Why Church, (Part II)

st_paul_preachingToday, we look at the New Testament in pursuit of understanding the place of teaching and church within Christianity according to the Bible.

If taken, literally, of course, it is clear that Jesus spoke directly when he told Peter that “upon this rock I will build my church.” Of course that has been open to lots of interpretation, from being taken quite literally, as does the Roman Catholic Church, to those who claim that “church” refers to the body of the believers wherever they might be.

I, however, do not take it that Jesus said this at all, rather I agree with most experts, that it was a later addition made to the text reflecting and giving orthodoxy to a fledgling body of Jesus following “churches.” There is plenty of evidence within the texts to substantiate this conclusion.

Jesus during his ministry, from the age of twelve on, taught in the synagogue and Temple. At no time did he reject it in favor of organizing some other forum. At no time did he reject Judaism.┬áMoreover, up until his crucifixion, he quite obviously still followed the holy days of Judaism, including the Passover meal. So Jesus both upheld the idea of organized faith community as the norm, he also by his very being, upheld the office of “teacher.”

Jesus as the itinerant preacher was not unusual in his day. He in fact did what other rabbis of his day did, traveling in the company of students, and depending on the largess and hospitality of local homes for rest and food along the way. In return, as he taught, all were welcome to listen, not just the students (apostles) who accompanied him.

Additionally, he send forth those he taught to teach others. Paul of course followed in this tradition, and dispersed with other apostles to teach the Gospel through the land. It is little mentioned but the means by which Paul did this is telling.

Paul for the most part, entered towns and metropolises and began his teachings about Jesus in the synagogues. One may ask why, if indeed he was preacher to the Gentiles. The reason that Marcus Borg and J. Dominic Crossan put forth, is that Paul in fact didn’t take his case to the Gentiles as such, but to a special type of Gentile, “God followers.” These were Gentiles who supported the Jewish faith, and attended the synagogue, many in transition to joining the Jewish faith.

This conclusion, of course, explains a lot. It explains the use of Torah in Paul’s letters of education and teaching to Gentiles in the cities where he had set up churches. How would Gentiles have understood his Torah references if in fact they were not reasonably well versed in the Torah to begin with? It also explains in part the dispute that arose between Paul’s outlying churches and Jerusalem, and the famous meeting to sort out theological differences. This event speaks directly to the idea that doctrine mattered and people were not free to “go it alone” and teach their own version of either Torah or the Way.

The other point that is clear is that followers of the Way, continued to practice as members of the Jewish faith. This bolsters the idea that they had no impression that Jesus had started any new church, they were in fact “dissenters” in a sense within Judaism, arguing that Jesus as in fact the long awaited Jewish messiah. They in fact remained within the Jewish faith until formerly removed by the Jews themselves sometime after 70 CE.

Paul’s letters testify by their very existence that people were expected to listen to experts in the faith and accept those teachings. Self-interpretations were the very cause of Paul having to write to Corinth, Philippi, and so forth, to correct confusions that were resulting from multiple interpretations. Paul replies again and again, that the people should be relying on those Paul left in his stead to teach and preach. They had the correct doctrine, others did not.

Of course, the various letters and so forth, written by Paul and those speaking on his behalf, testify additionally that church structure was coming into play. Deacons were made as were elders. Although, as is clear in the authentic Pauline corpus, worship was still coming via the local synagogue, as time went on, the house churches became more and more viable as entities themselves.

Paul claimed direct revelation from Christ himself. Clearly he did not believe that Christ had objections to church nor to authoritative preaching. Paul certainly continued in that vein, as did all the writers, right up to Revelation, which of course addresses the various churches directly, giving clear evidence that they were the norm.

All the writings in the New Testament are essentially preaching devices, meant to claim the right to be definitive as dogmatic theology to their hearers and readers. As it became necessary to some to combat the voices of the Ebionites and Essenes, later material, now within the canon, carried clearer and clearer references to authoritative church hierarchy. There were multiple teachings, and in some cases, that which today we refer to as “heretical” was in fact the majority opinion in some areas. The resultant church more and more argued that only it, was unbroken in line from Christ, only it had the true and definitive teaching. Once declared the winner of the theological wars, they stamped out all others as heretical.

From this, I think the evidence again is most clear. Not only was church as a physical entity envisioned by Christ and his early followers, so was the concept of learning at the feet of those who were “experts” in the subject matter. So far, I find no basis for concluding that the unchurched self-interpreter can find any biblical basis for their position.

Tomorrow: What church today has to offer: trinity and teaching.

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