Monthly Archives: June 2012

Book Review: The Early Church by W.H.C. Frend

I love the SCM classics series of books. From this series of books, I’ve read two of Bonhoeffer’s (The Cost of Discipleship and Letters & Papers From Prison) and Moltmann’s The Crucified God. The scope of this book is more historical as the title implies. The subtitle of the book is “from the beginnings to 461” and this is the time period on which Frend focuses.

The definition of “early church” is a slippery one. When I tend to use it, I mean the period of the apostles, largely chronicled in the book of Acts. Frend uses the term more loosely, simply describing a period that is much earlier than that in which we presently live. He works chronologically, beginning with the historical and cultural background into which the church was born.

He only spends one chapter on the period I regard as the “early church” choosing to spend more of his time on the later patristic period. I read a couple of other books last year that would make a very good accompaniment to this work: Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman and Heresy by Alister McGrath. Both of these works cover the ideas that sprung out of various communities around the Mediterranean as ways of understanding the nature and person of Jesus, but which were largely consigned to the bin labelled “heresies” – and Frend looks at some of these debates as well.

Frend writes from a fairly neutral perspective. For example, there can be a tendency amongst catholic apologists, to make claims for Rome being one of the earliest centres of christianity and for the primacy of Peter as a figure in church history. Frend gives due weight to the evidence that supports this, but maintains a scepticism about the testimony of some influential people, especially Irenaeus of Lyons.

That said, he doesn’t really give an account of the origins of catholicism. In the first part of the book, he sticks to talking about “christians” but about half way through he suddenly introduces “catholics” but without stating how the latter emerged out of the former, which in my view is quite an important time between the early church and the medieval period. That said, he does go onto to give an account of catholicism’s rise to power in through the 4th and 5th centuries.

As the book is only about 240 pages long, yet covering around 420 years, it is inevitable that the work is concise. This is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength, because it allows the reader to get a good grip on the big picture and to see how various people and events interrelate in the grand scheme of things. It’s a weakness because it means that some issues are dealt with all too briefly. Each chapter ends with a list of further reading, so Frend is aware that some readers may wish to follow up with some more extensive study. If any serious criticism can be made, it is that there is an undue weight given to the events and people of the 4th century, as this takes up nearly half of the book, with relatively little on what I would regard as the “early” church of the 1st century. However, this may be due to relative amount of evidence available.

Much of the history of the church is a history of debates and disagreements. Some of these are over quite nuanced theology that seem, to me at least, far more trouble than they were worth. That is, there seemed to be a greater insistence on being “right” than there was over being loving and gracious towards one another. These arguments are given some space, but only enough for a brief overview. But if you just let your eyes skim over a paragraph without really taking it in, you will quickly get lost, not least in the multitude of names.

One thing that went through my mind as I was reading was on how the book focused largely on a relatively small number of influential or well-known figures and I was left wondering “what about the ordinary person who went about their daily business, living a christian life but not having it as their full time occupation?” The lack of such detail must, of course, be related to the lack of sources, though Frend does address this somewhat in his final chapter.

It is a very interesting read and serves as a great introduction and overview of the history of the church, though I would dispute the use of the term “early”. For anyone interested in this, or interested in how modern Trinitarian thinking developed, then I’d highly recommend it.

Saints: A nonconformist point of view

Following on from my recent “thinking out loud” about how I, as a nonconformist, view church structures, I wanted to expand on a few other things that I think about slightly differently from some mainstream denominations, and to give my reasons for doing so. Some of this should explain some of the stylistic oddities you may have noticed if you have read much of this blog. In this case, I wanted to explain my thinking behind why, when referring to various figures (particularly the apostles) I use the like of Paul or Peter, rather than St. Paul or St. Peter, which entails looking at the idea of who is (and who isn’t) a saint.

The traditionalist viewpoint

The more traditional churches seem to have a special regard for some individuals who are regarded as “saints.” I know the catholic church has a process now in place where someone is regarded as “blessed” and where a miracle has to be verified after a believer has prayed to this dead individual. That miracle is then attributed to the dead person and a long drawn out process is made eventually culminating in the person being “beatified” and declared to be a saint by the pope.

In christianity, many of the catholic saints were “adopted” though the memory of the reformation, particularly in England, does lead to less worship of saints than may be found elsewhere, even if this is defended under the guise of “veneration” or some other linguistic trickery to avoid the suspicion of idolatry.

While I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we remember individual men & women who have contributed to helping others both inside and outside church communities, helping to spread the gospel, it just strikes me as odd that some individuals are picked out as being special more than the countless millions throughout history who have done so either anonymously or who passed into obscurity.

What does the bible say?

