God only has ‘Plan A’

2 April 2018

In a recent Bible-study group, a friend observed that, as he saw it, God started out with the nation of Israel. But they messed up, failing to go along with his intentions for them. That’s the Old Testament story—the bad bit. So God started again with Jesus and the church—which is the New Testament story, and the good bit.

noplanbNot true! The following is an extract from my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, that explains the ins and outs of it…

‘Too many Christians have lost touch completely with the Old Testament. They think that, because it is all pre-Jesus, it is unimportant. One outcome is that they separate Israel from the church. Their unspoken assumption is that, while God in Old Testament days dealt with the nation of Israel (Plan A), due to their failure he turned his attention to an alternative community, the church, founded by Jesus (Plan B).

‘This is not right at all! God has never had a ‘Plan B’. His ‘Plan A’, as we have seen, was the calling of Abraham and his descendants to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’. By this means, he would reach everyone and in due course put the whole world to rights. Paul constantly has this Old Testament narrative in mind in his writings. He insists that the fact that the Jews failed so signally in their mission did not throw God’s plan off track at all. The Messiah, Jesus, proved to be the true Israelite. He embodied everything that the nation had been called to be and, through him, Plan A remains on track. His resurrection vindicated him as God’s chosen one, through whom all who believe — Gentiles as well as Jews — are justified and partake in the new age he had inaugurated.

‘According to Paul, Israel thus continues but has been redefined. The children of Abraham — or to use synonymous terms, ‘Israel’ or ‘the people of God’ — are now all who believe in Jesus, regardless of their ethnic background. Justification breaks down the barriers. In this way God has honoured his covenant with Abraham. This is the message of Paul’s letter to the Romans, whose fundamental topic is ‘Who are the people of God?’

‘All this means, of course, that the obsession of some Christians with Zionism and the current State of Israel, in the belief that the Jews have some separate role in the purpose of God, is completely misplaced. If you have held Zionist sympathies, that could be a wobbler.’

There’s more where that came from, and you may be wanting chapter and verse to back up the thesis. It’s all in the book, which you can download for free at http://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/apitfdownload.htm

And if you want more on the role of today’s State of Israel, you will find food for thought in my blog post, Red Herring In Galilee.

Enjoy!

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Review: Radical thinking on the church

29 March 2018

Lots of people these days seem to be saying Yes to Jesus but No to church. While some have given up on church completely, others still hope to find an expression of it that they can live with and find satisfying. Maybe they should read this book:

Reimagining Church: Pursuing The Dream Of Organic Christianity by Frank Viola (David C. Cook, 2008).  

rclargeOrganic Church is an attempt to embrace the simplicity of church life as portrayed in the New Testament. That life, the author maintains, reflects at a human level the ‘community life’ of the Trinity. The Organic Church, therefore, means no ordination, no officially-recognised leaders, no hierarchy, no purpose-built buildings, no formal sermons, no denominations. Instead, only Jesus is recognised as Head of the church, meetings take place in homes, and everybody contributes on an equal basis, yielding to the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is church that attempts to measure up to the NT’s primary metaphor for it: family.

The author is no mere theorist. He has many years of working with churches that operate this way. He has helped them work through the inevitable difficulties to arrive at a place of vibrant viability, and he shares his insights with warmth and passion.

Ironically, while he insists that the NT contains no blueprint for ‘how church should be’, his own approach assumes that the NT’s presentation of the early church is itself a blueprint to follow. Whether or not he is right is for you to decide.

He admits that, for many of us, the transition from our familiar traditional patterns of church life to Organic Church will require an enormous adjustment, and that many will find it too much. He may be right. But even for those who can’t go the whole hog there are valuable insights here that could benefit us all. This is a book worth reading.

Here are some quotations. [I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers.]

