During one of my mental strolls through John G. Reisinger's essay Ekklesia, I happened to be sitting next to my beloved three-year-old Jim, who was watching Disney's film adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic, Alice in Wonderland. I started feeling a little sympathy with Alice and her turmoil with the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat. Like her, I too was sitting here looking straight at a "cat" that John Reisinger just can't bring himself to see.
Reisinger's fourth installment represents—epitomizes really—one of my grave fears for the modern church. I have often said that the Southern Baptist rejection of Landmark ecclesiology, valuable correction that is was, has unfortunately led to a movement to replace Landmark ecclesiology with no ecclesiology at all. I offer Reisinger's essay as exhibit A.
Reisinger's Rejected SyllogismThis segment of the essay begins with Reisinger's characterization of whoever he opposes (and at times the sweeping generalizations and wholesale condemnations make it really difficult to determine precisely who that might be) as proponents of a logical syllogism. Let's have a look at it:
The first premise confirms for us that Reisinger has at least read Jesus' statement in Matthew 16:18 before dismissing it as completely irrelevant:
ASSUMPTION NUMBER ONE: Jesus established a church on this earth and promised that this church would prevail in all ages.Yes, Bro. Reisinger, I guess I'll have to raise my hand and identify myself as one of the adherents of this point of view. I don't know that I would call it an assumption. In my mind, an assumption is a logical leap that you make due to a lack of evidence. Sometimes we have to do that. I acknowledge that I do make assumptions quite often. But it is hard for me to characterize this particular belief as an assumption.
I believe that Jesus established a church. "Upon this rock I will build my church..." So, if language has meaning, then I'm making no wild-eyed assumption to conclude that Jesus did indeed establish a church on this earth. Further on, "and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it," may not necessarily indicate that the church will prevail in all ages, but it does necessarily mean that the church will prevail ultimately. That's what Jesus said. If I'm in trouble with Reisinger for taking Jesus too seriously, then I'm prepared to live with that.
Now, in rhetoric that has become far too similar when reading Reisinger, I find out what I must necessarily endorse (according to Reisinger) if I will dare to cling to these ideas. Because I believe that Jesus established a church and promised that it will prevail, I have absolutely no choice but to endorse "a sectarian and separatist attitude characterized by external legalism and tyrannical leadership."
Accept what Reisinger thinks that the New Testament teaches about the church, and you've found that wonderful balance that puts you at harmony with mankind and all nature. But come to the conclusion that the New Testament teaches one iota more than what Reisinger sees, and suddenly you are the Pol Pot of ecclesiology!
So, to parse a little bit here:
- I assume that Reisinger means by this word something like "denominational" rather than some of the other meanings of the word. If so, I must admit that I am sectarian. I am a Baptist, and anyone who would identify themselves with any denomination are, by definition, sectarian. Sectarian, if Reisinger uses it as I think, is the opposite of ecumenical. I'm certainly no card-carrying member of the World Council of Churches, so I imagine that it is a fair description of me. I imagine that Reisinger is also sectarian.
- Separatist like Roger Williams, John Smythe, Thomas Helwys, William Kiffin, etc.? Yep, that's me. To avoid being a separatist, by the way, you're going to have to accede to being Catholic. I'm guessing that Reisinger is also separatist.
- external legalism
- OK, now he's lost me. If I believe that Jesus established a church and promised that it would prevail—if I endorse the bare facts of Matthew 16:18—then somehow I have absolutely no choice but to be a legalist? Huh???? But then, I imagine that this is the ridiculously sloppy use of "legalism" that people throw around in arguments these days as a substitute for having to think. In such cases, a legalist is anyone who insists upon anything more than what I insist upon. How does it force me to be a legalist simply to believe that Christ has an opinion about how churches ought to organize and function? How does it force me to be a legalist if I think that the New Testament has something to say about a church's operation and nature? Unless I'm making those things the basis of salvation, I'm not really a legalist, am I? At least not in any use of the word that rises above the base plane of epithets and insults.
