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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Change Churches, But How?” (book review: Christianity Today)

The Problem of Wineskins: Church Structure in a Technological Age. by Howard Snyder
Christianity Today
1976

Howard Snyder has given us what he believes is an agenda for future though on the organic relation between the Gospel of Jesus Christ (the “new wine”) and the church traditions, structures and patterns surrounding that Gospel (the “old wineskins”). His major premise is that church structures are relative and sociologically conditioned whereas the Gospel is absolute and eternal. He quotes Luke 5:36-39 as foundational to his argument that “new wine must he poured into new (not old) wineskins.” Snyder is to he added to the ever-increasing list of church “renewal” authors (e.g., Getz, Stedman, Richards, Bloesch, Girard) seeking to recast evangelically the mold of church structure.

He defines “new wine” as “preaching the gospel to the poor” Indeed, how a church deals with the poor (not poverty) is the test of apostolicity. in Snyder’s view. He writes. “In God’s world there is no human condition which escapes moral significance and the poor, and the treatment they receive, are strong indicators of the faithfulness of God’s people.”

He defines the “old wineskins” as that part of the Protestant church which came out of the sixteenth-century Reformation (presbyterian and congregational church government) and did not shed enough of the encrusted Roman Catholic tradition to allow the “new wine” to pour forth once more as it did in the days of the immediate post-apostolic church. He writes, “Regardless of the label, much Protestant ecclesiology is based more on tradition than oil Scripture.”

Having thus defined his central terms Snyder lays before us the basic tension in the body of Christ as he sees it: “Renewal in the church has usually meant the church’s rebirth among the poor, the masses, and the alienated. And with such resurgence hits usually come the recovery of such essential New Testament emphases its community, purity, discipleship, the priesthood of believers and the gifts of the Spirit.-The tension is that t he structure of the Reformation-rooted church is unable to respond adequately to this “renewal” or “rebirth.”

This being the case, a “new wineskin” is needed. Snyder takes the tabernacle in the wilderness as the divine model for today’s church structure; “it shows God’s people—the church—as mobile and flexible.” But the model that is used instead is the temple, a sign of immobility, inflexibility, inhospitality, and vanity. Using the tabernacle model, Snyder tries to determine the ecclesiastical remedy for these four woes of our Reformation-rooted church structural heritage.

Rather than being immobile, the church structure ought to facilitate the gathering together of God’s people. The Church is to be organized around the central idea that God’s people are a cove-naming, called-out people on a pilgrimage in this hostile world. Secondly, rather than being inflexible, the church structure ought to accommodate itself to functional considerations as it seeks to harbor the beleaguered people of God in an antagonistic cultural setting. Thirdly, rather than being inhospitable, the church structure ought to emphasize community and “peoplehood.” That is, the Church is to concern itself, at least partially, with expressing and demonstrating the charismatic communion of God’s people as they are gathered together by the Holy Spirit. Lastly, rather than fostering vanity, the church structure ought to encourage the priesthood of all believers, with everyone humbly contributing his spiritual gifts for the common good and affirming the “uniqueness and value of human personality.” There are no “superstar” pastors in the reconstituted church.

Snyder’s discussion of the “new wine” as the “preaching to the poor” is a ground-breaking evangelical attempt to get the Church to consider this aspect of its kingdom responsibilities. His survey giving it cultural and historical perspective helps one understand his approach to the problem of church structure. The book is clearly laid out and highlighted to make comprehension rather easy. And the author’s extensive use of notes is welcome.

Snyder refuses to engage in what Kenneth Gangel calls the “franchising syndrome” (This is the way we did it, so copy its), and while this is laudable, it also poses a problem. The practicality of the book is thwarted by the omission of concrete suggestions on just how to implement the restructuring for which Snyder is calling. (Granted, he disclaims the role of blueprint-maker in his introduction.) While he emphasizes the small group (eight to twelve people) as the most efficient and functional component of church structuring, how-to-do-it information (such as that offered by Richards, Stedman. and Girard, to name three) is absent. This I consider a major drawback to this book.

One other major weakness is the apparent cutting of the apostolic umbilical cord to church structure. Snyder seems to deny the sufficiency and normativeness of God’s Word for structuring and organizing God’s people in our age. Does God charge us with the Great Commission and then refuse to reveal to us the structure for carrying out that commission? Snyder draws more upon the unauthoritative (and scanty) history of the immediate post-apostolic church than upon the authoritative (and not so scanty) history of the apostolic church in building his sociological/functional church structure for our age.

Howard Snyder is an erudite, trench-experienced church scholar who has an immense contribution to make to the welfare of the Church of Jesus Christ in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The Problem of Wineskins, however, is itself a pilgrimage—a statement written in the midst of Snyder’s journey to a settled ecclesiastical Canaan. It might have been more profitable had the author waited upon more study and reflection and then come forth with a definitive direction that was more soundly exegeted and tightly reasoned. Until we get this from Snyder, we must rely on ecclesiastical pioneers such as David Mains of Chicago, Ray Stedman of Palo Alto (both of whom endorse this book), and Egon Middelmann of the L’Abri-oriented Grace and Peace Fellowship in St. Louis to help the evangelical churches become the “new wineskins” for our precious vintage of gospel wine.

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