The following excerpts are from a blog post by Mark Traphagen called “Revisiting Reframing Paul,” a review of a book by Mark Strom called Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and Community. I recommend reading the entire post in context at the Sacred Journey blog.
Is there something fundamentally wrong with the way we “do church” that underlies such widespread dissatisfaction?
Where did the whole system we call church really come from? Is it really what Paul and the other New Testament writers were after? If so, why does it so often seem to fail to produce what they said it should?
It is Strom’s position that the church long ago adopted the Greek ideals of abstract truth and the eloquent orator and then read those ideals back into Paul’s teaching. How much are we invested in a system through the power of tradition that, for the sake of survival of the system, we must find a way to read back into the texts?
Strom builds his case that our modern conception of “church” little resembles Paul’s. He contends that the ekklesiai, the local Christian gatherings, resembled dinner parties more than religious services. He sees our insistence upon an ordained clergy as the triumph of the Graeco-Roman model over Paul’s model of servant-laborers who simply enable the Spirit-inspired one-another ministry of the body.
Strom recognizes that the intentions and goals of our modern church system are the same as those of Paul. Moreover, he states that those who support and nurture the modern system sincerely believe themselves to be following Paul’s directives.
Nevertheless, the “system is what the system does.” He contends that though we teach and preach radical grace, the fact that we do so from positions of rank and status and with the tools of law and rhetoric undermines the very message we preach.
Most fundamentally, he questions the centrality of preaching and the sermon as the single most indispensable activity of church life in evangelical churches. This is an area so sacred to some that to question it is tantamount to heresy. Strom dares to question both the roots and the results of this model.
Again, the system is what the system does. The words of the preacher may be all about grace, the power of the Spirit, and the priesthood of the believer, but the result of the ordained-preacher-centered system is control. All is dependent on the authority and skills of the preacher.
The clergy is trained to remain superior to the congregation, the dispensers of the secret “higher knowledge” gained through their training, the ones who must be given special honor and status necessary to maintaining the credibility of their teaching.
Typically this system is defended on the basis of preserving the authority of Scripture. But Strom asks:
What does the authority of Scripture mean to those who sit silently through sermons listening to Greek quoted as a key to deeper understanding? What does it mean when someone grows up experiencing the admiration and criticism of preachers’ oratory skills, hearing comparisons between successful and struggling ministers and churches, and noting the deference shown to pastors and professors? What does the doctrine mean when one grows up having to request permission from pastors for “lay” ministries? What does it mean in a system where qualification, ordination and salary are the marks of those who dispense permission?
Strom’s thesis is that Paul built no church system at all. Rather, Paul simply instructed Christians to live out their relationships with Christ in their everyday lives. They were to gather together regularly, but such gatherings were to be the informal gatherings of friends over a meal, sharing, singing, exhorting, teaching, and praying for one another. They were not forming a new religion with its own set of rituals, rules, and priestly hierarchy. They were forming a new family, a new society, a new polis within the polis.
Strom sees Paul’s conception of the ekklesiai as being gatherings for “grace-full conversation,” totally the opposite of the Graeco-Roman social clubs where status and rhetoric were central. In the ekklesia believers are to actually believe that Christ is present with them and works through each member by the Spirit. All have something to contribute and all participate. Life and growth takes place through conversations, the sharing of our stories in the context of the Great Story of God’s redemption through Jesus Christ.
In this gathering, no value is placed on status or rank. Trained teachers are a valuable resource to the body, but they remain just that–a resource, not persons invested with special authority or responsibility merely because of their advanced knowledge. There are indeed leaders, but Paul sets their roles as servant-laborers, enablers of the ministries of everyone in the gathering. Teaching and “preaching” is seen as an act of service and equipping to the body, a resource rather than the central and essential act of church life.
The freedom to explore, question, and reimagine is one of the best qualities of the religious blog conversation. I find posts like this one both challenging and inspiring.