This is the eighth in a series of letters written to our local church. Enjoy!
The local church is heaven and earth in collaboration. The agenda is Heaven’s – His Kingdom come; His will be done. Our motivation is Jesus and His Gospel. Paul gave us a microcosmic glimpse of the dynamics when he tells the Corinthians that “I (Paul) planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (I Cor 3:6).
When we gather, it is on the one hand very natural – of pews and pulpits, songs and serving. On the other, it is profoundly spiritual. As we gather, diverse parts merge and a body manifests, and functions as such. Individual lights and lamps fuse into a city on a hill emitting glorious blaze. Individual living stones coalesce and a God-inhabited temple arises. Soldiers reporting for duty fall into battle formation and Christ’s victories are enforced and plunderers dispossessed. As we gather, it is God’s family that gathers, and the stranger, the alien, the wanderer, and the otherwise disenfranchised, all find welcome at Heaven’s table.
None of this is rocket science. Even little children can understand it. Holy Spirit’s wisdom and power meets our willingness and availability, and the diverse and disparate coheres into something far greater than the sum of its parts. This is church! The better we understand it all, and the more intentional we are about it all, the greater the heights we’ll ascend to together.
Think of each of these metaphors as a role the church plays, or as a mode in which she functions. Take my wife Estelle as an example: She is a daughter, a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, a branch manager (The Clothing Bank), a deaconess in the church, and a friend to many. One woman, but multiple roles and responsibilities. Many different hats to wear. Sometimes they overlap, but at other times she is focused on and totally absorbed by one or the other. There’s nothing confusing, duplicitous or pretentious about any of it. No matter the role or mode, she remains authentic Estelle. In the same way, as we gather, on one day the Spirit might take us into a place of militancy. The King’s army has gathered, and there is authority to be exercised and victories to be won. On another day, He might lead us into intimacy. The King is in His chambers, and He’s calling for His bride. One church, but distinctly different roles, with different tones, different vocabulary, different cadence and intensity, different emotions, different atmospheres, and different outcomes.
Of course there are many other frameworks within which we could consider the ministry of the church. Her purpose. Her reason d’etre as it were. A common approach is to think of the church in terms of her ministry upwards (to the Lord), inwards (to one another), and outwards (to the world). Others build their understanding around a proof texts like Acts 2:42-47 or Ephesians 4:11. The metaphors we’ve been using have the advantage of embracing wide diversity in a cohesive way, of keeping our thinking Biblical, and of underscoring the inseparable link between identity and purpose. That said, they are certainly not the only map with which to chart this territory.
Herewith, then, a first stab at a list of the ministries of the church, as opposed to ministries in the church (worship leading or preaching et al) or ministries to the church (apostles, prophets, etc.). These ministries are the things we the church have been tasked with in the Lord, and which should find expression in significant measure when we gather. This list is a draft, and drafts are never complete or tidy, but serve as useful points of departure. You’ll notice that I’ve listed nouns, and done so in random order. Our challenge is to enfold these things into our assembly as verbs, and work out how to do them together. In random order, we the local church, have a ministry of …
Hospitality – the stewardship of the Presence of God.
Adoration – worship, magnification, captivation.
Association – identification with the one, eternal, alternative society.
Edification – mutual encouragement and care.
Reconciliation – vertical and horizontal; ambassadorial.
Demonstration – of the Kingdom, in miracles, signs and wonders.
Facilitation – diverse gifts and contributions; all these must be done.
Inclusion – the foreigner and alien, widow and orphan; the pilgrim.
Embrace – love one another; our most important characteristic.
Discipleship – the nurture of maturity and equipping for good works.
Intercession – with Christ in His intercession; access to the throne.
Dominion – the exercise of authority; binding and loosing.
Occupation – the salt being salty; influence; permeation.
Proclamation – the Good News, the Gospel.
Declaration/Decree – release of the proceeding word.
Custodianship – keeping the faith; the stewardship of sound doctrine.
Administration – of life (hatch, match and dispatch), of life together (organization); the stewardship of our joint resources.
Mercy – compassion to the suffering and the care of the poor.
Testimony – witness; showcasing of His manifold wisdom.
Celebration – rejoicing in God and His works. Praise!
Multiple proof-texts could easily be listed alongside each bullet point, but we’re more concerned with developing the big picture here. The over-riding point is that we don’t gather to just sing a bit, serve a bit, and listen to the sermon. The bits and bobs that make up any given meeting are scaffolding to the main event, which stems from who we are in the Lord, and unfolds in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, in the spirit-realm first, and in the natural second.
Having belabored the underlying fundamentals in earlier letters – the necessity for gathering, and the leadership of the Spirit – herewith seven practical tips and hints to get us off to a good start on any given Sunday.
Let’s be intentional. Let’s embrace our calling, and respond accordingly. Let’s gather to contribute. Let’s take ownership.
Let’s be inclusive. Let’s consciously and actively include everyone. Invite others; greet others; be mindful of others; involve others; make place for others.
Let’s believe. Everything is by grace, and everything is through faith. As believers, let’s gather to believe together. Let’s stir up our faith.
Let’s love one another. This is not-negotiable. Christ’s essential nature must permeate everything, and He is love. When unsure, do the loving thing.
Let’s build agreement. Building in the Spirit is in agreement and by agreement. Agree with God, His Word, and one another. This is largely vocal, and takes active engagement and the expenditure of energy. Get spiritually fit. Engage each moment as the gathering moves along.
Let’s be authentic. No posturing or pretending. Be yourself. But bring yourself to the party. Ameliorate your idiosyncrasies. Be a team player.
