Church of Elsewhere

Much of what I pick up on the soles of my feet is something to be washed off, but at times the dust, the residue of history and kingdom moments I pass through I want to accumulate, I want to bring this with me so that it colours where I go, who I meet and what I do. This is not something you can do with the stuff you need to wash off, it wont be appreciated.

Sometimes we feel a need to visit places, touch the land, meet the people in the hope that pollination takes place. That we become infected with what has infected them and in so doing become transformed, progressed, better enabled to be what we are meant to be, in the service of others.

I had a lovely friend called Zoe who signed up for a discipleship and missions programme where you could make suggestions of where you would want to be for a period of active mission. She wanted to join a dynamic bunch doing education in schools on England’s south coast, instead she woke up to see a cow outside her window in Wales. Amazingly, a place she would stay for more than a decade.

The Jesus followers there were a prayerful prophetically, sensitive bunch called Antioch in Llanelli. At times their prophetic insights were put into video format to be passed around the country like yeast. I liked their symbolism a lot, one of these was the sole of a boot saying ‘dreams with tread on for new terrain.

I think this notion resonated with people, rejected any idea that they had arrived. It suggested that the journey was ongoing and that we needed to prepare for new things.

Perhaps the boots with fresh tread indicated that it was going to be a long walk out, in and through the creation.

I felt I needed to connect with and touch what they were about. I loved it when we got to pray together, I also loved walking down the steps of a local river where hundreds would have queued during the historical revival, to be immersed in the makeshift baptismal. I wanted some of the history to be carried on my feet.

However it was one of the prophetic, poetic videos which would impact me the most and adhere itself to my journey.

The premise was that God had placed Jesus as head of his church, his body, which was the fullness of him in and through the creation. (“And God put all things under [Jesus’] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

It was a visit to that verse which brought out the sense that the body was the mobile, integrated aspect of himself through all things, through the creation and through the life and work spheres. This imagery seemed to be the opposite of the church I knew and the one that dominates the landscape. What I saw all around me, I had for a long time referred to as the church of elsewhere.

Perhaps, I can qualify that statement a little more by saying I had experienced several group settings where I would ask those gathered what they considered to be the spheres of society and each time it would be the same, education, healthcare, business, family and church.

The problem for me here is that it was my firm belief that “church” was never to occupy a sphere of its own, but instead have fully embedded itself in all of the actual spheres of life and society. The challenge or should I say challenging question in the video was ‘what does it mean to be the fullness of him in and through education? (cue teachers voice), healthcare? (cue doctors voice), gypsy sites (cue roma) etc

To be honest, because of our occupation and strong orbit around church as a sphere, as church of elsewhere, this is actually a question that still, 2000 years on, we are unable to fully respond to.

I used to be involved in church networks and pastors networks, which I foolishly felt was a gathering of those charged with reaching and transforming our locality.

After the ritual of the male voice choir worship session at one of these, I was allowed to ask a question:

  • Do we believe that our missiology informs our ecclesiology…
  • That those we wish to reach and serve in ‘the mission’, shapes and informs how we ‘do church’?

Almost everyone nodded, in that ‘but of course’ kind of affirming manner.

I asked ‘Who of us has inherited an established ecclesiology which greatly limits or inhibits our missiology’ … cue less enthusiastic nodding.

It is problematic that we are operating out of something, which even to our own thinking I so foundationally conflicted.

The leader of the pastors network, a much respected man once gave me a sound-bite which I have quoted in a multiplicity of settings, ‘If we do what we always did – we get what we always got’ – which isn’t enough. His softly spoken Scottish accent still survives as a formative voice in my head. As someone who was working hard on the impossible task of bringing our institutions closer together, I am not sure he realizes what a critical role he played in my moving away from said restraints.

Once over a cup of tea and some shortbread, we had a philosophical conversation where I was saying that I don’t have any more energy to invest in changing a seemingly immovable object.

My heart had always been to see the church change, but I had seen little of this. Mostly, the church as a whole was pinning its hopes on the next acceptable book to read , which would help them see the changes the previous book had promised but failed to deliver.

I remember saying that I was guessing he had seen the church go through 40 years of incremental, manageable adjustments, instead of significant change to itself, so that it could finally become an agent of change in society.

I said that if this was the case, I’m not going to be sticking around. His answer I felt was deeply honest ‘ yes, I am afraid that I agree with you, the church is likely to opt for another 40 years of minor adjustments’.

