiritual state…

Similarly, at the conclusion of the unit, the congregation is supposed to be terrified at the prospect of losing anyone as the community responds as a group to God’s voice and moves forward: “Therefore, let us be afraid, that since the promise of entering his rest is open, any one of you might seem to come short of it” (4:1). Based on Israel’s example and the parallels between their situations, there is a good chance that some of them may not make it. However, there is no theology of moving with the movers or looking for a few good men. No one can be left behind. (pp. 201-02, emphasis added)

Hopefully these excerpts are enough to make some of you decide to read this book. The essays are short and sometimes only identify insights for further exploration. And I recommend pairing this kind of a book with one that surveys all the NT data. (For example, see Everett Ferguson’s The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, which I was happy to see Harrison and Dvorak recommend, since it is already waiting on my shelf!) But it is good to read a book like this which “zooms in close” to the NT data, for it sharpens our eyesight when we later step back to ponder the big picture of the church in the NT.

This book accomplishes its goals well and will be helpful for students of the church in the NT.
I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

What did you learn from this review? What books on the church have you found helpful? What book would you like me to review? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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Which New Testament Church Practices Are Normative for Today?

(Old Facebook post, lightly revised 7/23/2016.)

Facebook reminded me that I wrote this post three years ago. I wish I had more time for such study and writing today. But I am thankful that I am now living what I wrote then more fully than ever before. Prayers are welcome as I prepare to teach tomorrow (the Lord’s Day) at our little church (in a friend’s house).


How do we determine which NT church practices are normative for us today? That is, how do we know, when reading of what the New Testament church did, whether the church today should imitate them? (To be clear, I am not asking about NT commands; that is another valid question for another time.)

Test Cases: When and Where the Church Gathers

For example, when and where should the church today gather to worship? Let’s talk about when first. The NT church commonly met on the Lord’s Day. Yes, early in the book of Acts we read of the church gathering “day by day.” But the history of the early church shows that gathering on the Lord’s Day rapidly became the standard practice of the early church. This practice has remained the norm for most of the world-wide church to this day. Is this simply a matter of tradition or preference? Or does this example carry a stronger force, obliging us to follow the practice of the early church?

Before we answer, let’s consider the second part of our question: Where should the church gather to worship? Again, while early in Acts we read of the church gathering in the temple, the pattern of the rest of the NT becomes clear: the early church normally gathered for worship in private homes (and sometimes also in public spaces). The history of the early church clearly shows that this practice became the near-universal norm for the first several hundred years of the church. In fact, church historians regularly report that Christians built no buildings specifically for worship gatherings during the first several hundred years of the church. Since the time of Constantine, however, the regular practice of most of the church has been to build special “church buildings” for worship. So again we ask, is the NT example simply a matter of tradition or preference, or does it carry a stronger force, obliging us to follow the practice of the early church?

We imitate the NT practice for when the church meets, but not for where it meets. Why? The contrast between these examples gives us an opportunity to evaluate our theological understandings. It should cause us to scratch our heads and sift our assumptions. But first, let’s examine the historical and theological evidence for both NT church practices a little more closely.

Examining Historical Data

Again, let’s address the when question first. By my count, there are two places in the NT where we read of the church gathering on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). Besides this, we also read of John being “in the Spirit” (though presumably alone in exile) on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10). Judging by later historical evidence, this was likely a reference to the first day of the week. In addition, the disciples were gathered on the first day of the week when Jesus appeared to them. This happened twice, judging by John’s idiomatic expression “eight days later.” But it could be argued that this hardly counts, because during these post-resurrection weeks the disciples were gathered most every day! If I missed one or two references in my summary here, the point remains the same: we have only a handful of NT references to the church meeting on the Lord’s Day.

In contrast, the host of references and allusions to the church gathering in private homes is too long to summarize properly in a paragraph. For a list of only the clearest evidence, see Acts 2:46; 12:12; 20:8; Romans 16:5; 1Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15 and Philemon 1:2. For example, four of these references speak of “the church in so-and-so’s house.” In addition, given the clarity of this evidence, a range of other references also appear to fit the house church pattern: Acts 8:3; 20:20; Philippians 4:22; 1Timothy 5:13; 2Timothy 3:6 and 2 John 1:10 (more could be added). For example, Acts 8:3 speaks of Paul “entering house after house” as he searched for Christians. 2 John 1:10 warns not to “receive [a false teacher] into your house.” The internal and external evidence is beyond dispute: the normal practice of the NT church was to gather for worship in private homes. In fact, if we look at the NT historical data alone, the evidence for house churches is much stronger than the evidence for Lord’s Day worship.

