the weblog of Alan Knox

Old Testament Structures and the Church

Posted by on Dec 20, 2007 in church history, definition, discipleship, scripture | 27 comments

Often, when I’m talking to people about church structures and organizations, they usually point me to Old Testament structure to defend hierarchies, authorities, buildings, positions, etc. After a discussion with Lew from “The Pursuit” and his Question of the Week #17, I’ve been thinking about the trend of associating Old Testament priests, temples, tithes, etc. to New Testament practices.

The conversations tend to go something like this (in a condensed form, of course):

Person #1: “The pastor has authority over the local church.”
Me: “I can’t find anything in Scripture that gives the pastors authority over anyone.”
Person #1: “Well, you have to go back to the priest system of the Old Testament.”

Person #2: “You should give tithes to the local church.”
Me: “I can’t find any teaching in Scripture that tells us to give money to a local church.”
Person #2: “Well, you have to go back to the tithe system of the Old Testament.”

Person #3: “You need someone trained in music to lead your worship.”
Me: “I’m sorry but I don’t see that in Scripture. Nor do I see music called worship.”
Person #3: “Well, you have to go back to the Levites of the Old Testament.”

Person #4: “Why are you not saving money to build a church (meaning, ‘church building’).”
Me: “I don’t see a requirement for having a church building in the new testament.”
Person #4: “Well, you have to go back to the temple in the Old Testament.”

Here’s my concern: I don’t see the New Testament authors making these connections. Instead, I see the New Testament writers calling all believers “priests” (Rom 15:16; 1 Pet 2:5,9; Rev 1:6; Heb 10:19-22 – notice the resemblance to the sanctification of priests). But, pastors/elders/overseers are never specifically referred to as “priests”.

Once again, all believers are taught to share generously with those who are in need, with those who are travelling away from home in order to proclaim the gospel, and with those who teach and lead them well (Acts 2:45; 4:34-35; James 2:15-16; Gal 6:6; 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim 5:17; 3 John 3-6). But, I do not see the New Testament authors comparing this to the tithe of the Old Testament, nor requiring a tithe to be given to the “local church”.

Similarly, all believers are encouraged to exhort one another with songs, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; 1 Cor 14:26). However, I don’t see where training, practice, or even talent is a prerequisite for this singing (although, it does seem that being filled with the Spirit is a prerequisite). Also, I can’t find any connection between singing in the New Testament and the Levites of the Old Testament.

Finally, I also see that all followers of Jesus Christ are compared to the “temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21). But, as far as I can tell, “temple” is never associated with a designated meeting place for Christians.

So, where did this contemporary practices come from? When did we start going back to the Old Testament to find systems of organization and leadership and finances? When did the Book of Nehemiah start teaching how to have a successful church building campaign? The exact details of how and when and why these interpretations of the Old Testament filtered into the church continue to be debated among church historians today. I think they all started when the church ceased to be the people of God and started to become an institution. In order to justify the institution, the leaders had to go back to the Old Testament system – the very system that the author of Hebrews calls a “shadow” of the reality that we have in Jesus Christ.


27 Comments

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  1. 12-20-2007

    Very good post, I agree. But I think you should not blame the OT too much, I think it is a mix between misplaced teachings of the OT and the closeness to greek philosophy and roman military and govermental organisation patterns. The seeds are there already in the letter of Clement, but he maintains a NT focus on servanthood and the gifts and participation of every believer. The big difference in theology comes with Ignatius, I think.
    /Jonas Lundström
    http://blog.bahnhof.se/wb938188

  2. 12-20-2007

    Alan,

    I think there is a legitimate use of the OT as a model for us as evidenced in 1 Cor. 10.11: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.”

    However, a proper hermeneutic will lead us to glean the general trans-contextual principles from specific texts and episodes in specific contexts, and then apply those principles to our own context. There are many things about our spiritual context as the NT church, though, that are not a direct continuation of the OT, in my opinion. The book of Hebrews discusses these differences.

    Of course, covenant theology tends to minimize these differences, while dispensational theology tends to maximize them. Though I do not consider myself strictly dispensational in many aspects, I think I am more dispensational than covenantal in this regard.

