This month I picked up The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren to see what the fuss was all about. I finished the book in less than an hour. It's OK--I agreed point by point with all the author's guidelines for a spiritual life. But this popular book did not exactly stir me to do anything differently.
Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel by Brian D. McLaren and Tony Campolo was sorta interesting to me.
Dan Kimball's book The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations was much closer to home I suppose--since Santa Cruz if just over the hill from where I live in Silicon Valley. This book is an interesting read--with lots of notes in the margins, but God wasn't mentioned much. (For a review see http://www.theooze.com/articles/article.cfm?id=728) Lots of thought and hard work has gone into these books, obviously.
A must-read article by Jason Zahariades called, Detoxing from the Church struck my attention (see http://www.theooze.com/articles/article.cfm?id=669). This writer suggests that traditional church may do more harm than good--a premise I am tempted to agree with that at times! He concludes,
"Only Christ is the source of divine life. Each member must follow Jesus daily to learn his divine life. Each member must shoulder the responsibility to work out his or her salvation and not expect the community or its leaders to do it for him or her. In Christ, we can learn together, serve together, grow together, love together, etc. But we must first and foremost follow Christ into his life. And to do this we must abandon the distorted and addictive version of the consumer church in order to be free to become Christ's Church."
A church elder friend from out of town comments as follows on "Detoxing",
"The article hits at the very core of why churches are 'dead' and what fundamentals must be in place for the Spirit of the Lord to permeate the gathering together of believers to worship. The 'how to' of a truly God-honoring and Spirit-led worship on Sundays is to be found in personal devotion to knowing and loving God ourselves, first. When we bring with us on Sundays our walk with God from the past week, we are bound to encourage the self-sacrificial service to the body that Christ Himself has given us all week long."
Yet another out of town elder friend of mine commented:
"I sent a copy of Jason's article to a couple involved in their church split involving much pain. This is a gifted couple highly involved in the music, teaching, organization, etc. Here is part of their response, 'This is one of the most interesting things I have ever read -- it's like fresh cool water on a hot dry day. I need to spend a lot more time re-reading and thinking about this article. Perfect timing! Thank you so much.'"
A friend of many years, a Professor of English, wrote,
"Many pastors are conscious of the fact that they are merely copying the success of [a predecessor]. Some think of it as replacing the liturgy of church service that was so 'comforting' for so many generations, and it is assumed that the 'empty' traditions have been replaced by 'real' ones. Everyone can enter a 'familiar' surrounding. But, it does become a cocoon of sorts, and quite quickly. I feel, because of the simplicity, that many weeds pop up among the wheat because it is so easy to copy the talk and the walk. Master just a few words of jargon and stop overtly smelling like a bar patron and presto chango! That's got to be some part of the 'kosher meat exchanges' where Christian divorced folks go to meet each other. Too bad people assume it's such a safe environment. It must be heart-wrenching when people realize that it isn't. Why do we act so surprised when we find hypocrites among us? Yes, sometimes it's a real good thing to nurture our relationships with the real and living God in a real and living world. We can't afford to restrict our lives to Christian country clubs--yes, I'm somewhat cynical. At least we should never lose track of the insulated nature of the Christian sub-culture. One prominent pastor e-mailed me a (rhetorical?) question about, 'How can we make the church more relevant to pop culture?' What a question. He assumed that I, a free-thinker and insightful person (his perception of me), would have something novel to say. Why does 'church' have to be so predictable? Why do we always have to do things the same, proven way? What happened to the Jesus Movement? Tradition is interesting to observe, but aren't we advised against the traditions of men? [Has] anybody read Frank Viola's book Pagan Christianity?"
I tend to think that all this rearranging of the institutional church in these last days is about as fruitful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It's probably "too little too late." The needed reforms are probably too great for any church to dare to try.
John MacArthur says,
"Traditional methodology - most noticeably preaching - is being discarded or downplayed in favor of newer means, such as drama, dance, comedy, variety, side-show histrionics, pop-psychology, and other entertainment forms... In the past half-decade, some of America's largest evangelical churches have employed worldly gimmicks like slapstick, vaudeville, wrestling exhibitions and even mock striptease to spice up their Sunday meetings. No brand of horseplay, it seems, is too outrageous to be brought into the sanctuary. Burlesque is fast becoming the liturgy of the pragmatic church." (Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World, 2001)
On a positive note, David Wilkerson of Times Square Church, lifted my spirits with a new message God Is Doing a New Thing in His Church, (http://www.worldchallenge.org/dwmessages/tscpsenglish.html)
Dave Wilkerson says,
"The principle is this: God will not begin a new thing in his church until he does away with the old. As Jesus put it, he won't put new wine into old wineskins. Why is this so? It's because God has a controversy with the old thing in his church. You see, with every new work He raises up, only a few generations pass before apathy and hypocrisy begin to creep in. Soon God's people become idolaters, with hearts bent toward backsliding. And, eventually, God chooses to bypass the old work in his church. He forsakes it completely before He introduces the new."
My point is this: there is lots of ferment in America these days about "the church" --I am taking a mild approach in a reporter's role. Everyday I see postings and articles from good Christian people who are angry enough at the institutional church (IC) that some may start showing up on Sundays with a whip of cords. (John 2:15)
People often ask me why Heresy Harold Camping, president of Family Radio Inc., is so popular these days when he teaches that God is finished with the church altogether and people in "the church" should just leave altogether. Camping is wrong, as usual, but that doesn't fix the problem of dead and lifeless churches all around us. All sorts of people listen to this man on the radio, why I don't fully understand. He is not even very entertaining
Instead of than getting into detailed discussions about church mechanics I find it helpful for my own understanding of "the church" is to back off and review in my mind a few basic Biblical core ideas. My comments are "bare-bones" and milder than one finds in books such as those written by Frank Viola (which I consider excellent). I am able to take both sides in most any argument so the comments below are for discussions purposes. I am not on any crusade.
First, it is highly likely that the church in America, by and large, is now fully "Laodicean." This is the direction history has been moving for a hundred years or so. When we don't do things God's ways, God just picks up and leaves. A holy God can not dwell in the midst of a sinful people. Just as Christ indwells the individual believer, so also it is His desire to indwell the collective community when they gather together (1 Peter 2:5). The main collective sin of the church today, surely, is worldliness. We have largely adopted the lifestyles of the pagan world around us and taken all the idolatry of the culture into Christ's church and called it good. By and large I think the Lord has "left the church" --as far as manifested power and blessing are concerned. Of course the Lord never really "leaves" His people--if they really are "His people." But He can certainly shut down the power and life at a given time and place so that all we do becomes drab, dull, boring--in spite of all our best plans and efforts to make things happen.
Ezekiel Chapters 8-11 present a very vivid illustration of God leaving His people in the history of Israel. After blessing Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem with His supernatural presence for almost 400 years, there came a time when God picked up and left on His glorious chariot throne. God "left" Jerusalem for 70 years, the city was destroyed, but He stayed close to the scattered remnant in Iraq. God never gives up on His covenant people's so that is always an encouragement when the externals of our faith aren't going so well.
In 1985 Ray Stedman wrote,
Last week I went through the yellow pages of the telephone book and counted the number of Christian churches in Palo Alto. There are 36 of them, all claiming to be Christian. I did not even attempt to count the churches in the cities on the Peninsula. If we were to include all the cities that ring the Bay Area we would probably find that there are thousands of churches in this part of California alone.
Surely this forces the question upon us, "If all these churches were like the churches in the book of Acts, do you think life on the Peninsula would be different than it is today?" There is no doubt it would be tremendously different. The book of Acts lists a mere handful of churches, made up of slaves and working class people for the most part. As Paul said to the Corinthians, "There are not many mighty, not many rich among you," (1 Cor 1:26). Nevertheless there was such a dynamic at work in those churches that within 25 years after the day of Pentecost, when Paul and his companions, Timothy, Luke and Silas came to Thessalonica on the outskirts of the empire, the people sent a delegation to the city fathers saying, "These who have turned the world upside down have come here also," (Acts 17:6). It is recorded that the city fathers were very disturbed by the news. That was the impact of the early church.
What has happened in the meantime? Why are churches in general today so weak and ineffectual, having little impact upon society? Why is society degenerating while churches are increasing in number and in size? I agree there are dynamic churches here and there that are making an impact and reaching people. But we have to admit that churches like that are relatively rare. While this may sound like an oversimplification, I believe the reason for the change can be put in a very brief form: We have changed the strategy of the church. We no longer are operating as the Lord of the church instructed at the beginning. The church has filed away the original strategy and come up with one of its own which seems to be much more suitable for our day. That is why the church is steadily decreasing in power and influence. (The New Strategy, http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/john/3872.html)
The church was invented for Jesus Christ. It is His church, not "our" church. The true church is His virgin Bride--the Father's love gift to His Son. "You are not your own, you were bought with a price..." sort of thing. God's involvement with the calling out of a church occupies a short internal of history of only a couple thousand years. After the church has been completed the Lord has other work to do. The church is not "all in all." We are only one part of a grander plan. God did not call us out of a lost world so we could do as we please and live happily ever after according to our own pagan dreams and goals.
At the first church council in Jerusalem, James announced, "Men and brethren, listen to me: 'Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: "After this I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up; So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the LORD who does all these things.'" 'Known to God from eternity are all His works.'" (Acts 15:13-18)
The Elect of the Church Age
A certain, fixed number of Jews and Gentiles, gathered out of the world during the last 2000 years constitute the true church (which is surely now nearly complete). For the sake of discussion we might say that the church will finally number perhaps a billion persons, with every nation represented. Each and every person who ends up in the church will be found to have been "chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world." Each will have been called and brought into the faith by God. Every Christian is hand-picked and uniquely called, regardless of the circumstances of his or her conversion experience. The guarantee that this fixed number of persons will end up in the church is implicit in the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John Chapter 17. In that sense whether a church does thing right or not, the elect will find salvation because Jesus Himself if the one who finds.
The Call to spread the Gospel Near and Far (Evangelism)
Romans 3 assures us that people do not go looking for God. If He did not seek us out as "the Hound of Heaven," no one would be saved. God is greatly hated everywhere. He is ignored, vilified, blasphemed and insulted day after day. Man's first efforts are to deny and suppress what they do know about God (Romans 1). If that fails, we all have ways of reinventing God to make Him less threatening, less dangerous, less intrusive. (This latter move is what generates the great religions of the world. Religion, too, is vanity).
