I’ve enjoyed the parts of I. Howard Marshall’s New Testament Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004) that I’ve had the opportunity to read. Recently, I read his chapter called “The Theology of the Pauline Letters”. This section in particular caught my attention:
From these considerations we can understand the functions that Paul ascribes to the congregation.
First, if the congregation is the place of God’s presence, then God is active in it. Here Paul develops his idea of the spiritual gifts or charismata that are manifested in the congregation through the various activities of the Spirit in different individuals… The purpose of these activities is so that the members of the congregation may work for their common good and thus promote the edification of the church, that is, the maturing of its members in their faith, love and hope. The congregation thus becomes the kind of community that God wishes his people to be, characterized by having the same aims and mutual concern for one another, since they seek to please God and their brothers and sisters rather than selfishly pleasing themselves.
Second, as the place where God is present and active, the congregation acts as a witness to the world of the divine reality (cf. 1 Cor 14:22-25).
Third, the congregation is the place where prayer and praise are made to God. Although these activities are scarcely mentioned in Paul’s descriptions of congregational practices, nevertheless the calls to pray in his letters indicates that this was a significant aspect of the meeting…
Fourth, the congregational meeting was held in a domestic setting in which the sharing of a meal was natural. From 1 Corinthians we learn that the meal was intended to be stamped by the fact that at its heart was a sharing of bread and a cup that symbolized the dying of Christ for his people and his sacrificial inauguration of the new covenant… The sharing together symbolized the fact that all believers belong to the one body and thus was a means of expressing the unity of believers with one another, no matter what their racial and social backgrounds…
In this context it is unnecessary to go into details about the organization of the congregations. We have seen that for Paul the Spirit is active in the different ministries performed by the members and that in principle each and every believer can contribute in this way and indeed is under obligation to exercise the gifts and functions conferred by the Spirit. (456-457)
In this book – and this passage – Marshall’s purpose is to explain what he finds in Scripture. Thus, it is a descriptive task. He is describing the church as he finds it in Scripture, not as he finds it today, nor as he thinks is practical, nor as he believes it should look in today’s cultures.
If I look at Marshall’s four-fold descriptions of congregations in the New Testament, I see only one of those (#3 – prayer and praise) consistently practiced by churches today. The other 3 are primarily assigned to the religious professionals hired by churches and not considered to be the “obligation” of “each and every believer”.
Furthermore, while examining Paul’s descriptions, Marshall says that Paul finds it unnecessary to go into details about organization. Yet, it seems that today churches spend much of their time, energy, and resources on organization.
Regardless of what we think the church should look like today or how we think the church should act or function today, I think its clear from Marshall’s descriptions that we’ve strayed far from how the church looked and functioned in the New Testament. We all have to decide for ourselves if this is a good thing or a bad thing.