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.

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7 thoughts on “The New Testament Church: The Challenge of Developing Ecclesiologies – Harrison/Dvorak (Review)”

  1. Thanks for the review Dwight!
    I’m wondering if you have any comments on how the essays in this book would relate to the book Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch? Would you say there are major points of difference between the two? One item that caught my attention was that Strauch is convinced that Scripture speaks clearly as to how leadership should be structured. It appears from your review that these essays would not necessarily agree that the model is as clear as Strauch makes it out to be?
    Thanks again for the review, and for the consistently interesting and thought-provoking content!

    1. Wow, excellent question Jordan. I think your hypothesis is correct: The essays in this book suggest that there was not a fully uniform practice of church leadership structure across the churches represented in the NT documents. Strauch’s book examines all the NT data regarding “elders,” with the understanding that elders are to be found in all fully-functioning churches. He doesn’t examine other leadership roles/gifts in that book. The essays in this Harrison/Dvorak book are much more wide-ranging in perspective, looking at all sorts of leadership roles/gifts, and that as only one tiny topic among many. These essays would probably suggest that (a) elders functioned in most but perhaps not all churches (?), (b) there were also other very significant roles/gifts functioning, and (c) there was not a consistent hierarchy or structure to how these various roles/gifts related.

      A few specific observations… The essay on Matthew suggests that teachers and prophets were likely prominent within the church(es) for whom that Gospel was first written (p. 15). The essay on Mark barely mentions specific leadership roles but just discusses leadership as selfless service (p. 29ff). From the essay on Luke-Acts: “Luke’s church hierarchy would, at least apparently, include apostles, elders, teachers, and prophets” (p. 56). The essays on Romans/Galatians and 1 Corinthians emphasize the role of Spirit-gifted individuals.

      The Ephesians essay has a similar Spirit-gifted focus (based on chap. 4), and says, “As for the teaching gifts granted to local communities, the concept of office or hierarchy remains foreign. ‘Evangelist,’ ‘shepherd,’ and ‘teacher’ describe functions; they do not serve as titles. The use of ‘shepherd’ rather than ‘overseer’ or ‘elder’ appears to reflect a time when terminology for congregational leaders remained in flux. Later hierarchical distinctions between elders and bishops are unknown in Ephesians. In subsequent generations Christianity would compartmentalize the active work of the Spirit and reserve it for properly ordained clergy, but Ephesians neither reflects this nor offers a model for it.” (p. 145)

      From the essay on Thessalonians/Philippians: “Like other Pauline churches, the Thessalonian community was overseen by recognized leaders who guided the community’s life in Paul’s absence… Such a structure of leaders responsible for the nurture of the community and members obliged to recognize them for these efforts is attested also in 1 Cor 16:15-16 and Phlm 1-2, 4-7, where it is clear that Stephanus and Philemon exercise leadership in virtue of their service as sponsors of a house church. The same may be concluded for the unnamed residential leadership of the church in Thessalonica.” (pp. 154-55)

      The essay on the Pastoral Epistles observes that there may have been “different organization [of leadership] among the Christian communities in Ephesus (1-2 Timothy) and Crete (Titus).” This essay is more reluctant than Strauch to conclude that “elder” and “overseer” refer to exactly the same role. Thus, “Given the uncertainities, one should be cautious about using the PE as a strict organizational template for congregational or ecclesiastical polity.” (p. 182)

      The essay on Hebrews notes that “the author chooses a broad term for leadership… that applies collectively to the people who played a key role in the life of the early community, rather than the technical word for officials” (p. 198, footnote), while also emphasizing that Hebrews teaches that all Christians are responsible for pastoral care.

      From the essay on James: “Corresponding to the likelihood that the Epistle of James reflects life in a very early Christian community, the leadership roles depicted are few. Most stressed is the teacher… However… elders are functioning as well… The Epistle of James describes elders in only one function in the community: ministering to those who are seriously ill… How these individuals became elders, or how else they might function in the community, is not mentioned… Were the elders teachers? Probably, but James does not connect the two.” (pp. 222-23)

      I’ll stop there, but that should give you a flavor of how this book addresses leadership data. I think the main takeaway might be that function (ensuring the various pastoral needs are met) is more important than achieving the perfect form. We need to trust God’s Spirit to provide gifted leaders and submit to those who prove to be faithful servants in the church, recognizing them as gifts to the body.

      Wow, again: your question was good, and points precisely to one reason why a book like this (addressing each NT book separately) can be so useful.

  2. Thanks for your response Dwight! Looks like I need to read the book 🙂 It seems to me that the challenge of determining how clearly Scripture prescribes a model of church leadership is complicated by the newness and transitory nature of the early church, and by extension the instructions given in the NT (note that I mean the church was developing, not that the NT no longer applies to us on this topic. I believe in the ongoing relevance and accuracy of Scripture 🙂 ). The NT Church was essentially ‘finding its legs’, and it seems you could argue that much of the instruction given to men like Timothy and Titus needs to be carefully considered and applied contextually in an environment like ours of more established churches with local leadership. Conversely, perhaps the degree to which our churches are ‘established’ is one of the weaknesses we need to be on guard against 🙂

    1. I agree, Jordan–on all points. I think what we do see in 1 & Timothy and Titus is Paul as a mature missionary seeing the importance of solid leadership for the long-term survival of the church, and Strauch does well to investigate the role elders play in this, and to underscore the calibre of character such leaders must demonstrate. But to say every church must always and only have the elder/deacon combo for leadership is probably stretching the biblical evidence.

