Tag Archives: Church

Dealing with duality

Jesus is only twice recorded making mention of the church, and so illustrated its duality.

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Then He strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.”(Matthew 16:13–20)

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15–20)

The church is thus a two-sided coin. Heads is the glorious, universal, transcendent bride of Christ. Tails is the local church that meets on the corner of 7th and Main.

Duality a familiar notion

Believers are familiar with this duality in their own lives.

In the moment we come to faith we are swept into the once-for-all-ness of the New Covenant. Death gives way to Life as we were born from above by the Spirit. We are seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. We have moved beyond the three dimensions of the natural realm. Ours are now the innumerable dimensions of the heavenly realm. Little wonder that we can get a little confused about our true identity on occasion.

The Scriptures speak to our new identity most emphatically. Having believed, we are no longer in Adam, but in Christ. The old has gone; the new has come. There are any number of ways of expressing this, and the implications are immense. We are no longer unrighteous, but righteous. We are no longer sinners, but saints. We are no longer dead, but alive; no longer separated from God, but irrevocably united with Him. On and on we could go. We have been united with Christ in His crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection. We can never be the same again, for we are in essence new creations. We no longer have the sinful nature we were originally born with, for we have been born again by the Spirit of God. Just as Christ is, so are we in this world.

Being this clear on our identity is not a denial of our humanity. Our glorious, new, eternal life finds itself encased in an Adam-suit. An Adam-suit that still carries with it a good deal of the baggage of our pre-conversion lives. The Scriptures call this vestigial in-Adam-ness our flesh. Its dominion has been broken, and we no longer need to submit to it any more than we need to submit to sin and satan. But it having lost its dominion does not imply that it has ceased to exist or lost all of its influence. Just catch an inadvertent of glimpse your disheveled self in the mirror in the middle of the night. You could easily conclude that there is nothing glorious there at all. Nevertheless, the Scripture reassure us: Everything has changed. We are new creations. No matter how we appear, that is who we are. And the Spirit within bears witness.

Those familiar with these concepts often distinguish between the Christian’s position (who we are in Christ), and our condition (with Christ in us, but in our Adam-suits nonetheless). This is a helpful distinction: we have position and condition; status and state. There is who we are, and there is who we appear to be. At times, these stand in disturbing contradiction. The mystery of salvation, which is by grace alone and through faith alone, is that it defines us by the work of Christ alone. There is duality, but there is no place for duplicity. That can only result in religious schizophrenia. We are who Christ has made us to be. Our position, our status, our in-Christ-ness – that is the real us. That is who we are. We are new creations. Our condition, state, or vestigial in-Adam-ness is a secondary reality. This remaining oldness is best shed like an old skin, as the life within grows and matures.

Similar thinking is to be applied to, in and by local churches. Every local church is a significantly limited manifestation of an infinitely greater, glorious, spiritual, and eternal reality. All are limited by time and place, and by the inescapable humanity in the equation. But none are defined by their limitations or distinctives. All are defined by the work of Christ. Duality is a reality, but there is no room for duplicity. The Scriptures unequivocally reveal who the church is. She is the glorious bride of Christ; she in Him, and He in her. It is a perfect union and a perfect partnership. This is true, no matter how imperfect the local church may appear in the natural. Or even how much evidence can be presented to the contrary.

Up there, down here

This Bible puts this duality into an “up there, down here” framework. Up there is the glorious, eternal, transcendent and spiritual. Down here is the temporal, finite and tangible. We, who start out down here, are assured that, having believed into Jesus, are seated in heavenly places. We are therefore encouraged to fix our eyes on things above. We’re taught to pray that things down here might become just as they are in heaven. We could say that “up there” is our position; “down here” our condition.

The bride of Christ, i.e. the church universal, is “up there”. It is not of this world, and not of this age. Flesh and blood it is not. Glory and grace it is. The local church, on the other hand, is “down here”. It is in this world, but not of it. Flesh and blood it most certainly is. These are the opposite sides of the coin.