Do we have an inherited system that is capable of the kind of change, which can sees its primary function as supporting the saints to come to fullness in all the spheres of society? Has it managed this so far?

When church occupies its own sphere, a physicality and a geography we visit, it can only truly focus energy on perpetuating its own existence, equipping a small percentage of the saints for works ‘in’ the service instead of serving the majority who are unsupported as they stand in and through the creation (perhaps still waiting for a call to the seemingly sacred roles of pastor, youth worker, community worker, house group leader).

The thing that excites me most about a different paradigm is that, if there is no separated off from life ‘church of elsewhere’, then there is no leadership and no ministry gifts of elsewhere.

Instead, we find those abilities helping people come to fullness in all the glorious diversity of where God has placed them to be lovers, servants and agents of change. Suddenly, I feel hope that we can actually find ourselves engaged in systemic change in the world around us, more than topically treating the suffering those broken systems create.

What makes me nervous, is it takes that misplaced sphere of church to take on a John the Baptist mantle and become willing to decrease so that, what is coming can increase. I don’t mean more manageable, incremental, minor adjustments.

It has to be significant mind-blowing paradigm exploding change.

A final (or further) piece

It is great being the author of a blog as one always has the final word to say, although I cannot quite claim to have ‘great and unmatched wisdom’, though I am obviously working on that. Yes the gentleman who suggested that was one of his many attributes has set the bar high. So pulling back, momentarily, from self-inflated opinion I will modify the title to be a ‘further’ (and certainly not a ‘final’) piece on the ekklesia.

I appreciated the comments on the two articles and of course I am coming strongly from a perspective, hopefully not denying the validity of other perspectives. There are two ways in which sociology approaches healthy groups. They are either at the ‘community’ end of the spectrum or at the ‘movement’ end. Community is centred in on being there for each other, to enable one another, movement is focused on purpose beyond the community. Both are visible in Scripture. There are enough ‘one another’ Scriptures related to followers of Christ to see that perspective is a strong one. (‘Love one another’; ‘admonish one another’; encourage one another’; etc.) Most Christian communities that I know that carry this emphasis also strongly desire to change their environment. Movements have something in common among themselves – they hold to a common world-view that is not shared by the wider world and are seeking to change the wider world based on their world-view. The Civil Rights movement can act as an example. Martin Luther King’s speech ‘I have a dream’ is one example of what they shared in common that was not realised in the wider world that they were a part of. Their aim was to change the world-view and practise of the wider society.

Writing about ekklesia with its background both as the Hebrew of being called to listen to God then act in the light of that instruction, and the Graeco-Roman background of the legislative assembly I was pushing the ‘movement’ understanding of being together. That is my bias. I was also pushing that as a push back against a common approach that only accepts one expression (‘local’) as church. I am not advocating independence nor that another form is how it should be done. We need one another, one size does not fit all, and most of us recognise that many others who are followers of Christ are responding to the claims of the Gospel better and more faithfully than we are.

The challenge that we all face is being faithful in our context. Maybe we all find ourselves in settings that are ‘sub-church’! Now there is an adjective that might be very applicable. I find the thought of what on earth was Paul up to in planting and nurturing ekklesias within the one-world government system of Rome fascinating.

I suggest Jesus, and no one else could have done this, opened the door for Peter (as representative not in his unique right) to give shape to what an ekklesia would be within the Jewish world. That is one window on ekklesia but it is the world of pre-70AD and also of pre-Gentile mission. It is really the expression of ekklesia beyond that that should provoke our thinking deeper. Peter opened the door to Paul, in that he was the first, and reluctantly at that, to go beyond the Jewish world to the Gentiles. The Gentiles (us lot) was Paul’s first century mission field. The context was not of a covenant-people but of the world, and as already mentioned an all-but one-world government world.

It is interesting that the term ‘synagogue’ is rarely used for the Christian communities of the New Testament. That expression was developed in Babylon, and I wonder if it was something of a compromise in order to survive that then became the accepted norm. Paul uses the term ekklesia which would have been strongly understood to be political, and confrontational to the system.

There is good research that shows that many forms of church enable people to grow to a level of faith, but then by default place a ceiling over people going further. We also know of many lone-rangers who seem to get detached from the core of the faith.

