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Networks In The N.T. And The City

 

The following article is actually a chapter out of my e-book "Beyond Denominations The Networked Church". The book maintains that denominationalism is an inferior way of being Christian and that networked churches in a local area displaying Christian unity is far better. Insofar as urban ministry depends on facilitating networks and understanding their theological foundations this article will be useful to you. If you are interested the book can be downloaded from here.

Do Local Area Networks Of Churches Exist In Scripture?

Most exponents of early church history such as Robert Banks argue that the early church met in houses and these houses were linked together in city-wide networks. I see it as a bit broader than that. I find (at least) four kinds of networks of local churches & Christians in the New Testament.

  1. Ethnic networks such as those that emerged in the Jerusalem church between the Hellenistic Jewish Christians and the Hebrew speaking Jewish Christians and between Jewish and Gentile networks in Rome. These strong family-based ethnic networks were a threat to the unity of the local church. These networks exist in two types networks within the local church such as at Jerusalem and Rome and networks larger than any local church such as the Jewish Christian diaspora addressed in Hebrews. A modern day example would be the network of overseas Chinese Christians that is international and influential today. They are a network with a distinct way of being Christian but are not formalised as a denomination.
  2. City-wide house church networks where believers "met from home to home, with breaking of bread and prayer.." There are references to "the church that meets in your house.." etc. With the persecution of churches believers mainly met in homes or catacombs or in the woods and such groups networked with each other passing along Scriptures "make sure this is read by the Laodecians..etc". The city seems to be the defining unit here with epistles being addressed to the networks in Colossae, Phillipi, Rome and Ephesus. The church in country towns such as Charters Towers has largely taken this form with the churches seeing themselves as somewhat merged and often holding joint meetings or combined evening services. While they largely maintain their denominational distinctives their "way of being" is as a community not as separate churches.
  3. Regional and national networks such as Northern Galatia (Galatians), Crete (Titus) and in Asia Minor (Revelation) where city churches were networked together and addressed as a whole. Hebrews may sneak in here or as a sub-category of number 1 depending on your theory about its recipients. In Revelation each individual city network is addressed in the first three chapters and then the remainder is addressed to them as a regional network as a whole. "The house-churches in China" is probably the prime example today of networks operating across a region or nation.
  4. The entire network of believers which is referred to in Paul’s phrase "as in all the churches" and is possibly the real target of the epistle to Philemon. If you read the greetings at the end of Philemon it includes many of the heavyweights of the early church including some of the main authors of Scripture such as Mark, Luke, and Paul . It’s a letter signed by representative heavyweights right across the church and tactfully intended for a very wide audience using the literary ploy of addressing one man’s particular situation to reason towards general principles. The Internet acts as a tool for Christian discussion right across the entire world and creates international communities of believers around common networked themes.

What are some of the advantages/disadvantages of local area and other networks of churches?

Advantages Disadvantages
Independent churches in a network are still in fellowship with other churches and can receive financial contributions (2 Corinthians 8&9) and theological instruction (the epistles) from them and share itinerant ministers (such as Paul and Luke). They are not lone, unresourced mavericks.

It’s a natural way to organise things that can be grasped by the average Christian.

Believers in local area networks share a common locality, go to the same schools, witness to the same community and feel many of the same local pressures thus it makes sense to work together.

Networks tend to have more openings for lay ministry than denominational structures and more points of entry to the body of Christ.

Basic common theology such as the Apostles Creed can be affirmed at meetings of the network and act as a basis for fellowship. The first Universal Creeds were formulated without the existence of denominations or much in the way of formal structure.

They facilitate church planting and evangelism by giving an accurate picture of the state of the church in a given area.

They are capable of surviving financial hardship and persecution and depending on your end-times theology we might just need them in the not-too-distant future.

If run properly they act as a point for building trust and unity between churches in a given locality.

Greater energy, creativity and adaptability to change .

Networks tend not to be very good at organising missions, hospitals and schools. Denominations or task focused organisations are needed here.

The theological diversity within local area networks tends to mitigate against the process of complex theological formulations being achieved and agreed on.

Networks if run badly or if dominated by a single local church can be quite dysfunctional. Though that probably applies to whatever organisational structure is chosen.

Networks allow a diversity of doctrine and practice which can be difficult to bring into line without an authoritarian structure e.g. the problems at Corinth and some of the problems experienced within the Vineyard Fellowship.

Lack of a career path for ministers.