A common mistake is to trade “up there, down here” thinking a “now and not yet” paradigm. This relegates the present to the imperfect, and reserves perfection for the future. Churches and the Christians who populate them are therefore works in progress. They may not be who they once were (in Adam), but they are also not who they one day shall be (in Christ). Rather, they are an amorphous blend of the two. A little bit of both, with the ratios in the cocktail varying from day to day. This is a serious misbelief. It compromises the fundamentals of the Gospel, which is a salvation by grace alone through faith alone. The mystery and beauty of our salvation is that it is identity-driven. Transformation comes to Christians and churches as they discover their their identity in Christ.

It is true that who we are has not yet fully been made manifest. In that sense we are not yet who we one day shall be. Work is being done in us and on us by Word and Spirit. Circumstances play their part. Consequently, we are changing. We are maturing. We are progressively entering into the fullness and freedom that has already been given us. But there’s the key: already given us. We should never imply that we have been made anything less than perfect, nor granted anything less than consummate freedom and fullness. We must never allow ourselves to be defined by who we appear to be, for we are those who are in Christ. We are who He has made us to be. We are who we are, once and for all, forevermore.

From atop the podium

The Christian life is not a journey towards destination, but a journey from destination. In Christ we find ourselves on the top of the podium, the gold medal already around our necks. Our race is not towards victory, but from it. It is an adventure in ever-increasing glory, fruitfulness and maturity. Of course it is necessary for the image of Christ to be worked out in our lives. But Christlikeness in essence is already ours. We get to work out what God has already worked in. we have been co-crucified with Christ, and co-raised in Him. We can never be more righteous than what we are right now. Nor more holy. All of us could most certainly live more righteously. We can walk in greater holiness. But these are secondary matters that flow from identity. Our behaviour does not define us; Christ’s behaviour does.

The structure of Paul’s letters to the churches illustrate this magnificently. They begin in the indicative: who we are because of what God has done. They end in the imperative: instruction on appropriate responses to the grace of God. The same can be noted in Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery. He ensured that she was free from all condemnation before encouraging her to leave her life of sin.

Peter of old learnt these truths in dramatic fashion. On the rooftop at lunchtime one day, peckish and in prayer, he fell into a trance. A tablecloth crammed with unclean creepy-crawlies descended, and the Lord instructed him to kill and eat. His religious sensibilities were deeply offended. The Lord’s lesson for the day: never regard as unclean that which the Lord has declared clean. The issue at hand back then was the Gospel going to the Gentiles. At stake was the transformational power of our justification. It amounts to instantaneous sanctification. In Christ equals made holy. Every sinner is unclean. Every Christian is clean. God says so. Even of the creepy-crawly looking ones.

A simple analogy

The point is to align the way local churches think about themselves with Scripture. The Gospel is good news, and that good news is that the beneficiaries of the New Covenant are new creations. Our minds must be renewed and our paradigms and perspectives changed. Christ is the lens through which we view all things, including His bride. Our point of departure must always be His perfect work.

Something as simple as the rain helps us understand. Heads is the overcast sky and the rain pouring down. The earth and all in it rejoice at the life-giving refreshing and renewal downpours bring. Tails are the raindrops, hurtling downwards, blown hither and thither by the wind. Some splash into puddle. Others crash into paving, roofing, or foliage.

Is a raindrop rain? Of course it is. But is each raindrop the rain? Not really. The rain is even more than the sum of all the raindrops together.

Churches, and even individual believers, can learn valuable lessons from reflecting on the rain. It serves our purposes here to address ourselves to the former. To those local churches who undervalue, or even denigrate themselves, we must say: “Little raindrop, we know that your building is dated and your music group off key. You appear to be such a ramshackle bunch. Few among you are of notable stature or exemplary spirituality. But guess what? You are rain. You are as much rain as any other raindrop. Don’t stumble over yourself. Rather fixate on your big-picture greatness. The more you do, the more the ‘up there’ will show up in your ‘down here’”.

And to the big, successful raindrops, we must say: “We’re so glad you’re excelling in all you give yourself to. Yet we’re not particularly impressed by you, even if you make quite a very big splash in your little puddle. Truth is, no matter how big a splash you make, you’re still just a raindrop. The rain is much, much more. Just a raindrop like the rest of us, your bigger and better is rather inconsequential in the light of the rain. Your ‘down here’ will always be an insubstantial boast in the light of the glorious heavenly deluge”. A deluge that we’re all so privileged to be included in. Thanks to the rain, we’re all so much more than we could ever hope to be in our own right. But, also thanks to the rain, we’ll never amount to anything much in our own right.

