Tag Archives: Church

Reflections on Leadership

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

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

Three broad categories

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

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

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

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

Influence in diversity

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

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

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

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

This applies to leadership as much as to anything else.

Leaders should influence, not define

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberating fluidity

Such ecclesiastical fluidity opens the floodgates of liberating revelation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nature and Nurture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is building His church

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

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

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

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

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

Paradigm shift

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

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

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

Reject His inputs, and the sins pile up quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redress

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order without Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Covenant church life

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

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

Description is not prescription

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

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

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

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

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

Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antioch

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

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

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

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

Ephesus

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

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

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

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

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

Flow, river, flow

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

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

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

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New Covenant DNA

When men build, it usually happens top-down, outside-in.

In come the diggers and graders. When the dust settles the site has been cleared as man imposes his will on his environment. Once the clearing is done, the meticulous process of construction begins. Everything is by design, and the sequencing is precise. Careful coordination ensures that the trades make their contribution at just the right time. Hardhats huddle and machinery stands. Progress bows to head scratching and problem-solving as unanticipated challenges present themselves. Ingenuity and engineering spar with budgets and other constraints. By torturous toil, something rises out of nothing, or at least appears to do so. Elsewhere, quarries scar the landscape, having offered up their treasures to those who hold the purse strings.

The Lord goes about things a little differently. He works bottom-up and inside-out.

The entire oak is in the acorn. It germinates in soil enriched by the falling leaves of innumerable autumns. Not much to look at, that acorn. Or any other seed, for that matter. But the marvels of DNA ensure that what is embedded in the essential nature of the seed will manifest. What emerges is show-stopping jaw-dropping splendour, should the environment approximate the conducive.

Some would argue that to contrast things thus is to oversimplify. Perhaps. But even in His workings in and through our humanity, these principles can be observed. Remember Abraham and Sarah. The best they could do in their own strength was an Ishmael. God’s purposes unfolded through Isaac. A seed implanted in a barren womb, through whom all the nations of the earth were blessed. And remember when the Israelites left Egypt. Isn’t it amazing that a bunch of ex-slaves could build something as stunning as the tabernacle in that desolate wilderness? No hardware store to visit. No subcontractor to quote on the job. The tabernacle and all its trappings were in the nation’s DNA. All the necessary craftsmanship, as well as more than a little Egyptian loot. With the people living in tents, when God ordered His own, the oak was already nestled in the acorn.

The unfolding story of the church in Acts follows a similar sub-plot. Embedded in the apostolic DNA of the Twelve was all that was needed. The acorn in the upper room to become the oak of the church throughout the Roman Empire. A few chapters in and we have deacons in Jerusalem. A few chapters more and the prophets and teachers show themselves in Antioch. By the time we get to the end of the book the elders, shepherds and evangelists have shown themselves. Amidst a spectacular array of other gifts at that. Everything was in the seed, and Word and Spirit was at work to nurture and develop the unfolding growth. How genius is our God!

Raindrop to rain and acorn to oak is the local church to the bride of Christ. Believer and local church alike are in Christ, and Christ by His Spirit is in them. They are manifestations in the temporal of the glorious, spiritual eternal. This is how the kingdom of heaven colonises earth. New birth. New creations. New nature. New Covenant DNA. With the new then refreshing, renewing, reclaiming and restoring the face of the planet. Death yield to resurrection before this Life-flow.

Let carnal wisdom loose on the building site, and in comes the earth moving equipment. Seeds, saplings and trees alike are swept aside. Scripts are meticulously followed. Hardhats caucus and budgets determine the constraints. With all said and done, dust settled and backs slapped, our achievements can impress. Which is why it’s so ironic that as we stand on the deck drinking champagne, we’re admiring the majestic old oak on the vacant lot next door.

The single greatest problem with the church of our day is control. The unsatisfying result is a work of man, his will imposed. The single greatest facilitator of this control is confusion about the DNA of the New Covenant. Mix law and grace, and the social currencies traded are guilt and condemnation, manipulation, control and abuse. Stay in grace, and the community of faith is nurtured in a milieu of love, acceptance, freedom, encouragement and forgiveness. New Covenant DNA is sufficient to the extraordinary. It invites God’s will, and yields to Him in the outworking. All we need to do is serve it. Instead of lording it over the work of the Lord, perhaps the primary role of leadership is to applaud it. To recognise, celebrate, encourage, facilitate and release what He is doing. And everything that He does is always on the foundation of what He has already done. New Covenant living is never about who we are under, or even who we are with, but about who we are building on. And Jesus is the only foundation worth a mention.