As I look at the wider world we are in crisis. We could see the collapse of so much, or the coming together in alliances that provide the platform for dictators. Into that context I cannot help but believe Paul’s Gospel is so relevant. And yes, I do think he is pushing the movement end of the spectrum, while strongly recognising how much we need one another.

So thanks for the comments – provocative and clarifying. But not quite ready to suggest the photo I have attached is the image of the church. It is a photo of a very impressive building in Rome and worth a visit!

Only one legal adjective

It is genuinely difficult to know what was going on inside the mind of someone like Paul in the NT times. We are not living in that culture, and there has been so much development in church tradition since then. I often ask myself a question along the lines of ‘what on earth was Paul seeking to do as he travelled across the Roman Empire?’ We can answer it with planting, encouraging and seeking to keep on track the various ‘in Christ’ communities. But for what purpose and what did he hope might be accomplished by his focused activity?

I open with that because often, and certainly so in Protestant circles, the adjective ‘local’ has been added to the word ‘ekklesia’ which seems to make that expression legitimate… and, by default (or design) all other expressions as illegitimate. To some other expressions the adjective ‘para’ has been added, thus accepting that they have some relationship to church, but are certainly not the real thing.

The new church movement is what shaped me with a belief that the church was built on a foundation laid by apostles and prophets. The ongoing work of the church was to evangelise a locality, plant new LOCAL expressions that carried the same DNA, and enable people to grow in Christ. And I thank God for the many lives that have been impacted through that work.

However, the adjective ‘local’ is questionable. I can certainly find the understanding of the church in the locality (‘saints in Corinth’, for example), and the use of the word ‘church’ across a region (Acts 9: 31).

Maybe tradition means that the word local is the one word that legitimates but I challenge that. In challenging that I am not questioning the validity of a local expression, but I am seeking to push beyond that to legitimise other expressions, that have often been delegitimised through the addition of such adjectives as ‘para’, or worse ‘not proper’ church.

It seems that the word ‘ekklesia’ has two underlying backgrounds. It was an everyday Greek word, being the regular assembly where those who qualified could give their vote on the issues facing the community / city. This local assemnbly had been pioneered in Athens at least 600-700 years before Paul. A solidly agreed description of the ekklesia was that it was

The regular opportunity for all male citizens of Athens to speak their minds and exercise their votes regarding the government of their city. It was the most central and most definitive institution of the Athenian Democracy.

By the NT era this assembly was something well established across the Graeco-Roman world. It was open to males over a certain age and those free. Paul’s mantra of ‘neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female’ is radical not only in the light of Jewish but also Graeco-Roman restrictions.

We see this use of the word ‘ekklesia’ with this meaning when the town clerk responds to the riot in Ephesus with ‘If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly (ekklesia, Acts 19:39).

The radical nature of Paul’s language into the culture of the day was that of using the term ekklesia for what he was involved in planting. Each city already had an ekklesia before he arrived! Just a little provocative.

The other background is drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures and again in Acts we can see how it is used when we read that Moses

was in the assembly (ekklesia) in the wilderness (Acts 7:38).

This word, ekklesia, is normally used in the LXX (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures widely used in the NT era) when the underlying Hebrew word was not simply ‘people’ (edah) but a word used when the context was of people being called to listen to God and to act in response. The word ekklesia normally translates the Hebrew word ‘qahal’, which seems to be related to the word for voice. It is a purposeful word, referring to a people on a mission.

Unless we suggest that Jesus’ use of the word ‘ekklesia’ in Matthew 18:17 are words written back into the mouth of Jesus by the writer, then he seemed to suggest that the travelling companions were indeed church… and certainly not ‘local’.

If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church (ekklesia); and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Back to Paul… So what was he up to?

Power or change?

I am not sure if the brief title is adequate but I wish to explore what our beliefs are concerning societal transformational change. The political scene across many countries and regions is changing quickly and radically. In Europe the polarisation is increasingly visible and unless bridges are built the result will be increased division, hatred and violence. What fuels this is a mixture of fear (real and fabricated), being blindly wedded to a party political ideology, and what is important for this post – a belief as to how change takes place.

