Several months ago the fellowships in the Summit Network hosted one of our gatherings called “The Vine.” I overcame my allergic reluctance to doing formal “teaching” at our gatherings and actually took a seat at the front of the room and expounded.
I have been following the news feed of Christian Today, an organization in the UK. They report the following:
- Four churches targeted in attempted firebombings in Indonesia.
- Pastor beheaded in Tanzania.
- More than 50 Christians detained in Sudan.
- India: attack on revival meeting sends Christians underground.
Reports of this kind attract my attention because of the way we have been doing church for the past twenty-some years, namely in homes or other “off the grid” locations.” Of course, we don’t regard churches that don’t meet that way as somehow inferior, rather we suggest that there is more than one way to live in Christian fellowship. Moreover, in some parts of the world such small, below-the-radar meetings are a necessity.
With respect to the headlines above, particularly #4, the challenge of living as a Christian village in the world may call us to smaller, less obvious expressions. They have their advantages. When we think of “a church” as a relatively small gathering of, say, 12 to 20, then it doesn’t take much to start one — not much trouble or money. And considering that one Christian preacher has said, “the most effective tool of evangelism under heaven is the planting of new churches,” it very well may be that learning to meet this way is vital, especially if the church faces persecution.
Fortunately, the Spirit is not intimidated by the seemingly insignificant. Indeed, He has often used persecution to advance the gospel when the church is forced underground. Let’s pray for our brethren who are experiencing threats of harm that they will grow in faith and influence in spite of the circumstances.(Also posted at http://summithome.org)
It’s been a week since I started the thread about the difference between church systems and the body of Christ. I need to finish my thoughts before you conclude that I’ve got a gripe against the church.
I see a gulf between the church and the way she is organized. Systems, even ecclesiastical systems, are man-made structures. If left to accumulate, they can squash the life of the church. To challenge them can have a similar consequence.
Just because organization is put in place to govern a group of Christ-followers it doesn’t mean it is sanctified in the process, even if we try to make it Biblical by finding precedent in the New Testament. By some estimates, that quest to sanctify our organizations has produced over 10,000 denominations. If the scriptures had been definitive about structure, it seems we would have found more common ground than that.
So much for sanctifying traditions.
The point is that a system is not the church, though it winds up being so much a part of our Christian experience that the two seem inseparable. When that happens, questioning the system, organization, leadership or tradition becomes tantamount to challenging the core of faith and is grounds for breaking fellowship. Moreover, it can be interpreted as an attack on the body of Christ, the church—as with my friend, people take it personally.
A friend and mentor, George Patterson, has put it this way: There are three levels of authority in the church (the body of Christ, the people). First, there are the commands of Christ. These may never be prohibited and are required of believers. Second, there are the instructions of the apostles. These may not be prohibited, but neither are they universally required, as is the case, for example, with head-coverings, which were prescribed for the women in the church at Corinth. Finally, there are human traditions. We are free to adopt such traditions, but since they are of human origin they may never be required of Christ-followers, and not infrequently, they ought to be prohibited. And they, most assuredly, can be modified or discarded as needed—but, oh baby! Tread softly here.
So, this is where I occasionally get in trouble with my believing friends. When I diminish a tradition of American evangelicalism; criticize organizations or question established authority structures I become “guilty” of rebellion (‘seed of witchcraft,’ you know) and worse, people assume that I’m throwing the baby (them) out with the ecclesiastical bathwater. I don’t want to give that impression. No, what I am saying is that the constraints of many congregational systems need to be loosened and shouldn’t be confused with the church, the Body of Christ. What this means for me is that I have to be careful to remind my friends that when I talk about paradigms, systems and structures, I am not talking about the church, communities or the people of God; and I am definitely not talking about them.
(Next: Unbiblical, non-biblical or anti-biblical)
(Part 8 church+change) I’m just finishing up a book that Jody and I have been writing for a decade. It’s about submission. We are of the opinion that submission as it is typically understood is not at all what Father had in mind. Here is an excerpt from a key chapter:
For the apostle Peter to exhort Christian men to, “grant [your wife] honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered,” (1 Peter 3:7), amounted to a leveling of social order. In the first century it was understood that the rights of inheritance were granted to men. Yet Peter calls on Christians to honor their wives as fellow heirs. Relationships in the church were beginning to shift away from “hierarchy.” The change can be defined by a simple shift in the spelling of the word. Reverse the ‘I’ and the ‘E’ so that “I” follows “HE.” That is the order that is supposed to be in creation, every individual subjected, not to other people in some kind of hierarchy, but to the eternal “HE,” fellow heirs together. This is not a “hierarchy,” where people are empowered by their rank, but an “HEIR-archy” in which people are honored in their role.
Of that, there is much to learn.
