Challenging the System

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.

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10 thoughts on “Challenging the System

  1. Grace,
    I struggle so much with these questions. I agree that the system we have for church isn’t based on biblical guidelines. Even as I became more concerned and convinced that the church has gone in the wrong direction, as you know, my church asked me and my husband to take on a greater role rather than a lesser one, as I would have chosen.

    Sometimes, when I read articles like the ones you referenced, I’m convinced that I should walk away and leave them with it. But then, I have to deal with such things as my committment to people in the congregation who genuinely desire the kind of help we offer in the worship service. I don’t claim any type of authority; I feel self conscious about being one of the ones “up front” because I fear the implication that I’m any different than anybody else in the room. But then– the very act of quitting could potentially hurt some good people whose faith might be even be shaken somewhat by it- especially if it became known that I had “conscientious objections” to the present “form of church”. I don’t mean to make more of my influence than is realistic, but over the years it has become obvious that some people look to me as a leader- though it worries me and I didn’t mean for it to happen.

    How do we balance all of this out? We’ve over organized ourselves (as a church whole), and now we have several generations in this country that don’t know anything else.

    Barna’s word, revolution, is so accurate. It’s painful, difficult, and people are inevitably going to get hurt in the process. But I don’t see how to avoid it, either. It needs to happen.

  2. Hello there my name is Daniel Fischelli. I am the author of the Apologia Christi blog. The purpose of my site is to “Discover & Promote Truth, Denounce Relativism, Tear-down Political Correctness, Defend Unborn Humans; commit to living according to classic historical Christianity by God’s grace alone.” Access hundreds of articles covering topics from Christianity, Truth, Stem Cell Research, Abortion, Philosophy, and theology. Join the conversation as we engage our culture with the Gospel.

    I recently began a series entitled “The Grace Series. Here is an excerpt from Part I: “The Grace of Salvation”:

    Our inner subjective enjoyment of what God has provided is based upon the objective activity of God. All of these things reconciled in His character and nature. He did something for us. He went to great lengths to save us to Himself. God solved the problem of sin. He paid the ransom that we owed. The righteousness we could not muster up, He granted to us because His Son, Jesus Christ, lived it out. Christ became the scapegoat on our behalf. Blessed grace of God in salvation!

    I’m convinced that this world is filled with disfunction and depression in large part because they are seeking through elicit illegitimate means to mask the absence of peace and joy. “Let me stimulate myself. Let me medicate myself through drugs and alcohol.” All of these things are elicit attempts to mask the absence of meaning, the absence of peace. That which only God can provide through His pure unadulterated pristine grace. Praise God! Another way to describe this is gross materialism. Gross materialism leads to boredom. You can’t find enough money or things to make you truly deeply lastingly happy and content. Blessed God of grace that He has granted to us this salvation and has given us this peace with God, which leads to the peace of God.

    I thought you might be interested in reading the article. Let me know what you think about it.

  3. This is the first time I have commented on your blog. Though I have read it often.I post elsewhere as Grace Required so I shall use it here also. This article covers much of my own questioning about church. Yesterday I put down many of my convictions and emailed them to my pastor. Now I am exposed. I feel like a rabbit caught in glare of oncoming headlights. I am already isolated because I declined any future invitiation to leadership, something not done in my church because leadership is promoted as something to be desired above seemingly all else. A system where one appears to be conferred a great honour to be above another. What happened to the last shall be first? To me, my own words appear to be self righteously motivated and so I know I sin also but my sin should not stop me from speaking out about a “system” I see as ungodly and damaging.

  4. As always, Grace I can SO relate to what you have shared.

    ‘Grace Required’, I’m in your spot right now. Simplifying my life in order to hear the voice of God. Too much busy-work and that voice is very hard to hear. Other people will judge, but you have to do what is best for you. More power to ya!!! There is NO sin in pointing out where you differ from the ‘Big Church’ mentality. We need more independant thinkers in this world. Bless you!!

  5. The picture of the church he paints does seem more inline with what Paul and Jesus himself envisioned.

    The picture of the Shephard leaving the flock in search of the one lost sheep is what appeals to me about Christ. That stands in stark contrast with the centrality of big time teaching that the evangelical church obsesses itself with.

    “Come unto me…..my yoke is easy.”

