Form versus function, revisited

DCF 1.0OK, let’s get back to the discussion of men and women in the church… soon. This weekend I downloaded Jay Guin’s e-book Buried Talents, and I’d like to at least familiarize myself with Jay’s work before going to much further. I deeply respect Jay and his approach to God’s Word. We are both members of the Church of Christ, so we not only share a common background, but a common present reality. I’d like to hear his voice on this subject. I encourage you to download the free book and read it as well (I’d like to post a link to it, but Jay’s site doesn’t seem to be responding right now. You can find a link at

So let me review a concept that I think can be important as we look at all of this: the idea of form versus function. It’s the idea that, when studying biblical examples, we need to look not only at what was done but why it was done. What was the purpose of the action? Then we have to consider whether the same function can be fulfilled in better ways in our culture, or if the original form is so tied to the function that it should not be changed.

The classic example is foot washing. Foot washing was an act that conveyed a lot of meaning in the ancient world, particularly about social hierarchy and relationships. In short, it was something done by the person at the bottom of the totem pole, i.e. the least important person. (in the views of the ancient world, at least) When Jesus commanded his disciples to wash one another’s feet, he wasn’t merely addressing hygiene.

Foot washing is very different today. In our culture, it’s as likely to make the recipient uncomfortable as it is to please them. It rarely comes across as an act of service; more often than not, it communicates that someone wants to perform an artificial act of service. (I’m not talking about mutual foot washing assemblies; I know that those can be special, spiritual moments)

The function of foot washing can be better served by other acts of service in today’s culture.

I think the act of baptism is a form closely tied to its function. I have yet to see a better expression of the death and burial of the old man, as well as the beginning of the new life. While there can be much debate about its significance, baptism continues to be the form that best addresses its original function.

When we look at the New Testament letters, for example, the question really isn’t whether or not these are rules and regulations for the modern church. The question is what function did each teaching serve and how is that function addressed today.

Photo courtesy of Annika on

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