Let’s use everything at our disposal. Let’s throw the kitchen sink at it. Every gift and every calling. Every means of grace. When it’s time to make a noise, if you can’t shout, whistle, and if you can’t whistle, pinch a baby!
And with that to make you smile, have a great week. See you Sunday!
Paul writes: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that He had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:1–16).
From a human perspective, it’s but a bunch of religious folk doing life together. It’s about gathering; about music; about children’s ministry. There’s preaching, and singing, and the breaking of bread, and prayer. All good things, but nothing exceptional. But look at her from a spiritual perspective, and a very different picture emerges. She is a heaven-and-earth collaborative, with heaven unsurprisingly weighing in as dominant partner. In the passage above Paul describes that collaborative as the body of Christ – Jesus the head, us His body. He could have used any number of metaphors, and still made the same point. The local church is primarily spiritual, with the Lord Himself the jewel in the setting, whatever the word-picture in play.
The local church is truly extraordinary!
Getting to grips with the fact that the church is spiritual, and that she occupies a place and functions in the spiritual realm, is essential. If we don’t, church will be all about us, what we put in, and what we get out. It starts by recognizing that Biblical metaphor often moves beyond mere literary tool. For example: Christians are not like children of God; they literally are His children. He is not just like a father to us; He is Our Heavenly Father. In the same way, the church is not just like a family, a bride, an army, a body or a vine. We are these things. In actual fact, these spiritual realities are far richer than their reflections in the natural, but these reflections enable all of us to grasp in measure that which is infinite and beyond us.
This in turn means that our primary contribution in being and doing church is in the spiritual realm. The natural things – locking and unlocking, music, child care – these facilitate the real work, and as such are part of it. But these are not the main event. The main event is our collaboration with heaven. Together, we build in the spirit-realm. We use our voices, and we use music, and we use the communion table, but the engine room is the exercise is our faith, responding to grace, and worked out in love. Sometimes gatherings are decidedly militant (army); others are tender and intimate (bride). Some involve a great deal of ministry one to another (family); others are almost entirely consumed with ministry to the Lord and His world (priesthood). The Spirit leads; we follow.
Building the house is first and foremost a spiritual endeavor. Doing it well should lead to more people in the gatherings, a greater range of spiritual gifts in operation, fruit of every description in greater abundance, and increasing effectiveness in the work of the Gospel. It all starts in the Spirit, which is why we can so confidently assert that everyone has a contribution to make, and an indispensable contribution at that. The singing, clapping, dancing and giving is but a means to an end. The real issue is what is achieved in the spiritual realm. Ironically, it is the folk in the pews who are best positioned to contribute, because they are not distracted by serving in some way or another.
Revisit the passage and notice what Paul had to say about it: It’s a calling. The grace that we’ve received belongs to that calling. Our gifts belong to that calling. His injunction is that we should walk worthy of that calling. This is so because the church only builds herself up to the degree that each of us walk in that calling, playing our part. For the local church to thrive, the collaboration has to run every which way, between heaven and earth, and between all of us. As we do, what started out as the “unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4:3), a given in the Lord, becomes “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).
Vision will always be the poster-boy of progress, and what a vision we’ve been given – the fullness of Christ in every way! How we respond in our hearts to this great calling is make-or-break for the church. Gathering matters. Even more important is our attitudes when gathering. Apathy, lethargy and unbelief undermine. But so does legalism. Getting everyone jumping through the hoops in obligation will disembowel life. Faithfulness is required, but its the faithfulness of faith that will get the job done, not a faithfulness born of guilt and condemnation. This great safeguard ensures that doing church can never be onerous. Only faith and love will get us where we’re going, and these fuel us, rather than deplete us. Healthy and vibrant local churches will always give as good as they get, and the people who make the greatest sacrifices for her will be the ones who find them the most meaningful.
The fruit of building in the spirit is spiritual first, temporal second. Local church in full flight is the grace of God on display, reconciling the irreconcilable, and triumphing over sin, flesh, devil and grave! These victories spill over into the natural in blessings and breakthroughs of all kinds. Only a small percentage of these ever make it to testimony or praise report, and are but the tip of the iceberg of what the Lord is doing in and through His people.
A thought in conclusion. We’ll never build in the Spirit in any significant way if we cannot get people through the doors when we gather. In fact, getting them through the doors is the very first step in building. Yet so infra dig has church attendance become, that it is being mooted as one of the most important spiritual disciplines to nurtured in the twenty-first century. The Lord is intent on reversing the trend, and will be re-gathering His people once again. Let’s move with Him swiftly and surely, hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches, and respond in joy and faith. The future is upon us, and the best is yet ahead!
This is the sixth in a series of letters to you, our local church.
We’ve reminded ourselves of the many Biblical metaphors for the church. She is a city on a hill. She is a family, a household, a body, and a fruitful vine. She is an olive tree. She is a temple and a tabernacle, a royal priesthood and a holy nation. She is a bride and a flock, she is a field, and she is an army.
No matter the metaphor, there is an overriding constant: She is His. And as such, she has been granted the greatest gift of all: His Presence!
What is true of the individual believer is true of the church: Christ within!
The texts assuring us of this are many. Let’s quote two of the more familiar. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20). And to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “In Him you (Jews and Gentiles) also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:22).
