Commando Church: Paul’s Idea of Community

Posted: January 1, 2013 in Uncategorized


So,  in our fellowship group we have been committing to studying why we believe what we believe… first principals… in everything. Paul tells us that we are a part of a kingdom that is even now present with the Lord.  He then reasons that we should therefore be reflecting that community here and now. So we are dealing with a concept that is a not-yet-but-still-present reality.  How then should we live? If we take it  as a sign  that our gatherings in the Western church culture are failing when we see widespread sin running rampant in those gatherings, then it would behoove us to find out whats behind all that.  According to one thinker, Dr Robert Banks from Fuller Theological Seminary, the problem is that our churches are set up to operate in a way they were never intended…that in the same way dating has basically produced a culture of divorce…a false set of offices created by men to control and “minister” to the church has ultimately led to its failure.  But is that true?  It’s such a provocative thought I was surprised to read it in a textbook from a mainline school.

When i was a decade younger, I was fortunate enough to study with Dr. Bill Lane.  he had taught at Gordon Cromwell, Amsterdam Free, Western KY, and Seattle Pacific universities.  Dr. Bill, had about 10 PhD’s, spoke 12 languages, could read and write in Sanskrit (at that time a feat only 3 people in the world could claim), was a 3rd century pottery expert and a 1st century coin expert.  In fact, he was so prodigious in his knowledge of ancient things that I was constantly turning up new references in academic texts that he’d been quoted by…always with some new expertise I had not known he possessed until then.  In the twilight of his illustrious career Dr. Lane had come to my community in Franklin, TN to spend what was to be the last 3 years of his life.  He had fallen victim to a rare form of cancer and had come to Franklin to be near many of the young men he had discipled throughout the years.  Several pastors, authors, and artists had ended up here in Williamson County, TN by happenstance, and so he picked 12 to spend his last days with.  I had the honor of being one of those.  I had assumed naively that everyone was being taught the same thing…that the same insights of why he had come here and why he was sharing his time with each of us were being imparted to us all.  It is only now as I have spent time revisiting that time with some of the others doing the same, that I have realized he gave me some insights he didn’t give the others…and most certainly he gave them the same type of personalized disclosures and teachings that excluded myself.  For instance, he made a specific point of telling me, “There can be no proper understanding of the gospel and the return of Jesus, without a proper understanding of the Hittite Covenant Treaty.”  But I have since spoken with my fellows and they never heard him say anything like that.  Personally, I believe that he gave me this nugget because it pertained to some related trials I would face years in the future…and somehow he intuitively understood that and so gave me the keys to think through what i would need to think through?  I’m not sure.  But I am thankful that that wqs how it played out.

Similarly, he recommended a book to me that he felt held the keys to the success of the Chinese Church, and indeed what he believed about church government and polity.  Again, while the others had heard of the book, the same emphasis was not laid upon the information held in this book.  That book was Paul’s Idea of Community.

Though this work has been around for nearly 20 years, pastors and leader continue to poo poo it’s thesis and data…mainly because it challenges what America thinks the church is and what offices 9if any) should exist inside of it.  Read this by reviewer J.R. Miller

Banks’ first guiding principle is that in order to understand the Pauline concept of community one must also understand the culture and ethos of his day. As Paul traveled throughout the Mediterranean, he was impacted by the cultural and legal institutions of his day. Consequently, his writings to the various churches can not be divorced from these external influences. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul demonstrations his policy of adaptation to culture when he asserts that he has become “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22). When he cannot incorporate an idea into his own (Acts 17:22-32), he will demonstrate why his view is superior (Col. 2:8-23). All ideas must give way to the Gospel (1 Cor. 10:14-22), but Paul is always willing to adopt and integrate cultural practices that do not violate the Gospel ethos (8:7-13; 10:23-30). Therefore, to understand Paul’s idea of community, one must understand his writings in their historical milieu.

The book’s second guiding principle for understanding Paul is that Paul’s primary approach is to connect the ideal of community to the message of freedom found in the Gospel. Each chapter of the book provides a look at the same basic theme of freedom from a different aspect of Christian community. The freedom which stands at the core of Paul’s theology applies first to the individual who is born a slave to sin, bound by the restrictions of the Mosaic Law, and hampered by supernatural powers outside their control. Thus freedom in Christ is the ability to transcend these restraining forces and enter into new community. Dependence upon Christ and the Spirit, leads to total interdependence and service to others from both a cosmic and eternal personal perspective.