The New Testament is littered with references to saints, but in these the referent is clearly the group of all believers in a given location. Individuals are sometimes singled out, but these are then followed up with phrases like “greet all the saints.”

To be specific, take Romans 1:7 for example. “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In Acts 9:32, the term is used interchangeably with believers: “Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydia.”

There are plenty of other references of this kind. To take just a sample, have a look at 1 Corinthians 16:15; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 4:22; Hebrews 6:10 and Jude 3.

One other set of passages that will be of particular relevance will be those found in Revelation. In chapter 8, the prayers of the saints are pictured as incense rising. For biblical literalists, this is the foundation of the use of incense as swung around in extremely “high” churches. Here, the meaning of saints is less clear, so I would propose that our best understanding of its usage comes from the context of the other New Testament writers as indicated above.

Rev 11:18 may at first glance seem distinguish saints from other people, as there are also listed prophets and ‘ones fearing your name’ though when you read around the verse in context it is fairly clear that this is a rhetorical device for saying “everyone” – something not unknown in today’s modern English parlance. This similar usage may be found also in 16:6, 17:6 and 18:24.

Chapter 14 gives a description of who John thought the saints were: “those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of [or ‘in’] Jesus.”

Of course, I have not given you an exhaustive list of references to saints, but having looked through them, I do not think that any omissions add to or change the main argument. But do look them up, it makes for fascinating reading.

The argument

What makes this of particular concern, rather than any lame attempt to drive a wedge between denominations, is the difference in the theological statements between those who subscribe, as I do to the “all believers are saints” hypothesis and those who go along the lines of “some are saints to be revered above others.”

The term “saint” is often contrasted with that of “sinner” and is just as frequently seen as representing a contrast between two opposites. This is so prevalent, that it has slipped outside of church terminology and is used within our much wider secular society. The trouble this has, as with any terminology that has been adopted outside of its precise theological context, is that connotations arise which distort a word’s meaning. In this instance, “saint” has come to mean someone who is especially well-behaved, a do-gooder, if you will. On the other hand, “sinner” has become a pejorative term, sometimes implying criminal behaviour.

I would contend that the two are not opposites at all. Rather, saints are simply a subset of sinners. In my usage of the term, sinners would just be another byword for “people” (in line with Romans 3:21-23) though I very rarely use it because of the judgemental overtones that could be interpreted, even when they are not meant.

One of the alternative translations of “saint” that you will find in some translations is “holy ones” or something similar. Where we get to the nub of the argument is this: who declares us to be ‘holy’ or otherwise?

My point of view, based on my present understanding of scripture, is that God alone is the one who can declare us to be holy. We are made so by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It is for God to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ – and this is skirting a whole other argument I don’t wish to have right now. But the point is that I can’t see how it can be right for some individuals to be declared saints by the church authorities (who are to be servants, not commanders, remember). Whatever criteria is used, it is inherently made-made, which must therefore be inherently inferior to the perfect judgement of God.


In light of the evidence and the argument supported by it, it seems bizarre to me that anyone would cling to the traditionalist use of these words, as it clearly has no relation to the kind of faith that the early church had.

In terms of remembering individuals, it’s not bad that we might be encouraged to remember. But it is decidedly odd that you should allocate particular individuals to specific days. What it implies is that on the 17th of July we ought to remember one person, but that they can be forgotten for the rest of the year and that on that day all others are considered to not be as important. Nor do I find it particularly helpful that someone may be considered the patron saint of whatever. I see no biblical imperative for it, nor is it helpful in any way except to perpetuate traditionalism which I don’t regard as being inherently valuable anyway.

For my part, I will choose to remember those saints who I have known throughout my lifetime, who have encouraged me, helped me grow and have challenged me to question my thinking.

Catholicism and christianity: a response

Picture taken from Wikimedia Commons - usable under Creative Commons license

I recently received a very interesting comment on one of my earlier posts on church structure. You can read it here.

I am informed that my posts can be interpreted as being anti-catholic. I have been called “anti” many things in my time including anti-charismatic, anti-anglican and anti-evangelical. I do not consider myself to be any of these nor to be anti-anything, much (though do read to the end for a caveat to this). Rather, as explained recently I am much more interested in probing and exploring truth, as I best understand it. This entails pointing out what I see as mistakes or incorrect emphases in a number of issues, though what specific point I write about at any time may be either a matter of whim or it may relate specifically to something that has been in the news recently. This is not a new development in the blog, as can be demonstrated from something of a manifesto I published early on or to my take on creationism.