I have written before of an appointment we had in a local bank. The person attending us had our account on the screen in front of us and when she saw that we had actually been donating a small amount to a particular political party she responded with obvious disapproval. We then spoke of their approach to the issue of corruption that is evidently endemic throughout the political system in Spain, to which she replied with, ‘I will tell you something that you need to understand. Corruption is here, nothing will ever change…’ A few more words to educate us, then it was obvious our time was over as she said using the nickname for the political leader, ‘Now you can leave with your…’

We did not donate the money because the party is God’s answer in the sense that we have to get them in power and all will change; we did not support them because we line up with their ideology at every point; but we did support them as they would not take money and be bought by power and had been calling for radical change particularly into the aspect of corruption. At this point of time they are the smallest of the four main parties in Spain and we watched with interest when the leader was asked a direct question a couple of nights ago as to whether they would ever be in power. The response was, from our perspective very mature. Whether they ever got into power was somewhat secondary, but that their presence and where they were currently positioned meant that they had been influential in change over a number of policies. The change taking place was not through power but through influence.

There is a very revealing text that I have oft quoted in Luke’s Gospel:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:1-3).

There is no indication in this that the Gospel is somehow non-worldly and non-political. Indeed far from it. In the context of the lock up of power, both politically and religiously there is outlined the process for change – the word of the Lord coming in the wilderness. Change not beginning in Moncloa, Number 10, Brussels, nor the White House. It was something along those lines that impressed us with this party leader’s response to the interview, where he explained about change through influence rather than through power.

The challenge at this time to the right and the left as things polarise is that both are committed to a change process which is effectively, get in power and change things top down. Maybe this is understandable for without a revelation of Jesus what alternative is there. Understandable for those without faith to take that approach, but what about those of us who are believers? Do we want power by aligning ourselves to those who have power, or are we looking for change?

John’s baptism was a preparation for a renewal of the people of God. He goes to the entry point to the land with a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We should not understand this simply as an evangelical baptism but as a baptism for a covenant people who had failed to live up to the commission of heaven. The original people had been delivered from the Imperial power of Egypt, they were walking away from those centralised power structures being shaped by the law of God. But they had over years succumbed to the same powers that they had been delivered from with the decisive shift being their demand for a Monarchy. The result was that they understood their great days through that lens but eventually had ended in submission to the power structures they had emulated, the latest Imperial structure being that of Rome. The baptism was to prepare a people to be renewed so as they could step up into the commission of being a royal priesthood for the whole earth.

I have always been blessed when I have met people who have stood in the gap for someone else or for a situation saying that their commitment was that they would hold the space ‘on their watch’. Corporately this is how I understand what it means for the body of Christ to be the salt of the earth. That salt that inhibits the growth of evil and promotes the growth of righteousness if truly present means certain things will not take place on our watch.

I view as an insult to the body of Christ that levels of corruption can exist; that cultures that blame women for how they dress is enough to justify men’s lustful behaviour. Protests against those things sometimes seem to rise up in spite of the body of Christ, but I think they also rise up as a sign that something is shifting spiritually. This is an aspect that Gayle and I take seriously. If a political party believes that change can only take place through becoming the ones in control so be it, but if we align ourselves to that conviction we will soon lose sight of, and belief in, the transforming power of the cross. We do not look for something to rise up that is perfect, but we also look to seek to be faithful during our watch. I am sure we have missed many aspects, but if Spain is to come to a place of freedom then there has to be evidence that what has been rooted in the land is unrooted and cannot take root to the same extent again.

The answers do not lie in the right nor in the left, and certainly not in either when they believe that change is through imposition. Neither will the solution take place through the agency of a church that is aligned to the same belief about the process of change, who align themselves to the person or party that will bring in some imposed form of morality, regardless of how they speak of and treat others, and meanwhile the marginalised are marginalised even more.

We live at a dangerous time, but a time of great opportunity. I do believe there is another financial crisis waiting to happen, but my main concern is for a shift to take place in the body of Christ. That we do not retreat to another cycle of conferences that strengthen (spelt ‘isolate’) who we are, but that we find a wonderful re-positioning, an alignment from having discovered true north.

Not called to have power over… but through a commitment and alignment to the cross to have such an influence, even if invisible, that visible change takes place. Dangerous times but times of such opportunity. Not a time to quickly align with the rising extremes but to the process of change that begins in the wilderness. I suspect when that day reveals all we will discover that the changes took place not through those who held power (though there is an accountability for them) but through the unknowns who had been faithful. We will discover that it was on their watch that change took place.

