Monday, December 22, 2008

In the beginning...

In science there is a sort of game called a thought experiment. How this works is that you take a hypothetical situation and start to think about it and then see where it takes you. It is usually done in situations where to do the actual experiment is prohibitive due to cost or practicality. It can lead to some interesting results since you are not bound by any external factors.

One of the thought experiments I like to do is the virgin church. By this I mean a situation where there sprang up spontaneously a group of believers with no preconceived notion of what is meant to be a group of believers. No idea how to worship, no structures or tradition on which to draw. All they had was the Bible in its original form with no cultural context other than an understanding of the first century culture and no other guide except for the Holy Spirit. Remember that this is indeed all that the first century church had. The Old testament, the teaching of the Apostles and the Holy Spirit. One of the more interesting aspects of the first century church was its diversity but we will leave that behind.

The first thing we have is belief. They all have a common understanding of who the father is and Jesus, his life and work. Second they have a relationship with the Father Son and Holy Spirit. This is unencumbered by cultural preconceptions. They do not know that what they read Jesus or the Apostles did was not what they should be doing. They do not know that the sort of intimate one on one relationship they saw that Jesus or the Disciples had with the Father was not the sort of relationship they should not have. They would be silly enough to believe that the things that happened in the New Testament were the norm for them as well. So that they would expect to hear God speak to them just as they would converse with one of their friends. They would expect miracles to happen as they prayed or indeed spontaneously.

One of the more interesting aspects of first century Christian practice is that it was heavily influenced by the culture in which it grew. Jewish Christians began meeting in the Synagogue. Gentile Christians on the other hand met in peoples homes, having no tradition of Synagogue attendance. So in reality any practice will be culturally based so this thought experiment will never be strictly pure. But let us proceed...

They would meet together for their mutual encouragement. Each would be given gifts and would use them in their gatherings as well as their individual lives. No one would necessarily be the "Leader" but it is probably that one person with a gift for leadership would be the natural leader. However, people freely express their diverse gifts. One person would be especially keen to pray for healing. Another may have a sharp and keen mind to understand the more difficult things. Another may have wisdom and be able to unravel complicated situations and help people think clearly about tricky moral issues. Yet another person would be an avid prayer and spend hours at a time praying in private. Another person may have a poetic bent and write songs to sing in worship. Yet another person would be able to encourage people and another to have a special gift to speak words of prophecy.

As the people grew they would teach each other how to do the things that they did. They would all grow in understanding, they would exhort those who were in difficulty or correct any misconceptions that may arise. They would regulate the more excessive and encourage the more shy.

One of the more interesting things about this group is the lack of structure. No where do we have form, or a leadership structure. Sure there will be some sort of organisation but it will be flexible and not rigid. No elections or constitution. However people would be growing and maturing merely through the operation of their gifts. Their strength would be the diversity. No one would be treated as superior. No specific person would be treated as special - all would be special.

The core elements of this group would be their individual relationship with the Father, and their relationship with each other and the operation of the gifts in their mutual encouragement and daily lives. They do not form a church they are THE church.

What characterises these people is not the group that they form, where they meet, their practice, or their music, but their individual relationship with the Father, and how this is reflected in their relationship with other people, believers and non-believers. They would have none of the cultural trappings that we have collected over the centuries that seem to dominate our "faith". True they would be influenced by their own culture and their religious practice would be in line with the norms of their culture, where they aer in line with the Christian moral, but this would not result in the subjugation of the Christian practice, it would be a model within which the practice would take place.

Whenever I try to imagine the operation of the body I try to clear my mind of all the cultrual overburden that I have inherited. I always find this a refreshing exercise and quite instructive. It takes some practice to leave only that which pertains only to the kingdom or the body but it is well worth while and can be quite enlightening.

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