Category Archives: church history

Three views on the church

Look at church history and you will see many repeated patterns. For instance, in every generation there are differing opinions regarding the church. First you have those who think the prevailing institutional church of their day is where it’s at. These folks are either unconcerned about the disparaging difference in form and appearance between the many churches of Christendom today and the churches of the first century, or they believe that what exists by and large nowadays represents the natural development an infant church to the more mature thing that exists in Christianity today. These are our more traditionally-minded brethren. 

In the next line you have the reformers. They sense the need for change-even radical change perhaps-but their way of going about it is by changing the structure from within. Rather than “bucking the system,” these brothers and sisters advocate using the system to achieve God’s end, though they themselves admit that the system itself is contrary to His design. Within this camp there are two kinds of reformers, the passive and agressive. Your passive reformer advocates for peace over any radical upheaval. He is willing to wait many long years if necessary to see gradual transformation take place. The aggressive reformer, on the other hand, says things need to change and they need to change now. For a good example of the difference between these two types see Erasmus and Luther during the time of the Reformation.   

Then go one more aisle over and you have the third bunch. Crazy lot, these people. Known throughout church history as “separatists” or “dissenters”, these brothers and sisters claim that in order for God’s end to really be reached we must go outside the camp entirely unto something wholly different. No point in trying to change the establishment, they say, but rather to start anew. Even among this group you might say there is somewhat of a distinction between the passive and aggressive. The passive brother is hesitant to join himself to any kind of visible expression of the church, perhaps for fear that it might become the same thing he once separated from in order to be one with all fellow believers (which is a healthy fear, I might add). The other brother says that though the risk may indeed be great, the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose demands a visible testimony. Therefore we must dare to come together as His Body-apart from all institutionalism and traditionalism-and gather regularly as a true expression of Christ’s church, as true an expression as is humanly possible at least.

So, what do you think? Is this a fair assessment of church history? Where do you fall in this lot? What are your reasons for feeling the way you do about the church and how she is to reach God’s end?

Advertisements

The ground of the church

“Take the vessels of the Lord, return them to the temple that is in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be rebuilt on its site.” (Ezra 5:15)

Have you ever wondered why, when Cyrus issued the decree allowing any Jew who was willing to return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, they couldn’t just rebuild it anywhere they wanted? In other words, why not rebuild it there in Babylon? It would have made things much more convenient, after all. Or how about Syria, Egypt, or any of the lands to which the Jewish population had been dispersed?

The answer is found way back in Deuteronomy 12:5: “You shall seek the place the Lord your God chooses out from among all your tribes to place His name and dwell.” In all the land God gave to Israel, one particular piece of real estate was marked out as special and unique. There God said He would place His name. In other words, out from that plot of earth-or rather, what was built upon it-God would express Himself in all His glory.

So the temple couldn’t be built just anywhere. It had to be in Judea, on Mt. Zion. Nowhere else. Otherwise it wouldn’t be legit. This had special significance in the purpose of God. Jerusalem was intended to be something of a unifying factor to the nation of Israel. Every year the people were directed to drop what they were doing and embark on a pilgrimage to the Holy City for the annual feasts. At this time they brought their tithes, their offerings, their sacrifices, ect., and they all came together as one man to present themselves before the Lord.

After the death of Solomon, when the kingdom was split between Jeroboam and Solomon’s son Rehoboam, Jeroboam did something unprecedented. Knowing the significance of the temple at Jerusalem-what God had originally intended, what it meant to the people-Jeroboam set up altars in the cities of Dan and Bethel and instructed the people to go there instead of Jerusalem to offer their yearly sacrifices to God. Why? Because he knew that if the people went up to Jerusalem, their hearts would be turned back to their brothers and sisters in the southern kingdom, and Jeroboam would lose his dominion. Scripture calls it “the sin of Jeroboam, by which he caused the people to sin.” (This is for another day and another blog, but suffice it to say that in our day and age there are many leaders out there in Christendom, who, like Jeroboam, will never allow for a return to the practical unity of the Body of Christ, for fear of losing their own little kingdom.) 

So we see that Jerusalem, and the temple in particular, was something of a unifying factor in the life of the Jewish nation. There God placed His name, and out from there He desired to give an expression of Himself to the nations. What was the unique revelation of God which Israel bore to the surrounding nations? “Hear, Oh Israel! The Lord your God is… one.” The testimony had to do with the oneness of God. That He alone of all the “gods” of the pagans was really God.