- tyrannical leadership
- Now I'm really confused. I strongly believe that the New Testament encourages us toward congregationalism. So, I'm an example of someone firmly in support of this so-called "assumption" but who vigorously opposes tyranny in church. My own leadership style is to work to build consensus. All I can conclude is that, with regard to this particular point, Reisinger just plain doesn't know what he is talking about.
Reisinger's second premise (which, you understand, consists entirely of words that he taking out of a few mouths and putting into the mouths of all who do not believe precisely as he does) speculates as to the significance of the first premise:
ASSUMPTION NUMBER TWO: We can only expect God's blessing when we organize and operate our local church exactly like this 'true New Testament role model church.'I hold premise number one, but I do not agree with this second premise. I guess that is going to cause Reisinger to shake his finger at me, because he's told me that I do not have his permission to do this—to agree with premise one while disagreeing with premise two.
It is impossible to make the first assumption without also making the second one. You cannot believe that the N.T. Scriptures reveal an institutional role model for church order as clearly as it teaches justification by faith without being forced to believe that we have all of the essential details of that model in our particular local church. Once this is believed you have no choice but to claim divine authority for every detail of your particular system since God Himself 'revealed that system in His inspired Word.' Likewise, you must then treat all who disagree with you as rebels that 'reject God's authority' because they 'refuse to bow to God's true church polity.'Well, we really need to spend a little time with this paragraph.
It is possible to believe that Jesus instituted a church and that the New Testament teaches us some specific things about how it ought to run without necessarily:
- Believing that every last little decision of church business is spelled out in the New Testament.
- Asserting that every point of ecclesiology in the New Testament is as clear as justification by faith. (By the way, Reisinger seems perfectly willing to endorse the idea that Jesus didn't die for everyone—a concept absent entirely from the New Testament—but on matters of ecclesiology all that is not as clear as justification by faith must be ignored entirely, according to Reisinger.)
- Claiming divine authority for every detail of what you do at church.
- Rejecting all Christian connection with those who disagree.
For the record, I believe that God blesses and uses imperfect people and imperfect churches. If He did not, He would not be using or blessing anyone. Look at my earlier posts on church validity, and you'll see a previous fleshing-out of my views. You'll see how I've dealt with some of the same specific examples (Edwards, Whitefield, etc.) that Reisinger has given, and therefore I have proven false his attempts to push all who disagree with him to extremes. I have no problem believing that such-and-such-church has departed from New Testament ecclesiology and yet is being used by God. God used Baalam's jackass—I figure He'll use whomever He likes according to what suits His purpose. God's blessing or using someone is not tantamount to God's endorsement of whatever error may be in their lives or in their churches. Yet does this fact make it of no value to try to strive for the churchly ideals given in the New Testament?
Reisinger says that my convictions must necessarily lead me to believe that
WE alone are the only people that really believe and follow all that the New Testament Scriptures teach about the church.But that's just patently false. I can believe that we are closest to the New Testament teaching, yet flawed ourselves. Why can't I believe that? And the result of that belief is, hopefully, an appropriate humility about who we are that does not sacrifice commitment to the truth and endorse a minimalist approach to the Bible in order to achieve that humility.
Minimalist Hermeneutics and the Quest for the CatBy the way, here's how I would define a minimalist approach to the Bible. The minimalist searches the Bible for the unavoidable teachings of the New Testament. All else becomes relatively unimportant. Those who try to speak about other things in the Bible are stirring up trouble, according to the minimalist. But there are a couple of problems with minimalism. First, it winds up discarding the vast majority of scripture. Most of the New Testament addresses points of doctrine that leave some questions unanswered. Yet didn't God give us these writings for some reason?
