THE PARLIAMENTARY CHURCH
NCBC came out of the the cut and thrust parliamentary way of doing things (Gal 2:14, Acts 15:37ff), a way that has always been the bogey of Christian sectarians and cultists who have sought to purge their churches of dissent and return to a fancied New Testament innocence.
I have recently finished reading a short book called “Who do you think you are?” written by Baptist Ted Doe. The book gives a brief history of Baptists in Norwich. I would recommend it for any non-specialists (that includes myself) who want a resume of non-conformist history in Norwich. Reading history, however, always goes with a caution. History is usually an inextricable mix of documentary data and interpretation. Therefore one must always read it critically, being aware that comprehensive searches of primary documentation is seldom possible. Generalizations made from limited documentary samples are always open to revision in the light of further data; in fact the search space for history is all but open ended.
Although Ted makes some minor interpolations about NCBC’s history that need comparison with some documentation supplied to me by Dr. Nick Groves, on the whole I personally found Ted’s history very helpful and I look forward to his expanded volume. Where I may take issue with Ted, however, has less to do with his history than what he thinks that history’s significance is for us today. Ted looks to be of the school of thought which seeks to clear the ecclesiastical ground and return to an innocent uncorrupted New Testament purity:
It is important to understand that the central doctrine of the Baptist church is its doctrine of the Church, not the baptism of believers by total immersion. Baptists were among the first Christians to rediscover the simplicity of the New Testament Church and their baptismal policy arose out of that rediscovery. But if the New Testament Church was rediscovered, how come it had been lost in the first place? (p4)
The New Testament writings contain some basic ideas and examples of how believers should organize themselves and relate to one another (p6)
Contrary to popular propaganda the Protestant, or Lutheran, Reformation did not bring God’s people back to a true new Testament experience. (p7) (In Ted’s opinion the true NT experience is found amongst the dissenters who wanted to separate church and state)
How is unity to be achieved? Many Christians, including Baptists, believe that the New Testament lays down the basic principles for church structure and conduct in all ages. Other Christian don’t believe this. P49
I’m a Baptist and yet I’m one of those other Christians who don’t believe this!
There is a huge irony in Ted’s writing. He himself is undoubtedly a true democratic and dissenter; he sees the decentralized Baptist model as the antidote to the authoritarian legacy of ramifying church structures linked to the power of the state. And yet in their zeal to shrug off the oppressive regimes of a doctrinaire church many dissenters have run blindly into another, sometimes even worst form of authoritarianism – the religious sect or cult.
The New Testament lacks any formal articled description of church structure or any legal injunction to copy it to the letter; rather it simply gives a somewhat fragmented narrative from which we get some hints about how those early believers might have organized themselves. But the dissenter and non-conformist is often in danger of failing to capture the subtle lesson here and instead manages to distil out the very thing he is rebelling against:
It was not until the sixteenth century that those Christians attempting to follow the simplicity of the New Testament were able to begin the task of establishing a lasting presence. Of course it didn’t happen all at once, and no-one grasped the whole picture in one go. There is no blueprint for the church in the New Testament: instead we are given a set of principles and a few snapshots of how they might be implemented. The men who rediscovered these things tended to stumble upon them piecemeal as they followed such light and understanding as they were given. Mistakes were made, some blind alleys were entered, and the whole process was accompanied by much suffering, intolerance and violence from the government and the established church. (p9-p10)
I certainly agree with the statement “there is no blueprint for church in the NT” and that should alert us to the absence of any NT church to “rediscover”. We must remember that the NT covers the period of the inception of Christianity; like a gas expanding into a virgin volume, the only way was up and the situation was far from equilibrium; and least of all do we find any injunctions saying “copy this”. This was a young church on the move, improvising and making it up as it went along; it had no legal script to follow. Apart from the moral quality of its officers the NT is not much interested in telling us about some sanctified "church structure" inscribed in stone. And yet in rejecting those state-church blueprints the dissenter is liable to succumb to the fiction of a “New Testament Church” and misinterpret the situation depicted in the NT as an equilibrium state that he should copy, thus restoring the error of an all time church blueprint to be obeyed at all cost.
