The New Covenant Ecosystem

This is the second in a series of letters written to our local church. They build upon one another, line upon line, precept upon precept. To read the first letter, click here – City on a Hill

Dear Highway

I’m so grateful for the power of the pen, which allows me to communicate across the congregation amidst the pressing demands of modern living.

Jesus said of us, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matt 5:14-15).

It is vital for each and every believer to take their place amongst God’s people in a tangible and practical way. Being a city on a hill is not pie in the sky stuff; it’s steak on the plate stuff. Jesus was not describing an ethereal, invisible or conceptual city, but a dynamic reality. The local church is God’s light shining into the darkness of our actual world. We are Him on display. We shine in words, works, ways and wonders. Jesus in our midst imbues our gathering with Presence and glory. People can see it, point to it, visit it, experience it and join it. It turns out, brothers and sisters, that we should all “go to church” after all!

The whole exercise is a multi-dimensional partnership. As we choose to muck our lot into our local church in partnership with other believers, a wonderful thing happens – Heaven partners with earth also. The result is a breathtaking win-win every which way. God is glorified, we are edified, and the world is impacted. We benefit even as we give ourselves away, and find ourselves immeasurably enriched.

I’m not proposing some petty cause-and-effect, self-enhancement formula here. This is not tit-for-tat and give-to-get. Teach it that way and you’ll shipwreck people. The truth is that we don’t usually need our local church in any urgent, day-to-day sort of way. We might serve it with that kind of immediacy, but it serves us in a far more big-picture sort of way. Solomon understood when he wrote, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Eccl 11:1). This sowing and reaping is a dynamic which the Lord has embedded in creation. Even those who are not Christians recognise it. They call it karma – what goes around comes around. This is why losing one’s life for Christ and His Gospel ultimately saves it. This immutable principle is plastered across Scripture. Examples abound. “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38).

The local church is an ecosystem. Relationships are symbiotic, with every organism benefiting as the entire ecosystem thrives. Belonging to it is not an optional extra either, but a facet of our very identity in Christ. We are all temples of the Holy Spirit, but only together are we the church. We are all children of God in our own right, but only together are we His family. There my Father is “our Father in heaven”, as Jesus said.

In making the point, our own children spring to mind. I’m so grateful that Estelle and I have raised our family within the local church. It’s not always been easy, what with leading, and with two church splits in a four year period some while ago. Nonetheless, I rejoice that my children have had the basics of the faith instilled in them. They have a grounding in the Scriptures. All three know the Lord. They’ve been baptised as believers. They’ve been baptised in the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. They’ve been persuaded of His faithfulness through a myriad of testimonies of all imaginable kinds over the years. They know how to pray. They know what it means to lift their hands in worship in the congregation of the saints. They are no strangers to the Lord’s manifest Presence. They’ve witnessed miracles, signs and wonders. Of course we’ve played our part, but the local church has been indispensable in the journey.

Our need for the benefits of this symbiosis intensifies all the more when the days are dark. Jesus said, “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matt 24:12). We would be hard pressed to better describe our day and age. The imminent threat is not the lawlessness itself, nor a loss of salvation, but the life-extinguishing impact which sustained trouble has on our inner man. Dreams fade and visions die as hope is suffocated. Stretched to the limit, tank empty, the besieged heart unwittingly moves into survival mode. The walls go up as the core temperature goes down, leaving the inner man curled up in a foetal position. The experience is not unique to the Christian, but for those of us who are in Christ, it numbs our faith, sending it into hibernation. Instead of living, we exist, forfeiting the abundantly fruitful “reigning in life” Jesus promised (Rom 5:17).

How exquisite the wisdom of this New Covenant ecosystem is. We keep our eyes glued on Jesus and yield our hearts in service alongside our brothers and sisters. As we do, we are encouraged, nourished, edified, renewed, refreshed and sustained. We who ensure the city on the hill remains ablaze find our own hearts warmed again and again. Our lamps have oil, as it were. Grace abounds, faith grows, the kingdom comes, life flows, and fruit abounds.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that the church should be the center of our Christianity. Jesus is that! But the local church is a God-given means of grace. She facilitates the touch of Heaven on earth in ways we cannot routinely access on our own. She was never designed to tower over our lives in Christ, but to undergird them. As such, she should always be keel-heavy and superstructure-light, with Christ and His Gospel her foundation, and Christ in His glory her crown.

The starting point is in gathering. Nothing complicated or onerous. Just the willingness and expectancy of faith. Me thinking we, and responding accordingly.

Every blessing!

Gavin

A City on a Hill

I’ve recently begun writing a series of letters to our local church.

These arose from of an extended encounter with the Lord. The first letter was firing from the hip, as it were, and not suitable as a blog post. That first letter will therefore appear here in redacted form, and as the first two letters in the series.

Herewith then the first of those …

Dear Highway

Midweek greetings to you and yours.

Please read this letter carefully and prayerfully. It is the first in a series of letters to the congregation. Follow along with me as the theme develops and the revelation unfolds. This is part of the sense of the dawning of a new day in our church, and the letters will help us as we journey together into the future the Lord is beckoning us into.

Jesus put it this way: “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14a).

That “you” is plural, and Jesus is describing His church. Us. Of course His church is much, much bigger than just us. It’s transcendent and eternal, including all believers over all time. But that’s not what Jesus was getting at here. He is describing a church that is tangible. One that can be seen and heard, touched and tasted. One that can be pointed to, or visited. Take in the context and that much becomes obvious.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matt 5:14-15).

Notice the both/and. Each of us is a lamp bringing light into our own personal situation and circumstance, and brightly may we shine there. But each of us also have a part to play in something far bigger than ourselves. It’s the Lord’s heart and mind that together we become much more than we could every be on our own. Together we illuminate the nations!

See the synergy pulsating through the metaphor. The same idea is plastered across the Scriptures using other metaphors. The same way in which a building is much more than a pile of bricks, a body more than a collection of limbs, and an army more than a single soldier, so a city on a hill is much more than a collection of individual lamps on the same mountaintop. As we gather in His Name, Jesus the master-builder gets to work, forging that synergy that is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

In recent years our local church has placed a great deal of emphasis on the life in Christ of the individual believer. It’s been so good to embrace the truth that each and every one of us are Christ’s workmanship, carefully crafted, with good works prepared in advance by Him for us to walk in. And ever-so-brightly may we shine as we continue to walk in them. But now there is a new chapter opening up before us. A new chapter that is not either/or, but both/and. It is once again time for us to allow the Spirit to broaden our thinking, and to allow Him to form and fashion us corporately in a fresh way.

My job is to roll up my sleeves and round up the troops. It’s time to build the house. Promise is over her and destiny awaits her. I’ve heard the Lord, and so I’m setting out to do so in faith and with great liberty. Everyone’s invited.

Let me be explicit in what I’m asking for. Not a lot, to be honest. I’m asking for you to show up on Sunday mornings more often than not, and on time at that. It makes a huge difference to the traction and momentum of the meeting when you do so. You might not have any sense of missing anything when you’re not there, but your absence or tardiness costs the rest of us dearly.

I’m asking you to come to the gatherings with intent to engage. Come to lift your voice, to raise your hands, and to hug a neighbour. Bring a friend. Drop something in the offering plate. Come to find someone to encourage. Pray a prayer; break bread; help someone, somewhere, with something. Do whatever your hand finds to do, and obey the Spirit as He prompts. This is not rocket-science. And on your bad days? Come anyway!

On the other hand, we all know that I’m asking for quite a lot. I’m asking you to awaken your heart and to give yourself away in a fresh way. Bums on seats won’t cut it. This is heart-stuff, and I’m asking you to help create the very thing that your heart longs to share in.

See you Sunday!

Gavin

The Great New Covenant Proposition

We have a new identity in Christ. This “new-creation-ness” is thanks to the once-for-all perfect-making work of Jesus on the cross, and is reflected innumerably throughout Scripture. Digest it with joy! If you are in Christ, then this is who you are!