For reference, I usually write (this being an exception) a long time in advance of publication. Forthcoming posts currently in production include 2 very long series (one on Peter, one on the Psalms) and a variety of individual posts on subjects including saints, priests, whether christianity ought to be considered a religion, what a faith school is really like (I did, after all, attend one for 9.5 years), egalitarianism & feminism, the theology of holy spaces and finally one looking at when christians err entitled “Christians are people too.”

Some of these have been in production for several months and some posts I write to clear way for later posts. So there may be many besides my book reviews, which end up being published earlier.

Back to the point. I covered some thoughts on catholicism when the subject came up whilst looking at denominations where I concluded that there is no clear dividing line between what constitutes a denomination and what may be regarded as heretical offshoots, though we may see examples that fall easily into one category or another. My personal view is that catholicism, though related to christianity, should be not be conflated with it. I regard the relation as being very similar to that of Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There may be much common ground in the foundations, but there is so much either taken away or added to as to make it unrecognisable as being the same faith that I have. I could go further into these, though I think they are adequately  and more eloquently expressed by Antia Mathias in her post: Why I am no longer a catholic.

There is always a fine line to be trod between toleration and lovingly pointing out where others go astray. I don’t pretend that I have always got things right and I would hope that no reader interprets this blog as being dogmatic in any way. I simply state the truth as I see it, giving my reasons for doing so. I hope this makes the reader think or at least to view some aspect of the subject in a new way, even if this does mean on occasion challenging a line thought which I think to be incorrect. And this is a two-edged sword of course. I welcome challenges to my own point of view, as the original comment which prompted this post did. Sometimes those challenges come from myself, as I have binned quite a few pieces or severely modified them after changing my mind subsequent to the start of writing them. I know that I may well be wrong about this, as with many other things. All I ask is for the evidence or reasoning to be presented for consideration, as I attempt to do for you.

With specific reference to my “unwarranted Marxist-inspired critique about [catholicism’s] clerical hierarchy” my main referent which I had in mind was not catholism at all, though on another reading, I can see how my inclusion of the word “pope” could be interpreted as being more specific when it was intended to be more encompassing, which is why the others included more anglican terminology. It was predominantly based on my experiences in *some* anglican and baptist churches, where the term “laity” has been used as a derogatory term or where there is a very clear superiority complex exhibited by the church leaders. In some of these churches, those are not ordained are even forbidden from administering communion to the rest of the church, which is certainly a great way to make you feel like a 2nd class citizen. This may then be contrasted (at this point, the baptists drop out of the picture) with the extreme deference that I see and read afforded to some bishops. Though I acknowledge this may be due to a different emphasis in reading 1 Tim 5:17,18. Though upon further consideration, this idea may have reached its reductio ad absurdum in the unbliblical catholic doctrine of papal infallibility.

When I say that I regard catholicism as an heretical offshoot, that is not to make any judgement of an individual. I say that as a reference to the institutional church and its beliefs where they do not coincide with sound biblical theology. I have even come across quite a few catholics who recognise this and who professed themselves to be both catholic and christian, making clear the difference between the two. They were often brought up within traditionally catholic families and are happy to participate in the elaborate pageantry of mass whilst at the same time rejecting many of the beliefs which distinguish the catholic church from others.

I might add that my forthcoming posts on saints and priests do also touch on some areas of catholicism that have crept into some christian thinking. The former has been completed and will be published soon, while the latter is currently at an advanced stage of writing. There is no intended anti-catholic bias in these, as I simply wish to affirm what I see as the biblical point of view, but where this differs from the catholic point of view, such differences are pointed out, evidenced and reasoned.

If I am anti anything within christianity, it is this: I am opposed to those who would choose to reject the freedom that Christ affords us by turning christianity into religiosity, where pomp, ceremony, institutionalism and traditionalism mask the truths of the crucifixion & resurrection and which hinder us from loving God and those both inside & outside the church to the full extent of the human heart, mind, soul and strength.

Book Review: The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara

This book really only came into the limelight after it was adapted into a film of the same name, which I saw long before I read the book. It chronicles the journey that Ernesto took with his friend Alberto Granado between Dec 1951 and Aug 1952, when they set out from their home town in Argentina in order to travel across South America and eventually into the United States.

The book was based on the journal that Ernesto kept at the time, but was not written up until later, which is why he opens the book with the statement “The person who wrote these notes passed away the moment his feet touched Argentine soil. The person who reorganises and polishes them, me, is no longer, at least I’m not the person I once was.”

Most people, and I’m guessing you too, have heard of ‘Che’ Guevara, the pioneer of guerrilla warfare and revolutionary who, along with Fidel Castro, overthrew the Cuban government. A counter-cultural icon, his face adorns many posters and t-shirts and who is as equally reviled as he is revered both for what he did in his lifetime and for the values which he stood for.