Imagine for a moment that you are one of those who walked with the incarnate Christ, e.g. Peter, James and John. You personally received His reassurance, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). He promised that He would not leave you as an orphan, but that another who is just like Him, the Holy Spirit, would come. He would not only be with you, but within you, never to depart. You were present on Pentecost when the Spirit fell, and you received. Now imagine gathering post-Pentecost with your brothers and sisters in Christ, and suddenly being overtaken by the notion that God Himself is not present. And I’m not talking about God being present in the sense of His omnipresence, but tangibly so. Such a notion – God’s absence or remoteness – would’ve been absolutely unthinkable! His Presence was a given. A gift, and a defining gift at that.
The Presence of God is fundamental to the New Covenant. When God gave is salvation, He gave us Himself. Jesus closed the gap between holy Heaven and sinful earth, without for a moment relinquishing His holiness. Whosoever believes in Him receives Him, His holiness, and His Heaven. The loss of Presence equates to the loss of salvation!
Every believer knows the awful experience of a disconnection in fellowship with the Lord. We’ve all been so carnal (fleshly) in our focus, for whatever reason, that God feels a million miles away. The same thing happens in marriage – a loss of intimacy; diminished fellowship; reduced communication; remoteness rather than closeness. These feelings are factual, but when it comes to the Lord, they are not founded in the overarching truth of our salvation, but in the experience of the moment. And the way back to intimacy with Him is a return to faith. A return to acknowledging Him, His Person, His Presence, and His rightful place. We call that return to faith repentance; a re-alignment of our hearts and minds with Him.
In the same way, churches might lose the Presence. It’s not that God is absent, but that there has been a disconnection in fellowship. A carnality has crept in, and the Lord has lost His rightful place in the corporate heart. Repentance is necessary. But that repentance does not address separation (even though it might feel like it), but orientation. Under the Old Covenant, the Lord might well have withdrawn to the top of a fenced mountain, or retreated behind heavens turned to brass, but not so under the New Covenant. Christ forever rend the heavens, and the tabernacle of God is now with men.
The irony is that those who most fervently set out to seek the Lord run the risk of steeping themselves in unbelief. The harder we search for Him, the more we can undermine the glorious foundation of our faith, which reveals the God who sought and found us! Let us contend for intimacy by all means, seeking the Lord as a wife might seek her husband and vice-versa, but let us make sure that we never assume separation. The unbeliever is yet to be reconciled to God, but the Christian has been reconciled already.
Let’s return for a moment to the many metaphors describing the church. Let’s be careful in how we apply them. The church is not a house being built so that God can move in; it is a house being built around a God who has already moved in! She is not a bride-to-be awaiting her wedding day; she is a bride enjoying her husband, Jesus. The age to come promises a fullness, now tasted, but not yet fully possessed. Yet Christ has blurred the lines, and the age to come has broken into this age as surely as Heaven has come to earth, leaving us with the perpetual promise of more.
The Presence of God is the jewel, the gathering of the saints the setting. Let’s keep the main thing the main thing. To assume the Presence is not to be presumptuous, but to believe! Let us be careful to welcome Him whenever we gather, but not from afar. He is the ultimate guest of honour who has condescended to be ever-present when we gather, for which we will be ever-grateful.
This is the fifth in a series of letters to our local church. I’ve been mandated by the Lord to gather the congregation in a fresh way, and I write to provide the what and the why. The aim is to see many more of the saints present on Sunday mornings (and on time if possible, please), ready to be and to do in accordance with the Lord – His word, His will and His ways. This letter is effectively His invitation to you to join us on the journey!
Jesus, the Living Word, said that we, His church, are a city on a hill: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14).
Our Bibles, the written Word, provide us with a host of other metaphors that also describe His church. These are given us to enrich our understanding, even while revealing just how gloriously multi-faceted the church that Jesus is building is. Amongst other things, she is a family, a household, a body, and a fruitful vine. She is an olive tree. She is a temple and a tabernacle, a royal priesthood and a holy nation. She is a bride and a flock, she is a field, and she is an army.
What is so clear from Scripture is less evident on the ground. The statistics reflect that in the average local church, ten to twenty percent of the congregation are workers, and the other eighty to ninety percent attendees. In other words, a congregation of two hundred will have somewhere between twenty and forty people on staff and in volunteer teams, doing everything necessary to keep the wheels turning – music, sound, children’s ministry, small group leadership, and the like. Take the church up to two thousand, and the staff and volunteers complement will be up around the two hundred mark. Twenty thousand, and you’ll need two thousand.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. How many preachers can we have on a Sunday, or worship leaders, or ushers? The teams that enable the church to function when gathered are to be lauded and applauded. Their gifts and callings are a blessing, and we value their contributions greatly! But the question remains, what about the rest?
As an aside, the equation changes dramatically when the gathering is much smaller. Plant a church of twenty people and everyone is a contributor. A cell group or house church is the same. The caution in these environments is that with everyone indispensable, obligations easily undermine freedoms, to no good end. Also bear in mind that the first congregation in Jerusalem grew to many thousands very quickly, as did the churches in Antioch and Ephesus in the same era. Small is therefore not necessarily the goal when doing church.
But let’s stay with the eighty percent. The so-called “go to church” people. According to Jesus, they are the light of the world. Monday through Saturday, they are lamps on stands, but together they illuminate nations. Obviously we can’t shoe-horn everything that it means to be and do church into ninety minutes on a Sunday morning, but the point remains. From Jesus’ perspective, the eighty percent are bricks, soldiers, branches and body parts. We must therefore grapple with what that looks like when it’s working as He ordained it to.
As we gather, we should reflect what Jesus declared His church to be. For surely when the church gathers a city on a hill gathers, as does an army, a body, a building, a family and a fruitful vine? Surely this should be self-evident? Unable to conceptualize these things, we’ve traded true contribution for mere participation. Sing. Dance. Clap. Give. Do these, under-girded by supportive virtues like faithfulness, generosity and willing service, and you’re everything the average leadership could hope for. But where in that is the sense of being indispensable. Bricks hardly attend a building any more than arms and legs attend a body. Long may we continue to sing, dance, clap and give, but there has to be much more to it all than that!