Not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil but of the tree of life
Not of Hagar but of Sarah
Not Ishmael but Isaac
Not of Moses but of Abraham
Not of the fig tree but of the olive tree
Not in Adam but in Christ
Not of the will of man but by the will of God
Not of perishable seed but of imperishable
Not fragile but indestructible
Not a work of human effort but a work of God
Not from below but of above
Not temporal but eternal
Not of earth but of heaven
Not of this age but of the age to come
Not defined by the past but defined by the future
Not according to facts but according to truth
Not aligned with things seen but aligned with things unseen
Not old but new
Not dead but alive
Not entombed but exalted
Not darkness but light
Not separated from God but reconciled to Him
Not far away but those brought near
Not condemned but justified
Not guilty but made innocent
Not unclean but clean
Not sinful but made holy
Not of old nature but having a new nature
Not held to ransom but redeemed
Not God’s enemy but God’s friend
No longer a sinner but now a saint
Not neglected but attended
Not bound but free
Not of random happenstance but predestined and chosen
Not lost but found
Not disqualified but qualified
Not disowned but affirmed
Not a slave but a son
Not under law but under grace
Not cursed but blessed
Not to be pitied but to be envied
Not hopeless but hope-filled
Not sick but healed
Not oppressed but delivered
Not poor but rich
Not rejected but accepted
Not shamed but glorified
Not in scarcity and lack but in abundance and amply supplied
Not orphaned but adopted
Not fearing men but fearing God
Not weak but strong
Not powerless but empowered
Not barren but fruitful
Not alone but in community
Not disenfranchised but belonging
Not useless but useful
Not the tail but the head
Not beneath but above
Not purposeless but having good works prepared in advance for us to do
Not cast aside but incorporated
Not by accident but on purpose
Not confused but clear
Not blind but seeing
Not deaf but hearing
Not lame but leaping like a deer
Not broken but made whole
Not inadequate but adequate
Not anxious but confident
Not complaining but rejoicing
Not down but up
Not inconsolable but comforted
Not ashes but beauty
Not variable but constant
Not temporary but permanent
Not of works but of faith
Not of striving and human effort but of rest
Not mourning but gladness
Not disgraced but dignified
Not accused but vindicated
Not defeated but defended
Not under the dominion of satan but under the government of God
Not out of this world but not of it
Not anticipating judgement but rendered unpunishable
Never deserving, but awash in mercy
Not fearful but bold
Not for victory but from victory
Not anxious but confident
Not burdened but light of yoke
Not unlovable but lovely
Not ugly but beautiful
Not unrighteous but righteous
Not in turmoil but at peace
Not irrational but of sound mind (in fact, we have the mind of Christ)
Not disinherited but the heir of the double portion
Not in the flesh but in the Spirit
Not fading away but from glory to glory
Not inept but enabled (the Helper dwells within us!)

Verb-iage (in a good way)!

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved.

The Corinthians had received it. The verb is aorist, active, indicative, second person, plural. That is to say that it describes a past action which had become a present reality. The Corinthian believers had received the Good News about Jesus, and were in possession of it.

Having received it, they were standing in it. Perfect, active, indicative, second person, plural. A state of affairs (perfect). The Corinthians were the doers (active). A reality (indicative). Just as it had been they who had received the Gospel, these brothers and sisters were appropriating it (standing in it) in their daily lives as their ongoing reality.

Standing in it, these they were being saved by it. The verb is present, passive, indicative, second person, plural. These current reality for these believers was that the Gospel was saving them, moment by moment, day by day. They had done the receiving, and in the believing, they were doing the standing, but it was the Gospel that was doing the saving!

Aren’t you delighted that having received the Gospel, we who believe are standing in it, and are being saved. Moment by moment, day by day, our God is saving us! That salvation is as deep and wide and long and high as the love of God. Sozo. A word describing forgiveness of sins, healing, deliverance, rescue, and even resurrection.

I Corinthians 15:1-2a. What Great News this is!

Self-Government

All authority belongs to the Lord.

Any authority we operate in is therefore delegated authority. Because it comes from God, it is inherently good, and those exercising it should do so for good. All God’s gifts are in accordance with His nature, and to be used as such. The Lord never uses His authority to control or manipulate.

Self-Government

Mankind’s dominion is implicit in the creation story from the beginning. As He created it, everything was “good” in God’s assessment. Add mankind, and it all became “very good”. Adam was given charge of the garden, to work and to keep it. His tutelage included the privilege of naming all the animals. All of these suggest dominion. But once Eve was installed as Adam’s helpmeet, the mandate for dominion was made explicit. “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1:27–28).

So it was that Adam and Eve were given the gift of self-government. Personal authority, responsibility and accountability. They enjoyed a great deal of freedom indeed, although not boundary-less freedom. But what they did have was unfettered volition. Total freedom of choice. Which they opted to use badly, unfortunately. Nevertheless, the first round of delegation saw Adam with a will to submit to (God), a woman to love (Eve) and a work to do (a garden to tend). Together, they had a will to submit to (God), a spouse to love (each other), and a work to do (the stewardship of the planet). In broader perspective, these mandates were reflections in the temporal of greater, eternal realities.

Incidentally, the reason why Genesis is so important for us is because it answers these questions, and a host of other first-order issues as well.

Family

The second sphere of delegated authority is the family. Adam and Eve’s initial partnership tended towards the co-equal. Their dominion mandate demanded it. Yes, Adam had been created first, and yes, Eve was Adam’s helpmeet. But “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” requires joint effort, each partner playing to their respective strengths.

Interesting to note is that the dominion mandate was never revoked. It was reiterated to Adam and Eve after the fall. It was re-entrusted to Noah and his family after the flood. And it remains in place today. The stewardship of the planet is still ours. We still have God’s will to submit to. The institution of marriage should still shape our social structures. And each of us has a vocational contribution to make. All are thus still a vital part of the equation.

What clouds understanding somewhat is that the establishment of family structures straddled the fall. Before Adam and Eve’s rebellion, their partnership enjoyed an egalitarian-orientated foundation. The lines of authority discernible were reminiscent of those within the Trinity. After the fall, things were quite different. Their mandate had not changed, but their circumstances had. Mercifully, they had been restored to fellowship with God. They were clothed in the skins of the substitutionary sacrifice. They now faced a hostile creation. And the dynamics between them had shifted. Shifted away from equal partnership towards the complementarian and hierarchical. The Bible chapter documenting the fall is steeped in devastation. Perhaps none more so than God’s words to Eve. “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).

Dire abuse followed through the millennia. This redefining of the marriage relationship opened the door to aberrations like polygamy, and worse. The horrors to which women have been subjected through the ages stretches beyond reason. Thanks be to God that Jesus, last Adam, undid the cause of this devastation. Men and women are no longer naked and ashamed. They once again have full and equal access to the Tree of Life, who is Christ. Both, in Christ, have been once again established on equal footing before God. And before one another for that matter. Jesus’ counter-cultural treatment of women substantiates this magnificently. Just recall how honouring Her was of His mother, and how He engaged even Gentile ladies as peers.

Our challenge in the church is to migrate our paradigms on marriage and family pre-fall in Christ. The Trinity is the template for our understanding of community, and not the impositions of sin and death post the fall. Faith in Christ has uprooted us from the temporal and established us in the eternal. Our thinking and our patterns of life must follow. As the Scriptures teach us, our transformation lies in the renewal of our minds.

Civil Government

The third sphere of governance came in the wake of the flood. By that time self-government had all but collapsed. So had the institution of the family. Fallen mankind’s depravity had come to dominate. The future could simply not be allowed to be a repeat of the past.

Heaven introduced sweeping changes. Fauna joined flora as food for mankind. Humanity’s relationship with life and death was being redefined. Another covenant was introduced. The Noahic. A further unilateral covenant of grace. But with increased social structure and responsibility. Civil government was constituted. The dominion mandate was also re-conferred on Noah and family. But with it, new authority for the new responsibility. The governance of our fellow man was now our portfolio. God had personally dealt with murderer Cain, but no more so post-flood. Now the one who took a life would answer to a human tribunal.