The key ingredients of New Covenant DNA

Making these key components explicit is helpful. So doing underscores how scarce they’ve become in so much of the modern day church. These truths must become our defaults. They are Heaven’s defaults, and the brides defaults. They should therefore be our touchstones in all things at all times.

The New Covenant anchors in Good News about Good God. God is good, and His intentions towards His world are good. He is not looking to judge, but to save. The wages of our sin were visited upon Jesus. Because of this, the Lord can treat us with unmitigated loving-kindness and mercy. Rather than treat us as our sins deserve, He treats us as the father treated the prodigal. Love, acceptance, forgiveness and restoration are ours.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:16–17)

The New Covenant is by grace alone through faith alone. We could do nothing to save ourselves. That is why Jesus, another Adam, lived the sinless life we could not live. He then died the death all sinners deserve. His resurrection proved His sacrificial death effective. He is risen, and lives evermore, our Mediator and our Intercessor. God, in Christ, has reconciled us to Himself. The first gift this amazing grace gives us is faith. As grace is revealed to us, so faith rises in us, and we believe. Believing, we receive, and in receiving, we in turn are reconciled to Him and are saved.

“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.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)

The New Covenant was cut between Father and Son. Our sin separated them for a moment; His obedience reunited them for eternity. When we believe, we are included in this union. We literally believe into Christ when we believe in Him. His story becomes our story. In a moment we are united with Jesus is his crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection. The Holy Spirit does this for us. He baptises (immerses) us into Christ. We thereby transition through His death and resurrection into irrevocable union with God.

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3–4)

The New Covenant imparts the gift of righteousness to all who believe. The self-righteousness of the inherently sinful can never produce right standing with God. It’s the righteousness of the Righteous One, Christ Jesus, that is imputed to us. Christians are in right standing before God with the actual right standing of Jesus. The moment of faith effects this great exchange. In that moment, all our sin is removed from us, and all Christ’s righteousness given us. Thus made righteous, no Christian can ever be unrighteous or unholy ever again.

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21–26)

“For by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14)

The New Covenant places us in Christ. The New Covenant also places Christ in us, by His Spirit. This is an action of re-creation. We are literally born again. The old has gone. The new has come. Christians no longer have the sinful nature they were originally born with. We have a new nature, born of the Spirit, and just like Jesus. It is much more than the Lord merely regarding us as righteous, or treating us as through we were in Christ. He has literally made us righteous, and placed us in Christ. The same is true of our re-creation. This is not just some sort of second chance or new beginning. It is a literal action of creation. In our essence – our spirit – we are made new.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Corinthians 5:16–21)

“By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in Him, and He in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgement, because as He is so also are we in this world.” (I John 4:13–17)

Everything in the New Covenant is by the Spirit. We are with the Father. This is through and in Jesus. And it is all by the Spirit. It is the Spirit who grants us revelation of Christ and imparts to us the faith to believe. It is the Spirit who immerses us into Christ when we believe. It is the Spirit who recreates us anew. It is the Spirit who then indwells us, perfecting our union. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us. All this is the Spirit’s doing. From then on, it is the Spirit who enlightens, leads, encourages and empowers. Access into life in Christ is by the Spirit, as is life in Christ from then on. This is definitive.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)

An impressive supporting cast

The glorious New Covenant is set amidst a most impressive supporting cast. The written Word helps us. We help one another. God Himself harnesses every situation and circumstance for our good. Many things have their origins in sin and satan. The fallen-ness of our planet reflects this. Yet, no matter the author of the crisis or calamity, God uses it for good. Devil bad; God good. Very good, in fact!

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” (Romans 8:28–30)

Written on another day, this post might well have expressed the key components of New Covenant DNA differently. Other texts may have been used to substantiate the various aspects. Other attempts may have have listed six key components; others eight or more. No matter. The Scriptures are bursting with revelation and are rich in metaphor. What has been said could have been said in innumerable ways. Such is the length, depth, breadth and height of our glorious God and of His Christ. In whom the Spirit shares, and to which the Spirit bears witness through the Word.

Much more important than the packaging is the revelation itself. The New Covenant is altogether other, once-for-all. In the next chapter we’ll observe how every aspect of New Testament church life was a response to the New Covenant. The church made manifest her New Covenant DNA as she grew and developed. The Gospel was the seed planted; the church and all her good fruit the result.

This should come as no surprise, for, “We love because He first loved us.” (I John 4:19)

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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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