Networks are untidy and awkward. There tends to be a lack of things such as agendas and minutes. They require believers to trust each other and be vulnerable to each other.

Christians will tend to move from church to church more often within a network.

Churches that derive a great deal of their identity from being different from other churches will be unable to join in networks constructively but able to organise their own denominations well.

They are much less competitive and remove one of the driving forces in church growth – inter-church rivalry.

 

Why Not?

Is there any good Scriptural reason why Spirit-filled, bible-believing churches in a local area should not cooperate together and network together for the common good? I cannot think of one. Even if we don’t abandon denominations we should at least form local area networks that go beyond an occasional ministers fraternal meeting.

But aren’t hierarchical structures the Scriptural model?

Many people see an episcopal structure in Scripture of deacons, elders, pastors and bishops governed by apostles in a strict hierarchy. There is a lot wrong with this view as I will show and I think that it may have arisen in part because up until now we have lacked the terminology to describe or model networks. To describe an apostle as a "hub" and a local church as a "node" would have made little sense until the Information technology revolution made networking terms common parlance. We simply haven’t had the mental models to fit these terms into a non-hierarchical structure. Our only main alternative has been "democracy" and congregational government which is still denominational and hierarchical and to my mind just almost as bad as an episcopal structure.

  • Jesus forbade hierarchy in the Church

    (Mark 10:41-45 NASB) And hearing this, the ten began to feel indignant with James and John. {42} And calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. {43} "But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; {44} and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. {45} "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

    (Matthew 23:5-12 NASB) "But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments. {6} "And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, {7} and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi. {8} "But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. {9} "And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. {10} "And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. {11} "But the greatest among you shall be your servant. {12} "And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

    There Were Multiple Loci of Authority For Each Congregation

    Congregations were not ruled over by one man who was accountable to just one other etc. They seem to be ruled over by a plurality of elders, a number of visiting apostles and prophets and accepted directions in letters and via messengers. While Peter and James and John had pre-eminence it was not in a line management sense and they did not give direct orders on controversial issues without meeting with others in council such as in Acts 15. Paul, though not one of the Twelve could say that "I am not the least inferior to the most pre-eminent of the apostles." (2 Corinthians 11:5, 12;11) which would be an impossible statement in a line management culture.

    The construction of a leadership network is similar to but not at all the same as construction of a hierarchy.

    When Titus is instructed to appoint leaders (plural) in all the churches in Crete he is actually setting up a leadership network then moving on. After he departs the elders are presumably to network together and govern the churches. The Cretans were a depressed community noted for a rather laid-back lifestyle to say the least . This seems to have meant that some outside intervention by Titus was needed if leadership was to be set in place. It was also common practice after evangelising a new region. (Acts 13). What are some of the differences between constructing a viable and workable leadership network and constructing a hierarchy?

  • Thus I see the appointing of elders being a recognition of the Spirit’s work in placing calling, character and competence to lead into certain Christians lives. Such appointments are the construction of a dynamic, Spirit-filled network not a human and man-made bureaucracy.
  • Would you please clarify the difference between a network and a hierarchy. It hasn’t quite clicked for me yet?

    A network is like the Internet which functions quite well despite having now owner and no organisation running it. A hierarchy is like the military which has a clear vertical chain of command.

    Networks have important points within them like the system engineers who helped design the structure of the Internet and who decide on its configuration such as the recent decision not to allow a capability to eavesdrop on Internet communications to be built in to the Internet. However you can hook up to the Internet without having to consult them at all and what you put on the Internet

    is your business. No-one owns the Internet and no-one runs it and no-one is Mr. Internet and says what will and won’t happen. However it functions very well indeed. People make their contributions to the network if and when they please and according to their varying degrees of expertise. In a hierarchy people make contributions as they are "allowed to".

    Ok that helps but how can the Church be a network, it doesn’t fit with my idea of the Church at all.

    Lets look at some of the metaphors that Scripture uses to describe the Church

    While only a few of the metaphors of the Church directly suggest networks – the Body, The Leaven and the Olive Tree particularly, none of them are hierarchical or bureaucratic. The vision of the Church in the New Testament is a far cry from today’s formal denominational structures.

