The Ideal Christian Community
by Robert Hach
Having spent nearly fifteen years (my entire adult life up to that point) as a professional "minister," it was with great difficulty that I finally concluded that I could only achieve the goal which both I and the religious group to which I belonged constantly professed--"the restoration of New Testament Christianity"--if I left "the ministry." This conclusion was based on my growing recognition that I could find neither my employment nor my employer in the New Testament, the Christianity of which I was sworn to restore. Certain truths had become painfully evident to me.
First, I had come to realize that the religious organization that I had been calling "the Lord's Church" and "the Body of Christ" (in both its local congregational sense and its international sectarian sense) was not a restoration of the spiritual community of the New Testament. (Even the word "ecclesia," typically translated "church" in English versions of the New Testament, was not a "Christian" nor even a religious term in its New Testament context; it simply meant "assembly" and applied to any assembly of individuals for any purpose, as indicated by its use in Acts 19:32,39 & 41. Indeed, the notion of restoring the Christian community, either internationally or locally, is absurd in that it is a spiritual community, that is, a community of faith, which means that it exists as long as and wherever there are individuals who believe the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is God's Messiah. As the New Testament Jesus says, he would build his assembly on the rock of the faith that he is "the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16-18). While believers have always needed instruction and encouragement in the faith to hope for the kingdom of God and to love one another, the New Testament "authorizes" no organization to fulfill this purpose.
Second, it had become clear to me that the ministry of teaching and encouraging in the faith, according to the New Testament, is not the work of a professional "minister" ("diakonos," which means "servant") but, rather, belongs to
every member of the body of Christ. By prohibiting religious titles, such as "Father" and "Teacher" (Matthew 23:8-12), for anyone but God and his Messiah respectively, the New Testament Jesus abolishes any distinction between "clergy" and "laity" and equates spiritual leadership with egalitarian servanthood. The only New Testament term consistently used for spiritual leaders is "elders," which (popular usage notwithstanding) does not designate an official position of authority in "the Church" but, instead, refers to older believers whose teaching and example can be safely followed due to their wisdom, that is, their spiritual maturity (as described in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9; 2:3-5). These are not members of a board (an "eldership") which rules over, by making decisions for, an organization but, rather, individuals who live "among you," not to "lord it over" but to "be examples to the flock" (I Peter 5:1-3). The New Testament ideal is that all believers, with age and experience, become elders who teach and encourage their younger brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Third, I had concluded that professional ministers (who often "serve" as either the CEO's or PR men of the religious organizations which employ them, depending on their personalities and the ecclesiastical traditions of their Churches) represent the misguided and ill-fated effort to institutionalize the original authority of the New Testament apostles. When professional ministers stand in pulpits, symbolically mediating between God and humanity, they almost invariably speak as if revealing "the inspired Word of God." What they reveal, of course, are the authorized doctrinal traditions of the Churches which employ them. And even if they depart from those traditions at some points, they do not acknowledge that what they say is a matter of their own interpretation (as opposed to the ecclesiastically authorized interpretation) of the inspired scriptures. Indeed, they cannot acknowledge it without surrendering their credibility and the authority of the position which they occupy.
But the authority to reveal the truth of the gospel is delegated by the New Testament Jesus only to his "apostles," whom he chose to speak on his behalf, and through the apostles, to other inspired speakers called "prophets," and others called "evangelists," and still others called "pastors and teachers" (Ephesians 4:11). Rather than permanent "offices" in the government of "the Church," these were temporary gifts which the risen Lord gave to the Christian community in its infancy "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until [emphasis mine] all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity ..." (Ephesians 4:12-13). This was the work of New Testament prophets like Agabus (Acts 11:27-30; 21:10-11), New Testament evangelists like Philip (Acts 8:4-12; 21:8), and New Testament pastors and teachers like Timothy and Titus (I & II Timothy and Titus). They were inspired apostolic delegates who, along with the apostles, brought new Christian communities into existence all over the first century world and guided them to maturity. When, by the close of the apostolic period, communities of faith, led by the teaching and example of mature believers (that is, "elders"), existed throughout the first century world, "the faith [having been] once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude:3), the work of the apostles and their inspired delegates had come to fruition and completion. (Their work is now preserved in the New Testament.) Apostolic authority is perpetuated, then, not in official positions in the structure of an organization but in the New Testament faith itself, the inspired message which indwells the hearts of mature believers.
