I’m currently working on the chapter in my dissertation concerning the “History of Interpretation.” Since the focus of my dissertation is “the purpose of the gathering of the church,” this chapter will examine why the church gathered through various eras of history beginning in the second century through modern times. (Other chapters will cover the first century gatherings as described in the New Testament.)
As you can probably imagine, there is no homogeneous answer to the question: “Why should believers gather together?” Even within a given era, there are many different reasons given. And, all of the reasons must be considered within their theological, historical, and cultural context.
Another New Testament student recently said this when first reading about church history (see my post “There is no golden age of Christianity“):
First, There is no golden age of Christianity. Each age holds its own flaws, and each leader his or her own failings. The patriarchs, the Roman Catholics, the reformers, the emperors, even the apostles struggled in their understanding of God, and how we relate to Him. As a Christian growing up in the evangelical tradition, I have heard a great deal of praise attributed to the apostles and reformers contrasted by sharp criticism, if not hatred, for all things Roman Catholic. While I am a protestant, reading this text has opened my eyes up to an important truth. The Gospel did not pass away between the fourth and sixteenth centuries only to be resurrected by the Reformation. The name of Christ remained a focal point for a millenium in the midst of plagues, persecutions, and political strife, and the Catholic practice of monasticism preserved all of the ancient writings, including the Scriptures, that brought the reformers to their powerful conclusions. There may have been many distorted and overlooked truths, but there were men who stood firm in their trust of Christ and worshipped Him in the way their culture taught them was appropriate.
As an example, consider church gatherings during the Reformation – a period mentioned by the student in the quote above. When Luther and the other “Magisterial Reformers” first began to rethink the church, they started with the idea that the church should be simpler and flatter – i.e., no hierarchy.
For example, Owen Chadwick writes in The Early Reformation on the Continent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001):
Everyone [among the Magisterial Reformers] agreed that services in church should be simpler, with less elaborate ritual; that they should be in the language which the people understood; and that they should contain nothing which was contrary to Scripture or could not be justified from Scripture…
It was also agreed that the congregation should be a people that took part with the clergy and did not sit or stand silent while the clergy read the service or the choir sang. How this could be done was harder. (pg 181)
But, something happened to change their mind. Within a few years, they had reverted to a new type of hierarchy and a new type of clericalism (although different from the hierarchy and clericalism of the medieval Roman Church).
John Howard Yoder once wrote this concerning this change in the thinking and practice of the Magisterial Reformers (“The Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists,” MQR 41 (1967): 291-308):
[The Magisterial Reformers] abandoned their initial vision of the [Reformed] visible church, the hermeneutic community, and were obliged to shift the locus of infallibility to the inspired text and the technically qualified theological expert.
Meanwhile, many of the 16th century Anabaptists maintained the idea of a simple and participatory church, with the two groups battling each other over their differences.
But, thinking back about the Magisterial Reformers and their change of heart concerning the simplicity of the church and the participation of all involved in teaching and discipling the community…
Why do you think they changed their mind about the church? Can you think of any good intentions or motives that may have led to this change? (By the way, one of the authors that I quoted in this post suggested a “good intention” that led to a more hierarchical, clerical church.)