It’s not about us, you see. It’s all about Him!

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Glimpsing the Bride

Imagine for a moment that the distant horizon is an enormous timeline.

Far left are the seven days of creation, beyond which things fade into eternity past. Far right is eternity future. Arranged between these extremes, left to right, is all of history. People, places and events are all there, chronologically and proportionally. Your imagination is the artist here. The detail is up to you.

Somewhere off to the right is today. Pencil that one in while you’re at it.

Now focus on the middle of the timeline. Straight ahead, centre stage, is the cross of Christ. It towers over the timeline as the centre-piece of history. It represents Jesus’ virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary death, and glorious resurrection. Right alongside it is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. These inseparable events together form the centre-piece of our theology: the New Covenant, blood and water, Word and Spirit.

Preeminent Jesus

Take a step back and survey the finished masterpiece. Take it all in. Notice how the cross is all-pervasive. Look left, and notice how it casts its shadow back across all that preceded it. See how its influence extends beyond the beginning of the timeline, right into eternity past, with the Scriptures revealing that the Lord had the cross in mind before the creation of the world. Its reflection is everywhere. In the tree of life, the centre-piece of Eden. Adam and Eve’s redemption after the fall reveal it again. They should have died, but didn’t. An animal died in their stead, yielding its skin to cover their nakedness. The more you look, the more you see. Timeline left, its reflection is in every feast and festival, sacrifice and offering. There it is in prophet, priest and king. In tabernacle and temple. In all God’s dealings with men. Timeline right, it shows up everywhere as well. History correctly understood is His story. Everything subsequent to the cross has unfolded in the light of its purpose and plan. Sometimes in acceptance. At other times in rejection. Either way, everything since has referenced the cross one way or another.

So say the Scriptures. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross” (Col 1:15–20).

Defining Jesus

The cutting of the New Covenant was all-defining. It is the Bible’s interpretive master-key. It is the eternal mechanism of our salvation and the unwavering foundation of our faith. And as definitive goes, it is applicable to the people of God also. For while God has always had a people, Christ only had a bride in waiting before the cross, for she was only fully formed in the deluge of blood and water, Word and Spirit, that was the New Covenant being established.

Like the cross, she too dates back into eternity past, and can be glimpsed prophetically in the communities of faith of old. The first tiny nuclear family around Adam and Eve eventually expanded into many much larger extended families. A few generations later and Abraham could raise a small army from within his family. As the multiplication snowballed, families became clans, and clans nations. And while the church is family, clan and nation, she is much more besides. She is of Christ and in Christ, and Christ is in her by His Spirit. It is from their eternal union, reflected back through time to the beginning, that Biblical parameters for marriage stem: one man, one woman, for life.

Timeline left, and there’s the shadow. The Lord put Adam into a deep sleep. From his side, He took a rib, and fashioned Eve. Bone of Adam’s bone and flesh of his flesh. A perfect mate for perfect union. And the two became one. Straight ahead on the timeline is the substance from which that shadow derived. The Lord put Last-Adam Jesus into a death sleep. His side was pierced as temple curtain tore and heavens rend asunder. In the torrent of blood and water, by Word and Spirit, Christ’s bride was now revealed. Spirit of His Spirit and essence of His essence. Corporate Eve. A perfect mate for perfect union; Jesus and His bride are one. One Lord, one wife, forever.

Transcendent, Glorious Beauty

Now gaze timeline right, deep into promise territory. There she is, revealed in full glory!

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement. The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev 21:9–22:5).

A New Covenant Girl to her core

Quite a bride Jesus has there!

First manifest in Jerusalem when the Spirit was poured out, her essence transcends time and space. Even if but a small group gathered in a school hall on a Sunday morning, that small group is much more than meets the eye, for they are His, and in Him. They are transcendent in splendour. His splendour. They are His, perfect in the fullness and freedom of the unmitigated glories of the New Covenant. They are His, the perfect mate, in perfect union with Him.