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image. And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:1–7).

Mankind’s relationship with life and death had been redefined. Greater responsibility, and with it greater authority. Notice how each addition to delegated authority post-fall strengthened humanity in community. A compensation for floundering self-government. Cain had not been Abel’s keeper in any formal sense, but now every Cain became every Abel’s keeper. Men and women were mutually accountable one to another. A double-edged sword though. The greater the delegated authority, the greater the potential for corruption and abuse. Not too long and slavery was born. People objectifying others to the point of literal ownership.

It turns out that the stewardship of our human community is just as poor as our stewardship of our planet. The reason for this is that we’ve lost the capacity to steward ourselves.

Law is for the Lawless

Moses coming down the mountain stone tablets in hand was a progression in an unfolding story. The unfolding story of unredeemed mankind.

The Ten were not the first commandments Heaven had issued. They would also not be the last. But what they were was the core of a new, replacement covenant (which we know as the Old Covenant). A covenant of works. As such, they began formalising the institutions of family and state to a far greater degree. By the time they had been expanded into the full six hundred and thirteen statutes of the Old Covenant, all of life had been addressed.

Make no mistake, the Law was from God, and it was good. But it was also Heaven’s prescription for lawlessness. As such, its goal was preservation. Boundary-less people destroy themselves, and destroy others in the process. Law serves well in that context. It works to keep depravity in check. It limits sin’s destructive consequences by limiting sin’s wicked deeds. Which is why thinking Christians favour the rule of law in their nations. Some legal systems better than others, and we Christians advocate that Judeo-Christian law as the best of the best. Even so, it cannot save.

Law certainly preserves, protecting us from ourselves as it were. But when it comes to salvation, all it can do is expose inadequacy as it addresses concomitant transgressions. Our best efforts, we soon discover, are woeful in the light of the Perfections of God. Six hundred and thirteen rules. Six hundred opportunities to fall short of the glory of God. Thanks to the Law, Israel would be preserved. Nations would disintegrate around them, but theirs would remain intact. They were being preserved until the fullness of time came, when the Christ would be revealed. A preservation that would cost many a life. The three thousand who died right there at Sinai set the tone for things to come. For even as law preserves, so it kills, for its ministry is condemnation and death.

Legalism mummifies. The more comprehensive the rule book, the more effective the preservation of externals. And the more comprehensive the rule book, the less demand for self-government. Remember that life comes from within, starting as a seed. All that Law can do is conform, enforcing conformity to its mold. Which is why Law can never be a panacea. The Trinity is in harmonious community, and without Law. Heaven the same. Law’s governance cannot produce this harmony, as it comes with significant negatives. The Bible calls its dynamics the law of sin and death. Accusation is inescapable in this dynamic, but without a helping hand. Nothing is done to aid ineptness. Law does not transform. It enforces compliance through consequence, stick and carrot, reward or fear, pleasure or pain. And even when constraining bad behaviour, it exacerbates the rebellion within. It stirs up the sin lying dormant in the flesh. Invoke a command, and buried evils are unearthed. An example we can all identify with: none are as hungry as those on a diet!

Law is for the lawless. Simple as that. And let’s also not make the mistake of confining our thinking to civil society alone. Some families need an injection of law to preserve them. So do some churches. Urgent interventions. Emergency measures. Abusive husbands should not be permitted to misuse their wives, nor vice versa. Parents should never be permitted to abuse their children, nor vice versa. Clear thinking on this matter recognises the appropriateness of Law when there is a two year old in residence. Insufficiently self-governing, these little angels are carnal enough to throw a home into disarray. The answer is contextually appropriate law. No matter the situation, be it teen, employee or neighbor, this truth remains true. Law is for the lawless. It is the only way of creating appropriate boundaries when lawlessness is prevalent. But that law, however appropriate in it’s prescription, will never save. Only grace does that. And grace does so through faith, from the heart, inside out.

The New Covenant

Christians are not under Law.

It’s not that they’re lawless. They’re just not under the governance of Law. They are under the governance of the Spirit, who governs in grace. Christians well understand that all things are lawful for them. All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.

Under grace the dynamics are Spirit and life, not sin and death. A thorough study of the book of Romans reveals this in the way a flawless diamond reflects the light. Myriads of interrelated facets reveal its glittering beauty. A glimpse will suffice. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).

Christians walking in the Spirit are the most submissive people imaginable. Their submission is to God, and is empowered by Him, by the indwelling Spirit. Their submissive attitudes manifest in submission to legitimate authority at every turn. They submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. And because their hearts embrace Godly order, the lives reflect it. Their families embrace it, as do their churches. And their dealings reveal it in social, economic and political settings. But this is not so because of their obedience to Law per se, but because of their life in the Spirit.

And for precisely that reason, they can be the most disobedient people imaginable. That’s because their boundaries are set from within. Their hearts and minds are abuse-proof. Nothing can force them once they come to settled peace on a matter. The execution of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer illustrates the point magnificently. He is the author of the first book of common prayer, by the way. History tells us that Cranmer had succumbed to pressure and recanted his Protestant position. In deep contrition, and after renouncing his recantation, he presented himself at the stake on 21 March 1556. There he burnt off the hand that had signed the recantation before stepping bodily into the flames. Apparently his death was reminiscent of Stephen’s of old, for great grace was upon him throughout his ordeal.

Because Christians are not under Law, the only power over them is the power of the request. Should that request be legitimate, the response will often be the extra mile. Should it be illegitimate, the response will often be the turned cheek. Yet, secure in the New Covenant, they can prove immovable. In this the Gospel moves to being a true revolution, for it breeds true revolutionaries. They are those who are persuaded in their life and cause well beyond what most would consider reasonable.

Order in the Church

What then of the fourth and final sphere of delegated authority, the church.

The authority delegated by Heaven to church leaders should never be misconstrued as a continuation of the earlier progression. Leadership and governance in the church is exclusively in the context of the New Covenant.

And it is the Gospel that is the antidote to humanity’s fallenness. Law has it’s place, but it is the transformation of grace and faith that restores the self-governance of the Garden. In abiding and enabling union with God, personal volition is liberated to realign with true worship. Holy Spirit is within the people of God. They are in Christ, and Christ is in them. Together with Christ, they are hidden in God, enveloped, enfolded and engulfed in Him. For them there is no Law, but a new birth, a new nature, and a new life. Old things, including the Law and their sin, have passed away. The new has come.

Leadership and governance in the church is an administration of this New Covenant. Men and women are given the freedom to choose. Grace enables them to choose wisely. Faith causes them to then do so. Church leaders lead new creations. They lead people under grace. People with new, sincere and submissive hearts. They lead them to follow the Spirit, to revel in grace, and to stand in faith. Theirs is the fullness and freedom of the New Covenant. On their own cognisance. Surrounded by their brother and sisters. And undergirded by their leaders, who urge them on. Further, deeper, and higher. Hands and hearts ever open. For they are His, and He is theirs.

Only on the rarest of occasions is Law invoked in these environments. It is exclusively the preserve of the lawless. It is only invoked when lawlessness threatens to damage and destroy, and appropriate boundaries must be instituted. Even so, this can be done graciously, providing every opportunity for redemption. It is, after all, God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.

For Reflection

Two passages of Scripture, by leaders, addressing leaders, spring to mind. Both are useful for reflection and prayer, underscoring New Covenant perspectives.

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (I Peter 5:1–11).

Now from Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”’ ” (Acts 20:17–35).

Be filled with the Spirit

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:15-21).

A biblical imperative

Being filled with the Holy Spirit is a Biblical injunction. It’s a New Covenant imperative. As such, every Christian should obey.

Notice that the verb in question is passive. Those being filled are having something done to them. We also know from the Scriptures that the One doing the filling is Jesus. He is the baptizer in the Holy Spirit, and we are grateful.

