Community or a Congregation? For What are We Striving?

Tim Hegg

For What are We Striving?

by Tim Hegg

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In our modern world, many voices vie for our attention. Whether it’s tele-marketers, email blasts, television, billboards, print media, or whatever, we are being called by many voices in many different directions. The situation is not much different even if we narrow the circle to the religious sphere of our society. One encounters messages from every possible angle, whether it’s an appeal to “Acquire the Fire,” “Become Prosperous,” “Find Your Inner-Self,” “Find the Answers to Life,” or “Get the Plain Truth about the Last Days.” If you want a three day seminar led by famous athletes that promises to “change your life forever,” no problem. Just check the calendar at your local Sports Arena or Christian Bookstore. Or if you’re hankering for Christian Rock, Christian Gangsta Rap, or whatever, you’re in luck! Check the reader board of your local mega-Church.

No wonder people are either running in circles like chickens with their heads cut off or just plain checking out of anything that smacks of “religion.”1 The Church has gone to school on the advertising success of the world. I don’t know about you, but frankly I’m fed up with all of the junk mail (both printed and electronic) from religious organizations that fill up my mailboxes. Oh, I know, it’s really not that difficult to toss them into the trash or just hit the delete button. The unfortunate thing is that there are some good people out there with an honest message of truth who, if they are to be heard in our day, have somehow to make their voice known over the clamor of the “religious market.”

One would think that things might be different within the very small circle of what has commonly become known as the “messianic movement.” But sadly, such is not the case. The Messianics are a microcosm of the larger religious milieu in our society. In this movement you’ll find everything from truth to heresy; from being “slain in the Spirit” to black-hat Orthodox Judaism, and most everything in between. If we’re not big enough to actually match the “world class” antics of the Christian Church, we can’t be faulted for not trying. We hype our seminars with the same billboard flash: music concerts galore, promise of “Spirit-filled” experiences, and all the amenities to make the time a dazzling vacation. Even more, we’re tickled pink when we’re invited to that Christian seminar housed in the sports arena so that we can put on a tallit and blow the shofar. What unity! And hey, we are making progress! One of the largest Christian book distributors lists two items in the “Messianic” section of their catalog: a tallit with the prayer of Jabez embroidered on the collar and “messianic shofars” (can someone please tell me what makes a shofar “messianic”?!). Wow! Maybe we’re finally being accepted!

Some of you are probably saying “this sounds like sour grapes to me!” Well, believe me, it all leaves a very sour taste in my mouth! I left “the-show-must-go-on” mentality of the Christian Church a long time ago and I have no desire to return. What has become very clear to me in recent days, however, is that many leaders in the Messianic movement have never really grasped the difference between a Torah Community and a Christian Congregation. In other words, one of the reasons that the current Messianic movement so much resembles the Christian Church and why so many Messianic Congregations seek acceptance within Christendom is that most of the leaders in this movement have never been able to think outside of the box of Christian ecclesiology.2 Or to say it another way, the model we have of a “Messianic Congregation” is essentially the Church model with some different traditions and theological perspectives. The building’s structure is the same, we’ve just put in new windows and replaced the siding. And in some cases, it appears we’ve used vinyl siding.

In the same way that the Torah Movement is the result of recovering the biblical view of Torah, it is equally imperative for us that we recover a biblical ecclesiology. Instead of simply presuming that the way Christianity does “Church” is the proper model for us, we must endeavor to recover a thorough-going, biblical ecclesiology. The restoration of Torah must be accompanied by a restoration of a biblical ecclesiology if we ever hope to make the Torah Movement a generational reality. If we remain in our current mode, the Torah Movement will quickly morph into another hybrid Church among the myriad of Churches that now exist in our times.

I’m not saying that the basic ecclesiology of the Christian Church is entirely wrong—it isn’t. Many aspects of the Christian Church are based squarely upon the Scriptures. We certainly do not want to throw the baby out with the bath water! But what I am saying is that within the traditional Christian ecclesiology there are core, foundational tenets that are not biblically based but have evolved over time. Put simply, we cannot accept the Christian ecclesiology carte blanche and also expect to build Torah Communities. In the overall scope of things, the two are incompatible.

I should also add that recovering a biblical ecclesiology cannot be done by emulating the modern Jewish synagogue model, though we can certainly learn a lot from the way Jewish communities have “done Synagogue” through the centuries. Yet in many ways, the contemporary synagogue (especially those of Reform and Conservative Judaism) has been heavily influenced by the Christian Church, even if they don’t want to admit it. Leadership structures, meeting formats, and even some Siddurs show the influence of the Christian Church.

