Category Archives: church life

Are our gatherings truly an expression of the church which is His Body?

Imagine you woke up this morning and your left leg didn’t work. Don’t you think you’d notice something was wrong? It’s a simple analogy, really, but it’s the kind of thing that comes across so forcefully in Paul’s consideration of the church as the “Body” of Christ (as, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 12).

Notice Paul doesn’t say the church is “like” a body, but that the church is the Body of Christ. This is no mere metaphor. To Paul, this is a working reality, both in the daily life and the gathering together of the disciples of Jesus.

Alas, however, today this usually isn’t the case, is it? Most Christians participate in a kind of church life where the majority of ministry is carried out by a few rather than by all the members together. A great deal of the Body’s function is (or at least can be) invalidated and rendered inoperative by this unhealthy clergy-laity distinction which prevails so completely throughout modern Christianity.

Proof of that statement is easy enough to gauge. Most of the gatherings you’ll ever walk into would be entirely unaffected should you continue to show up week after week and never participate in the meetings or community life. Ironically, though it is designed for you (and for the other people present) the show would go on with or without you just the same. It is not dependent on a robust spiritual life operating in all its members resulting in a healthy, moment-by-moment functioning of the Body as a whole. Rather, it is carried on mostly by a select number of staff members aided by the volunteer labor of a few eager laymen.

I’m not trying to be harsh or negative here, I’m just stating what I’ve observed so far in my eleven years as a Christian. In most places the body can wake up and never even notice that its left leg isn’t working, so to speak, simply because there is no “Body” basis at all in operation-there is only a congregation being maintained through the diligent labor of a few faithful ministers.  And there is a vast difference between a church, biblically speaking, and a congregation. One is a Body alive and functioning (for better or for worse I might add) while the other, for the most part, is a thing of rote and ritual.

Anyway, maybe I’ve gone too far in saying all that, but one of the things I learned in the past three years of informal gatherings with other brothers and sisters on this “Body” basis is just how necessary it becomes for there to be an active pursuit and discovery of Christ taking place. What do I mean by that? I’m not entirely sure, myself. I just know that it’s easier said than done. 

For one, when the gathering is small it’s natural that it will be more obvious when brother so-and-so isn’t present, or that sister so-and-so seems to be discouraged and is not sharing like usual. But even more than the size of the gathering, what matters is that the community is established upon this basis of Body life and ministry as opposed to clergy-led church life. This is not to say there shouldn’t be leaders, teachers, pastors, or anything else of the like. That’s not what I mean to say at all. Just that there is a difference, a very marked and definite difference between the two. If you know what I’m talking about then you know. If you don’t, well, I might be tempted to say that I envy you. Because it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do to give birth to, help sustain, or just be a part of a living, moving expression of the church which relies on the actual spiritual life of its members for its own maintanance and upbuilding.

In the kind of church life envisioned in the New Testament, when one member suffers the others suffer with it. When the eye isn’t working right, the rest of the Body has a hard time seeing. And when you wake up in the morning and your left leg isn’t functioning properly, you take notice. 🙂

God speed the day when there are communities of believers all across our land who look only to the Lord when they come together, gathering truly and fully as His church! For in the words of Anthony Norris Groves, “This I doubt not is the mind of God concerning us-we should come together in all simplicity as disciples, not waiting on any pulpit or ministry, but trusting that the Lord would edify us together by ministering as He pleased and saw good from the midst of ourselves.”


What is an apostle?

He gave some to be apostles…” (Ephesians 4:11)

Recently we took a brief look at Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus-commonly known as the “pastoral epistles”-and saw how contrary to popular belief these men were not pastors (not in the modern sense of the word) but apostles. This begs the question, what is an apostle? From superhuman Christian to a relic of bygone ages, concepts of apostleship abound in the Christian world.

To start with, the basic meaning of the word apostle is “sent one.” An apostle, therfore, is one who is sent by another. Interestingly enough, the New Testament reveals four different orders of apostles. Let’s consider these now, beginning with  

The Lord Jesus Christ, the first apostle.

