That caused me to recall experiences I had a couple of years ago on a bizarre little forum called “Christianet.” It is extremely limiting, and is poorly administered, allowing only rather short comments on subjects.
I soon discovered that it was peopled in large part by fundamentalists who took sport in demonizing the Roman Catholic church. For the first time in my life, I learned that some folks actually contend that Revelation and the “whore of Babylon” was considered by them as the Roman Catholic Church.
Now such nonsense was and is laughable of course, since no respectable expert on the bible would support such a thesis. When questioned as to what church taught them this, I was informed that they had no church; church was the place where “man-made” doctrine was made, and that every true believer was perfectly guided by the Holy Spirit, and thus needed no instruction.
Skipping past the illogic that drives such thinking (after all isn’t one’s “self-interpretation” just as man-made? ), I was introduced thusly to what I had never known existed: the “unchurched believer.
Now, certainly I would have been the first to agree that many believers are unchurched. But we take that to mean they are believers in name only pretty much, and faith barely if ever intrudes on their day to day life. God is called upon in extreme situations only. But I had never heard that there were fundamentalists who believed that church was some false place that stood between them and true understanding.
As I recalled this strange experience, I was struck by what should have been obvious to me then: namely the degree to which fundamentalists, like most of us, are so adept at ignoring those parts of the bible that cut against the theology they have developed regarding it. In this case, it seems particularly blatant, since the bible fairly speaks against self-interpretation and against the idea that faith is expressed without benefit of a believing community.
So you see, there are really two issues here: the degree to which the bible supports the conclusion that one can and should self-interpret it without reference to experts or teachers of any kind, and the degree to which the bible supports the conclusion that the Judeo-Christian God is meant to be experienced in a community of believers, namely church or synagogue.
Fundamentalists are fond of saying that they believe the literal words in the bible as the “holy word of God” himself. As such, it would seem that everything within it should be followed to the best possible degree one can. Of course, it takes no genius to realize that no one, fundamentalists included, do this.
The mouth that tells us that Leviticus states that God abhors homosexuality as an “abomination” also tells us that we need not avoid pork, blood of animals, usury, and other Levitical prohibitions because Christianity supplants the Old Testament. Go figure. Its a cafeteria, as the ultra-orthodox Catholic is wont to say, and you can pick and choose what is in fact the “word of God.”
Let’s look at the issues in the Hebrew Testament. Certainly there is nothing to suggest that there were church buildings in the time of Abraham. There were none it seems among the other tribes and peoples of the region either. Yet, Abraham, like the followers of Baal and El, erected altars and offered sacrifice, albeit, animal and never human.
I’m not sure these events were witnessed by the people, but certainly people performed certain communal acts, such as making sure their homes had “household gods” and presumably helping to support the the sacrificing.
By the time of Moses, we add the ark of the covenant, and thereafter, it was considered the “home of God.” Moreover, Moses “taught” the people the meaning of the commandments. A priesthood was developed from the tribe of Levi. Clearly the people both looked to the priesthood and to the place of God as sacred and began observing ritual as a people.
In I believe Kings (don’t hold me to it), the Torah is discovered and read to the people continuously in one sitting, reminding them of their duties to God. This of course was the work of Moses, designed to explain in detail to the people God’s wishes. (Of course all serious experts also agree today that Moses did not author the Torah, and that in fact it was the editing of re-editing of at minimum four authors.) Moses didn’t suggest that anyone should read it as they determined and then off and implement it in their own way.
The prophets throughout the Hebrew Testament are another example of “teaching.” I’m not certain if the prophets, any or all, came from the tribe of Levi or not, but certainly the lesson of much of the Testament is that one ignores their teaching at one’s peril. In fact, the mishnah is tribute to the importance the Hebrews have, since ancient times, placed on the value of experts who study Torah and then teach the people the intricacies of the faith.
Similarly the ark of the covenant was moved first to a large tent, and then ultimately to it’s own Temple, built by Solomon. Jerusalem thus became the religious center of Judaism. Believing Jews went on pilgrimage for high holy days, and offered sacrifice as required.
Throughout the environs of Galilee and the land, synagogues were the norm, and indeed throughout the Roman world as well. These were centers of learning and education for all faithful Jews. They were centers of worship for all as well.
So the evidence is clear and convincing that the norm of the Hebrew Testament is both that teaching by those who were specially trained was the norm, as were those specially called. The teaching was interpretation of the sacred writing of Torah and later, the psalms and prophets and other writings. It is just as clear that a physical entity was the gather place where worship and faith issues played out in community.