I took the daring step of leaving the institutional church. That was in 1988. Since that time, I’ve never returned to institutional Christianity. Instead, I’ve been meeting in what I call “organic churches.”  (36)

It’s the present practices of the church that I’m seeking to reimagine, not the church itself…  The church as we know it today evolved (or more accurately, devolved) from a living, breathing, vibrant, organic expression of Jesus Christ into a top-heavy, hierarchical organization whose basic structure is patterned after the ancient Roman Empire. Tellingly, most churches today still hold that structure.  (63)

I’ve met countless believers who have said, “The church is an organism, not an organization.” Yet as they formed those very words, they continued to be devout members of churches that were organized along the lines of General Motors and Microsoft.  (116)

This book reimagines a vision of church that’s organic in its construction; relational in its functioning; scriptural in its form; Christ-centered in its operation; Trinitarian in its shape; communitarian in its lifestyle; nonelitist in its attitude; and nonsectarian in its expression.  (245)

I have a dream that the clergy/laity divide will someday be an antique of church history, and the Lord Jesus Himself will replace the moss-laden system of human hierarchy that has usurped His authority among His people.  (245)

The DNA of the church is marked by the very traits that we find in the triune God. Particularly, mutual love, mutual fellowship, mutual dependence, mutual honor, mutual submission, mutual dwelling, and authentic community. (336)

Neither “going to church” nor “church services” appear in the New Testament. Both of these terms emerged long after the death of the apostles. The reason is simple: The early Christians had no such concept. They didn’t view church as a place to go. Neither did they see their gatherings as “services.” (544)

Today, the weekly “church service” is designed for worship, the hearing of a sermon, and in some cases, evangelism. But in the first-century church, the governing purpose of the church meeting was quite different. The purpose was mutual edification. (562)

Perhaps the most startling characteristic of the early church meeting was the absence of any human officiation. Jesus Christ led the gatherings by the medium of the Holy Spirit through the believing community. The result? The spirit of “one-anothering” pervaded the entire meeting. (612)

The Reformation recovered the truth of the priesthood of all believers. But it failed to restore the organic practices that embody this teaching. (665)

The only sustaining force of the early church gathering was the life of the Holy Spirit. The early Christians were clergyless, liturgyless, programless, and ritualless. They relied entirely on the spiritual life of the individual members to maintain the church’s existence and the quality of their gatherings. (731)

One of the tasks of an apostolic worker is to equip God’s people to function together in a free-yet-orderly meeting that expresses Christ in His fullness. (797)

There is a natural affinity between the home meeting and the family motif of the church that saturates Paul’s writings. Because the home is the native environment of the family, it naturally furnishes the ekklesia with a familial atmosphere—the very atmosphere that pervaded the life of the early Christians. (1066)

The ghost of Protestant individualism haunts the average postwar evangelical church. And until it exorcises that spirit, it will continue to see little spiritual formation in its congregants. (1300)

Because we are made in the likeness and image of God, we are only truly human when we are living in community. A church that is hierarchically structured or that relegates its fellowship to a weekly religious service violates this spiritual reality. (1333)

The church that’s introduced to us in Scripture is a loving household, not a business. It’s a living organism, not a static organization. It’s the corporate expression of Jesus Christ, not a religious corporation. It’s the community of the King, not a well-oiled hierarchical machine. (1365)

Anytime a group of Christians undercuts the biblical basis for fellowship by excluding those whom God has accepted—whether explicitly or implicitly—they are a sect. (1492)

The division of the Christian church is rooted in the evolution of the clergy/laity class distinction. This distinction began to crystallize around the third century. The emergence of this hierarchical system, which violently ruptured the priesthood of all believers into a clergy class and a laity class, was the first major division known to the body of Christ. (1511)

Many evangelicals have been taught that when Adam and Eve fell, God decided to scrap the earth and redeem a small group of people out of it that He will take to heaven. But God loves the earth, and He wishes to redeem it (Ps 78:69; Eccl 1:4; Rom 8:20ff.). He has promised to fill the earth with His glory as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11:9; Hab 2:14). Ultimately, God will bring heaven to the earth (Rev 22), just as it was in the garden of Eden. (1837)

Whenever the church gathers together, its guiding and functioning principle is simply to incarnate Christ (1 Cor 12:12). (1887)

Leadership in the New Testament places a high premium on the unique gifting, spiritual maturity, and sacrificial service of each member. It lays stress on functions, not offices. It emphasizes tasks rather than titles. (1920)

Whenever the New Testament describes people who are chiefly responsible for spiritual oversight, it does so by mentioning the work they do. Functional language dominates. Verbs are prominent. (2002)