Herewith a vital key: In our individual lives as Christians, we do who we are (identity fuels life). As we think in our hearts, so are we. We live right because He has made us righteous. We conduct ourselves as children of God because that is who we are. The same principle applies corporately: congregations will only be who they are in their understanding. Think of the people in the seats as extras on the set on Sunday mornings, and they will never step into their actual role so integral to the plot. People will only brick and branch to the degree to which they are bricks and branches in their own hearts and minds.
Bricks and soldiers, arms and legs – all are indispensable. Simply “getting it” is what starts to change everything. Learning to brick and to soldier together is the easy part, because we can’t but figure that out once the penny has dropped. A renewal of our minds beckons and is pivotal to transformation. As we glimpse a better way, we start the change by first recognising that our thinking needs to shift. That recognition is the beginning of the seismic shift the Bible calls repentance. As the revelation intensifies, we receive the fresh truth, embracing it, taking it to ourselves, and making it our own. And as we do that, we begin to respond accordingly, appropriating and applying it to ourselves and to those around us. Almost before we know it, we find ourselves living in what we’ve seen, doing who we are.
Every gathered congregation is already a city on a hill, potentially ablaze. The other metaphors apply in the same way. Destiny calls. The longing for more is already a-stir in the hearts of the saints. Let that which is asleep awaken and that which is sedentary arise!
The fourth is a series of letters to a local church …
These letters are at heart an appeal to a congregation to gather. To get to the Sunday meetings more often than not. To get there on time, and with as open and as expectant a heart as possible. It’s time to build the house! Each letter will speak to why and how we should do so. Please read each one carefully and prayerfully.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14).
Someone described the typical local church as a rugby match – a crowd of people badly in need of exercise urging on a handful of exhausted folk desperately in need of a rest! The analogy always brings a smile as folk recognise the truth of it.
But what if the whole idea is a red herring? Truth is, there’s not much space on the playing field for the crowd. It’s all very well to challenge the folk in the seats to get some skin in the game, but what we’re often aiming for is more bums on more seats more often. And of course we need them to keep chipping in their gate money to fund the whole thing while they’re at it. Preach your heart out on subjects like commitment and involvement, and it might well end up in more people in prayer meetings, mens and womens events, small groups, Bible college, and conferences. But that doesn’t equate to a significant increase in the number of players on the field. The club may seem far more successful, even fielding a second or third team in the league. They might move up in the rankings and put some silverware on display. But when all is said and done, you still have a crowd needing exercise watching the few who could really use a rest, just on a grander scale.
Others shift the debate by viewing the church meetings as opportunities for the specialist few to equip the many in the business of Christian living. For them, the church gathered is somewhere between a hospital for the sick and a boot camp for training the army. To return to the analogy of the rugby game, the real stuff takes place out there in the real world during the week. Sunday is all-important locker-room time. The injured get their cuts and scrapes attended. Fresh kit is thrown onto tired bodies. Everyone gets something to eat and drink. The limited time available is put to good use by the experts giving the players a pep talk. Then it’s back out onto the pitch for real-life match-time once again.
This doesn’t align with what Jesus had to say either. Just as His city on a hill cannot possibly be a star-studded stage with an adoring crowd, neither can it be a behind-the-scenes ops center, working to ensure that individual lamps are kept shining brightly on their individual stands in homes during the week. A quantum leap in thinking is necessary.
Let’s stay with the rugby match analogy. Imagine the same stadium that we started with, match underway, with a significant crowd in attendance. But now, imagine that the really important stuff is emanating from the crowd. What they are doing is the main event, and everything going on down on the pitch is geared towards encouraging their contribution. The actual game is being played in the stands. Animate the bleachers in your mind’s eye. They’re pulsating with life. There’s nothing passive about these people. They’re doing the stuff. They’re not spectators, or fans, or consumers. They’re contributors. They are locked in, fully engaged. They know why they’ve gathered, and they know what they’re doing. On purpose, and in purpose. They know that the important stuff they’re doing is only possible en masse, and the more the merrier. Apart, they are individual lamps on stands. Together, they are a city on a hill, giving light to the nations.
I’d be interested to know what it was you visualised them doing? What is the “stuff”? No metaphor is complete in and of itself, and I’m not trying to stretch things to the point of incredulity, but please take my point. I’m also not minimizing the giving and serving that keeps the wheels turning on a Sunday morning, but these are things we all know intuitively if we’re honest. Something is not quite right with the way we’ve thought about church gatherings. Something is missing!
But what if any gathered congregation is potentially much, much more than we’ve thought? The Scriptures teach that, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). What if some of the most important good works are to be walked in together as a congregation when we gather? What if we’ve been walking right past significant breakthroughs, blinded by our preconditioning?
Ask yourself the question (in the context of the church gathered): What is it that anyone can contribute, and that everyone should contribute, in order for the church to be the city on a hill Jesus is raising up?
Our challenge is to answer that question well. To see, understand, enable and release what is already in the house every Sunday, sitting right there in the pews. If we can do that, then gathering will once again become one of the most important things that any Christian can do!
Every blessing as we discover more together.
See you Sunday!
This was the fourth in a series of letters to our local church. Here are the links to the first three …
The prophet Habakkuk was encouraged by the Lord to billboard the vision. A clever double entendre, say the scholars – make it so plain that he who runs can read it, and so plain that he who reads it will run with it. Great wordplay. Great administration of vision. Let’s take a leaf from Habakkuk’s book and read the words of Jesus yet again.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matt 5:14-15).