In seeking to express the need for recovering a biblical ecclesiology, I want to use the terms “congregation” and “community” to communicate an essential difference between what I perceive as the current Christian ecclesiology and a Torah ecclesiology.3 While a number of important things differ between the two, at least in my thinking (and I hope to delineate these in future sections of this paper), the foundational difference is this: a “congregation” is primarily concerned with the present and near future; a “community,” while concerned with the present, always has a generational element at its core. To put it simply: a community takes seriously the repeated phrase “throughout all your generations” found often in the Torah. It is this generational perspective that drives a community to be what it ought to be. Likewise, this generational aspect affects every major decision of the community, for the highest goal of a community is to remain faithful to its core values from generation to generation.

Obviously, a congregation may have this same desire, that is, to remain faithful to its core values from generation to generation. What distinguishes a congregation and a community is the method by which each intends to reach this goal. A congregation puts the majority of its efforts into cognitive endeavors: getting people to agree with the truth is thought to assure longevity of the core values. A community also stresses the need to confess the truth (cognition) but believes that the truth cannot endure apart from life-to-life interaction that spans generations (relationship). Therefore, even the manner in which the truth is delivered differs between a congregation and a community. While a congregation teaches its core values (truth) as having an independent existence, a community recognizes that its core values (truth) exists in the context of a generational expression of that truth. At the risk of being overly simplistic, I would say that a “congregation” is essentially the product of our Western, Greek worldview, while a “community” is based in an Eastern, Hebraic worldview. For the “congregation,” truth is what we know (cognitive); for a “community,” truth is what we demonstrate by our lives (relational). For a “congregation,” the core values (truth) are summed up in a doctrinal statement; for a “community,” the core values (truth) are seen in the life of the community.

Let me try to give an example to explain what I’m saying here. If one looks at nearly every historical doctrinal statement of mainline, evangelical Christian denominations, one will discover a strong emphasis upon the Sabbath concept (even if the term “Sabbath” is interpreted to mean “Sunday). For example, we find this explicitly stated in the Westminster Confession,4 in the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677/1689),5 and even in the early Baptist Faith and Message.6  Yet if one were to attend the congregations that have these historic confessions as their basis, they would find precious few who recognize and observe Sunday as a Sabbath. Ask whether they still hold to their confession of faith as “truth,” some might be shocked to discover that they even have such a confession. Many would admit, however, that while they still “believe” the confession to be a statement of their “core values,” most no longer live out the reality of Sunday as Sabbath. In other words, a person can agree with the confession as being true (cognitive) and yet disregard it in terms of how one lives. In a congregation, this is acceptable because truth is envisioned as existing independent of the congregation itself. Not so in a community. The life of the community is the true statement of its faith. The core values do not reside in a written confession but in the daily lives of its community members. The congregation attempts to pass its confession of faith to the next generation; the community seeks to pass its life to the next generation. The one is based in cognition; the other in relationship.

Thus, one of the foundational differences that I see between “congregation” and “community” is the method each employs to promulgate the truth. A congregation puts most of its energies into explaining and teaching the truth. A community also emphasizes teaching the truth, but realizes that the truth will best be understood in the context of life-to-life relationships. For a community, explaining what is true is not enough. The truth of the core values must be experienced and seen in the daily facets of life in order for it to be passed to the next generation.

The bigger question, of course, is how we can go about recovering a Torah ecclesiology. The following are some of the necessary steps that are obvious to me as we engage in such an endeavor.

Step 1: Restore Biblical Leadership

The Pastor, Church, and Torah Community

Perhaps one of the most obvious tenets of Christian ecclesiology that needs to be jettisoned by a Torah Community is the traditional Christian view of The Pastor. The Christian perspective can be traced back to the early centuries of the emerging Christian Church. In the Apostolic Scriptures, we are met with three terms that designate leadership positions within the early assemblies of believers (ekklesia): overseer (episkopos), elder (presbuteros), and deacon (diakonos). Obviously missing from the list is “rabbi,” since this title did not gain a technical sense of an office of congregational leadership until the 2nd Century CE, well after the “parting of the ways” between the emerging Church and the established Synagogue had taken place.

 

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  1. Audrey Barrick, “Study: U.S. Unchurched Population Nears 100 Million,” Christian Post Reporter, March 20, 2007 (accessed at: http://www.christianpost.com/article20070320/26418_Study:_U.S._Unchurched_Population_Nears_100_Million.htm) 
  2.  The word “ecclesiology” is a theological term derived from Systematic Theology. It commonly describes the “doctrine of the Church,” including the theological basis for the Church as well as basic components and structures that define the Church.
  3. I recognize that the two terms, “congregation” and “community” are often used interchangeably in our times. I also recognize that in terms of strict lexicography, the two terms overlap. But I want to distinguish the two terms in order to convey what I see as essential differences between the current Christian ecclesiology and what I will call a “Torah ecclesiology.”
  4. Chapter XXI: Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day. 
  5. Chapter XXII: Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day.
  6. See the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, Article XIV, which is repeated verbatim in the 1963 update. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, however, changed this article significantly.