Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

This is the third post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

Most evangelical Christians aren’t that familiar with early church writers and teachers, and that’s unfortunate (for many reasons). Because of our lack of historical awareness, we tend to assume the early Christians worshiped pretty much the same way we do every Sunday, and that they believed all the same things we do. When we’re thinking of hell, for instance, even many pastors assume that the vast majority of early church pastors and leaders believed in eternal conscious torment as do the majority of evangelicals today. Is this true?

If pressed, some of us may have some vague recollection that the early Christian scholar Origen held to some form of universalism. And we might even be aware that annihilationists or conditionalists claim Irenaeus as an early proponent of their view. But we would usually consider these people to be outliers in the early history of the church, brilliant theologians who may have been a bit eccentric in some of their beliefs, but overall were exceptions that prove the rule in an otherwise consistently held—and familiar—view of hell. But is this actually the case? It might be good to make sure the early consensus to which we refer did, in fact, exist.

The desire by many to go back and see what these early Christians actually wrote about their beliefs regarding hell has proved a challenge to this common assumption. It’s not that this has never been done before, but there is definitely a renewed—and growing—interest in understanding with greater clarity who believed what about final judgment. Ilaria Ramelli is a respected scholar of historical theology (among other things). In 2013, she published the results of 16 years of painstaking research of early Christian views concerning universal salvation and restoration (apokatastasis in the Greek). [She later published a more affordable, more accessible book covering much of the same material: A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).] 

Ramelli’s work was widely hailed not only for its impressive span and depth, but also for the great care she took in evaluating these ancient authors’ statements in the context of their larger bodies of work, in light of Scripture, and in their historical contexts. Many of her fellow scholars now view her book as a new benchmark on the subject of universal salvation in the early church. (She handily dispatched the challenges of one scholar who attempted an extensive critique of her work, showing his conclusions to be unsupported by the actual historical data.) Ramelli corrected the overreach of some earlier universalists who had tried to show universalism to have been the standard view in the early church. But she also surprised almost everyone by documenting just how extensive belief in universal salvation actually was. Christian universalism was not merely the extreme minority view of one or two isolated thinkers; it was widely held, and taught by many of the people we consider to be great heroes of the early Christian faith.

Origen was by no means the first Christian universalist. Before him were Bardaisan of Edessa and Clement of Alexandria. (There are also indications of belief in universal salvation in Christian writings preceding these teachers. We don’t know the view of many early church leaders because they either didn’t address the issue or didn’t make clear their view.) We shouldn’t move too quickly past Origen himself, though. Possessing an imposing intellect, he’s the only Christian thinker in the first centuries who produced more writing on theology and biblical exposition than did Augustine.

It would take far too long to go through all of the early Christian leaders who believed in universal salvation, but we should comment on a few highly significant examples. Some may be aware that Gregory of Nyssa firmly held a belief in universal salvation and restoration. This is clear in his writings and has been well-documented. Again, this is worth noting because Gregory of Nyssa was one of the most respected theologians of the 4th century, one of the famous “Cappadocian fathers” [the early church leaders are often referred to as the “church fathers”], and honored by the Second Council of Nicea as “father of fathers.” Gregory’s views on universal salvation were well-known, running through virtually all of his writings, and apparently did nothing to hamper the respect or acclaim he garnered. 

Ramelli shows that, while not as clear or outspoken as Gregory of Nyssa, we should include the other Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory Nazianzen, as revered theologians in the early church who evidenced belief in universal salvation. We even see good reason to include the great champion of the Trinity Athanasius among the universalists! Even Augustine believed in universal salvation until later in life (as was also true of Jerome), and he later commented on how prevalent the belief still was at that time. This is just a sampling of a much longer list of prominent Christian theologians in the first 500 years of the history of the church whose theological work incorporated belief in universal reconciliation and restoration.

It’s telling that none of the early creeds include anything at all concerning eternal damnation in hell. And, until the time of Augustine, the fact that Christian leaders and theologians held differing views regarding hell didn’t seem to them cause for debate. Even Augustine didn’t condemn those who disagreed with the view of hell he had come to adopt (eternal conscious torment). We should also note the large number of early church leaders and thinkers who spoke and wrote in Greek who believed in and taught universalism, and the fact that those who advocated for eternal conscious torment tended to be those who spoke and wrote in Latin. This is important because the meaning of the Greek in Scripture became one of the distinguishing points between the views, and the understanding of the early Greek-speaking scholars would have carried much more weight than those who weren’t as conversant in Greek. We’ll look at this in much greater depth in the next post.

