We sat down for a chat with Jeff Brown, author of Corporate Decision-Making in the Church of the New Testament. In addition to discussing his book, Jeff also touched upon his writing process, influences, and future projects.
1. What inspired you to write Corporate Decision-Making in the Church of the New Testament?
The book is normally listed in the area of New Testament, but I wrote it as a dissertation for my degree in Systematic Theology. I have had an interest in Church Order since my seminary days. The idea that church members should be involved in decision-making, and not just several leaders or simply the hierarchy has always made sense to me. It seemed to me, as well, that the New Testament described this. So I began the project with an idea I thought was likely true, and wanted to see if it would prove out. It is a lot like trying to prove an hypothesis in the realm of the Natural Sciences.
I had a second motivation: if we find out exactly what the New Testament has to say about group decision-making in the church, it will help toward a healthy church order today, regardless of one’s denomination.
2. What does your writing typical process consist of?
Of all that I have published, two books have been academic. Usually, what I write is on a non-academic level. But in this case, I will have to answer about academic writing. Standard dissertation form tends to kill everyone’s interest from the start. So I tried to do some rewriting to make my book more interesting. I see the book as an exercise in Systematic Theology. In my first year of seminary, I was fascinated with my theology courses, and learned that all good theology is based on good Scriptural exegesis, and compared with Historical Theology. Secondly, one needs to interact with a range of theological viewpoints to be credible in one’s statements. So that is how I approached my topic. I pursued every lead I could that had a bearing on any of my arguments. I had to be willing to listen to those who contradicted my basic views as well.
As I began my research, I became aware of the need to add the Social World of the New Testament, which was the environment in which the order of churches arose. I think that by the approach I have used: 1) attention to the Social World of the New Testament, 2) consideration of theological concepts associated with the subject, 3) thorough exegesis, 4) comparison with early church history, and 5) interaction with a range of theological viewpoints, one can come up with credible theology.
3. In layman’s terms, what are the main ideas that Corporate Decision-Making in the Church of the New Testament explores?
Thanks for framing the question this way. Theologians tend to use jargon and complicated sentences. My book demonstrates that according to the New Testament, entire congregations took part in some church decisions: from choosing leaders to determining church doctrine. At other times, specific groups made decisions by themselves. The reasons for the decisions and who made them are understandable from the various historical events. In my conclusions I recommend that churches today use the same practices.
4. Which writers or academics do you think have had the greatest impact on you and why?
I have to begin with my professors in my undergraduate studies in Biology and Chemistry. Their instruction forced me into academic discipline, and I learned the scientific process well. I am sure it guides my writing to this day. Mortimer Adler’s book, How to Read a Book, had a significant impact on my thinking when I was a seminary student. It teaches the reader how to develop critical thinking skills, and what books are vital for intellectual life. I was also influenced by Augustus Hopkins Strong’s Systematic Theology. I was impressed by how he put his theology together using biblical exegesis, theologians from a broad spectrum, church history, philosophy, and even the poets. Of course, it is dated, and I have since used other, newer works more heavily. But his volume was and is an intellectual challenge. People usually blink when I tell them I have read it three times. Calvin’s Institutes have had a significant impact on my theology and my thinking. My copy is well-marked. The truth is, whether people praise Calvin or denounce him, if they are Protestants and preachers, they are all more influenced by Calvin’s Institutes than they could imagine. I should also mention two professors who challenged me during my theology and doctoral studies. Rolland McCune and Kevin Bauder.
5. Who do you think the book will appeal most to?
My book is intended, first of all, for those who are interested in the subject of Church Polity. But I hope to interest those who haven’t pursued the subject, because all church leaders need to be knowledgeable in it. It is an academic book, so it will not appeal to the average reader. Still, my brother, who did not study theology and never took a Greek or Hebrew course in his life, was interested and read it all the way through.
6. What are the most obscure notions the book explores?
Most people would not be familiar with a phenomenon in the Roman Empire called “Voluntary Societies”. These societies would be comparable today to various private social organizations: cultural, ethnic, academic, athletic, etc. Voluntary Societies mimicked the political structure of the democratic Greek city. They were normally small (rarely more than 200 members), and brought people of different social status, even slaves, together. They were quite widespread in the Empire during the early days of the Church of the New Testament. In the last few decades, scholars have begun to pay attention to the influence of Voluntary Societies on the Church itself.
7. Who are your favourite authors (at any stage of life / career)?
That one is hard to limit. I will try: Cicero, Mark Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, W.G.T. Shedd, F.F. Bruce, Helmut Thielicke, Stanley Jaki, Michael Polyani, Daniel Berlinski. I have begun reading the Puritans, and really appreciate them.
8. How has your research developed since the publication of Corporate Decision-Making in the Church of the New Testament in 2014 and have there been any recent developments in the subject or in your thoughts and ideas on the subject?
I haven’t really been able to pursue recent developments in this field since my book was published in 2013. I have had to pour nearly all my energies into our church here in Nuremberg and into the Lay Bible Institute we began seven years ago. I have noticed, however, that my book has been used in academic articles and two other books on church polity. Most books on Church Order have not devoted an entire section to the impact of the New Testament world on Christian church polity. I think this has been intriguing to some who have looked at my book.
9. Do you have any future books or research projects lined up for the future? Please tell us about these.
Yes, I have written a short commentary on the Book of Acts in the German language. It is with a German publisher, and should be out in the next six months. In addition, another pastor that I mentored and I have come up with a hermeneutics course for the average Bible-reader (without theological training). It includes both an instructor’s and a participant’s handbook. We are talking now with a German publisher for the course. I am also nearly finished with a manuscript in German on the subject of the Kingdom of God. Most works on this theme begin with the Gospels. In Acts 28, you find that the Apostle Paul began the subject with the Pentateuch (Acts 28:23). The Kingdom of God has its own story in Scripture, really. If you pay attention to it, you understand that Christ is intensively at work now: regardless of belief or unbelief. I am trying to follow Paul’s lead. A fourth project I have is the same subject, on a popular level in the English language. It will take a while. I am writing it for my two daughters, but I will of course look for a publisher.
10. Alongside having taking a diverse interest in the world of academia, we would be delighted to learn about any additional projects or hobbies!
I enjoy vegetable gardening. I love hiking in the mountains of southern Germany. I used to play basketball, but I stopped a few years ago, since I could not keep up with the 20-year-olds! I enjoy asking religious opinions and talking about my faith in Christ in the pedestrian zone of our city. People are very often willing to talk, and you can learn a great deal about what people really think about God by doing that.
Corporate Decision-Making in the Church of the New Testament is available now.