But this is not the same person who we meet in the pages of this book. The Ernesto we travel with is a trainee doctor, setting out on an adventure as a young man in his early-mid twenties with his friend on a motorcycle. Living off their wits and the hospitality of strangers, they tour South America, making friends along the way and observing different people’s ways of life. He’s plagued by asthma, but is always keen to play in goal whenever a game of football is on offer.

In the first half of the book, there is not even a hint of any potentially revolutionary influences, though as the narrative continues through Chile and Peru, Ernesto & Alberto meet more people who are struggling to earn enough for their daily bread. Here, we see glimpses of the injustices that, in hindsight, may have started Ernesto down the path he eventually took. Throughout the book, Ernesto comes across as very intelligent and highly observant, keen to always understand people and the situations they find themselves in.

There are a couple of slightly sour notes, though these are isolated. In two places, there are hints of anti-Semitism and homophobia from Guevara, but these are not expanded on.

But that small note aside, it is very worthwhile read, which not only reveals the mind and observations of a young incarnation of one of the 20th century’s most iconic figures, but it also provides a snapshot of life in Latin America in the early 1950s.

The final chapter “a note in the margin” is a remarkable miniature polemic. It is a very clear political statement, intent on revolution by force. It appears quite suddenly and seems to reflect the view of the later, radicalised “Che” rather than the young doctor, Ernesto. Of course, I cannot say for certain that this was the case, so I would leave it for you to judge.

Book Review: The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I want to get more into Russian literature, but I don’t want to launch straight into War and Peace. I began last year with The Master & Margarita. The Double is a very short book, as well as being one of Dostoyevsky’s early successes. The description of the book makes it sound quite Kafkaesque in that a man finds his entire life is taken over by someone who looks identical to him.

Reading the opening few chapters, though, does reveal an author’s voice that is quite different from Kafka and very different indeed from Bulgakov. We are introduced to our “hero,” Mr. Golyadkin. Yet this man does not appear to be any way a ‘hero’ as one traditionally would traditionally think of such. Golyadkin is a paranoid man, acting as if (though the text never states it) he is drunk. Behaving thoroughly inappropriately at his doctor’s and gatecrashing a party, he quickly reaches a low point and wishes he were someone else.

Then something odd happens. He spies a stranger nearby who is dressed very much like him. Indeed, as he follows this chap home, this is indeed the eponymous Double. As the story progresses, this Double stays at Golyadkin’s house, starts work at the same office and starts to insidiously infiltrate Golyadkin’s circles of influence.

Throughout, we are forced by the author to be on Golyadkin’s side, referring to him as “our hero” and with derogatory terms used to describe the Double. Yet one cannot escape the thought, fostered at the start, that much of this is going on inside Golyadkin’s mind. There are times when we wonder if the Double really was up to no good, or whether we are simply being fed the paranoid delusions of a madman. This all makes for some uncomfortable reading at times, with some confusion being brought into the mind of this reader; but I think this was partly the intention of the author.

As the story comes towards its conclusion, I did start to think it more reminiscent of Kafka, particularly with the theme that the central character was a piggy in the middle, surrounded by conspirators who were all in on some secret knowledge that he lacked. Even heading onto the last page, I still could not determine what would happen and having finished, I was still not certain what did happen. But I’ll leave it for you to find out that for yourself.

Church structure: a non-conformist point of view – part 3: Present day & the future

Present day

Looking around the world today, there are a myriad of different churches, run in all sorts of different ways. If anything, different church structures are the boundary lines that delimit many denominations; certainly far more than any theological differences. Indeed, if you take a random sample of church websites and compare their statement of beliefs, you would be very hard pressed to determine what denomination they are based on that alone.

Some churches, such as the CofE are extremely large and do try to ensure uniformity across their individual congregations. Many other churches are not so stringent, opting more for membership of parachurch organisations. Those I have been involved with, at one time or another and to a greater or lesser extent, include the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), Fusion, Youth For Christ, Youth With A Mission, The Icthus Fellowship and New Frontiers. All of these have different structures to them. But is any one of them right? Is any of them outright wrong?

I would say the answer is ‘no’ to both questions. Some may be questionable in the sense that there ought to be questions asked about whether the existing structure is totally appropriate for the individual churches’ needs, but I think it unwise for any one to think that theirs is superior to any other.

I despair over the rows about women in leadership. The argument against is mainly based on 1 Tim 2 when stripped of all historical context and read as a stand-alone normative instruction. I consider this view to either represent a lack of nuanced thinking on the issue or an excuse by which to preserve and enforce a pre-existing prejudice. Yet the problem the anglican communion faces is trying to preserve unity whilst satisfying those who stand on opposite sides of the divide. Yet it seems to me that ideologically the church has already split, in spite of whatever pronouncements come from the upper echelons of command and the fact that the Synod has yet to vote on it.