God seeks out His elect one by one. He brings them into a personal relationship with Himself in many different ways. He retains His sovereignty in all He does and He does not delegate His authority. Primarily God has chosen to save people through the world-wide proclamation of a straightforward message called "the gospel." The greater part of Paul's letter to the Romans explains what this gospel is and isn't. He says more in Galatians--and throughout the NT for that matter. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul emphasizes that the content of the gospel has to do with the life, death, burial and resurrection of God's Son, Jesus Christ. That's the central focus.
God does not wish the world at large to remain ignorant of who He is. Therefore Christians are called to tell the world all sorts of things about God--as made known to us in the Bible. Most people won't believe, but at least they can't say they were never told when judgment day rolls around (Acts 17:22-31).
How the gospel is announced makes a big difference, of course. It is announced in words, but also in the life-styles of God's people. We Christians are asked to show forth the love of God and represent His character in all we do and say. Let's just say that evangelism in all of its forms is a major activity of the local church. If evangelism comes about spontaneously because of the overwhelming "body-life" of the church, all the better. The NT does not tell us how to keep up with changes in the culture we live in. It's all just pagan anyhow, and the only fix is for people to know the living God as He is. Obviously every generation has to relearn appropriate communication skills or no one will hear us at all. Hence, the books referenced at the top of this article are great resources.
The Purposes of Local Churches
When God saves a person He has a radical transformation waiting for each and every one of us (How God Saves Us, http://ldolphin.org/howsaved.html). Only a small fraction of all the people on earth will ever be added to the church. This is not God's fault. He is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9) But He can not force people to believe. Any love relationship involves the consent of two parties. Just a few believe in every generation. Most people stay lost.
The reality the entire Bible speaks of constantly is this lost-ness of man and the precious nature of the salvation God offers everyone. Most everyone we know around us will not make it to heaven and will eventually be banished forever from the very presence of God when Jesus returns to reclaim the earth as His inheritance. (2 Thess. 1:6-10) Christians live in this tension, seeing things as they really are. Blindness and self-deception accompanies the rejection of Christ from one's life. Most people we know will not be persuaded to come to Christ no matter what--come hell or high water. We ought not to be so naive about the state of the lost--we are supposed to be heart-broken and grief-stricken about them because that is how God feels about people who don't know Him. "The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost."
The presence of local churches--of Christians--in any society brings the dual functions of "salt and light" into that culture. Evil is restrained, wrong behavior is checked, moderated, even reversed. Biblical truth permeates all levels of society. But the world isn't getting better every generation--it's clearly getting worse. This (predicted) downhill spiral will happen even if the church were as godly as she could be. Things won't change for the better until Christ invades the planet. The church is only the advanced guard--holding down the fort until the Lord comes. (There's a War On Folks, http://ldolphin.org/war-on.html)
The Family of God
Christians are a family--brothers and sisters. Describing Christians as the family of God the Father is especially meaningful when many people come into the church from broken homes and dysfunctional families. The church is a healing community. When the church meets, it probably ought not to be compartmentalized by age groups and special interests the way traditional "Sunday schools" have done it for years. Young and old, new Christians and mature believers, should all have ample time to get to know one another whenever the church gathers. In other words, traditional Sunday schools divided by ages and presided over by a specialized minister for that age group should probably go away. Why should Sunday school classes be merely be support and entertainment classes to keep kids out of trouble? Young people need to be taught the entire Bible from an early age like all others in the family of God.
The Body of Christ
The church is also described in the NT as the body of Christ, with Christ the Head and all Christians "members one of another." Spiritual gifts are given to each member of that body upon conversion with the goal in mind that each and every member is to engage in the work of the ministry. This clearly stated objective for the church (Ephesians 4) is widely ignored in favor of a clergy-laity (unbiblical) division of labor. Usually, "the people" hire paid professional, well-trained pastors, youth leaders, supporting staff to do all virtually all the work of the ministry! What is needed from the people (the consumers of religion) is money in the offering plate to pay for the staff and buildings and facilities. The dedicated servants of God who are the overworked and underpaid ministers in most churches ought not to be blamed for this state of affairs. This state of affairs arises because the average Christian wants to sit back and be part of a spectator sport not part of the active team.
"When we compare present-day churches to the original blueprint, it is strikingly apparent that many deviations have been permitted which have been detrimental to the life of the church. Through the centuries, the church gradually turned away from the simple provisions which made it such a powerful and compelling force in its early years, and terrible distortions entered into the church which continue to weaken the church today. Popular thinking fastened onto the church building--the physical stone-and-glass edifice--as the identifying symbol of the church. Emphasis was placed upon great imposing structures, massive ornate cathedrals with stained glass windows and flying buttresses.
In the beginning, "working in the church" meant to exercise a gift or perform a ministry anywhere within the far-flung body of Christ--even in a home, out on a mission field, or in a hospital. Gradually, however, "working in the church" came to mean performing some religious act within a specific building which was called "the church."
At the same time, there was a gradual transfer of ministry responsibility from the people (whom we now call the "laity") to the few pastor-teachers (whom we now call the "clergy," a term derived from the Latin clericus, meaning a priest. The scriptural concept that every believer is a priest before God was gradually lost, and a special class of super-Christians emerged who were looked to for practically everything, and who came to be called the "ministry." Somehow, the church lost sight of the concept, so clearly stated in Ephesians 4, that all Christians are "in the ministry." The proper task of the four support ministries we have examined is to train, motivate, and strengthen the people--so-called "ordinary lay people"--to do the work of the ministry.
When the ministry was left to the "professionals," there was nothing left for the people to do other than come to church and listen. They were told that it was their responsibility to bring the world into the church building to hear the pastor preach the Gospel. Soon Christianity became little more than a Sunday-morning spectator sport, much like the definition of football: twenty-two men down on the field, desperately in need of rest, and twenty thousand in the grandstands, desperately in need of exercise!
This unbiblical distortion has placed pastors under an unbearable burden. They have proved completely unequal to the task of evangelizing the world, counseling the wounded and brokenhearted, ministering to the poor and needy, relieving the oppressed and afflicted, expounding the Scriptures, and challenging the entrenched forces of evil in an increasingly darkened world. Pastors were never, ever meant to do it all! To even attempt it is to end up frustrated, exhausted, and emotionally drained--which, of course, is exactly the state in which you find many pastors today!
Further, this distortion has resulted in a sadly impoverished church which has made little impact on the world and increasingly withdraws into weakness, irrelevance, and isolation. We desperately need to return to the dynamic of the early church. We can no longer defend our ivy-clad traditions which leave no room for the original, power-packed New Testament strategy. Pastors, particularly, must restore to the people the ministry which was taken from them with the best of intentions.
The work of the ministry belongs to the entire body of believers, who should be equipped, guided, and encouraged by those who are gifted by God to expound and apply His Word with wisdom and power. The entire body has received gifts from the Spirit, and it is the task of those in the pastoral ministry to encourage the entire body to discover and exercise those gifts. When we rediscover the pattern and strategy of Ephesians 4, when we have given all Christians in the body their God-given role as ministers of God's eternal plan, then the entire body comes alive with resurrection power. Lives are changed. Ministries explode. Communities are touched and healed. The church becomes healthy and vital and exciting again.
If we can recapture God's original strategy for the church, then we will again see churches that are modern extensions of the church of Acts. The trademarks of the true, living church of Jesus Christ are boldness, power, transformation, and love, lived out in act after act of Christian service. There is no place in this world more exciting to be than a church that operates as God designed it to!" (Ray C. Stedman, Body Life, http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/bodylife/body07.html)
A Holy Nation
The Apostle Peter calls the church "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9) This hardly a description of any church I have ever visited. As Frank Viola points out in Pagan Christianity, the Protestant Reformers fixed some things that were wrong with the Roman Catholic Church dating from Constantine's day. But many fixes were only partial and other unbiblical church traditions were merely given a fresh coat of whitewash. For instance, it would be great if small groups worked together to discover and practice what the NT calls "the priesthood of all believers."
Local churches can and should have a dedicated staff, but strictly speaking no "clergy." Specially gifted servants are appointed by God in local churches with two distinct goals in mind. First, the staff is in place "to equip the people of God for the work of the ministry." Second, the staff is in place to build up the local body of Christians very specifically: "for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ--from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love." This second calling of the local church means that every new convert needs to become acquainted with the entire Bible--the whole counsel of God--and then every Christian needs help in the application of this knowledge in order to become mature in Christ. Paul said the same thing in Colossians about his own goals, "Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus." (Colossians 1:28)
The staff is not in place in the local church to do the work of the ministry, as Ray Stedman so clearly taught. But as we all know, that is the default mode of most of today's churches. This fact of life should not be blamed on the "clergy." The real default is the apathy of the average Christian who would prefer to pay someone else to do this task. Christian living by proxy is everyone's fault, it's been the status quo for generations. Pastors know all too well how difficult it is to get any of the members involved in "ministry" -- even in minor ways such as setting up chairs.
In short, the church is not supposed to have a clergy. It follows that churches should not have programs or program managers or activities that merely entertain. Most of the work in a local church should be making sure that everyone knows the entire Bible well. Is everyone walking with God? Is comfort and encouragement and prayer to be found at all levels of the congregation? Church family life and body life together provide the fellowship for knowing each other closely so we function as a family--a local microcosm of the greater macrocosm of the church universal.
Having said all this, it is obvious that life of churches everywhere depends on the devoted caring service of godly pastors. Ray Stedman expressed the view that pastor-teacher was one of the commonest gifts of the Spirit. So we need more pastors not fewer--scattered through the Body. Surely some pastors should be supported by the people they serve, to allow them optimum use of their time and gifts. We are a rich nation. Christians are known for their generous giving. So the church can and should support missionaries and teachers and prophets and pastors and evangelists. This is certainly taught in the NT.
There are practical problems in the ministry-of-and-by-the saints. God's people are usually plenty busy. Jobs are demanding. Families deserve as much time and attention as we can spare. How does the ordinary churchgoer gain the knowledge and the experience to be of much use to the Lord in ministry? Is the work of the ministry not done much better when it is put into the hands of trained, skilled, motivated professionals? The Bible does not teach the latter approach. If God tells us to do things a certain way, then surely he knows how to make His approach work in real life? Again, we can not set up our own well-engineered programs and plans and then invite God in to make things happen. He doesn't work that way.