Some have distinguished between church (the local church) and Church (the church universal). Jesus Himself used the word in these contexts, sans capital letters. Yet here we must be careful, for while church is Church, Church is not church. The local church is a limited manifestation in time and space of the glorious, eternal, transcendent Church of our Lord. The universal church is thus at best poorly represented by even the best of local churches in their finest of hour. Yet no matter how unimpressive a local church may seem at any given time, we must remain emphatic about the her belonging to Christ and being part of His bride.

The implications are enormous. No local church is ordinary. No local church is less than a full beneficiary of the New Covenant. Every principle of leadership and governance instituted needs be thus derived from the New Covenant; never the Old.

Consider for a moment just how often we derive our approach to doing church from pre-cross shadows. How often we suggest to the local church tht she is less than righteous; less that qualified; less than made perfect forever in Him.

Recognising her exclusive New-Covenant-ness must also cast aspersions over Jethro-pyramid oversight structures, Elijah-Elisha succession plans, and David-esque leadership models. With reference to the latter, the New Covenant purports that we already have our Braveheart. His name is Jesus. We don’t need pastor or apostle trying their best to be another one. A final observation suffice to the moment is that the four Gospels are substantially pre-cross also. What if Jesus discipled the Twelve in the way in which He did because the Spirit had not yet been given. Could it be that we have no right cultivating devotees in the name of discipleship for fashioning in our own image? These, and many provocative questions besides, need be asked.

Makes one think, doesn’t it!

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In defense of new year’s resolutions

It’s easy to be disparaging about new year’s resolutions. So much talk; so little traction; such a poor track record.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to new year’s resolutions.  To be reflective as the calendar rolls around is to be human, and to resolve for the good expresses hope and self-awareness, fertile ground both for increased fruitfulness.

So … what are your goals for 2018? Do you have any resolutions, overt or covert? What would you like to see, and where would you like to be, as the sun sets on 2018. I’m not just talking about pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but steak-on-the-plate reality. What is in your mind for 2018 spiritually, socially and economically? Are there adjustments to be made in favour of your health? Dietary changes? Exercise? Sleep? Are there disciplines to be embraced? Is there study to be embarked on, or at the very least books to be read? Or written?

These are good questions all, and I write to encourage you to ask them. Challenge yourself as necessary. It’s 2018, and opportunity is pounding on the door. God is good! He has revealed His will for us in Christ Jesus, and it is to save and to bless. Embrace Him, and it, and make as many necessary adjustments as is practicable to make the most of the blessing on offer.

As was said in the days of our forefathers: “The year of our Lord, 2018.”

And why not?!

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The Gospel redeems

The Gospel is the continuous application of God’s once-for-all solution in Christ Jesus. There is nowhere it cannot go, no one it cannot save, and no situation that it cannot redeem. It is the yeast in the dough; the smallest of seeds that becomes the biggest of trees; literally Heaven invading earth.

This sweet Pauline one-liner – “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22) – is a concluding comment in his letter to the church in Philippi. What gets it jumping off the page is realising that Paul was writing from prison in Rome. Rome, epicentre of the mighty Roman Empire. Rome, which in the person of Pontius Pilate had literally issued Jesus’ death warrant. Rome, home to the Empire’s supreme commander, Caesar. Caesar, whose household had been infiltrated by the Gospel. Those of Caesar’s household greet you!

This Gospel is God’s strategy for the redemption of rebel planet earth. The way it all works is quite sublime. It is God who makes Christians. Each and every one is His workmanship, and so inherently witness to Him. This is self-evident. The newborn are testimony to the new birth. As trophies of the cross, we testify by our very existence, even if we never do a single thing for the fame of His Name. Yet we are not just static trophies of grace on the mantelpiece of heaven. Rather, we are living trophies, the workmanship of God, and engineered to partner with Him. In an action of extraordinary condescension, the Lord invites us to co-labour with Him in the very Gospel that is our salvation. We, witnesses to His work, get to testify in addition to His grace in words, works, ways and wonders. And, rather unsurprisingly, the effectiveness of our witness is dependent on His efforts and not ours.