The troublesome thing is the idea that the church seems intent on placing unity above all other considerations. Of course, unity is important but in my view it shouldn’t be the driving force behind major decisions. I cannot escape the observation that there are parallels with the Ephesian church that John writes to in Revelation. In spite of many good things (and let’s not downplay all the good that the anglican church has had since the Reformation in many countries) the love seems to have gone out of the debate. It has been replaced by legality and argumentation. Going back to John, he wrote “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.”

As a relative outsider to the denomination, all I see is the public face of anglicanism; in other words, I see what the public sees, besides what goes on behind closed doors. Of all the characteristics that could be used to describe this public face, love is not among the first words that come to mind. Schisms are painful and can cause a lot of hurt to individuals. My parents were part of an anglican church many years ago where a small group of people challenged the status quo within that congregation and were consequently kicked out. Even when my parents went back to that same church 40 years later, when nobody was left who was present at the time, the schism was still talked about with some bitterness. Yet the group that left established the New Frontiers and Kingdom Faith churches, both of which have borne much fruit!

Of course, my own words may be read as equally unloving and that I may be guilty of spotting a speck in my sibling’s eye whilst the ignoring the plank in mine. This is not meant as a statement of condemnation, but as a prod to hopefully make you think. It’s not my intention to unnecessarily offend, so please don’t take this the wrong way!

The future?

All of the evidence presented can be interpreted in a number of different ways. I have attempted to give my interpretation, based on my understanding as it stands. There are other interpretations, some of which I have very roughly sketched, but there probably more which I have not given due consideration to here.

It seems to me that when we consider the models that have worked, and one which hasn’t, the key to keeping a church well-structured is to allow that structure to be organic in style. The church is made up of people, living in many different circumstances, in multiple cultures, across the world. The church is a) made up of people, b) meant to serve both those inside and the church and c) meant to be the “bride of Christ” whatever we mean by that bizarre phrase.

Beyond that, I don’t think it’s wise to be too strict on what shape this ought to take. To stick to traditionalist forms risks making churches anachronistic and out of touch. In a rigid hierarchy, the tendency towards thinking in terms of power instead of service becomes all the more prevalent. There is also the risk that church structure then starts to reflect class structure, with the top level (bishops, archbishops, popes) being the aristocracy, the other church leaders as the middle class and with the “laity” being the working class.

That is not to say that churches ought to be without structure. That flies in the face of both scripture and good sense. Rather, there needs to be a recognition of what church ought to be and what it is there for, with the structure then being that which exists to support, but not direct, the achievement of those goals. This is then highly dependent on the geography, history and culture of any given community. A “one-size-fits-all” model of church will be fraught with problems. What works in inner city London will be very different from what works in rural Norfolk and will again be different from what works in a Brazilian favela.

Change for the sake of change is equally as bad an idea as tradition for the sake of tradition. So I wouldn’t advocate any church having a massive sea-change in its organisational structure. That is likely to needlessly upset a lot of people and be more trouble than any gradual change. I also wouldn’t advocate any church sticking rigidly to what it already has, nomatter what. Rather, it seems both biblical and sensible for each and every community to consider what they consider the purpose of the church to be. Talk to others and collate knowledge, experience and understanding. This can then be applied to the individual community to suit the needs of both those inside and outside the church. This will inevitably be different for each community, but this need not result in any great amount of disharmony. Depending on your views on eschatology, and here I betray mine a little, we will all be unified at a later time where there will be no more denominations and we will be able to see clearly, no longer as through a dim glass as we do now.

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. But in the spirit of christian unity, I finish with this quote:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.”
1 Corinthians 12:12-14

Church structure: a non-conformist point of view – part 2: Paul and later developments

Paul’s view

When it comes to church structure, one of the most explicit texts may be found in 1 Timothy. As with Jesus’ statement to Peter that Peter’s declaration of Jesus’ Messiahship should be the rock upon which the church should be founded, so there are some who propose that much of Paul’s pastoral letters are forgeries. For a more detailed look at this issue, and my critique of it, please see here.

Without having the space to present a thorough discourse on Paul’s view of the church, I shall try to be disciplined in restricting to those that refer to what we might think of as “hierarchy.”

I Tim 3 gives instructions on the qualifications for overseers (episkopous) and ministers (diakonous). Again, how these words are translated often reflect one’s own view, as they are often translated bishops and deacons, respectively. Such translations, however, are very anachronistic as the modern connotations of those latter words are loaded with centuries of history and tradition which were not present when Paul was writing in the 1st century.