We have a few commands from Christ about loving one another, communion and baptizing, but after that we struggle to find a comprehensive set of rules and regulations giving unambiguous shape to Christian life and community, a shape that the religiously insecure heart so often craves. Today’s religious copyists look hard in order to recover “The New Testament Church”. But at the abstract level the New Testament is really about the same thing the church is about today; namely, a church on the move, a church in the process of adapting to the (changing) conditions in which it finds itself. We can never be unequivocal about a so called New Testament model because the first century church was adapting to the situation in which it found itself; if there is a lesson to be learnt here it is not one about a recovering a lost model for church. The general lesson is about adaptation and this may or may not lead to centralized or decentralized church models. There are no commands in the NT for a one size fits all version of church. Today’s restorationists and church recovery sects make the mistake of trying to copy the NT church where it was at rather than seeing that that church was more about where it was going.
Having had experience of some of the aficionados of the recovery and restorationist school of thought in action I can say that they contain in their ranks some of the most authoritarian, narrow minded and dysfunctional bigots I have every met. They simply reject one kind of problem and replace it with another kind of problem; in their attempt to transcend denominationalism they fall into a worse trap; sectarianism and even cultism.
I don’t think for one moment that Ted and his church (Witard Road Baptist Church) have fallen into this trap; it's just that Ted’s language of wistful NT nostalgia is no bulwark against the sectarian fanaticism that is endemic amongst evangelicals and fundamentalists. Ted well knows that there is no basis for hallowed and sanctified structural blueprints:
Apart from the simple rituals of baptism and breaking of bread….We search in vain for structures, rituals and laws that have been introduced throughout the world and cause much confusion division and violence for hundreds of years. (p6)
And yet somehow religious legalism subliminally makes an appearance and this all too easily can be used to suppress the work in progress that should be the church community. Of the sketchy details in the NT about the organization of the Christian community Ted says:
This might seem like a recipe for disaster and frequently that has been the case, but it is nonetheless, God’s way. … Meic Pearse makes a stimulating dedication “This …… is the way; walk ye in it” (p6)
On page 49 Ted heartaches about division. The irony is that much of this division has been motivated by the pipe dream of an imagined restored/recovered NT church utopia. "Dissenting" restorationists are, in my estimation, (ironically) the prime perpetrators of this division as they have zealously sought to purge their churches of dissenters who contradict the perceived "divine authority" of restorationist opinions about what constitutes the right way of doing church. It is the zeal with which such fictions are pursued that leads into to the trap of cultism. It might help if people cease to seek a contrived unity and come to terms with the fact that church will always be a parliament where there exists the tension of disagreement and the compromise of consensus; this is “the natural state of human affairs” (Walpole). The general rule is: Never think of yourself as being where it should be at but rather think about where you should be going. We must come to terms with the fact that an Open Gospel is likely to entail division and forget those petty church templates of “unity” that the sectarian wishes to impose on the church as does every cultist between here and Salt Lake city. Instead we must grasp that the deeper NT logic is not about structural stasis but about motion.
Finally I would like to quote from William Thompson's book Passages about Earth . In this quote Thompson is, in fact, referring to New Age gurus but it applies equally to some of the restorationist gurus who attempt to set up a mini-church state within a state:
We do not need a new civic religion of the world state run by Initiates of Kundalini Yoga; we need to protect spirituality from religion in a secular culture of law in which devotees are protected from the zealous excesses of one another. It is utterly naïve to think that in the near future men will have outgrown the playpen of the American Constitution and will lovingly trust one another. The gurus are tolerant and merely condescending now because they have no political power; but even without power they show full evidence of human frailty and vanity and tend to think that their own yoga is bigger and better than the other guru’s. And what is often only a case of mild condescension in the guru becomes in the disciples a fever of zealotry.