Good works have been prepared in advance for us to do. Works that are perfectly suited to our unique blend of abilities and circumstances. In Christ, living in God and living for God are one and the same thing. There is absolute congruence between who God has made us to be and what He has called us to do. The enabling baptism in the Holy Spirit empowers our witness significantly, but does not create it. The new birth does that. John the baptiser, under the Old Covenant, declared that he needed to decrease in order for Christ to increase. Jesus later stated emphatically that the least in the kingdom (born again) was greater than John. That is so because those who are in Christ have been co-crucified with Christ; His story is our story. We do not decrease for Him to increase. On the contrary, He increases as we grow into all that He has made and called us to be. He must increase, therefore we must increase also! Any theology that insists that true piety is achieved by dying to self denies that those in Christ are new creations. Acknowledging that the new has come is what frees us to live in freedom and fullness, veritable oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord.

The Gospel gifts us comfort in our own skins, and in Christ “authentic us” will always be infinitely more fruitful than “imitation someone else”. Learn of others, but be yourself. World evangelism is the job description of every believer. Many are the good works prepared in advance for each of us to do. The parameters of our daily lives are what describe the scope of our respective mission-fields. Our world is our parish, literally, even if not exclusive to us. The parishes of those around us overlap with ours, but in the great condescension of God, we are each invited to play our part. Accepting that invitation is our privilege, knowing full well that only one part really matters, and that’s His part. We are no one’s saviour; He is everyone’s Saviour. Our story might seem to have little value, except that in Christ our story is His story, and therefore invaluable. Thinking this way moves our paradigms beyond the restrictive confines of our vision, church or ministry, and encourages us to take our place in His vision, His church and His ministry.

A few will be called to leave their families for the sake of the Gospel; most will be called to love their families for the sake of the Gospel. Understanding this is life changing. The single mom, struggling to survive, learns that surviving and raising her child unto, for and in the Lord, is her ministry. Her life in God is her life for God. As such, she has the comprehensive backing of heaven, not one iota less than the television evangelist reaching multitudes. In Christ, everything we do, everywhere we go, and everyone we know, are all beneficiaries of our witness, if for no other reason than their being in our lives. As the Spirit leads and empowers, they are also likely beneficiaries of our witnessing, be it in words, works, ways or wonders. Think this way and our jobs are vocations (callings), no matter how menial they might seem to others, for we comprehend that we are strategically placed representatives, just because we’re us. It is a small step from there to becoming fully functioning ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven in our thinking, inviting those around us to be reconciled to God, just as we are.

The Gospel knows no great sacred-secular divide. That gulf is of dead religion’s making – a gulf which causes us to have Christian friends and non-Christian friends, sacred spaces and secular spaces. The Gospel corrects our thinking and teaches us that God loves His world; that we have only one life, and it is in Christ, with Christ in it. There we realise that we simply have friends, some of whom are believers, and some of whom are not (yet). There we know that any giving in response to the Spirit’s prompting is worship, whether in a church meeting on Sunday or to a beggar at the roadside on Monday. The Gospel unites our fragmented psyche and brings congruence to the many varied facets of our lives. It teaches us that living in the Lord is living for the Lord, and that the single important point of accountability for all of life is the will of God – His will as expressed in Christ Jesus, and His will in follow-ship of Him.

How we’ve diluted and domesticated the church by holding believers accountable to her vision and values. Christianity has become a diminished churchianity as accountability has centered on church – attendance, involvement, giving and service. This is small thinking, and will at best produce seemingly impressive local churches. The Gospel’s point of accountability is towards something far greater – global redemption. It is found in the glorious invitation that comes to us from Christ Himself. Having done all for us, “Come follow me”, He invites. If we’re going to ask each other anything by means of accountability, let’s ask each other whether we’re doing what God wants us to do. That question might harness fewer resources for the local church, but will unleash much more for the kingdom of heaven.

Local churches are wonderful things. It is my strong conviction that every believer should be a contributing member of one. But I also regard local churches to be the products of the Gospel, as well as essential conduits of the Gospel to those around them. Each local church will inevitably have its own distinctives, these in both strengths and weaknesses, but no matter what, the local church’s core business remains the same – the Gospel. Let’s hear far less about vision, values and ethos – about us and what we’re doing. Let’s keep things about the Gospel – about who He is and what He has done! Thinking this way releases believers and churches into glorious synergy with what the Lord is doing in our day. Local churches need not be controlling or confining. They can be givers rather than takers, and entities that believers live their Christian lives out of and from, rather than towards and into.

