Monthly Archives: May 2018

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.

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Nature and Nurture

Herewith a quick over-the-shoulder recap of the last four posts …

  • The church is the product of the New Covenant. Her very existence is only possible thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus. And because of its efficacy, she is spiritual, perfect and glorious. One with God, she transcends time and space.
  • Every local church is a limited temporal manifestation of a far greater eternal reality. Despite imperfections, local churches are always much more than they appear to be. They are defined by their source, not by their performance.
  • Conceived by Word and Spirit, local churches carry New Covenant DNA. They are genetically perfect and glorious. Lacking nothing, their essence cannot be improved upon.
  • Authentic Christian living is the fruit of Christ’s complete and perfect work. It is as much by Word and Spirit as the new birth itself. The Gospel is thus the essential forerunner to the local church. Believers who live true to their new natures congregate in local churches. These are contextually authentic, with a life-dynamic that is by grace and through faith.

These are all descriptions of the church’s essential nature. Clarity on this is all-important, for just as with the individual believer, her essence is what defines her, therefore defining each and every local church also. Yet there’s more to all of us than nature. We are also the product of nurture, by which we mean the sum total of the many influences that have formed and fashioned us, for good and for ill.

On a personal level many aspects of wholesome nurture are generic. They are the necessary components of maturity, irrespective of race, gender or context. “Mind your manners”. “Tidy your room”. But then there are those aspects of nurture that are tailored to situation and circumstance, gifts and callings. “It’s time for your piano lesson”. The greater the congruence between the latter and nature the better. We all have that friend, practical by orientation, who suffered through an education in academic mould. And what about the fellow stranded in the wrong job. Discrepancy between nature and nurture teaches us that design and destiny are hand to glove, and that the more time we spend doing what we’re created for, the better.

Similarly, every local church is a blend of nature and nurture. By nature, all local church are identical. All are of Christ, in Christ, for Christ, and by His Spirit. Their uniqueness stems not from nature, but from nurture. From the fashioning and forming, situation and circumstance. The most obvious variable in the mix is the people themselves. Each member is unique, and makes a unique contribution. Beyond this are innumerable further variables, each impacting on the congregation to greater or lesser degree. Alignment and association play their part, as do history and context. Even omission warrants inclusion in our thinking, because deprivation shapes things just as surely as what diligence and abundance does.

Many of the factors that shape and form a local church are beyond our control, but that should not lead us to conclude that the nurture of a local church is purely a random, haphazard affair. This is not so, for the New Covenant brings with it wisdom of grace. Jesus is building His church, in the universal and in the local sense. Understanding how He does this enables us to cooperate with Him.

Jesus is building His church

Jesus is building His church. In other words, God Himself is ultimately responsible for nature and nurture. He is the source of every good gift, no matter how convoluted its delivery system may seem. Only that which is of Christ and in Christ is eternal. Heaven’s union with earth may well be untidy in the moment, but this will not always be so. In the end, only that which is perfect will remain. Gold, silver and precious stones will endure. Wood, hay and stubble will perish. Humanity as we know it is transient. Humanity as in Christ Jesus is eternal.

Jesus builds by Word and Spirit. This is how Heaven comes to earth. Jesus embodied this, and the Gospel, which is the Good News about what Jesus accomplished, is Word and Spirit also. Blood and Water; Word and Spirit. By these we are born again, and by these we are nurtured. This is true of us as individual believers, and true of the local church. The implication is that nurture, like the new birth, is by grace alone and through faith alone. Believing is receiving, for it is Him at work, and not we ourselves.

Jesus builds bottom-up inside-out. Our transformation is by clear progression. The first thing Jesus changes is who we are. That happens when we believe and are born again. In that moment we are united with Him is His crucifixion, death and resurrection, and receive a new nature. Holy Spirit takes up residence within us. Next Jesus changes why we are. He gets to work in our hearts and minds, shaping our other innards into alignment with our new nature. The outworking of that is that He changes what we are. How we live. Our behaviour. Our thoughts, words and deeds.

The wonderful thing about all of this is that Heaven’s perfections are not compromised in any way by amalgamation with fallen humanity. This is one of the great distinctives of the New Covenant. Perfection Himself submitted to the virgin’s womb in humble condescension. Doing so did not render Him any the lesser. Our new natures are incorruptible. It is mortality which yields to immortality under the New Covenant, and not the other way around, for Christ conquered the grave. In Him we touch lepers, and in Him we embrace corpses with impunity. In Him, mercy has triumphed over judgement, making love the most powerful force in the universe.