No local church will ever perfectly represent the one, glorious, transcendent, eternal church that Jesus is building. But then again, neither does any individual believer perfectly represent Christ. We’re all witnesses to Him, but the treasure will always be in jars of clay, individually and corporately. That’s the way it all works because that’s the way He set things up. It makes His grace the hero, rather than our efforts.
Once we can see that city on a hill in the Spirit, faith for it arises in our hearts. And as with any vision that grip our hearts, the question is “where do we start?”
The answer to that question in terms of our individual witness is self-evident. We do who we are, living for Jesus from the heart. Authenticity is what gives the whole exercise credibility. Our lights then shine through words, works, ways and wonders, as we go about our daily lives, rubbing shoulders with family, friends, neighbors and colleagues. We trust Holy Spirit to lead us, and when He does, we do what He tells us to do. It’s not in the least bit complicated. Even little children understand it.
It’s no less complicated for a local church. We are the “ekklessia”. The called out ones. The Greek carries nuance, and the word is as accurately translated “assembly” as “church”, depending on context. We witness to Christ by doing who we are. We are the church, and as such we gather in His Name. There is perfect congruence here. Christians are those who have taken Christ’s Name, and as the church, we congregate in it.
Of course the local church is a much more profound mystery than just a meeting. It is all at once body, building, army, vine, family, household, and more besides. Each and every local church is all of these things in measure, if none in fullness. Our completeness awaits in the age to come. But it does all start in the simplicity of gathering. In Him, to Him, with Him and for Him. Nothing complicated. No strings attached.
Ever since I can remember there has been talk about recapturing the glories of the early church. These conversations somehow seem to focus on God’s part of the deal – the awe, the great grace, the salvations, the miracles, the sacrificial living. Revisit the text and you’ll discover that our part is really simple. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Really simple Jesus-centered stuff, that requires little beyond showing up with open faith-filled hearts. What was the apostles teaching, if not the Gospel? What was the fellowship, if not those in Christ, gathering in partnership in His Name? The breaking of bread is a celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and prayer is overt dependence on Him in all things. Hardly the makings of elite spirituality. When the early church gathered, it was all about Him!
Is it not amazing how much controversy surrounds church attendance? Could it be that much of the debate and baggage is there to distract and detract from simple fundamentals: I am in Christ. We are the church. Not either/or, but both/and.
It’s that little boy all over again. We show up, five loaves and two fish in hand. None of us has much to offer. Jesus is the one who shows up with the power and the plan. And it’s the Twelve all over again. We get to participate in His plan and benefit from His power. Loaves and fish multiply in our hands, and we get to gather up the leftovers. Through it all, He is glorified, we are edified, and the world is impacted. Along the way bricks become a building, soldiers an army, and bits and bobs of flesh and bone a body. He forges the partnerships, vertical and horizontal. We show up in with intent, hearts full of faith, and He does the rest. “A city on a hill cannot be hidden”.
This is the second in a series of letters written to our local church. They build upon one another, line upon line, precept upon precept. To read the first letter, click here – City on a Hill
I’m so grateful for the power of the pen, which allows me to communicate across the congregation amidst the pressing demands of modern living.
Jesus said of us, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matt 5:14-15).
It is vital for each and every believer to take their place amongst God’s people in a tangible and practical way. Being a city on a hill is not pie in the sky stuff; it’s steak on the plate stuff. Jesus was not describing an ethereal, invisible or conceptual city, but a dynamic reality. The local church is God’s light shining into the darkness of our actual world. We are Him on display. We shine in words, works, ways and wonders. Jesus in our midst imbues our gathering with Presence and glory. People can see it, point to it, visit it, experience it and join it. It turns out, brothers and sisters, that we should all “go to church” after all!
The whole exercise is a multi-dimensional partnership. As we choose to muck our lot into our local church in partnership with other believers, a wonderful thing happens – Heaven partners with earth also. The result is a breathtaking win-win every which way. God is glorified, we are edified, and the world is impacted. We benefit even as we give ourselves away, and find ourselves immeasurably enriched.
I’m not proposing some petty cause-and-effect, self-enhancement formula here. This is not tit-for-tat and give-to-get. Teach it that way and you’ll shipwreck people. The truth is that we don’t usually need our local church in any urgent, day-to-day sort of way. We might serve it with that kind of immediacy, but it serves us in a far more big-picture sort of way. Solomon understood when he wrote, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Eccl 11:1). This sowing and reaping is a dynamic which the Lord has embedded in creation. Even those who are not Christians recognise it. They call it karma – what goes around comes around. This is why losing one’s life for Christ and His Gospel ultimately saves it. This immutable principle is plastered across Scripture. Examples abound. “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38).
The local church is an ecosystem. Relationships are symbiotic, with every organism benefiting as the entire ecosystem thrives. Belonging to it is not an optional extra either, but a facet of our very identity in Christ. We are all temples of the Holy Spirit, but only together are we the church. We are all children of God in our own right, but only together are we His family. There my Father is “our Father in heaven”, as Jesus said.
In making the point, our own children spring to mind. I’m so grateful that Estelle and I have raised our family within the local church. It’s not always been easy, what with leading, and with two church splits in a four year period some while ago. Nonetheless, I rejoice that my children have had the basics of the faith instilled in them. They have a grounding in the Scriptures. All three know the Lord. They’ve been baptised as believers. They’ve been baptised in the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. They’ve been persuaded of His faithfulness through a myriad of testimonies of all imaginable kinds over the years. They know how to pray. They know what it means to lift their hands in worship in the congregation of the saints. They are no strangers to the Lord’s manifest Presence. They’ve witnessed miracles, signs and wonders. Of course we’ve played our part, but the local church has been indispensable in the journey.