The verb being passive is not to imply that we should be at all passive about being filled with the Holy Spirit. Being so is not an optional extra, for it empowers us in our witness, enabling us in words, ways, works and wonders. Jesus is our example in this, as is the early church. In fact, Jesus made it clear that we should ask, seek, and knock in this regard (Luke 11:9-10). These injunctions are all in the present continuous, and best translated “ask and keep on asking”, “seek and keep on seeking”, and “knock and keep on knocking”. We could therefore say that every Christian should be filled with the Holy Spirit, and we should encourage each other to never settle for anything less!

A definitive experience

The terminology used in the book of Acts in describing infilling is instructive. The Holy Spirit is “poured out”, “comes upon” and “fills”. Those being filled “receive” and “drink”. The connection between the two is facilitated by the laying on of hands on occasion, but not always. But no matter the means, the outcome is always definitive. Being filled with the Spirit is a true baptism. An immersion. A dipping, dunking, soaking, steeping and saturating. The idea is one of a bottle thrown into the ocean. The bottle is in the water, and the water is in the bottle. Everyone who is filled with the Spirit knows it. Others present at the time know it too. The evidence is often audible, the most common by far being speaking in tongues, although numerous other signs are included in the Biblical and are still attested to today.

There is merit to the argument that the Scriptures refer to the believer’s first infilling of the Spirit as a baptism, and to subsequent comparable encounters as infillings. This subtle distinction proves important as we recognise that baptism in the Holy Spirit propels the believer into the realms of the Spirit in a definitive way. But there is equal merit in noting that everyone baptised was already in that which they were baptised into. In other words, baptism is a secondary action, but not something totally unfamiliar. Those who are baptised in water first go down into the water before being immersed in it. In the same way, anyone being immersed in the Spirit must already be in the Spirit for that baptism to be able to take place. Understanding this helps us grasp that all Christians are born of the Spirit, have the Spirit, and are in the Spirit, even if not baptised in the Spirit. The latter is distinct from the new birth, and not for salvation, but for empowerment in witness.

Not an ethereal Gnostic bunny-trail

Gnosticism is a category of heresy for any wayward belief which appeals to some form of special “gnosis” or knowledge.

Spiritual things are always vulnerable to Gnostic influences, because spiritual things are by definition revelatory in nature. Everyone alive to God is so thanks to Word and Spirit. That said, some have received much more than others. Maturity plays a part. Having being baptised in the Spirit does also. But then, so do gifts and callings. That’s what makes comparison impossible. How can we compare ears to eyes, as they have completely different functions. Yet in the church, comparisons are both odious and ubiquitous. And because they are objectively impossible, we accomplish the measurement of the immeasurable by imposing the criteria of our subculture.

We keep stumbling over this thing. Dismissing the reality of us having all received a faith of equal standing, and thereby affording one another equal value based on Christ’s assessment, we insist on classifying the citizens of the kingdom based upon our own set of arbitrary performance indicators. Then we’re mortified when the high-profile tele-ministry fails morally. In our convoluted thinking, gifts, callings and influence somehow amount to spirituality and/or maturity. Not so! The outcomes of our lives are by grace and through faith. Confusing performance with spirituality is only possible in the first place thanks to our underlying confusion regarding Law and Grace. It is in this kind of doctrinal detritus that Gnosticism thrives as self-righteousness proliferates.

Pentecostal and Charismatic churches are saturated with this folly. Being filled with the Spirit is right in the middle of the morass, along with anything else regarded as spiritual in that particular subculture. This could be prayer and fasting. It could be speaking tongues or prophesying. It could be miracles, signs and wonders. It could even be serving, or giving, or Bible knowledge. Or falling over and the like. Or a blend of these. Whatever the permutation, it all too seldom defines authentic spirituality by righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, and even less often by love.

I once heard the dynamics of this kind of Charismatic Gnosticism described in terms of drug dealership. The leaders deliver a dose of the fix on a regular basis, for which the church members slavishly pay their ten percent, and jump through the other hoops set before them. The whole setup is stick-and-carrot riddled, but inevitably over-promises and under-delivers, always reaching for an elusive more. Like the level of life in any church, things wax and wane over time, and the more of the treadmill is in reality nothing other than more of the same. Everyone is always getting filled, but few ever are filled in any definitive way.

The Galatian believers were case in point. Obedience to elements of the Law of Moses became their subculture’s criteria for spirituality. Paul regarded them as foolish, and as having been bewitched. They had started in grace, but were pursuing a spirituality of their own design, and doing so in their own strength. Carefully heeding their example will serve us well.

Rain clouds and rising fountains

The flood of Noah’s day provides us with valuable insight. As is often the case, spiritual things reflect in the natural world, casting shadows in the tangible which enable us to better grasp the workings of the invisible. In similar vein as water, the Scriptures also reveal the Spirit as oil, wind, fire and seal.

“In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights” (Genesis 7:11–12). The waters came down, but the waters also came up. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is “poured out” and “comes upon”, but also wells up from within. Jesus was emphatic that anyone who came to Him thirsty would be given this river of living water, and that it would well up from within them (John 7:37-39). I’m sure you can see it now. The bottle is in the ocean and the ocean is in the bottle. We are filled in encounter, where Holy Spirit comes upon us, and we receive. And we are filled as He wells up form within us, for all who are born again have the Holy Spirit in residence.

The conflict in notion resolves as we embrace the genius of the “and”. It is not one or the other, but the one and the other.

Our desire is to obey. Our desire is to be filled with the Spirit, just as the Scriptures instruct. But let’s forgo the nonsensical prescriptions of our subcultures. Let’s desire and pursue the fullness and freedom already given us in Christ. This is our privilege and our inheritance in Him. Let’s recognise that the Scriptures often encourage us to seek the Lord, but never do they tell us how. That’s because seeking the Lord is an “in the Spirit” and a “by the Spirit” thing. Thinking that we know how is the surest sign that we have no idea at all.

New wine

“Do not be drunk with wine … but be filled with the Spirit”.

Could any metaphor be more apt. Nine o clock one morning, in an upper room in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit fell upon the one hundred and twenty saints gathered there. In the aftermath of the initial torrent of tears and laughter, they found themselves on the streets of the city, bewildered. People thought they were drunk. Yet, Peter stood and preached the Gospel in clarity and power, and three thousand people were saved. He was so clear about a number of things that day, including the fact that what they had just received was for all who would believe. The drinks were free, and Heaven’s Bar was open!

This drunkenness so offends the religious mind. Bit it’s not the destructive drunkenness of wine, but the delightful inebriation of the New Covenant. Those imbibing on this new wine find their defences coming down, and their generosity going up. Their’s is not the belligerence or frivolity of the fermented grape, but the childlike embrace of the Lord and the moment. Joy unspeakable, and full of glory. Not to mention full of song.

For those who are duck to water with this kind of thing, great may be your joy. In this is great blessing, for the joy of the Lord is our strength. Live drunk, and join the soaking meeting circuit. Just don’t be prescriptive about it. Or judgmental of others. Respect, honour and encourage other believers who have never been to a soaking meeting, and who have no intention of ever attending one. Appreciate that they may be just as filled with the Spirit as what you are. For just as not everyone is at their happiest in the clubs over the weekend, several beers down, not all Christians are equally enthralled with hanging out in Heaven’s Bar. Those who love it love it, but those who don’t end up staying home. And to these, the Lord is as generous and loving, and His desire is that they be as filled as anyone else. And so He invites them into the water just as surely. To use Ezekiel’s analogy, in He calls them, ankle deep, knee, deep, waste deep, and beyond. Deep within them He arises, deep calling unto deep, no one knowing the heart of man better than his own spirit within him, born of God and one with Him. The testimonies are endless. The man who dreamt he was being filled with the Spirit, and saw himself speaking in tongues, only to find himself slowly waking, all the while his prayer language pouring from his lips. How gracious is our God.