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Small and diverse

I have been using a phrase over the past two years or so that I want to try and expand here. The phrase is:

The multiplicity of the small and the richness of diversity.

Too often we have looked for the quick solution, hearing news of the latest ‘new thing’ and tried to replicate it where we are. The ‘new thing’, particularly due to our means of communication becomes a center and can be found and often connected to pretty easily. A center of that nature of course administratively is normally tightly run so usually comes with a ready shape to the content, thus a package can be imported.

Those centers have indeed helped open horizons for us, but maybe by default they have helped support the myth of what ‘success’ looks like. (An aside: I am not sure ‘success’ as defined by how we appear is a biblical criterion, I would rather suggest ‘effectiveness’ as a better criterion – and that will be measured much, much later.) If we were to look at the growth of the early church from where it started in Jerusalem we would come up with a figure of around 40% growth per decade. Not staggering growth, but growth that was not simply centered on people coming to faith but on the impact on society to undermine all societal divisions.

God so often grants us what we ask for. Israel asks for a king – he gives them one. (Beware what kind of leaders we wish for as the body of Christ. A strong leader that restores order might just open the door to all kinds of hierarchies and inequalities that we never thought possible. The rise of Hitler in Germany was not exactly because he was damaging the economy nor failing to make Germany feel good about itself again, as he set about reversing what he declared was unjust. For sure, we face this in Europe at this time and the church has to be so careful about simply supporting those who tout ‘traditional values’.) Maybe in response to the many prayers for ‘revival’ he has given us some wonderful ‘big’ new things, maybe though now is the time he wants to give us something deeper and longer lasting? If so it could be along the lines I am suggesting, of the small and the diverse.

Jesus worked hard to distribute, not simply delegate, authority. This seems to be one of the offences that Judas did not deal with, and combined with personal weakness and theological conviction set him on a path of betraying Jesus. The Last Supper, and every Eucharist or meal table since, was an amazing symbolic act of distribution. Jesus gave himself. There was no center to remain as he followed through on his words of ‘better I go away’. His absence will be better! The Holy Spirit from Pentecost onward has marked the same trajectory. The Spirit comes to ‘each’, the Spirit is for ‘you’. There is a distribution of the Presence of God and therefore of authority. This does not negate gifting to serve, but gifting must never practically negate this universal distribution.

Large centers inspire, help shape an atmosphere of faith, but can also draw everything back to that center. It is sad to meet people who have been in those centers at some point, but for whatever reason become disillusioned and then to become adrift in a sea of total uncertainty. In those situations apparently the big center could not help them sustain faith as they navigated the necessary growth environment of doubt. We all have to discover the glory of God that is present in the wilderness if we are to develop, we have to know that the wilderness is not cursed of God, nor the domain of the enemy but the place where miracles are born – for that is there the ‘wild beasts were with Jesus’.

One size does not fit all. If society becomes yet more diverse, culturally and religiously, there will be even a greater need for a greater diversity than ever before. Just as water fills the shape of where it is poured out, so the expression of the distributed life of God has to fill the space where it flows. Gayle and I are very fluid in our situation, but are not critical of other situations that are not fluid. Maybe the context they are in needs much more shape than we are comfortable with. Our conviction is it takes all shapes to release the life of God in the world.

I recently wrote in a newsletter about the need to find true north. That the issue facing the body of Christ is not to find the right shape, but to find the right direction – a direction that will lead the people of heaven to be ‘with’ the world and not simply seeking to do things ‘for’ (or worse still ‘to’) the world.

I look for a future that will be diverse. In diversity comes incredible richness. I look for the future to be the multiplicity of the small. The brave seem to me to be able to point the way to this possibility. Multiplicity and richness – centered on Jesus. Seems to flow from setting the compass to true north.

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Ephesus – remarkable Asiarchs

The riot is in full swing and Paul is being blamed for the downturn in business. There is a untied protest of ‘No’ to Paul’s influence from the artisans whose profits are being threatened:

A certain silversmith, Demetrius, conducted a brisk trade in the manufacture of shrines to the goddess Artemis, employing a number of artisans in his business. He rounded up his workers and others similarly employed and said, “Men, you well know that we have a good thing going here—and you’ve seen how Paul has barged in and discredited what we’re doing by telling people that there’s no such thing as a god made with hands. A lot of people are going along with him, not only here in Ephesus but all through Asia province. Not only is our little business in danger of falling apart, but the temple of our famous goddess Artemis will certainly end up a pile of rubble as her glorious reputation fades to nothing. And this is no mere local matter—the whole world worships our Artemis!”