So, what should we do? Today the typical American church gathers on the Lord’s Day, but not in homes. In fact, the average American Christian (including the average Mennonite) would be quite uncomfortable if “church” was switched to any day besides Sunday. But many of the same people are rather suspicious of those who gather in homes for worship. Are we inconsistent here? Or is there a theological distinction between the two examples that I am missing?

Examining Theological Purposes

Here is one factor that I have delayed mentioning: the Lord’s Day is called the Lord’s Day because it was on this day that our Lord rose from dead. Church history clearly shows that the reason the church met on the first day of the week was because they wanted to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. In addition, it appears that the Holy Spirit was first poured out on a Sunday (the Pentecost of Acts 2). Indeed, the first day of the week (sometimes called the eighth day) was the beginning of the new creation. No other day of the week has been graced with such a high honor! It can be argued from this theological symbolism that there is great value in meeting on the Lord’s Day. Every time we gather on the Lord’s Day we are (or should be) reaffirming our faith in our risen Lord and celebrating the outpouring of the Spirit.

No such rich theological meaning is tied up with meeting for worship in houses. Right? Not so fast.

First, we should note in passing that the NT nowhere mentions the above theological motivation for gathering on the Lord’s Day; this connection is only found in later historical writings. It is almost certain, however, that the NT church shared this theological understanding. (This is an example of how historical study can help us understand the Bible better.)

Second, neither persecution nor poverty can explain the practice of house churches. Persecution, though severe at times, was sporadic and localized during most of the first three centuries. And while many Christians were poor, others (such as Erastus the city treasurer and members of Caesar’s household) would have possessed the funds to build church buildings, much as the Roman officer who built a synagogue in Jesus’ day (Luke 7:1-5). Yet, for nearly three hundred years Christians were “one of the few religious groups at the time that did not make use of some sort of sacred buildings or structures” (Rad Zdero, author of the helpful brief book The Global House Church Movement).

Third, we should not overlook the ubiquitous NT references to imagery of the church as a household, a family. Here, again, the evidence is too overwhelming to properly demonstrate in a paragraph. As Paul S. Minear writes in his classic work Images of the Church in the New Testament, “the salutation ‘brothers’ was in the New Testament the most natural (and therefore most quickly conventionalized) way to address fellow Christians or a congregation as a whole.” The word “brothers” is found 183 times in the ESV NT, many times used to refer to fellow Christians. In addition, we find a host of other familial terms, such as the family of God, little children, God’s household, children of God, God as our heavenly father, Jesus as our brother, adoption, heirs, fellow heirs, and inheritance. Consider a few typical examples:

  • Jesus to his disciples (Matt 12:50): “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
  • Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 5:1-2): “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.”
  • Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 3:15): “…The household of God, which is the church of the living God…”
  • Paul to the Ephesian church (Eph 2:19): “…You are… members of the household of God…”
  • Peter to some scattered saints (1 Pet 4:17): “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God…”

See also John 1:12-13; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5, 30; 6:10; Ephesians 1:5, 11; 1Timothy 3:4-5; Hebrews 1:4; 2:11; 12:7; 1 Peter 1:4; 1John 2:1, 12-14; 3:1; 2John 1:1—varied references that demonstrate that the household imagery was shared widely by many NT authors. In addition, given the nature of the first-century household, which included more than the just the “nuclear family” of parents and children, we should also probably consider the use of terms such as servant/slave, master, manager, and elder.

Thus, both the time and the place that the NT church met are filled with rich theological significance. In both cases, the link between NT church practices and theology is never made explicit in the NT itself. Nowhere do we read that “we meet on the first day of the week because that is the day Christ arose.” No text says “we meet in houses because we are a family, the household of God.” Yet in both cases, the practice was both a natural outflow of their theological understandings and a natural result of imitating the practices of the apostles.