So how does one go about living in an “heirarchy?” If order in the home and church isn’t established by the rank of its members but by their roles how does the whole thing keep from flying apart in a great power struggle?
Power struggles are only avoided when we apply a different understanding of submission, that views it not as a way of keeping order, but as a way of learning kingdom order as fellow heirs, willingly subjecting ourselves rather than depending on a form to impose submission upon us. Willing submission, after the manner demonstrated by Jesus, is the way we prepare for the reconnected creation that Father has in store for those that love Him (1 Corinthians 2:9). The New Testament is the story of the restoration of submission in God’s creation. As such, it is the revelation of renewed liberty. Paul put it this way: “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus that sets us free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).
Taking a legalistic approach to the New Testament is the main hindrance to living in “heirarchy.” By treating the gospels, Acts, and the letters of the apostles as a rule book, we risk making submission a mere form. Forms assume that someone, or in the case of organizations, something, must play a dominant role in order to establish and maintain order. The results can be troublesome…
Yeah, tell me about it.
I took the video clip in my last post from a site called Recycle Your Faith which bills itself as a place to find “weekly videos for spiritual explorers.”
Intriguing…I’ll start following that site.
This fellow, Chad Estes, the guy on the clip, is from Boise. Apparently, he’s a former pastor of a fairly large congregation, but decided to, as his blog tag-line says, go on “a journey from fear to love, from rules to relationship, and from religion to freedom.”
He is not alone in that. Lots of people have begun to question their understanding of the church and finding their questions leading them to places they never expected to go. Many are amazed to find that there is living, active, relational faith outside of organizations and buildings. Moreover, they are discovering anarchy and heresy aren’t the inevitable outcomes of journeys off the well-worn path, or at least any more so than in the inherited structures of our parents and grandparents.
What I’ve discovered on that journey (we started meeting almost exclusively in homes in 1990) is that the real joy in following Jesus is in the relationship. Early on, I thought that meant that there needed to be a “clean break” from the traditional, but as the adventure unfolded I realized there was a flaw in that thinking. Breaking relationship can hardly be considered a good way to deepen fellowship within the body of Christ. Consequently, as we pursued the “simple church” course, we realized that if we kept our attitude right we could encourage our brethren in the more structured world, even as we deepened relationships outside it.
What I think I see happening now, is diversification. It isn’t “either-or” when it comes to church community, it’s “both-and”. Whereas, in the early days, we had to talk persuasively to convince people we weren’t a protest against the traditional church, nowadays there seems to be a growing understanding that the message of the gospel can—even must—be delivered on multiple channels. Furthermore, bricks and mortar needn’t create a Bastille. Buildings may serve a community; they don’t have to confine it. When buildings contain systems that control, dominate, and confine the followers of Jesus, they might better become real estate—galleries, coffee shops and bookstores. But when they shelter a community of faith; one that meets by love, mutual respect and gracious interdependence, such places become a light in the city.
Buck scanned the remains of the sanctuary, and then settled his gaze on the communion table. “Church was on fire,” he said simply.
“We were insured. Hopefully we can find a place to meet until we rebuild.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Buck. “The building burned down. The church was on fire. You didn’t notice?”
“I’m not sure what. . .”
“Some of these folks haven’t been that close since,” he gestured toward the table, “…well I don’t know. I never seen Thelma Kaiser and Mary Criswell stand next to each other like they did today. They held hands during the prayer.”
“It’s amazing what can happen if….”
“Y’know what I think? I think we had all we needed today. We had bread, a cup, a table . . . and we had each other. The Good Lord showed up, too. I don’t think you’ll rebuild this church any better than it was today. Fire burned up the building. It built the church.”
The reverend Turley was silent.
Buck reduced the ashen pages of a hymnal to powder with the toe of his boot. “Gordon, it’s bothered me for years,” he said. “I keep readin’ and readin’ in my Bible and I can’t find most all the stuff we did in this place. Somebody’s house or even the back room of my store seems to fit better what I read about the church.”
“Well, Mr. Dearborn,” Turley began defensively, but Buck stopped him with a glance.
“Suit yourself,” he said, and turned to go. Then, almost as an afterthought, he came back, and slipped a matchbook into the pastor’s hand. “Couple’ a verses there,” he said. “Jotted ’em down at coffee this morning.”
The Reverend Turley felt he should have known the verses by heart, but he had to wait until he got into the car to look them up in his Bible. He turned the tissued pages until he found the place. “You are fellow citizens with the saints,” he read. “Christ is the corner stone. . . growing into a holy temple . . . built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” He turned the page to Hebrews and read the second verse: “For our God is a consuming fire.” Gordon Turley went home and sat quietly in his living room in front of a dark fireplace. It occurred to him that he hadn’t built a fire there in a long time.