All of that to give insight into how it is that Perfect Jesus is able to use imperfect people. Imperfect people just like us. Incorruptible new natures and a triumphant salvation make this possible. He remains the source of every good gift, even if the delivery system is convoluted. And so, while He remains the Somebody responsible for nurture, He has delegated the task to Everybody. Our life in Him includes all things pertaining to life and godliness. We access this sufficiency through faith. Not a passive faith, but an active faith, that has concomitant obedience. The New Covenant ecosystem thrives as our faith produces good works, many of which unfold within the communion of the saints. The diversity of our gifts and callings enrich in broad sweep as Christ takes on flesh once again, living through His body, by His Spirit. There He expresses Himself through words, ways, works and wonders. We all benefit, the Gospel is propagated, and His kingdom advances. Nothing could be simpler, sweeter, or more God glorifying.

Paradigm shift

It’s against this backdrop of an abundance of good fruit that the Lord Jesus appoints some to leadership and governance in the church. These men and women carry the authority, anointing and grace needed to exercise their gifts and fulfil their callings. To each is apportioned a sphere of influence, but their primary purpose remains the same – the nurture of a bride who is born of God, and who is perfect of nature.

The conventional view of church leadership and governance differs from this considerably. Rather than positioning leaders to undergird and facilitate, the conventional view positions leaders on top and out front. The result is top-down outside-in, rather than the bottom-up, inside-out of the kingdom.

This is the very thing that Jesus warned us about when correcting the ambitious sons of Zebedee in this regard. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45).

Reject His inputs, and the sins pile up quickly.

Inherent in us doing things our own way is the denial of the efficacy of His work. This denial comes by way of regarding His bride as less than perfect. Which amounts to unbelief in its rawest form.

Deny the efficacy of His work, and the church presents as sub-standard. Instead of perfect, she is seen as in need of improvement and repair. Inculcating any such culture of shortcoming and lack is the antithesis of the New Covenant’s presumption of fullness and freedom. From here, an orphan spirit quickly develops, as opposed to the delights of the Spirit of sonship which the Gospel so generously bestows.

Set about to improve and repair, and Grace defaults to Law. The tools of this trade are stick and carrot, and all too soon the way the believers behave is managed by approval and disapproval. Instead of the beauty of self-governance in and by the Spirit, which is the New Covenant way, manipulation and control wait in the wings. So accustomed are we to leaders stick-and-carroting that most of us don’t even register a problem. We expect them to bring us under Law, and think it’s their job to manipulate and control as they tell us what to do. Could it be that we’ve completely lost sight of the fact that the ministry of the Law is one of death? This remains so no matter how well-meaning the people are administering it. Abuse can be ever so politely perpetrated, with teary-eyed sincerity, admirable passion, and more than a little self-sacrifice.

Adding insult to injury, it’s not possible to have top-down outside-in leadership without it giving rise to an ecclesiastical aristocracy. A few folk end up being much more important than everyone else. We even quite happily grant them special dress, title and privilege, all the while underscoring their being a cut above the rest, unhelpfully reinforcing the cycle.

Not too long and gone is any thought of the fullness and freedom of the New Covenant. Guilt and condemnation, manipulation and control proliferate. Personal responsibility and self-governance are supplanted by conformity. The leading of the Holy Spirit is replaced by flesh-and-blood leadership. Everyone is shortchanged at best, not least the leaders themselves.

Such are the dynamics of imprisonment by religion in the name of “Biblical order”, “responsible leadership” and “good governance”. Law by every other name!

Redress

The unifying factor of redemption history is Christ and His perfect work. This is the doctrinal monocle (perhaps telescope, or microscope, or both) through which all of Scripture should be understood, and all of history viewed.

So saying flies in the face of the popular notion that the kingdom of God is redemption’s unifying theme. We must be emphatic about this, for the kingdom issues from the King, and serves the purposes of the King, but it is He who is preeminent. Getting this wrong leads to an emphasis on the ways of God, rather than on His glorious salvific work. Christianity then devolves into living by kingdom principles, rather than by the leadership of the Spirit. These two always agree, but the latter is exclusively by grace through faith. Live by kingdom principles, and self effort beckons into recipes and formulae, steps and rules.