Must We Gather Today on the Lord’s Day and in Homes?

So, are we obliged to meet on the Lord’s Day? Are we obliged to gather in private homes to worship? Here’s the best answer I can give: No, and no; but we should not overlook the possible blessings of doing so.

Regarding the time of meeting: Since this was a major point of conflict in the first century, it is addressed clearly in Scripture. Christians are no longer compelled to observe a weekly sabbath: “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16; for a longer answer to this question, see here). Romans 14:5 broadens this freedom to all days, implicitly including the Lord’s Day: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Therefore, Christians are free. I bless my brothers and sisters in Muslim lands who gather on Friday, the one day of their week when they are not expected to be at work. On the other hand, let us never forget our Lord’s resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit! I bless all who gather on the Lord’s Day with these gifts in mind. I enjoy this practice myself.

Regarding the place of meeting: This also was of major significance in the first century, but in a different manner. The temple, the focal point of Jewish worship, was eclipsed by Christ who freed us to worship anywhere as long as it is in S/spirit and in truth (John 4:19-24). However, the Jews already also worshiped in synagogues, so NT Christians did not argue over the place of meeting as they did over the time of meeting. They were already used to the idea that there was not only one place where worship could happen. Therefore, the NT does not speak prescriptively about where Christians should meet. This, too, is a matter of freedom in Christ. I bless Christians who meet in barns, offices, and caves. I even bless those who meet in “church buildings.” However, let us never forget that the church is a family, a household!

I will add this: Perhaps we need to consider afresh how the architecture of our meeting places sometimes inhibits NT church family life. For example: we often add a concept of “sacred space” that is very foreign to NT Christianity, calling the building “the church” or “God’s house.” On the other hand, we lose the interactive familial exchange of participatory worship when we sit in rows like spectators, staring at the backs of each others’ heads. Our love feasts have shriveled into mere symbols of a symbol. When did we forget that eating a full meal together in communion with Christ can be a central element of our worship services? Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians suggests that such love feasts may not be essential (1 Cor 11:22, 34). But they are certainly possible and even desirable, if they be true “love feasts” (Jude 1:12). (Paul does not argue against love feasts in 1 Corinthians 11, only against their abuse.)

Too often our church buildings become sterile, safe places where our Sunday best becomes armor that shields us from each other. If you really want someone to get to know you deeply, where do you invite him to meet? In a coffee shop, an office, or a warehouse? At a concert hall—which is the secular venue that our modern church sanctuaries are perhaps most closely patterned after? Or do you invite him into the intimacy of your own home, where he can see your economic status, your hobbies, your family, and all your worst and best up close? And what about when you are someone else’s guest? Which location makes you most feel like you are being included as part of the family?

In sum, just as I have a slight preference to meet on the Lord’s Day, so I also hunger for the kind of NT church family life that often comes most naturally as we gather to worship, eat, and pray within our own homes.

Summary: Guidelines for Imitating NT Church Practices

To return to our initial question: How do we determine which NT church practices are normative for us today? Our dual case studies suggest a few guidelines:

  1. We should not automatically assume that we are obligated to woodenly imitate every physical practice of the NT church. Historical precedent is not necessarily prescriptive.
  2. We should remember that one repeated NT command was to imitate the actions of the apostles and other faithful leaders (1 Cor 4:16-17; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 4:9; 2Thess 3:7-9; Heb 13:7)—even though no specific list of mandatory actions is ever given.
  3. We should try to be consistent, not turning historical precedent into prescription in one area while feeling smugly superior to those who imitate NT church practices literally in another area.
  4. We should examine closely the possible benefits of freely imitating NT church practices and not simply react against others who have abused them.
  5. We should aim to chose practices that naturally express the rich theological truths of our Christian faith.
  6. We should remember that the same theological truths may be expressed through a variety of practices. Where Scripture does not speak clearly, we should allow much diversity and bless our brothers and sisters who serve their Master in ways different from us.

Each of these, I think, are worth further reflection.

What do you think? Is it helpful to imitate the NT church in their practices of meeting on the Lord’s Day and in houses (and public spaces)? Do you have other biblical observations, or other guidelines for weighing NT church practices? Share your insights in the comments below, and thanks for reading.


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