Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Progressive-Regressive Cycle of the Church

I've been thinking a lot about the nature of the church over the past several years.  I have spent a lot of time either reading about various church settings or traditions or actually spending time in them.  Mostly this has been a result (not uncommon to some) of attempting to find fellowship that reflects most accurately God's will for his church.  This, of course, assumes God has a specific normative for the church today beyond various moral requirements (although many today are, to their great harm, questioning even that).

In the book of Acts, immediately subsequent to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a rag tag group of disciples in an upper room, we read:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

(Acts 2:42-47 ESV)

It didn't take long after this point for things to begin to degrade in the neonatal church.  Perhaps Ananias and Saphira where more a portent then an example and maybe Simon the Sorcerer was the Adam of the modern day televangelists, but the fact is by the time we get to the letters and epistles we start seeing cracks in the wall.  Something was beginning to "bewitch" the church.  We can even see, in the letters to the seven churches in the Revelation of Christ to John, that the picture was grim, albeit still hopeful (See Revelation 2-3).

Persecution seems to have helped stem the decay, but not long after Constantine declared amnesty for believers and established Christianity as the new state religion the beast seems to have been let out of his cage and the cracks in the wall became something much more desperate.  By the time of the Great Schism between the east and the west in 1054 AD what was the "church" was barely recognizable from the the picture painted in Acts 2.   But then comes the reformation and things start looking up....then shortly after they start looking down as the Protestant edifice is shattered into thousands of pieces, each attempting to explain how their visage best reflects God's intention for his bride.   Not that they always claimed they were the "only one", but they at least claimed they were the best representation of the ideal for the "only one".

This cycle repeated and still repeats today.  The reformation gave rise to the radical reformation which gave rise to Hutterites and Mennonites, Amish, Swiss Brethren, etc.  Various groups springing or fracturing from others and then those others eventually giving rise to their own reformative break-aways and so on.

As I studied some of these different mini-reformations (understanding that the Reformation, even if the intentions were good as well as misguided, gave rise to something that really cannot be called a reformation for nothing was truly reformed) I discovered that a cycle seemed to be happening.  Good to bad to fracture, lather, rinse, repeat.  Is it good?  Bad?  Probably neither or both.  The Cycle shouldn't be happening.  It is bad that these "churches" become bad.  But it is good that some see it and want to make it better.  Yet it seems to me that it shouldn't be this way, that it is, although not unexpected, disappointing to our Father.

Now, I understand that some of these fractures are due to less than noble causes.  Malcontents and heretics will always be with us.  When the wolves come in they will scatter the flock if we are not vigilant.    But I'm not speaking of those events here.  I'm speaking of the continual attempt by some (is remnant too romantic of a word to use now or should I wait?) to get back to the root.  Getting back to the root is really what the word "radical" means.  Do these "radicals" have a case?  And how do they or we keep from going too far or not going far enough?

I also realize that most scholars today say that the book of Acts is not meant to be normative for church practice but rather the story of the Holy Spirit establishing the church.  Although I agree with them to an extent I pull up short of completely discarding it all together as a guide to God's original intentions for his church.  I would not promote Acts as the liturgical standard for the church, but I would feel comfortable asking some questions of it concerning how the church ought to appear to itself and the world looking in.  For example, it appears the the early church had a much simplified form of worship and meeting for the study of scriptures.  It also appears that they lived more as strangers in the world they were ministering to.  I don't mean here the antithesis to the state-church that formed later under Constantine but rather a real  "otherness" that seemed to follow the early church.  And so on.

Anyway, my point behind this post was to posit my idea and give myself a starting point for exploring it and anything related to it fuller.  The idea isn't original, but it is original to me and since this blog is also mine I'll feel free to write as though the idea is original.

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