The clergy profession is little more than a one-size-fits-all blending of administration, psychology, and oratory that’s packaged into one position for religious consumption. (2021)

“Elder” means mature man. “Shepherd” means one who nurtures and protects a flock. And “overseer” means one who supervises. Put plainly, the New Testament notion of oversight is functional, not official. True spiritual authority is rooted in spiritual life and function, not title or position. (2236)

Every time Paul wrote to a church in crisis, he always addressed the church itself rather than the elders. This is consistent from Paul’s first letter to his last. (2288)

The New Testament consistently rejects the notion of ecclesiastical officers in the church. It also greatly downplays the role of elders. (2340)

What was the New Testament pattern for decision-making in the early church? It was simply by consensus. “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church,” and, “it seemed good to us, having become of one mind” was the divine model for making corporate decisions (Acts 15:22, 25 NASB). In other words, the decision-making of the early church was not in the hands of the elders. It was in the hands of all the brothers and sisters. (2470)

When the church reaches a consensus, murmuring and complaining are eliminated. Why? Because every member has had an equal share in the decision. The church owns the decision. It was made by and for the church under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. (2502)

The New Testament knows nothing of an authoritative mode of leadership. Nor does it know a “leaderless” egalitarianism. It rejects both hierarchical structures as well as rugged individualism. Instead, the New Testament envisions leadership as coming from the entire church. The brothers and sisters supply direction and decision-making by consensus. Seasoned brothers supply oversight. (2535)

If we strip it down to its bare roots, the idea of “covering” rests upon a top-heavy, hierarchical understanding of authority. This understanding is borrowed from the structures that belong to this world system. It in no way reflects the kingdom of God. (2573)

The Bible never teaches that God has given believers authority (exousia) over other believers. Recall our Lord’s words in Matthew 20:25–26 and Luke 22:25–26 where He condemned exousia-type authority among His followers. (2736)

Those exercising organic authority never demand obedience to themselves. They rather seek to persuade others to obey God’s will. Paul’s letters are wonderful examples of this principle. They resonate with appeals and pleas rather than commands. They’re littered with the language of persuasion. (2788)

God’s idea of accountability works from community to person. Not from parson to person. (2958)

Many so-called nondenominational, interdenominational, and postdenominational churches are just as hierarchical as mainline denominations. (3023)

My experience suggests that unless the extrabiblical clergy system is dismantled in a particular church, efforts to recover the organic nature of church life will be handcuffed. (3309)

The megachurch movement is built on a corporate business paradigm that utilizes a market-driven approach to building the kingdom of God. It’s no wonder that churches of this ilk are successful at swelling their ranks. (3324)

When individuals taste body life, they will be forever cured of the unbridled urge to travel “to and fro ” to attend the latest “hot spot” of renewal. Instead, they will discover true and lasting refreshment and stability within the local assembly that’s captivated by a revelation of Jesus Christ and God’s eternal purpose in Him. (3389)

It seems to me that many of us are willing to tip over any sacred cow except the modern pastoral office and the Sunday-morning Protestant ritual. Regardless of how unbiblical these two religious traditions are, they seem to be off limits even to the most radical thinkers. (3457)

The church doesn’t need renewal. It needs a complete overhaul. That is, the only way to fully renew the institutional church is to wholly disassemble it and build something far different. (3596)


Hard on the ears

16 March 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 5 (and last).

Not far from where I live is Gwennap Pit. It’s a hollow in the ground, believed to be the result of mining subsidence, and is famous for being a place where John Wesley preached on 18 occasions in the second half of the 18th century. It has good acoustic qualities and, today, has been tiered to take over 2,000 people sitting down.

sound high volumeWesley first preached to a standing audience there in 1762. Afterwards, he wrote, ‘The wind was so high that I could not stand at the usual place at Gwennap village; but at a small distance was a hollow capable of containing many thousands of people. I stood on one side of this ampitheatre towards the top and with people beneath on all sides, I enlarged on those words in the gospel for the day, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see….hear the things that ye hear.”‘ We don’t know how many listeners he had, but eleven years later he addressed, at the same spot, his biggest ever audience there: 32,000 people, spilling way out of the confines of the hollow.