To tell you the truth, I'm not 100% committed to every detail of any eschatological position. I think that the Bible leaves some questions open regarding eschatology. Yet I also think it is error to say that no clear eschatological teaching exists in the Bible. My trouble making out all of the details of the doctrine does not mean that the doctrine isn't there. I think it is wrong for me to ignore eschatology simply because it is hard to understand. Maybe God wants me to try to understand even the things that are hard for me to understand? Isn't that at least possible? What's wrong with grappling with these things and assuming that there are treasures in God's Word for the discovering?
Yet Reisinger's minimalist approach to ecclesiology tells us that the Bible gives us a few "general principles" rather than "absolutes." He suggests pretty strongly that, if you see more absolutes than he does, you must necessarily think that you have found absolutes for everything. But consider again the field of ecclesiology. I think there are quite a few absolutes in that doctrine. Jesus is absolutely coming back. Christians will absolutely spend eternity in Heaven. Satan absolutely loses. God absolutely will be glorified. The lost will absolutely go to Hell for eternity. Yet, I also think that there are quite a few areas without absolutes. I'm not absolutely certain as to the precise identity of the 144,000 witnesses, although I have some ideas. I'm committed to trying to study and learn as time goes on. I will not throw that part of the Bible away simply because it is difficult. But I know that it is possible&;mdash;indeed, the normal course of affairs for Christians—to find several absolute truths in an area of doctrine while at the same time affirming areas not yet understood.
Here's another one for you: I'm absolutely certain that believer's baptism is the New Testament teaching, yet I'll gladly admit that I scratch my head when I read about "baptism for the dead" in Corinth. I'm absolutely certain that I'm secure in my election (a word I refuse to abdicate only to five-pointers) as a Christian, yet Hebrews 6 puzzles me. I could go on, but I won't. But in spite of all of these unclear things, I refuse to let my deficiencies as an interpreter of the New Testament to push me into a minimalist hermeneutic where I disregard the portions of a doctrine that I do understand merely because there are portions that I do not understand.
And there are parts of ecclesiology that I do understand. And they are taught in the New Testament. And they do constitute, to some degree, a New Testament model for the institution of local congregations...
THERE IS INDEED A CAT... and the fact that I am not entirely acquainted with every detail of the workings of his central nervous system does not mean that he does not exist.
Other IssuesAnd as a staunch believer in religious liberty, I am offended to the root of my soul at Reisinger's arrogant and uncalled-for allegations that my beliefs somehow contain "necessary implications" that must inexorably drive me to persecute others for their faith. How dare you, sir! Read Roger Williams's theory of the two tables of the law, and then retract that ridiculous accusation immediately.
(A brief pause to let the author's blood pressure come back down)
Reisinger suggests that the pursuit of the "true New Testament church" will always lead to a stark cleavage between "officers" and "laity." On the other hand, I agree with McBeth that the Baptist movement was birthed out of the quest for the true church—the very thing that Reisinger is repudiating here—and yet Baptists were the eradicators of these distinctions and the proud proponents of congregationalism. How can this be brought into accord with Reisinger's allegations? It can't.
Reisinger makes the point (again) that the New Testament does not give us much information about the process of joining a local church. I agree with Reisinger that the modern situation differs at many points with the New Testament situation. Yet Reisinger has painted this distinction too starkly. In fact, all of his numbered assertions are in error.
First, Reisinger tells us that "It is impossible to conceive that a person in the apostolic age could be a true believer in Christ and not also be a living part of the ekklesia of Christ in his area." Well, Reisinger is just plainly in error here. The man excluded from the church at Corinth, the one who was "delivered to Satan" in the expectation that his "spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" looks pretty clearly to me like a "true believer in Christ" who was not a "living part of the ekklesia of Christ in his area." Maybe Reisinger has dreamed up some never-before-contemplated-in-all-of-the-history-of-Christian-study theory of what was going on in Corinth. Maybe his theory is right (how can I say until I have heard it?). But at least he ought to allow that it is not "impossible" to believe what nearly every Christian who has ever lived has indeed beleived—that the New Testament church excluded people for disciplinary reasons who were nonetheless (at least up to that point, depending upon your system of thought) real Christians.