The writer to the Hebrews refers to Jesus as “the apostle… of our confession” (Heb. 3:1). The Lord Jesus was the original apostle of God, sent by our Father into the world for the salvation of man and the bringing back into play of God’s eternal purpose. As an apostle, as in every other way, there is none like Christ. He is pre-eminent in His apostleship. After Him, we have

The twelve apostles of the Lamb.

When Jesus began to travel and teach as a rabbi he gathered twelve men to himself who then spent the better part of three or four years following the Lord wherever he went. They became learners, or disciples, of Jesus. At the end of that time, after the Lord was crucified and had risen from the dead, he appeared to them and said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). With this sending the disciples became apostles. The apostleship of the twelve is unique and not to be compared with the many sent ones who would follow in their stead, as evidenced by the vision of the New Jerusalem given to John in Revelation 21:14, where he saw inscribed on the foundation of the city the names of these twelve men and none other.

However, contrary to the belief of some, apostleship did not end with the deaths of the twelve. The idea that the first century was marked off as some special apostolic “age” after which there would cease to be apostles, prophets, miracles, signs and wonders forms the teaching commonly known as cessationism. Cessationism is a man-made doctrine that holds no water when held up to the light of scripture. One simple proof of this can be seen in Revelation 2:2. Here the Lord commends the church at Ephesus for testing those who claimed to be apostles but were not. If the only genuine apostles to exist in the first century were the twelve disciples of Jesus then such a test would be ridiculously unneccesary, for all you would need to know is whether or not such a one claiming to be an apostle was in fact Peter, James, John, or one of the others. No actual testing would be required. But there were indeed other apostles besides the twelve, starting with

Paul and Barnabas, the apostles of the Spirit.

Acts 13:1-4-“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping 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 hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.”

Here we have another unique set of circumstances. Barnabas and Saul had been living and teaching in the church at Antioch for some time. When they and a few of the other leading brothers were together ministering to the Lord the Holy Spirit witnessed to each of their spirits in such a profound way that all present knew the Lord’s intention for these two. They were called by the Lord, they had been trained and prepared for their ministry through years of experience in the church life, and now the Holy Spirit was signifiying that the time was right. So they left for foreign fields, “sent out by the Holy Spirit.”   As the Father had sent the Son so the Son had sent the twelve, but now we see the Spirit doing the sending. This is a new and different kind of sending, and therefore a different order, so to speak, of apostleship.  

What is the fourth order of apostleship revealed in the New Testament, the kind which is still being carried on by the Lord to this day? We find mention of it in 2 Corinthians 8:23, where Paul is speaking of Titus and the other brothers who often accompanied him on his travels and shared in his labors. Here it is we find

The apostles of the churches.

Little is known about the young men who travelled and labored with Paul on his journeys. We know of Barnabas and Silas, his co-workers for journeys one and two. What we are left to piece together is the story behind men such as Timothy, Titus, Gaius, Aristarchus, Secundus, Epaphras, and others. Paul himself refers to them as “partners… fellow workers… apostles of the churches, the glory of Christ.” But who were they? They were young men who grew up in the church life of their respective cities. Young men who burned with a passion for Christ and God’s eternal purpose, who over time showed evidence of being gifted by the Lord for a certain kind of work, namely that of apostleship. Eventually each of these men were recognized by both Paul and their fellow brothers and sisters in the church as being chosen by God for His work, and the churches sent them to join Paul on his journeys.

These are the kinds of apostles who have never in any generation been absent from the pages of church history. There were a good number of them in the first century, and it is possible their ranks were even populated by women such as Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7). The Lord has continued giving such brothers and sisters as gifts to His church, and their contribution to the building up of the Body of Christ is beyond value.