Paul, being who he is, takes it on himself to sort it out and says he will go in to the midst of the riot and calm things down. Whether this was a faith, or simply a personality, response we don’t know but his optimism was not shared by his merry band, who strongly insisted he did not risk his life. We read that their response is to strongly oppose him:

the disciples would not let him.

Thus far understandable, then comes the amazing part which Luke precedes his description with the word ‘even’ indicating that what we are about to read is a surprise:

even some officials of the province of Asia, who were friendly to him [Paul], sent him a message urging him not to venture into the theater.

I moved away from quoting the Message which translates the term ‘Asiarchs’ as religious leaders. They did have responsibilities connected to religion, but their involvement in that was because they were in positions of influence over the city (polis, hence political) and region. I note that Luke does not include them as ‘disciples’ but as friends of Paul. These are non-believers whose city is in turmoil because of Paul’s message. Further, his message is undermining of their position, so they do not have vested interest in Paul’s survival, the one who has come to town and upset the well-ordered apple cart. They have potentially a lot to lose if Paul continues with his Gospel / political (‘polis’ re-orientating) message.

These Asiarchs have not got hold of the ‘through Jesus you need to get saved’ part of Paul’s message, or if they have they have not accepted that part, but somehow they have seen or heard enough to realise that Paul’s message contained the hope for the future. However good the city was now, they somehow had grasped that the implications of Paul’s Gospel would so impact society that it would bring about positive outcomes, even if maintaining their own position was put in jeopardy.

This indicates some incredible challenges for us as 21st century believers:

  • The gospel that Paul proclaimed had serious implications for the ordering of society.
  • He articulated that part sufficiently to make an impact on political / social leaders.
  • His message was centred on Jesus, though not all grasped the need for ‘personal salvation’.
  • He was friends with those in society. They were not simply there as fodder for an evangelistic course.
  • I extrapolate (and this is consistent with the call of Israel / the call of the church as royal priesthood for the world) that the church was present in the city to facilitate those finding space who needed it. It was not about the church being the highest mountain, nor about there being mountains of influence, but the church taking the servant role to ensure a re-orientation toward the low parts being raised up… and the mountains brought down.

Ironically a turning point in a city is when there are those who don’t get the message but get the message!! Now we have to work out what the message would be that they need to get. This is why it seems there is such a push toward re-grasping and re-framing the Gospel message, that has been imprisoned within piety and / or law court language (i.e. privatised faith that draws simple in/out lines).

A final footnote… The town clerk stands up and his final words to Demetrius and his rioting friends are:

If there is anything further you want to know, it must be settled in the regular assembly.

Or in the words of the Message (with my emphasis in bold):

If anything else is bothering you, bring it to the regularly scheduled town meeting and let it be settled there.

Or to pull out the Greek text:

Bring it TO THE EKKLESIA.

The regular word used for the city council, the ekklesia of the city. To suggest that NT language is not political (city related) is to miss so much of what is going on.

I suggest Ephesus is a strong paradigm to understand the implications and application of the Gospel. Ecomonics, riots, friends who are not believers but have grasped the political element. Disciples who see the world as God’s world, and the ekklesia in Jesus there for the sake of the future re-orientation of the polis.

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The church – here for the world

In a recent set of posts I picked up on the redemptive trajectory toward the calling of being a ‘royal priesthood’ where I suggested that (working backwards) the Temple, the kingship, the priesthood in Israel were all signs of fallenness from the calling to be in the world, among the nations for the nations and for the world. I have put this together in a small ebook:

Redemptive Trajectory

If Israel distorted its election to be one of ‘we are saved, the world is lost’, rather than we have been chosen so that God might be present in all of creation, my suggestion was that this indeed was the purpose of the Incarnation and the continued incarnated life of the body of Christ. The church is not here to bring the world into the church through a ‘born again one by one door’ (don’t leave yet – I have more to say!!) but to be the means by which God is manifest in the world. In one way we might say the calling of the church is to ensure that we actually have a very good world!

