My latest piece, “The End of Premium Mediocre Church,” is up over at Theopolis. Enjoy!
Back in college, I was part of a “cell church.” The idea was that the actual church meeting was the small-group meeting that happened during the week, where we shared a meal and spent time discussing how to apply the Bible to our lives. The Sunday morning gathering, where all the cells came together (in our case, in a rented synagogue), was not the church meeting proper, but a time of celebration and teaching. The goal was to get a little closer to the kind of church life we see in Acts 2, and it worked…we got a little closer.
Over the next couple decades, I had a variety of formative influences, and I grew as a Christian, but I never really learned how to disciple effectively. I learned how to teach effectively. Every attempt to make disciples devolved into teaching, and while teaching is part of the task — a necessary part — it’s not the whole job. I knew I was missing something, and didn’t know what, or how to get it.
Moving to Englewood, Colorado, changed that. Here, the local pastors gather monthly and pray for one another and the One Church in Englewood (which happens to meet in separate buildings). One of the older men in the group, a Dutch Reformed pastor named Dave, took several of us under his wing. Over the next couple years, Dave taught us to disciple effectively, and also pitched the concept of missional community: a spiritual extended family on mission together, as it were.
Now, most of the writing around missional communities at that time wanted to market it as some exciting new move of God, which didn’t make any sense. To the extent that there was a solid New Testament case for something like it–and there clearly was, in the first-century oikos–the missional community obviously couldn’t be new. Certainly there was a New Testament case for making disciples; that was hardly some exotic new move of God; it was Christianity 101.
And yet, the North American church, desperate for effective interventions in the culture, was doing everything but that. If we total up all the time, talent, energy, money, etc. that the churches were expending — a sort of ecclesiastical equivalent to the GNP — we’ll find that the vast majority of the Gross Church Product goes into things that really have nothing to do with making disciples. That being the case, the great need was and is simple repentance: We have occupied ourselves with secondary things at the expense of our primary mission. Time to get back to it.
No shortage of ink has been spilled on that particular subject, so I won’t belabor it here, except to say this: in the intervening decade or so, nearly every “missional community” I’ve seen, heard about, or been part of, has fizzled out, stagnated, or fallen back into being a standard-issue church small group (not necessarily a bad thing to be, but hardly the heady vision were were sold, is it?). Not coincidentally, there’s a significant difference between the first-century Christian oikos and the twenty-first century missional community that is supposedly emulating it. Joining a twenty-first century missional community was a boutique lifestyle choice. The members’ survival needs were attended to elsewhere; missional community was a leisure-time activity.
The preindustrial oikos was not a choice; it was a survival strategy. In the preindustrial oikos, members spent their days working shoulder to shoulder to care for one another and serve their larger community in ways that generated income for the oikos — whether they were making purple dye like Lydia’s household in Philippi or bringing fish to market like Simon Peter’s in Capernaum. An oikos like Lydia’s and Peter’s got transformed into an engine for mission when its members came to Jesus, of course, but that was never its only purpose. The preindustrial oikos was how people survived. Your oikos was not just a social club; it was your job, your living arrangements, your educational system, your medical care, and your retirement plan, all rolled into one. You couldn’t opt out of your oikos without cutting your own lifeline.
When we tried to replace the preindustrial oikos with a social club devoted to serving a particular group of people–however noble the cause–it overwhelmingly failed. Of course it did! We were trying to have an oikos without the glue that holds an oikos together.