Our need for the benefits of this symbiosis intensifies all the more when the days are dark. Jesus said, “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matt 24:12). We would be hard pressed to better describe our day and age. The imminent threat is not the lawlessness itself, nor a loss of salvation, but the life-extinguishing impact which sustained trouble has on our inner man. Dreams fade and visions die as hope is suffocated. Stretched to the limit, tank empty, the besieged heart unwittingly moves into survival mode. The walls go up as the core temperature goes down, leaving the inner man curled up in a foetal position. The experience is not unique to the Christian, but for those of us who are in Christ, it numbs our faith, sending it into hibernation. Instead of living, we exist, forfeiting the abundantly fruitful “reigning in life” Jesus promised (Rom 5:17).
How exquisite the wisdom of this New Covenant ecosystem is. We keep our eyes glued on Jesus and yield our hearts in service alongside our brothers and sisters. As we do, we are encouraged, nourished, edified, renewed, refreshed and sustained. We who ensure the city on the hill remains ablaze find our own hearts warmed again and again. Our lamps have oil, as it were. Grace abounds, faith grows, the kingdom comes, life flows, and fruit abounds.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that the church should be the center of our Christianity. Jesus is that! But the local church is a God-given means of grace. She facilitates the touch of Heaven on earth in ways we cannot routinely access on our own. She was never designed to tower over our lives in Christ, but to undergird them. As such, she should always be keel-heavy and superstructure-light, with Christ and His Gospel her foundation, and Christ in His glory her crown.
The starting point is in gathering. Nothing complicated or onerous. Just the willingness and expectancy of faith. Me thinking we, and responding accordingly.
I’ve recently begun writing a series of letters to our local church.
These arose from of an extended encounter with the Lord. The first letter was firing from the hip, as it were, and not suitable as a blog post. That first letter will therefore appear here in redacted form, and as the first two letters in the series.
Herewith then the first of those …
Midweek greetings to you and yours.
Please read this letter carefully and prayerfully. It is the first in a series of letters to the congregation. Follow along with me as the theme develops and the revelation unfolds. This is part of the sense of the dawning of a new day in our church, and the letters will help us as we journey together into the future the Lord is beckoning us into.
Jesus put it this way: “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14a).
That “you” is plural, and Jesus is describing His church. Us. Of course His church is much, much bigger than just us. It’s transcendent and eternal, including all believers over all time. But that’s not what Jesus was getting at here. He is describing a church that is tangible. One that can be seen and heard, touched and tasted. One that can be pointed to, or visited. Take in the context and that much becomes obvious.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matt 5:14-15).
Notice the both/and. Each of us is a lamp bringing light into our own personal situation and circumstance, and brightly may we shine there. But each of us also have a part to play in something far bigger than ourselves. It’s the Lord’s heart and mind that together we become much more than we could every be on our own. Together we illuminate the nations!
See the synergy pulsating through the metaphor. The same idea is plastered across the Scriptures using other metaphors. The same way in which a building is much more than a pile of bricks, a body more than a collection of limbs, and an army more than a single soldier, so a city on a hill is much more than a collection of individual lamps on the same mountaintop. As we gather in His Name, Jesus the master-builder gets to work, forging that synergy that is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.
In recent years our local church has placed a great deal of emphasis on the life in Christ of the individual believer. It’s been so good to embrace the truth that each and every one of us are Christ’s workmanship, carefully crafted, with good works prepared in advance by Him for us to walk in. And ever-so-brightly may we shine as we continue to walk in them. But now there is a new chapter opening up before us. A new chapter that is not either/or, but both/and. It is once again time for us to allow the Spirit to broaden our thinking, and to allow Him to form and fashion us corporately in a fresh way.
My job is to roll up my sleeves and round up the troops. It’s time to build the house. Promise is over her and destiny awaits her. I’ve heard the Lord, and so I’m setting out to do so in faith and with great liberty. Everyone’s invited.
Let me be explicit in what I’m asking for. Not a lot, to be honest. I’m asking for you to show up on Sunday mornings more often than not, and on time at that. It makes a huge difference to the traction and momentum of the meeting when you do so. You might not have any sense of missing anything when you’re not there, but your absence or tardiness costs the rest of us dearly.
I’m asking you to come to the gatherings with intent to engage. Come to lift your voice, to raise your hands, and to hug a neighbour. Bring a friend. Drop something in the offering plate. Come to find someone to encourage. Pray a prayer; break bread; help someone, somewhere, with something. Do whatever your hand finds to do, and obey the Spirit as He prompts. This is not rocket-science. And on your bad days? Come anyway!
On the other hand, we all know that I’m asking for quite a lot. I’m asking you to awaken your heart and to give yourself away in a fresh way. Bums on seats won’t cut it. This is heart-stuff, and I’m asking you to help create the very thing that your heart longs to share in.
Any authority we operate in is therefore delegated authority. Because it comes from God, it is inherently good, and those exercising it should do so for good. All God’s gifts are in accordance with His nature, and to be used as such. The Lord never uses His authority to control or manipulate.
Mankind’s dominion is implicit in the creation story from the beginning. As He created it, everything was “good” in God’s assessment. Add mankind, and it all became “very good”. Adam was given charge of the garden, to work and to keep it. His tutelage included the privilege of naming all the animals. All of these suggest dominion. But once Eve was installed as Adam’s helpmeet, the mandate for dominion was made explicit. “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1:27–28).
