Reflection: 07-10

This month’s reflection is on the book, Paul’s Idea of Community, by Robert J. Banks.  I found the book rather intriguing in that it wasn’t what I was expecting.  In each chapter, Banks set the stage by showing what the cultural setting was for Paul.  He compares the main influences – Jewish, Greek, Roman, Hellenistic (Jewish culture influenced by the Greco-Roman culture), and ‘mystery’ (pagan) cults – with those of the small communities that Paul was starting.  For example, in chapter 3, ‘Churches as Household Gatherings’, Banks wrote,
[The] Greek term for a Jewish community, sunagoge, is never used of a Christian gathering in the NT . . . The three usual terms that describe the Hellenistic cults (sunados, thiasos, and koinon) do not occur at all.  The reason for the absence of these terms is probably as follows: the synagogue was so centered around the Law and the mysteries so focused on a cult, that use of either word would have resulted in a misunderstanding of what ekklesia was all about (pg 29).
He goes on to state that, ‘This suggests that the term (ekklesia, assembly - JG) is applied only to an actual gathering of people or to the group that gathers as a regularly constituted meeting and not, as in today’s usage, to a number of local assemblies conceived as part of a larger unit’ (pg 30).  I find this interesting in that over and over Banks states that the idea of a ‘universal church’ is completely foreign to Paul.
In the greeting at the beginning of Galatians (1.2), throughout the following two letters to the Corinthians, and at the end of Romans (16.4, 16), we always find the plural form when more than one church is in view . . . The plural references to ‘the churches in Galatia’ (Gal 1.2; 1Cor 16.1), ‘the churches of Asia’ (1Cor 16.19), ‘the churches of Macedonia’ (2Cor 8.1), and ‘the churches of Judaea’ (Gal 1.22) demonstrate that the idea of a unified provincial or national church is as foreign to Paul's thinking as the notion of a universal church (pg 30).
So, for me, the questions that come rushing to the fore are, ‘What do we do with these statements?  Would Paul’s understanding of ekklesia change to grasp a universal church in the way we understand it?  Or was the whole idea of a ‘one, holy, and apostolic church’ imposed upon the text to reflect a need (want) for uniformity and perhaps even control?’  I don’t think that Paul would have adopted this idea.  That is, the idea of ‘one church’ seems to stem from the idea of power and control.  Though, I’m not so cynical to believe that the motives were solely for this purpose (but I’ve been wrong before).  I can see a great need for a uniformity of things like understanding and beliefs and whatnot.  But, what if that was basically the need for control?  I am thinking of the Synod of Whitby here.  What was the purpose of this synod?  Was is to bring the Celtic church into the ‘proper understanding’ as dictated by Rome church?  It seems to me that this was the point.  The Roman church seemed to be set on dictating everything, even down to how one was to wear their tonsure (monastic haircut)!  Regarding this type of control, Banks states, ‘ . . . there is no sense in which [Paul’s] churches are subservient to the original Christian community or organizationally controlled by it’ (pg 43).  The Celtic church, however, seemed to be able to live within the tension of different expressions.  But what about before that?  There seems to be several different expressions of the Christian faith all flourishing together in their own communities.  As Banks alludes in his book, a careful reading of the letters of Paul shows the each church had its own way of doing things.  Some churches would have more influence from the Jewish community (the church in Jerusalem for example).  Others a more Gentile influence (the churches at Galatia or Ephesus, for example).  And in each case, Paul seems to be instructing them specifically about their issues (there were times when he would ask the churches to swap letters - Col 4.16 - but this wasn’t always the case).

Do we have an example of this now?  I think so.  This reminds me of the different denominational churches today.  One church has a praise band and light shows and big digital screens.  Another church meets in a store front and just has a keyboard.  Still another one has their service in Latin.  Each church has to change and adapt to is culture and communities.  But sometimes they don’t.  And maybe that’s just the point of Banks’ book.  It seems that the early house churches adapted to their communities.
Although in his writings Paul goes on to formulate broad principles of conduct that arise from these attitudes (Col 3.8 - 4.5; Eph 5.21 - 6.9) as well as to give on occasion very specific injunctions to particular individuals or churches, these principles often require fresh application ‘in the Spirit’ to fit the changing contexts that the people are involved in.  The specific injunctions are not always able to be generalized into universal rules. . .
On the contrary, today people are expected to adapt to the church.  That is, if you don’t like the church that has a praise band and light show, go somewhere else.  It doesn’t really seem to matter if people are not getting their needs met.