Ephesians 1:3-14 is one long sentence in Greek — the longest sentence in the Greek New Testament. In it, Paul uses the pronouns “we” and “you” in a surprising way — to refer to Jewish believers and Gentile believers, respectively. That fact comes as a bit of a surprise to a modern reader, and you’re not alone — it was a surprise to the original readers too! But if you accept that “we” and “you” are exclusive of one another in vv. 12-13 – which you have to – then you’re stuck with it throughout. There’s no natural breaking point within the sentence. But the original readers aren’t going to know that ‘we’ just refers to Jewish believers until they hear vv. 12-13, so there’s a penny-drop moment there where they have to re-evaluate what they’ve heard, thus:
Paul blesses God for blessing Jewish believers with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, even as He chose them in Christ to be holy and blameless before Him by predestining them to sonship adoption through Christ, in keeping with God’s purposes, so that His glorious grace might be praised. In keeping with His grace, He fully accepted the Jewish believers by accepting Christ, in whom the Jewish believers have redemption (forgiveness of sins), in keeping with God’s abundant grace which He wisely abounded toward them by revealing the mystery (His household-management plan to bring all things together in Christ).
In Christ the Jewish believers have obtained the inheritance to which God predestined them (in keeping with the public presentation [Gk. prothesis] of His plans [throughout the OT]) in order that they – the first to hope in Christ – would bring praise to His glory. The Gentiles also believed, once they heard the gospel, and were sealed by the same Holy Spirit who guarantees the Jewish believers’ inheritance.
It’s not a surprise that Jewish believers would end up as Paul describes — God publicly announced His plan to do exactly that in the new covenant prophecies centuries before Christ. But Gentiles?
As Paul develops his argument in Ephesians, it turns out that the mystery to which he alludes in v. 9 is that the Gentile believers would be made one body with the Jewish believers – all who are united to Christ are united to each other in one new man, the Church. There are no longer two groups, but one, and the blessings apply equally to the whole group. That unity of the Body — with one another and pre-eminently with Christ — is the main point of the book, and it’s powerful. Paul spends the latter three chapters unpacking the practical implications.
Why does Paul begin this way? Because he is making his case to a mixed Jew-Gentile church that they need to become one in practice to reflect the oneness God has already given them in spiritual reality. He wants his Gentile readers to be grateful for the Jews who faithfully spread the message of Christ to the Gentiles. And likewise, he wants his Jewish readers to see that although the Gentiles came later, they have been fully integrated into all the blessings of Christ — nothing has been held back.
Here’s a challenge for you: knowing this is how Paul is using “we” and “you” early in Ephesians, read 2:1-10, and see what he’s doing there. Have fun!
In conversations about the church’s characteristic sins, I’ve noticed something really interesting. When I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against men, I inevitably get an earful of “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to women?” — the vibe being that the sins against men aren’t really even worth talking about compared to what the church routinely does to women. I’ve also noticed that when I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against women, a smaller but very vocal number of people — mostly single or divorced men — respond in the same fashion: “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to men?”
For some reason we seem to have bought into the idea that the church has to be sinning against men OR women; it couldn’t possibly be doing both. What are we thinking?
What drives this dynamic is the neomarxist class warfare paradigm, which is so deeply entrenched in our culture that even Christians have trouble shaking it — even though, on paper at least, we definitely know better. The neomarxist paradigm provides a handy template for any situation where there’s oppression. If there is oppression against one class (in this case, one sex), then the other class is the “oppressor” class. One has to be on the bottom, and the other on the top; one good guy, one bad guy. It’s a very simplistic way to view the world, a template suited to old Lone Ranger serials for kids. Even in our fiction (say, Avengers: Civil War) we know better than that — to say nothing of the complexities of real life.
In the real world, any single human being is more than capable of sinning in all directions at once. The Church is made up of many, many such humans, and say what you will about her, she’s an able multitasker. She is certainly capable of sinning in all directions at once, and of sinning against multiple different classes in different ways that are specifically injurious to that group.
That has certainly happened, has it not? The Church has treated women, as women, infamously in certain readily identifiable ways. The Church has also treated men, as men, infamously in other readily identifiable ways. We need to repent for ALL of it, and we won’t grow, any of us, by trying to out-victim each other, by minimizing the sins against another group in order to get some attention for our own group.
And lest we forget…WE ARE THE CHURCH. There’s nowhere else to point the finger — it’s us, it’s our people. We are the household of God, and we need to get things in order. So let’s own our failures, repent, and find a better way together.
Being who and what we are, how do we live together? I had a chance to preach on that subject this week.