    Also, my scant knowledge of early church history leads me to believe that certain church leaders looked to OT structures in order to bolster up their power and control in a system that was closely aligned with and legitimized by the secular government.

    There must be some good scholarly studies on this subject. I would be interested to hear about your findings, if you find time to do further research on this.

  3. 12-20-2007

    Alan,

    This post is an clear-cut example of why I was eventually driven toward New Covenant Theology and its understanding that the Law of Christ (i.e., explicit New Covenant commands) is the only thing binding upon a Christian(s).

    The problem with what I like to call the “OT buffet bar approach” for determining what is binding and necessary for the New Covenant believer is this: If you’re going to use this method, how do you know when to stop drawing from the Law of Moses to develop binding law upon Christians?

    The same arguments used from the OT to substantiate the necessity of having church “sanctuaries”, church buildings, “altar calls”, and “tithes” can just as easily be used to justify practicing church-sponsored “Christian” crusades against Muslim invaders, and to justify the practice of executing adulterers and false teachers. As a man who has many friends in the Christian reconstructionist movement and after reading much of their literature, I can tell you that this is what they advocate on the condition that the law of the land condones and practices it. Take this one for example:

    Leviticus 19:19 ‘You are to keep My statutes. You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together.

    If one can conveniently justify having a “tithe” by going to OT Levitical Law why can’t I conveniently (and arbitrarily I might add!) go to the same Law and call farmers to repentance for mating different kinds of animals together (i.e., as in producing a mule), mixing their cabbages and cucumbers together on the same row, or rebuke your granny for wearing a polyester blouse at the church meeting?

    Nevertheless, as brother David Rogers has said, we can indeed learn to avoid the sinful examples of idolatry in the OT and greatly benefit from the OT by reading it through the lens of the greater and fuller revelation of the New Testament.

    If this NT to OT hermeneutic is reversed, it would prove to be disastrous since one would be trading the reality for the shadows, which of course, is the very argument that the book of Hebrews makes for us. :-)

  4. 12-20-2007

    Alan,

    Good thoughts. Surprisingly, I agree with what you have said here.

    I can’t remember if we have ever discussed this before or not. Have you read any of Frank Viola’s books? Specifically, in this context, I’m thinking of “Pagan Christianity”. It’s recently been revised and updated in conjunction with George Barna, and we have ordered the updated copy, but right now we still have the original version.

    At any rate, Viola draws parallels with a lot of our modern practices and secular Greek and Roman influences rather than seeing it as a heavy Old Testament connection.

  5. 12-20-2007

    Alan,
    My understanding is that the examples of the OT concern godly character, not religious practices.

    I am currently reading the revised edition of Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. I’m not sure if I will agree completely with their application, however, I am appreciating the thorough study of the roots of church traditions, which were often taken from the culture in which the early church developed.

    With many of these topics, I don’t have the historical background or the mental capacity to remember the supporting arguments for the things that I believe. It would be nice if there were some commonly accepted reference materials about these topics so that the arguments wouldn’t have to be continually rehashed.

    Possibly even well-documented and researched works will be rejected if their conclusions don’t support established traditions and practices.

  6. 12-20-2007

    Everyone,

    Since everyone touched on this, I need to speak to the influence of Greek philosophy and Roman hiearchiacalism in relation to the OT structures that I mentioned here. I think that the various hierarchies and structures came into the church through the Roman cultural systems. However, Christians then justified these structures by going back to the Old Testament priesthood and temple systems. Today, I think Christians continue to justify many practices from the OT, even though they originally entered the church through the influence of Roman culture.

    Jonas,

    Thank you for the comment. I recently finished a study of Ignatius. He has some great things to say – things that we need to read today. I don’t agree with his position on the biship, presbyters, and deacons, but I agree with him in many other areas.

    David,

    I agree completely! We need to understand and use the OT, just as the NT encourages us. I agree that the Book of Hebrews is very important to help us understand the various shadows found in the OT.

    Dusty,

    Yes, it is interesting how many people pick and choose which items of the law to keep and which to ignore. Of course, they label these laws as moral, ceremonial, and civil, choosing which laws to place in which categories arbitrarily. There is nothing in the text itself to separate these various laws. I prefer to recognize that Jesus has fulfilled all of the law on my behalf. I now live by the “royal law”: Love God and love others.