Now think about this: microphones and PA systems hadn’t yet been invented! Instead, preachers like Wesley were used to projecting their voices, and were skilled at using the contours of the ground to give the sound maximum spread. Most preachers today would be novices at both those skills. They don’t need them, because we have sound systems—which, in themselves, are not a bad thing at all.

But surely the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction now? You go to a church service with a mere 50 people present and there’s a sound system in operation! The speaker can mumble, and his mumbling is magnified to a mega-mumble. The guitars and drums are all mic’d and the volume too often cranked up enough to demolish the walls. Why on earth is that necessary?

I know, it is in vogue for sound-systems everywhere to be set at ridiculously high levels. But in church we should surely not be slaves to that fashion? By all means have a sound-system, but ensure that it is set to enhance the speaking and listening experience in church, not to ape an auditorium where a rock band is performing.

An audiologist of my acquaintance points out the huge increase in young people of the current generation with hearing problems caused partly by ear-buds pumping music from devices whose volume is set too high, and partly from the ear-splitting decibels at discos, night clubs and concerts. That’s bad in itself, and is a worrying trend. But the church is supposed to be where things are done to a better standard, setting the measure for, rather than aping, what goes on outside.

The abuse of sound-systems in church meetings leads to the following problems:

  • High volumes in the music create an invisible barrier separating the singers/musicians from the congregation.
  • The congregation ease up on singing because they can hardly hear themselves above the cranked-up volume coming from the speakers. They thus become spectators rather than participants.
  • People with hearing aids (like me) find the volume oppressive and are tempted to stay away until the ‘worship’ is finished or, resisting that extreme, they switch their hearing aids off and, as a result, feel no longer part of what’s going on.
  • People who want to contribute spontaneously by praying, or whatever, from ‘the floor’ are disinclined to do so, fearing their voice won’t be heard. And they feel embarrassed about coming forward to take a microphone, because it makes them the centre of attention, which they don’t want to be. Might as well just not bother.

Some would argue that a cranked-up sound system is a necessary concession to youth culture. If we are to reach the young generation with the message of Jesus, they say, we have to meet them halfway on issues like this.

My feeling is that we are going way beyond halfway. Nobdody expects young people to warm instantly to the traditional hymn/prayer sandwich and the music of a pipe organ. But they can surely be won by a musical approach, and a volume level, that demonstrates a winsome skill and sensitivity to the importance of the Person we represent?

And they are not the only generation to be considered. The primary New Testament metaphor for the church is ‘family’, and a family quickly goes to pot if the kids rule the roost. There are two generations older than them who have learnt a thing or two about living, about what matters, and about standards of family behaviour. If there is genuine love at the heart of it all, the youngsters will cope with everything else.

‘Church’ as a whole, I suspect, needs some rethinking. Certainly the three current models in the UK suffer from grave deficiencies for young people:

  • Typical churches of the liturgical variety—Church of England, Roman Catholic etc.—appear too set in their ways to appeal to the young, who see little life or attractive spontaneity there.
  • Churches of the hymn/prayer/sermon kind—Methodist, Baptist etc.—also fail to attract the young, who feel the services are a couple of centuries out of date.
  • Auditorium-style churches, with big screens, smoke machines, coloured lights and a sound system that threatens the ear-drums may attract the young, but too often at the expense of providing any real spiritual substance or pastoral care.

It’s easier to spot the problems than to come up with satisfying answers. Maybe you have some light to share? In the meantime, please turn the volume down.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Music without ceasing?

12 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective—1.

Hearing deteriorates as folk get older—as I know from experience: my hearing aids are very powerful ones. One feature of this deterioration is losing the capacity to ‘filter out’ one sound from other, competing sounds, and focus on it .

This means that, if someone is speaking in church—praying, perhaps, or making some connecting comment—and a guitar or keyboard is playing at the same time, it is virtually impossible for many of us to make out what the speaker is saying, as the frequency of the music almost always overrides that of the speaker’s voice.

