Sunday, February 3, 2008

Schaeffer and the Emerging Church

After a long absence, I'm back, and with some new material. For Christmas my wife and kids went together and got me the Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer-- a five-volume set containing the 22 books he wrote. I had 8 of them before, and had read a couple more over the years, but never had all his writings available before. So I've been working through them, and finding a lot to appreciate.

In "The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century" (originally published in 1970, apparently revised and updated for the "Complete Works" in 1981) Schaeffer declared in Chapter 4, "Form and Freedom in the Church," that the church would have to change to meet the challenges of our changing culture. He laid out eight Biblical mandates for the form of the church: That there would be congregations of Christians, that they would meet in a special way on the first day of the week, that local elders should be responsible for the churches, with deacons to see to material needs, that these should be chosen according to the Biblical qualifications Paul laid out in his letters, that they must take discipline seriously, that local churches may come together as in Acts 15 to decide some issues, and that the Lord's Supper and baptism must be practiced. He saw these as basic and unchangeable; but within the framework of these forms, he said that the church had great freedom to change to meet current situations, as long as the leadership of the Holy Spirit was followed. He saw church buildings as optional; if you have one, be thankful, but if you don't your congregation is no less a church. He did not even mention professional pastors (seminary-trained or otherwise). He believed the church should meet on the first day of the week, but said the time of day "was left totally open". He didn't even touch on the proper music for services!

I'm going to quote a few passages:

"I am not saying that it is wrong to add other things as the Holy Spirit so leads, but I am saying that we should not fix these things forever--changing times may change the leading of the Holy Spirit in regard to these. And certainly the historic accidents of the past (which led to certain things being done) have no binding effect at all."

From Chapter 5:

"Let us speak where the Scripture has spoken. But let us notice that we must also respect the silences. Within every form, there is freedom....I suggest that where the Bible is silent, it indicates a freedom within the scriptural form."

"If the church will allow freedom for changing situations, churches will be here until Jesus comes back. But let us not mistake historical accidents and what is sociologically comfortable out of our past for God's absolutes either in rules of personal dress or in the forms that individual churches take in individual situations."

And finally "Let us be thankful there is a given form. Then let us be careful to make sure that we are not bound by unbiblical forms, by forms which we have become used to and which have no absolute place in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. In regard to the polity and practice of the church, except for the clearly given Biblical norms, every other detail is open to negotiation among God's people under the leadership of the Holy Spirit."

He was writing these things 27 years ago at least, maybe 38 years ago. And today, change is happening in some places: house churches, emerging churches, even "free-range" Christians--and some who cling to the old ways and spend a lot of time bashing those who are making changes. He did not see much future for those who "ossified" (his word) in the old ways and refused to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

By the time he died in 1984, Francis Schaeffer was widely regarded as one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth-century church. But unlike many, he did not spend his later years reliving the battles of his past, but focused on what his readers would need to do and be in the years to come. He was a conservative Presbyterian, not a Charismatic or Pentacostal, but I believe he was a genuine prophet of God.

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