What does any of this Old Testament stuff have to do with the church, you might ask? Well, I’m a firm believer in 1 Corinthians 10:11, that all these things are written for our learning. In my personal view the entire history of natural Israel as laid out in the Old Testament is presented as a foreshadowing of spiritual reality-namely, of Christ and the church. I feel strongly that the history of Israel under Solomon pictures the “glory days” of first century Christianity. Her ensuing history foreshadows the church’s decline in the following centuries, climaxing with what has been referred to as the “fall” of the church (so to speak) with the union of church and state under Constantine. Then the long road of captivity, and the eventual return of a remnant to rebuild the city as it once was.

When we speak of the Lord’s recovery, of His call to return and rebuild the House of God, the first issue we are met with is the ground. What is the proper ground on which the church is built? Is it the house (as in, house church)? Is it a particular denomination as over against another? Or is it a certain theological system (such as Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Calvinism)? What is the true and unique ground of the church?

Stay tuned! 😀


The gospel according to Stephen

A few years ago I saw some things from the life of Stephen that gave a new direction to my own pursuing of the Lord. Today I fell to considering those things again and thought it might be beneficial to blog through my thoughts in the coming weeks. So I jotted down a brief introduction to the subject which goes a little something like this…

It’s not hard to be impressed by Stephen. Though his time on the stage of the first-century story was brief, he was like a bright shooting star that flamed in brilliance for one spectacular moment, pointing the whole world to Jesus Christ and forever altering the course of early church history. There is a deeper significance to this man’s witness than most people ever consider.

Stephen was the first of a new breed of men in early Christian history. He was the first person beyond the original apostles to arrive at full stature in Jesus Christ. This does not mean that he had “already attained”, as Paul would put it, but that he showed signs of having crossed that threshold which the New Testament describes as being brought to “full growth” or “perfected” (though not in the ultimate sense).

The question is, what produced Stephen? What were the conditions that made possible his swift and powerful advance into the full reality of Jesus Christ?

Consider this: You and I have been born into the same day and age that Stephen was born into, under all the same circumstances (potentially) that he himself had in which to know the Lord. In other words, you and I can know Christ in all the same glorious fullness that Stephen knew Him.

If that is something you’re interested in, walk with me for a while as we take a look at the gospel according to Stephen, and don’t be surprised if many of your concepts concerning Christ and the church are revolutionized along the way.

So there you have it. Check back in the days to come for more on Stephen. Or just subscribe to the blog to receive updates straight to your inbox. Peace!

 


Shall we follow the bishop or follow the Lord within?

Presently I’m reading a book called Rediscovering the Church Fathers which includes a chapter on Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius is one of the earliest Christian writers outside the first century. He died a martyr in Rome in about the year 107, and shortly before his death he wrote a number of letters to various churches throughout the empire. Arguably the most dominant theme of these letters is Ignatius’ repeated insistence on the importance of the “bishop” in the life of the local church. Ignatius lived in a day when false teaching concerning Christ abounded and the unity of many churches was threatening to fall apart; to him the answer to each of these problems was found in consolidating all administrative authority and responsibility for ministry in the office of the bishop (another word for bishop might be overseer).

You can’t blame the guy, on one hand. To me at least it looks like his motives were pure. His desire was simply to protect the life of the churches and maintain unity, an honorable goal. It’s just that he went about it all wrong.

Look at it this way: Compare what Ignatius of Antioch said to what John (the apostle) wrote in his letters. Here you have two men who are facing similar situations-the threat of disunity, loss of the centrality and supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ, and false teaching. And what makes it all the more interesting is how close in time the writings of these two men may have been to each other. The traditional date for John’s letters is the late 90’s if I’m not mistaken. Though it’s possible he wrote earlier, perhaps as far back as the 60’s, still it is believed by many that his letters, along with his gospel and the book of Revelation, make up the tail end of first-century, apostolic writing. And Ignatius wrote his letters shortly before his death in 107. So it’s possible that these two men wrote within 20 years of each other. That’s not a lot of time difference. And yet look at how differently they dealt with similar situations! First you have John talking about anti-christs who will go out from us proving that they were never really of us, bringing all sorts of different ideas about the Lord Jesus. Yet he trusts the ability of the Spirit within God’s people, telling them, “You yourselves know the truth. You need no man to teach you. You have an anointing within you from the Holy One, causing you to understand all things.”