    Steve,

    You’re surprised that we agree? I’m not sure how to take that…. ;)

    Yes, I’ve read Pagan Christianity, and as I said above, I agree that most of our practices come through Roman culture. They were then justified through the OT. I’m looking forward to reading the updated version of Pagan Christianity.

    -Alan

  7. 12-20-2007

    grace,

    You said: “Possibly even well-documented and researched works will be rejected if their conclusions don’t support established traditions and practices.” I think this is more than a possibility. I have experienced it personally on more than one occasion.

    -Alan

  8. 12-20-2007

    Very good post. I don’t like Nehemiah taught as church building either .. leadership and over-coming diversity, I can handle.

  9. 12-21-2007

    Alan, nicely said. I think Nehemiah would probably wish we wouldn’t use his name the way we do if he were alive today.

  10. 12-21-2007

    Great post. And good discussion happening here as well! I concur – and I am torn. I go back and forth.

    Some days I think, “Ya know, if people want to express ‘ekklesia’ in this way (the mainstream, which relies on OT structures), then they have the freedom to do that. I have the freedom to opt for a different expression of ekklesia – but if that’s the way they want it, fine.”

    And on other days I think, “This (traditional) expression of ekklesia is teaching people something contrary to the gospel of the kingdom. The structure itself “teaches” something to people – dualism, heirarchy, and all kinds of other things that do not reflect kingdom values.”

    Sometimes I just don’t know how to balance these two. Any thoughts?

  11. 12-21-2007

    Jeff,

    So, why do you think so many people use Nehemiah as a model for church building programs?

    Jonathan,

    I’ll ask you the same question as Jeff: Why do so many people use Nehemiah as a model for church building programs?

    Sarah,

    I think it is possible for the people of God to organize themselves in different ways. Different types of organization are fine. However, if that organization does not allow the people to interact with one another as they are instrcuted to an as the Spirit leads them to, then I think the organization needs to be changed.

    -Alan

  12. 12-21-2007

    Alan
    Good post. Being a good friend of David Croteau, I am glad that I discovered your blog.

    I have identified 25 tithing prinmciples from the OT and the church fortunately follows NONE of them. (1) We dont’t give tithes to the deacons and choir members. (2) The covenant with its curses and blessings was never given to or ratifired by the church. (3) We don’t ask pastors to forfeit land inhereitacne rights. (4) The temple has radically changed. (5) The priesthood has radically changed, etc, etc, etc.

    The “pick-and-choose” heremeneutic only creates more denominations. Even Martin Luther (who was not a dispensationalist) rejected everythign Moses said unless it was moral or repeate4d to the church.

    Russell Earl Kelly, PH. D., Author of Should the Church Teach Tithing?

  13. 12-21-2007

    I think the reason is obvious. They can and it works.

  14. 12-21-2007

    Alan, I think it becomes obvious when we look at what purposes the tithing serves. We do use it for salaries and building but we rarely, if ever, use it for feasting and celebrating. I don’t mind using the OT ideas but not as a standard. But at least lets find the heart of what God was drawing his people into.

  15. 12-21-2007

    Alan,

    Great post and great comments, always touching a nerve for me. Grace and Dusman were speaking my own thoughts.

    Many traditions, whether OT or church, are safe ways of doing things. People are able to rely on our “priests/clergy” who stand between us and God. Congregations assume that these leaders are the only ones accountable to God. Leaders can be blamed for wrong teaching and practice. Congregations want the leader to be vicariously responsible towards and for each one who submits to their leadership, ministering on their behalf, telling them what to believe, how to live, etc.

    Leaders accept this,many revel in it, and continue the charade because their egos are massaged by these assumptions.

    Like the OT people of God, many who claim to be NT believers, want a visible/tangible god, not the one who revealed Himself in the incarnation and the Scriptures.

    Congregations NEED leaders who will follow the example of Paul and Barnabus in Acts 14:14-15, “But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out and saying, Men, why are you doing these things? WE ARE ALSO MEN OF THE SAME NATURE AS YOU, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that ius in them.”