So does any of this tell us which view is right and which is wrong? No, it doesn’t. We still have a lot of examining to do linguistically, exegetically and theologically. But looking at this background does keep us from falsely claiming any one view as the overwhelmingly dominant view in the early church. Some overeager proponents of universalism have tried to make it the virtually universal view of early Christians. There’s simply not enough evidence to back up this claim. But we have even less to suggest that eternal conscious torment was the predominant view in the early church, especially among the Greek-speaking believers. However we may debate the specific view of any particular scholar of the early church (and these debates will continue), it seems incontrovertible that the early church of the first five centuries included varying understandings of hell and final judgment. This means we can’t just assume one view as the Christian view, and it makes our continuing study even more necessary if we want to understand what the Bible actually teaches us about hell.

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

We recently posted the article below on our church website.

There’s an old saying that the church should be “reformed and always reforming.” This means that we’re “reformed” in the sense of holding to the authority of God’s Word above all else, and we’re “always reforming” by not assuming any doctrine is true simply because it’s traditional for us. Instead, we seek to be good Bereans (Acts 17:11) by searching the Scriptures to see what’s true. We want to be so committed to biblical truth that we’re willing to reexamine any particular teaching in light of Scripture to make sure it really is biblical.

The right for each believer to scripturally examine teachings and to determine for themselves the biblical soundness of any view is a sacred one given to us by God. Because of this, we strive to protect the freedom of people in our church—as much as possible—to hold sometimes differing views. Of course, we must be united in our commitment to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ for us to be a Jesus-following church. And there are certain issues about which we have to be reasonably on the same page to be able to function as a cohesive church (for example, issues such as speaking in tongues or baptizing infants). But we try hard to not unnecessarily encroach on the freedom and conscience of each Christian.

The Orchard is part of an association of churches, the Evangelical Free Church of America, that’s committed to a similar approach. Because the EFCA is not an individual church, but an association of churches, we can actually be less dogmatic about these kinds of issues at the association level than individual churches can. So, for instance, the EFCA doesn’t have an official position on such issues as predestination, the security of the believer, spiritual gifts, baptism, the timing of the rapture, the age of the universe, etc. We leave these issues up to each church in the association to work out for themselves. This “majoring in the majors instead of the minors” has long been part of the heritage of the Evangelical Free Churches. Early in our history, this was referred to as the “significance of silence.” The idea is that, as an association, we remain “silent” about these kinds of secondary issues in the sense of refraining from make any official, denominational pronouncements (but we continue to study and discuss together any issues concerning Scripture, theology and the life of the church).

Some beliefs can become so traditional that Christians end up unaware there even are other viewpoints. When Martin Luther and other reformers began challenging certain traditional beliefs, these beliefs had been the accepted teaching of the church for over 1,000 years. Most Christians at that time weren’t even aware there could be a biblical alternative. It’s not quite as dramatic, but many of us can remember when most of the people in our churches weren’t aware there’s any biblically viable view of the rapture other than the belief it would happen before the tribulation, seven years prior to the return of Christ. [I’ve written a series of blog posts on this topic beginning here.] This was true in the EFCA, as well. In the early 1980s, the churches in the EFCA had to reexamine the issue of the rapture and decide whether we would allow Christians and churches in the denomination to hold differing views. (At that time, we didn’t allow any other view except the pretrib or “Left Behind” view.) Ultimately we decided we would allow people to hold differing views, and now a large number of people, including pastors and leaders, in our association hold views on the rapture of the church that differ from the “traditional” view of a pretrib rapture.

Another belief about which Christians have historically held differing views is the nature of hell. This is another issue where many of us are surprised to learn that other biblical views even exist! Even for pastors, it can be illuminating to learn that 1st century Jews (during Jesus’ life on earth) didn’t hold just one default view on the nature of hell, but had multiple, differing views. We can also be surprised to learn that for the first 600 years of the history of the church, pastors and leaders held differing views regarding hell, that this wasn’t a point of great debate or controversy, and that it’s very unlikely that our traditional understanding of hell was the dominant view during this time. Throughout the history of the church there have been leaders and groups of Christians who held different views than the current traditional view. And now the question of the nature of hell has again become a topic of discussion the last two decades, and increasingly so the last few years. Just what are these differing views that believing Christians have held over the centuries? Here’s a very brief description of each view:

Eternal Conscious Torment (or Punishment)
This is the belief that’s probably most familiar to all of us. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for eternity without hope of any release or end to their torment.

