Posts tagged ‘Church History’

November 26, 2012

The Church of England, Baggage and Women Bishops

Last week the Church of England got itself in a mess over the issue of allowing women to become bishops.  Even though a majority of bishops, a majority of clergy and a majority of the laity voted in favour of having women bishops the latter majority was not great enough for the motion to pass.  It’s all quite strange because they do permit women priests, and have for over 20 years.

I look at all this and shake my head.  Not at the outcome of the vote, but at the baggage that the Church of England has to carry.

Let me get some things clear at the start – God loves the Church of England, God is using the Church of England, and plenty of good things are going on in the Church of England.  The Church of England is a part of the bride of Christ so far be it from me to say that the bride of Christ looks ugly.

What the Church of England does have is that it is the official church of the “nation” of England.  And that is a role that I do not envy.  Part of the accidents of history that have put the Church of England where it is today have resulted in 28 of the Church’s bishops having seats in the House of Lords.  Amazing!  To my Australian mind that’s stunning – that being a church leader might get you an automatic seat in Parliament.

The Church of England also has an extraordinarily complex organisational structure, where decisions are made slowly and have to clear many hurdles.  If those things were not enough it then has the care of literally thousands of very old buildings which are of great value for heritage reasons but are completely unsuited to housing modern congregations.  Those buildings cost vast sums to maintain, and that’s money that can’t be spent doing things of more use in spreading the gospel.

Then there is, for me, some of the most amazing baggage of all – ecclesiastical dress.  In other words the odd collection of dog collars, robes, strange hats, crooks and other bits and pieces that leaders within the Church of England wear.

Maybe in centuries past there was good reason to build the sorts of church buildings that the Church of England did.  Maybe in centuries past there was good reason to have a structure where synods debate legislation and need to pass motions with two thirds majorities in the house of bishops, the house of clergy and the house of laity.  Maybe in centuries past there was a good reason for church leaders to start wearing dog collars and ornate, flowing robes.  And maybe in centuries past there was good reason to take up seats in the House of Lords.

But in 2012 those things seem to me to be baggage – unhelpful baggage that makes the Church of England less effective for the gospel.  Of course all churches have some sort of baggage – the Church of England is hardly alone in this regard.  I would not be so bold as to say that there is a single baggage free church anywhere on earth.  And clearly such baggage does not mean that they cannot be effective in making disciples.  Indeed one of the world’s great churches is Holy Trinity Brompton, the home of Nicky Gumbel and the Alpha course.

The Church of England won’t be revisiting the issue of women bishops until 2015 at the earliest.  Granted this, perhaps they might want to address if the 21st century might mean that their leader does not have to dress like the recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury is in this photo.  The Church of England has a genuine theological difference of opinion about women in leadership.  They need to work that through, as they did the issue of women priests.  But there is no reason that they cannot jettison some of the other baggage that would make it easier to be effective for Jesus in the meantime.

As for the issue of women bishops, that is a complex question for someone who has a high view of scripture, and one that I will tackle another day.


November 21, 2012

Why are there No Senior Pastors in the Bible?

In my experience of church, across 3 denominations, the senior pastor has been the leader of every church I have ever attended.  And yet in the bible there are no senior pastors.  The term does not exist.  Not because the church is left to its own devices – there is substantial leadership structure in the New Testament church and that  structure involves apostles, prophets, elders, and deacons.

It seems that the pattern of church leadership was that elders would be appointed to govern a church once the church expanded beyond Jerusalem, such as is described in Titus 1.  It seems that this involved a plurality of elders overseeing the life of a single congregation.  All the time there was apostles based in Jerusalem and perhaps in Antioch as well, who had authority over the various elderships within a certain locality.  In that scenario there is no senior pastor.

So then time passes.  Pause for a moment here and have a think about what happens in groups.  If a group of people have a task that they stick at year after year, what happens?  The person with the strongest leadership trait rises to the top.  All groups have dominant people, people who hold the most sway, and people on the fringe, or who don’t care about the struggle to hold the most influence.  A church eldership is a bunch of people no different in this regard.  Just because they are meant to have a degree of Christian character (see Titus 1 and 1 Tim 3) does not mean that they are somehow immune from these factors.

As the early decades of the Christian church rolled on the office of the bishop became more and more prominent.  Now when I use the word bishop here don’t think of Catholic bishop or Anglican bishop.  The bishop today is usually in charge of a diocese that usually has hundreds of churches within it.  But when the position of bishop first emerged it was essentially a senior pastor role.

And so what we find is that some of the very first Christian writings after the New Testament are letters urging Christians to submit to the authority of their bishops, that is their senior pastors.  Ignatius of Antioch (pictured) writes about 100AD saying, “Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles…”

So what we have is that the early church started with a group of elders in charge of a congregation, but within a generation or two something akin to the modern senior pastor had emerged.

For Protestants who take the bible as authoritative this begs the question, should we simply have a group of elders and get rid of the position of senior pastor?  After all it seems that the position emerged after the New Testament had finished being written.  It is not included in the pattern of church leadership the bible gives us.

My answer is no.  Having served on a church eldership I think that asking that group to not have a senior pastor is simply unrealistic.  That just not how people work.  Brian Houston uses the slogan, “anything with more than one head is a monster.”  He has a point.  I think that for long-term vision and direction you do need a senior pastor.  You can have an eldership which is over the senior pastor, and therefore has the power to remove the senior pastor from their position.  That would be in contrast to what Ignatius was describing in the quote above.  But to have no senior pastor at all…my hunch is that would simply not work.  Even if that was how it was on paper over time someone would emerge as a de facto senior pastor anyway.