    They NEED leaders who will constantly urge them to go to the Scriptures as good Bereans, to see “whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11), and who will love to be challenged to prove their teaching and practice from the Scriptures, not tradition and history, as valuable as they are.

  16. 12-21-2007

    And on other days I think, “This (traditional) expression of ekklesia is teaching people something contrary to the gospel of the kingdom. The structure itself “teaches” something to people – dualism, heirarchy, and all kinds of other things that do not reflect kingdom values.”

    Sarah,

    You are right on with your second paragraph. In a nutshell, the problem with any kind of heirarchicalism is that it runs contrary to the teaching of Jesus, the apostles, and it leads to a direct contradiction of the command found in 1 Cor. 14:37, namely, that church meetings should be structured in such a way so as to allow for *mutual participation* instead of one guy doing most of the work and emceeing the entire thing while the rest of the people get bored and stare at the back of each other’s heads.

    Christians ought to be able to use their gifts freely to share their thoughts, pray, sing, read Scripture, testify as to what God has done in their lives, and teach the Scriptures so as to edify the rest of the body both during and outside the regular, weekly church meeting. One so-called “holy guy” shouldn’t be doing most of the work on Sundays, nor should he be expected to do so any other day of the week for that matter. In the New Covenant, we are all given gifts . . . some are given gifts of teaching, pastoring, evangelism, whereas others have gifts of organization and administration, hospitality, service, etc.

    Everybody should be involved with each other’s lives and ministering daily to each other while the the elders/pastors/overseers pastor and oversee this ministry. When this is done, no programs are needed because everybody is too busy doing the 58 “one-anothers” of Scripture.

    Heirarchicalism (which is really rooted in Roman/Greek culture and justified by modern appeals to the OT) is in direct opposition to NT ministry in the ekklesia. Generally, heirarchicalism produces burned out elder(s) with them and 10-15% of those in any given congregation doing most of the work of the ministry while everybody else warms pews on Sunday and puts in their “God-time.” I have watched this happen to many a church and many a pastor, and I’m tired of it. Something has to change, and it has to change first with the elders/pastors/overseers, for if they don’t model a biblical ecclesiology, then the church will stay the same it always has, stuck in the mire of tradition.

  17. 12-21-2007

    I have to agree with all the other comments about this being a great post. I plan to reproduce a slightly edited version of it on my own blog tomorrow. Good job, Alan!

  18. 12-22-2007

    Russell,

    Welcome to my blog, and thank you for the comment. I’ve enjoyed reading some of the things you’ve said about tithing. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Jonathan,

    When I read the OT passages about tithing, it is interesting to note which tithing propositions people tend to hold to, and which ones they tend to ignore.

    Dusty,

    Good comment!

    Guy,

    I’m looking forward to reading your blog.

    -Alan

  19. 12-22-2007

    Uhhhh…I think you left one out, Alan.

    Person #5: “Christians must faithfully attend the services of the local church.”
    Me: “Do you have chapter and verse for that one? I’m having a difficult time finding NT support.”
    Person #5: “The Old Testament saints went to the temple and good Jews also attended their local synagogue. And don’t forget Hebrews 10:24-25!”
    Me: “But the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t say anything about worship or preaching or singing when we gather with other believers. Just to encourage one another to love and good deeds.”

    Thanks for this excellent post!

    Bill Lollar
    The Thin Edge

  20. 12-23-2007

    Bill,

    Thanks for the addition. Actually, I wonder if “attendance” is something that has been added after the NT was written. I don’t necessarily find it in the OT. Specifically, I find Deut 14:24-26 interesting in respect to this:

    Deuteronomy 14:24-26 24 And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, 25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses 26 and spend the money for whatever you desire- oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.

    Of course, this is rarely taught, especially in regards to tithing (or “strong drink” for that matter).

    -Alan

  21. 12-24-2007

    Alan,

    You wrote, “I recently finished a study of Ignatius. He has some great things to say – things that we need to read today. I don’t agree with his position on the biship, presbyters, and deacons, but I agree with him in many other areas.”

    Are you saying that the Church had screwed up its ecclesiology by 107 AD? If a disciple of the apostle John himself messed it up so badly, is there anybody outside of the NT in the first few hundred years that got it right?