Annihilationism (or Conditionalism)
This is the belief that when the Bible describes the wages of our sin as “death,” it means death in the sense of actually ceasing to exist. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for a certain amount of time but will be ultimately consumed, they will finally die and will cease to exist.

Universal Reconciliation and Restoration
This is the belief that God not only loves each person and desires that each person be saved, but that he will ultimately accomplish his desire by bringing each individual person to salvation through faith in Christ, completely triumphing over hell and death. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will experience the judgment of hell, but that hell is both loving and redemptive, that it accomplishes God’s purpose of bringing even the most recalcitrant sinner to the point of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and thus God will completely restore his creation.

Two of these views may be completely new to many, and even sound very strange. Notice that each view includes the reality of hell and judgment. Each view also insists on faith in Jesus Christ as absolutely essential for salvation. None of the views contradict any core, essential teaching of historical, biblical Christianity, and proponents of each view build their case drawing directly from Scripture. Where they differ is in how they understand, in light of Scripture, the purpose and final outcome of hell. As we previously noted, leading Christian pastors and leaders of the first 600 years of the church held these differing views on this issue without any major controversy. The early creeds produced by the church didn’t address the nature of hell at all. Throughout church history there have been pastors and teachers who held these views concerning hell. And there are solid, reputable evangelical pastors and scholars today who hold these same views. After much prayer and multiple studies and discussions, our church has decided that—while we may not all completely agree regarding this issue—all of our people, including our pastors and leaders, should have the freedom to hold these differing views on the nature of hell.

We acknowledge that the Statement of Faith of the EFCA explicitly pronounces a belief that God will assign unbelievers to “eternal conscious punishment.” While we don’t repudiate or exclude this belief from The Orchard, we do not exclusively hold to this interpretation of the scriptural passages regarding judgment and hell. Many of the people in our church, including pastors and leaders, have different understandings of this biblical issue. Our pastors and teachers are free to teach from Scripture other interpretations regarding hell, being careful to distinguish their personal views from the official position of the EFCA. 

As always, we pray that the way we address this issue would result in God being glorified, that the church would be edified and strengthened, and that we would be faithful witnesses of God’s truth and love to the world around us.

I plan to write more on this subject, but if you’d like to check out books that compare these differing views on hell, you could begin here:

All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin by Steve Gregg

Four Views on Hell, second edition by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

Perspectives on Election: 5 Views by Chad Owen Brand, Jack Cottrell, Clark Pinnock, Robert Reymond, Thomas Talbott, and Bruce Ware

Interactive teaching, part 2: Why teach interactively?

In the last post, we saw that Scripture doesn’t call pastors to preach, in the familiar sense of delivering sermons, but there is a repeated call for pastors to teach the church. I noted that—contrasted with preaching—teaching has different priorities, a different focus, and different expectations. So we should want to see this kind of teaching modeled for us in the Bible, right? How did Jesus and Paul teach? What can we learn from their examples?

I want to focus on a characteristic of their teaching that isn’t discussed very often. If we read the text carefully, we begin to see references to the interactive nature of both Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching. We know from historical studies that the format in the synagogues of the first century was interactive. They even arranged their seating in the round to facilitate this interaction. We see evidence of this interaction in the synagogues in such passages as Mark 3:1-5; John 6:25-59; Acts 17:1-4; 17:17; 18:4-6; 18:19; 18:28; 19:8-9. Read through the Gospels and see how many times Jesus asked questions and answered questions—often answering questions with questions! And we see him doing this in one-on-one conversation, in small groups and in large group settings. He did most of the talking, to be sure; these weren’t large group chats, but they were interactive.

Notice in the passages above how often it says that Paul reasoned with the people in the synagogues. The Greek word used here is dialegomai. From this word we get our English word “dialogue,” and it had the same kind of meaning in the first century. It meant “to discuss,” so what we see happening in the synagogues in these passages was very interactive.

We see Paul teaching interactively in the church, as well, in Acts 20:7-12. We often joke about this being the favorite verse of long-winded preachers because it shows Paul preaching all night long! The problem is this isn’t quite accurate. The same Greek word is used here as above, plus another one with a similar meaning. What Paul was doing wasn’t preaching to the people, he was dialoguing with the people. He didn’t preach all night long, but he did talk with the people all night long.

