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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) [amazon template=add to cart1&asin=160899998X]

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 [amazon text=The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today&asin=0802841899], 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.