Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dialogue About Identifying the True Ecclesia

I've changed my dialogue partner's name to protect his identity.

For one, I do not define the word "Church" (EKKLHSIA) in the same way that you do. The Church is not an institution as understood by the RCC and I have never said that I believe it is.

Then you’ll have to specify what you mean by “church.” Also: (a) Was the early EKKLHSIA an institution in *any* manner at all? Was it organized? Was it visible? What criteria characterize an institution? (b) What, then, did Jesus mean when He said that He was building His EKKLHSIA upon Peter (cf. Matthew 16:18-19)? What type church, exactly, did He build? Which is more reasonable and makes more sense to say—that Jesus established an invisible communion of believers upon Peter or that a visible institution was founded upon Peter?

(1) I define the word "church" (EKKLHSIA) in the same way (MUTATIS MUTANDIS) that Ralph Earle does: "the whole Body of Believers (the Church of Jesus Christ) and . . . local congregations--but never for a building, as today"(Earle 16).

Louw-Nida has this: "EKKLHSIA, AS [feminine]: the totality of congregations of Christians-'church' (Semantic Domain 11.33).

In contrast to the RCC, I think the Church is primarily made up of Jesus' anointed followers (those Christians who have the hope of subsisting immortally and incorruptibly in the heavens) and secondarily is composed of Christians with the hope of living forever on a paradise earth (Heb. 2:5). At any rate, the Church is never tied to the Bishop (in the NT) and it is never expressly linked to the Pope. That is where we differ, [sir].

(2) In his work "An Outline of the Theology of the New Testament" theologian Hans Conzelmann has a section entitled "The Church As An Institution." On page 303, he makes the following observation: "Paul knows no fixed organization. True, there are particular activities and positions (Phil. 1:1; 1 Cor. 12:28), but there is no hierarchy. There is a church order, but it does not in itself represent the nature of the church."

Therein lies my objection to the term "institution." I am not against defining Christianity in terms of community and even in terms of an organizational structure. Where I part ways with you is when it comes to construing the Church in hierarchical terms. In the first century there were no "bishops." The word itself is an anachronism superimposed on the biblical Greek text. It is manifestly clear that the first century Church did not have a system of bishops, priests, and deacons. As Elaine Pagels ("The Gnostic Gospels") points out--these developments were a result of second century Church politics.

(3) Jesus did not build his Church on Peter. You cannot conclusively demonstrate this assertion to be true. In BAGD, we read that PETRA either refers to "the apostle so named, or [to] the affirmation he has just made" (BAGD 1b). In context, I would choose the latter. Or to be more precise I would view the rock-mass as Christ himself. Certainly Peter seems to have thought that Christ and not he (Peter) was the foundation upon which the Christian EKKLHSIA was built. In 1 Pet. 2:6-8, Peter wrote in part: IDOU TIQHMI EN SION LIQON EKLEKTON AKROGWNIAION ENTIMON . . . KAI LIQOS PROSKOMMATOS KAI PETRA SKANDOLOU.

Okay, so how was it that at any point in the history someone could readily and accurately identify those “true believers”? If true believers always existed, how could a person living in the 4th, 7th, 9th, 11th, and 15th centuries *properly* identify those true believers? After all, the WTS itself says that one criterion for salvation is identifying Jehovah’s organization and serving him as part of it. If Jesus’ Church were not a visible organization (i.e., an institution), then how was this identification made throughout history? Or did God leave a critical component of our salvation to mere happenstance or guesswork?

The statement that you quote from the WTS must be viewed in its proper context. In the United in Worship (WTBTS) book, we are plainly told that Jesus originally planted "wheat" but the Devil scattered "weeds" in the same "field" that Jesus has sown "wheat." The "slaves of the householder" asked their Master whether he wanted them to collect the "tares" out from among the wheat. The Master (Jesus Christ) answered "no" because he did not want the wheat to be simultaneously pulled up with the weeds (indicating that true Christians would be hard to identify for a period of time).

The information that you cite from the WTS must be construed with the previously mentioned information in mind. While it is true that today one needs to identify God's organization in order to obtain salvation--such was not the case during the time periods you speak about. That is, there was a time when it was very hard to differentiate between false and genuine Christians. According to Scripture, God allowed this situation to obtain until the last days. In the harvest, Jesus foretold, there would be a separation work taking place. Until the weeding out occurred-true worshipers were dispersed and eternal salvation was not based one's religious group.

Also, if true believers always existed, there must be some way to trace their *visible* existence through history; otherwise we’re left with saying that true believers exist, but we have no way of knowing who they are—and therefore we have no way of being able to identify Christ’s Church (and proper doctrine) and consequently we cannot serve Jehovah as part of it.

I've answered your concern about not being a part of God's organization above. But please note that I am not saying we could not know who was and who was not practicing true Christianity. I hesitate to pass value judgments because I am not God (James 4:11, 12). Yet if Christians were living their lives in harmony with the Bible and imitating the first century apostles (even imperfectly)--I would say that we could safely conclude such individuals were truly "Christians" in God's eyes (2 Tim. 2:19). One member of the Greek Orthodox Church that I have long admired is Cyril Lucaris (17th century) whom the WT recently wrote about. This man was by no means perfect and he admittedly held what I would term "erroneous beliefs." But his views on Scripture and justification are quite impressive and he may well have been one of those whom Jehovah recognized as "wheat."


The Apologetic Front said...


While I understand where you are coming from in stating this, could you please cite any Scriptural support for this statement:

"While it is true that today one needs to identify God's organization in order to obtain salvation--such was not the case during the time periods you speak about."

I find it difficult to biblically establish a different plan of salvation depending on which era of time one lives in during the post-apostolic age.

Edgar Foster said...

Dear Apologetic Front,

You pose a good question. But my remarks must be viewed in their proper context. Jehovah's Witnesses take the position that those who seek to worship Jehovah must (generally speaking) serve God with his people. Examples like the ark of Noah's day, the nation of Israel or the Primitive ecclesia are given in the literature. However, there was once a time when truth was evidently obscured. We believe this development was foretold in the illustration given at Matthew 13 about the wheat and the tares (weeds). From the second century CE until the restoration of true worship in the 19th century, it was apparently difficult to identify members of God's wheat class. But that didn't mean there were no visible members of God's ecclesia on earth. I've often wondered about Cyril Lucaris and the WT literature has mentioned Wycliffe and Tyndale as possible wheat among the weeds.

Lastly, I have a problem with the expression "plan of salvation." We choose to use the more biblically grounded terminology "purpose" instead.

aservantofJehovah said...

Acts17:30NIV"In the PAST God overlooked such ignorance,but NOW he commands all people everywhere to repent"