So what happened to this interactive style of teaching? How did monologic preaching become the norm? Over time, leaders in the church began adopting more of a Greco-Roman emphasis on eloquent rhetoric. This became even more widespread after Christianity was legalized and “the Church” even became seemingly predominate. Huge numbers of people joined the Church (without necessarily becoming truly Christian), churches began building large cathedrals, the bishop had already become the preeminent person in church life, and now eloquent sermons with all the desired rhetorical flourishes took the place of simple, interactive teaching. The Reformed churches, with their intellectual strengths, retained and even intensified this focus on monologic preaching, viewing it as virtually indistinguishable from the proclamation of the gospel and the teaching of the Word. Over the centuries, some groups followed a more interactive teaching model, and there’s been renewed interest in interactive teaching the past few decades.

But why teach interactively? What are some of the benefits of interactive teaching? Here are a few:

It’s a much more effective way of learning.
Studies have consistently shown that the more we’re actively involved in the learning process (rather than just passively listening), the more we retain and apply what we’ve learned. First, people remain engaged at a much higher level when they realize people can ask questions, and that the teacher may ask the people questions—and expect an answer! It avoids the problem of people not understanding something, being frustrated at not being able to clarify what’s confusing them, and then zoning out because they’re lost in the sermon and no longer able to follow. And the truth of Scripture just has greater weight to a person when they’re part of the discovery process. Rather than telling everyone, “. . . and this verse shows again that Jesus is God,” it makes much more of a lasting impact for someone to respond to a question from the teacher with, “Wow, this is saying that Jesus is God!” Rather than truth being something they’re told, they’re now apprehending the truth in a deeply personal way. They now own it, and are responsible for doing something with it.

A monologue is just about the least effective way to teach anyone anything, but strangely it’s the most common model we find in the church. The more people actively participate in the learning process, the more they truly learn, the more they retain, and the more they apply what they’ve learned in their lives.

Interactive teaching also keeps the focus rightly on the text of Scripture.
This is true even in the preparation process. Rather than putting a great deal of time and effort into crafting a beautiful speech, I need to understand as thoroughly as possible the whole passage we’re studying because I can get questions on anything in the passage. Rather than being immersed in my message, I have to be immersed in the text itself. Secondly, the focus during the study time is not on my rhetorical skills, on how funny or moving I am, but on how clearly they understand the Scriptures. This way of teaching helps the teacher become more invisible and draws the people’s attention to the scriptural text, the Word of God.

This form of teaching can also inspire people to study the Scriptures on their own.
Rather than saying to themselves, “I don’t know how he got those points from this passage, but that’s beautiful,” it can cause people to say, “Oh, wow, I’m seeing where the text is making this point! I’m following the flow of this, and actually understanding it! This is great!” To borrow from the old saying, instead of giving them fish, this helps them learn how to fish for themselves. [Side note: using a translation in our teaching that the people can actually understand—without the need for the teacher to translate the translation(!)—helps greatly with this also. It’s wonderful to hear people tell me they’re understanding what they read in Scripture on their own for the first time.]

This kind of teaching also encourages more people to become teachers.
The unpleasant truth is that there are just not that many truly great preachers. Many churches endure preaching every week that is painfully subpar. This reality is even more evident today when we can watch the best preachers online anytime we like. And the pressure is real and somewhat understandable; after all, if you’re doing all the talking, you should be really good at it! But the encouraging thing is that there are a whole lot more people who can be effective teachers than can be excellent preachers! And seeing excellent teaching will often excite them that they can do this, too, instead of concluding that they could never do what the preacher does.

This way of studying the Scriptures seems much more authentic to a lot of people.
To many—especially those without a church background—a typical church sermon can feel canned and artificial. At best, it’s still a presentation, and they already get bombarded by too many presentations. But if people are studying the Scriptures and allowing people to ask any questions or make any challenges they want about the text in question—that feels real. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me something like, “Wow, you really take the Bible seriously. You’re okay with us checking everything out and asking you hard questions.”