      (Just be aware, if you do buy the book, that the topic of leadership is only one small subtopic in the essays, so don’t imagine this is a systematic survey of church leadership in the NT. But again, reading about leadership in the context of other important themes is also enlightening.)

  3. I would like to add a note of caution to your book review, but in offering this caveat let it be clear that I have _not_ read the book. What follows is based strictly upon what you have made known of the volume’s content. I will get to my point via a circuitous argument, so stay with me here 🙂

    We live in a time when Diversity is king. Minority views are granted legitimacy and respect simply because they are minority views. It doesn’t matter if the views are true or not; what matters is that they be accorded the validity that formerly belonged only to the truth. This marks the time in which we live.

    How did we get here? Belief in God was jettisoned and with Him a unified field of reality. No longer is there an integrated, overarching Truth. Now there are only truths, as each individual and community define them. When the One was forsaken the many were exalted. So Absolutes are now rejected and relativism reigns. Universals have been abandoned and the particulars are now authoritative. This is the triumph of the atomistic worldview.

    So what does this have to do with your book review? 🙂

    The spirit of the times always presses hard against the church and it’s a particular menace to Christians in the academy, to intellectuals and scholars whose livelihoods depend, in some measure, upon conformity to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. I don’t write as one sympathetic to their predicament; I’m just stating the facts here. In order to gain intellectual respectability, many “Christian” scholars have made compromises with the atomistic worldview; they are less concerned with a unified, integrated theology and more invested in the particular theologies of the various Biblical authors. Focus has been diverted from a Central organizing principle in Biblical theology, which many “Christian” scholars confess does not exist, to the various and sometimes “conflicted” perspectives of the individual authors of the Biblical material. Based upon your book review, it seems to me that such an accommodation to the spirit of our time may exist in The New Testament Church: The Challenge of Developing Ecclesiologies.

    The very premise of the book, if I have understood your review, is that the NT does not present us with an ecclesiology, but with ecclesiologies. There is no singular way to order the church, apparently; no, there are several, even many ways, from which to choose, given our cultural and social context. An authoritative ecclesiology is out, it seems, and a buffet-style ecclesiology is in, depending on what best fits our local situation. Mark has one ecclesiology and Matthew another; John has an ecclesiology peculiar to him and so does the author of Hebrews. So the choice is ours. Each particular community decides what’s best for them. After all, the editors/authors seem to be saying, there is no singular truth in this matter, only truths. This is the atomistic worldview of our time pressing itself upon Christian scholarship. This is the subtle and prevailing power of the Zeitgeist.

    In conclusion, I hasten to add that even if my assessment is completely accurate, that does not mean the book is worthless. Quite the contrary, I actually intend to purchase the book and study it carefully. One of the things I’ve learned over time is that there is much to be gained from reading authors with whom I otherwise have deep and fundamental disagreements. What I’ve offered above is a caveat with respect to (what may be) the book’s presuppositions and premises, and not a criticism, in any sense, of book’s content. After all, to repeat, I have not yet read the volume.

    [We should all regularly read material written by those outside our own camp. Conservative Anabaptists are particularly poor at this and peculiarly impoverished as a result. No one tradition possesses all the truth. It’s always healthy and profitable to have our sacred traditions and cherished viewpoints challenged. This necessary process of reading, study and reflection has driven me across the denominational spectrum, all the way from Roman Catholic beginnings to Anabaptist convictions (on the church and discipleship). And I dare to say that anyone in our time who remains in a life-long commitment to their birth tradition simply isn’t studying Scripture and thinking honestly. Fear of the truth, and clinging to tradition in spite of the truth, is not a mark of original Anabaptism, much less authentic Christian discipleship.]

    1. Kevin, you are right to have your radar up for the concern you expressed (relativistic views of the church and of truth in general). This book does reflect the language of the times in that it suggests “it is our hope that [church leaders] will no longer assume that their task is to find a single uniform description of the New Testament church but will look for New Testament ecclesiologies that are most relevant tot eh social and cultural contexts in which their community lives.” That statement alone would make me uneasy.

      That said, I don’t think this book falls into the error of relativism. Rather, the editors make it very clear (and the authors appear to agree) that there is an essential core reality that is shared by all churches that can truly claim to belong to Christ’s church. From the introduction: “Certainly these [NT] books point to a unity shared by their [church] communities. This unity is centered on the teaching that Jesus is the Christ, whom God has raised from the dead and has enthroned as Lord. They believed that they were living in the time prior to the age to come, when God’s kingdom will be fully revealed and experienced by those who have put their trust in Jesus as God’s messiah.” If one compared the individual essays I’m sure we’d find more common ground.

      What does vary in the NT, according to the editors, is “the structure, leadership, and sacraments that were practiced.” Our tendency today is to reduce the NT picture to the patterns that are familiar from our denominational heritages. For example, most Anabaptists and many evangelicals think of church leadership almost exclusively in terms of two local-church offices: elder/pastor and deacon (or maybe dividing elder into two: minister and bishop), despite the much greater variety of leadership terms found in the NT.

      I think you’ll enjoy the book. It does use the language of scholarly biblical studies, but usually with conservative eyes, and I don’t find it is pushing any sort of a relativistic agenda.

  4. >>What does vary in the NT, according to the editors, is “the >>structure, leadership, and sacraments that were practiced.”

    I find that quote more than a little disturbing, but probably need to read their arguments before commenting further 🙂

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