A hard-line evangelical approach has a starting point of ‘all are lost except for those who are born again’, which is often taken to be those who have prayed the sinner’s prayer. If that be true then the analogy that everyone by birth is caught up within a burning building and they have to be pulled out by whatever means is necessary is not inaccurate. Building bridges only for the purpose of getting them out of the building can therefore be justified. Of course the majority of evangelicals have a few ‘exceptions’ starting with babies who die before the age of accountability. The further one moves to ‘the church is here to enable the world to be the world’ the further away from the burning building analogy one gets. It leaves for those who place Jesus as central, rather than as a good / best example of humanity, but are on the opposite ends of that spectrum a very uncomfortable overlap, and many times a small overlap, where they can agree and work together:

uncomfortable_overlap

At both ends of the spectrum there will be a viewpoint that Jesus is not genuinely present at the other end of the spectrum, but given the centrality of Jesus there will be some shared core – indeed I would suggest a genuine fellowship in the Holy Spirit. The purpose though of election comes in view as to where on the spectrum one stands.

Part of our challenge is the reading of Scripture – read it as I do and we will agree!! That is the wonderful history of protestantism – the multiple readings possible of Scripture. So where am I standing on this spectrum?

First an approach to election is very key. I see no basis for the ‘God elected some from all eternity’ approach – the election for the believer in Scripture is the election of Christ, and we are elect in him, in other words we are elect when we are in him. This parallels the election of Abraham and therefore all who are in him. I do not view it along individual lines but corporately in the individual chosen – Abraham or Christ. Further election is for a purpose, and the angle I have been pushing is that of the royal priesthood call. To represent God to the world and to represent the world to God. So essentially the church is here so that God’s transforming presence can be in the world – the church being the stewards of the future.

So ‘salvation’? There is a reception of the Spirit of Jesus that is witnessed to within the NT, but I cannot go as far as to suggest all who do not receive the Spirit of Jesus are lost. Indeed I would rather work with the untidy statements of:

  • All who receive Jesus are saved, and
  • all who reject Jesus are lost.

The statements are untidy as those two categories do not account for the entire human family. It also opens the possibility that a number who have prayed the sinner’s prayer have not received Jesus, as they might simply have received a Jesus of our making. Untidy? Yes. But we cannot tidy everything up in this life – there is a tidying up day yet to come.

The previous two posts – the church is here for God was so that God could be present in the world (‘the whole earth is mine’); the second one on being here for one another was not as an end in itself. There is an equipping for works of service that lies at the heart of what we carry in God for one another. The church is not simply here for the world, but that is our incarnational focus. Through our testimony people can be genuinely ‘born again’, even if that is a very limited NT term, and also through our priestly calling this world can move toward the New Jerusalem vision, without fully arriving there.

Incarnational Church

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The church – here for one another

The term ‘one-another’ is not an infrequent term in the NT, occurring some 100 times from the ‘love one another, encourage one another, admonish one another’ to the ‘confess your sins to one another’. We are to do good to all, especially those of the household of faith, so the corporate, mutually-beneficial aspect of the body is clear. There is a clear purpose of being there for one another.

If we start with a fixed view – as I was once told ‘the right way to do church’ – then we are likely to assume that the body of Christ is to meet on such and such a time and a service / meeting is to follow that will take a certain shape. If we hold to a sacramental or a protestant-word view this will most likely be our belief. However, if we consider that the Spirit’s activity is determinative we will probably be more flexible. Beyond that we can critique the oft-assumed identification of the ‘local’ church with the church in the locality that we read of in the NT letters, and we could also consider the contingent (incarnational) nature of church. It has to fit where it is situated.

Laying on one side ‘the right way of doing it’ we have to consider the desired outcome, that of enabling one another to move toward becoming who we were meant to be. With the insights of Fowler (stages of faith) we need also acknowledge the limitations of church structure where it facilitates those who are growing through to stage 3, but resists those who are continuing to grow. We do not have to be offended by that nor surprised, even Jesus spoke how there had to be some changes, and a very radical one at that, with his absence being key to the growth stage the disciples needed to embrace.

Discipleship, as per Jesus, was time-limited. Discipleship was never to hold people in a level of dependency. Perhaps by default some of the approach within the new models of church have a tendency in that direction. And further, in setting out where I am headed in the third post, a helping one another to be good church members will almost certainly prevent the third element taking place – the church here for the world. It will also fail to live up to the element I began with – the church here for God.

Over the years I have grown to deeply appreciate the ‘service’ offered by the parish churches in England. Consistently present to offer support, but not looking to own.