Elders were appointed (not elected) in the early church. Elders are mature pastors--shepherds of the flock. Their main function is to guard the doctrine--the teaching--of the church. They are also watchmen guarding against the various forms of leaven which creep into the church to produce doctrinal and behavioral compromise. Elders are not supposed to be business managers, planning committee members, program managers, department heads. They don't run things. They are shepherds.
The internal life of the church of Jesus Christ has two main branches: teaching and service. As elders are called to guard the teaching, so deacons guard the "serving" aspects of the life of a church. This suggests that the deacons, not the elders, should be the stewards over the church finances. This change in how things are usually done would free up the elders to do more teaching and be more involved with the entire flock in small groups and counseling. Acts 6:2-4: "It is not desirable for us [elders] to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word."
The people of God are encouraged by the NT to give regularly and to give in proportion to the regular blessings received from the Lord. Giving should be thoughtful and prayerfully--giving should be personalized so as to meet specific, known needs of God's people. A historical distortion of Biblical giving is for people to merely put money in the church offering plate thoughtlessly week after week, thus empowering church leaders to spend perhaps a million dollars a year as "stewards" over "God's" money. Actually the money in the church coffers is there because people have contributed for all sorts of reasons--God only knows the motives and intent of the givers. Church leaders who spend this money are often not trained for this task nor will they necessarily spend this money on the work in the community that God really would like to see undertaken. If God's people returned to giving only after thoughtful prayer--giving to known needs they care about--excess church income might soon be pruned away (but giving to the church might also be increased). God's people would be automatically more involved with the individuals they care about in a more direct, less impersonal way. The encumbrance of managing a "fat old useless church," would be lessened--in many cases streamlined and even downsized by wiser, prayerful giving to meet known needs. With God, quality is much more important than the number of members or the size of a budget anyway.
All sorts of people email us in the Paraclete Forum, http://paracleetforum.org,
about the place of "tithing" in the church today. Please
see Paul Winslow's article, with links, http://ldolphin.org/tithing.html.
If that's not strong enough for you, read what Frank Viola says
about this tradition in his book Pagan Christianity. He
really wants to throw money changers out of the house of God.
A Diffuse Church
For the first three centuries there were no central church buildings The church was a network of home churches. Ordinary people mattered most, as one sees for instance in all the names mentioned by Paul in his letter to Rome (Chapter 16). The real church is always, in every generation, a network of ordinary people from all walks of life. The church is never called an organization in the NT and the real church is certainly never a building--it's always people, connected people. "By this all know that you are my disciples because you have love for one another."
The early church could not help being neighborhood oriented. That allowed people to know one another because they all lived close by. Today's churches often draw strangers from a thirty of a fifty mile radius. This means that the "members" of the church almost never get together except on Sundays and then only for an hour or so. Surely this suggests that neighborhood centered home groups should be a key feature of the local urban church? Rather than having all their offices at the central hub, the pastors of a big church could in many cases have home offices and be neighbors to those who live nearby. On Sundays the various home groups and fellowship groups should continue to come together for teaching, body life, prayer, fellowship. There would be less need for church "staff meetings" and central office work if the leadership were diffused throughout the community.
And so Forth: No CEOs, No Program Managers, No Programs. Servant Leadership. The New Covenant. For purposes of this discussion I take it for granted that leadership in Christ's church is non-hierarchical, servant based. However, many churches ignore this clear teaching of the New Testament on leadership--just as many churches operate under the obsolete Old Covenant, ignoring the New Covenant which has been in effect since it was instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper. I am taking it for granted that readers have read Ray Stedman's books Body Life, (http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/bodyllife/) and Authentic Christianity (http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/authenxnty/) for starters.
The New Testament does not suggest that God is preparing us to live happily and prosperously in this world, so we can die and go home to our heavenly reward. Quite the opposite. The Bible's concern is in preparing us for the grander life that is to come when Christ returns. (Developing Christian Priorities in Life, http://ldolphin.org/priorities.html). Biblical illiteracy is so great these days that few ordinary Christians have a working knowledge of Genesis, so they don't know much about where we came from--not enough to debate the prevailing secular scientific naturalism. The Book of the Revelation is seldom studied except by prophecy freaks, so most Christians don't have a clue about what God is doing in the world right now related to the fast approaching end of the age we live in. Obviously ignorance of the Word of God this deep and this serious can not be corrected by a few homilies and four-verse sermonettes on Sunday mornings at 11 o'clock. "Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord GOD, 'That I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine of bread, Nor a thirst for water, But of hearing the words of the LORD.'" (Amos 8:11)
Jesus Runs His Church
One key feature of the Church of Laodicea is that Jesus is seen as marginalized in this last-of-the seven churches. He is actually outside this church knocking--asking to be invited in. But, He's not really needed. The church runs perfectly without Him. Jesus is not seeking to visit merely as a guest. He is the legitimate Lord of the Church, so He wants to run the whole show. Many churches today are program-centered, orchestrated, and micromanaged, even featuring such things as "worship rehearsal." But whoever heard of rehearsing for worship?
"If you do not worship God seven days a week, you do not worship Him on one day a week. There is no such thing known in heaven as Sunday worship unless it is accompanied by Monday worship and Tuesday worship and so on," says A. W. Tozer.
The real God is dangerous and won't fit into any of our boxes,
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)
No Church is Perfect
There is no way to guarantee that everyone who attends church is a Christian. There are many observers, seekers, inquirers who show up for services -- for various reasons. (This is one reason the church is not a democratically-run institution, but elder led instead). It is right and proper for a local church to be friendly and attractive to all. People do come to the Lord "in church" though the main place for evangelism is clearly outside the church, during the week.
Frank Viola's books have been a wonderful dose of vitamins and minerals in my life in the past couple of years. Frank's experience is mostly with smaller house churches. I hope he writes a book suggesting practical ways to achieve much needed reforms for bigger churches. Viola points out in Pagan Christianity that virtually ALL of the features we take for granted in the traditional Sunday morning church services are actually of pagan origin! This includes traditional sermons (oratory), choirs, the offering system, the liturgy, communion, and on and on. (Web site: http://www.ptmin.org/, http://www.ptmin.org/pagan.htm). Frank Viola's books are must reading I think--he really clears the air on many topics of church life--the genuine and the fake. One does not have to agree with him all the way of course. (See On Expository Preaching, by Ray C. Stedman).
I think the main thing Christians ought to do together on Sundays is to attend one or even two high-content Bible study electives (open to all ages). Also, there ought to be a free-flowing continuous "body-life" gathering for prayer and sharing. The latter meeting could simply replace that old-fashioned traditional Sunday morning service. People in the church need to get to know each other. All need to share and pray together. By the way, according to the NT, teaching is the churches Number One priority, Corporate prayer by the whole body is Number Two.
Perhaps there could be some small groups for special ministry concerns? Apologetics training classes are also important, with missions and evangelism strategy meetings and so on.
A Disclaimer: The visible life of a local church assembly is not a good indicator of what God is or is not doing in that church. The real work of God is usually hidden. "How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways beyond finding out." God is also not given to displays of power, force, and might. He prefers a low profile, a lowly path. His strength is in weakness (1 Corinthians 1-2). The true history of the church is being written by God's recording angels as a continuation of the Book of Acts--it isn't finished yet. A dear friend reminded me some years ago that God is weaving a great tapestry of our lives with all our daily choices being part of the warp and woof of what will eventually be a magnificent finished masterpiece. But she reminded me, "Let's not get involved in the tangled threads on the backside of the tapestry."
The Bottom Line: It seems likely to me that most American churches should heed the Lord's call to the church of Laodicea. No amount of internal fixes of the ways and workings of the local church will solve the root issue which is probably to be found in our deep estrangement from the Lord of the church. The church in America has at heart been ignoring the real God for a long time. I believe Jesus has a lot that He wants to say to us when He gets our attention. First, we have to open the door and let Him back in.
"To the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, 'These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'--and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked--I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."'" (Revelation 3:14-22)
Viola: Rethinking the Wineskin, http://www.ldolphin.org/viola.html
Viola: Who Is Your Covering? A Fresh Look at Leadership, Authority, and Accountability, http://www.ldolphin.org/viola2.html
Viola: Pagan Christianity, http://www.ptmin.org/pagan.htm
The Church at the End of the Age, http://ldolphin.org/church.html
What in the World is the Church? http://www.ldolphin.org/church2.html
Rediscovering the Body of Christ: Part II: The Decline of the Church, http://www.ldolphin.org/church3.html
A Glorious Church, http://ldolphin.org/glorychurch.html (A review of Pagan Christianity from last May)
On Preaching and Teaching, http://www.ldolphin.org/oratory.html
My People Perish: The Dumbing Down of the Church, http://www.ldolphin.org/dumbingdown.html
The Church in the Mirror (Class notes), http://ldolphin.org/mirror.html
A note from Elaine Stedman: "I think WE shut down the power and life. I just read a prayer delivered by Richard Halverson in the US Senate 1982:
"Heavenly Father, here we are in the place of power--greater power than any other legislative body on earth. Yet we are essentially powerless. Law after law is passed--nothing changes. We wield our great power, and probably more often than we like to think, impress only ourselves. We forget we are always only a heartbeat away from total powerlessness. Great God, help us understand that Thou art the source of all power, and that only as Thy power works through us do all things really change. Deliver us from human pride that deceives and seduces and corrupts mankind. In the name of the One whose power was supremely manifested on a cross."
Isn't this parallel to the powerless, lifeless institutional church? Simply substitute programs and gimmicks for legislation, and you've effectively eliminated the cross, from which flows both the power and the grace of Christ. I think the Lord never departs His Church, which after all is His Body. The man made trappings and power plays are denials of His Presence and power, and that puts us "only a heartbeat away from total powerlessness" and emptiness.
But in the end, the true Body is us. It has little effect on the "mixed multitude" to disassemble the towers of Babel. They will quickly be redesigned and replaced: "Let us build ourselves a city (church), and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." I think the problem is the church has largely reversed the first and second commandments. First us/we/me - then God, as addendum. Prayer is the great missing dimension, I believe. Prayer changes God's people, puts us in right relationship to the source of Power.