Worship-teamThat’s why it is immensely off-putting to older folk when music is played in the background all the time during the open time of worship. This has, sadly, become the norm in some churches, but I regard it as an undesirable practice. Not only does it prevent some of us from hearing any simultaneous oral contributions. It also inhibits such contributions from the congregation. Few people are confident enough to chip in while music is being played, especially when they feel they will have to raise their voice higher than is natural for them if they are to be heard above the music. So they keep quiet—and we are the poorer for it.

Music and song do not equal ‘worship’; they are simply one of many expressions of it. When we gather as a church family, our corporate worship consists in, not just the singing, but the prayers, testimonies, prophecies, tongues and interpretation, relevant Scripture passages etc.

Musicians and stage-singers have an unfair advantage here, in that they are in position at the front, with microphones, and can thus inhibit or face down contributions from the floor. For this reason, they need to be mega-sensitive to the presence of the congregation and ideally should stop playing immediately if someone in the congregation begins to pray out loud or whatever.

Some would discourage ‘from the floor’ contributions anyway, favouring the ‘front-led’ approach to meetings. The congregation then become, not participants, but observers. It’s a negative trend, I believe, possibly reflecting an unhealthy desire for control on the part of the leaders. Certainly, it’s hardly ‘family’ anymore; it’s a performance. And, to be honest, I often find it boring—though I always try to keep a positive attitude. You never get bored when there are contributions from the floor. Some of them may be a bit messy but, to me, that’s part of what ‘family’ is all about. It’s real, and I think the Lord loves it!

I know from experience that it’s possible to welcome contributions from the floor with congregations up to about 150 in number, provided the musicians are sensitive and know when to keep quiet. After that, the dynamics change. But I’d argue that, once numbers reach 150, it’s time to split the congregation into two of 75 each anyway, to keep the ‘family’ atmosphere that the New Testament presents as central to the church’s very nature. Small is beautiful!

What do you think?

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


A Grotesque Mismatch

5 February 2018

mismatchI once saw this in real life in a special hospital—a handsome young man in his thirties with the undeveloped body of an infant. I had to struggle hard to keep a grip on my reaction, because the grotesque mismatch made me feel suddenly sick.

It’s a good image of Christ and his church. Jesus himself is the Head and the church his body. He is fully-developed, mature and glorious; the church is ill-matched to the Head, stunted and deformed. It is deformed by superficiality, self-seeking, tradition, division and doctrinal imbalance.

God intends the church to mature and grow so that it matches the glory of the Head. The match will be complete at Christ’s return, of course, but God intends things to improve before then—and we Christians, who comprise the church, are responsible for working with the Holy Spirit to make it happen. Look carefully at these scriptures:

  • Ephesians 5:23  ‘Christ is the head of the church, his body.’

  • 1 Corinthians 12:27  ‘You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’

  • Ephesians 4:11-16  ‘It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants… Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’

Are you doing your part?


Review: Small, intimate churches

2 February 2018

In the ‘new churches’ today, the trend is towards big buildings, concert-style auditoriums and slick programmes of activities. But some don’t care for that, holding that small and more intimate is beautiful. Here’s a book that argues that case. It is:

Grassroots Christianity: The church as it was created to be by Duncan Kellard (Authentic Books, 2009).

gclargeKellard argues for home-based, small-group churches with few or no paid leaders, where the emphasis is on wide member-participation, the leading of the Holy Spirit and the sharing of everyday life together. His argument for it is twofold—one aspect of which I agree with wholeheartedly, while the other I view with some scepticism.

The first is that ‘it works’. He is frank and open about the problems this model can throw up, but he reckons that they are worth it for the benefits it brings. And these are, among others, that it is best for developing individual character and Christlikeness, for allowing scope for the Holy Spirit to use every single member’s gifts and contributions, for producing relatively stress-free leaders, for reaching the unchurched, and for coping with opposition. I believe he’s right. He cites the millions in the ‘underground’ churches in China as a living example.

His second argument is that this model is ‘the biblical pattern’ (his own phrase). I’m not sure about that. His approach assumes that, in the New Testament, we have some kind of blueprint as to how church should be, and that the modern type of church with a smart building, a worship band, stage-led meetings and seats facing the front, run by frazzled, paid pastors, is failing chiefly because it departs from the ‘biblical model’.