Ignatius, on the other hand, fearful of what might happen if God’s people forsake the true gospel of Christ and break the unity of the Spirit, resorts to methods of mere human expediency to stem the tide of spiritual decline: “Do nothing without the bishop. Follow the bishop as Christ follows the Father. Where the bishop is present there the church should also be.”

Do you see the difference? Man, what a difference! I’m thoroughly convinced for myself that the higher way lies in the apostolic counsel of looking to Christ, following the living anointing within, and trusting the Spirit Himself to lead and guide God’s people. While I have no doubt that Ignatius meant well, the brother was simply off on this point. The one-man ministry that prevails in most Christian assemblies today can be traced all the way back to these letters which were penned by a dear servant of the Lord who was on his way to die a glorious witness to Christ in the heart of the Roman empire. Thank God for his life, but not so much for his ecclesiology! As for me and my house, we shall stick with with the apostolic tradition.


Reporting on the church life

Upon his visit to a settlement of Christians known as the United Brethren in 1571, a Polish noble said the following:

“O immortal God, what joy was then kindled in my heart! Verily it seemed to me, when I observed and inquired about everything, that I was in the church of Ephesus or Thessalonica, or some other apostolic church; here I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears such things as we read in apostolic letters…”

Praise the Lord, I know just how this brother felt, because this past weekend I was privileged to be part of a two-day conference of Christians and churches from throughout the greater Ohio area where I came away with precisely the same sentiment. Probably four or five hundred saints all gathered together under the same roof, many meeting for the first time, others coming together like family who only get to see each other once or twice a year, and all remarkably full of love and passion for the Lord Jesus Christ. From the singing to the fellowship to the ministry of the Word, never have I witnessed such a testimony of God’s eternal purpose being worked out in the earth among men.

We originally made contact with these saints (albeit indirectly) through the occasional fellowship we have with the church in a city about two hours north of us. More recently we’ve been blessed to receive a couple visits from a certain brother from among them who functions as a “worker,” visiting and strengthening the Lord’s testimony in various places.

The ministry was spiritually rich and yet intensely practical at the same time. Revelation of Christ and God’s economy abounded. The theme of the conference was “Joyfulness: the highest state of a healthy Christian”, and one of the highlights from the spoken ministry was how clearly the brother brought out the beauty of the relationship between Father and Son as they shared in the work of creation. This can be seen in Proverbs 8 where the writer speaks of the Wisdom of God (which is Christ) who was with God “before the beginning of the earth” (v.23) and stood “beside Him” as His “master workman” (v.30) as the Father brought forth all things in both the visible and invisible creation through His Son (Colossians 1:16). There the Son was daily His Father’s delight, rejoicing constantly before Him, and even “delighting in the sons of man” when together they decided to share their creation with humanity for the working out of God’s eternal plan.

Each of us who attended the conference was given hospitality in the homes of various saints. I stayed with a precious Hispanic couple by the name of Jose and Mercedes. Besides myself they also gave room and board to a Chinese couple and another brother named David, both from Ann Arbor, Michigan. What a blessing it was to sit around the breakfast table and realize that in this small company of six people there was represented three separate nationalities, all united as one new man in Jesus Christ! It was like a microcosm of the conference itself, which was full of cultural variety. This alone is an amazing testimony, in my opinion.

Also, the more I interacted with individuals throughout the weekend the more it became evident to me that there was a deep sense of spiritual reality among all the members of the Body. Like Jeremiah said, “they all knew the Lord, from the least of them to the greatest.” Here I was seeing a real priesthood of believers. Almost at once I realized that what I was touching was well beyond the range of my own personal experience. Here among these people I saw a history with Christ and a laboring for the Lord’s purpose that extended far past anything I’ve attained in my little pursuit. It was like wading into the deep end of a pool and suddenly losing your footing. These were waters to swim in!