One more thought. I suppose it could be expected from an un-hippie. There is so much disorder and chaos in our culture that I expect there are some who are consoled by a certain amount of order. I don't think we want to throw out all semblance of order, do we? That could get quite messy, and in its own way replicate the state of the world. (Elaine Stedman, firstname.lastname@example.org).
An email from a friend in Spokane:
Do you know the book The Present Future by Reggie McNeal? He is a leader in a statewide Baptist Convention somewhere in the South. He analyzes the North American church and makes recommendations within his denomination. For a denominationalist, his observations are downright RADICAL. Here are some quotes. See if they ring true to you.
"A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith. They contend that the church no longer contributes to their spiritual development. In fact, they say, quite the opposite is true." (The Present Future, p.4)
"The North American church is suffering from severe mission amnesia. It has forgotten why it exists." (The Present Future, p.15)
Note Added 3/28/04.
You write of Frank Viola, "I hope he writes a book suggesting practical ways to achieve much needed reforms for bigger churches."
There is actually nothing to be done for bigger churches except splitting them up into independent home churches. The very fact that a church is large enough to need its own building means that it cannot conduct its meetings according to the NT pattern.
1 Cor 14 shows that every member has something to contribute; if the meeting is large enough to need a special building, it will automatically be too big for everyone to contribute. Then again, we are the _family_ of God, not his schoolhouse. We can't properly relate together as family in a non-family setting. Family belongs in the home and it works in a homelike way.
There have been some wonderful expository preachers, but their gift does not belong in the weekly meeting, and it is not a gift whose use gets much encouragement from the Bible. Frank Viola points out that Paul's teaching in Troas was dialog, not preaching, and the only NT accounts of monologues are of speeches addressed to non-believers. The NT shows us that the meeting on the Lord's day is for breaking of bread and for sharing the gifts God has given to each one so that the whole church can be built up. The only other expression of church shown in the NT is the church in the town and its local area: those Christians who can practically get to meet one another. This grouping may perhaps arrange for expository preaching, for which it may be necessary to hire a hall. However, I suspect that it would be better for the teachers to make the rounds of the various houses; the oratorical style is just not suited to a family, and, I repeat, we are the _family_ of God. A Spirit-filled teacher will presumably be able to adapt his style to a smaller meeting, and the intimacy of the occasion will enable people to challenge him if he says anything doubtful, whereas the authority conferred by the traditional lecture style makes it difficult to challenge the speaker.
Interestingly, it is when addressing the church at the town level (in 1 Cor 1:10ff) that Paul condemns factionalism and pleads for them to be all of one mind. There is no room for doctrinal differences. This is difficult to accept in our culture, but it is quite reasonable: there is one Spirit, one Lord, one God and Father of us all. If we are walking in him, we will necessarily share his opinions about things; it is only sin that can cause differences.
This makes it quite clear that there is no room at all for denominations or independent churches. There are only the house churches and the whole body of believers in and around the town. The elders are appointed in the town but probably belonged to individual houses; I suppose they would regularly have visited other houses. Their function, of course, is never to direct, but only to be watchmen and guardians ("overseer" has such horrid connotations of slavery) and to intervene to challenge false doctrine and people such as Diotrephes who seek to grab authority over others. I suppose the deacons would have acted at the town level to coordinate relief for people in need, which might be beyond the resources of a single house church.
Might I recommend to you a web-site: http://www.house-church.org which contains some more discussion of these issues. I would also be very grateful if you would look at http://www.lfix.co.uk/oliver/christian/biblical_church.html and let me know if you consider that there are any errors in there in my handling of the scripture.
Yours in Jesus, Oliver Elphick
February 27, 2004.
History of the Church: A. D. 100 to 311 Ð Clergy and Laity
The idea and institution of a special priesthood, distinct from the body of the people, with the accompanying notion of sacrifice and altar, passed imperceptibly from Jewish and heathen reminiscences and analogies into the Christian church. The majority of Jewish converts adhered tenaciously to the Mosaic institutions and rites, and a considerable part never fully attained to the height of spiritual freedom proclaimed by Paul, or soon fell away from it. He opposed legalistic and ceremonial tendencies in Galatia and Corinth; and although sacerdotalism does not appear among the errors of his Judaizing opponents, the Levitical priesthood, with its three ranks of high priest, priest, and Levite, naturally furnished an analogy for the threefold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon, and came to be regarded as typical of it. Still less could the Gentile Christians, as a body, at once emancipate themselves from their traditional notions of priesthood, altar, and sacrifice, on which their former religion was based.
Whether we regard the change as an apostasy from a higher position attained, or as a reaction of old ideas never fully abandoned, the change is undeniable, and can be traced to the second century. The church could not long occupy the ideal height of the apostolic age, and as the pentecostal illumination passed away with the death of the apostles, the old reminiscences began to reassert themselves 1.
In the apostolic church preaching and teaching were not confined to a particular class, but every convert could proclaim the gospel to unbelievers, and every Christian who had the gift could pray and teach and exhort in the congregation 2. The New Testament knows no spiritual aristocracy or nobility, but calls all believers "saints", though many fell far short of their vocation. Nor does it recognize a special priesthood in distinction from the people, as mediating between God and the laity. It knows only one high priest, Jesus Christ, and clearly teaches the universal priesthood, as well as universal kingship, of believers 3. It does this in a far deeper and larger sense than the Old (see Exodus 19:6); in a sense, too, which even to this day is not yet fully realized. The entire body of Christians are called "clergy" (klhrwn), a peculiar people, the heritage of God 4.
After the gradual abatement of the extraordinary spiritual elevation of the apostolic age, ... the distinction of a regular class of teachers from the laity became more fixed and prominent. This appears first in Ignatius, who, in his high episcopalian spirit, considers the clergy the necessary medium of access for the people to God. "Whoever is within the sanctuary (or altar), is pure; but he who is outside of the sanctuary is not pure; that is, he who does anything without bishop and presbytery and deacon, is not pure in conscience"...
During the third century it became customary to apply the term "priest" directly and exclusively to the Christian ministers, especially the bishops. In the same manner the whole ministry, and it alone, was called "clergy", with a double reference to its presidency and its peculiar relation to God. It was distinguished by this name from the Christian people or "laity".
Thus the term "clergy", which first signified the lot by which office was assigned (Acts 1:17, 25), then the office itself, then the persons holding that office, was transferred from the Christians generally to the ministers exclusively. ...
With the exaltation of the clergy appeared the tendency to separate them from secular business, and even from social relations Ð from marriage, for example Ð and to represent them, even outwardly, as a caste independent of the people, and devoted exclusively to the service of the sanctuary. They drew their support from the church treasury, which was supplied by voluntary contributions and weekly collections on the Lord's Day. After the third century they were forbidden to engage in any secular business, or even to accept any trusteeship. Celibacy was not yet in this period enforced, but left optional.
From History of the Christian Church, chapter 42.
1. Joseph Renan, looking at the gradual development of the hierarchy out of the primitive democracy, from his secular point of view, calls it "the most profound transformation" in history, and a triple abdication: first the club (the congregation) committing its power to the bureau or the committee (the college of presbyters), then the bureau to its president (the bishop) who could say: "Je suis le club" [I am the club], and finally the presidents to the pope as the universal and infallible bishop; the last process being completed in the Vatican Council of 1870. See his L'Eglise chretienne, 1879, p. 88, and his English Conferences (Hibbert Lectures, 1880), p. 90.
2. Compare Acts 8:4; 9:27; 13:15; 18:26,28; Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:10,28; 14:1-6,31. Even in the Jewish Synagogue the liberty of teaching was enjoyed, and the elder could ask any member of repute, even a stranger, to deliver a discourse on the Scripture lesson (Luke 4:17; Acts 17:2).
3. 1 Peter 2:5,9; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).Ê
4. 1 Peter 5:3. Here Peter warns his fellow-presbyters not to lord it over the klhrwn, that is, the lot or inheritance of the Lord, the charge allotted to them. Compare Deuteronomy 4:20 and 9:29.
Biographical note: Philip Schaff was a 19th century church historian who authored, among other works, the 8 volume History of the Christian Church. He was born in Chur, Switzerland in 1819 and died in New York, NY in 1893.Ê
From A. W. Tozer
From: Literature Ministries International For I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state.
For all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus.Ê
In this day when shimmering personalities carry on the Lord's work
after the methods of the entertainment world it is refreshing to
associate for a moment even in the pages of a book with a sincere and
humble man who keeps his own personality out of sight and places the
emphasis upon the in-working of God. It is our belief that the
evangelical movement will continue to drift farther and farther from
the New Testament position unless its leadership passes from the
modern religious star to the self-effacing saint who asks for no
praise and seeks no place, happy only when the glory is attributed
to God and himself forgotten....
Within the last quarter of a century we have actually seen a major
shift in the beliefs and practices of the evangelical wing of the
church so radical as to amount to a complete sellout; and all this
behind the cloak of fervent orthodoxy. With Bibles under their arms
and bundles of tracts in their pockets, religious persons now meet
to carry on "services" so carnal, so pagan, that they can hardly be
distinguished from the old vaudeville shows of earlier days. And for
a preacher or a writer to challenge this heresy is to invite ridicule
and abuse from every quarter.
Our only hope is that renewed spiritual pressure will be exerted
increasingly by self-effacing and courageous men who desire nothing
but the glory of God and the purity of the church. May God send us
many of them. They are long overdue. Of God and Men, 16-18.
"Lord, forgive me for my pride. Give me the humble spirit of the
self-effacing saint. Amen."
The Church: The Striped Candy Technique
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.Ê
Without Biblical authority, or any other right under the sun,
carnal religious leaders have introduced a host of attractions that
serve no purpose except to provide entertainment for the retarded
It is now common practice in most evangelical churches to offer the
people, especially the young people, a maximum of entertainment and
a minimum of serious instruction. It is scarcely possible in most
places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction is
God. One can only conclude that God's professed children are bored
with Him, for they must be wooed to meeting with a stick of striped
candy in the form of religious movies, games and refreshments.
This has influenced the whole pattern of church life, and even brought
into being a new type of church architecture, designed to house the
So we have the strange anomaly of orthodoxy in creed and heterodoxy
in practice. The striped candy technique has been so fully integrated
into our present religious thinking that it is simply taken for
granted. Its victims never dream that it is not a part of the
teachings of Christ and His apostles. Man: The Dwelling Place of
"Forgive me, Lord, where I have played into the hands of those wanting
striped candy instead of You. Help me to demonstrate a God so real
that no one could ever be bored with Him. Amen."