Having established all this, you might now be wondering, what is the mark of an apostle? How can I, like the church in Ephesus, know whether a man or woman is truly an apostle? To answer this I refer you to consider both

The sign and the seal of apostleship.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:12 of the signs of a true apostle. Most people take this passage to mean Paul is saying a true apostle will perform signs and wonders and mighty works. While this may certainly be the case, such signs may also be counterfeited or done by those who are not themselves apostles (such as Philip or Stephen). The real emphasis in this verse seems to be on “utmost patience.” An apostle, therefore, is one who draws from a seemingly endless source, whose well runs deep in Christ and is incredibly difficult to dry up. In the words of Watchman Nee, “endurance is the greatest proof of spiritual power, and it is one of the signs of an apostle. It is the ability to endure steadfastly under continuous pressure that tests the reality of an apostolic call.”

Paul was certainly an example of this kind of steadfast endurance. So much more the Lord Jesus. An uncanny ability to go to the cross, despite the pressure, the pain, the persecution, the ridicule, or the hardship is one sure test of an apostolic claim. Does a man bear suffering well? Does he in one way or another bear in his body and in his being the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ?

More convincing than the signs is the seal of an apostle. This is something Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 9:1,2 when speaking of the church in Corinth. Two things are of note in this passage. First, Paul says “if to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you…” This seems to imply that one who is really an apostle is not necessarily an apostle in every setting. For instance, Paul was sent out by the Spirit from the church at Antioch where he made his home. In Antioch Paul may have been a gifted teacher, even a prophet according to the scripture, but to the saints in Antioch Paul was just a brother. He was simply brother Paul. A good brother, yes, but just a brother nonetheless. There was nothing of the superstar mentality that permeates so much of western Christianity today. Paul was not the resident priest of the Antioch church, he had no special status, he worked a job like everyone else, and though men respected him for the measure of Christ he possessed, no one was afraid of him or looked to him in any way that puffed him up and set him apart from others. Again, Paul was just a brother.

There are many men today who claim to be apostles or who view themselves and wish to be viewed by others as apostles based simply on some gifting they think they have from the Lord. Very little witness is given to this by other brothers and sisters, often based upon the fact that there are no other brothers and sisters present to give such a witness! Years of tested, proven experience in the local church life precede any development or recognition of apostleship. This is the Lord’s way, the only safe way to guarantee that the man who is sent out to minister (not the man who simply goes out of his own accord) is no threat but rather a help to the Lord’s people. This is a very vital element that is missing in most circles today. “Apostles” form vast networks, connect with people online, build charitable organizations and speak at conferences but have no local church life in which they are nothing more than just another brother. This is a great need in the Body of Christ today.

To get back to my point, the other thing Paul mentions in this passage from 1 Corinthians 9 that is worthy of note is found in his reference to the Corinthian believers themselves as “the seal (or proof) of my apostleship in the Lord.” Here we have something that cannot be denied. Basically Paul is saying that the proof of apostleship-the proof that one has been called, prepared, and sent of the Lord by his own local church to build up God’s House elsewhere-is in the churches raised up through a man’s ministry. In other words, an apostle raises up churches, plain and simple. Real flesh and blood churches, that is.Visible, locatable assemblies that can be visited and have letters written to them. Organic churches that exist apart from the supporting structures of human organization, institution, and headship. And also, churches that go on living and moving and being after the apostle has left town.

If a man or woman can do this, there’s a good chance he or she is an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This principle of an apostle raising up a church and then leaving it to the headship of the Lord is all throughout the New Testament. The reasons for it are many, the examples more than evident. Even the Lord Jesus Himself said to the twelve, who would form the nucleus of the first church in Jerusalem, “it is good for you that I go away.” Every true apostle will have this same sentiment in his heart toward those he is working with to build up as the House of the Lord. It is good for every church that the apostle goes away so the members of that church can develop into a real priesthood of believers and learn how to know and follow the Lord on her own with no man, minister or “pastor” doing the work for her. Shepherding will abound in the organic expression of the church, just not in the modern official sense we see so prevailing in Protestant Christianity.

