In at least three of Paul’s Letters to specific congregations, the apostle outlines in detail how to go about ‘body life’ in community gatherings. By ‘body of life’ we mean of course body ‘members’ functioning under the headship of Jesus, in accordance with their spiritual gifts, for the maturation of all concerned.
Note in all three, viz. his Letters to the Romans, Ephesians and Colossians, Paul lays down foundational truths in the opening chapters and then goes on to apply these in the latter chapters (note, information is not enough – as a missionary friend of mine recently remarked, if ‘facts change people’ why do so many doctors smoke?). Consider for example Romans 1-11 and 12-16; Eph. 1-3 and 4-6; Col. 1-2 and 3-4. In 1 Corinthians Paul deals with specific issues in the life of the Corinthian ecclesia (lit. ‘called out’) in ch. 1-11 (e.g. divisions, immorality, etc) and then guides his readers in the practical use of spiritual gifts in ch. 12ff so that the body may function effectively.
Now having said that, let me throw in a pungent challenge from A.W. Tozer, shared with me recently by by son. Tozer lived from 1897 to 1963, hailing from a tiny Pennsylvanian farming community, a largely self-educated American Christian pastor, author and mentor. He was a sharp pencil indeed, and for his writings received two honorary doctorates, from Wheaton and Houghton Colleges. He was part of the well-known Christian and Missionary Alliance family, with whom my son and his wife did a church-plant in S. California a few years ago. Are you sitting down? Here goes: ‘The modern church is an asylum for retarded spiritual children. It’s a nursery for overgrown spiritual babes, most of whom do not have a clue about how to function spiritually with their fellow brethren in a coordinated way.’
In other words, so many believers and church leaders, for the most part from institutional-traditional churches, have no or little idea as to how to fellowship and function organically, according to the principles and practical guidelines of Scripture. From a lifetime as a ‘pastor’ and ‘senior pastor’ in a mainline denomination and then some seven years outside of the institutional church, I can certainly confirm that.
Now what would some of the reasons be for such a dysfunctional state in the Church at large? (if we know some of the causes, we may be led to some of the cures)
- Believers are often poorly instructed in biblical truth. They don’t understand the meaning of Jesus’ ‘good news’ and his kingdom message. From many pulpits and platforms they’re being fed consumer candy and pop psychology. We’re seeing the negative effects even in Africa, courtesy of popular American TV preachers and ‘teachers.’
- The ‘clergy-laity’ divide: where those who get to minister are the preachers up front while faithful but bored-to-death members in the toaster-rack look on passively. Did you notice that the NT Letters, apart from those addressed to a particular person (e.g. Titus – though it is still a ‘pastoral letter’ requiring the participation of all), are addressed to a corporate body of believers – NOT to the lead-elder, or elders, or bishop, or pastor or even ‘senior pastor.’ Thus vital participation by one and all is replaced by minimal participation by most.
- The unscriptural focus on ‘preaching’ and specifically ‘preaching to the choir/converted,’ as practised commonly around the world for the last 1,700 years or so. Jon Zens, in his journey from institutional to simple church, tells of a Christian brother who challenged him over a meal following a gathering in the late 1970’s as to why he always made the sermon the centre point of the meetings. At first he was offended, but after researching this man’s remark that ‘preaching’ in the NT largely referred to evangelistic effort outside the body of the get-togethers, conceded the point and radically altered his ministry. Note: we are not saying there is no place for input from gifted ‘apostles, prophets, teachers and evangelists’ – Eph. 4 clearly shows that there is. But those who from time to time minister as ‘apostles’ (i.e. foundation-layers/pioneers/missionaries) and ‘prophets’ and ‘pastor-teachers’ etc do so as functioning members rather than office-holders. Their input is horizontal rather than hierarchical, as servants and not masters. I personally ‘teach’ on biblical and theological issues as required, but our house church members know me by my first name rather than some clerical title and they understand that they all get to contribute in our gatherings according to their giftings. It’s called ‘the priesthood of all believers.’
- The size of congregations often militate against body function. It’s much more feasible in smaller groups of between six and thirty members. Beware churches obsessed with numerical church growth.
- At the end of the day, NT churches are planted and grown by the Lord himself, and they grow organically, i.e. from seed to plant, from ground-level up. Even as I write I recall the elders of my last congregation insisting that I be the chief vision-caster and driver. It was unnatural, painful and unbiblical. Yet this is how it happens in a host of churches, especially those of the larger and ‘successful’ variety.
So what are some of the cures? How will we move from ‘asylums for retarded spiritual children’ to smaller mature ecclesiae functioning as Jesus’ healing body in a broken world? I believe there are enough clues in the points above to act as starting-points. Be warned and encouraged: it may require radical obedience on your part (perhaps with negative fall-out), but the ‘road less travelled will (once more) make all the difference!’