The Church: The Old Cross and the New Cross
But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord
Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to
The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them. The old cross
condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence
in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought
tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter. The flesh, smiling
and confident, preaches and sings about the cross; before that cross
it bows and toward that cross it points with carefully staged
histrionics--but upon that cross it will not die, and the reproach
of that cross it stubbornly refuses to bear.
I well know how many smooth arguments can be marshaled in support of
the new cross. Does not the new cross win converts and make many
followers and so carry the advantage of numerical success? Should we
not adjust ourselves to the changing times? Have we not heard the
slogan, "New days, new ways"? And who but someone very old and very
conservative would insist upon death as the appointed way to life?
And who today is interested in a gloomy mysticism that would sentence
its flesh to a cross and recommend self-effacing humility as a virtue
actually to be practiced by modern Christians? These are the
arguments, along with many more flippant still, which are brought
forward to give an appearance of wisdom to the hollow and meaningless
cross of popular Christianity. The Pursuit of Man, 53,54.
"Lord, it's not popular today to be 'old-fashioned.' But I commit
myself today to the old cross. Help me today to deny myself, to take
up my cross, and to follow You. Amen."
The Church: Higher Expectations
Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom,
that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I
also labor, striving according to His working which works in me
The treacherous enemy facing the church of Jesus Christ today is the
dictatorship of the routine, when the routine becomes "lord" in the
life of the church. Programs are organized and the prevailing
conditions are accepted as normal. Anyone can predict next Sunday's
service and what will happen. This seems to be the most deadly threat
in the church today. When we come to the place where everything can be
predicted and nobody expects anything unusual from God, we are in a
rut. The routine dictates, and we can tell not only what will happen
next Sunday, but what will occur next month and, if things do not
improve, what will take place next year. Then we have reached the place
where what has been determines what is, and what is determines what
That would be perfectly all right and proper for a cemetery. Nobody
expects a cemetery to do anything but conform....Everyone and
everything in a cemetery has accepted the routine. Nobody expects
anything out of those buried in the cemetery. But the church is not a
cemetery and we should expect much from it, because what has been
should not be lord to tell us what is, and what is should not be ruler
to tell us what will be. God's people are supposed to grow. Rut, Rot
or Revival: The Condition of the Church, 5,6.
"Lord, use me today to help some people to really grow in You. Send me
at least one person to whom I can significantly minister spiritual
For I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus.Ê --Philippians 2:20,21
In this day when shimmering personalities carry on the Lord's work after the methods of the entertainment world it is refreshing to associate for a moment even in the pages of a book with a sincere and humble man who keeps his own personality out of sight and places the emphasis upon the in-working of God. It is our belief that the evangelical movement will continue to drift farther and farther from the New Testament position unless its leadership passes from the modern religious star to the self-effacing saint who asks for no praise and seeks no place, happy only when the glory is attributed to God and himself forgotten....
Within the last quarter of a century we have actually seen a major shift in the beliefs and practices of the evangelical wing of the church so radical as to amount to a complete sellout; and all this behind the cloak of fervent orthodoxy. With Bibles under their arms and bundles of tracts in their pockets, religious persons now meet to carry on "services" so carnal, so pagan, that they can hardly be distinguished from the old vaudeville shows of earlier days. And for a preacher or a writer to challenge this heresy is to invite ridicule and abuse from every quarter.
Our only hope is that renewed spiritual pressure will be exerted increasingly by self-effacing and courageous men who desire nothing but the glory of God and the purity of the church. May God send us many of them. They are long overdue. Of God and Men, 16-18.
"Lord, forgive me for my pride. Give me the humble spirit of the self-effacing saint. Amen."
The Church: The Striped Candy Technique
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.Ê --Acts 2:42
Without Biblical authority, or any other right under the sun, carnal religious leaders have introduced a host of attractions that serve no purpose except to provide entertainment for the retarded saints.
It is now common practice in most evangelical churches to offer the people, especially the young people, a maximum of entertainment and a minimum of serious instruction. It is scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction is God. One can only conclude that God's professed children are bored with Him, for they must be wooed to meeting with a stick of striped candy in the form of religious movies, games and refreshments.
This has influenced the whole pattern of church life, and even brought into being a new type of church architecture, designed to house the golden calf.
So we have the strange anomaly of orthodoxy in creed and heterodoxy in practice. The striped candy technique has been so fully integrated into our present religious thinking that it is simply taken for granted. Its victims never dream that it is not a part of the teachings of Christ and His apostles. Man: The Dwelling Place of God, 135,136.
"Forgive me, Lord, where I have played into the hands of those wanting striped candy instead of You. Help me to demonstrate a God so real that no one could ever be bored with Him. Amen."
The Church: The Old Cross and the New Cross
But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.Ê --Galatians 6:14
The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter. The flesh, smiling and confident, preaches and sings about the cross; before that cross it bows and toward that cross it points with carefully staged histrionics--but upon that cross it will not die, and the reproach of that cross it stubbornly refuses to bear.
I well know how many smooth arguments can be marshaled in support of the new cross. Does not the new cross win converts and make many followers and so carry the advantage of numerical success? Should we not adjust ourselves to the changing times? Have we not heard the slogan, "New days, new ways"? And who but someone very old and very conservative would insist upon death as the appointed way to life? And who today is interested in a gloomy mysticism that would sentence its flesh to a cross and recommend self-effacing humility as a virtue actually to be practiced by modern Christians? These are the arguments, along with many more flippant still, which are brought forward to give an appearance of wisdom to the hollow and meaningless cross of popular Christianity. The Pursuit of Man, 53,54.
"Lord, it's not popular today to be 'old-fashioned.' But I commit myself today to the old cross. Help me today to deny myself, to take up my cross, and to follow You. Amen."
The Church: Higher Expectations
Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily.Ê --Colossians 1:28,29
The treacherous enemy facing the church of Jesus Christ today is the dictatorship of the routine, when the routine becomes "lord" in the life of the church. Programs are organized and the prevailing conditions are accepted as normal. Anyone can predict next Sunday's service and what will happen. This seems to be the most deadly threat in the church today. When we come to the place where everything can be predicted and nobody expects anything unusual from God, we are in a rut. The routine dictates, and we can tell not only what will happen next Sunday, but what will occur next month and, if things do not improve, what will take place next year. Then we have reached the place where what has been determines what is, and what is determines what will be.
That would be perfectly all right and proper for a cemetery. Nobody expects a cemetery to do anything but conform....Everyone and everything in a cemetery has accepted the routine. Nobody expects anything out of those buried in the cemetery. But the church is not a cemetery and we should expect much from it, because what has been should not be lord to tell us what is, and what is should not be ruler to tell us what will be. God's people are supposed to grow. Rut, Rot or Revival: The Condition of the Church, 5,6.
"Lord, use me today to help some people to really grow in You. Send me at least one person to whom I can significantly minister spiritual encouragement. Amen."
New from Frank Viola, Knowing Christ Together, 2004, http://ptmin.org.
PERFORMERS, SPECTATORS, AND PARTICIPANTS
The last 1800 years of church history are mostly the story of two categories of people: Those who "do" ministry and those to whom ministry is "done."
Those who "do" ministry are called "clergy." These are the hired professionals. The spiritual gurus. The "anointed" ones. The specially endowed mortals that God has granted the exclusive right to minister (so we are told). The clergy are the certified distributors of God's mind. They process and package it for lay-consumption.
Then there are the objects of ministry. These are the so-called "laity." The untrained, unqualified, unequipped, "second-class" Christians. They are the isolated consumers of "ministry." They promote it. They pay for it. Sometimes they aspire to it.
(Albeit, most who aspire to it still cannot seem to transcend their rank-and-file sub-class. So they are usually restricted to becoming lay-preachers, lay-pastors, lay-worship leaders, etc.)
But here is the striking truth. The clergy/laity division has no basis in the NT at all! We look in vain to find it there. In fact, it is impossible to construct a Biblically defensible justification for the clergy profession. The same holds true for the laity class. Scripturally speaking, clergy and laity do not exist! There is only the people of God.
The word laymen (laikoi) first appeared in the Christian vocabulary at the end of the first century. In the second and third centuries, the clergy/laity fault line widened to the degree that it infiltrated the Christian mindset. The clergy/laity dichotomy has been depressingly familiar ever since. Today, this dichotomy is as readily assumed as the belief that the Bible is God-breathed. Few people ever think to question it.
More pointedly, the clergy is a highly overrated institution. It is both unnecessary and self-defeating. It keeps the people it claims to serve in servitude. Instead of "equipping the saints," the clerical profession debilitates them.
The clergy also changes face. Sometimes it is the Protestant pastorate. Sometimes it is the Catholic priesthood. But the message is always the same: "You need us and our class to be a good Christian."
But such a message is not from God. And it has the net effect of paralyzing the Body of Christ. Yet despite this fact, Christians love being dependent upon the clergy profession. In sum, to be part of the laity is to be a spectator. To be part of the clergy is to be a performer.
THE POWER OF PERFORMANCE
In our culture, the power of performance is most readily seen in sporting events. We observe these (in part) to appreciate the performance of others--whether it be professionals or our own children. We enjoy what they do. We get caught up in their attempts, their successes, and their failures.
The difference between being a spectator and a participant is profound. Only the participants sweat. Only they actually try. Only they succeed. Only they fail. Spectators may "participate" vicariously. But it is a thin participation.
Drama is another sphere in which the power of performance is clearly observed. Movies and plays are entirely constructed from performances. Not a shred of it is "real" in any sense. And yet drama is an important entry for us into "the real."
For instance, we can receive a richer understanding of Roman gladiators after seeing the movie Ben Hur. The same applies to plays like Les Miserables. When such plays are acted they can be a door to something very real--even though they are entirely performance-based.
Is there not a place for such dramatic performances in the church? Can performances give us an opportunity to walk through a door to a new spiritual reality or a deeper insight into God? I believe they can, but. . .
Musical performances have many things in common with drama. The excellence of the performers is one attraction. But another is the inherent power of what they communicate through their craft. Music can be magical in several ways (either for good or evil).