Well, I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that as a result of the time we spent with these Christians I see more clearly than ever the will and intent of God. He is after something in this age, and He has not only a goal but a way of achieving that goal as well. My heart is on fire for His purpose, and my face is set squarely in the direction of that goal. I pray everyone reading this post will be able to join me in saying, in echo of what the brother shared at this conference: Yes, we are human and we are weak. There are many difficulties we face and many obstacles of life and the enemy standing in our way. But make no mistake about it, our lives will be poured out as a drink offering for the one thing God is after. “We are for Christ! We are for the church life!”

In closing I recall the following quote from a man named John W. Kennedy, who labored among indigenous local churches in India in his own day and wrote a little book on church history called Torch of the Testimony, wherein he traced the “2000 year history of those Christians and churches which have stood outside both the Catholic and Protestant traditions”, in pursuit of Christ and God’s eternal purpose. This weekend I was privileged to break bread with a number of such churches of our own generation, and have returned home fired with a passion to see the same testimony established in my little neck of the woods. So again I say, praise the Lord!

“Churches as they were in the times of the apostles have never ceased to exist… wherever God works through the power of His unchangeable Word, people made partakers of the divine nature, anxious to obey the Word which has shed a flood of light into their souls, have gathered together and are gathering together as the disciples did in Acts.”


Meet T. Austin Sparks

If you’ve never heard of a guy named T. Austin Sparks, I’m not surprised. Christians of our day know too little about this man. Yet his ministry was one of the richest and most Christ-centered ever to grace the pages of church history. The purpose of this little post is to encourage you to get acquainted with this brother of by-gone days.

Theodore Austin Sparks was born in London, England in 1888.  His life and ministry extended well into the 20th century, based out of his home in Honor Oak.  Sparks was ordained a pastor in the Baptist denomination at the age of 25, but not long into his tenure he experienced a personal crisis of conscience, stemming from a new and altogether revolutionary apprehension of the Person of Jesus Christ and God’s eternal purpose concerning Him.  It was an encounter of such significance that it led him to abandon the title “Reverend” and withdraw his connection to the institutional church system of his day. 

Thus, a new assembly soon came into being at Honor Oak which was formed on the basis of a revelation of the “heavenly nature, vocation, and destiny of the church as the Body of Christ.” Hear Sparks explain this process in his own words:

“That which the Lord had done in us through the deeper work of the Cross had, among other things, resulted in a strange detachment in spirit from the earthly aspect of things religious. We found ourselves lifted spiritually from the forms and systems, the titles, designations, divisions, and orders of Christianity as here known amongst men; and our concern was for “all saints” without discrimination. But the Lord very definitely took us in hand to show us in a positive way the meaning of what He had done. We saw later how much this was in keeping with His Word throughout. The Altar always leads to the House; pointing on to the fact that Calvary leads to the Church. There can be no Church until there has been an Altar, but the very object of the Altar-the Cross-is the Church. And so, with steadily increasing clearness and fulness, there opened to us the reality of the Church as the Body of Christ.”

You’ve heard the expression “organic church”? Well, believe it or not, it was Sparks who coined the term. Listen to his own description, based upon his experience in those early days:

“Thus, having set aside all the former system of organised Christianity, we committed ourselves to the principle of the organic. No ‘order’ was ‘setup’, no officers or ministries were appointed. We left it with the Lord to make manifest by ‘gift’ and anointing who were chosen of Him for oversight and ministry. The one-man ministry has never emerged. The ‘overseers’ have never been chosen by vote or selection, and certainly not by the expressed desire of any leader. No committees or official bodies have ever existed in any part of the work. Things in the main have issued from prayer. We are very conscious that mistakes have been made, but the result of these has only served to re-emphasize the above principles.”

Along with some other brothers in the church at Honor Oak, Sparks published a bi-monthly magazine entitled “A Witness and a Testimony” from 1923 until his death in 1971. Articles from this magazine, along with other larger works either written or transcribed from Sparks’ spoken messages, can be found online at www.austin-sparks.net.

Personally, I’ve probably received as much if not more from the ministry of T. Austin Sparks than I have any other servant of God. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come away from one of his writings in absolute awe of the sighting it gave me of Jesus Christ.  So I encourage you to make an effort to get to know this brother. Drink deeply from the well of truth he left behind. His writings are by no means an easy read, but they are well worth the effort.

