How Do You Spell “Chruch”? Pt 3
In trying to understand the true biblical meaning and significance of the church, we have been attempting to see the present structure and function of the church through the eyes of a time-traveling 1st century believer. The epitome of this exercise would be found in each of us being capable of analyzing the church for ourselves free from unresearched, unproven prima facie presuppositions that tend to color our perceptions. In other words, being willing to examine what we are presently experiencing from the true light of Scripture and historical precedent. Uncritical thinking with respect to the church bodes ill for its future health and service. If we know a posteriori—if we know by long experience—that the church is failing to be salt and light in the world, why aren’t we diligently seeking to discover why and correct that which is impotent, corrupt and false? The only way we are going to be wise critical analysts of the church is if we follow the example of the believers in Berea:
“And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth” (Acts 17:11 NLT).
With these thoughts in mind, attempt putting yourself into this scenario as a fellow traveler with Antonius. The motivation here is not about attacking current church thought and teaching, but rather to discover biblical and historical truths that will wonderfully restore the church to the Kingdom realities that God has always intended. The stakes are not simply high in this regard, they are eternal. The authentic church of Jesus Christ is the final hope of mankind. Almost every institution of man has been thoroughly corrupted and damaged beyond repair. All of man’s efforts at social engineering are hopelessly flawed in motivation, practice and results. Government agencies and administrations from local to the national level have mostly become self-serving, self-aggrandizing entities which do more harm to their constituents than good. Only the resurrection of an authentic expression of the church empowered and superintended by the Holy Spirit can bring redemption and renewal to our land.
The only question remaining is whether or not believers are willing to self-examine as the church and make the necessary adjustments. In this case, “adjustment” may be far too lenient a word for what is truly needed to become the church Jesus is coming for. Radical problems usually demand radical solutions in order to bring about the ends reformers seek to realize. Unfortunately, most people approach serious problems with more of a band-aid remedy rather than the radical surgery needed. An historic example of this is seen in the Reformation. As awesome as the Reformation was in restoring salvation by grace through faith, the movement failed to thoroughly divest itself of many other spiritually harmful practices and beliefs. It is literally mind-boggling to realize today that Martin Luther actually persecuted the Anabaptists when as we realize in hindsight they were more authentic in their practice of authentic Christianity than most others of their day.
What was the horrendous “sin” of the Anabaptists that attracted the persecution of the established church?—their belief in a believer’s baptism and a staunch adherence to the separation of church and state. I believe we are going to experience something similar in attempting to revitalize the church today. It’s going to be a new wine/new wineskin scenario. Those who have tasted the old don’t want the new. Most every effort to reform the church down through history has seen establishment religion, the institutional church vigorously defend its life from any attempts to alter it. Those presently holding positions of leadership in the church are most poised to resist any efforts that would jeopardize their standing—their titles, positions and sway within the body.
Allow me to recapitulate before continuing. The church is intended to be the incarnational expression of Christ in the earth reflecting his life and attracting the unbelieving to him and his kingdom. As part of this incarnational reality, true believers embrace the transformational life in Christ pursuing the full stature life in him. If the structure and functionality of the church fail to support these ends, the church has forsaken its biblical calling and mission. It has become salt that has lost its savor. How willing are we to recognize the true state of the church and seek its restoration?
Continuing our trip with Antonius, we now view the church through his eyes as he attends the Sunday morning service of Typical Church, Anytown, USA. Obviously many of the things Antonius will encounter can be attributed to cultural differences. The things that we are interested in have to do principally with the church’s functionality in fulfilling its biblical calling and mission. Maybe the first arresting observation Antonius has is the formalizing and professionalizing of the church’s ministry. His experience would be that of the informal house church sans the iconography found in most churches today. He would be particularly nonplused by the congregational bifurcation into distinct classes of clergy and laity. This arrangement would represent a complete anomaly to the first century believer. Early Christians would have been guided in their corporate conduct at least partially by Paul’s teaching to the church in Corinth.
“How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor 14:26 NKJV).
This passage represents a summation of some considerable teaching that Paul gave the church concerning its conduct when gathered in worship. It is basically a continuation of much that he shared in chapter 12 regarding the individual gifting of persons by the Holy Spirit. Chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians can be easily understood as a unit and is what I call the “Oreo” chapters. Twelve and 14 deal with the church’s corporate conduct with the profound chapter on love sandwiched in between. The outer chapters of 12 and 14 deal with the structural content of the church while 13 provides the all important motivation out of which everything else must function. The inner filling—God’s love—is worked out through the outer cookie of the ministering community of believers.
In this biblical picture there is no such thing as a separating into two distinct classes of believers wherein one becomes nearly the sole custodian of the church’s ministries. Scripture emphatically teaches the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Hence Paul’s admonition to the church that all members should come into the corporate gathering prepared to minister under the auspices, gifting and empowering of the Holy Spirit unto the building up of other believers in Christ. Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus clearly indicates that the end of the Holy Spirit’s gifting is that all believers might achieve the full stature life in Christ. Today most Christians have become spectators to a performance carried out by talented, trained and educated persons who conduct worship services for their benefit. In reality this unbiblical clergy/laity separation reflects the disenfranchisement of God’s people from their ordained calling and ministry.
Stemming from and related to the clergy/laity division of believers is the equally egregious altering of the church’s hegemony or leadership structure. From its inception the church followed an apostolic or flat leadership structure. This practice was consistent with Jesus’ teaching that no one should lord it over another. When the disciples argued among themselves as to who would be the greatest, Jesus replied…
“In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people…but among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant” (Lk 22:25, 26).
The greatest distinction and mark of a leader is servanthood. Somehow the church’s leadership structure has managed to morph over the centuries from the flat hegemony Jesus taught and the early church practiced to the hierarchical structure we see manifested today. Part of the reason for this transmogrification of leadership is in the church’s adoption of a worldly paradigm over the biblical model. Additionally, the church has practiced what I would call retro-hermeneutics—that is we have interpreted certain biblical concepts by applying present day understandings rather than allowing the Scripture to speak its truth to us. Today words such as bishop, elder, pastor, etc. have taken on the connotations of positions and titles thus leading us to a hierarchical structure of leadership. But in the beginning these concepts reflected ministry, motivations and service thereby reflecting a flat hegemony.
All of these seeming ecclesial anomalies—the formalizing of the worship service, the hierarchical leadership structure, the bifurcation of the body into clergy/laity classes, the diminution of the priesthood of all believers—would serve to bring grave concerns to Antonius as to the spiritual condition of the church. It should have the same impact on all serious followers of Christ today.
At the risk of over-simplification, I would like to offer what I think would be a legitimate biblical “spelling” of church. I believe Jesus literally defined the church when he said…
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20 NKJV).
Examining this passage will constitute the final part of this series.