An excellent performance of a profound piece of music can be touching and memorable like few other things. Even if a performance is fleeting, it often leaves a deep impact on those who witness it. In fact, for many people, a major turning point in their lives was catalyzed by some musical performance. Is there not a place in the church for such musical performances? I would say yes, but. . .
THE DARK SIDE OF PERFORMANCE
Performance is quite potent. It can entertain, impact, and lead us to new realities. But it docs have a dark side.
Like anything powerful, performance can be abused. Those who pretend to be what they are not are engaged in "performance." They take in the gullible and use them for their own ends. Con artists and Elmer Gantry-esque preachers are examples of this abuse.
By contrast, the performances we value all share this characteristic: We "know" the performers are performing. On the other hand, the manipulative kind of performance is shattered when we realize it is merely a performance. A charade. Such performers need to deceive us for their "performance" to work.
It is this confusion about performance that lames the Body of Christ. Lots of people in lots of churches are performing and do not know it. They go through the (admittedly limited) religious motions because they are told to. This problem is rampant among the so-called "laity." More alarming, some people are performing and do not want anyone else to know it. Such is true for countless clergy today.
THE RIGHT TO PARTICIPATION
The problem with the modern church is that performance eclipses participation. Equally problematic is the patent fact that the institutional church relegates performance to an elitist few-the clergy class. Everyone else is a spectator.
By contrast, the churches I am involved with are genuinely recovering the reality of the priesthood of all believers--a doctrine that has been buried for a very long time. The Reformation of the 1500s restored the doctrine of a believing priesthood. But it never restored its practice. Consequently, to most modern Christians, the priesthood of all believers is nothing more than a doctrinal statement. It has never been fleshed out.
Socially invisible to both the world and the rest of the Body of Christ, the churches I am involved with are standing for the full restoration of the believing priesthood. Not just in rhetoric; but in practice.
One of the reasons why it is so difficult to restore the believing priesthood in our day comes back to the dark side of performance. Most Christians live a life saturated with performance. In fact, they live it to such an extent that they have been reduced to mere spectators.
The obvious ways this has happened are: TV sit-corns, spectator sports, WWF wrestling, soap operas, silver-screen movies, etc. Most of our recreation today is non-participatory. We observe others doing the living and the acting. We seldom do it ourselves. And the very sporadic nature of our participation itself becomes a reason not to participate ("I will pass on that because I stink at it . . .").
But there are less obvious ways we have become spectators that are equally troubling. We have become spectators at most of the important transitions of life. So we place the "important things" in the hands of "professionals." We do this to benefit from their competence. But we also do it because we are afraid to mess it up.
Child rearing, education, and health care are all better handled by "pros" than by us (so we are told)-even though we are the ones who have a profound stake in the outcomes.
Recovering participation means that we will lose the polish and flair of the professionals. It means we can and (unfortunately) must own the results. It also means we have to accept responsibility to make decisions and to provide what is lacking.
When it comes to the church, this means that you will no longer have polished sermons or well-orchestrated worship services. It means you can no longer sit back in your padded pew (or chair) and let the "pros" do it all. It also means you can no longer depend on a select class to handle the sacred things of God.
At the same time, it means losing the artificial neatness that is native to the modem church. It means becoming spiritually "real" and spiritually responsible for the first time.
If you are like most Christians, you prefer participation. But you are afraid to participate. You have been taught for so long that the "pros" could do it better that you have come to believe it. You have also been taught that you-an ordinary layman-are not qualified to do anything more than sing in your pew (or maybe teach a Sunday school class if such is needed).
THE SMOKE AND MIRRORS OF THE CLERGY CASTE
In the modern church, the clergy are the performers. You and I are relegated to the status of poor, miserable laymen. We are conditioned to believe that because they are the professionals, they are qualified to "perform" in ministry better than we can.
But this whole idea is pure fantasy. It is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. What is more, it utterly contradicts the entire NT! If the truth be told, the Body of Christ, when unleashed, can do a far better job at ministering to one another than can the most polished pastor or hand-waving worship leader. With the right equipping, simple, ordinary brothers and sisters can put to shame the most exhilarating sermon. And they can overshadow the most spectacular worship team.
Take an ordinary group of Christians. Put them in a living room together. Let them be shown how to know Jesus Christ in a deep and living way. Let them be taught how to receive from the wellsprings of His Spirit. Let them be equipped to function and express Him in a corporate gathering.
I declare by first-hand experience: That group of ordinary, simple Christians will exhibit the most glorious display of the Lord Jesus Christ that anyone has ever witnessed!
The insight they will demonstrate will trump that of the greatest expository sermon. The power they will display will dwarf that of the most gifted worship team. The anointing they will manifest will be greater than any televangelist could muster. Their creativity (throw into that choreography, drama, and musical performances) will eclipse that of the "professionals."
No clergyman could hold a candle to a group of "ordinary" Christians who are expressing Christ in an open participatory gathering. A gathering where there are no spectators or performers--only participants.
The children of God are remarkably discerning, leadership-capable, and creative when they function together. These skills belong to the Body of Christ, not to isolated "performers. " This, in effect, is the meaning of the priesthood of all believers. It is also the practical outworking of Paul's vision of the Body--a corporate spiritual organism in which every member functions and every joint supplies.
THE INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH SYSTEM IS SELF-DEFEATING
The kind of social Structures we see in the modem church (ecclesiastical buildings, salaried pastors, clergy/laity dichotomies, and decision-making committees) are profoundly flawed. Perhaps even evil. Yet most of us have been conned into thinking that these social structures are benign and can be adjusted by better actions and more godly people. We are told that all we must do is fiddle with the structures, and the church will improve. We do not have to dismantle them. Such thinking shows a deep naivety about the overwhelming power of these structures.
To unpack that a bit, church buildings send us messages every day. And we believe them. Go into any given basilica church (church building) and carefully observe the architecture. Take good note at what part of the building is elevated and what part is lowered. Ask yourself what is at the front and what is at the back. Ask yourself in what ways it might be possible to "adjust" what goes on there without much effort. Ask yourself in which direction all attention is focused.
By asking such questions, you will quickly discover that the church building teaches us many things. Namely, that church is the unchangeable place where spectators (laity) watch professionals (clergy) perform.
Paying pastors a salary as if they were business executives does the same thing. It teaches us that the church belongs to a special class rather than to us. It also teaches us that clergymen are somehow magically endowed to do what lesser mortals cannot. And we, the "second class Christians," should pay them to fulfill our religious obligations.
Decision making by clergy-approved "committees" is a management technique common in the institutional church. But it is fundamentally incompatible with the whole meaning of the ekklesia. In the latter, all decisions are in the hands of God's people under Christ's sovereign Headship.
All of these structures are far from neutral "traditions" that might be used for good or ill. To the contrary, they are profoundly corrupting influences. Yet they are so entrenched in our thinking that we have been blinded from seeing them for what they really are.
These very structures make up the institutional church system. The word "institution" best suits this system. By definition, an institution is an arrangement designed and implemented to avoid depending on persons. People build institutions so they do not have to depend upon human beings.
As a consequence, the institutional church system works hard to destroy the effectiveness of the people of God. I have watched many a zealous Christian get chewed up and spit out by this system. I have watched people who tried to bring change to it for years only to be frustrated in the end--their best hopes being co-opted by the system.
It seems to me that the whole social structure we call the institutional church has a built-in inability to be self-correcting. It is a system that can do little except perpetuate itself. More tragically, it is a system that eats its own young!
Consequently, the institutional system is just as damaging to its "clergy" as it is to its "laity." It does not play favorites. The destruction rate of the institutional church is so profound it can hardly be calculated. But the destruction goes on in silent, invisible, and imperceptible ways. Like the Colorado River cutting the Grand Canyon, it is imperceptibly slow but absolutely relentless. We do not detect the destruction until someone opens our eyes to see how it is robbing us blind.
Remember, however, that this is a system we are talking about, not a set of people. The people in it are typically godly with pure motives. The real villain docs not have a human face. In fact, the system has no face at all.
Nevertheless, as long as you stay in this tradition-choked system, your spiritual life will be lamed. You will never know the glorious liberty of functioning under Christ's Headship without the presence of a human head. Nor will you ever experience the beauty of relying on the Lord to hammer out issues that deeply affect the church.
But most tragic of all, you will never taste the sweet culture of a "real" brotherhood and sisterhood-both of which are the wonderful heritage of every blood-bought child of God.
The unspoken source of the clergy "system" is rooted in the grab for power and authority that began in the Garden of Eden. Ever since that sad event, fallen man has had a fundamental quest for power and prominence. This quest has been "systematized" into the many authoritarian structures that we see today. The clergy "system" is just one of them.
Those who are part of this system are taught many bad lessons. One of the most horrible is the benighted idea that the clergy cannot have any confidence in their fellow brothers and sisters. The system effectively teaches clergymen that the "laity" cannot be trusted to "do ministry."
In sharp contrast, Paul--the model Christian worker--was confident in his ability to equip God's people to function and follow the Lord in his absence.
THE HIGH CALL OF GOD
God has called you to be a participant, not a spectator! May you heed this upward call--and be forever delivered from your slated occupation of "layman," kneeling before an altar, sitting under a pulpit, and having your hand in your wallet! May you rise to your God-called, blood-bought, Spirit-endowed right to be a functioning member of a functioning body.
Regrettably, few have had the courage to respond to this higher call. The deck is stacked against those of us who have left the religious system for God's higher purpose. Despite its horrible flaws, the institutional system continues to succeed on a certain set of terms. It succeeds because it provides a much more convenient and predictable way for people to get their needs met.
Face it. It is much easier to have someone else worry about the problem of creating an environment where we can worship God together. It is much easier to just plug in rather than having to be responsible for the decisions and direction of the church. It is much easier to make use of an in-place "children's ministry" than to figure one out ourselves. And it is much easier to passively listen to a sermon that someone trained in oratory has prepared than it is to handle the Scriptures ourselves.
At bottom, leaving the institutional system to gather around the Lord Jesus Christ means being responsible. It means having no one to blame but ourselves when things go wrong. It means testing our ideals in terms of real relationships rather than escaping into non-floatable theories.
Leaving the institutional system also means inciting the wrath of the clergy. Some benighted pastors will invariably see the end of the gravy train in you and your kind. The discovery that you do not need their "professional" help is quite threatening to them. So expect the authority-mongers to intimidate you with tall tales about the horrible consequences that follow those who throw off their "covering."