Let’s also recognise that the Lord is able to turn our rooms into an upper room any time He chooses. What He did in Jerusalem He also did at Cornelius’ house in Caesarea also. And what He did then, He still does now. There is no need to manipulate or manufacture. Authenticity has great value, but imitation little.

Keeping the main thing the main thing

What is important here is that we are filled with the Spirit. The focus should surely not be on the process of infilling, but on the resultant fullness. Some subcultures revolve around the unhelpful notion that we somehow leak, and so require incessantly repeating infillings in order to be Spirit-filled. Other subcultures rightly recognise that no Christian can ever be devoid of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is God Himself, which makes commodity-speak about Him nonsensical. We either have Him or we don’t, because He is a person, who isn’t issued by weight or length or any other measure. Yet the infilling of the Spirit is experiential, and those who receive should surely have more tangible evidence on offer than sound doctrine.

The crux of the issue is clear. Fullness in the Lord. On the one hand, the experience of His habitation within us, and on the other His enabling. Some distinguish between these two by saying that the Spirit is within us for our sake, and upon us for others. This dichotomy helps our understanding, but does not quite hold up Biblically though, for those who drink receive a river in their bellies, and that river refreshes them as well as others. It is not a matter of either/or; remember the genius of the “and”.

By grace alone through faith alone

A life in the Spirit is by grace and through faith, which is in essence a matter of control.

Scripture cautions us regarding the Spirit. In our unbelief, we risk insulting Him, grieving Him, resisting Him and and quenching Him. The language is revealing. There is nothing we can do to help Him, but we are able to hinder Him. We are the ones to keep in step with Him, and not the other way around. And so it is that in concluding, we return once again to the Gospel. God is gracious. Ours is to believe, and in our believing, to yield.

Great obedience to God is not founded in our strength or our courage. It is rooted in trust. In letting go. In yielding to His thoughts, His ways, His pace, His path. This is the key to being filled with the Spirit. We do not fill ourselves. The Holy Spirit is the gift of the Father, and Jesus is the one who does the filling. To be filled with the Spirit is His doing. We believe, and believing, receive.

Pray for South Africa

Our local church, so guided by the Holy Spirit, has embarked on a pilgrimage of intercession for our nation. “Pray for South Africa”. What that means in practice is that a significant portion of our Sunday morning services have been ceded to prayer. A few months in, and we’re learning to shun fear and stand in faith as we square up to the enormous challenges of the day. So far, so good!

The other Sunday morning I woke early with a single sentence running around on the inside: “Pray that the country doesn’t burn!” What a charge. And what to make of it? A threat of civil war? Anarchy? Perplexed, I made my way to the gathering.

Not many minutes in, Pat van der Zee took the congregational microphone and shared the following. Here is an edited version of her putting pen to paper …

“On Thursday evening we overnighted with our daughter and family. It was her birthday, and all four of our children with their families joined us for supper at a local restaurant. As we were leaving the restaurant we noticed a fire on the horizon in the direction of their homestead, and the journey home soon revealed that the farm was ablaze, with the homestead under threat.

Immediately, the decision to evacuate was taken. We tried to quickly pack a few things, but at times like that realise that the only thing of any importance is the saving of lives. As we left the homestead, we saw the lights of many vehicles driving up to the farm from the village to see if they could help. There was a great deal at stake, including a second homestead and several bed and breakfast rooms that are income-generating.

There seemed little hope, but then our prayers were answered, as the wind first changed direction, and then died down. The next morning we saw that the flames had stopped less than a hundred metres from the fence that surrounds the homestead. God is the God of the impossible, and this hopeless situation became a celebration of His love, faithfulness, grace and mercy.

We experienced such fear in the face of the fire, but the support of the community and the agreement in prayer by all concerned made such a difference. And over and above that, we call on a God who wills all to be saved, and who gave His Son for this purpose. It has made me realize so clearly the reality and urgency of the Gospel in our day.”

That testimony provided an extraordinary context of faith in which to “pray that the country doesn’t burn”. This we did, calling on the God of the impossible, who wills that none perish, but that all are saved.

Pray with us. Pray for South Africa. Pray for peace and prosperity. Pray for repentance and faith. Can a nation come to God, and substantially so? Of course it can! Can a nation escape from the threat of destruction and emerge humbled, believing, and pulsating with life in every sense? Of course it can. And our God wills it so!

Thinking about Discipleship

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw Him they worshiped Him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus, for pupil or learner. It corresponds with the Greek mathetes, from manthano – to learn. The corresponding Hebrew term, limmud, is somewhat rare in the OT, but common in the rabbinical writings. That said, the practice of discipleship is to be found throughout the Old Testament. In the Greek world, philosophers were likewise surrounded by their pupils. A disciple is thus in the most fundamental sense the pupil of a teacher. And since pupils often adopted the distinctive teaching of their masters, the word also came to signify adherence to a particular outlook in religion or philosophy.

The believers were first called Christians in Antioch, and were known as the Way in Ephesus. But the term disciple remained the most common term for them throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts. So saying reveals that Jesus both broadened and deepened the meaning of the word. He broadened its meaning by gathering around Himself concentric circles of disciples. The first circle comprised a tiny, intimate inner core. The largest a perimeter embracing thousands and reaching into nations. But all were His disciples. He also deepened its meaning. he extended a call to His disciples to deep personal allegiance and exclusive loyalty. This willingness to put Him above and before all else went well beyond the norm. For many, heeding His call has literally required the abandonment of home and family and business ties, and even meant relinquishing all possessions.

Conventional thought

With Jesus creating the initial impetus, the church has discipled people ever since. It has done so within three frameworks.

Firstly, and in the broadest sense, the local church is a discipling environment in and of itself. By definition, the church is a community submitted to God, His Word, and to one another. Vulnerability, malleability and accountability are inherent to the equation. This way of life is described in a rather fascinating way by doctor Luke in the book of Acts. In documenting the exponential increase in the number of believers, he reveals a culture of discipleship by describing it as the word having increased (Acts 4:31, 6:2, 6:7, 8:4, 8:14, 11:1, 12:24, 13:48-49, 19:10, 19:20). This warrants discussion later on.

Secondly, the church embodies choreographed order, exquisitely crafted by the Lord. The same thing is observable within the Trinity. Collaboration between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is carefully appointed. Nothing is at all haphazard. The same carefully appointed order permeates family and state also, when we allow it. This is so because Creator God is the founder of these institutions. What He creates is always consistent with His own nature. So it is that diverse gifts and callings collaborate seamlessly in their respective roles. Embedded within this dynamic flow of authority and responsibility is an element of discipleship. Teaching and training can occur along any appropriate interface. We all play a part, and build one another up in love.

And finally, the church disciples with in relationships especially constituted for this purpose. Jesus and the Twelve are the obvious role model. Barnabas and Paul are also an excellent example, as are Paul and Timothy. It’s this type of arrangement that most likely springs to mind at the mention of discipleship. The Scriptures reinforce the validity of the practise by encouraging imitation. First of Christ, but also imitation of the life of faith of the mature in Christ. Paul champions this thinking when instructing Timothy: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:1–2). Paul was raising a disciplers, who would in turn raise up other disciplers, and so forth. His aim was to establish a self-perpetuating cycle. Discipleship should multiply mature equippers ad infinitum.

Essential qualifiers

Our synopsis is thus far both satisfactory and Biblical, yet incomplete.

The inseparable relationship between authority and discipleship must be underscored. Whenever the Lord delegates responsibility, He also delegates the concomitant authority. Yet, in the final analysis, all authority remains with Jesus. All authority has been given to Him. He was Himself emphatic about this. For that reason discipleship can never be regarded as an exercise in authority. It is, and always will be, a function of servanthood. It undergirds. Church history records authority’s many abuses, and more than a few were in the name of discipleship. That fact alone adorns the subject in red flags.

The essential qualifier is that authority and submission always rests on the foundation of mutual submission. We submit one to another out of reverence for Christ. This is the great equaliser. Detach the flow of authority and submission from this essential foundation, and abuse must ensue. Leadership and governance devolves into a lording over. It is only because husband and wife are mutually submitted to one another out of reverence for Christ that the wife can safely submit to her husband’s headship in the marriage. The same applies, leader to follower to leader, in the context of church and state.