The passing of the gifts of inspiration from the Christian community also marked the passing of the "signs and wonders" which signified to believers and unbelievers alike during the infancy of the community of faith that the Christian message was indeed "the word of God." The inspired "knowledge" that came through the gifts of "prophecy" and "tongues" would cease, says Paul, when "the perfect comes" (I Corinthians 13:8-10). Perfection, in New Testament terms ("teleios"), is synonymous with maturity, also indicated by Paul's equation of the gifts of inspiration with "childish things," which are "put away" when the child reaches adulthood (I Corinthians 13:11). Which is to say that maturity is realized when the Christian faith--"the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12)--makes its way from the mouths of inspired speakers into the hearts of in-spirited-ed believers. The faith which begins as spoken message (Galatians 3:1-5) gradually takes root in believing hearts and eventually bears fruit as indwelling spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
Many present-day "apostles" and "prophets" claim, of course, that "signs and wonders" continue, a claim that validates their authority to lead their disciples out of the mainstream denominations of Christianity into their sectarian fiefdoms. (The authority of the priests and pastors and preachers of orthodox Christianity, by comparison, needs no such validation insofar as it is upheld and perpetuated by the force of longstanding tradition.) The New Testament, however, gives further indication that the signs passed away with the apostolic generation.
The Gospel of John characterizes itself as a book of Jesus' "signs ... written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God ..." (John 20:30,31). The apparent need for such a piece of writing seems to suggest that at the time John's Gospel was composed (late in the first century according to most New Testament scholars), the gifts of inspiration and their accompanying signs may not have been nearly as widespread as they had been when most of the apostolic generation was still alive. Moreover, the Jesus of John's Gospel identifies the "sign" that would show the unbelieving world the truth of the believers' claim that Jesus is God's Messiah and that they are his disciples: it would not be gifts of tongues or healing or any other "miraculous" display; rather, it would be the disciples' "love for one another" (John 13:34-35), the unity of believers that would reflect the spiritual oneness of Jesus the Son with God the Father (John 17:20-23).
Which is to say, along with Paul, that when the worldwide community of faith would mature to the point at which mature believers in each locality would be "speaking the truth in love," the Christian community would function in such a way that "the whole body, ... as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love" (Ephesians 4:15,16). In summary, rather than depending on a class of professionals for spiritual life support, the community of faith would be self-edifying.
This, it seems to me, is the New Testament ideal, a vision of the community of faith that emerged in the apostolic mind from the faith itself, the truth of the gospel. To say that it is an ideal is, perhaps, to say that it is unrealizable in this age, that it is a vision of life in the age to come, in the kingdom of God. The question is not, however, a matter of how practical or possible the New Testament portrayal of Christian community is for the present day, just as serious Christians do not ask how practical or possible it is to follow the teaching and example of Jesus. (Indeed, they know that following Jesus is both impractical and impossible in the present age. And they continue, by the grace of God, to try anyway.) Moreover, the New Testament portrayal of Christian community is simply an extrapolation of the teaching and example of Jesus, out of the individuality of the believer into the community of faith. This kind of transformation happens not in the structural and systematic workings of religious organizations but in the interpersonal and informal workings of spiritual relationships.
The foregoing analysis is, of course, my own interpretation of New Testament teaching, a combination of reflection on my own experience and the influence on my thinking of various strands of the Christian tradition. As such, I bind it on no one but offer whatever truths of the gospel it may embody for the edification (I hope) of the present-day community of faith as it exists both inside and outside the structures of organized Christianity.