Thursday, May 17, 2007

Following the pattern

Are the practices and actions of a congregation of believers bound to follow some New Testament pattern? Or, are the practices and actions of such congregations open to formation by circumstance and expediency?

It is interesting that most churches follow some patterns, but do not follow patterns consistently. It is quite common for modern Baptists to view the patterns/practices observed in the early New Testament churches as mere descriptions describing what was done, rather than prescriptions prescribing what should be done. From that perspective, New Testament or apostolic patterns of church practice are viewed as optional.

According to Steve Atkerson, "There is a big difference between holding to apostolic tradition versus mindlessly copying everything seen in the New Testament (wearing sandals, writing on parchment, studying by oil lamps, wearing togas, etc.)." (
Ekklesia, p. 18) It becomes wearisome to point out some New Testament practice to be rebutted by some famous response such as "What about electric lights". But perhaps we who believe in apostolic practice as normative (called patternism by some) are not succinctly and clearly defining the issue. Atkerson further wrote, "The key is to focus in on New Testament church practice."

IMO, "patternism" is not foreign to the Anabaptist/Baptist tradition, but has been a driving force within it. Even today, most churches follow some patterns. In another forum several years ago, I asked five questions of Baptists, all of which began, "Why do you..." These were things commonly practiced by Baptists, and most folks answered with something like "The Bible teaches..." Yet, in each case there was no command for the practice, and in each the observance was based on New Testament practice. Why faithfully use fruit of the vine and unleavened bread (which are not specifically commanded) for communion, and yet refuse the example of weekly communion? Why practice local church autonomy and congregational church government (which are not specifically commanded), and yet refuse the example of plurality of elders?

We who hold this position of normative apostolic practice do not believe we must follow the Jewish and Roman lifestyles of the first century. Just because Paul might have worn a toga & sandals and walked to church does not establish that practice for us. But what the apostles taught & practiced and the churches received very well could be establishing a practice for us -- whether anti-cultural, semi-cultural or cultural. In other words, the things they received into their way of ministry, gathering, governing, teaching, evangelizing, etc.. What I see is that we all come to this conclusion for some things, but diverge at some point and often end up at opposite ends of the spectrum on others. We also do not automatically exclude the possibility that something that is cultural could have been established as part of the extended church life as well (for example, feetwashing, head coverings, etc.).

This may be the point of divergence -- one looks at a practice and thinks, "there is no principle involved" and so it is not necessary to recreate or follow that practice today; another may look at the same thing and think they see a principle. If so, it would suggest we are each following our principles as we understand them.


Bro. Matt said...

Well now that's interesting.

A question though -
In your opinion, do N.T. practices at times carry the same weight as commands?

(i.e., The Bible teaches us in 3 primary ways - through specific command, through specific example, and by necessary inference.)

R. L. Vaughn said...

My answer is a cautious yes.

'Yes' because I think N. T. practices can carry the same weight as a command. If Jesus and/or the apostles modeled a practice they expected us to follow, it carries the same weight as a command.

'Cautious' because of the "at times" part. We must be discerning to understand a consistent example (e.g. plurality of elders, immediate baptisms) versus one-time or intermittent practices (holding all things common). With an example there is much more room for error than with a "Thus saith the Lord".

I take much of the book of Acts as describing the disciples carefully obeying the commands of their Lord under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and therefore prescriptive.