A further essential is emphasis on the “Go” of the Gospel. All discipleship must ultimately be about establishing the nations in Christ, and under His government. Thankfully this cry continues to ring out from pulpits across the globe. All nations need discipleship. And it is the will of God that we disciple them. He has given all of us the job. This “Go” is important for two reasons. Firstly, it ensures that we disciple away from ourselves and towards mission. And secondly, only the multiplication afforded by a “Go” paradigm will get the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

But don’t miss the revelatory gem in the offing. Discipleship must establish the nations in Christ before establishing them under His government. People are to be immersed into Christ before they are taught to obey anything. Read it carefully. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Many sermons could and should be preached at this juncture. Jesus was instilling in His apostolic band a theology that embraced the Trinity. The Eleven to whom the words were spoken were all Israelites. They had always been taught that the Lord their God was One (Deuteronomy 6:4, Mark 12:29, et al). But possibly even more important than that, He was emphasising the fact that all Christianity is identity-driven. Disciples “be” before they “do”. All training must therefore be on the foundation of grace through faith, for all authentic Christian behaviour stems from newness in Christ.

These observations impose significant caveats on our earlier observations. The machinery of discipleship is one thing; life and effectiveness in the process another. In practise, the leader of a congregation might well be the leader of the leadership team, a husband and father, and the convener of several discipleship forums. In an authoritarian culture, this would make him a very powerful individual indeed. He could exercise enormous control through simple approval or disapproval. Unless of course he is first submitted. To his fellow leaders, to his wife, to the congregation, and even to his kids as age-appropriate. And unless he is discipling away from himself, relinquishing power and authority wherever possible.

Biblical curriculae

As the Gospel first spread, doctor Luke documented it as the word increasing. This was more than a mere turn of phrase. It points to an important component of discipleship’s gambit of essentials. Discipleship requires curriculum. Any training exercise requires suitable training material. So, the word increased. Good. But what word was it?

We know that the Luke could not possibly have been referring to the written Word as we know it today. The New Testament had not yet been written. It could also not possibly have referred to the words of Moses. The Old Covenant had been set aside, replaced by a new and better covenant, founded on new and better promises.

Jesus’ words shed light – “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”. And while He taught many things, do the scholastic legwork and you’ll discover that He only issued two commands: Believe, and love. Love as you have been loved, that is. Which takes us right back to the Gospel!

Paul’s curriculum statement echoes the words of Jesus. “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men”. Paul’s discipleship curriculum was what he taught wherever he went. His “whole counsel of God” in Ephesus was his “knowing nothing amongst you except Christ Jesus and Him crucified” in Corinth, was his “word of Christ” through which faith comes about which he wrote to the church in Rome.

The word in question is the Gospel, of course. It is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. Discipleship is nothing other than the application of the perfect, finished work of Christ, and this to every area of life. A narrow curriculum, but one which impacts on everything else. It does so without condemnation. There is no guilt and manipulation; no stick and carrot. It leaves responsibility with the individual in unmitigated ways. But it offers love, acceptance, and the gift of righteousness in equally unmitigated ways.

A rather useful bottom line is simply this: When discipleship is undertaken off an unsuitable foundation, it centres around accountability. Behaviour is policed, and the exercise devolves into people pleasing. But when discipleship is appropriately embarked on, in the Gospel, everything revolves around encouragement. The perfect work of Jesus is what is kept central. This allows limitless opportunity for failure, and equally limitless opportunity for restoration. Love abounds and life flows. Even discipleship, in the final analysis, is all about Jesus.

Disciples of whom?

One final matter, and an important one at that. Christians are disciples, but disciples of whom?

In the broadest sense, all believers are disciples of Jesus. The Scriptures are unequivocal on this matter. Peter tells us that He left us an example to follow. John insists that, “Whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked” (I John 2:6). Differentiating, as some do, between believers (the saved) and disciples (the obedient saved), is judgmentalism. It introduces unhelpful class distinctions in the church. Far better to insist that every believer is in fact a disciple. That makes obedience the natural and anticipated outflow of faith.

Yet caution is necessary. Implying that discipleship is the conforming of believers to Christ is problematic. We carry such varied paradigms on the matter. White people tend to have a white Jesus, and black people a black Jesus. Reducing the Christian life to imitating “our” Jesus is thus folly. The outcome must be a form of legalism of our own crafting.

The Bible also encourages us to imitate the way of life of those beyond us in maturity in the Lord. We gladly do so. We learn from them, imitating their faith and faithfulness. But without becoming imitations of them. One of religion’s more abhorrent characteristics is that those trapped by it reproduce themselves. This is certainly not the discipler’s brief. Every believer is already a clone of Jesus. Born again of the Spirit, every believer has a new nature which is His identical twin. Discipleship should never work towards conformity. It works towards nurturing the new life already granted, in fullness and freedom.

Fortunately Jesus made matters plain, and emphatically so. Believers are His disciples in the broad sense, but followers of the Holy Spirit in the specifics. He is the Helper within, our teacher and guide. He is the One who will never leave us. He will lead us into all truth, making the things of Jesus and the Father known to us. It is He we are following, moment by moment, day by day. He is our teacher. As Jesus said to His own on the night of His betrayal, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that He will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:12–15).

Which is why Paul could state so unequivocally, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14).

It is true that disciples are made, not born. But they are made by the One of whom they are born. Discipleship is by grace, through faith, and always, always, in the power of the Spirit.

Do Who You Are

The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

As good news goes, it’s simple and straightforward. Jesus lived the sinless life none of us could live. He then died the sinner’s death we all deserve. He did this all as our substitute, and His resurrection ratified His substitutionary sacrifice.

As good news goes, though, there is so much more going on with the Gospel than mere information. It is revelation. Word and Spirit. That’s what gives it power in and of itself. Wherever it goes it imparts faith. And anyone who believes receives. More than that, everyone who receives is received also. In that first moment of faith, Holy Spirit unites new believers with Christ. He literally immerses them into Christ’s crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection, even while recreating them in Christ’s image. From that moment on, they are in Christ, and He is in them.

The Gospel comes to us, enters into us, and draws us into itself. We Christians live because of the Gospel, by the Gospel, in the Gospel, through the Gospel, and for the Gospel. Prepositions abound as we attempt to give words to it all. Christ and His Gospel are inseparable; Christ and Christians are inseparable; Christians and the Gospel are inseparable. It is the power of God by which we are being saved. Paul put it this way to the Corinthians, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (I Corinthians 15:1-2). Its claims are all-or-nothing. Either it is fully saving for all who stand in it, or else it is sheer vanity, saving none at all.

We will always be grateful to the Reformers for restoring the Gospel to the church. They did what they could see. Yet they unfortunately stopped short of its full application. They restored it as the only means of salvation. They even sought to restore it as the only means of living the Christian life. But what they didn’t do was establish it as God’s exclusively ordained means of ministry. The New Covenant’s way. This limited follow-through saw the Reformers themselves remain identified with the ecclesiastical elite of the day, and deprived the rank and file of it’s freedom and fullness to the point of themselves becoming the New Covenant’s fully-fledged torchbearers.

This is not said in criticism of the Reformers. They walked by the light they had. But it is said to underscore the need for a further reformation in the church of our day. Jesus was clear that there is no room for an elitism in His church. His Gospel is His gift to His world, for the salvation of all who believe; there for the possessing by the whosoever will. Most Evangelicals and Charismatics are a far cry from this. In these circles the Gospel tends to be the domain of the evangelist, while the bulk of the church remains mired in a mixture of Law and Grace. Nowhere is this more prominent than in matters of leadership and governance.

It’s time for change!

Dismantle the heirarchy

In Luther’s day, the priesthood had positioned themselves between God and His people. In our day, the church has positioned herself between God and His world. Just a slightly different manifestation of the same misbelief.

