Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Organization of the Early Church

I must admit to being a bit concerned about the state of the Church today. What passes for worship, theology, and general epistemology are reflective of our secular society and its Cultural Marxist values more than any historical or biblical approach to the nature and character of the Christian Church as founded by Christ. The Church founded by Jesus Christ is often looked upon by those given to the ideologies attendant to the world as nothing more than just another organization, not unlike other organizations. Thus it is often viewed with the same disdain as the adherent of the world's ideologies might view any government or powerful corporation. Sadly, evangelicals must be willing to admit guilt in the process that brought us here, since the emphasis has far too often been on individual and personal relationships with God, to the near exclusion of the biblical need for the community relationship of the Kingdom, expressed only through an understanding of the 1st century Church.

The Church is in reality a multidimensional institution, founded by the transcendent God, and is far more powerful than any mere human organization. It operates on two levels; the spiritual and the temporal. This can be seen in principle, if not in fact, in Christ's granting of authority to His Church, through His Apostles.

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”- Matthew 18:18 (ESV)

This multidimensional view of the Church has historically been pictured as two distinct, yet interconnected, organic parts; the Ecclesia Miltans (Church Militant), and the Ecclesia Triumphans (Church Triumphant).

The Church Militant is comprised of Christians living on earth, engaged in the ongoing and ever present battle against Satan and sin.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, and the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”- Ephesians 6:12 (ESV)

This verse paints a clear picture of the Church as a militant force engaged in combat, while at the same time noting the fact that, though the Church is comprised of people living an earthly existence, they nonetheless interact with, and have an affect on, the spiritual realm.

The Church Triumphant is comprised of the faithful who have gone on to be with our Lord, and await His Second Coming with the Church Militant. These are deemed triumphant because they have persevered in faith, lived holy lives, have been obedient to God and their names have been found in the Lamb's Book of Life. They worship God together with the hosts of heaven.

These two "parts" of the Church are what is meant by the “communion of saints” in the Apostles Creed.

Though we are separated by death from the faithful who have gone on to their eternal reward, we remain united as one Church through Jesus Christ. Together these two states of the Church are known as the Body of Christ.

It is important to note that the Church is universal. That is, it is comprised of faithful believers from every tribe and nation, and in its reach surpasses any denominational structure. This in no way compromises the unity of the Church, since these faithful, though separated by distance or denomination, are not in any sense divided as the Body of Christ. They are the One True Church of Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

All the nations that dwell under heaven were called by hearing and believing upon the name of the Son of God. Having, therefore, received the seal, they had one understanding and one mind. And their faith became one, and their love one.”- Hermas

The pre-eminence of the church is its oneness. It is the basis of union. In this it surpasses all other things and has nothing like or equal to itself.”
                                                                          - Clement of Alexandria

There is one God. Furthermore, Christ is one, and there is one Church.”
                                                                                                  - Cyprian

There are other symbolic titles for the Church, such as Bride of Christ (Romans 12:4), bringing to mind our union with Christ through His death, burial and resurrection, pictured as a marriage.

Additionally, early Christians gave the title of Mother to the Church, picturing the church as a loving mother who nourishes her children.

Our one Father, God, lives. And so does our mother, the Church.”- Tertullian

The Church as a Symbol of the Kingdom
The Church also fulfills the important role of representing Christ to the world as His Body. It is, philosophically speaking, a symbol of the Kingdom of God. It reflects the kingdom in its adherence to the Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2), its promotion of the Gospel of the Kingdom (Luke 17:20-21; Romans 14:17 Mark 1:14-15; 2 Peter 1:10-11; Acts 8:12), and in its social structure. This should not be surprising since the Nation of Israel was a type of the Church. (Acts 7:38)

The structure of the Church is a reflection of the future Kingdom wherein Christ will rule as Sovereign. As Clement of Alexandria put it,“The earthly church is the image of the heavenly.”