Yet this still doesn’t seem to prescribe a set hierarchy. Rather, these are instructions for the type of people who ought to be in roles that seem to have already existed. In other words, Paul isn’t saying that there must be overseers (bishops), but rather he assumes that if there are overseers (bishops) then this is how they ought to manage themselves and their family. The same is true with the ministers (deacons). There is no imperative of how many there ought to be or of the scope of each of their ministries. For example, it doesn’t specify whether an overseer has oversight over a single community or over multiple communities in a given geographical area.

That is not to say there isn’t a hint of a kind of rank. Implicitly an overseer must oversee and therefore has some “higher” position than others. Yet the model of leadership that Jesus demonstrated and taught was radically different from that which existed in either Judaism or in the Roman military that would have been familiar in the region at that time. With the gospel being passed around predominantly in oral form (with the possibility of some written gospels being available at this time) it is likely that any church community would have been familiar with the topsy-turvy notion of leadership as service, exemplified by Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet.

A little later on, Paul asks that the elders be given double honour (Greek: time, pronounced tim-ay) which has connotation of respect, value, nobility or cost. So Paul may have asked that they be given double-pay, especially when you consider what he goes on to say in verse 18. So again, there are hints of kind of structure, but it is by no means prescriptive. So far, it follows very much what we might consider “common sense” but with the idea of a leader a servant still pervading the thought process.

We cannot discuss Paul and the church without looking at 1 Corinthians 12. In particular, to look at verses 27-31. To get the right picture, it has to be understood in context. Paul has been writing to the believers in Corinth about spiritual gifts within a wider context of correcting what appears to have been quite a dysfunctional and chaotic church. So in some respects, the whole book is about church life and the way individuals ought to act as part of the communal body.

This is the first time we see the notion that church structures may be something that are not man-made, but are God-ordained instead. Then there may be hints of a structure. To some it may be very clear since Paul writes “first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…” but this may be simply the order in which they were appointed, rather than saying that were appointed to be a hierarchy. What may blow a hole in this theory is the idea of prophets being appointed after apostles. After all, the notion of the apostle was one that Jesus began when he sent out the disciples (apostle meaning ‘one who is sent out’). Yet the prophets were around in the Old Testament as well. So we may have the possibility that Paul is acting as something of a revisionist and possibly claiming that the likes of Abraham or Moses were apostles. Otherwise, how could the apostles be appointed before the prophets?

From my perspective, I really don’t know. There are several ways this could be understood, but I can’t see if any one of them is more convincing than any other. So I will stay agnostic on this point and, as ever, I welcome any reason or evidence that any of you can provide which may help clarify the matter.

Later developments

As christianity spread outwards from its central base in Jerusalem, so the number of churches grew. It seems likely that the structure the churches adopted was dependent upon the cultural norms in which they found themselves. So in Jerusalem and Judea there was a mirroring of the Jewish hierarchy, but with a much “looser” structure that suited a new community finding its identity. Further afield, the churches were more Hellenistic in nature.

By the turn of the century, there does seem to be a development of hierarchy that is more definite in shape, though varying from place to place. If you read through later non-canonical sources such as the writings of Clement of Rome, The Didache or Ignatius of Antioch, you will find a variety of terms used such as prophet, overseer, elder, etc. Yet there is no agreement on who takes precedence over whom.

The need for some kind of structure was clear. If christianity was to be some sort of proto-anarchist community, how would orthodoxy be preserved? Several New Testament books make reference to guarding against false teaching (though we have little idea about what precisely was being taught) and the later patristic period, most notably exemplified by the writings of Tertullian, were replete with defences of orthodoxy and attacks on heresies. This does, of course, depend on the idea of the existence of a “Pre-Nicene” orthodoxy; an idea not universally accepted. Personally, I think it did exist but that it cannot be condensed into creedal form. Rather, it is to be found in the totality of the canonical New Testament. Others may well disagree with me on this.

What is clear is that over centuries a definite system was built up which ultimately ended up with what we would recognise as the catholic church which made its home in Rome just as the previous Empire was declining. This was no longer a church as the apostles would have recognised it, but an organisation that exerted rule by decree rather than teaching with gentleness and respect. There were many additions tacked onto christian teaching, such as the forbidding of marriage of the clergy which, according to Paul, is something enacted by “liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron.” The nadir was reached with election of Rodrigo Borgia as pope.

It was no wonder that having veered so far from anything recognisable as christianity that the Reformation occurred shortly afterwards. Amongst the many reforms that happened (mostly theological, some political; more than can be dealt with here) was what would be done with church structures. Some churches opted to copy very closely the catholic model; this is highly evident in Anglicanism. Other churches opted for less hierarchical structures, such as the Quakers and the Methodists. But in general, the point was that there was a return to the early church where practicality was the driving force, whilst being aware of not concentrating power in a limited number of individuals, where temptation and opportunity for megalomania is heightened.