Based on the two guiding principles outlined above, Banks makes three primary assertions;

1. community is familial not formal

2. the ministry of community is functional not institutional

3. and the connection of one church to another is relational not denominational.

(emphasis and divisions mine)

In support of the first idea that community is familial in nature, Banks asserts that the term ekklesia used to describe the local gathering did not carry with it any religious or cultic meaning (28). Ekklesia is primarily used to describe a Divinely ordained local gathering, not a universal or corporate existence of the saints. The church gathered in local homes, and kept to small gatherings which promoted strong interpersonal relationships. And although some of Paul’s later writings seem to refer to a larger spiritual understanding of the term ekklesia, he never develops this concept further and so it would seem the primary meaning is still referring to the local gathering. There is nowhere in the writings of Paul a description of an organizational structure that bound the separate churches together. While he did encourage voluntary interaction and cooperation between the separate gatherings, focus seems to be one of convenience over organization (42).

 J.R. Miller, Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives
Follow : @jrmiller777 on Twitter
So basically all the things we think of as church are not church at all, but merely human, dare I say American,  constructs.  And that is not to say that therefore how we “do church” in the West is illegitimate and should be done away with. It is to say that the whole reason for, and method of gathering in Jesus name has been grossly misunderstood and anything so off mark is bound to show signs of sickness from being thus “mis-organized”.  I’ll be discussing later what I believe is a healthier way of looking at fellowship. and why.  And also why we should keep our churches in tact and not throw the baby out with the bath water. I believe God is showing us different ways of fellowship-ing in an effort to prepare us for the coming time of trouble…where it will be difficult to move around as the big ol’ church we are today.  I believe he wants us to have smaller, more communicative,  guerilla like fellowships that can move and morph with the changing challenges thrown at post modern believers…. a commando church.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this review and on the review of the equally important “When the Church was a Family”
  1. Steve Estes says:

    Excellent read David!!

  2. joe mccallum says:

    David good read. Reading your insite to Bill Lane revealing some nuggets to each of us brought to the surface what his response was to my question to him over dinner one nite at the chop house which was his favorite. Joe; “what’s up with the tripartite man (body soul and spirit). Is the spirit more weighty than the soul?” Bill: ” Joe I don’t know much about the inner life.” which we all know is far from the truth. “But I do know this! ” wait for it wait for it………”God cares about the whole man”
    For me the light came on since I have been plagued about this for some time. He had set me free with a few verbs and few words. Now thats a christian MAN.

  3. Andy says:

    With respect to the late, Dr. Lane, it might be good to include some additional facts about the early Church. One very obvious reason they met in small groups and in private homes that gave their activities a “familial” feel is because they were insanely persecuted and to do so in larger, public setting was illegal and certain suicide. Another reason is that everything related to their identity was still very muddled, i.e. were these people practicing Jews with some new beliefs thrown in on top of their traditional Judaism or were they something else now that Gentiles were involved? Paul doesn’t mention the churches “bound together” because none of this had really happened yet.

    And then Paul was beheaded. Bummer.

    I’m not being flippant, here, he was a brilliant thinker and who knows what might have happened had he lived longer, but it’s difficult to comment upon what might have happened as we only have what actually did happen to go on.

    With that said, it seems then that it might be difficult to say this was Paul’s idea of “church” when the church was quite clearly in its infancy. I do, though, get it that the point you’re making here is that perhaps Americans, in particular, need to get out of their Protestant church boxes and re-examine spiritual practices and worship on a more intimate scale.

    • davidmullenmusic says:

      Andy, Thanks for your interest. I wasn’t quoting Dr Bill in terms of his opinions. I was merely laying out the groundwork for Dr. Robert Banks’ book, and the premises he’d be operating under. This by the way is a textbook for 1st century culture via biblical and extant documents. So, in short, I agree with you…but this wa just the out;line for the greater argument. Thanks again!

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