Yet for those who cannot abide the bondage of the institutional system, leaving is the only option. Would to God that the future course of church history would begin to map to its first 30 years--when there was a church without clergy or laity--a church completely in the hands of God's people! It is in such an environment that Jesus Christ is known, experienced, and expressed without hindrance.
New from Frank Viola, Knowing Christ Together, 2004, http://ptmin.org.
THE CHURCH IS FAMILY
How does the Bible define the Kingdom of God? How does it define the glory of God? How does it define the eternal purpose of God?
Before you go scurrying through your Bible to find a definition, do not waste your time. The Scriptures never define any of these things. In fact, the Bible rarely if ever defines any important spiritual concept. Rather than using definitions to explain spiritual concepts, the Bible uses countless metaphors to describe them.
For example, the Lord Jesus never once defined the Kingdom of God. But He gave numerous metaphors to depict it. He said the Kingdom of God is like a net. The Kingdom of God is like a man looking for hid treasure. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The Kingdom of God is like leaven.
It is the same way with the glory of God. The glory of God is like fire. The glory of God falls from heaven. The glory of God is like a cloud.
Scripture does the same with virtually every precious truth or spiritual reality. Very rarely do we meet a nice clean, concise definition that we can neatly tuck away to define the things of God. This is troubling to most Western Christians. We like to have things defined for us. We like to have classifications and categories by which to describe the invisibilities. But it is not that way with Christianity. Instead we have images. We have pictures, and we have metaphors.
METAPHORS FOR THE CHURCH
As it is with the Kingdom of God, the glory of God, and the purpose of God, the Bible never once defines the church. Instead, it presents the church with an endless number of metaphors. These metaphors are peppered throughout the entire NT.
To put it another way, the church is presented to us through different languages. In royal language, the church is the community of the King--a kingdom--where its citizens display God's sovereign rule and extend it in the earth. In medical language, the church is a Body where its members function interdependently in unity and harmony, carrying out the will of the Head. In romantic language, the church is a Bride who loves her Bridegroom faithfully and intimately.
In military language, the church is an army that wages war against God's enemy on the basis of Christ's complete victory. In horticultural language, the church is a field with Christ as Vine and His members as branches, producing fruit for Him to enjoy. In ranching language, the church is a sheepfold where the Lord's sheep are fed, find water, pasture, and security. In construction language, the church is a temple whose living stones are fitly framed together to form God's house.
These metaphors are littered throughout the entire NT.
The reason why the NT gives us countless metaphors to depict the church is because the church is too comprehensive to be captured by a single definition. And it is too rich and complex to be reduced to one metaphor. Unfortunately, our tendency is to latch onto one metaphor for the church and to understand it through that metaphor alone.
For instance, those who arc part of renewal movements tend to understand the church exclusively through "the Body" metaphor. This metaphor (which is really a reality) lays stress on the mutual functioning of every member. It shows us that the church has a unified diversity among its different parts. It teaches us that the church is interdependent with all of its members. It shows us that the church's purpose is to express and carry out the will of the Head (Jesus Christ).
But if we latch onto just one metaphor--whether it be the Body, the army, the temple, or the Bride--we lose the message that the other metaphors convey to us. The result is that our view of the church becomes limited at best or lop-sided at worst.
THE CHIEF METAPHOR
Strikingly, the chief metaphor--the dominating metaphor in the NT for the church is not the Body, the temple, the Bride, or the army.
It is the family.
The central metaphor--the metaphor that is most often drawn to describe the church--is the family. It literally saturates the NT. The writings of Paul and John in particular are punctuated with the language and imagery of family. It would do us well to look closely at this metaphor and discover the practical implications that are bound up with it.
Consider the following passages that are salted with the imagery of family:
Galatians 4: 19: My little children, I travail in birth for you until Christ be formed in you.
Galatians 6:10: Let us do good unto all men, especially to those who are of the household [or family] of faith.
I Corinthians 4:15: You have many tutors, but not many fathers. . . I gave birth to you through the gospel.
Romans 8:28-29: That He [Jesus] might become the firstborn among many brothers.
Ephesians 2: 19: We are fellow-citizens with the saints and of God's household.
I Timothy 5:1-2: Treat the older men as fathers, the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, in all purity.
I Timothy 3: 15: So that they may know how to conduct themselves in the household of God.
I Peter 1:23: For you have been born again by the Word of God.
I Peter 2:2: Like newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word that you may grow thereby.
Hebrews 2: I 0-11: That He might bring many sons unto glory. . . . For He is not ashamed to call them brethren.
In 1 John 2:12-14, John exhorts the children, the fathers, and the young men.
I John 5:2: By this we know we love the children of God.. .
In all of Paul's letters to the churches, he speaks to the "brethren," a term that includes both brothers and sisters in Christ. He uses this familial term over 130 times in his epistles. Indeed, the NT is filled with the language and imagery of family.
Unfortunately, the dominating metaphor that most modern Christians have constructed for the church is a business corporation! The pastor is the CEO. The clergy-staff are upper management. Evangelism is the manufacturing process and the marketing technique. The congregation is the clientele. And there is competition with other corporations (churches) in the same town.
Not only is the corporation metaphor absent! From the NT, it violates the entire spirit of Christianity Again, from God's standpoint, the church is primarily a family. His family in fact!
Regrettably, modem society is plagued by what sociologists call "the dysfunctional family." These are families that have been profoundly broken in some way. They may be intact outwardly, but they are inwardly damaged. Something is broken beyond repair. If the truth be told, many of our modern churches are in every sense of the word "dysfunctional families."
Today, the Lord's desire is to recover His thought for the church-that the church would function as the family of God in every sense of the word. That it would look like family, act like family, and live according to what it truly is--the family of God.
Let us look at five aspects of what it means for the church to be family. I would challenge you to compare your church to these five aspects. And ask yourself, "Is my church living in the reality of being the family of God?"
THE MEMBERS TAKE CARE OF ONE ANOTHER
Because the church is a family, its members take care of one another. Think about the natural family (assuming it is healthy). Is it not true that the parents take care of the children? What would you think if the parents had no concern for their children and just let them fend for themselves? How would you feel about parents who went on their merry way and neglected their kids, or worse, they abused them? You would say that family is dysfunctional at best; it is horrific at worst.
Families take care of one another. Is it not true that you take care of your natural blood? And they take care of you? If your mother or your sister has a problem, do you say, "Sorry pal. . . do not bother me!?" Or do you take care of them?
A true family takes care of its own, does it not? A dysfunctional family does not. A dysfunctional family is selfish, individualistic, and totally independent. There is detachment and disconnectedness in a dysfunctional family. The members do not take the time to know one another. Nor do they care for each other.
Look with me at James 2:14-17:
What does it profit, my brethren, though a man says he has faith, but has not works. Can faith alone save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed, " but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone.
This passage puts a finger on the meaning of real faith. Real faith will express itself in acts of love. That is James' point. He says, "If you say you have faith, but you neglect your brother and sister who are in physical need. . . then your faith is dead."
The works he is talking about are not attending meetings, They are not how many hours you pray and read your Bible. The works he is talking about are works that come out of Divine life, They are works of love toward your fellow brother and sister.
Look at Ephesians 4:25-28:
Pulling away lying, let every man speak the truth with his neighbor. For we are members one of another, Be angry but sin not. Do not let the sun go down upon your wrath. Neither give place to the devil. Let him who stole stop stealing. but rather let him labor, working with his hands the things that are good, that he may have to give to him that is in need.
Did you hear that last verse? "Let him who works, work with his hands." Why? "So that he earn give to him that has need."
There has been a lot said about "the Protestant work ethic." Ephesians 4:25-28 is the Christian work ethic! We work not just to meet our own needs; we work to meet the needs of others. This is a very different way of looking at work, is it not? The NT envisions the church as a family that takes care of its members, Not only spiritually, but physically and financially-in every way that a nuclear family would take care of its members. In fact, if you read the early portion of the book of Acts (Chapters 2, 4 and 6), you will find that the church in Jerusalem bore the burdens of the weaker brothers and sisters.
They took care of one another. They shared their wealth. They saw themselves as an extended family, an extended household--a shared-life community.
This is what Paul tells the Galatian Christians in Galatians 6: "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." The law of Christ is the inward law of love that is written on every Christian's heart. So if you belong to a church that is not taking care of the needs of its members--and I am not talking about putting your money in a benevolence fund that aids people you have never met-then your church is not fleshing out the NT vision of family.
The first-century vision of Christian family is simply this: "My brother in Christ has a need. Since we are family and share the same life (Divine life) and have the same Father (God), I am going to know what his needs are, I am going to help my brother because he is kin to me." And that goes for every other member. That is a basic facet of a family, And this is what the church does organically when it is living by Divine life--the life of Christ that indwells us all.
It has been said of the early church that their network of care for one another was one of the most powerful influences in the Roman Empire. The unbelievers said of the early Christians: "Behold how they love one another." Why? Because they took care of one another. There was no individualism among them, They loved one another. They met each other's needs. They cared for one another's children. They buried one another.
If you were living in the first-century church, you did not need insurance, The church was your insurance. The Lord is seeking to recover this spiritual reality among His people today.
In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul says that there is to be an equality in the church. Those who have more give to those who have less. And those who have less receive from those who have more.
Of course, this opens up a lot of other questions and issues, But what I want to press upon you is this: Because the church is a family, it takes care of its members. The people of God take care of one another.
THE MEMBERS SHOW ONE ANOTHER AFFECTION
Because the church is a family, the members greet one another with affection. Now think about it. When you see your mother, your father, your children, or your out-of-town relatives, do you just salute them? Do you just say, "Hello," or do you exchange hugs and kisses? Do you tell your children that you love them? Do they tell you that they love you? Do they verbalize words of affection?
Well, if you are functioning as a healthy family, the answer is yes. It is the same way with the church--with our brothers and sisters in Christ, because we are family.
Look with me at I Corinthians 16:20. Most of our modern translations say, "Greet one another with a holy kiss." What you find there is a display of affection.
Sociologists study proxemics. Proxemics deals with how we distance ourselves from other people. There are four laws in the field of proxemics: Personal distance, intimate distance, social distance, and public distance, Intimate distance is less than twelve inches, You do not allow anyone to get that close to you without feeling extremely awkward unless they are part of your family or are someone you are intimate with.