Second, Reisinger tells us that "It is also impossible to conceive that any believer in the apostolic age had either the option or the problem of choosing between two or more kinds of churches that he could join." Hmmm.... Well, what about the folks receiving 1 John and having to decide whether to stick with the "true church" or leave with those who went out from it? It sounds to me like there were two entities in that town claiming to be the church and posing for Christians the option and the problem of choosing between two or more kinds of churches that they could join. Also, who were the "Nicolaitans"? Haven't the vast majority of commentators regarded these folks as a schismatic church? Indeed, all of the talk in Revelation's letters to the churches regarding Jezebel, the Nicolaitans, and even the Synagogue of Satan (for some commentators) gives the picture of a New Testament church riddled with schism and posing lots of options for New Testament believers as to which "church" to join.
Reisinger is correct to note that the modern situation is not precisely the same as that of the New Testament world. Obviously, the denominational situation that we face today is, as Reisinger asserts, a development of later times. But the modern anomaly is not that we live in a day of intensified dogmatism but that we are far more tolerant and unified denominationally today than at any previous point in the history of Christianity. In the New Testament era, all but those who remained connected to the "true church" (as reckoned by those in power) were anathematized and condemned. So things continued throughout the Patristic age (Donatists, Montanists, etc.), the Medieval period (Catharii, Albigensians, etc.), the Reformation period (Anabaptists, Hugenots, Baptists, etc.), and many places in the world today. In modern Christianity, especially as influenced by American Christians, we have developed the charity to regard differing strains of Christian belief as flawed assemblies of at least some true believers with whom we may enjoy at least some level of fellowship and cooperation. I do not offer this contrast as a critique the New Testament churches—the severity of the issues they confronted were of greater magnitude than some of those that we face. But it is correct to note that the modern situation is different at some points than the New Testament situation. However, I do not believe that those differences are so great as to make biblical concepts of ecclesiology irrelevant to the present-day church.
Well...I could go on like this for quite a while. Perhaps it would be good to cease my paragraph-by-paragraph sequential dialogue with Reisinger and make an overall analysis
The Root of the ProblemReisinger's minimalist hermeneutic is ultimately a symptom of a sort of religious multiculturalism. Reisinger sees that ecclesiology consists (in his opinion) of "much logic and some Bible texts." In other words, not only are there Bible texts, but there is interpretation of those texts in order to construct a systematic doctrine. Each point of view (the episcopal, the presbyterian, and the congregationalist approaches, for example) is constructing an argument based upon the biblical text.
Here's where the multiculturalism kicks in. The key feature of multiculturalism is its refusal to evaluate. Reisinger, seeing that there are various arguments being made from the biblical text, refuses to allow that these arguments are subject to an evaluative process that might objectively establish one to be a more faithful reflection of New Testament reality than the others. Reisinger says that there is no ecclesiological standard—no one institutional model—in the New Testament. It almost sounds as though Reisinger is suggesting that different churches in the New Testament were organized according to a variety of models, as though Jerusalem were pseudo-episcopal because of the presence of the apostles there while Thessalonica, not having a resident apostle, was organized according to a different model.
Yet the fact is that our ecclesiological differences in the body of Christ cannot be explained by such an analysis. It is not that Roman Cathoilcs are advocating the Jerusalem model while Baptists are advocating the Antiochene model while Presbyterians are advocating the Thessalonian model. All of these groups are arguing from the same passages describing the same churches, not emphasizing one church against another, one New Testament book against another. Although one might be able to imagine a variety of ecclesiological forms in operation at a variety of New Testament churches, it is utterly incomprehensible to suggest that, for example, the Jerusalem church in Acts 15 was simultaneously operating according to a handful of mutually contradictory schemes of church polity. The competing claims for how a particular church in the New Testament at a particular moment in time was operating cannot all simultaneously be equally valid.
