Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Church, fellowship and discipline

This continues from our previous post on the Knox-Robinson model of church.

Some people criticise the Knox-Robinson model as being “Platonic”. I think it’s quite the opposite – it prioritises the physical. The traditional model is in danger of being “Platonic” because it posits a this-worldly reality which transcends the physical.

Others criticise it as being based solely on the New Testament word ekklesia, which means "to gather" - hence their priority of physical assembly. That criticism is simply wrong - this ecclesiology is based on a deep understanding of the dynamic of salvation-history throughout the whole Bible.

A related criticism is that the model, in focusing on ekklesia, ignores the other metaphors for church: body, temple, bride etc. These models can be subsumed under the Knox-Robinson model, the question is: what are the limits of the metaphor? When we are getting about our ordinary lives in the world, we are still Christians - thus, members of Christ's body, bearers of his Holy Spirit, and, according to Knox-Robinson, gathered spiritually around Christ. But, should we go further and say we are members of a church? More in our next post.

Others say it leads to a highly independent, isolated, fragmented view of church, bereft of church discipline. If church happens whenever we gather around the word, then Bible study is church; I don't have to go to that boring, stuffy old building on Sunday. And, I can start a church by starting a Bible study or hiring a building & starting preaching - I don't have to inform anyone or ask any permission. This criticism has, I think, some weight - but that depends on the connection between fellowship and discipline.

Broughton Knox had a high view of fellowship - the connections that Christians have with each other even when they're not meeting in church. In his view, a "denomination" is a fellowship of churches - a group of churches with a shared history, perhaps shared ministry personnel (bishops?). But he consciously limited church discipline to Biblical exhortation. A local church may exhort another local church that they are going astray; but they should not impose any sanctions on that other local church, apart from the extreme of cutting off fellowship.

And this pulls the teeth from the denomination. Under a Knox-Robinson ecclesiology, the denomination should not be able to fire a minister, or close a church, or deprive them of their building.

My question is: isn't this a very thin view of fellowship? Can fellowship and discipline be more closely connected? For fellowship to have some muscle, it needs to have accountability, and accountability implies sanctions. Both Jesus (Matt 18:15-19) and Paul (1 Cor 5) expected churches to exercise discipline, with sanctions that had teeth. These two passages refer to local churches. But if healthy local fellowship requires discipline, then why not extend that to broader fellowship?

A response might be that rich fellowship, wherein discipline may genuinely be exercised in love, requires relational proximity. Relational proximity invites trust. When someone you're close to tells you off, you're more likely to listen to them, because you're more likely to believe they mean you well (Prov 27:6). Discipline from a distance feels authoritarian, and you're less likely to trust them. That's why church discipline should be limited to local churches.

I think the principle's correct - but it can be extended beyond local churches, to a broader church fellowship, ie: a denomination. The Presbyterian system of hierarchical church courts, while often cumbersome, creates a forum for physical proximity and potential rich, trust-building fellowship. The health of our churches may be better indicated by the quality of our conversations over supper than the precision of our resolutions.

As you can see, I'm still wrestling with these issues. Feedback welcome.

In our next post, we'll look at the breadth of the term "church".

1 comment:

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