Thanks to Jesus’ perfect work, the church is not substandard at all. We Christians are New Covenant people. We are not under Law. The Law was fulfilled by Christ, and rendered obsolete by Him. We are under Grace. Fullness and freedom have been given us in Christ. Nothing lacking; nothing broken. The Holy Spirit is within us. He is our leader. Love, forgiveness and acceptance have replaced the stones Law insisted we throw. Condemnation and retribution are not in the equation. Our behaviour is shaped by our identity, and not managed by approval and disapproval. Gone is the stick and the carrot. We have embraced Christ. He received our punishment in full, and He is our reward. The kingdom of God is within us. Our new natures urge submission to God, as is befitting new creations. In His Name we must therefore demand that there be congruence between nature and nurture, design and destiny.

There is much more yet to be said about leadership and governance under the New Covenant. What concerns us at this point is not the nuts and bolts of it all, but the quantum leap in perspective necessary. Leadership is about nurture, nurture, nurture, nurture and nurture. Nurture congruent with essential nature. Nurture congruent with gift and callings. Nurture in agreement with the work of Christ. Authority used to undergird, not to dominate.

Jesus commanded it, modelled it and enabled it. Ours is to practice it.

He was once quizzed on matters of taxation. The motives behind the question were malicious, an attempt to set Him up against Rome. Jesus asked for a coin, and then asked whose image was on the coin. Caesar was the answer, and, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” His iconic answer. Herein lies a profound summation of the point we’re making. An emperor or monarch has their image imprinted on a coin through moulding or minting. Outside-in and top-down. In contrast, we are God’s by creation and Christ’s through redemption. He has worked to make us in His image, but by Word and Spirit, bottom-up and inside-out. Our leaders should be like Him, and not like Caesar. They should nurture by Word and Spirit, and not by moulding and minting. Mould and mint, and they’ll likely leave their own imprint on us, rather than the image of Christ.

Order without Law

The Bible teaches us that Law is the rightful response to lawlessness. Disciplinary actions still have a place. But this is not so in the cut and thrust of daily life, where the watchword is self-government, from within, and undergirded by the community of faith.

All the inspiration we need is to be found in the very first community of faith, the Trinity, in whose fellowship we have been included in Christ.

Perfect order prevails amongst them. Son submits to Father, and Spirit to Father and Son. Yet there is no Law here. No authoritarianism. In this first community of faith love and honour prevail, and mutual submission each to the others overshadows authority and submission as demonstrated by them fulfilling their respective roles.

Paul appealed to the church to live the same way. He stressed that mutual submission across the love-community is the essential precursor to order. Leaders in the church must submit to their followers before insisting that their followers submit to them. Husbands must submit to their wives in the Lord before insisting that their wives submit to them as a point of order in the marriage. He even extrapolated the principle into the wider context of civil society. The only exception, in all situations, is where lawlessness is prevalent. There, mutual submission in love yields to the rule of law for the preservation of good. But where love rules, no law is necessary.

Today we’re quick to applaud leaders who produce the desired outcomes. We don’t seem to mind if they do it in ways that decimate faith, love and self-governance. We’ve lost sight of the fact that the Law is not of faith. It never has been, and it never will be. It can only produce dead works, and these at best. It’s ministry is death, and it will always create environments conducive to manipulation, control and abuse.

It’s time for a revolution in leadership, producing the kind of leadership that can lead the necessary revolution. A revolution that is at once revival and reformation. The best is yet ahead.

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New Covenant church life

Water stewarded by the river’s banks brings life wherever it goes. But note that it’s the water itself determining the course of the river, carving its banks as it flows. This synergy provides us with perfect parable, for this is how God works.

We can get uncomfortable with the fluidity of His approach. Our fear is that any river left to chart its own course could create a swamp. Our comfort zone is greater control. Sterile canals are the result, and often dry canals at that. We then invest inordinate time and energy into praying for rain as our hearts yearn for life amidst the sterility of our own manufacture. Unfortunately, this is man’s way. There is nothing new about it. The prophet Jeremiah addressed it when he penned, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.“ (Jeremiah 2:13).

Description is not prescription

The Bible introduces us to a number of local churches. Paul’s letters contribute substantially. So do the opening chapters of the Revelation. Yet it is a cursory perusal of Acts that best serves our purposes here. There the unfolding story of the church unfolds around the founding of three significant congregations – Jerusalem, Antioch and Ephesus. We’ll take a peak at each, and in doing so underscore two crucial insights.

Firstly, our fears are unfounded. The Gospel river of Word and Spirit is well able to fashion its own boundaries. Wise leadership is always an asset, but to turn to another metaphor for a moment, we can have full confidence in the seed. There is no need for us to control matters. New Covenant DNA cannot be improved upon. What grows from the Gospel will always be better than what our best efforts can engineer.