    Networks and The Church In Revival

    The church in revival in the New Testament was a highly networked gathering of called out believers living under the direct impetus of the Holy Spirit. Since then one of the precursors to revival most commented on in the literature is fervent united prayer by believers of differing denominations in a local area. In Ed Silvoso’s excellent book "That None Should Perish" he describes how such a strategy won the city of Resistencia for Christ. In other words revival seems to depend on believers in a local area forming a network that at least prays together. Further evidence for this can be found in studies on revival such as "Praying The Price" by Stuart Robinson and "Informed Intercession" by George Otis (Jr.). Those who kept revival going for a long time seem to have always used networked small groups as the basic structure. Paul Yonggi Cho has used this to build the largest church in the world with a dynamic prayer ministry at Yoido Gospel Church in Seoul Korea.

    Sometimes, such as in the Reformation and the Methodist revivals the revival continued up until the point that the network became a denomination. While the Methodists were primarily a well organised network of cell groups under John Wesley the revival was powerful. When it was systematised after his death it lost its way. When the Reformation spread across Europe from place to place and small group to small group and community to community it was dynamic. Once the organisations and denominations were created it moved out of revival power. This is such a phenomenon that many have described the "institutionalisation" of the revival movements with the comments such as "who wants to live in an institution"? Who indeed?

    Does Denominationalism Hinder Revival?

    When believers in a given local area are so disunited that they refuse to cooperate across denominational boundaries then revival is undoubtedly hindered. Denominational structures encourage disunity between believers in a local area and to the extent that they do so then revival is hindered. On the other hand the formation of a vital local area network of believers loving each other, praying together and cooperating in the spread of the gospel is a very good sign of an effective church.

    Are You Saying That Networks Are More In Tune With The Holy Spirit Than Denominations?

    Restricted opportunities create rivalry and jealousy. If I wanted to start a fight among children I would have only one chocolate and wave it around enticingly. Hierarchical structures are restricted in their opportunities. They are like the "one chocolate" and by their nature combined with human nature, they start fights. What I am saying is that the hierarchical structure of denominations easily aligns with "the flesh" and its desire for power and promotes division and competition between local churches. Networks don’t allow quite as much room for the flesh. They also tend to promote cooperation and some spiritual virtues a bit better. Networks can still go bad and have sinful people in them. They are not a panacea. But they don’t automatically cause division the way denominations do. For instance no-one is fighting for control of the Internet – though it seems Microsoft would like to.

    All that is well and good but how would such networks work in practice? What might they look like?

    There would be a wide diversity of local churches within the network catering for different kinds of Christians. Some churches would be traditional, some would be contemporary, some would be ethnic churches, others would be churches for drug addicts or gang members. There would be churches that believed in infant baptism and churches that believed in believers baptism. There would be small churches and large churches and cell churches and house churches and even Christian campsites and campus groups and varying ministries to people. Various events would bring the network together as one voice – a city-wide crusade, a local tragedy, a night of prayer and fasting or even a contentious political issue on which the church in the city needed to have a voice. In between all these churches would be people that everyone knew and who could pull the pastors together in unity. Christians would see each other as brothers and sisters, not as rivals. On the front of the church building would be Townsville District Baptist Church a member of the Townsville Christian Network - or words to that effect. The churches would share resources and itinerant ministries and when one was in need, say after a fire, the others would help out. They would be committed to one another. Their primary allegiance would be to the other churches of the community - not to a denominational office overseas or a thousand miles away.

    Has that ever happened?

    The church at Antioch seems to have consisted of two networks – a Jewish network and a Gentile network which overlapped and to some extent shared resources. It seems to have produced a major and remarkably healthy church. The early Quakers were a dynamic and persecuted network as were the early Methodists and the house churches in China today. Believers learn of each others needs along these grapevines and pray for each other and even supply financial and other help. The networks between missionaries are very close though informal and many missionaries feel more a part of "the missionary culture" than their own local church. Millions of dollars flow along the Overseas Chinese Christian network and speakers and even pastors are shared. In Charters Towers the churches meet together for a combined evening service once a month and two of the small churches share a pastor. There is such close fellowship between the Baptist, Churches of Christ and Uniting Churches that they are for all intents and purposes the one fellowship. In Townsville the youth groups of the Uniting, Baptist, Churches of Christ and Presbyterian churches are very close and members seem to go from one church to the other almost interchangeably. The youth have said quite openly to me that "brands are irrelevant". Where Ed Silvoso and the prayer house strategy has been implemented whole cities have changed their church signs to read like the example in the paragraph above or eliminated the denominational tag entirely. Local area networks are not just a pipe-dream they are here and they are helping people to find unity in the Spirit.