The redemption of the planet is in the Gospel. Local churches either tend to facilitate this flow or dam the river. Those who dam it most will produce temporary verdant oases that will inevitably tend towards stagnation over time. The church is not the power of God for salvation; the Gospel is. Myriad are the testimonies of just how much Jesus loves His world. Innumerable others await, and increase and acceleration will be logarithmic as Christians get clear on the Gospel, and are liberated and encouraged to be and to do, twenty-four-seven, anywhere and everywhere, as per the glory of the Good News. On every street in every village, and in every suburb in every city, are soul, situation and circumstance aplenty perfectly poised for redemption. Let it be. Amen!


This is the last in a series of posts adapted from the e-book “Why the Gospel is the Best News Ever!” by Gavin Cox. Go to the first post in the series by clicking here.

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No flags

flagpole-49506_640“No flags.” Another one-liner from the Lord, and this one as pithy as they come. As usual, I knew exactly what He meant. Since gaining numerical significance, the people of God have always carried tribal overtones within their unity. Jacob’s sons became the heads of twelve tribes, each with distinctives in character and calling. Benjamin, Levi, Judah – these are names with a great deal of meaning to anyone who has a handle on Old Testament history.

But problems arise when unity begins to fracture along these tribal lines. It is but a small step in the heart from Benjamin, Levi and Judah to “I’m of Apollos”, “I’m of Cephas”, and “I’m of Paul”. As Paul pointed out to the fragmented community in Corinth, we’re actually all of Christ, and this polarising stuff is counterproductive. The lesson is this: while we cannot avoid having distinctives, these should not define us. Christ alone does that. Some of our distinctives are primal, like skin colour and gender; others are nuanced, like doctrine and calling. No matter which, our carnal tendency is to quantify and categorise, define and delineate, and then associate and/or disassociate accordingly. The result is Christ divided; a house that crumbles. A fundamental error repeated over and over again.

So, no flags! No flags marking our allegiance to any faction of the church above another. And no flag calling for allegiance to this part of the church above another. Autonomous, inter-dependent local church – nothing more; nothing less – under the responsible government of it’s Biblically appointed eldership, and relationally connected to the important trans-local gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. Nothing could be simpler or clearer.

b9317967944z-1_20150704151929_000_gohb8pva9-1-0Yet walking in this has been challenging in the utmost. The reason is not that other church leaders don’t understand or disagree with the position. Rather, it’s regarded as some sort of lofty idealism. Consequently, the Lord’s church is so divided along the lines of it’s respective distinctives, that it has often become the purveyor of a its respective brand of Christianity, more so than of the Gospel. Just gather with other leaders. The first question typically goes to who you’re “under”. For me this question raises something of a red flag (excuse the pun), because you soon discover that you’re welcome everywhere on a superficial level, but nowhere on a significant level. Unless of course you subscribe to the finer points of the distinctives of the brand in question.

To state this is to state the obvious: The New Testament church was one congregation, many apostles; not one apostle with his many congregations. Again, to state the obvious: Paul’s reference to some who he had raised up as sons was descriptive, not prescriptive. If the shoe fits, wear it, but let’s not insist that everyone dons our preferred brogues. All that does is corrupts and weakens the gene pool by incestuous inbreeding. Why should everyone we invest in undergo some sort of DNA transfusion in order to become just like us?

The flag issue ultimately addresses ownership. It is my strong conviction that the church, and by that I mean the local church, belongs to Christ. The Scriptures are clear on local church structures – elders and deacons; with elements of episcopal, presbyterian and congregational approaches, dependent on context. Any structures that emerge between these autonomous local churches and the glorious eternal church are man-engineered. They may facilitate health and mission, but they arise out of pragmatism (us) rather than Perfection (Him). Let’s hold onto them lightly. And when they begin to define us in ways that supersede our identity in Christ, let’s jettison them in haste.