Coming up…

Having left this part with a bit of a loose end, I will come to a conclusion in the final part of the series. Here, I’ll look at the present day and give my own view (remember that I speak only for myself, not for any individual church, denomination or organisation) as to the future. Within this, I’ll also be making clear my mind on the issue of women in church leadership, the topic which prompted me to write this mini-series.

Church structure: a non-conformist point of view – part 1: Jesus & The early church

This series was triggered by a link I posted on Twitter to an article on the BBC about a petition against women being ordained as bishops in the Church of England (CofE), as well as a comment I made about bickering over hierarchy being silly. The discussion moved on to whether non-conformist churches were any less hierarchical.

Twitter is probably not the best forum for discussion, given that each post is restricted to 140 characters. So I’m writing this to expand and clarify my viewpoint and to open up the comments for (hopefully) constructive discussion. This has turned out quite long so I’ve broken it up into several parts for easier reading.

Regular readers will be aware that I am a fairly independently-minded person and have a possibly unfortunate forte for pointing out foibles in others. I am not here attacking anyone and I hope no one who reads this thinks that I am trying to enforce my own agenda on others. I’m thinking out loud, as it were, along with all the flaws that come with it. In such a subjective area it is inevitable that my own biases will be evident, just as you will likely read this through the “spectacles” of your own biases.

What was the church as far as Jesus saw it?

It’s something that amazes a lot of people when it is first pointed out to them, that Jesus had very little teaching about the church. Indeed, I’ve heard some people state that Jesus had no intention of founding a church, claiming that one of his few mentions (I’m thinking here of Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s confession) was a later forgery inserted into the gospel as a way of asserting church authority.

There is the question of precisely what Jesus meant when he spoke of the “kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven” with some interpretations believing that this kingdom meant the church as an institution.

Neither of these extremities are views I subscribe to. In order to understand about what the bible has to say about church structure, we have to understand what is meant by the more general term ‘church’ which in the Greek is the word ekklesia. To translate this as church is controversial to say the least. Given that there were several centuries of history and tradition before the New Testament (NT) was translated into English, the idea of the church as a monolithic, controlling entity was well in place and understood predominantly as being the catholic church.

Yet the connotations of the word are for a congregation, assembly, group of people gathered together. It is certainly not a building, so it is very incorrect to point to a building and state “that is a church.” Rather, “that is a building in which a church commonly meets” is more accurate, if a little cumbersome.

Of the two verses in all the gospels in which he uses the word, we really can’t be certain what he had in mind; only extensive gospel studies can shed some light on the matter though I think all we can do is rule out various positive assertions, leaving us a range of possibilities. The closest I think we can come is that he meant a community of believers, living as people of God’s kingdom, according to the fulfilment of the Jewish Law which Jesus was bringing. But that is such a hazy statement with much more that needs clarification, it’s not conclusive.

What does seem clear is that the idea of a rigid organisation, governed by rules about who can and who cannot be leaders was not at the forefront of his mind.

The early church

The history of the early church is found in the book of Acts, which was most probably written by Luke, or at the very least, the same person who wrote the gospel commonly attributed to Luke.

So what does Acts tell us?

Reading through the first few chapters, we find an ever-growing group of believers, trying to make themselves heard in the heart of the Jewish world. There was the advantage that people from all over the Mediterranean were around at the time, as given in the account of Pentecost. The early believers were devoted to listening to teaching from the apostles and to communal living. At this point, the only hint of a structure is that the apostles were those who did the teaching, while everyone else listened. But the idea of communal living implies a very flat structure, with little authoritarianism being exerted by the apostles. They seemed more to act as administrators or facilitators, to use the modern parlance, than directors.

Acts 6 relates some of the practical problems that were created by having a large community. Out of practical necessity, the apostles made sure that there were enough helpers around for a specific task. Note that those chosen weren’t picked by the apostles, but that they effectively said “[sort the appointment out yourselves].”

Later on in Acts 14 we are told that “In every church they [Paul and Barnabas] appointed elders by laying hands on them.  They fasted prayed and commended to the Lord in whom they had believed.” This is the first sign of any structure starting to appear, but the term used for elder is presbyteros which is the same context as it is used earlier in Acts (particularly chapter 4) when it is used in conjunction with “rulers” and “scribes” and the high priest. So it seems that hint of structure had been copied from the existing Judaic structure that the early believers were already familiar with.