Kellard’s arguments are a bit naïve in places, to my mind, but there’s no denying that he is speaking, with utmost sincerity, from wide experience of both types of church, and the huge number of real-life cases he quotes is one of the book’s strengths.

You may feel that he over-emphasises the either/or of what church should be like, and that there is a good case for both/and. Or that the two models could in some way be combined, as when a church of several hundred active members has a thriving cell-group structure. You must make up your own mind on that. But, wherever you stand, you will find plenty in this book to make you think—and maybe to make you tweak your church methods.

Here are some quotations.

Inspiration releases life; institutionalism eventually quenches it. Because the tendency of any significant movement is to become institutionalised, the best, longest-standing examples of simple, inspirational church life occurs where either persecution or poverty prevent the church from becoming more ‘sophisticated’, and the raw, rustic state is maintained and multiplied. (p18)

The premise of this book is that far from helping us attain the life of the early church, the trappings of organisation and institutionalism often hinder it and, more alarmingly, cloak a loss of vital purpose. People are preached to but wouldn’t choose to be called ‘disciples’, they experience high-quality music, but often struggle to engage in worship, they fund expensive missions but may lack the boldness or desire to share the gospel with friends or colleagues.  (p21)

The grassroots quotient: ‘Our dependence on God is inversely proportional to the value we set on human method and ability.’  (p23)

In traditional churches, there may be ‘home groups’ for the keen ones in the mid-week, but real church is perceived as what happens on Sunday. New churches, ironically, usually burst into life spontaneously in homes. But when they outgrow them, rather than starting new local home meetings, they move into a hall or school and the intimacy, participation and flexibility begin to wane immediately. (p30)

[Re participation in meetings]  There are two dynamics here. First, people speak up in home gatherings in a way they are reticent to in the more formal setting of a hall. Second, quite simply, the more people in a meeting, the fewer will actively take part.  (p37)

In a recent sabbatical I visited a number of churches over a twelve-week period. I was taken aback by two things. One was the ‘sameness’ of what went on in terms of style, length and even choice of songs. The other was the palpable sense of boredom and passivity among many in the congregations. They knew what would happen, and that it was the same last week, and that it would be next, too. The shocking thing is that these were, for the most part, charismatic churches reputedly at the vanguard of radical renewal. (p41)

One of the most moving and satisfying aspects of our journey from structured, front-led church to flexible body-life church is the way children have naturally moved in the Spirit and used their gifts.  (p48)

As leaders, we must abandon status, shun selfish ambition, relinquish comfort and resist being controlling. Instead, we rejoice in others’ elevation, delight in unrecognised service, revel in making sacrifices and excel in releasing others into fruitful ministry.   (p63)

The critical issue for the western church today is that we are rich in the things that don’t matter. Professionalism, real estate, communication technology and sophisticated structure and programmes. Yet, too often, we are paupers in spiritual currency of real worth: a humble dependence on God producing an experience of his presence, expressed in devoted fellowship, passionate worship and unbridled disciple-making ministry.  (p88)

Putting people into small groups doesn’t make them devoted friends immediately, anymore than planting a few saplings makes a border. But given time, what develops, like a carefully laid hedge, is strong and intertwined and becomes a place for others to take refuge in.  (p99)

I would contend strongly that there is an environmental problem with larger gatherings that violates against a sense of belonging and family intimacy by which biblical church is defined.  (p100)

[Re Spirit-led worship]  Freedom exalts God and puts every believer on the same plane, regardless of status or office, and reflects the New Testament pattern perfectly. But this is too risky for the timorous human heart. It might get out of control (Whose control, we might wonder?). Traditionalists respond with liturgies, conservatives with orders of service, and charismatics with worship leaders. Each of these ultimately controls God’s people, domesticating their worship with the frequent, dire result of the Holy Spirit being quenched.  (p117)

Most meeting set-ups resemble a concert rather than a participating body. No wonder gifts of the Spirit are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth in many places, as people receive the subliminal message, ‘You are here to watch’.  (p119)

In adopting the simple forms and radical-disciple lifestyle advocated in these pages, we will be preparing both spiritually and practically for a time that is coming on soon, when Christians and their message will be no longer enjoying acceptance by society.  (p140)