For the reasons above (and I’m sure there are more I could have included), this kind of teaching can be a more effective component of making genuine disciples of Jesus Christ. But do we really want active participants . . . or do we actually prefer a passive audience? Do I want them to be moved by my message, or by the Scriptures themselves? Is it more important to me that they appreciate my opening and my closing, that they laugh and cry and are appropriately moved in the right places? Or is it more important that they’re actually learning and understanding more of the Word of God? Do I want them leaving being impressed with my preaching or excited / challenged / motivated by the truth of God we’ve studied together in Scripture? Please understand, I’m not at all suggesting that those who preach traditional sermons have wrong motives! I’m saying that interactive teaching is much more conducive to right motives. It helps get the focus off of us, and it becomes all about assisting the people of God to better understand and live out the Word of God.

So why wouldn’t we teach interactively? In the next post, we’ll look at some of the challenges of interactive teaching.

If you’re thinking of benefits of interactive teaching I didn’t include, please add a comment below and share them with us!

Can churches be too big?

architecture-building-chapel-532720Let’s begin with an obvious caveat: the size of a church doesn’t guarantee a church’s health. There are healthy large churches and unhealthy large churches, and there are healthy small churches and unhealthy small churches. Scripture doesn’t dictate a specific size for local churches. This isn’t an issue of obedience to an explicit biblical command, but instead one of seeking wisdom in how to best live out the purposes and intended life of the church. With that said, can the size of a church adversely affect its health? Is there an optimal size for churches? And, if so, why?

When we consider almost 2,000 years of church history, extremely large churches are a new phenomenon. There have been large churches before, of course (such as Metropolitan Tabernacle in London), but these have been noteworthy because they were so unusual, obvious exceptions to the rule. Throughout most of church history, a church of 300-400 people would have been considered a large church. It’s only been since the 1980s that we’ve seen the proliferation of what we now call megachurches. But, surprising to some, megachurches are still the exception to the rule today. One recent report found that 95 percent of churches surveyed have weekly attendances under 350, and 88 percent have attendances under 200. This compares well with other surveys of church sizes. In contrast, less than 1 percent of churches would be classified as megachurches (having at least 2,000 people in weekly attendance).

In his book The Strategically Small Church, Brandon O’Brien asks why the experience of less than one percent of churches has somehow become the standard by which we evaluate the other 99+ percent of all churches and pastors? Pastor and writer Karl Vaters notes that speakers at church conferences are almost always from very large churches, and he questions just how encouraging and helpful this is to virtually all the pastors attending these conferences, most of whom pastor churches with attendances under 200. We saw in the previous post that the early churches were gatherings of 60-150 people. Throughout history the vast majority of churches were less than 200 people, and still are today. What if it’s so rare to “break the 200 barrier” because the church wasn’t really designed to be any larger? What if the reason churches stubbornly resist growing beyond 200 people is that it’s somehow hardwired into the church’s DNA not to? What if extremely large churches are actually the abnormality? As Karl Vaters asks in his book Small Church Essentials, “What if by trying to fix a problem that isn’t a problem, we’re actually working against a strategy that God wants us to enact?”

O’Brien challenges us: “Until we stop measuring our success in terms of numerical size and growth, we may be unable to accurately analyze the faithfulness of our ministry.” And this gets to the deeper issue. What is healthiest for the church? When are we most faithfully being the church God intends us to be? Certainly, we want to continually see people coming to faith in Christ. The church should be ever growing, but this doesn’t mean every local congregation should just continue to grow larger and larger. Vaters helpfully notes that there’s no biblical mandate for churches to grow larger. We don’t see any place in Scripture where Jesus or his apostles told a local church they needed to get bigger.

But is there anything inherently unhealthy about a church growing too large? Now, let me hasten to say again that many very large churches are good, healthy churches. Please don’t write in the comment section about huge churches you’ve been a part of that were wonderful and healthy. I know these exist because I’ve been a part of some, too! I was trained for pastoral ministry in a very large church (around 1,600 in weekly attendance), and I’ve served in leadership in very large churches. And many small churches are unhealthy. This is not an invitation for small churches to dismiss their own dysfunction by condemning large churches. The question isn’t whether a very large church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very large churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church.

audience-backlit-band-154147Are there unique problems for large churches? Yes, there are. Some may not be insurmountable, but they’re perpetual. The more dramatic a church’s growth, the more this growth becomes part of the church’s identity, how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves. There will be a natural tendency to begin advancing and promoting the perceived success and image of the church, rather than the mission of Christ. The more the focus is on one key pastor, preaching weekly to thousands of people—especially if his preaching is also streamed to other sites—the more the pastor gains celebrity status, whether wanted or not. It’s difficult to resist taking advantage of this name recognition to draw even more people to the church, thus making the pastor even more of a celebrity and making the church seem even more successful. The more power, acclaim, money and influence a church and its leaders have, the more the danger these things will be abused. This abuse isn’t inevitable, but it’s a very real threat that puts the church constantly in peril.