Every local church has distinctives. These is nothing wrong with that. But so strong is our need to define ourselves by association that even a flagless local church runs the risk of becoming part of some no-flag movement, where flaglessness becomes the defining characteristic, and where like good teenagers, we all non-conform together in identical ways. See above, and count us out.

downloadOne last thought, and I include it simply because I encounter it so often. My resistance to defining alignment within the wider body of Christ is not because I’m hurt, bent and buckled. It seems there are those who resist relationships of depth and accountability because they are wounded, and it is true that living rogue doesn’t produce much by the way of good fruit. But I’m not rogue. Neither are many others who share these convictions. And we are walking in, and healthily desirous of, trans-local relationships of depth and accountability. We’re just not prepared to become card-carrying movement members, for doing so would have us perpetuating an exclusivity and elitism that needs to be flushed out from amongst the people of God, and not reinforced and entrenched.

imagesSo it is that the proverbial flagpole rises high above the roof of the building in which our local church gathers on Sunday mornings. Around us, any number of believers, and more commonly leaders, eye its vacant tip with considerable perplexity, and at times more than a little disdain. We know this because they agitate about it, and subtly raise the matter with us again and again; and at times not so subtly. But long may it so remain, and soon may those whom it bothers come to see that it really is OK. For a flagless flagpole does not default to a Jolly Roger (the skull-and-crossbones, and pirates ahoy!), or half-mast (another failed church and perhaps a building for sale). If it defaults anywhere, it’s to a white flag, and this part of the body of Christ unwilling to be at war with the rest of itself.

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Only churches that can’t, will

images (1)The church of our Lord Jesus Christ is that glorious ensemble of all saints from throughout the ages. The party is open-ended, and His invitation to the whosoever will stands. Every day men and women all over the globe join God’s eternal family as they come to faith, for inclusion is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.

Our Lord’s church is a transcendent eternal reality that is essentially spiritual in nature. It is superlative to our temporal, finite world, and could never be contained by it. Yet it does manifest in our see-hear-smell-taste-touch world in localised communities we call churches. These local churches can be disturbingly conflicted expressions of life, for our fallen world cannot even begin to contain the glories of God. The Bible tells us that it will take a new heaven and earth to do that. Instead, churches are all too human, and as such are a blend of the glorious (God) and the grotesque (broken humanity).

Implicit in this dilemma is a question, and the harder we try to answer that question, the worse we fare. This is so because loving community cannot be administrated. It is a work of the Spirit and not the product of our own efforts. How often have we been captivated and provoked by the descriptions of the New Testament church – an empowered, praying, devoted, growing, sacrificial and serving community, cloaked in grace and pulsating with life. Yet, try as we might, our efforts can do nought but shipwreck on the rocky shoreline of legalism, control and idealism.
Alongside the Charismatic Renewal of the 1960’s and 70’s was secondary action of the Lord, which birthed Christian communities. He did so in extraordinary ways and in unlikely places. These communities burgeoned all over the globe, independently of one another, but simultaneously, and typically shared a handful of key characteristics, although there were exceptions. They shared a theology (they were Charismatic), a philosophy of church (the people of God should live in community), and a few key practices (most significantly frequent gathering, extended households and a common purse).

images (1)A survey reveals that these communities fell loosely into five categories. Some were expat communities: their people also held nationality and language in common, and so they coagulated on cultural as well as spiritual grounds as these exiles found one another. Others were parish communities: mainline denominations that functioned along strict parish lines lent themselves to a spirit-infused community arising in the midst of the dead institutionalism of the parish church, as the Holy Spirit brought new life in a particular geographical area. Still others were missional communities: these gathered around the vision of evangelising clearly defined segments of society, and some survive to date having evolved into mission organisations. The Seaman’s Mission is an example. Yet others were church communities: believers left existing churches, with which they had become disenchanted, in order to form communities that were new expressions of and alternatives to those existing local churches. The final category were even more idealistic than the others, and formed around a covenant of sorts, legislating their new and superior life together right from the start. Note that in the untidiness of the living, many of these communities could be regarded as being in more than one of the five categories describes above, all depending on how they were perceived.