In being here for one another, we will find that there are specific ‘one anothers’ that we connect with. This might not be static, but will be marked by those who help us stay on track. Our interaction with them could be regular but should be important. The challenges appear when we simply look at who is there for us so that we can mature, without considering who we are there for to help them mature. In that we might err, but I do not consider that a structure should be the determining factor. The body of Christ can be found inside some very tight structures and also outside any visible structure, but regardless of where it is found it is here to be released, and released for a purpose, to be here for God, who has commissioned the church to be present in the world, his Son praying that his disciples would not be taken out of that world.

So the ‘here for one another’ is rightly wedged between the ‘here for God’ and ‘here for the world’. If the ‘one another’ aspect facilitates that we might be doing something right. If it does not, no appeal to the ‘right way’ will suffice.

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The church – here for God

Although the term ‘body of Christ’ is my preferred term for ‘church’ due to how the latter word has been colonised I will use the word ‘church’ in these blogs. I am very happy to use the word church as it should carry with it a weight given both the application of the word to the OT people when linked to the purposes of God (normally translating in the Septuagint the Hebrew word ‘qahal’ rather than the less purposeful word ‘edah’ = people), and the Roman context of the political ekklesia in the city. Certainly the Greek word synagogue did not receive any traction when a name was used to describe the NT people. Church then should carry a purposeful sense.

Church then here for God; here for ‘one another’; and here for the world.

In what way would the church be here for God? An obvious error would be to suggest that God needs the church and its worship to ensure his sense of well-being, to make sure that any insecurities were massaged! God does not need our worship, being self-sufficient he has no need for this. (I wondered about using the compound pronoun s/he in these sentences but maybe ‘he’ works better when misrepresenting God, he is not the alpha male in need of affirmation!)

Worship declares the worthiness of God. If there is no worship God is still worthy. Our worship does not change that aspect. It does, however, change us. Some of what we term ‘worship’ or spiritual activities are cultural. I have never been able to meditate. It probably indicates my deep immaturities, having arrived well into the second half of my life I have not yet come close to entering the second half of life. Too much going on to slow down, too much of a belief in my own importance to have things in balance. So with that it is most unlikely I will connect with some very good spiritual disciplines. I can still connect with a good old shout and a holler. Others have disconnected from that as the context of insularity from the world betrays for them whatever the rest of us might be shouting and hollering about. Whatever rights and wrongs are in it all, personalities, stages in life and all the rest comes to bear on the issue of our approach to ‘worship’. Moving on quickly…

Why is the church here for God? It is not here to massage any ego issues, but to align with heaven so that there might be entrance points for heaven on earth. God loves the world, but s/he cannot simply change the world. It is set in a way that reflects the love of God. The ‘uncontrolling love of God’. This is why the term ‘omnipotence’ is purely a philosophical term when we come to the issue God’s activity in relation to humanity. ‘Omnilove’ is the better term.

With the Brexit one person wrote that ‘God is still on the throne’. Nice one. A better comment came from a friend that Gayle and I skyped with yesterday – ‘and true also during the holocaust’. That kind of statement is meaningless if the throne is the throne of omnipotence.

Could God save the world without Jesus? I have to give a resounding ‘no’, and not because of wrath needing to be appeased, but so that all human rebellion (which results in oppression and dehumanisation) could be sucked into the death to end all death. The issues to be dealt with are not issues that deity needs to resolve but that humanity needs to resolve. The incarnation is so key. The ‘continuing incarnation’ is also key.

All that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up

Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

Those three scriptures above identify the body of Christ as Jesus. If we only had those scriptures we might be pushed to say that the church is Jesus. That of course would be a conflation of concepts, but highlights the parallel between the mission of Jesus and that of the church. Jesus himself said:

As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world (Jn. 17:18).

Jesus finished the work the Father gave him to do – that work is finished but the work continues. He unmasked power through the cross and decisively opened the path of life through the resurrection. He showed that sacrifices and offerings were not the desire of God, but a body through which the will of God could be demonstrated (Heb. 10:5-7).

The church – here for God? Indeed, but not as a body that will make God feel better, but to participate with heaven’s transforming agenda. The spiritual disciplines (including meditation!!) will keep us centred in on who this God is so that we do not depart from his omnilove throne. To that extent they are more than helpful. When not calling us to that goal they will prove totally unhelpful.

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