Some problems are unavoidable for really large churches. Even if you resist making your pastor into a regional or national celebrity, there is no way that regularly preaching to huge crowds of people (and maybe having your face projected onto 20 ft screens) won’t cause people to see you differently. Some friends of mine became part of a newly planted church many years ago. The church was still fairly small, and they became good friends with the pastor. A few years later, the church had grown extremely large. Whenever they would speak with the pastor, others would ask with an awed voice, “Wow, you know ______________?” Seeing the pastor as some kind of rock star—even if only within the context of that one congregation—is almost impossible to avoid when a church gets very large. It’s a radically different perception when everyone in the church knows their pastors personally. That removes the mystique and allows for more genuine ministry to occur.

The biblical picture of the church seems to be one where the people know each other and they personally know their pastoral leaders. They not only participate in the life of the church, they participate to some extent in the weekly church meeting. We’re called to encourage one another, exhort one another and to use our spiritual gifts to build up one another. In Scripture, the teaching we see happening in the church gathering is interactive, with the people responding and asking questions. A church can grow to the point where this kind of life is stunted and obstructed. Instead the congregation becomes a passive audience. Vaters makes a telling observation: “. . . if I walk into a large church, I know what’s expected of me; I will be an audience. Aside from singing along (if I know the songs), I will be a watcher and listener, not an active participant . . .” Many do become involved in ministries in really big churches, but this isn’t the reality for most. The vast majority of people attending megachurches attend once a week (at most) and have little interaction with anyone there. They come in, sit, enjoy the service, then get up and leave. They are a passive audience. If they stop attending, few if any will notice. This doesn’t fit well with the biblical descriptions of the church gathering together.

In the book Jim and Casper Go to Church, atheist Matt Casper questions evangelical pastor Jim Henderson about the way many Christians do church:

Think about it: How do schools sell themselves? By class size. The lower the student/teacher ratio is, the smaller the class size, the better the education. It’s because you get more interaction with “the expert,” and more interaction with your classmates.

Why do churches seem to do just the opposite? Why is a church deemed successful by its size rather than its ability to truly teach its people?

I think these are incredibly perceptive questions. Casper asks in another chapter: “Maybe if the church weren’t so huge, there’d be a better chance to really connect with people. Is this what it’s all about, Jim? Is contemporary Christianity driven by the ‘bigger is better’ maxim?”

Many of us know all too well that the larger the audience, the more we have to make sure the service flows smoothly and professionally. The energy on Sunday morning becomes focused all on “the show.” It even feels like going to a show. [I first heard this comparison from Dan Kimball.] If the operation is a professional one, then parking will be fairly easy. I’ll follow the crowd into the theater where someone will give me a program and show me where to sit. I may say a casual hello to a person or two as I move past to take my seat, but then I just look around and wait for the show to start. Then the lights dim, the professionals come out on the stage, and the show begins. If it’s a good one, I may laugh and cry and be moved. But then the people leave the stage, the house lights come on, and I get up and leave. It’s not that I don’t get anything of benefit. But I’m a passive observer. I’m part of the “audience.” I’m anonymous. I may even prefer it that way. But it’s not the church gathering that the New Testament describes, and it’s not accomplishing a lot of what the church gathering is supposed to be accomplishing.

It’s interesting that many megachurches are now trying to utilize smaller venues. This is often motivated by logistical issues. Communities are now much less accepting of massive church campuses. Neighbors are more likely to protest and resist church expansion. So, many churches are moving to multiple, smaller locations. (And I haven’t even begun to address the problem of pastoral burnout and the many who are under so much stress they’re ready to chuck it all and walk away.)

nicole-honeywill-dGxOgeXAXm8-unsplashThis helps us answer the question: “What’s the alternative?” It’s actually not that complicated. Instead of hoarding so much of our resources to build one massive empire, why don’t we become a resource? Instead of driving ourselves to build a church of 4,000, why don’t we release others to plant 20 churches of 200 (churches that can be much better connected to and serve a specific neighborhood, and that can provide an environment for spiritual life and ministry that is much more organic and authentic)? Why don’t we decentralize our leadership and have churches that are pastored and taught by teams of pastors (as modeled in Scripture) instead of one over-utilized rock-star pastor? Why not have churches small enough that the people can know their pastors, be discipled by them personally and be able to observe up close their examples of living faithful Christian lives? Maybe we shouldn’t just assume that bigger is better (no matter how much we may personally enjoy it), but take some time to prayerfully consider: “What will make us most effective at being the kind of church the Scriptures describe?”