Secondly, and the primary point of this post, is that the church in the New Testament emerged directly from the Gospel. The good things that marked church life were the Gospel’s fruit. Just as Jesus had promised – good fruit; abundant fruit; lasting fruit; God-glorifying fruit. Law’s fruit, on the other hand, is deadly. Condemnation, judgement, accusation, disqualification, striving, sin-consciousness, and every other kind of unbelief. But the Gospel produces the good fruit of the kingdom of heaven: righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. These are the makings of healthy local church, whatever the context.

Let’s use an example from Jerusalem in illustration. These generous and caring saints initiated a common purse. As a result, there were no needy among them. The Gospel’s love and generosity reproduced itself in the believers, and the common purse was a manifestation of the work of the Spirit in their hearts. It did not result from any strategic leadership other than that provided by the Holy Spirit from within the heart of the believing community. This distinction is all-important. New Testament descriptions of church life are just that – descriptions. Descriptions of what the Gospel’s fruit may well look like. These descriptive passages should never be brought to bear in prescriptive ways. Do that, and the spiritual barometer immediately swings from Grace to Law. The annals of church history are littered with attempts to engineer similar outcomes by similar means. But man’s way is top-down, outside-in, and the array of abuses attendant manipulation and control easily ensue.

We should expect good fruit in our local churches. Not because we envision and strategise for it, but because we preach the same Gospel the early apostolic band preached. The Biblical descriptions give us snapshots of what that good fruit could look like. But we must resist the tendency to scout out patterns or principles that become our formulae for success. Let’s rejoice in the fruit of the Gospel, whether we see it on the pages of our Bibles or in the other churches in our cities. And then, let’s trust God for good fruit in our own context, as we declare an uncompromised Gospel in the fullness of grace.

Jerusalem

The church in Jerusalem was born in the deluge of Life in the wake of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As kick-starts go, this one was exceptional. Membership increased to well over five thousand on day one. Further advantages in their context included a wealth of leadership (a room full of apostles), and a developed mono-culture (everyone thought the same way). These are helpful facilitators of community. The latter proved a huge hindrance to mission though, and it was only as persecution intensified that the Gospel spread. This teaches us that our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses.

The iconic description of life in the Jerusalem church reads, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42–47)

They devoted themselves to four things. Each was a direct response to the Gospel.

The first was to the apostles’ teaching. Not the teachings of Moses. Not even the teachings of Jesus. They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, which was the Good News, the Gospel. It’s essence was that Jesus had lived the sinless life no sinner could live. He had then died the death every sinner deserved. Then He had risen from the dead. This was the apostles’ message, and this is the New Covenant. It is emphatically post-cross, post-resurrection and post-outpouring-of-the-Spirit. Paul’s ministry was marked by the same message, as should any other be ministry today.

They devoted themselves to the fellowship. The Greek word used here has nuance. Dependant on context, it can be equally well translated as community or partnership. The Jerusalem church embraced it as community. The Gospel had produced a whole new segment in society – the called out ones. Those who had believed into Christ Jesus. They were His community. A grace community; a faith community; a Holy Spirit community. They constituted a definite and distinctive component of the city. Judaism was structured around the Law of Moses. The church coagulated around the command of Jesus: “love one another”. Love one another as Jesus had loved them, that is. Sacrificially, unconditionally and practically.

They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. Jesus gave His church this beautiful means of grace. Communion is ongoing participation in the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. The bread and the wine, received in faith, appropriates the benefits of the New Covenant tangibly and personally. The believers in Jerusalem broke bread often. Most often, is seems, while sharing a meal. Where the meals stopped and the communion started is not all that clear form the account, for as they gathered with family and friends for the sustenance of their bodies, they turned also to the bread and the wine for the nurture of their souls. This reminded them that they were first and foremost spiritual beings. God’s children. Brothers and sisters in Christ. Their context facilitated it all. Jesus had been crucified in Jerusalem, and the likes of continued Roman rule and Golgotha served as continual reminders. Their culture was already an hospitable one, with extended families already a part of daily life. The patterns that emerged did so quite naturally, then, and were a perfect fit for first-century Jerusalem.

