Where there are people, there are problems; the church is made up of people, and so the church has problems.
It is easy to focus on the problems; many people get so worked up about problems that they prove willing to leave. They imagine that they will encounter fewer problems somewhere else. Some fear that many of the problems are endemic only to their fellowship or association. And yet all kinds of churches are going through many of the same problems.
- Too many consider Christianity to be “that religious thing you do on Sunday”, and nothing more.
- Christianity, to many, is building-focused, and not a lifestyle.
- Too many within the church focus on those inside without striving to bring those without within.
- Too many churches are not communities of believers as much as a collective of individuals who just happen to synchronize their schedules to come together occasionally.
- More boundaries are raised between Christians and people within the world than can be effectively taken down.
These are just some of the many difficulties that are not limited to any particular geographic area or congregation. Many of them are systemic within our individualist, isolationist culture.
With any problem, however, comes the need for solution. Almost everyone is able to spot the problem. And yet it proves much, much harder to work toward effective solutions. How can we begin solving these endemic difficulties, many of which beset us in one way or another?
One “solution” is to preach and teach about it. Preaching and teaching are always appropriate responses to challenges (2 Timothy 4:1-2). But what is to be preached on and taught? How do you preach, “be a community”? “Be open to people”? Far too often such preaching and teaching assumes the most difficult part: it attempts to shame Christians into doing “what they know they should do,” yet without providing any real wisdom, direction, or way forward so that they can be equipped to actually do it! Preaching such things until one is blue in the face may not lead to many results if such is the only real response.
One can certainly model proper patterns of behavior, encouraging community, and working on many of these issues. Such is the nature of how an elder should lead (1 Peter 5:1-4); evangelists must model what they preach (1 Timothy 4:12). If we preach the need for community, but do not act to strengthen the community, we prove hypocritical. We cannot expect anyone to do much of anything we ourselves refuse to do. Nevertheless, we cannot assume that simply because the preacher and/or the elders provide exemplary models of community everyone else will automatically follow that lead.
Such solutions presume a sort of “top down” model of communication and behavior patterning. What if much of what needs to be done must be more more organic and “bottom up” than “top down”? What if such is part of the disconnect between what we strive to do and what we see in the New Testament?
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need. And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved (Acts 2:42-47).
But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore of sound mind, and be sober unto prayer: above all things being fervent in your love among yourselves; for love covereth a multitude of sins: using hospitality one to another without murmuring: according as each hath received a gift, ministering it among yourselves, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God; if any man speaketh, speaking as it were oracles of God; if any man ministereth, ministering as of the strength which God supplieth: that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, whose is the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:7-11).
Did the early church need to go through the hoops that we seem to today to have the association they maintained?
For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12, emphasis mine).
What do we usually call a “living thing” here on earth? Something “organic”.
Far too often “organic” is used in contrast to “institutional,” as if the former is always right and the latter is always a challenge. Such a contrast is unhelpful, no more helpful than contrasting complete chaos from lifeless order. Trying to set up something apart from the church is not going to solve systemic patterns; working within the church and encouraging its members to be Biblical is the only path to take, for the church is the earthly manifestation of the Body of Christ, and the New Testament does not presume that Christ can be seen or manifest independently of His Body (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28).
And yet, our faith ought to be organic: something living, growing, developing, and not always boxed in, systematically analyzed, or requiring advanced apologetic argument.
Do we partly kill the spirit of the New Testament church by feeling compelled to apologize for it so systematically? How often do we get so wrapped up in the contours of an argument and get so lost in the details of the root system of a tree that we have entirely missed the forest around us? We must remember that so many of our arguments are actually derivative explanations attempting to make sense of revealed phenomena, and not an end unto themselves. For example, God most likely did not decide to remain silent regarding the use of instrumental music in praise to Him in the New Testament so that we would muse in advanced detail on the nuances of generic and specific authority. Our discussions of the nuances of generic and specific authority derive from our observations in Scripture regarding what God has revealed about Himself and His purposes in Christ. Does that mean that it is wrong to discuss generic and specific authority in detail? By no means. But we must remember that Christians in the New Testament had no need of instruments because they used their voices to praise God and encourage each other, and recognized that instruments emphasize performance and provide nothing in terms of the substance and meaning of what is sung (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Such nuance was lost on successive generations, and they added instrumental music. Our goal is to return to the pattern of the New Testament, not for patternism’s sake, but to recover what it means to praise and glorify God together in spirit and in truth. In the end, it is not about the argument, but that for which we are arguing.