In Christ, God came to His world. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:17–21).

God has reconciled the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them. This is the Good News of the Gospel. Grace and truth have come. All that remains is for men and women to believe and receive. Access has already been granted into the kingdom of heaven. All that men and women have to do is accept His invitation, and in so doing make the journey from where they are (in Adam) to where they belong (in Christ).

This proclamation is unfortunately seldom heard. That’s thanks to the convoluted belief system of most of His ambassadors. Most somehow believe that if they’re ambassadors for the kingdom, then their local churches are somehow its embassies. It then follows that these embassies must have been charged with issuing Heaven’s visas. This of course is definitely not so. God, in Christ, has already personally issued a visa to everyone on the planet. They just don’t know it yet, and our job as His ambassadors, is to tell them! Our ambassadorial role is nothing more than to herald that which has already been decreed. Far too many Christians are so far away from understanding this that they also see their church leaders as the visa issuers, which is not too different to the way things were in Luther’s day. Little wonder the church as a whole is insecure in her salvation and so fickle in her witness.

Discern accurately

The church is not between God and His world. Unbelief is.

Our priestly role celebrates His work, but does not mediate it. Our inclusion in the outworking of it all is by His condescension, and is our privilege. He does use us, but He does not need us. Any other view, even subconsciously, will inevitably subject those who hold it to unbridled pressure and debilitating condemnation. Even incarnate Jesus wasn’t perfect enough to impress His brothers. If He fell short, how can we even begin to believe that the salvation of those around us can possibly hinge on our performance.

That’s not to suggest that the obedience of faith is to be taken lightly. Even Paul, who was well aware that he could not save anyone, told the Ephesian elders that he was innocent of the blood of all, having declared to them the whole counsel of God. He also relayed to the Galatians that he regarded his own sufferings as a necessary extrapolation of the sufferings of Christ. I’ve encountered similar views amongst persecuted believers who suffer for their faith even today. Thought forms like these in no wise trivialise the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ, but honour it. The Gospel is a life and death matter, and eternally so. To treat it as anything less is to dishonour Christ’s work, His world, and His Gospel. We who have been redeemed by the blood of the Saviour would do well to consider ourselves as under orders, and do as we’re told. No other response could ever approximate appropriate.

Nevertheless, a careful distinction must be drawn between fruit and success. Or, perhaps better put, we ought to give careful thought to how we define success. A local church might exhibit every sign of being successful, yet be less fruitful than one might think. That’s because fruit stems from the members of the congregation walking in the good works the Lord has prepared in advance for them to do. No matter how grand the vision, or how vibrant the programs, unless these are works done in the obedience of faith, they are the dead works of human effort. For many of us, the thought that much of what happens in a local church could be wood, hay and stubble, is somewhat unpalatable. Yet when we take a step back, and we consider how far short we are of evangelising the planet, and that after two thousand years of concerted effort, we can begin to open ourselves up to the notion that perhaps an entirely different approach to being and doing church might be needed.

Truth is, in the Gospel we’ve already been given everything necessary for maximum fruitfulness. Everything within the New Covenant operates by grace and through faith. Fullness and freedom have already been granted in Christ Jesus. All God’s promises are yes and amen in Him. For that reason, all that is needed is a revelation of the Gospel, and the faith to follow through on what and where that takes us. Because the Gospel contains all, and is given to all, the great deliverance needed is not from our shortcomings and weaknesses, but from our unbelief.

As earlier observed, unbelief typically manifests in self-absorption. Self-awareness, and especially so in the context of our new nature in Christ, is a good thing. We only love others because we ourselves are loved. And we can only serve others well when we are conscious of our own impact upon them. Self-awareness is thus foundational to maturity. But self-centredness is something entirely different. It is of the flesh, and not of the Spirit. It considers self above all else and before all else. It is self-conscious, self-serving, self-preserving, self-promoting and self-indulgent. In a nutshell – selfish. And sinful. And as it is with the individual, so it is with the corporate. The mature local church, secure in the Gospel, is self-aware, but not self-absorbed. Her Christianity is all about Him. She does not see herself awkwardly poised between God and His world, but at one with Him, and serving His world in and for Him. It is not Him who is sought, for she is His and He is hers. It is His will that is sought. It is His will which is loved, longed for, embraced and done.

Respond appropriately

This makes leadership under the New Covenant a simple matter. This is because it asks nothing different of leaders than what it does of anyone else.

The underlying premise under the New Covenant is the same for everybody. All are in Christ, and indwelt by the Spirit. Fullness and freedom have already been granted. Design and destiny are hand and glove. All the necessary gifts and callings, graces and anointings are in place. Remember that everything the Lord ever asks for, He takes full responsibility for by providing first.

Now take a moment to factor in our supporting cast. It’s similar, no matter who we are. The fact that there even is a supporting cast is quite remarkable, given the fact that He alone is always more than enough. Yet the New Covenant is a covenant that just keeps on giving. The Lord places brothers and sisters beside us. His has given us His written Word, pulsating with revelation, to aid and abet us. The bread and the wine are constant reminders, and they assist us in the appropriation of all that He has promised. The impartation we receive when our brothers and sisters lay hands on us does the same. Unlimited, unhindered access to His throne of grace is ours also. And if that were not enough, the Lord Himself never slumbers or sleeps, but is behind the scenes, working for good in all things. Someone has said that He does far more behind our backs than we’ll ever know.

His grace abounds indeed. As we’ve seen, its means are many. And as it finds us, it’s first gift is always faith.

What then must we do? How are we to respond. There is no script to follow; no task to complete, standard to meet or goal to achieve. Any battle to be fought will be won by standing in His victory. The faith that is to be kept is kept in His strength, in His wisdom, and by His abundant grace. And the race which we are to run is entirely unique. It is ours. No one can run it for us, and no one can run it better than what we can. It is ours, and ours alone.

What then do we do? How do we respond? And this much applies to leader and follower alike also, for all that differs are the roles to be played.

We believe!

Live authentically

And in believing, we love. Loved ourselves, we extend to others that which has been freely given us. We are alive thanks to the Gospel, and we are alive in the Gospel. We therefore live for the Gospel, and we do so by allowing it to flow through and from us, in words, ways, works and wonders. In believing, we love, and in believing and loving we do, and as we do, we find ourselves walking in the obedience of faith.

Nothing could be simpler. Being who He has made us to be, we quite naturally then do what He has called us to do.

This is the only legitimate point of accountability for our lives. We are new creations in Christ. Are we living authentically?

Reflections on Leadership

Leadership is a big subject. Church leadership is a small sub-category of this much larger whole.

The Bible places church leaders in one of three broad categories. These are not as precise nor as prescriptive as some would have us believe. Theology is a man-made discipline, in which gleaning is common practise. This leaves little room for dogmatism.

Three broad categories

Those leaders who oversee the affairs of the local church are the elders. Biblically, they always function in plurality. The Scriptures also refers to them interchangeably as bishops and shepherds. Each of the three terms carries helpful descriptive nuance. Eldership (presbyteros) derives from the familial and tribal roots of nations. It speaks clearly into the desirability of plurality in governance. Shepherding (poimen) derives from the agrarian society of the Bible days. Bishop (episcopos) derives from the foremen or overseers of construction sites. Acknowledging these nuances enriches the job description of the eldership as a group. It also grants insight into the possible strengths of respective individuals in that group. Important to note is that the church is God’s nation, flock and building. Bearing that in mind keeps human leadership in appropriate perspective.

The second category is the deacons. These were first appointed to manage the distribution of food to widows in the Jerusalem church. From there the role developed. It now describes leaders who facilitate the practicalities of the local church community. As the etymology suggests, deacons are servants. Literal ministers, in the original sense of that word. (The sensibilities of which seem to escape many modern-day politicians). Deacons are appointed to watch over their Master’s business. Important to note is that the elders are not their masters. Deacons are the servants of the Chief Servant, administrating His affairs. As such, they are servants to His church, and not the servants of His church. We are equally all servants of one another in Him.