    But yet, when I think of church, what it takes to fit in seems monumental and insurmountable. “Just as I am” seems to have become a joke. Likening today’s church to Greco-Roman social clubs where status matters is spot on.

  6. GRACE,
    Thanks for making us aware of these reflections and critique. It brings more “light” than “heat” to the emerging conversation about church.

  7. Cindy,
    I know that there is a lot of tension for those like yourself who find yourself “a part of” but not necessarily in agreement with the church you are in. Honestly, I think that some of us are called to walk in that tension, at least for a season. My following post was written based on thoughts about your reply here.

    As far as your role of leadership, I believe you already have it in you to be the kind of servant-laborer that this article describes. Will God use you to completely change that system? Probably not. But He can use you to model a type of life and leadership that isn’t self-promoting, but rather makes a place for others to participate and express their gifts also.

    Blessings to you!

    Hi Daniel. I’m having trouble keeping up with my blog reading, but will attempt to visit your site sometime.

    Hi grace required. It’s nice to meet you. The more grace the better. :) I’m glad you took the time to comment. I hope that you find encouragement and support from your pastor in expressing yourself in church life in ways that are true to your values. You may find the following post helpful as well.

    trailady,
    It’s always great to hear from you. I agree with you about simplifying our lives and prioritizing our relationship with the Father. From that position, we are better able to deal with the church issues.

    I agree with you David.
    It is too easy for me to stand on my soapbox and rail against the social club mentality of the church. Yet at times my anger burns at the shepherds who have misled and abused those trusted to their care, and my heart cries for those who would lead others into the wholeness and peace that is available to them.

    John,
    Thank you for your encouragement. You and others like you who have been willing to challenge the system give me hope that God is truly a part of the changes that we see.

  8. I have mixed reactions to these concepts. I do not buy into the traditional structure of the church, and can see how it tends to perpetuate a patriarchal, oppressive system. Yet, what does Strom do with Paul’s appointing of elders and presbyters? Why did he place so much emphasis on the qualifications for leadership? I don’t have any good answers for those questions. I believe that we humans have a great propensity toward establishing and abusing authoritarian structure. It seems that this may be especially true of my gender, for whom control issues seem to loom large.

    I think it’s clear that even in Paul’s day there were leadership bodies in the church, and if that were a bad thing, wouldn’t Paul have condemned that. He certainly did condemn abuse of power. So, I don’t know if Paul was necessarily antistructure. That being said, I would still strongly guess that what the church has become is not what he had in mind.

    One last thought: I remember hearing a pastor speak who, early in his ministry, used to physically and verbally abuse his wife. In retrospect, he was amazed at how God used him in spite of this deplorable sin in his life. In the same way, even though the men and women of the institutional church often abuse their power and authority, God still works in a mighty way through that same flawed body. God is bigger than our failure. Still, that does not mean that we should be complacent about those failures. The church needs serious reform, or even revolution. But it cannot be done in a spirit of anger or resentment, which where I all too often head when I want to see things change.

  9. Gary,
    I haven’t relearned all of the passages about leadership. I had previously learned the passages through a lens of church government, reading back into them the way that we were doing things.

    Honestly, as I’ve thought about it, I tend to think that all of the teachings about 5-fold ministries and elders are descriptive of functions, not offices.

    If we were to attempt to function without appointing, assigning, or labeling individuals to these offices, could we simply allow those who happen to fit these descriptions to function in their gifting? Could those who functioned in a gifting do so without being recognized or titled?

    I am definitely interested in learning more about this, especially in a functioning, applicable sense. It is a topic that I think about a lot and always enjoy reading articles like this and your comment that stimulate more thoughts about this.

  10. This is Mark “Foolish Sage” Traphagen, the author of the review you quoted from in this post. Thanks for interacting with my review and, more importantly, Strom’s book.

    To respond to Gary, I don’t think Strom is against leadership per se; he isn’t anti-structure. Rather he was criticizing a type of structure based more on Greek rhetoric and social clubs than servanthood, particularly in the ways we invest preachers with elevated authority that ends up making their word, not The Word, the law in our congregations.

    If any of you would like to interact further with me, please do so by commenting on the original post on Sacred Journey (follow Grace’s link at the beginning of the article.) Blogger doesn’t let me run feeds on the comments here, so I won’t see it if you respond here.

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