[This is the third part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the “nature, marks, and mission of the church.” Parts one and two can be found here.]
Misunderstanding #3: The outward form, structure, and methods of the church are not nailed down in Scripture
I’m a typical American. I like to “get ‘er done,” as they say. We’re practical, can-do folks. Let’s not spend a lot of time thinking about what we are doing. Let’s just do it! Many evangelicals assume that the Bible gives us a clear message, but then leaves the methods of delivering it up to us.
However, even in the Great Commission the command to “Go into all the world” is followed by the specific components of this calling: namely, to preach the gospel, to baptize, and to teach everything he has revealed. Acts 2 tells us that the community created at Pentecost was dedicated to “the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (v 42). These are all communal, structured, public activities. (In Greek, the definite article in “the prayers” suggests that early Christian worship carried on the form of the synagogue liturgy with respect to corporate prayers.)
Throughout the Book of Acts, the apostles busy themselves with the elements of Christ’s commission. In fact, the diaconate is established so that they can give themselves entirely to the ministry of Word and sacrament (Acts 6). Then, everywhere they have a nucleus of converts, the apostles ordain ministers and elders. “This is why I left you in Crete,” Paul reminds Titus, “so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Tit 1:5). While Paul the Apostle could invoke a direct commission from the risen Christ, he bolstered Timothy’s confidence by reminding him of the calling and gift he received “when the council of elders [presbyteriou] laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14). Eventually, this ordinary ministry will replace the extraordinary ministry of the apostles. The former will build on the foundation of the latter. Not only are local churches to be organized with pastors, elders, and deacons; they are responsible to each other in a wider fellowship of mutual encouragement and admonition. When the churches in Antioch brought the case of Gentile inclusion to the whole church in Acts 15, the “whole church” was represented by “the apostles and elders” from each local assembly. The result was a written decision that was expected to be received by every local church.
Then when we get to the Epistles, specific offices and qualifications are clearly stated, especially in the pastoral letters. Clear instructions are given for the meaning and regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10-11), for church discipline (Mat 18; 1 Cor 5-7), and for public worship (Ac 2:42-45; 1 Cor 14:6-39) and the diaconal care of the saints (Ac 6; Rom 15:14-32; Gal 6:10; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-13). We are even told why we sing. Why does God need to tell us why we sing? Because singing in corporate worship is not mere exuberance, entertainment, or pious expression of our own thoughts, feelings, and commitment. Rather, the purpose of the singing is the same as the preaching, the sacraments, and the prayers: “…so that the Word of Christ may dwell in you richly…” (Col 3:16). Christ cares so much about every aspect of his visible church because he knows how prone we are to wander and to set up idols, demanding our own forms of worship. Not only the message of Christ, but the means of grace that he has appointed, are calculated by the Triune God for delivering Christ to sinners—including believers—throughout their pilgrimage. The same gospel that brings those “far off” to Christ also brings to Christ those who are near to the covenant promises: “you and your children” (Ac 2:39).
A major heresy swept the ancient church in the second century, known as Gnosticism. Trying to assimilate the gospel to Greek thought, the Gnostics drew a sharp division between spirit and matter, invisible and visible, outer and inner. It was not the external ministry of Word and sacrament or external ministers like pastors and elders, but an inner ministry of the Spirit through spontaneous ecstasy and enlightenment, that the Gnostics extolled. Paul’s agitators in Greek-dominated settings (such as Corinth and Colossae), whom the apostle had sarcastically dubbed “super-apostles,” were likely forerunners of this sect. However, Jesus did not found a mystical sect of the inner light; he founded a visible church, where he has promised to deliver Christ and all of his benefits through the public ministry of Word and sacrament and to guard his sheep through loving discipline and care of body and soul.
Christ is not only our prophet and priest; he’s also our king. As such, he has not only determined our personal piety but our corporate practices as his body. Jesus did not redeem his sheep only to make them “self-feeders.” The Spirit disrupts our lives and disorganizes the ordinary course of this present age, but only to re-organize and re-integrate a new society around the Son.
As I observed above, I’m as pragmatic as the next American. However, this is not a benign character trait, especially if it keeps us from taking seriously Christ’s claims as king of his church. American evangelicalism is deeply indebted to the Second Great Awakening, led by Charles Finney. The classic American pragmatist, Finney saw the doctrines of original sin, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, justification through faith alone, and the supernatural character of the new birth as obstacles to genuine revival and society’s moral improvement. His “new measures” (such as the “anxious bench,” a precursor to the altar call) supplemented and eventually supplanted the ordained means of grace. Revival was as normal as any other programmed event, dependent on the most effective means of persuasion that could be imagined by a clever evangelist.
Just as the Spirit’s inward call is often contrasted with outward means, evangelicalism celebrates the charismatic leader who needs no formal training or external ecclesiastical ordination to confirm a spontaneous, direct, an inner call to ministry. Historians may debate whether the Protestant enthusiasm is more of a consequence than a cause of the distinctively American confidence in intuitive individualism over against external authorities and communal instruction, but the connection seems obvious. In Head and Heart, Catholic historian Garry Wills observes,
The camp meeting set the pattern for credentialing Evangelical ministers. They were validated by the crowd’s response. Organizational credentialing, doctrinal purity, personal education were useless here—in fact, some educated ministers had to make a pretense of ignorance. The minister was ordained from below, by the converts he made. This was an even more democratic procedure than electoral politics, where a candidate stood for office and spent some time campaigning. This was a spontaneous and instant proclamation that the Spirit accomplished. The do-it-yourself religion called for a make-it-yourself ministry.
Wills repeats Richard Hofstadter’s conclusion that “the star system was not born in Hollywood but on the sawdust trail of the revivalists.” Where American Transcendentalism was the version of Romanticism that attracted a wide following among Boston intellectuals, Finney’s legacy represents “an alternative Romanticism,” a popular version of self-reliance and inner experience, “taking up where Transcendentalism left off.” Emerson had written, “The height, the deity of man is to be self-sustained, to need no gift, no foreign force”—no external God, with an external Word and sacraments or formal ministry. And revivalism in its own way was popularizing this distinctly American religion on the frontier.
Writing against Charles Finney’s “new measures,” a contemporary Reformed pastor and theologian, John Williamson Nevin, pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and what he called “the system of the catechism”: “The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.” Nevin relates his own involvement in a revival as a young man, where he was expected to disown his covenantal heritage as nothing more than dead formalism. These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” He was certainly right and we can’t just staple the five points of Calvinism to an essentially Pelagian methodology.