Suppose that you are in an elevator and a stranger invades your intimate distance, What happens? Well, you do not make eye contact first of all; you look away!
Should we not allow our brothers and sisters in the Lord to invade that intimate distance? Should we not exchange hugs? I know some people who practice the holy kiss. I am by no means pushing the holy kiss. But I am making a point.
The point is that living as the family of God means showing our love for our brethren through affection. That is going to be different for different people. I know this opens another door where you have some brothers that lack social skills. They might hug a sister in Christ in an inappropriate way. But that is another issue. The truth is that the Body of Christ shows physical affection because it is a family.
A dysfunctional family, on the other hand, shows no affection toward its members. The parents never touch the children. The children grow up feeling unloved and unaccepted. There is no verbal exchange of love.
Incidentally, Paul exhorted the churches to greet one another with a holy kiss five times in the NT. It was important to him that the members of the churches express their love for each other visibly.
I have observed that every group of believers that truly becomes the community of the King--a close-knit connected family, an extended household as God has called it to be--shows this affection-giving organically, spontaneously, and naturally. It is just there. Is there this display of affection in your church? Or do the members hardly know one another, let alone desire to touch each other?
THE MEMBERS SPEND TIME TOGETHER
Because the church is a family, the members take time to know each other. They spend time together outside of scheduled meetings.
In a dysfunctional family, the children barely know the parents. And the parents hardly know the children. The same is true for the brothers and sisters. They live under the same roof. But they live separate lives. They move in separate directions. The only time they come together is when there is a scheduled meeting. "We have to go to Aunt Wanita's wedding this Saturday." So they are all together then. But after that, they hardly see one another during the week. Oftentimes, they do not even eat together.
I would submit to you, brothers and sisters, that you can only know each other so much in scheduled meetings. But what about during the week? Are you in contact with one another during the week? Do you talk to each other? Do you share meals together? Do you invite your brothers and sisters to your home or out to eat to get to know them intimately?
Note Acts 2:42, 46:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer . . . Every day they continued to meet together. . . they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.
Now that does not sound to me like the early Christians just came together at scheduled times. These early believers had lives that interacted with one another. The Bible says they met daily. In Hebrews 3, there is an exhortation to encourage one another daily. And yet today, in most modern churches, the only fellowship time that one gets is five minutes when the pastor says, "Turn around and greet the people behind you!" You may grab a little bit more out in the parking lot! But by and large, that is it . . . until next Sunday or Wednesday night.
Church meetings do not go far enough. We may have a brother or a sister in this room who is struggling with a severe problem, whether it be emotional, spiritual, physical or financial. You would not even know it unless you spent time getting to know that person.
If the truth be told, some of us 21st-century Western Christians are afraid of intimacy. We like to hide. That is why many people would not be interested in a house church. It is far safer to hang out in a pew, stare at the back of someone's head for two hours, and then go home.
But the church of Jesus Christ is a family. It is not a business or a theater! And in a family-a truly healthy family--everyone knows what is going on with one another. Dad is having trouble at work so we are praying for him. Sis is having problems at school. Our brother got a raise at his new job. Mom is concerned about her health. We know what is going on in one another's lives.
How can we really truly flesh out the "one another" exhortations in the NT if the church to which we belong is not acting like a family? There are over fifty "one another" exhortations in the NT. Love one another. Honor one another. Exhort one another. Admonish one another. Have peace with one another. How can we really flesh these out if we do not even know the people with whom we fellowship?
Properly conceived, the church is an extended household. There is connectedness in it. It is profoundly relational. Family is the hub of a NT-styled church. And that is what God wants to restore today.
The church is not meeting-conscious or meeting-centered, meaning that the only time you share with your brothers and sisters is at some scheduled meeting. That is not how the church of Jesus Christ operates.
The church meets. But it is more than a meeting. It is community. It is family.
In I Thessalonians 5:12 the Bible says, "Intimately know those who labor among you." This passage is talking about those who planted the church in Thessalonica (Paul, Silas, and Timothy). Paul says, "intimately know them." Sadly and regrettably, most Christians hardly know their spiritual leaders. In fact, many ministers are taught in seminary not too get close to the people lest they dilute your authority! Hogwash! If a person can lose authority or respect by letting others know him, then that person never had authority and he does not deserve respect.
Such an idea violates NT principles and is utterly foreign to God's thought. (That would include the modern pastor himself. There was no such thing in the first-century church.)
Those who labor among you spiritually are your servants. That is what a minister is. "Minister" means "servant." Those who minister the Lord are "leading servants." Christian workers, for example, are people who know the sheep most intimately. They do not hide out in their little enclaves. More importantly, the brothers and the sisters in the church know them well.
There is a story that I heard a brother share that intrigued me. He was with a Baptist pastor, and they were eating at Morrison's cafeteria following a Sunday service. The pastor was very evangelistic. He would share the gospel with most everyone he saw. There was a woman in front of him, waiting in line for her food. The pastor looked at her and said, "Hi, how are you today? Do you know Jesus?" She replied, "Yes, I do. I love Him very much." The pastor then said, "Really, that is wonderful. Who is your pastor?" She responded, "You are!"
That story characterizes the sad situation in most modern churches. The church that is envisioned in the NT is a family. Its members know one another, including those who minister to them.
THE FAMILY GROWS
Because the church is a family, it will grow. How does a family grow? Think back to the creation of the first human family. How did it grow? God said to Adam, "Be fruitful and multiply." Families multiply. They give birth to children. They nurture the children. They train the children. And then they send the children off to multiply again.
Now it is interesting to note that there are two ways that the church grows. One way is through division. That is to say, if a church grows large, it may divide into two fellowships. That is the principle of multiplication and division. Our bodies grow through division. Cells divide and then they multiply.
Another way the church grows is by addition. That is, by giving birth to new spiritual children. When new converts are brought into the church, it grows.
Now if you only understand the church through the Body metaphor, you lose the principle of growth through division. Why? Because a body grows one way; it grows upward. Once it gets to a certain height, the body stops growing. Any more growth is horizontal growth. Meaning, the body gets fat! In a physical body, division is called amputation or dismemberment! You cut off a piece of your body, and it dies.
Not so with a family. A family reproduces; it grows by multiplication and division. Children are born, and the family gets larger. They leave home, marry, and bear more children. It grows through multiplication. So in a family, this brand of division is good and healthy.
Dysfunctional families cannot grow. If the Lord is working among a people, there will be growth. It may not be immediate growth. It may take time. But if the church is alive, there will be growth-both internal (spiritual) growth and external (numerical) growth.
Not only that, but let me say something about the generation that we have today. This generation of young people greatly lacks love and acceptance. American culture fragmented the extended household long ago. Nuclear families are left to struggle on their own. Add to this the onslaught of selfishness in our society which attacks the nuclear family.
The net is that many of our young people never grow up with fathers or mothers. The parents either neglect them or abuse them. And the children are left to carry around deep pain. What they are looking for, therefore, is acceptance and love. They are looking to be accepted by a family.
Thus churches that live as families will grow. They will draw in the young generation in this hour. Churches that operate as corporations and business organizations where the people are detached will not keep their converts. They may come in, but they will die for lack of nurturing.
People in our post-modern world are looking for family. They are looking for a group of people who are real, who will love them, and who care for one another. And they are keenly aware of what is not authentic. They have been trained well by bad examples. When they see a group of people who are truly laying down their lives for one another, who are accepting one another unconditionally, who are loving one another freely, they will be drawn like a moth is to a flame. The church as family answers the deepest cries that lie in the human heart.
THE MEMBERS SHARE RESPONSIBILITY
Because the church is a family, each member has a distinct responsibility in relating to the other members. And each member carries out his or her responsibility for the benefit of the family.
If you look at a human family, each member has a different role. You do not ask the children to go out and work, do you? You do not ask the parents to obey the children. Each one has a distinct role-the father, the mother, the children, and the newborn. And everyone works together for the common good of the family. It is the same way with the family of God.
Look at I John 2:12-13,
I write unto you. little children. because your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake. I write unto you, fathers, because you have known Him. . . I write unto you young men because you have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you little children. because you have known the Father.
Notice that John is using the language and imagery of family. He is talking to the fathers, the young men, and the children. He is charging them with different responsibilities.
Looking at the church through the "Body" metaphor,
each member--the eyes, ears, hands, and feet--all have a different
In a dysfunctional family, the members do not carry out their responsibilities. The father either neglects the children or he abuses them. He does not train the children. He does not give comfort or guidance to the children.
Oftentimes, the mother is failing here also. The children in a dysfunctional family rebel against the parents. They take charge in the house. They throw caution to the wind.
In the household of God, there are spiritual fathers. These are the older men who have known the Lord for a long time. And it is their role and responsibility before God to give guidance and modeling to the younger brothers. They also bring wisdom into the church. The spiritual mothers do the same.
In a family, these responsibilities are not held by position or office. We have them by life. It is organic--but of spiritual life.
Unfortunately, because many of us have been trained in the institutional church, we have all been forced to sit in a pew and listen to sermons week after week. We have become so passive that the fathers are not really doing what they should be doing in the church. They see no place for themselves. In a first-century styled church, the fathers provide wisdom and modeling to the younger men. The spiritual mothers teach the younger women how to be wise, how to function as wives and mothers. Titus 2:3-4 says that the older women should teach the younger women how to be sober and how to love their husbands and their children.
The young men bring vigor and strength to the church. But they need the stability of the older ones. Each learns from the other. The children bring new-found zeal into the church. But they need nurturing. They need someone to check up on them. To feed them, change their diapers, and teach them how to walk with their Lord.
Let me sum up by saying the church, as it is known in the NT, is a family. As such it offers interdependence instead of independence. Wholeness instead of fragmentation. Participation instead of spectatorship. Connectedness instead of isolation. Organism instead of institutionalization. Relationship instead of programs. And bonding instead of detachment. Regrettably, the institutions we call "churches" are not families. At best, they are dysfunctional families that inhibit face-to-face community. But God is raising up all over this world small groups of believers who are fleshing out the NT vision that the church is family--God's very own household. It is only when the church is walking in this way that Jesus Christ can be known deeply and expressed fully. . . for He is our Elder Brother in His Father's household. And God has made Him to be Head over this house (Heb. 3:6).
Added 6/25/04. Other additions 8/18/04