Book 4 Chapter 4 Section 1-15
The Wonder Years tells the story of Kevin Arnold, a likable kid who lives in 1960s suburban America. The show plays out the life of this young boy as he discovers romance, adolescence and friendship against a backdrop of family tensions and social unrest. With its mix of humour, comedy and feel-good-moments, it was a favourite in our house during my childhood. The show was a nostalgic look on more innocent times, when kids played in the street and built tree houses and right and wrong hadn’t become shades of grey. It took us back to our youth when the world was exciting and new adventures were around every corner.
There was a time when the church had this same sense of excitement and innocence. In the days before it became the organised, wealthy, divided, megalithic institution it is today, it was as fresh as a young green shoot bursting out of the dry ground. With a growing momentum resulting from its increasing influence in society, this new movement was changing the known world. In this chapter Calvin describes how this young church was organised and governed, what the responsibilities of the leaders were and how they distributed their resources.
Calvin begins by looking at the different classes of ministers prevalent in the early church. Reflecting the divisions in the New Testament, the early church distributed its ministers into three orders – pastors, teachers and deacons. To the deacons “belongs the care of the poor and the dispensing of alms.” Calvin also quotes Jerome who describes five orders in the church: bishops, presbyters, deacons, believers and catechumens.
Calvin describes the strategy of the church in each city. All teachers were called presbyters, with one from this group being appointed as a bishop, “lest from equality dissension should arise”. The bishop was not to have “dominion over his colleagues but…collect their opinions, take precedence of others in collecting, advising, exhorting, guide the whole procedure by his authority.” Above the bishops were the archbishops, responsible for a province, with patriarchs above the archbishops “for the preservation of discipline”. A provincial synod decided on matters that couldn’t be resolved by individual patriarchs. If it couldn’t be resolved by this synod a General Council had to be called. This was the hierarchy of the early church.
Calvin goes on to describe the role of deacons in the early church, who were responsible for receiving and distributing the daily offerings. The offerings were distributed into four parts – the clergy, the poor, repair of the church, and the bishop. The bishop’s allocation was not for his personal use, but that he might be hospitable to those in need.
In this chapter Calvin outlines the blueprint that the early church overlaid on top of the biblical principles set down for governing a church. Although these precautions may seem Draconian to us, and in an ideal world we would prefer not to have such a hierarchy in place, they served the church fairly well in the early days. When controversies raged over the deity of Christ the General Councils were able to decree orthodoxy and set the course for future generations. In the early days the bond of continuity was able to ensure that those in positions of responsibility were men of integrity and deep humility. Men like Augustine, Jerome, Cyril and Gregory set the standard in their passion for truth and godliness.
Unfortunately, over the years the rot set in. The responsibility and authority that had been given to individuals in order to bring unity instead brought corruption. Men of weaker character and shallower doctrine reached the highest positions and this opened the floodgates for those below to take advantage of their freedom. The rest, as they say, is history. Calvin will go on to show that this blueprint was lying in tatters by the 16th century.
While many of us may wish that we could go back to the church’s youth, there is no turning back the clock. As an older and wiser Kevin Arnold reflected during one episode “Growing up is never easy. You hold on to things that were. You wonder what’s to come. But that night, I think we knew it was time to let go of what had been, and look ahead to what would be. Other days. New days. Days to come. The thing is, we didn’t have to hate each other for getting older. We just had to forgive ourselves…for growing up.” Looking back it seems that despite starting well, with a good structure and good intentions, every attempt to overlay an organisational structure over the biblical principles has eventually failed. Thankfully God is not content to leave his church alone. He reforms and revives and renews his people and will continue to do so until there is no longer a need for a hierarchy. Let us keep looking forward, to that day when each of us will glory in the splendour of his presence.
“No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying “Know the Lord”, because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” Jeremiah 31.34
Father, one day we will all be right, we will all have a full understanding of your truth. There will be no dividing lines resulting from our imperfect understanding of your word. All will unite with one accord to praise and magnify your name. These will be the real wonder years, the days of glory and unadulterated joy. These will be the days without end and without disagreement. Then will be finally be fulfilled the prayer of Jesus that we might be one, as you are one. Marantha! Amen