So it was that Adam and Eve were given the gift of self-government. Personal authority, responsibility and accountability. They enjoyed a great deal of freedom indeed, although not boundary-less freedom. But what they did have was unfettered volition. Total freedom of choice. Which they opted to use badly, unfortunately. Nevertheless, the first round of delegation saw Adam with a will to submit to (God), a woman to love (Eve) and a work to do (a garden to tend). Together, they had a will to submit to (God), a spouse to love (each other), and a work to do (the stewardship of the planet). In broader perspective, these mandates were reflections in the temporal of greater, eternal realities.
Incidentally, the reason why Genesis is so important for us is because it answers these questions, and a host of other first-order issues as well.
The second sphere of delegated authority is the family. Adam and Eve’s initial partnership tended towards the co-equal. Their dominion mandate demanded it. Yes, Adam had been created first, and yes, Eve was Adam’s helpmeet. But “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” requires joint effort, each partner playing to their respective strengths.
Interesting to note is that the dominion mandate was never revoked. It was reiterated to Adam and Eve after the fall. It was re-entrusted to Noah and his family after the flood. And it remains in place today. The stewardship of the planet is still ours. We still have God’s will to submit to. The institution of marriage should still shape our social structures. And each of us has a vocational contribution to make. All are thus still a vital part of the equation.
What clouds understanding somewhat is that the establishment of family structures straddled the fall. Before Adam and Eve’s rebellion, their partnership enjoyed an egalitarian-orientated foundation. The lines of authority discernible were reminiscent of those within the Trinity. After the fall, things were quite different. Their mandate had not changed, but their circumstances had. Mercifully, they had been restored to fellowship with God. They were clothed in the skins of the substitutionary sacrifice. They now faced a hostile creation. And the dynamics between them had shifted. Shifted away from equal partnership towards the complementarian and hierarchical. The Bible chapter documenting the fall is steeped in devastation. Perhaps none more so than God’s words to Eve. “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
Dire abuse followed through the millennia. This redefining of the marriage relationship opened the door to aberrations like polygamy, and worse. The horrors to which women have been subjected through the ages stretches beyond reason. Thanks be to God that Jesus, last Adam, undid the cause of this devastation. Men and women are no longer naked and ashamed. They once again have full and equal access to the Tree of Life, who is Christ. Both, in Christ, have been once again established on equal footing before God. And before one another for that matter. Jesus’ counter-cultural treatment of women substantiates this magnificently. Just recall how honouring Her was of His mother, and how He engaged even Gentile ladies as peers.
Our challenge in the church is to migrate our paradigms on marriage and family pre-fall in Christ. The Trinity is the template for our understanding of community, and not the impositions of sin and death post the fall. Faith in Christ has uprooted us from the temporal and established us in the eternal. Our thinking and our patterns of life must follow. As the Scriptures teach us, our transformation lies in the renewal of our minds.
The third sphere of governance came in the wake of the flood. By that time self-government had all but collapsed. So had the institution of the family. Fallen mankind’s depravity had come to dominate. The future could simply not be allowed to be a repeat of the past.
Heaven introduced sweeping changes. Fauna joined flora as food for mankind. Humanity’s relationship with life and death was being redefined. Another covenant was introduced. The Noahic. A further unilateral covenant of grace. But with increased social structure and responsibility. Civil government was constituted. The dominion mandate was also re-conferred on Noah and family. But with it, new authority for the new responsibility. The governance of our fellow man was now our portfolio. God had personally dealt with murderer Cain, but no more so post-flood. Now the one who took a life would answer to a human tribunal.
“And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image. And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:1–7).
Mankind’s relationship with life and death had been redefined. Greater responsibility, and with it greater authority. Notice how each addition to delegated authority post-fall strengthened humanity in community. A compensation for floundering self-government. Cain had not been Abel’s keeper in any formal sense, but now every Cain became every Abel’s keeper. Men and women were mutually accountable one to another. A double-edged sword though. The greater the delegated authority, the greater the potential for corruption and abuse. Not too long and slavery was born. People objectifying others to the point of literal ownership.
It turns out that the stewardship of our human community is just as poor as our stewardship of our planet. The reason for this is that we’ve lost the capacity to steward ourselves.
Law is for the Lawless
Moses coming down the mountain stone tablets in hand was a progression in an unfolding story. The unfolding story of unredeemed mankind.
The Ten were not the first commandments Heaven had issued. They would also not be the last. But what they were was the core of a new, replacement covenant (which we know as the Old Covenant). A covenant of works. As such, they began formalising the institutions of family and state to a far greater degree. By the time they had been expanded into the full six hundred and thirteen statutes of the Old Covenant, all of life had been addressed.
Make no mistake, the Law was from God, and it was good. But it was also Heaven’s prescription for lawlessness. As such, its goal was preservation. Boundary-less people destroy themselves, and destroy others in the process. Law serves well in that context. It works to keep depravity in check. It limits sin’s destructive consequences by limiting sin’s wicked deeds. Which is why thinking Christians favour the rule of law in their nations. Some legal systems better than others, and we Christians advocate that Judeo-Christian law as the best of the best. Even so, it cannot save.
Law certainly preserves, protecting us from ourselves as it were. But when it comes to salvation, all it can do is expose inadequacy as it addresses concomitant transgressions. Our best efforts, we soon discover, are woeful in the light of the Perfections of God. Six hundred and thirteen rules. Six hundred opportunities to fall short of the glory of God. Thanks to the Law, Israel would be preserved. Nations would disintegrate around them, but theirs would remain intact. They were being preserved until the fullness of time came, when the Christ would be revealed. A preservation that would cost many a life. The three thousand who died right there at Sinai set the tone for things to come. For even as law preserves, so it kills, for its ministry is condemnation and death.
