What Christians believe about Church


In one of his books, Raymond Brown begins with a quotation from Robert Browning's A death in the Desert: 

When my ashes scatter, says John, "there is left on earth No one alive who knew (consider this!) -­‐saw with his own eyes and handled with his hands That which was from the first, the Word of Life; How will it be when none more saith, 'I saw'?" 

Browning was raising one of the perennial questions of Christian history: if much of the New Testament was written after the death of the last of the apostles, then how much of what was written reflected the thoughts and theology of those first apostles? We can go even further in deepening the problem when we remember that the only apostle about whom we know a great deal is Peter. We know of Paul because he is one of the heroes of Acts and he wrote so many letters but of the others, little is known. Tradition has it that Peter and Paul died in Rome in the 60's and James, the next significant leader, died in Jerusalem in the 60's. Most of the New Testament was written in the last one third of the century, after the death of these men we can understand the thinking behind the question being asked by Browning. 

The classical answer to this question has been to stress an almost mechanical model of tradition. Jesus handed on his teaching to the Twelve who in turn chose successors and they followed on with the tradition down to the present day. This suggests and orderly and cohesive process that was only disturbed with the actions of heretics. 

Others (eg. F C Baur) have suggested that in the Early Church there were basically two schools - those who supported Paul (a pro-­‐Gentile Church) and those who were with James (a Jewish focus) and it was only later on that a Petrine position was formed that was a kind of synthesis of these two Churches. This does not work as it depends on a very late dating of some of the New Testament documents (eg Acts). 

Some more modern scholars have argued that there was no real orthodoxy in the New Testament Church and that it was only afterwards, in the second century that a particular understanding of orthodoxy prevailed. This theological position began in Rome and eventually dominated the whole of the Church and other teachings were lost. This thinking too has problems for we would have to whether or not some of the earlier ideas that were replaced in the battle for the orthodox position might have been more faithful to the teachings of Jesus than some of the latter ones which may have emerged from institutional needs and internal politics. Darwin's theory of the survival of the strongest is not a good theory to apply to theology, for the loudest and most supported may not always be the most faithful. 

Suffice to say, all attempts to come up with a standard understanding of how the early faith community understood itself, how it saw its mission and how it proclaimed its message have all failed. Perhaps the best way to proceed is to use the title of a book written by the eminent New Testament Scholar James Dunn who wrote a book called: Unity and Diversity in the New Testament! 

The Church: a community of a variety of Churches: 

Again we can begin with a question: what churches were there in the sub-­‐apostolic New Testament world (the last one third of that first century)? A good starting point is Paul for we can see that within a couple of decades after his death a variety of positions were adopted that were at odds with what Paul had taught, even within the communities founded by Paul. If we rely on Luke's story of Paul that we find in the Acts of the Apostles, we see this early history broken up into blocks - one dominated by Peter and the other dominated by Paul who concentrated on moving the church from Jerusalem to Rome (the ends of the earth). What is indeed interesting is that in all of this writing on Paul, there is no indication in the Acts that Luke knew of the letters written by Paul. He is silent on these. However, we also know that these letters were circulated beyond the Churches to which they were originally sent. Whoever it was who wrote the letter to the Ephesians, for example, knew about many of the Pauline letters and used ideas found in them in his own letter. Here is yet another question: Luke both in his Gospel and in the Acts has moved further along in theological development than Paul advanced, as has the author of Ephesians. However, one has made use of the Pauline letters while the other gives no indication of even knowing they existed. How is that given that Paul was such a key apostle and prophet in those early communities? 

The situation of the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) shows communities that are struggling with the influence of the Judaizers who are insisting on the necessity of circumcision. These communities are in existence after the death of Paul and we see in them a much stronger emphasis on how the community is structured and the proper process for making decisions. This is not found in either Luke/Acts or in the writings of Colossians or Ephesians. All of them address their local community issues with priorities that differ and yet all of these are communities with strong and direct links back to Paul. The issue is not whether or not they are still in communion it is a matter of seeking to determine the nature of the Church and how they saw their priorities. 

When we come to the works that go under the name of John, we find yet more variations, some of them quite significant, from the Pauline communities. There are similarities and differences in the understanding of who Jesus was and how he was to be understood (Christology) but it is in the matter of relationships with the Jews that John stands out clearly from Paul. By the time of John the Christians had already been thrown out of the synagogues and had drifted away to the point that they would have seemed to have been very different religions. At one stage John even suggests that they have the devil as their father (8:44). We also find that the great feasts of Judaism which would have once been shared with the Christians are now referred to as the feasts of the Jews (6:4; 7:2) and the Law as "their law" (15:25). What is clear from John is that the hostility between the Christians and the Jews that was said to have ended in the Ephesian's letter is still very much in play. 

Of course in a city like Ephesus there was more than likely a number of Churches. These were formed when twenty to thirty people came together in a house church for prayer, sharing of the scriptures and the breaking of the bread. It is therefore likely that there were various traditions among these Church groups (eg. Petrine, Pauline, Johannine and Jewish), each holding onto a theological position that had been handed on to them. They may well have all been one but within that oneness (koinonia) there was diversity. 

A read through the letter of James will reveal a letter that is very strongly Jewish. It is addressed to the Jewish Christians who are scattered around the East. They assemble still in the synagogue (2:2) and they hold a high position to the teachings of the prophets of Israel. There is no Christology but a very strong emphasis on the need to be "doing" works of love rather than the necessity of faith over works. This Church could be described as one which is highlighting the strong values of Judaism and reading the teaching of Jesus in this light. Perhaps the difference between James and Paul is brought out most clearly in these comparisons; 

Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it (2:10. One is justified by works and not by faith alone (2:24) 

One is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law (Rom 3:28). 

Clearly the wording here is very similar. The probability is that James is addressing the problem that some people have heard the teaching of Paul and are twisting it to excuse them of the need to look after the poor among them and the need for good works. 


If we go back to that original question posed by Browning, we could perhaps best answer it by saying that by the time of the death of the last of the apostles the churches had already broken away, or were in the process of breaking away from what would have been considered to have been normative in Judaism. They had to, for once the founding apostles had died, they had to either continue to evolve and grow or simply slip back into Judaism and disappear. No one Church emerged with the answer and as the Church grew, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it weaved the various strands of tradition into what became Christian Orthodoxy. But that was all some time down the pilgrim's road.