The overwhelming observation to be made, however, is that it is now a generation later, and there is little evidence of their existence. It also appears axiomatic that the more legalistic, zealous and idealistic they were, the less admirable their longer-term fruit. This is the lesson of the day and the point of this post. The harder we try, the worse we do! Christianity is not an endeavour fueled by human effort. On the contrary, it is thanks to the work of God alone. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the history of the church, which has consistently been one of over-promising and under-delivering. The example of community from the 60’s and 70’s is simply a case-study drawn from a wider context that shares its flaws. The history of the church is also a history that seems totally committed to repeating itself. Has your church finally got it all figured out? Run! God gives grace to the humble, but immutably opposes the proud!

churchAgainst this background, the Scriptures that so richly describe Christian community continue to beckon. The opening chapters of Acts read as they always have, no matter how disbelieving or cynical the eyes reading the text. They do so, not in prescription, but in description. They drive us to our knees, and they keep us salivating for a life together that glorifies the Lord and meets our need for communion. We know, in the depth of our being, that the Lord shall have His way. It shall be so by the Spirit, and the local church, at the end, shall be far more glorious than the local church ever was at the beginning. The fullness of the New Covenant guarantees this. But just like everything else that is our inheritance in Christ, it shall be by grace alone, through faith alone, and because of Christ alone. It shall be done to us and for us, and we shall participate and benefit, amazed.

To illustrate, permit me to reduce legalism, control and idealism to the microcosm of the interpersonal. It troubles me deeply (as it should) when saints inform me that they love me because Jesus said they must. Not only do their words declare me unlovely, but in so saying they reveal that they have reduced the commands of our Christ to the law of their living, thereby ensuring that they will not obey Him. Loving one another as Jesus does is only within reach of the heart that admits that it cannot do so. Grasp this and you’ll understand the mystery of grace and its promise of a bright future: only those who can’t can, and only churches that can’t will. When it comes to our life together, this is that. So it is, for so the Lord has engineered it to be.

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Bang for your buck

downloadI recently encountered an intriguing thought process on the subject of church funding, budgets and expenditure. The point made was that the best measure for evaluating where things are at money-wise is cost per head of the Sunday gathering. In other words, if a congregation with an average attendance of one hundred has a monthly budget of forty thousand, and the average month has four Sundays, then the cost per head per service is one hundred (whatever currency applies).

Churches do a heck of a lot more than host a Sunday service – anything from counselling, small groups and youth ministry through church planting and TV ministry – and unless these are separate cost centers, these costs will inflated the cost per person per service number, because they’ll be wrongly included there. That said, the number arrived at is accurate when it comes to giving required per head per service, because that is precisely how much the church needs on the incoming end in order to meet budget.

Once you’ve done the maths for your church, here are some factors worth considering as you think things through. In random order, then, and with the stated intent of provoking thought – 1. Church as we know it is a very expensive endeavour. Spiritual food, it seems, comes at restaurant prices. 2. Staff and facilities are typically the biggest expenses, and when we break our number down into what goes where, we’re likely discover that much more is going into making Sunday mornings happen than what we would’ve initially thought. And 3. The bigger the church gets, the higher the number is likely to be. Large churches seem to attracted a better-heeled membership and can appear awash in money, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to an economy of scale, because bigger demands better in our day and age, and better doesn’t come cheap. Bigger churches being more expensive to run per member than what smaller ones are seems counterintuitive.

These same dynamics are all-the-more evident when we consider how the church spends its human capital, which is far more precious than cash. Innumerable volunteers spend endless hours making Sundays happen. The bigger the ship and the more its sails, the bigger the crew. Except that in this department tiny churches are probably the most demanding, because it’s an all-hands-on-deck affair. Could it be that inordinately high levels of demand are because churches set out to provide a forum for people to come to be baptised and discipled, when what Jesus explicitly commanded us to do was to go out, baptising and discipling as we did so?

Throwing stones is always unhelpful, and running the numbers for the church I love and lead simply exposes me as another noisy fella with a megaphone who is standing in a glass menagerie. The truth is that the measuring any local church’s effectiveness and efficiency is less than straightforward. For me and mine, we are not where we once were on these matters, but neither are we yet where we want to be. There is also no desire whatsoever to entrench any form of poverty mentality; the Bank of Heaven is certainly not cash-strapped. That said, I am convinced that a significant key to taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth is a radical rethink about what we’re doing with what we already have. How much bang for the buck we’re getting is an integral part of that. What do you think?

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