Finally, there are the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. They are appointed by Christ for the sake of His bride. These are specialists in the maturing of the saints. As such these ministries tend towards trans-local influence. They can be cast in a role reminiscent of John the baptiser. The difference is that John was appointed an attendant of the betrothed. He was only needed until the coming of the Bridegroom. These ministries attend also, but the lady in question is no longer Christ’s betrothed, but His wife. Their role is not to prepare the bride for her Bridegroom, as was John’s. Theirs is to mature the bride in her Bridegroom. This distinction reaches far beyond mere semantics.

Suffice to say that contributions vary, even within categories, let alone across them. Paul the apostle lived celibate and traveled extensively. James the apostle, who presided over the Council of Jerusalem, did neither. In defining ministries and their respective contributions, little place for dogmatism remains.

Influence in diversity

The churches leaders serve are as varied as the leaders themselves.

Some are tiny third-world communities that gather under trees in the rural outback. Others are modern mega-churches in the hearts of the globe’s leading cities. Each is a limited manifestation in the here and now of Jesus’ glorious, transcendent, eternal bride. Even where their contexts are comparable, each church is still unique. Each has its own personality, character, culture and ethos. Each is a blend of nature and nurture. Longevity adds by contribution over time into the complex matrix of variables shaping any given situation.

With such diversity and variance, the common denominator, by way of definition, is influence. And amidst the many variables influencing the local church, leaderships influence is arguably the most impactful. Culture and context contribute much, but if the local church is to enjoy any conscious shaping that is counter-culture or counter-context, it will likely be through the leadership. Further reflection reveals leadership as influence as a crystalline gem, with rich interplay between its many facets. Wisdom, inspiration, vision, strategy, mobilisation, commitment, planning, fortitude, and many more besides. Books can be written, indeed have, on each. But we’re painting with a broad brush here, and so regarding leadership as influence in a generic way suits our purposes well. It’s not the only influence in the local church, but it will always be a major influence, by commission or omission, for good or for ill.

That said, every positive influence traces back to God. He is good, always and only does good, and is the originator of every good gift. And because He is so generous, there is always a great deal to thank Him for. Every corrupting influence, on the other hand, traces back to unbelief, which is the essence of sin. Within the confines of our humanity, sin inevitably involves self. Self-awareness may well be a mark of maturity, but self-centredness is not. Its nuances are numerous: self-reliance, self-indulgence, self-righteousness, self-promotion, and every other kind of selfishness. On point is that sin always leads to death. Fallen world and satan’s minions compound its destructiveness. They work together to ensure that the deeds of the flesh are as necrotic as possible.

This applies to leadership as much as to anything else.

Leaders should influence, not define

Jesus nurtures His church through others, and her leaders play a most significant role in this. Yet her leaders are within her. They are not first and foremost over her, or ahead of her, but within her. They are as much a part of the community of faith as anyone else. As integral. As mutually submitted.

Many would acknowledge this, yet still make the mistake of believing that leadership should be skeletal to the body. In other words, those who are in authority in the local church are her mainstays. Allow me to illustrate …

According to Scripture, the apostles and prophets are foundational to the church, with Jesus as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). Interpret this statement structurally, and local churches should be built upon men and ministries. Interpret it in the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work (as context dictates), and we glimpse again His glorious, transcendent church. Jew and Gentile are included on equal footing. This latter interpretation is consistent with the City and Bride of the Revelation. Her gates carry the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (prophets). Her wall’s foundation stones the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9-14). So it is that she is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets; not on apostle so-and-so or prophet-what’s-his-name.

A second example is the misbelief under which I labored for decades. To use Paul’s analogy, leaders are the bones of Christ’s body. The thinking is that just as in the human body, the nerves, arteries and veins are paired along the skeleton. There they enjoy the protection bones provide, and from there they are able to reach throughout the body, providing their essential services. Such a view aligns all the essential services of the body with leadership. Nerves and blood; connection with the Head; all dependent on leadership. Such a view relegates the bulk of a local church’s membership to simply fleshing out the skeleton. Show up, serve and give. Do as you’re told and go where you are sent. With apologies for mixed metaphors, leadership becomes the pergola on which the vines of church members grow. The result is that church members seldom become the oaks of righteousness as destined in Christ, but remain dependent on others in matters spiritual.

A third example is the degree to which churches are defined by structure. Episcopal, presbyterian or congregational. It would be far more helpful if context determined structure. A young church, or a church in trouble? Undergird it from outside of itself through a strong, wise, experienced episcopate. A strong, mature, healthy church? A plurality of elders would be best. And the more extensive the work, the more important a Spirit-filled, vibrant and able deaconate. All three have their place. All three should influence every local church to some degree. But none should supplant the governance of Christ or the leadership of His Spirit. These abide within the believers. Christ is her foundation, and He is her life-blood.

As an aside here. Most local churches require a constitution. Be this for land ownership, or even for something as simple as opening a bank account. This constitution will demand that the church be defined by its structures of leadership and governance. Someone, after all, has to take responsibility. May I suggest that every constitution should have the following three characteristics. Firstly, each local church must be autonomous. Our Heavenly Father has granted us volition by design, and our structures should do the same one for another. Secondly, the constitution should be minimalist and simple, providing maximum flexibility. Our God is invested in diversity, and it is therefore incumbent upon us to grant that gift to one another. And thirdly, those in authority should be accountable to the congregation as a whole. This ought be so as we’re all to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. This is the backdrop against which all other authority and submission is worked out (Ephesians 4:21). Heed these three navigation beacons, and constitutional responsibility will stop short of governmental rigidity.

Liberating fluidity

Such ecclesiastical fluidity opens the floodgates of liberating revelation.

It turns out that getting everything right and just-so is not such big a deal after all. Church is all about Jesus, and He is building His church. Jesus is conducting the orchestra, and Holy Spirit is the unction to every moving part. Secure in that, we can all relax into authenticity.

There is no recipe. There is no ideal organogram. Churches should not built according to pattern, model or blueprint.

At the end of the day it doesn’t even really matter all that much whether we can tell the difference between an apostle and a deacon. Love one another, and receive one another with open hearts, and we’ll get all that He gives through each anyway. What matters is our in-Him-ness. It’s the measles and mumps thing. Get around a fellow who has measles but says he has mumps, and you’ll catch what he’s got, no matter what he calls it. In the same way, the church may appear to be bumbling along at best. But as long as Jesus is the CEO and Holy Spirit the Director of Operations, we can be sure that business will be brisk. When our hearts are open to Him, we feast on all that matters, and gold, silver and precious stones abound.

The Gospel makes everything so simple, because God Himself nurtures. People, including leaders, are merely a means.

How then should leaders lead? If not primarily through the conventional tools of leadership and governance, then how? How do apostles apostle? How do prophets prophet, and evangelists evangelist? And what about elders and deacons? How should the elders eld and deacons deac? The answer could not be more simple. In Christ, by the Spirit, and through the Gospel!

In one sense there is no script at all. In another sense, there is only one script, written once-for-all. His script – the Gospel!

All of Christianity is identity driven. So beats the New Covenant metronome, which applies equally to leadership and ministry. Authentic function stems from who we are in Christ. Thorough exegesis might well be used to shape a well crafted job description for the various ministries, but that cannot make anyone performing the tasks into a purveyor of life. Authentic ministry arises from within, from gifts and callings, graces and anointing. The primary issue is one of fruit, and not performance. It’s what folk get from us that counts, remember. Measles or mumps. The good works prepared in advance for us to do are all things that the Lord Himself does through us, as opposed to things we’ve set our our own hearts and minds on doing. Acorns become oaks. Not so aspirant oaks unfortunately, no matter how hard they try. Such is the way of the Lord.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8–10).

This applies to leaders as much as to anyone else. Gone is the stress and strain of trying to be enough. Let’s all just be who we are, in Christ, by His Spirit, and allow His life to flow from that.