Well, perhaps that is enough to say for now on this subject. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed considering this issue the last few days. How we need apostles in the church! How we need men and women who are called and sent of God-broken, meek, well-trained servants who are thrust forth into His harvest field for the raising up of the testimony of Jesus Christ as Head over all things! May the Lord give us more such men, and may the expression of the church they raise up be of a higher quality and a deeper reality than anything any of us have yet seen! 


The pastoral epistles: fact or fiction?

For as long as I can remember I’ve heard 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus referred to as the “pastoral epistles.” I even had a class in Bible college by the same name. The assumption is that Timothy and Titus were pastors according to the modern conception. Most people accept this without any thought, as if it were automatically true. In reality, though, this is a classic case of our tendency as humans to read into the scripture our own present traditions and practices. Or, as Richard Hanson has said,

“It is a universal tendency in the Christian religion, as in many other religions, to give a theological interpretation to institutions which have developed gradually through a period of time for the sake of practical usefulness, and then read that interpretation back into the earliest periods and infancy of those institutions, attaching them to an age when in fact nobody imagined that they had such a meaning.”

Our modern conception of a pastor is basically of a guy (or gal) who functions as resident priest of a local congregation of Christians. The Protestant pastorate is basically a reformed version of the Roman Catholic priesthood with more of an emphasis on the preaching of scripture than the administering of sacraments. The modern “pastor” is a local brother who preaches the sermon on Sunday and usually gets paid a salary to perform the duties of the clergy, such as visitations, church administration, ect.

The strongest evidence against the view that Timothy and Titus were the equivalent of the modern-day pastor is the fact that both these brothers, like Paul, were itinerant. That is, they were travelling workers who moved about regularly from place to place planting and building up churches. Timothy and Titus were not pastors, they were apostles. As such, they were constantly on the go. Listen to what bishop Lightfoot has to say on this subject:

“It is the conception of a later age which represents Timothy as bishop of Ephesus, and Titus as bishop of Crete. Paul’s own language implies that the position which they held was temporary. In both cases their term of office is drawing to a close when the apostle writes.”

So if Timothy wasn’t the “pastor” of the church at Ephesus, who was? The obvious answer, which we do-it-by-the-book, Bible-believing evangelicals love to overlook, is simply this: nobody. The office of the pastor, as it is widely regarded and practiced throughout Christendom today, is nowhere to be found in the New Testament. Look long and hard, but nowhere will you find a single example of a first-century believer occupying such a role in the local church.

But please, dear reader, before you throw stones, allow me to say that I am all for leadership, authority, and pastors. But I am for them in their truly biblical, “organic” sense, that is all. To describe what I mean by that is not the point of this particular post, however. All I’m saying for now is that to label Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus as “pastoral epistles” is a mis-leading, and it stems from the way we read and interpret scripture through the lens of our present traditions and practices. Let us pray for the Lord to give us light that we may see these writings and the story they tell in their original meaning. No doubt a revolution awaits us in that direction.  

 


The practical benefit of a meeting where every member supplies

“Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”-Ephesians 4:15,16

Where there is a real priesthood of believers gathering together regularly to minister to the Lord and to each other, each member of the Body is pressed to know the Lord in a real and living way.

If I come to a meeting each week where there is no pastor or “minister” present to do the work of ministry that all the saints together are intended to do (see Ephesians 4), then I will be conscious every day of my responsibility to not come to the meeting “empy-handed” (see Deuteronomy 16:16,17).

If I know that I’m a member of Christ and that His full expression depends on my practical functioning as one of His Body parts then I will be driven to seek after and experience the Lord in such a way that I am filled with His riches, ready to share them with other brothers and sisters when we meet.

This is just one practical benefit of meetings where every member supplies something for the building up of the Body. There are many more. 🙂


Living a church life that involves ALL God’s people

The brothers and sisters I meet with on a regular basis are few in number. It’s been that way all three years we’ve been together. And while I am thoroughly convinced that it is not our number but simply what we are that makes for the Lord’s testimony, we often long for more fellowship with other believers. So in the past six months or so, as the light of the local church being the fellowship of all God’s people in a given place has dawned upon me, I’ve been moved to more actively seek out fellowship with other believers beyond the “walls” of our particular circle.

