Wrestling With The Real New Testament Church
I was just looking at a website named the Church Task Force and I stumbled across some very interesting observations on the church planting ministry of Paul (see http://churchtaskforce.org/resources/pauls-methods).
I will go over some key notes from the page for thought but I recommend going to the site to get a deeper look at this information (http://churchtaskforce.org/resources/pauls-methods). Here is a summary of what caught my attention:
The Galatian Churches
- Three churches planted in an average of four months each
- Left largely on their own after that for months—without any leadership in place
- Local leadership teams emerged from within the startup churches
- Pastors were appointed within six months of their salvation, on average
The Macedonian Churches
- Three churches planted in an average of two to four months each
- The newly planted churches are left on their own for a time without formal leadership
- They function on their own in a relatively short period of time (months rather than years)
- Whole households were being converted, not just individuals
The Churches of Achaia
- Paul is planting multiple churches regionally, this time from a base camp in Corinth
- In a relatively short period of time, these churches are able to stand on their own
- The church planters leave the region after the church is planted
- Whole households were being converted, not just individuals
- Paul enlists additional workers from among the new churches
The Churches of Asia
- Paul is planting multiple churches regionally, this time from a base camp in Ephesus
- In three years, Paul not only plants the church in Ephesus, but the many churches of Asia are birthed
- Paul was enlisting, training, and sending out additional workers
- Paul established multiple pastors in Ephesus
In looking at this information I started pondering the concept that seems to be such a huge topic in the North American church culture as of late: “How do we prevent heresy?”. I have sat in classes and seminars on the subject of preventing heresy. I have sat in many sermons that focus on that topic. I have listened to long radio shows and debates on the topic. I have listened to the rantings and musings of people who believe it to be the entirety of their ministry to hunt heresy (a ministry that can sometimes make me think that they must sound exactly the same as the people who felt that their ministry was to hunt and burn witches did).
I have listened people describe how we are to micromanage the growth of the new believer and keep them on the straight and narrow path to theological depth. Things like; memorizing immense amounts of Bible passages, telling them to force themselves to read the Bible some very substantial amount of time each day no matter what, telling them to throw out all their music and do nothing that is not “church approved” ever again, telling them who to associate with paying close attention not to associate with somebody our church has deemed a heretic, telling them how almost every pastor or preacher they have ever heard of is somehow a heretic (making it look like Christianity is about nitpicking every word a believer speaks and anything deemed wrong will get you excommunicated), and so on.
The message is one that sounds far more like the message of the Pharisees than the message of Jesus or any of the Apostles. It also sounds completely different than anything that called itself church in the New Testament.
John 13:34-35 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 34 “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. 35 Everyone will know that you are my disciples because of your love for each other.”
I suppose that making and enforcing rules can be a part of loving someone but if that is the majority of the way you relate to someone, then I would have to say that calling it loving them is a reach at best. I sometimes find it similar to the logic of dysfunctional parents who think that by verbally, emotionally or physically abusing their children they are somehow showing them love.
I do have a couple of huge concerns with the rule making, heresy hunting model of church. The first of which relates to the concepts seen here:
John 10:27-28 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 27 My sheep respond to my voice, and I know who they are. They follow me, 28 and I give them eternal life. They will never be lost, and no one will tear them away from me.
Romans 8:14-17 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 14 Certainly, all who are guided by God’s Spirit are God’s children. 15 You haven’t received the spirit of slaves that leads you into fear again. Instead, you have received the spirit of God’s adopted children by which we call out, “Abba![a] Father!” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 If we are his children, we are also God’s heirs. If we share in Christ’s suffering in order to share his glory, we are heirs together with him.
These models are focused so much on the interpretations of a few educated men that the sheep rarely have time to respond to the voice of Christ directly (they are probably too busy trying to figure out and follow all of the church rules). Rather than being guided by God’s Spirit, they are more likely to follow someone who they have come to believe is following God’s Spirit and hope for the best. In the case of church communities that have learned to focus on heresy hunting etc. they are almost entirely driven by the fear of heresy that there seems to be more time looking for errors to point out and piously correct than they are spending time exhorting or loving one another. It is as if there is no Holy Spirit or voice of God in some experiences I have personally encountered.
I know that not all churches are like that in the United States and that and I do understand that there are times and places for all of these things. Sometimes you have to confront people and there is a precedent for such things:
Matthew 18:15-19 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 15 “If a believer does something wrong,[a] go, confront him when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have won back that believer. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you so that every accusation may be verified by two or three witnesses. 17 If he ignores these witnesses, tell it to the community of believers. If he also ignores the community, deal with him as you would a heathen or a tax collector. 18 I can guarantee this truth: Whatever you imprison, God will imprison. And whatever you set free, God will set free. 19 “I can guarantee again that if two of you agree on anything here on earth, my Father in heaven will accept it.
But, I am not convinced that anywhere in this passage there was a mandate for a Christian police force whose duty it is to find errors of any kind in any believers they encounter and nitpick them into submission. As a matter of fact it seems like the only time something like this is in extreme cases where something egregious is taking place and is sustained without conviction.