Legalism mummifies. The more comprehensive the rule book, the more effective the preservation of externals. And the more comprehensive the rule book, the less demand for self-government. Remember that life comes from within, starting as a seed. All that Law can do is conform, enforcing conformity to its mold. Which is why Law can never be a panacea. The Trinity is in harmonious community, and without Law. Heaven the same. Law’s governance cannot produce this harmony, as it comes with significant negatives. The Bible calls its dynamics the law of sin and death. Accusation is inescapable in this dynamic, but without a helping hand. Nothing is done to aid ineptness. Law does not transform. It enforces compliance through consequence, stick and carrot, reward or fear, pleasure or pain. And even when constraining bad behaviour, it exacerbates the rebellion within. It stirs up the sin lying dormant in the flesh. Invoke a command, and buried evils are unearthed. An example we can all identify with: none are as hungry as those on a diet!
Law is for the lawless. Simple as that. And let’s also not make the mistake of confining our thinking to civil society alone. Some families need an injection of law to preserve them. So do some churches. Urgent interventions. Emergency measures. Abusive husbands should not be permitted to misuse their wives, nor vice versa. Parents should never be permitted to abuse their children, nor vice versa. Clear thinking on this matter recognises the appropriateness of Law when there is a two year old in residence. Insufficiently self-governing, these little angels are carnal enough to throw a home into disarray. The answer is contextually appropriate law. No matter the situation, be it teen, employee or neighbor, this truth remains true. Law is for the lawless. It is the only way of creating appropriate boundaries when lawlessness is prevalent. But that law, however appropriate in it’s prescription, will never save. Only grace does that. And grace does so through faith, from the heart, inside out.
The New Covenant
Christians are not under Law.
It’s not that they’re lawless. They’re just not under the governance of Law. They are under the governance of the Spirit, who governs in grace. Christians well understand that all things are lawful for them. All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.
Under grace the dynamics are Spirit and life, not sin and death. A thorough study of the book of Romans reveals this in the way a flawless diamond reflects the light. Myriads of interrelated facets reveal its glittering beauty. A glimpse will suffice. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).
Christians walking in the Spirit are the most submissive people imaginable. Their submission is to God, and is empowered by Him, by the indwelling Spirit. Their submissive attitudes manifest in submission to legitimate authority at every turn. They submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. And because their hearts embrace Godly order, the lives reflect it. Their families embrace it, as do their churches. And their dealings reveal it in social, economic and political settings. But this is not so because of their obedience to Law per se, but because of their life in the Spirit.
And for precisely that reason, they can be the most disobedient people imaginable. That’s because their boundaries are set from within. Their hearts and minds are abuse-proof. Nothing can force them once they come to settled peace on a matter. The execution of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer illustrates the point magnificently. He is the author of the first book of common prayer, by the way. History tells us that Cranmer had succumbed to pressure and recanted his Protestant position. In deep contrition, and after renouncing his recantation, he presented himself at the stake on 21 March 1556. There he burnt off the hand that had signed the recantation before stepping bodily into the flames. Apparently his death was reminiscent of Stephen’s of old, for great grace was upon him throughout his ordeal.
Because Christians are not under Law, the only power over them is the power of the request. Should that request be legitimate, the response will often be the extra mile. Should it be illegitimate, the response will often be the turned cheek. Yet, secure in the New Covenant, they can prove immovable. In this the Gospel moves to being a true revolution, for it breeds true revolutionaries. They are those who are persuaded in their life and cause well beyond what most would consider reasonable.
Order in the Church
What then of the fourth and final sphere of delegated authority, the church.
The authority delegated by Heaven to church leaders should never be misconstrued as a continuation of the earlier progression. Leadership and governance in the church is exclusively in the context of the New Covenant.
And it is the Gospel that is the antidote to humanity’s fallenness. Law has it’s place, but it is the transformation of grace and faith that restores the self-governance of the Garden. In abiding and enabling union with God, personal volition is liberated to realign with true worship. Holy Spirit is within the people of God. They are in Christ, and Christ is in them. Together with Christ, they are hidden in God, enveloped, enfolded and engulfed in Him. For them there is no Law, but a new birth, a new nature, and a new life. Old things, including the Law and their sin, have passed away. The new has come.
Leadership and governance in the church is an administration of this New Covenant. Men and women are given the freedom to choose. Grace enables them to choose wisely. Faith causes them to then do so. Church leaders lead new creations. They lead people under grace. People with new, sincere and submissive hearts. They lead them to follow the Spirit, to revel in grace, and to stand in faith. Theirs is the fullness and freedom of the New Covenant. On their own cognisance. Surrounded by their brother and sisters. And undergirded by their leaders, who urge them on. Further, deeper, and higher. Hands and hearts ever open. For they are His, and He is theirs.
Only on the rarest of occasions is Law invoked in these environments. It is exclusively the preserve of the lawless. It is only invoked when lawlessness threatens to damage and destroy, and appropriate boundaries must be instituted. Even so, this can be done graciously, providing every opportunity for redemption. It is, after all, God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.
Two passages of Scripture, by leaders, addressing leaders, spring to mind. Both are useful for reflection and prayer, underscoring New Covenant perspectives.
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (I Peter 5:1–11).
“Now from Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. And when they came to him, he said to them: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”’ ” (Acts 20:17–35).
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.
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.