The huge number of once-keen church members who have haemorrhaged from the church in the past two decades is evidence enough that we need a return to grassroots church forms, where every person belongs, is cared for as a friend, and fulfils a vital role.  (p143)

I love to think that there are ‘churches’—functioning gatherings of believers—that don’t yet realise what they are. You see, you don’t need a group of forty, a full-timer and a building to start a church. It could be three devoted friends with open homes and hearts to reach out, surely a wineskin God loves to fill with his best vintage!  (p150)


Handles: Titles in Christian ministry

20 January 2018

I do genealogical research, and that includes looking at old census records. The ‘profession’ column can be interesting—in recent weeks I’ve come across job descriptions like boot-fitter, tinsmith, worsted braid trimmer, groom, boat-builder, fruiterer, shepherd boy, straw bonnet maker, under-carter, golf caddie, glover, soap-packer, and dozens of ag labs (agricultural labourers).

handleI also try to keep tabs on what’s happening in the world of Christian ministry and witness. There are job descriptions there, too: missionary, seminary professor, pastor, and so on. But I’ve noticed a worrying trend in some quarters recently to move from job descriptions to titles, especially using the ministry categories that Paul lists in Ephesians 4:11, namely, apostles, prophets, evangelists pastors and teachers.

The first two of these are favourites. People are introducing and advertising themselves as Apostle Frederick Impuchambo, or Prophet Marcus Faraduji. Don’t worry, I just made those up—but if you detect an African-sounding note in those names, that’s intentional, because it is among African Christians that this trend seems most noticeable. That saddens me, because I love Africa, which is home to some of the loveliest Christians I’ve ever met. I’ve visited the continent dozens of times, and my wife and I lived there for two full years. So I’ve no gripe with African Christianity at large, but I am concerned about this titles-trend. What are we to make of it?

Your view of the church will be a factor in your view of titles. If you see the body of Christ in skeletal terms, that is, with a rigid hierarchical structure, you will expect titles to go with the various levels. So if a bishop in, say, the Church of England dies or retires, there’s a post to be filled, and with the post goes the title ‘bishop’. But many of us see the body of Christ as an organism rather than an organisation. Gift and ministry are charismatic, endowed by the Holy Spirit, and we simply recognise his work in people and make room for them to operate. So if a deacon in the local church dies or retires, it doesn’t follow at all that someone must be appointed to take his place.

Titles aside, there is a crucial place for the recognition of a person’s gift or ministry, and it is often appropriate for that to be public. I have more than once been involved in publicly recognising a younger person as, say, an elder in the local church. Our recognition of his gift and calling, carried out with prayer and prophecy in full view of those he will serve, adds a degree of authority to his ministry. But the last thing he would want, if he has any spiritual depth at all, is to adopt a title. He doesn’t now expect to be called ‘Elder Fred Smith’. He’s still just the good old Fred Smith that he was before, but with a new level of authority now that his gift and calling have been confirmed.

In fact, if he insisted on being called ‘Elder Fred Smith’ I’d be wanting to step him down again. It’s like the (apocryphal) story of the Christian lady who, one Sunday, received from the church leaders a medal for being the humblest believer in the church. They took it off her the following Sunday because she wore it!

I have worked over the years with many godly apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, but not one of them ever sported a title. And what’s more, not one of them ever took the initiative in canvassing for himself to be recognised as an apostle, or whatever. It was always his colleagues who, working with him and observing him objectively, reached the united conclusion that his was an apostolic ministry and, in due course—but never in a hurry[1]—gave it named public recognition. But even then, for the man to go on to name himself in advertising blurbs as ‘Apostle Henry Brown’ would have been seen as an unthinkable expression of pride.

Some would say that we don’t have problems with Doctor Sally Smith or Police Officer Dan Ford. In fact, they would add, these titles help identify them and give us confidence in their role or expertise. So why not Prophet(ess) Sally Smith or Apostle Dan Ford?

The point is, I think, that titles like ‘Doctor’ are conferred only after the person has undergone a course of approved training and graduated with success. There are objective, universally recognised criteria against which a claim to be called Doctor can be measured. That is not the case with Christian ministry which, by its very nature, is far more varied and individual. Bill Harris gets on with serving God and God’s people with enthusiasm. After some years people begin to comment, ‘I think there’s an apostolic dimension to Bill’s ministry.’ Eventually the consensus reaches a level where he is given public recognition in that role. But it’s a role, a function, a ministry—never a title.