Finally, they devoted themselves to prayer. This was a marked response to the New Covenant fitting in any historically religious context. These were people who were accustomed to mediation. Under Moses, only priests went to God. The people went to the priests. Now that these ordinary men and women had access to God, they made full use of the privilege. Simply imagine yourself into their shoes. You’ll quickly appreciate the vibrancy of prayer in the New Testament church. People who had not had anywhere to turn could now turn to God, and that for themselves. They had been made righteous by grace through faith. They were most welcome at His throne of grace. Mercy was freely and directly available. All they needed to do was ask. So they asked! May I suggest that prayer will also flourish in our churches when we rediscover the privilege of access to God.

Antioch

Church life in Antioch reflected its New Covenant DNA just as well. The context was different, and so the fruit showed itself a little differently also. Here multi-culturalism was the order of the day. Jew and Gentile fellowshipped together. Their sharing of daily routines seem less marked than Jerusalem, but partnership in the Gospel more so. This was a church where anyone was welcome, including Christian-killing ex-Pharisee Paul. Anyone was welcome, because of the Gospel, in the Gospel, and for the Gospel. Antioch was missional church at its best.

“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:1–3)

The believers were first called Christians in Antioch, revealing that they were also a distinct group, even if quite different to the community of faith in Jerusalem. Prayer was important to them also, as was the apostles’ teaching. Barnabas was a bulwark contributor in this regard, and the New Covenant the metronome to their thinking. Their most prominently featured means of grace seems to have been the laying on of hands. In the context of New Covenant, touch conveys acceptance, imparts spiritual life and gifts, or bestows authority. This is especially significant as we note that it was Jew and Gentile extending this touch one to the other.

Incidentally, the same generosity that marked the Jerusalem church marked the Antioch church also. Yet their giving was more missionally inclined, rather than slanted towards community-building. “So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 11:29–30)

Ephesus

The church in Ephesus is yet another wonderful study of the Gospel at work. This was Paul’s way. He was no church planter; He was an apostolic Gospel-preacher. Where the Gospel is preached, it produces a people, and these people often become a local church. In Ephesus, these people were called the Way.

“And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptised?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptised with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all. And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” (Acts 19:1–12)

Paul preached the Gospel boldly. He preached it in the power of the Spirit. This is what he had been anointed and appointed to do. The result was salvation in all of its richness. Salvation of spirit, soul and body. Salvation gloriously made manifest in a pagan city. The account reveals the world-transforming power of the Gospel ever so clearly. Through the Gospel, Heaven colonises earth one life at a time. From there, upward and outward, it impacts cities and nations. Daily preaching and teaching in a single venue resulted in the entire Roman province of Asia hearing the word of the Lord.

Tremendous authority has been granted the people of God in Christ. Notice how demons fled, and how principalities and powers lost their grip. The church in Ephesus exercised tremendous territorial authority. (Reference the way in which the Philistines were held at bay outside of Israel’s borders throughout Samuel’s lifetime for more insight into these matters. Cf Samuel 7:13). Yet, notice also how little time was devoted to demon-chasing and other forms of spiritual warfare. These things happen as and when the Gospel is preached; no specialised ministry necessary.

Sadly, in later years the Ephesian church relinquished its high ground. They abandoned their first love. Instead of devotion to Christ, they came to rely on their own efforts (Cf Revelation 2:1-7). The result was the loss of their lampstand (authority; not salvation). The lesson is simple. Everything that any church has is by grace and through faith. It is not of ourselves.

Flow, river, flow

All of the churches of the New Testament are fountains of revelation regarding the Gospel and it’s fruit. The Galatians teach us that to return to Law is a fall from grace. This very lesson would’ve increased the longevity of the harvest in Ephesus, for it is into this trap which they fell. The Corinthians teach us that lawlessness is no more helpful than legalism. Both of these belief systems are defined by Law, the one for, the other against. The Gospel is something entirely different.

Those who are in Christ are not under law, but they are under Grace. And grace is many things, including a government. It is the government of God; the rule of His Christ. Changed lives come as the work of Christ is appropriated by the Holy Spirit. This happens through faith, and occurs bottom-up, inside-out. Living the Christian life is nothing other than the outworking of New Covenant DNA implanted by new birth. Church life is from the same source and works in the same way. This Spirit-indwelt Christ-life, the newness of those born again, manifests Heaven here on earth. It does so in time and space. As it grows and develops it establishes itself, transforming lives, families, cities and nations.

May our local churches be as much the fruit of the New Covenant as any glimpsed on the pages of our New Testament. Flow, river, flow! It is crucial that they be the works of God, not the strivings of men.

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