So how can we change this model?  I think Banks does a good job at showing us that the house churches were crucial to the rapid growth of the faith.  And because those churches met in peoples homes, ‘[the] average membership was around thirty to thirty-five people’ (pg 35).  What is significant about this?  It points to a tighter, closer group of people who are actively and genuinely concerned about the issues of the others within the church.

This is one of the things I like about the Lindisfarne Community.  We have this idea of going back to a different way of ‘doing church’.  The idea of small, close nit groups of people who genuinely care for and about each other is very appealing, especially in today’s every increasing segregation.  While more and more of us are ‘going to work’, we have less and less time for growing important, long-term relationships.  Especially in the West, we seem to have bought into the idea that we are our own islands; that we don’t need each other.  For a long time, we have bought into this idea.  And the churches have done the same thing.  In an ever increasing fashion some are trying to create just ‘positive’ replacements for what the ‘world’ is offering instead of implementing the realm of God in our communities.  Some places will have ‘small groups’ but these are not looked at as ‘true’ or ‘real’ churches but (inferior) extensions from the ‘real’ church.

But it has been my experience that more and more people are questioning this type of ‘church’ (that is, large groups of people meeting together).  I hear it time and time again, ‘I get so much more out my home group than I do at church’.  I had one person tell me that he got more from his twelve-step group than he did from his church.  To me, it seems that the leaders in the church are not listening to their parishioners.  Here we have people who are telling the leaders that they are missing something in the main worship service.  Most of the time, those feelings, as well as the people, are brushed aside.  But what would happen if we took to heart what they were saying?  I’m not suggesting that we stop doing ‘regular worship’.  I am saying that we need to tweak our regular worship to be like those small groups.

On Wednesday evening at St Michael’s, there is just a small group of us who meet.  When I first starting going, we met in the chapel area and had a discussion about the reading.  I found this very helpful.  If we listen, we can sense where people are at; we get to know them a little better.  For some people, there is a qualitative difference between what they say in that type of small group setting compared to what they say in large ‘worship service’ or at a pot luck.  We have since stopped doing this and I’m not entirely sure why.  I will have to talk to Fr Alan about it.

But, what would happen if we look intently to what Banks wrote and tried to implement that into our communities?  That is, what if the ‘church on the corner’ went away and all that was left were small groups that met in peoples homes?  What type of dynamic expression of Christ would we find?  I would venture to say that we would possible find some similarities and some differences from church to church.  Considering how each group would have to mold their meetings to the people instead of the people to the meetings, these meetings would be interesting to say the least!

Some practical thoughts on this.  I guess my thought would be to take the Daily Office and make that the basic structure of the service.  I would want to add the Eucharist and discussion over the reading.  Further, I would like to try what I’ve tried to do with the men’s group I was involved with - have others do some of the leading!  If we take a clue from what St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, everyone could be an active participant:
Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize.  When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said.  But everything that is done must strengthen all of you (1Corinthians 14.26).
To often in the men’s group, if I wasn’t there, the meeting would not go very well.  One guy even sent me a text complaining about it.  Since it’s not ‘my’ group, I didn’t feel like I should say anything.  But it shows that there is this unspoken rule that there are ‘leaders’ and if the ‘leader’ isn’t present, then people don’t know what to do.  More often than not, I tried to get the other men to lead, I wanted this to be a journey for all of us and not just for me.  But no one would participate in that way.

I think what Banks and Paul are stating is that there is a need for equal participation and value.  Sometimes people don’t feel valued because they can’t participate.  They don’t ‘meet the requirements’.  Again, this is something I like about the Lindisfarne Community.  We are trying to ‘redefine’ things like priesthood and vocation.  We are dipping back into the ‘old ways’ of the monastic tradition by having a Bishop’s School.  I saw this difference at our retreat this year.  After Sue and I were ordained into the diaconate, we got to help with the Eucharist the next morning.  The one thing that stood out to me was that I was allowed to serve the bread.  I have never seen anyone other than a priest offer the bread in a ‘main’ service.  Now, at the evening service at some places, the bread and wine was served one to the other.  I think that this is something that could be incorporated into the (small) church group.  This gives the sense that we are all connected and we are all to serve each other.  I think that this speaks to the value of each other.  To quote from the first understanding of the Lindisfarne Community, ‘to be as Christ to those we meet; to find Christ within them’.  What greater example of this than service one another in the Eucharist?

I really like this book and there was plenty here to chew on.  I think I will be coming back to it from time to time for some insight and direction.  I think it is one of those books that could have a major impact on ‘how we do church’ in an ancient-future type of way as we move forward, guided by the Spirit, into what God is leading us.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Jack+, LC


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