    MB

  22. 12-24-2007

    MamasBoy,

    Welcome to my blog, and thank you for the comment. Ignatius was not the only Christian expressing his view of leadership in 107 AD. Both the Didache and Polycarp wrote at about the same time and expressed different views of leadership in the church. However, Ignatius’ view was the one that was adopted. I wrote about this in a post called “The bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons, oh my“.

    Also, I think that for Ignatius the monoepiscopacy (the one bishop) was a derived structure. Since there was one God and one Lord and one faith and one gospel, there should be one leader. He wanted one leader in order to maintain harmony among the believers. Thus, for Ignatius, the purpose of the one bishop was to maintain unity and protect the one gospel. Of course, later theologians held fast to his teaching about the one bishop while losing his focus on unity and the gospel. Thus, they kept his derivative doctrine while losing his main doctrines. I’ve also written about this in a post called “The Gospel and Monoepiscopacy in Ignatius“.

    So, I do think there were Christians who “got it right”. However, they were not necessarily the ones who were later followed.

    -Alan

  23. 9-27-2011

    You seem to jump quite quickly to throwing out everything in the Old Testament. Surely *everything* in the Old Testament continues have relevance to our faith and how we live it out? Didn’t the New Testament ‘church’ begin as part of mainstream Judaism? The writers were writing and the Christians were living their ideas of how they thought ‘church’ (whatever that is) might work. They tried some stuff that worked. They probably tried some stuff that didn’t work too. But it was something that developed alongside a tradition that included Pharisees, teachers of the law and elders (responsible for religious, political and social leadership).

    But the church, such as it is has also developed throughout history. You can’t ignore 2,000 years of development of the church and say that God hasn’t had a hand in it. The decisions they made and the structures that have evolved and developed have been within the church that I believe God has very much been at work in and through.

    I’m letting my own proclivities out now.
    The Wesleyan quadrilateral uses Scripture, tradition, reason and experience for theological reflection. I think this might shed a bit more light on why I disagree with some of what you say.

    I’m also interested in your thoughts about academics and authors – theologians who make their living as modern day ‘teachers of the law’.

    And then there’s the musicians…
    Interestingly, in the Eastern churches, historically it tended to be the creatives (artists, musicians) who led the theology, rather than the academics and there seems to be a shift towards that in the West with the rise of the superstar worship leader. Music has played a major part in the development of Christianity. In fact, the musicians were one of the first ones in the water when the ark crossed the Jordan so there’s obviously something important about how we worship God through music. Shouldn’t we be willing to invest in that which God sees as important?

    Then what about professionalism in ministry? Many of the God inspired structures that have developed in Christianity need managers and caretakers as much as they need pastors. Is this a different argument?

    Happy to admit that I don’t have all my ideas sorted. Not willing to put a ‘papal infallibility’ seal on my comments – just my tuppence worth.

  24. 9-27-2011

    Mark,

    I’m familiar with Wesley’s Quadrilateral, and I’ve written a series on it. Any of the four sources (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience) can be beneficial or detrimental depending on our subjective understanding.

    I do not assume that God’s decision to use something for his benefit necessarily means that he desires that thing.

    The early disciples of Jesus did come out of Judaism, but they recognized the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant. They recognized that everything in Judaism should not and could not be transferred into a life of following Christ. The early disciples had their temples, priests, etc., but the nature of these things were completely different than their nature under the old covenant.

    There are many things that we can learn from those Christians who went before us. But, that does not mean that we should accept everything that they did or said or believed.

    -Alan

  25. 9-27-2011

    A-MEN x10000!

    I call this Old Testament Churchianity and I run into this all the time. It’s very strange to me that so many Christians try to pull the Old Covenant into the New Covenant, especially when the scriptures are pretty clear that the Old has been fulfilled by Christ and that the New has come. We’re under new terms and conditions now. Why do we go back and try to live under the terms of the Law-based Covenant?

    Another great blog post, my friend.

  26. 10-1-2011

    Thank you!! another great find today!

  27. 10-1-2011

    @Sarah – me too. I often argue with myself for much of my day over various topics.