Some have unfairly condemned everything about megachurches. That’s unfortunate. There are many people serving in large churches seeking to be as faithful as they can be to the ministries God has called them to, and people are being loved and reached and blessed. We need to acknowledge that. Because of this overly harsh criticism, when others present careful, balanced critiques of large churches, they still feel the need to add a disclaimer: ‘. . . not that there’s anything wrong with being a megachurch!’ I think this goes too far the other way. We need to honor each other and the ministry taking place, while still challenging each other to be willing to relinquish any way of doing church that’s out of synch with the biblical model and purposes of the church (even if it might seem very successful).

So can a church be too small? We’ll look at that next.

Just how big were the early house churches?

andre-francois-mckenzie-rz2YF0vBsvA-unsplashTo begin with, you should know that my first pastoral ministry was in the mid-90s when I co-pastored a house church for three years. This was a dynamic time of setting aside church traditions and looking to Scripture alone to see what it means to be the church. At the time, I fit naturally into the house church “movement.” Along the way, we experienced a lot of the joys and benefits of meeting simply in a home, but also the challenges and limitations. We eventually merged with another local fellowship (which had a building), and not too long after this I moved to another city to pursue more in-depth pastoral training.

All of us who were sympathetic to the house church model were drawn to the example of the early churches. In the first few centuries after Christ’s resurrection the early Christians turned the world upside down with the gospel message. Somehow they were able to spread the faith throughout vast geographical areas, establish thriving churches, and train multiple generations of pastoral leaders, all without any need of a church building. Instead, these believers met in ordinary homes (which we invariably understood to be small groups of 10-20 people—maybe as many as 30—sitting in something similar to a typical living room today).

Now fast-forward to just a few months ago. We have a group of leaders and potential leaders in our church who meet together monthly and discuss church leadership issues. We had been reading together a thought-provoking book titled Jim and Casper Go to Church. One of the authors, Jim Henderson, is an evangelical pastor, and the other, Matt Casper, is an atheist (or at least was when the book was published). In the book, the two authors attend various churches together and then discuss their perceptions of the churches they visited. It’s an intriguing book, and it stimulated some great discussion and reflection among our team.

The authors visited traditional churches, megachurches, emerging churches . . . and a house church. In the chapter on this house church, the warm, simple fellowship they described triggered some interest in our leaders. Some found this way of doing church appealing, and I felt the need for some follow-up. I hadn’t really thought much about house churches for years, so this prompted some new research on my part.

While doing this research, I ran across a name I vaguely remembered from my house church days. Steve Atkerson has been working with house churches for over 25 years. He is, himself, an elder and pastor/teacher, and he writes and assists others as part of the New Testament Restoration Fellowship. Atkerson has drawn together some fascinating information regarding the early church.

First, he points out that an early church would typically meet in the home of one of their wealthy members. We see evidence of this already in the New Testament with Lydia, who was a merchant of expensive purple cloth (Acts 16:14-15); Priscilla and Aquila (1 Corinthians 16:19) who owned a lucrative tent-making business (Acts 18:1-3); Philemon (Philemon 1-2), who was wealthy enough to own at least one slave; and Gaius, in whose home the whole church of Corinth met (Romans 16:23). This makes perfect sense, of course. Why wouldn’t they meet in one of the larger homes?

Atkerson then takes time to explain the typical home in which these churches were meeting. A house owned by a wealthy person in Roman culture would have been much different than our familiar suburban homes in the West. These homes had shops or storefronts in the front with a hall leading back to a large atrium. Off this atrium would have been a business office, kitchen and dining room. Beyond the atrium was an even larger courtyard surrounded by bedrooms and other living areas. These households included servants and/or slaves, and so would have already been fairly large by our standards. A typical day would find people coming and going down the hall, through the atrium, into the business office, and then back out again. These houses would have been much more public than what we’re accustomed to.