In conclusion, listen to the words of one Harry Foster, a close friend and associate of TAS in the Lord’s work, who had the following to say about his friend after Sparks’ death:

“Perhaps one of the earliest of his books can best give us a real clue to his whole life and ministry. It is called “The Centrality and Supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This was where he began, and this was where he ended, for it became noticeable in his closing years that he lost interest in subjects and concentrated his attention on the person of Christ. Christ is central!”

Christ is central! Nothing better sums up the life and ministry of a man whom most Christians today know little to nothing about. Read this man, and read him well!


Unity or love?

Two weeks ago I went with some brothers to visit a church in a town about two hours north of us. There are some saints meeting there with whom we’ve had a relationship for nearly two years now, who once belonged to a movement known as the “local churches.” The local churches take no name but the name of the city in which they gather, having seen all the error highlighted here in previous posts and concluding that the answer to such confusion is for a group of believers to return to what they call the “ground of oneness” and meet simply as the church in their town, representative of how God views the entire body-as one-in that city.

These churches originally came into being through the ministry of a man named Witness Lee, who was a co-worker of Watchman Nee in mainland China before the Communist revolution. As the story goes, as a young man Watchman Nee had a substantial ministry in preaching the gospel and gathering believers together for ministry. From the beginning, the work the Lord accomplished through him and his fellow brothers was apart from the denominational missions represented throughout China. But as their witness grew Watchman began to seek counsel from those he could on how to best express the life of Christ in a way that was organic to their Chinese soil. Then at a certain point he came into contact with some men from among the Brethren (see here for the previous discussion on these guys). As Watchman observed the divisions which characterized the Brethren movement in its latter days-a movement originally born out of a desire for unity in the Body of Christ-he became deeply troubled. In some places there would be maybe three or four congregations of Brethren in a single city, sometimes with meeting places only a few streets away from each other! The believers who were part of these congregations had a separate life together and held to separate administrations. To Watchman, this was not unity. It was the same thing he saw in the denominations, only on a smaller scale. When a man would be offended by his brother, instead of bearing the cross and finding fellowship again as members of the one Body of Christ, he would simply leave that assembly and go to another. Here perhaps is the chief error of congregationalism, and it was something Watchman had no desire to see reproduced in the churches being raised up through his ministry in his homeland. How could the believers in China go forward in the days to come and give to their nation a pure and undivided expression of Christ? This was his burden. So he returned to his New Testament, and what he found there was that the pattern of the churches in the first century was according to locality. The church in Jerusalem, the church in Laodicea, the church in Ephesus, ect. When “churches” were spoken of in the plural, it was always in regards to a region greater than a city or town, such as “the churches of Galatia.” Thus Watchman came to the realization of what he called the “boundary” of the church, which was the boundary of the city in which the church was located. “Anything larger than the city is not the church,” he said, “and anything smaller than the city is not the church.”

All this is beside the point, however. The saints we recently visited had their beginnings on this foundation. For years they were part of a movement which stressed this aspect of truth-of the Lord’s “recovery” as they call it-and though they themselves are no longer part of the larger “local church” movement (which is a whole other story in itself), these brothers and sisters still hold to and stand upon the ground that the Body of Christ is one, and this oneness must be given practical expression.

There was a brother at the meeting who is a full-time worker among some of these churches who gather across the state of Ohio. He spoke briefly on what he is learning through his own study of church history, and how ironic it is to him that of all the groups throughout history who “came out” of the institutional church of their day in a desire to return to true unity, it was often these very groups who became the most strongly divisive in the end. The answer, he said, is not found in making “oneness” our goal, for this will only result in division, but simply to love one another as Christ has loved us. True, organic oneness issues out of brotherly love. This is the only way, and this, as he quoted from John 13, is the Lord’s one unique command. He did not command us to be one, He commanded us to love one another. Love, not oneness, is the goal we should seek. If we love each other we will be one, and our oneness will be practically expressed for all to see. Otherwise any stand we may take for “oneness” will ultimately become the point at which we divide, as we place stipulations and tests of fellowship on other brothers and sisters in Christ to see if they are as “one” as we are.

At any rate, I found this to be a wonderfully fresh emphasis from a man who definitely has experience in this way and knows what he is talking about. If unity is truly what we seek, let us love one another. And though it be tested in a thousand ways, let our love for one another be real. Or, in the words of another great man of God from long ago, “let us not love in word only, but in deed and in truth.”