In context the verses before this describe a shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to go get the one lost one, but nothing about telling the other sheep not to talk to that sheep or about the other sheep refusing to have anything to do with that sheep. Because that is not what sheep do with each other. They simply do not have enough understanding (they are not smart enough) to handle it.
I also get the responsibility of a pastor/church leader to keep heresy out, but I have to wonder if the flaw is in the model. I believe in pastors and teachers etc. but I think the current model in which the pastoral staff is the arm of God and the voice of God (exclusively for many church members) is flawed at best.
As I discussed in the previous post “Jesus Based Free-for-All vs. Super Leader/Heresy Hunter” I think this idea is not necessarily unbiblical, but I do feel that there is clear evidence that this has never been the best type of leadership model for God’s endeavors.
In the case of Moses and the Hebrew people that came out of Egypt, God wanted to speak to them directly. The problem was that when God began to speak they were afraid of Him and decided to run away. Then they pushed for this style of leadership in spite of the fact that God had wanted each person to individually draw near to Him and hear His voice.
Exodus 20:18-19 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 18 All the people heard the thunder and saw the lightning. They heard the blast of the ram’s horn and saw the mountain covered with smoke. So they shook with fear and stood at a distance. 19 Then they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die!”
Not to restate my thoughts on the “Jesus Based Free-for-All vs. Super Leader/Heresy Hunter” post, but at the time when they were supposed to be close to God and hearing His divine voice and while their leader was actually up listening to God and talking to God to protect them, they soon became busy in worshiping the calf god they had erected.
Another example of God wanting to deal with the population directly and the people rejecting it for a single leader to go between is:
1 Samuel 8:4-9 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 4 Then all the leaders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They told him, “You’re old, and your sons aren’t following your example. Now appoint a king to judge us so that we will be like all the other nations.” 6 But Samuel considered it wrong for them to request a king to judge them. So Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 The Lord told Samuel, “Listen to everything the people are saying to you. They haven’t rejected you; they’ve rejected me. 8 They’re doing just what they’ve done since I took them out of Egypt—leaving me and serving other gods. 9 Listen to them now, but be sure to warn them and tell them about the rights of a king.”
The people decide that the church leadership, which really had limited access to all the people, are not doing a good enough job (which is actually true if you look at passages that precede this one). They decide they want a king to judge and rule as go between for God’s will and the people. In this passage wanting such a leader was described by God as idolatry and rejecting God, yet He instructed Samuel to “Listen to everything the people are saying to you.”
Again it is as if the people wanted it so badly that God decided to help mankind (particularly the Hebrew peoples) fully understand that this model does not work through painful experience. He let that model stay in place for quite a while after that also.
The spiritual leadership had a choice between leading the people to seek and listen to God themselves and the people kept trying to force the leaders to go before God instead and just fill them in.
This is funny to me because it reminds me of responses many of us give when first pondering ideas like this:
- “Someone has to lead the people and make sure they don’t go nuts.”
- “If the pastor or leadership doesn’t correct them heresy will slip in. “
- “If the pastor or leadership doesn’t correct them, who will?”
Here is the interesting part; how well did that work for Moses. In the first trial run the group completely abandoned God, completely rebelled against the very first thing they did manage to hear from God before they ran off, came close to being wiped out by God and wound up attacking each other.
There is a real mega-problem with the idea that things are so humanly driven by the heresy hunting, church police:
Romans 7:18-23 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 18 I know that nothing good lives in me; that is, nothing good lives in my corrupt nature. Although I have the desire to do what is right, I don’t do it. 19 I don’t do the good I want to do. Instead, I do the evil that I don’t want to do. 20 Now, when I do what I don’t want to do, I am no longer the one who is doing it. Sin that lives in me is doing it. 21 So I’ve discovered this truth: Evil is present with me even when I want to do what God’s standards say is good. 22 I take pleasure in God’s standards in my inner being. 23 However, I see a different standard at work throughout my body. It is at war with the standards my mind sets and tries to take me captive to sin’s standards which still exist throughout my body.
The human driven model assumes the person doing the policing is being somehow perfectly led by God to do all of this correcting (be they a pastor, church leader, radio/television personality etc.). The person describing himself here is The Apostle Paul. He is saying himself that it is a huge task keep on the straight and narrow path.
Moses never made it into The Promised Land because of public disobedience stemming from frustration he had form the job of being the person who went to God for the whole group.
My point is that even divinely inspired leaders are people with a sin nature. They are only successful if the leadership constantly focuses people on God and points them to dependence upon God DIRECTLY. Any “go-between” is flawed by nature and is in fact taking God’s place.
The idea of being the only way God communicates to another individual who has direct access to God through Christ’s death burial and resurrection is one that seems to stunt that person’s growth more than it could ever help. I am not saying that there will not be times where God speaks to an individual through a person so blessed as to hear from God to do so. What I am saying is that it’s hard to develop a personal relationship with God when you keep sending someone else to do all of the relational things.