Atrium of a villa in Pompei archeological siteNow it gets even more interesting. The early house churches met in the mostly-covered atrium area of the house. In the smaller Roman villas, these areas would have seated 50-60 people. In larger homes, they could have seated as many as 150. What does that mean for us? It means that when we’re imagining an early house church it’s not accurate for us to picture 10-20 people scrunched together in a living room. Instead we need to think of an open area with anywhere from 60-150 people gathered for worship. (They even had something called an “impluvium” in the center of the atrium under an opening in the roof. The impluvium captured rainwater, stored it for use around the house, helped to cool the house in hot weather—and likely served as an early baptistry!)

This is the setting for the churches described throughout most of the book of Acts, and it was to churches meeting in these kinds of spaces that the letters to the churches were written. Obviously, this is quite different from the typical Western house church today. Atkerson (who remember has worked with house churches and house church leaders for over 25 years) contrasts the micro-house churches of today with the Roman atrium-sized house churches of the early church. Ironically, meeting in a modern-sized home may actually hinder a fellowship from following the early church model! (And Atkerson notes that when the early Christians went to their house churches, they didn’t have to find a place to park their cars and risk becoming a weekly irritant to the neighbors.)

So, other than the actual size of the early church gatherings, how big should a church be? Does it make any difference? What are the advantages and disadvantages of mega-churches, micro-churches, and mid-sized churches (i.e. Roman atrium-sized churches)? We’ll look at this next.

If you’re interested in checking out the references for this historical data, you can see Steve Atkerson’s articles here and here.

Review: “The Shepherd Leader” by Timothy Witmer

41BVBHa89VL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_I’m always eager to read insights on pastoral leadership, and especially glad to see another book advocating that the church be pastored by a team of elders. The author of this book is obviously knowledgable and has a heart for the local church. He gives a capable defense of biblical eldership, and also includes a helpful explanation of the historical development of the church. Witmer begins with local churches being pastored by elders (the New Testament model), and shows how this morphed into the Roman Catholic episcopal model. He then describes in great detail the polity changes in Calvin’s church in Geneva and the Presbyterian church in Scotland.

The heart of the book is a section divided into four chapters, each on a different aspect of shepherding the church: knowing the sheep, feeding the sheep, leading the sheep, and protecting the sheep. Along the way, the author includes both biblical principles and practical applications. As with any book that makes practical suggestions, some will resonate and some won’t, but it can be worthwhile to think through (and discuss) any of them.

Potential readers should be aware of the theological context from which this book comes. The author is a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, served as a pastor of a Presbyterian church (PCA) for more than twenty-five years, and writes from a distinctly Presbyterian perspective. I think it’s entirely appropriate for our approaches to ministry and church leadership to be grounded solidly in our theology. But, because of this, it’s helpful to know the theological presuppositions of an author whose book we may read. For instance, one will notice Calvinistic assumptions peppered throughout this book. This doesn’t make the book unusable for non-Calvinists, but it’s helpful to know about this context beforehand.

A more salient concern is the specifically Presbyterian model of eldership put forward in this book. As a Presbyterian, Witmer sees a sharp dichotomy in the church eldership between lay “ruling elders” and professional, seminary-trained “teaching elders” (often referred to as “pastors”). Most non-Presbyterians would view this as based on Presbyterian tradition rather than scriptural exegesis. The only passage that comes anywhere close to this idea is 1 Timothy 5:17. In my view, and the view of a great many others, this text simply does not establish two distinct kinds of elders. All elders lead and are able to teach; some elders lead well (whether because of gifting, devotion, or availability); some of the elders who lead well (“especially those who…”) devote themselves to studying the Word and teaching. To somehow conclude from this the normative need for “ruling elders” who don’t publicly teach and “teaching elders” who don’t rule is to go far beyond the text itself.

And this problematic distinction among the elders leads to other problems. It doesn’t take long to begin seeing in this book an expectation that each church will have one “teaching elder” (despite the fact that 1 Timothy 5:17 refers to plural elders doing this teaching). It also becomes apparent that this teaching elder is often referred to as the pastor, so it’s not a big step to later references in the book to “the pastor” and “his elders.” By introducing a distinct classification of the elders that is not warranted by the text of Scripture, those who hold this model end up militating against the very plural shepherd (i.e. pastor) model they intend to defend and practice. Because of this prominent deviation from what I understand to be biblical eldership, I can’t recommend this book.