The book of Acts is by no means thorough in its treatment of the history of the church. For example, we really don’t know much about what happened to many of the apostles. The first half of the book has a strong emphasis on Peter, but he suddenly disappears mid-way, never to be seen or heard from again. We then follow Paul around the Eastern Mediterranean along with his helpers. While it is clear they were regarded as “leaders” of the early church, there isn’t much said about any formalism.

It seems clear that out of practical necessity, the early church did evolve some rudimentary structures which were based on those organisations they lived amongst and saw every day. There is no hint at all of the structure being considered normative, adhered to strictly in style or substance. Instead, the focus was on declaring first to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, crucified and resurrected; secondly, spreading that message to the Gentiles, inviting them to be part of the new community where was no longer to be a separation of Jew from Gentile, where all were equal in Christ. Any structure was a periphery to this, helping in the practical needs. Like scaffolding around a building while renovation work takes place; the shape of the scaffolding is dependent upon the shape of the building, varying from place to place, from culture to culture.

Coming up….

In the next part, I’ll look at some of Paul’s writings and take a *very* quick skim through later church history. Please note that all 3 parts of this mini-series were written prior to posting so if you think I’ve omitted something, it may be dealt with later on.

Book Review: Cosmos by Carl Sagan

I’m a little too young to have seen the legendary tv series, from which this book is the spin-off, when it was aired in the 1970s. I only picked this book up because I had ordered the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene but it didn’t get delivered. I spied this in one my local bookshops and, keen to make up for my lack of recent science reading, snapped it up in an instant.

On reading the first few chapters, there are two main things to notice. Firstly, Sagan was an excellent writer. His effusive style is poetic, at times rhetorical and conjures up great images in the mind. The second thing to note is that he wasn’t a very good historian. The anecdotes he uses are often highly anachronistic; an example being that he describes Eratosthenes as being a “scientist” though this term was not coined until about 2 millennia after Eratosthenes. So while his methodology might be akin to what we might loosely recognise as being scientific today, Eratosthenes would not have called himself such (regardless of translations) and would not have been recognised as such by his peers.

His narrative is also peppered with examples of where he sees “religion” as being inherently opposed to science. Though not factually incorrect, Sagan cherry picks his examples to give a metanarrative that agrees with his worldview. An example of this is where he uses a single quote from John Wesley to summarise all of Western religious thought. This is, and other examples like it are, simplistic in the extreme, to the extent that they are misleading; though no doubt many who would like to think of religion as science as being mutually incompatible will be predisposed to disagree with me on this. For a more thorough account I’d recommend James Hannam’s ‘God’s Philosophers’.

With that small critique aside, I can talk about the main substance of the book. There is no overarching narrative to the book, as Sagan jumps around quite a bit in his topics, but this does stabilise about half way into the book. This is, I think, a consequence of the chapters being based on individual episodes of the corresponding tv series.

For the most part, the book is dominated by the idea of space and what’s in it. Sagan gives us a brief guide on a few of the planets in our solar system, as well as looking out beyond the realms where we have travelled into the rest of the galaxy and onto distant superclusters of galaxies. In all this, Sagan stays well away from any hard science. He is purely descriptive and his aim seems to be to evoke wonder, rather than head-scratching.

It’s hard not to compare his writing with one of his contemporaries, Richard Feynman, who is the master of all science writing. How does Sagan measure up? Well, not bad. As already pointed out, he does let his own prejudices get in the way of his objectivity at times, but at all times he is incredibly intelligible. A few of the more puzzling aspects of physics are explained with analogies that have been used by countless pop-science writers following in Sagan’s footsteps.

This particular edition could do with a revision, as the publishers, Abacus, didn’t do much proof-reading of the text and in places there are multiple spelling and grammar errors in addition to the usual Americanisms.

The scale of the work is about as big as anything that could be conceived, from the origins of the universe, to the origins of life, along with discussions of philosophy, religion and science in general. His ebullient style of writing is both engaging and awe-inspiring, encouraging the reader to consider his or her place in the whole cosmos.

Some elements of the book are definitely of its time, already outdated a little some 30 years later. Sagan makes much of the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, a subject on which he expounded in his fictional work, Contact, later adapted into a film of the same name. His focus is on radio astronomy and even at the time of writing this review, news broke of a giant radio astronomical array that has been given the green light to be built in South Africa. Yet the pall of the Cold War hangs low over the final chapter in which Sagan pleads for sense in the face of imminent nuclear war. He pleads for reason and rationality as necessary measures that will preserve humanity against the unthinking use of powerful technology that could destroy us.

His work is a classic and should be rightly regarded as such. Along with Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking, Sagan was at the vanguard of popular science writing, a field which has flourished in the last few decades, taking science out of the preserve of the university departments and making it accessible to the man on the Clapham Omnibus.