Thus far, the results of this endeavor have been both rewarding and frustrating. While we have been able to connect with many brothers and sisters who have different backgrounds and emphases of truth, at the same time it’s been difficult to gain any kind of reciprocation to our reaching out. Whether they are too busy, too cautious or simply do not see the importance of it, many saints don’t seem to have much desire to really go beyond their own congregation to have fellowhsip with other local believers. It’s heartbreaking, really. 

Even still, we press on. If the church is really one, and if the practical expression of that oneness is the local church in the city, made up of all believers who reside in a given locality, then we are obligated to go beyond our little circle to embrace fellowship with all believers. Even as we seek to be true to the truth the Lord has committed to us and to go forward with the light He has granted, we must walk in step with this realization that the local church is not just my little organic group. The local church encompasses all the saints in my city who call upon the name of the Lord, and even if they will not live like it I must. To do any less than this is to be a sect and not a church. To whatever degree possible, even as I seek to move forward with the few brothers and sisters I share life with on a day to day basis, I still have to find some way to experience and display a practical unity with all the believers in my town. Anything short of this will never come close to fulfilling God’s purpose.

So then, we must be true to what we see. We must go forward upon the ground of oneness, meeting simply as fellow members of the church in our city, expressing the Lord Jesus in truth and fullness. But we must also put into practice a local church life that extends beyond our own borders, for though we are taking our stand according to the way we believe God views the situation, the fact remains that we are not the only peeps in town who are “of Christ”. Therefore our fellowhsip must never be confined to any particular group or party. It takes “all the saints” to comprehend the awesome depths of the love of God, and only together will we ever come to know Him in His fullness.


The church as a beachhead for the Lord

The goal of the gospel is not to get a bunch of people saved so one day they can escape this world by way of some rapture. The ultimate goal of the gospel is that God, through a people, will re-take this earth for Himself and prepare a way for His return!

The dictionary defines a beachhead as 1)the area that is the first objective of a military force landing on an enemy shore, or 2)a secure initial position that has been gained and can be used for further advancement. This is an incredible picture of God’s purpose for the church.

If you take into account the entire revelation put forth in scripture about what took place before the creation of the world as we know it, you see that when God made mankind and placed him in the earth He did so with the rebellion of Satan in full swing. In relation to this cosmic battle man’s charge was two-fold: Bear God’s image and exercise His authority in the earth. Through man the Lord intended to put down the rebellion of the snake and restore order in the cosmos. To do this He established a beachhead in the earth in the form of a garden and told Adam to keep it.

All this takes on the most significance when you view it in the context of the conflict of the ages. Sometime before the creation of the visible universe the Father loved His Son with an unspeakable love. Out from this love He decreed that a kingdom would come forth over which His Son would be Head. The Son would be pre-eminent in all things. The angel named Lucifer came to detest this proclamation and intention, desiring for himself the place that was said to be God’s alone. Upon this jealousy and hatred for the Son of God the rebellion began.

Earth had been the domain of Lucifer’s rule, under God. After he came out to challenge the pre-eminence of the Son he claimed the earth as his own. Rather than deal with His adversary directly God chose to make mankind, and through union with man (by which means the image of the invisible Godhead would be made visible in the earth) to deal with the situation that way. So the purpose of God for man from the very beginning has had a great deal to do with re-taking the earth for Himself. When Adam forfeited the beachhead God established in Eden Satan became established as the undisputed god of this age. Even the Lord Jesus, when tempted by the devil in the wilderness, did not go so far as to dispute Satan’s claim of being ruler over all the earth, for it was true at the time. Good news was the Lord had come to overthrow that rule.