Christians have always been tempted to exchange the faith for the slogan and the argument. One generation’s argument to persuade regarding faith becomes a future generation’s dogma. In ancient times, early Christians would point to an unbroken line of continuity between the apostolic founding of a local congregation and the present day in order to argue that such a congregation has preserved the ancient faith. Not long after it was believed that as long as a church had an unbroken line of bishops they stood in the ancient faith, regardless of what those bishops were teaching. In the nineteenth century a clarion call went forth to restore the ancient order of things, to shed human traditions so as to return to the primitive apostolic simplicity of the faith. And now, how many believe that they have “restored” the ancient order of things and thus maintain confidence in their standing because of upholding certain doctrinal and practical premises? It is always easiest to reduce faithfulness to a creed: it’s quantifiable, it’s “objective”, and it “works.” Nevertheless, even in the New Testament, whereas doctrinal faithfulness was expected, it was not itself sufficient as a marker of full and true faithfulness: the church in Ephesus was doctrinally “sound” but in danger of losing its standing because it had “left its first love” (Revelation 2:1-7). We cannot reduce the faith to a slogan or an argument. The faith demands much more than that.
If “we” are “the” true church, it’s for all the reasons that we tend to neglect or to “assume”. If “we” are “the” church, it’s because we love each other with a godly love (John 13:35, 1 John 4:7-21). If “we” are “the” church, it’s because we have developed a Biblical community of believers that builds up its constituent members, like in Acts 2:41-47. Yes, it is important to teach and believe the truth, but truth without the “intangibles” is not going to please God.
And thus we have the problem behind the problem: we lack community, and we lack community because we live in a culture which exalts individualism and has worked very hard to tear down every vestige of community over the past two hundred years. Community is nourished and sustained through intentional acts of hospitality, sharing material benefits, presence, and table (e.g. Romans 12:13, 1 Peter 4:9). These things existed in churches for years, not because it was constantly preached upon, but because it was just what people did for each other. It is the warp and woof of effective community, an outgrowth of the desire to share in life together. They were part of the “intangibles,” things people did not necessarily expect to explicate in words but knew was right and proved beneficial. And it’s these “intangibles” that are now often missing, and quite difficult to instill by means of preaching or teaching. It’s not quantifiable, really, and that’s so because it’s based in having an organic, living, growing faith.
Grace to you and peace be multiplied in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that his divine power hath granted unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that called us by his own glory and virtue; whereby he hath granted unto us his precious and exceeding great promises; that through these ye may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in that world by lust. Yea, and for this very cause adding on your part all diligence, in your faith supply virtue; and in your virtue knowledge; and in your knowledge self-control; and in your self-control patience; and in your patience godliness; and in your godliness brotherly kindness; and in your brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, they make you to be not idle nor unfruitful unto the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he that lacketh these things is blind, seeing only what is near, having forgotten the cleansing from his old sins (2 Peter 1:2-9, emphases mine).
This is the “natural” development of faith. It can’t be boxed into a legal code or broken down into a systematic development chart, and it was never meant to be. Development in faith includes head knowledge, but has never depended solely on head knowledge. We grow through what we know and what we experience (Hebrews 5:14); the faith must be done in order to be fully learned.
And such confidence have we through Christ to God-ward: not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God; who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written, and engraven on stones, came with glory, so that the children of Israel could not look stedfastly upon the face of Moses for the glory of his face; which glory was passing away: how shall not rather the ministration of the spirit be with glory? For if the ministration of condemnation hath glory, much rather doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory (2 Corinthians 3:4-9).
The faith was never to be boiled down so legally and systematically because it was not the Law of Moses! In Jesus Christ there is “grace and truth” (John 1:17). Now, I know that most times this concept is put forth, it is to justify what is Biblically unjustifiable: departure, in some way, shape, or form, from what God establishes as normative in the New Testament. Such misapplication does not rationalize ignoring this text or an attempt to “re-legalize” Christianity. You can’t grow in the faith if you’re not walking with God, and you can only walk with God when you do His commandments and walked in the paths that Christ walked (1 John 1:6-2:7). On the other hand, the faith is something alive, something that grows and develops: some things can be taught and preached and boiled down and systematized, but much of it simply must be lived, experienced, and shared (Hebrews 5:14).
Christianity was not designed to be a list of rules, but a walk in obedient faith in the paths of Jesus Christ (1 John 2:3-6). When we focus on walking in obedient faith, we can be more open to the “intangibles” as much as the “tangibles”. When we focus on both belief and practice, we minimize the risk of people getting the impression that as long as you believe the right thing, and go to the right church on Sunday morning, that everything will be alright. When we get back to preaching Christ crucified and living appropriately, we will find that others find it more appealing, and seek to take the same challenge upon themselves. When we give up trusting in programs and what we can systematically boil down and begin trusting again in God and His Word, we may find ourselves having a more authentic and holistic faith, and one that does not come off as legalistic, cranky, or outmoded.
When we have a living faith, living relationships with other Christians, we can then have living witness. We may just find that such a living witness proves as compelling as it did in Acts 2:41-47.
After all, if we are the New Testament church, should we settle for anything less than what the New Testament church was able to do? It wasn’t about the spiritual gifts of the day. It was about preaching and living a message of redemption. May we develop a faith rooted in truth, growing in knowledge and practice, and may we seek to develop the community among the people of God so as to build up the Body of Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry