To be a Christian is to be faithful to the teaching of the New Testament. That is a given. A second given is this: the New Testament is an ecclesial document. It is written from within the context of believing communities for believing communities. In fact, the idea of trying to be a Christian without the Church is anathema for the writers of the New Testament (see, for example, Hebrews 10:24-25).
And when you move out into the early patristic period up to the time of Constantine, say, the ecclesial focus is just as strong. How can one hope to have any idea of what Ignatius of Antioch (martyred c.110) is talking about, if one does not see his very heavy emphasis on the Christian community? Irenaeus (c.130-c.200) is the same. Where did Ignatius and Irenaeus get this ecclesial emphasis from? From the New Testament, of course! By stating that, I am not saying that these two early Fathers got their picture of the church entirely right. But there is a continuity between their ecclesial interests and those of the New Testament.
And it does not help to say that after the New Testament there was a calamitous falling away in which all of the key New Testament emphases were misplaced by the Ancient Church. That utterly fails to see how important the Scriptures were to those early Christian communities. Nor can this emphasis be written off with post-modern hermeneutical verve by claiming that this focus on the church is all about power. That too misses the point that the church was the context in which faith was nourished.
Then there are the third-century fathers like Tertullian and Cyprian. Both North Africans and both committed churchmen—and I say this despite Tertullian’s schismatic proclivities. Was it not Cyprian who argued that the person who has God for his Father must also have the Church for his mother? Again, the question is moot whether or not Cyprian got it all right when it came to ecclesiology—I personally think not. But his ecclesial interests are rooted in an ideological context that stretches back to the New Testament. And there would have been no Christian story if these men had not devoted their cares and toils to the communal expression of God’s people.
All of this to say this: George Barna’s Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary [see previous post, Barna, Bonhoeffer and true revolution] is so out of sync with the the New Testament and the realities of the Patristic era to be utterly laughed out of court, where it not for the dreadful ignorance about the Scriptures and the Patristic era that is increasingly apparent in North American Evangelical circles.
There will be some, I am sure, picturing themselves as brave souls going where few in our day have gone before—and so experiencing the adventure of the Christian life in all of its white-water intensity—who take up Barna’s suggestions and try to do Christianity without Church. In so doing, they will be sculpting their Christianity into the shape of our culture or sitting down to supper with the devil with a short spoon—either metaphor is frightening—and abandoning one of the key verities of the Faith.