Thus, this multiculutral approach requires a sort of minimalism that states either that none of these systems were in operation in the New Testament church or that ecclesiology is really not that important regardless of which system is the more faithful mirror of the New Testament model. The former line of reasoning mirrors the conclusion of liberal higher-critics, who projected Darwinian biological theory onto the institutional development of the church and assumed that churches did not bother to address ecclesiology until the very end of the first century or even later. The latter line of reasoning provides appeal for people with a wide variety of agendas.
Like multiculturalism, Reisinger's essay proceeds from the assumption that theology (at least with regard to ecclesiology) is bad because it is divisive. Reisinger has not said point-blank that "Theology divides, but Jesus unites," but what else can one read into constant statements that the danger of ecclesiology is separatism or sectarianism or bigotry? Multiculturalism assumes that one must choose between truth and community. Multiculturalism further assumes that, in making that choice, community is vastly more important than truth. If there is no truth, then everyone can coexist in their differences because any critique of those differences is no longer possible.
Wade Burleson has claimed that Reisinger has written "The Best Modern Study on the Ekklesia (Church)." I think that it is much more accurate to describe this as the best post-modern study on the ekklesia. The underlying theme of the series is that there is very little, if any, absolute truth in ecclesiology; therefore, all that remains are competing metanarratives that are equally valid or invalid. What churches ought to do with regard to ecclesiology, according to Reisinger, is organize in whatever way works best for them without bothering to look for any model in the New Testament.
But I must offer two negative observations about this approach:
- Reisinger has reserved this minimalist approach for his ecclesiology, but he has adopted a much different hermeneutic in other areas of theology. Regarding soteriology, for example, Reisinger seems happily contented with doctrines that consist of much logic unsupported by biblical texts (be sure to check out his three-part series on Limited Atonement), but just not with ecclesiology.
- Reisinger's multiculturalist embrace of unity rather than union is difficult to sustain from the New Testament. Reisinger argues that the universal church is the only real sense of the church, that those who think that they discern true churches and false churches are in error, and that denominational differences are reflective merely of pragmatic differences rather than truth and error in the interpretation of the New Testament. Yet, somehow, Reisinger is content with the denominational splintering of Christianity today. Does this not leave us with some sense that schism is permissible in the body of Christ over personal idiosyncracies? If I believed as Reisinger does—that my congregationalism, local church autonomy, regenerate church membership, and all the implications of those beliefs are merely personal preferences rather than biblical mandates—then I would be compelled to seek the consolidation of my church with a dozen other churches in Farmersville.
Avenues of Appeal for Reisinger's ViewsAlthough Reisinger's essay does not appeal to me, I can understand why it would appeal to many people today.
- It holds appeal for postmodernists. As I have already argued, Reisinger's line of reasoning is pure postmodernism. The more that you have been influenced by postmodernism, the more likely you are to resonate with this study.
- It holds appeal for ecumenicalists. Although, as I have observed, Reisinger has stopped short of advocating ecumenism, astute ecumenicals will recognize that Reisinger's philosophy of the church provides an excellent basis for ecumenical union. Furthermore, some will be very happy with the precise extent of Reisinger's ecumenism—a cobbling together of a sort of evangelical catholicism.
- It holds appeal for people who regard ecclesiology as something that gets in the way of other agendas that they are pursuing. Christianity realigns from time to time. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention has had moments when it was aligning according to ecclesiology, missiology, or soteriology. In the 1850s, missiology was the issue around which people built alliances. In the 1900s-1950s, missiology determined affiliations (ABA, SBC, etc.). Today, some segments of the SBC are realigning around soteriological views. The recent events at Bethlehem Baptist Church and Henderson Hills Baptist Church reflect a trend in which Calvinistic Baptists feel more connected to Calvinistic non-Baptists than to non-Calvinistic Baptists. Ecclesiology poses a major obstacle to this realignment; therefore, those pursuing such a realignment will delight in an approach that minimizes the importance of practical ecclesiology.
My next post on this topic will complete this series. Thank you for your patience.