So we see that the Lord Jesus came into this world in order to deal with sin, make a way to the Father, and re-establish a beachhead on the earth for the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose! Enter the church!

Oh yes! The church and the church life is of far greater significance than most people ever come to see or appreciate. The church-in particular the local church in every city-is a beachhead for the Lord Jesus Christ, established for His purpose of re-taking the earth! Turn on your radio. Go through the shelves of your local Christian bookstore. Switch on Christian television. Listen to the message being preached from most pulpits Sunday after Sunday across the land. How often do you hear this message and this purpose of the gospel being proclaimed?

Regardless of the spiritual impotence of popular Christianity, this is the ultimate intention and goal of the gospel. Not to get a people “saved” in the common evangelical conception, so one day they can go to heaven rather than hell. That kind of gospel is weak, it is shallow, it is partial, and it is failing in the full purpose of God for this age. The ultimate aim of the good news of the kingdom of God is to call a people out of this world, to give new birth in their spirits and a re-establishment of contact and fellowship with the Triune God indwelling their inmost being, and through the gathering together of that people in every city on this planet to raise a banner to the supremacy and centrality of the Lord Jesus Christ as Head over all things!  Praise the Lord!

You and I must ask ourselves: Is there such a beachhead established in my city? Is there this testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ as pre-eminent in all things? Is there a true expression of His church-local, organic, and dwelling as one with all believers-through whom the Lord is gaining full expression? This is the ultimate issue of the universe and of our very existence. To be found in this purpose is our grand calling. Until you’ve glimpsed this vision in your spirit you will never long for it in life. Until you’ve touched it in practical experience you will never abandon your whole life toward its fulfillment. But the Lord is willing! Let us pray together for an overwhelming revelation of the greatness of our Christ and the vastness of God’s purpose concerning Him. Then we will begin to have clarity on how our lives are to count toward its living realization.

Amen!


Concluding thoughts on the ground of the church

So for a few posts now we have looked at the ground of the church. I hope it’s been of some benefit to you. We’ve seen how the ground of the church is tied to the practical display of our unity in Christ. I have yet to find a truly diverse group of believers who share a common life in Christ and regularly come together who do not gather upon this ground. Without the restriction laid upon us by this revelation of the local church, it is only natural that we will gravitate toward those believers who share our own personal tastes, doctrines, and dispositions. 

In Corinth, for instance, where the situation was so explosive it might have resulted in numerous congregations spread throughout the city-some based upon a certain man’s ministry, some based upon the exercise of spiritual gifts, and so forth-what did Paul do to help remedy the saints’ outlook? He pointed them to Christ and the cross, and gave them a wonderful presentation of the great diversity of the Body of the Lord. Simply because we are different, or because we emphasize different aspects of the divine revelation, is no reason to separate. We still must come together as the church in our city. Otherwise the testimony of the Lord will be lost. The walls will be thrown down, the holy stones scattered, the vessels of the Lord all carried away to Babylon, and in the absence of the House of God we will all go to building synagogues.

To conclude this series, then, I’d like to refer back again to another post I wrote a year or so ago entitled The local church: A history of change. Be sure to take a look at it before you go. Share some thoughts of your own while you’re at it. If you’re one of those who senses the Lord’s call to rebuild, let me say that the ground is all-important. The temple can only be built on that spot which the Lord has chosen to give a true expression of Himself. And while all Christians will respond to Paul’s inquiry-“Is Christ divided?”-with an emphatic “no”, not all seem to understand how that translates practically.

Oh Lord Jesus, do a work in our day and age that is beyond all that we are able to ask or think! Stir our spirits and give us a heart like David, who refused to lie down on his own bed until he had secured a dwelling place for You to rest Yourself. Show us Your plan and Your purpose to re-take this earth for Yourself, and how wonderfully bound up with that plan is the coming together of brothers and sisters for fellowship! Break down any wall that divides us and make us one with each other as You, Lord, are one with your Father. May it be practical and may it be real, that the world may believe and have life through Your name!