I had occasion to preach at Faith Community Littleton this past Sunday. When I teach people how to make disciples, I tell them I’m from the “open a vein” school of discipleship: we don’t teach in the abstract, we invite people into our own struggles and let them see God at work in real time. Well, this was an “open a vein” sermon. It may be the least polished thing I’ve ever preached.
I was recently having a conversation with a friend about generosity. She was sorting through the tension between our finitude and God’s call to do things that are frequently beyond us, and had run into conflict with another believer about how to approach such things. It’s an interesting conversation in its own right, but we’ll save that for another day. Today I want to go a level up and look at a general trend in arguments about philosophy of ministry.
In anything we do, there’s more than one way to screw it up. In generosity ministry, there’s such a thing as stinginess on the one hand, and toxic charity on the other. (Sometimes our service to others is more about how it makes us feel than it is about actually helping the others in question.) There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.
Very often, our conflicts in philosophy of ministry happen thus:
- Person A has already been in the ditch on the left side of the road, and he’s never gonna let that happen again.
- Person B has already been in the ditch on the right side of the road, and is determined never to repeat his mistake.
Put them together, and hey, whaddaya know — a fight breaks out.
It’s easy enough for each to damn the other for steering toward a ditch, and then go their separate ways. That’s tragic, because their stickiest difference is actually the reason God put them together to start with. God means for them to honor each other and listen to each other, so they will balance each other out. If they can do that, they stay on the (narrow) road between the ditches.
As a pastor’s kid and lifelong minister, I’ve seen this play out many times over many different issues. Partnerships regularly fall apart over exactly the issues where they could benefit each other most…and then the resulting ‘independent’ ministries fall apart for lack of balance.
This to say: the unity of the Body actually matters. We are impoverished — and as a result, the world around us is impoverished — when we won’t live up to it.
But are they right?
Maybe so…before the cross. But Jesus really did change everything about our relationships. Let’s look at what it’s changed already….
In traditional cultures, the blood tie of the clan trumps every other allegiance. In traditional cultures, marriage is generally about familial alliances and property. In traditional cultures, the glue that holds clan-sized small communities together is a network of family relationships around a shared economic endeavor (farming, fishing, hunting, blacksmithing, whatever.) In other words, they’re related to start with, and they need each other to survive.
In that setting, the authority of the clan is absolute. You are who your clan says you are. You marry who they say, you go into the line of work that is chosen for you. Your whole life is laid out virtually from birth…before the cross.
But the cross casts a very long shadow.
The Christian priesthood and monastic movements broke the power of the clan. A young woman fleeing a repellent arranged marriage could take vows in a convent, and be devoted to God for the rest of her life. Her family couldn’t force her to leave. A young man could choose the monastic life over the vocation his family chose for him (as a young Martin Luther did, in response to a near death experience.) Today, the choice sounds horrifying. Who wants to choose between an awful marriage and a celibate life? “Why not more options?” we think. But back then, it was revolutionary–there was a choice! That was new, and the possibility of having a choice opened the door to further options. Today, it’s rare in Western culture for anyone to face that dilemma.
Without the external pressures of the clan holding a marriage together, without the economic stimulus of property at the center of the marriage, is marriage doomed? It seems a silly question now; it wasn’t, to them. Martin and Katie Luther effectively invented (and the Puritans refined) companionate marriage, and today, we can see that with Christ at the center, marriages flourish even though considerations of property or familial alliance are now secondary at best.
Of course, marriages are also failing at significant rates today. God is sharpening the antithesis: will you have Christ at the center? If not, you may not be able to have a marriage at all.
Having broken the power of the clan, and reconstituted marriage in the image of Christ and the church, the long shadow of the cross is now reaching out to touch the clan itself and reconstitute it around Christ. Can extended-family sized small groups sustain themselves apart from blood relation and a shared economic center? It seems unthinkable…but why can’t we? Marriage has been reconstituted around the mission of God; why not the clan?