The worst possible scenario is a self-appointed doctor or police officer. I shudder at the prospect of somebody with few or no qualifications calling himself Doctor So-And-So and offering to treat my ailments. Or a guy who hires a police officer’s outfit from a theatrical costumier’s and stops me in the street to tell me how I should improve my driving skills. On the internet you can buy authentic-looking diplomas and certificates showing that you are a bona fide doctor or police officer when in fact you are not. You can get degrees and qualifications of every kind for a small payment. But if you buy one, your paper claim carries no more weight than your verbal claim. You are what in fact you are—and no more. So the Lord deliver us from self-appointed apostles and prophets!

And why, I wonder, do these people go for the title ‘Apostle’ or ‘Prophet’ rather than any other? Because these, in the eyes of an often painfully-naïve Christian public, are seen as carrying more spiritual clout. ‘Evangelist’, ‘Pastor’ and ‘Teacher’ aren’t perceived as having the same pizazz.

I’ve seen it several times, and always in Africa: a young man does a couple of years in a Bible college (maybe of dubious status). On the way he probably signs up to email newsletters from some mega-wealthy ‘apostle’, who flies around in a private jet and runs an outfit called Somebody Ministries (insert the rich man’s name). Once out of Bible College he buys a shiny suit in some light or lurid colour, polishes up his shoes, gets an oversized King James Version Bible with soft leather covers that flap up and down when striding around the platform, practices haranguing in front of the mirror, then launches himself as ‘Apostle So-And-So’ on a gullible Christian public. It all has the smell of hell, not of the kingdom.

Did any New Testament Christian leader sport a title? No, not one. If any leader could have done so it would surely have been Paul. History has shown its respect for him and his work by rightly referring to him as ‘the apostle Paul’. But it’s a small ‘a’, not a title. It’s saying what in practice he was and did. His fellow-apostle Peter referred to him simply as ‘our dear brother Paul’.[2]

That’s not to suggest that Paul doubted his own identity in ministry. He was an apostle, and he knew it. That, in fact, is what enabled him to work with such confidence and vigour. When people expressed doubts about his apostolic claim he had no qualms about vindicating that claim: he spent the best part of three chapters of 2 Corinthians doing just that. He refused the title but accepted the calling, the role, the ministry, the identity.[3]

It is vital that we all adopt the same attitude. Awareness of our spiritual identity is an asset to us all. I have no doubts about my own: I’m a teacher. I can’t help it. I just love explaining things to people and helping them understand. I delight in breaking down complex issues into bite-sized pieces and feeding them to God’s people at a rate they can handle. But the very thought of putting myself about as Teacher David Matthew makes me curl up with embarrassment. Just call me ‘dear brother’ and I’ll be happy.

Some will protest, no doubt, that I’m making a fuss about nothing. ‘So what if some people do use titles?’ they would argue. ‘Does it really matter all that much?’ Not to everybody, that’s for sure. But it’s because I’m the teacher-type, I suppose, that I tend to nit-pick on issues like this, in the deep conviction that they do indeed matter. That is perhaps part of the teacher’s function: to draw attention to minor issues which, once extrapolated to their potential, could well become serious problems.

‘But would you refuse to fellowship with Prophet Impuchampo because of his title?’ you might ask. ‘Or would you, for the same reason, avoid listening to Apostle Faraduji’s preaching?’ Of course not. I would treat both with the politeness, love and respect due to any fellow-believer, and I would listen to their ministry with an open heart, ready for God to speak to me through them. But if the topic came up in personal conversation with them I might well gently enquire as to why they advertise themselves with a title, then see where the conversation went.

The church can manage perfectly well without titles. So, as a principle, let’s kick them into touch and just get on with serving one another using the gifts God has graciously given to us. And as we do so, let’s give a title to none but the one we love and serve: Lord Jesus!

Footnotes

  1. See 1 Timothy 5:22
  2. 2 Peter 3:15
  3. Chapters 10, 11 & 12

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