Thursday, January 17, 2013

Biblical Foundations for Cell-Based Church by Joel Comiskey (Book Review)

When we read, “And let us consider how how we may spur one another on toward love and good works, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing ...” (Hebrews 10:24-25), the meaning seems obvious. When the writer talked about “meeting together” we assume that we know what that means. There are no complicated theological terms. There is little about the Greek that reveals some kind of secret insight into what was meant that we don’t get in English. When the writer talked about “meeting together” we assume that we know what that means. But sometimes we miss the meaning of this passage because we read our current experiences of church into the first century. We imagine that gatherings today look very similar to gatherings held in the early church. When we do that, we actually hinder our ability to understand the world of the New Testament.

This is where Joel Comiskey’s new book Biblical Foundations for Cell-Based Church is so helpful. It pulls back the curtain on the world of the New Testament church as it draws from some of the leading New Testament exegesis along with excellent first century historical and sociological research regarding daily life, the nature of the home and the structure of the family in the first century. It invites you into a new imagination while not being too technical. In other words, you don’t have to wade through tons of information to get a clear and historically reliable understanding of how the first century church operated. This is a unique attribute of this book. Good research that is accessible makes for a great tool for busy church leaders.

Let me warn you though, most likely you will be surprised by what you read. I have been wrestling with the questions of the nature of the New Testament church for about 20 years. I have a Masters degree in New Testament studies and my primary reason for doing such a degree was to prepare me to do the research that stands behind Joel’s book. In all my reading, I’ve found that most authors do their historical research to support the kind of church that they already believe in. This is especially true of books that are like Joel’s and try to write in a non-technical way. Traditional church writers find support for traditional large group worship. House church proponents report how the house church was central. Cell church people find that the biblical model is large group and small group. And now organic, movement promoters see that the New Testament church is all about movements. And in most cases, the arguments are overstated and full of rhetoric, not disciplined research.

Even though Joel falls squarely in the cell church camp, I commend him on his discipline to allow the research to speak for itself. He even admits at places how he found evidence that caused him to chart new paths. He dug deeply to understand the nature of how normal first-century life worked, how houses impacted life in the church and how the family structure operated. The reality is that daily life, the house and the family structures were vastly different than what we experience today. If you don’t get inside the imagination of daily life, the house and the family, it’s very difficult to get inside the imagination of what the writer of Hebrews meant when he instructed people not to forsake gathering together. But when you do the work to get inside that imagination, it becomes starkly obvious that way we think about church life today is vastly different than that which the writer of Hebrews was encouraging. I don’t mean this as a judgement on the church today. I just want to invite us to see that our modern expressions are modern expressions. Just because we meet like the text from Hebrews tells us, that does not mean that we are living out the imagination of this text. Modern preaching is different than first century preaching. Modern small groups are not the same was a first century house church. And the daily life in modern churches cannot be compared to the daily life of the early churches.

If you teach on church life, small groups and the call to be a New Testament church, please read this book. You may not apply the research in the same way that Joel has, but your eyes will be opened to a new way of seeing how life worked and how the church operated. If you listen, you will be humbled again and called back to the Scriptures to sit under them and allow them to shape your life, your small group and your church in new ways.

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