If the Lord wanted to give us firmer direction as to how the church should be structured he would have.  Yes, there are no senior pastors in the bible.  But I have no problem with having them now.  The bible has given us a structure.  It has evolved from group leadership to senior pastor leadership.  I think that any attempt to go backwards is doomed to fail.  The strongest individual in that eldership group would natuarlly act as a senior pastor anyway. Senior pastors are here to stay, and that’s OK.


October 10, 2012

How Fast Does a Church Have to Grow to Take Over the World?

Between the time of Christ and about 300 years later Christianity took over the known world.  What started with Jesus and his 12 followers ended up conquering the Roman Empire.  When Jesus died he left 120 odd followers who birthed his church on the Day of Pentecost.  That church grew and grew and ultimately Rome bowed to it.  When you read about the early church in the book of Acts it really gives a picture of triumphant growth – the gospel spreading at an alarming rate.

So what rate did the church actually grow at?  Sure it was fast, sure the results were amazing, but what percentage each year did it grow by?

The sociologist and historian Rodney Stark has analysed the data.  And here’s the result – 3.5% per year.  And whilst there is some ebbing and flowing of the growth rate it is surprisingly consistent for long periods.

Yes that’s all, 3.5%.  That doesn’t sound like anything special to me.  Imagine that you went to a church with 100 people.  At the start of the year your pastor stood up and said, “Church, this year I’m believing that God will pour out his Spirit just like he did on the early church.  Let’s pray and work towards adding 3 more people to our congregation this year – no, 4 people!  Will you believe with me for that?  Can we do it???”  I think any pastor who cast that “vision” would get stunned silence from the congregation.  Talk about underwhelming!  And yet that is exactly what the early church did, and it resulted in a large harvest.

The reason that that growth rate was enough to bring the Roman Empire to its knees is because 300 years is a VERY long time.  When you have compound growth that’s what happens.

So what about today?  How is the church doing today in comparison?  If you live in a Western country you could be forgiven for thinking that the church is declining and in danger of vanishing all together.  That’s far from the case.

The missions encyclopaedia Operation World says that evangelical churches are growing at 2.6% per year.  (An evangelical church is, in short, one that believes that Jesus literally rose from the dead and believing in him is the difference between going to heaven and hell.)  That compares with overall global population growth of 1.2%.  But of course the overall numbers are huge compared to the estimated 6 million Christians when Emperor Constantine turned to Christ in 312 AD.  There are currently somewhere between 550 and 600 million evangelical Christians, and well over a billion Catholics, Orthodox and other Protestant Christians as well.

So our current growth of 2.6% is not that far off the growth of the early church of 3.5%.  In fact just a couple of decades ago evangelical churches were growing at 4.5% as huge numbers of new believers in East Asia, sub Saharan Africa and Latin America were added to the church.

Whilst there is huge variation from continent to continent overall the church is in very good health, and evangelical churches have just capped off a remarkable century of unprecedented growth.  And there is plenty more to come.

Of course there is nothing special about slow growth as opposed to fast growth.  If a church can grow fast so much the better – that means more coming to Christ, more lost sheep being found.  But I think we need to review out concept of what fast and slow growth is.

So imagine that you are a part of a church that is about to end the year in a pretty similar position to where it started.  Welcome to a church not unlike the early church.  That’s a church that can play a role in turning the world upside down.  That’s a church that can make a difference.  It’s a bit like the tortoise and the hare – slow and steady wins the race.


August 22, 2012

The Monastery

At present I am reading “A Short History of Christianity” by the noted Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey.  Blainey is an absolute pleasure to read – he is entertaining as well as highly regarded in his field.

As a Christian I am conscious of where I stand within the history of the church.  I am thankful for the time and place that God has put me in, and very excited that I have the chance to serve him in this generation.  I think that the churches that I have been a part of in my life are doing very exciting things – I think they understand the gospel well and are committed to living it out.

But I’m not so proud that I would look down on what God has done through other parts of the Christian church in other centuries.  It is easy to look back and with the benefit of hindsight say that the Catholics had it wrong here, the Orthodox had it wrong there, this denomination was wrong everywhere.

So I must confess to really struggling through the various chapters that covered the rise of the monastery (and the convent).  For most of the period between 500 and 1500 AD the most spiritual activity, the most biblical study and the most devout people were found mostly in monasteries.  Europe had literally thousands of monasteries and convents.

But in my mind the whole concept of a monastery is a complete mistake.  Jesus did not say, “You are the light of the world.  Take that light, erect walls around it, and keep the world out lest they pollute it.”  Jesus said, “let your light shine before men.”  He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  He said, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”

What I don’t get is the fact that monasteries were started by people who were deeply committed to Jesus.  They were willing to give up everything for the cause of Christ.  And yet to my mind they completely got the whole concept of following Jesus wrong.  How can you love your neighbour by removing yourself from them?

A possible explanation is that they regarded themselves as living in a Christian nation, where everyone was baptised as infants.  There were no non-Christians to reach out to.

Monasteries are still around but the thinking behind starting them has certainly gone out of fashion.  Obviously within the Protestant Church they are not encouraged.  And yet that does not mean that there is no longer Christians putting their light under a bowl.  In my experience the whole Christian life is a balance between spending time with the church and time outside it.  I think that Christians have to be very careful when doing something together that can be done in the world.  Examples that come to mind are Christian sporting teams, Christian schools and (in North America) Christian universities.  Those things are not inherently wrong but I think there is the possibility that they will turn into monasteries if careful attention is not paid to being in the world but not of the world.


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