Any government has leaders who serve under the authority of the State sovereign have the duty to represent their government with honor and loyalty. This is no less true of the Church and future Kingdom of God. Our Lord has established leadership who represent His coming Kingdom. Biblically speaking, these are presbyters (elders), bishops (overseers), deacons and deaconesses. Above all of these in order were the Apostles themselves. It is to these men and their successors that Christ granted a derived authority to lead His Church. (Matthew 18:18; John 13:20) This threefold ministry is also found in the witness of the early church.

There is one bishop, along with the presbyters and deacons, my fellow servants.”Ignatius of Antioch

According to my opinion, the grades here in the church, of bishops, presbyters and deacons, are imitations of the angelic glory, and of that arrangement which the scriptures say awaits those who, following in the footsteps of the apostles, have lived in perfection of righteousness according to the Gospel.” - Clement of Alexandria

The Hebrew word for 'apostle' is shali' ah, which can be translated as 'emissary'. It is worth noting that in ancient times an emissary was a court official who carried messages from the Sovereign to both the people and other rulers. It was the custom that an emissary was treated with the same respect which would be given to the Sovereign he represented as a matter of courtesy. Jesus seems to have had this concept in mind when He said:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” - John 13:20 (ESV)

The Church as an Orderly Organism
The Church, comprised as it is of saints who love here on earth and in the heavenly realm, and as it is ever growing through the message of the Kingdom of God, is an orderly, organic institution. As such it also sends a very clear message that the Church is not simply a gathering of people who have had individual experiences binding them together, but that our experience of Christ is at the same instant corporate, and thus Christianity is best understood as a corporate experience. The New Testament admonishes believers repeatedly not to consider themselves somehow separate from the corporate Body of Christ, nor are we to regard the local church as unnecessary to our spiritual lives.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”- Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)

The early Christians took the need for corporate worship very seriously as well.

He, therefore, who does not assemble with the Church, has even by this displayed his pride, and he has condemned himself.”- Ignatius of Antioch

Beyond the order in hierarchy, the Church displays order in worship. (Ephesians 5:19; Acts 2:42; 1 Timothy 4:13).

Therefore, let is be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” - Hebrews 12:28-29 (ESV)

This reverence and awe was very early on found in a loose liturgical form of worship, akin to what we might understand today as "low church" worship. While many evangelicals deplore any thought of liturgy, it would be wise to remember that liturgical worship is what God established for the nation of Israel, and from this we understand that, since God cannot establish anything evil or sinful, liturgy is not an evil of itself. Certainly an abuse of it can be, but that in no way renders liturgy itself an evil. One would be hard pressed to define some of the things we see in churches today that are called worship as being either reverent or exemplifying awe. On the other hand, some forms of liturgical worship include traditions or dogmas that directly violate both Sacred Scripture and the witness of the early Church.

The early Church established the first known liturgy through a document known as the Didache. This document, also known as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is dated by the vast majority of scholars to the 1st century A.D., placing it during the lifetime of the Apostles. The Didache details the proper method for baptism, daily prayer, days of fasting, and the celebration of the Lord's Supper, or Eucharist. We also possess latter era examples of the development of this liturgical worship in the writings of such Church Fathers as Justin the Martyr and Hippolytus of Rome. 

Sadly there is a knee-jerk negative reaction to liturgy by many evangelicals, most of whom have never really experienced this form of historic worship or simply associate it with the stereotypes they have of Roman Catholic worship as empty, works oriented, and blasphemous.

Just a little reminder here; the 16th century is long gone. We can stop "protesting" things that historically have been mistaken as patented Roman Catholicism, such as liturgy. As noted, the early church had several forms of liturgy, from that of Hippolytus, to the more simplistic Eucharistic liturgy of the Didache. 

What I believe emerges from a careful study of the Church is that it has been organized by Jesus Christ to represent Him faithfully, to spread the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, to operate on both earthly (in the lives of disciples) and heavenly levels of influence, and to do so in an orderly, reverent manner.

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