New Testament precedent

New Testament precedent

Over the past few months a number of conversations have caused me to ponder the Uniting Church and how it reflects the “biblical model” of the church.

For some people in the Uniting Church there is a yearning for uniformity, a “biblical” model of church in which the way things are done is consistent and clear and predictable.

For others there is a desire for strong leadership in line with the “biblical” model and for yet others the denominational model is regarded as an outmoded, non-biblical way of being that needs to be discarded.

In the New Testament we see new congregations developing in different places and as we read Paul’s and other letters it is clear that those congregations were different in character, different in theology, different in cultural make-up, different in their leadership structures, different in their worship styles.

It seems to me that Paul, in particular, addresses all sorts of issues relating to faith, worship, appropriate behaviour and leadership without the expectation that every congregation will be the same in the way it expresses faith or structures its community and worship, but rather addresses each congregation in its particular context.

Corinth was a “charismatic” church which expressed its faith and ordered its life based on the charismatic gifts. Probably this was not Paul’s preferred model but he worked with it.

The church in Philippi, set up in a way that possibly reflected more closely Paul’s preference, seems to have had a much simpler and more ordered life with bishops to carry out the ministry of the word and deacons to assist people in their needs.

Of course for Paul, in both contexts, ultimately what was important was ensuring that the gospel message of Jesus Christ was preached, taught and lived, whatever the medium.

As one reads the pages of the New Testament one can sense that the churches in Ephesus, Jerusalem and Rome were all different again and quite distinct.

Yet those congregations were not seen to be entirely independent; they were tied together by travelling apostles and teachers like Paul.

They were implicitly part of a much bigger community, as seen by the movement of people between churches and by Paul’s endeavours to raise money from the churches he visited to support the Church in Jerusalem.

In his letter to the Roman Church, which he had not founded or visited and yet sought to guide, The congregations of the New Testament, diverse as they were, belonged and contributed to a wider community.

Reading between the lines, some churches, or some members of those churches, would be saying, “Paul does not speak for us.”

Although Paul clearly regarded that he had authority as an apostle (an assertion that others seemed to question) any authority Paul exercised was a moral authority, not one given to him by his place in the structures of the church.

For Paul, exercising leadership which was acceptable to all was not always easy. Thus in the Corinthian church there were people asserting that they followed others (even Christ) and, by implication, indicating Paul’s leadership was rejected, at least, by some.

Yet there is recognition of a need for people to speak on behalf of the whole church. In Acts 15 we see Paul and Barnabas going to Jerusalem to ask the apostles and elders there to provide a definitive answer on the issue of circumcision and the requirements for belonging to the Christian community.

At the Council of Jerusalem the apostles and elders gave leadership and in their speaking for the Church opened it up to new ways of being while addressing some of the sensitivities of the time.

Some would continue to disagree with their decision and, much to Paul’s chagrin, would hound the church for years to come. Holding the church together while faced with the challenge of a whole new theology of belonging was no simple task.

Do we not see reflections of the New Testament Church in the Uniting Church?

Like the early church, our polity in the Uniting Church is not simply congregational and our theology, worship and practice are not monochrome. Our structures make leadership, other than by moral and personal authority, somewhat difficult.

Surely this leads us to the question of whether the leadership we so often seek is really one based on a biblical model.

It seems to me that the vision of the Uniting Church to seek unity in diversity together with the struggles that entails (in terms of leadership, worship, giving expression to faith, working out what is necessary to belong) is much closer to the New Testament model than many woulAugust 19, 2008ood to acknowledge that, live with it and grow with it and be willing to see what God does with it.

Niall Reid

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