ON the other hand; I do have many of those concerns of heresy and other craziness if people are left totally to their own devices. I suppose for most of this article so far, I have been preaching from a soapbox a bit. The truth is I am not completely sold on the idea of people completely doing whatever they feel the Holy Spirit has led hem to do with no intervention from people who are more advanced in understanding and may just simply have more common sense. History has shown that if unchecked, all kinds of crazy can arise in any group of people and lead groups to do just about anything (some doing crazy things while quoting scriptures).
So all of those that read this that were taking notes to write their blog or radio show to blast each detail (possibly heresy hunters), I do not totally disagree with your position except for one glairing issue: There is no New Testament example for having the kind of legalistic oversight that so many of us would like to see in order to avert potential crazy.
The prime example is Paul. He went places, taught people as much as he could in a short time, appointed leaders, and pretty much moved on. The time spent in an area varied from a couple of months to spending three years in a base camp traveling from there or sending out other trained leaders to do the same kind of ministry he had been doing.
The evidence in his ministry is that he empowered young leaders with little training to lead the church. He left young churches, with little guidance to depend upon the Holy Spirit to guide them.
Did heretical practices arise? Absolutely! Several of the letters he sent in the hope of directing them towards truth are still available as a large part of what we now call the New Testament. Which brings me to my next point, when they started, they did not even have access to the level of information we have now: If the letters were sent to and addressed to them later how could they have had them earlier?
So Paul discipled new believers and empowered them to depend upon God completely. He taught them verbally (and I assume quite well). They continued to meet and seek God and amazing things would happen. He would give a little more training to those he was sending out as leaders and leave them in God’s hands also.
The difference between the model we see most often in North America (the one I have been most comfortable with myself) and the model we see as an example in the New Testament could be best summed up as trusting God to lead the church considerably more. Paul relied on the Holy Spirit to do much of the day to day correction of the whole church at any given place and only seemed to intervene if there was a prolonged and way out there problem/practice that could no longer be ignored.
I am forced to ask myself (and in reality to ask God/the Scriptures) if so much day to day correction of so much detail and doctrine is necessary or if it is a better practice to allow individuals, groups and whole churches to drift a bit under the assumption that the Holy Spirit is in control. Is it possible that what I perceive to be a group of heretics may be deeply spiritual believers that are growing and hearing from God, but are in the process of learning this or that particular lesson slowly. In that case would declaring them heretics possibly make the group more likely to be stubborn and dig in slowing the process of their learning. All of my self-righteous Bible thumping would be reminiscent of satan trying to tempt Jesus by quoting scripture (see Matthew 4:1-11).
I know I have used the term “heresy hunter” as a negative term and it is intended to be. The truth is I have been trained to be a politer “heresy hunter” and that is who I have been. If these posts seem to be on the attack, it is most probably an attack on my own mindsets.
The truth is I am not saying that the church should abandon all structure and do whatever people think the Holy Spirit is telling them. It is something somewhat on an opposite note that I am saying: Us heresy hunters have to stop telling people that the way we structure the church with all these checks and balances and careful heresy hunters posted at every turn, is the way it is supposed to be. That way is not really spoken directly for or against in the New Testament. The people who are doing church with less structure and less checks and balances however, are using the actual examples found in the New Testament and have at least a reasonable argument for that model of church (which in some ways is stronger than the argument for our super-structured model). Especially when the best argument against the less controlled model (as seen in the New Testament) is that there will not be enough people in the right positions to keep it under control.
IF PEOPLE ARE KEEPING A CHURCH FROM GOING OUT OF CONTROL IT IS DOOMED ANYHOW! GOD MUST BE THE ONE KEEPING HIS CHURCH FROM GOING OUT OF CONTROL! People do play a part, but that part must be leading people to the conviction and guidance of God not the guilt of my quoting scripture at them and relying completely on me to tell them what God is trying to tell them.
I named this “Wrestling With The Real New Testament Church” because there seems to be two related Christian currents I repeatedly encounter everywhere I go.
- More and more people seem to be unhappy with the North American Church Model (and I keep hearing reports and statistics that describe the same about the “Western Model of Church”) and looking for a more personal relationship with God, less rule oriented model.
- There seems to always be some person (often who thinks a lot like the way I think) saying that all of that is somehow evil and watering down how the church is supposed to operate.
On number two the evidence seems to point to one fact: The Western model may actually water down God a bit by putting the focus too much on the intellect of a few really educated people when God really has always wanted personal relationship with each member of His holy family. The New Testament, the reasons for and content of some of the Pauline epistles, and history shows that the more open model is at least Biblical, but I also have to wonder how heresy is kept out (sounds a bit like I need more faith actually reading it).
The fact is that although you may wrestle with how to respond to the various movements arising that embrace a more Holy Spirit led model of church with less structure, checks and balances neither you or I can accuse them of being wrong or out of God’s will. How could relying on God more be unbiblical? It may be a bit more tricky to figure out and thus a bit more messy, but to demand more people lead is how Israel ended up with kings that ended up dividing and losing the nation, the temple, the ark, the people, and so on.
I clearly have embraced this movement and consider myself to be a part of it, yet I still attend a “traditional” church (those are finger-quotes in case you didn’t know) also.
W. Lawrence Hess
- Church plants take innovation and that scares people (johnscheepers.wordpress.com)