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.
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!
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.