We saw the beginnings of the re-formation of the clan already in the life of Jesus, in two ways: repurposing the existing structure, and forming entirely new structures around a superior blood tie.
When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, she got up and made food for them…and then the village brought their sick to the house, to be healed. Peter’s home, Peter’s oikos, became ground zero for the Kingdom of God coming to his city. Paul similarly turned Lydia’s home into a base of operations (following Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 10).
Similar things could happen today. An economic engine may be part of the new clan in the same way that familial alliance and property are still possible considerations in marriage. Sure it’s possible; the dominion mandate is part of the missio Dei, after all.
But Jesus is up to more than just repurposing existing social institutions. He’s remaking them all. What happens when we allow the blood tie of the clan to be supplanted by a superior blood tie? Jesus showed us a glimpse of that when He looked around the room at a devoted group of His followers and said, “these are my mother and my brothers” — and again, “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:49-50) He is showing us a new family–not a postmodern “family of choice,” but a family that is born, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of the husband, but of God.”
Who is in this family? All the devoted Christ-followers — “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Notice that: “and sister.” There it is. Cross-gender, same-generation, familial relation in the family of God. I cannot live a Jesus-shaped life unless I learn how to live in a clan that is united — this side of the cross — by our common relation in the blood of Jesus and our common devotion to doing the will of God. And that clan will, of necessity, include both men and women. We have to be able to relate to each other, seek counsel from each other, encourage each other, care for each other. In other words, we have to be able to be friends.
Since moving to Englewood, I have been blessed to be involved in the nuts-and-bolts practice of Church unity. The pastors here talk about the One Church in Englewood, and mean it. They love each other, pray fervently for each other, and long for the unity they enjoy to spread to their congregations. Among the participants are Messianic Jews, Dutch Reformed, Anglicans, Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, nondenominational folks. It’s not every tribe, tongue and nation, but we’re getting there.
As I observe discussions in the wider Christian world about unity across churches and denominations, I see some key points being overlooked, and so I’d like to offer the following seven theses on the practice of unity:
- The unity of all God’s people is internal to the gospel, not simply a natural downstream result of it.
- Jesus prayed for His people to be visibly unified in a way that would induce the world to believe in Him. Unity has been essential to our testimony and evangelism from earliest days. (John 17:20-26)
- Paul rebuked Peter for failing to eat with some of Christ’s people, and described it as “hypocrisy,” a failure to be “straightforward about the gospel.” Unity is essential to our confessional and practical faithfulness to justification by faith. (Galatians 2:11-21)
- Since practical, visible unity is so important, we must obey as far as we can. Like perfect sanctification, perfect unity will have to await the last day, but we can and should anticipate the unity of the last day now, as Paul insisted and Jesus prayed for.
- Jesus told us to love our neighbors. A mentality that defines “neighbor” as “those like me” (ethnicity, confessional agreement, denominational ties, or something else) is exactly what Jesus was speaking against in the parable of the good Samaritan. Loving our neighbors starts with whoever is physically closest. Loving our Christian neighbors starts with whatever Christians are physically closest. (Luke 10:25-37)
- Therefore, your neighbor churches are the churches that, in God’s geographical providence, are right down the street. Confessionally allied churches further away are also your neighbors, and you ought to love them too — but not at the expense of the churches nearby. “A friend nearby is better than a brother far away.” (Proverbs 27:10)
- The task of the moment is to meet the folks in nearby churches and start getting along with them. Institutional unification of the denominations–and all the problems that will attend it–is not a necessary prerequisite; it will be the last thing that happens. The zipper starts at the bottom, not the top.
I can tell you from experience that when you dig into practical unity, you will have problems. Of course you will. We’re all sinners, and on top of that, we have an enemy who hates what we’re doing. I can also tell you from experience that the overwhelming majority of the problems you think you’re going to have–those are never going to happen. (And of course, many of the problems you do have will be surprises. Such is life; we are not as good at prediction as we think.) Bottom line: future problems–real or imaginary–should not stop us from obeying the Scriptures to the extent that we can, right now.