Azusa, Topeka, Von Harnack, and Church Membership

There is an interesting discussion at the PB about whether elders should have the authority to control who may come to the Lord’s Table. This is an interesting an important discussion because it strikes at the heart of several modern problems. There are at four sources for the generally held modern “evangelical” skepticism about the visible, institutional church. One is the radical spirit of Anabaptism which manifests itself in Azusa Street/Topeka Pentecostalism. Another is Pietism, which places private religious experience above all other values and virtues. A third is the radically egalitarian (democratic) spirit of American evangelicalism post 1789 (with roots in the so-called 1st Great Awakening). The fourth source is the old German liberal notion that religious movements develop from “Kerygma” (authentic, existential, preaching) to “Dogma” (consolidation and ossification). Under the influence of the other three movements and ideas this idea has been widely adopted by modern evangelicals despite the fact that, whatever formal evidence there might be for this pattern in church history, in substance it is a failed theory.

None of these movements has anything to do with NT Christianity. To read the values of these movements into the NT is to do injustice to the NT on its own terms. To read the NT through the lenses of these movements is to do injustice to the Christianity of the NT which was churchly and genuinely Pentecostal. What’s really at stake here is the question of whether Christ established a visible, institutional church.

Remember, the foundation of the NT is said not to be the private religious experiences of those occasionally gathered together as the Spirit led but “the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20). These were offices and officers. The idea of order and structure are inherent to officers. The NT church wasn’t Quaker or Quietist. They did not sit about waiting for the Spirit to descend. In the Apostolic church the Spirit did descend and sovereignly operate in their midst in a unique and powerful way. Through the Apostles the Spirit fulfilled our Lord’s intention of establishing an organized, visible, disciplined church with officers and membership.

The White Horse Inn guys were just talking recently about the foundational nature of the Apostolic church. It would be worth a listen.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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