An Article from SVM Winter 2010
God’s people are less divided than we are often led to believe and always have the avenue to be in unity. We are afforded every opportunity to be undivided in the faith because God Himself is undivided. As we will explore in this article, unity is the goal, and Christian unity should not be mistaken for uniformity.
If we will rid ourselves of modern biases toward God’s Church that our recent history unfortunately has imparted, and if we will zoom in and out for clarity, we will learn that the Church today is not really that different from its first century counterpart.
The Organization of the Early Church
If I described a church organization today that had leaders thrown in jail by the authorities, its leaders and members killed for their beliefs with many scattered from headquarters to go at it alone without close oversight, we would not think it was being blessed by God. Such was the early church, however, and it all occurred in the confines of the Lord’s will. I am amazed at times how even today some (many?) would “adorn the monuments of the righteous” of the persecuted and scattered first century church, but refuse to participate in smaller churches or hide at the first sign of trouble, unwilling to withstand the winds of trials that affect the church of God today. Many have chosen to remove themselves from active involvement altogether, leaving it up to others to fight the good fight. It is a matter of conviction, and conviction stands in the face of all other opposing realities.
When persecution struck the early church in Jerusalem, the church was scattered to the surrounding regions. The apostles remained in Jerusalem, but the work continued with those who were scattered without them.
Paul acknowledged to the brethren that there would be differences in various approaches to ministries (1 Cor. 12:5). This is not to say such differences would not lead to contentions from time to time, and we should not read too much into such things.
In Acts 15, our historian, Luke, gives the account of a sharp difference that arose between Barnabas and Paul. From this account, we should not assume they were not unified in the faith or divided in any doctrinal sense. What is clearly evident is they had personal differences influenced by past issues in how to go about executing their calling. If both men were mature and of full age in the training of God’s Spirit, I suppose a sharp contention would not have erupted, but God is gracious. He took advantage of the situation, and a “split” in their ministries was to the advantage of furthering His will.
We should not necessarily interpret dissension of this nature as failure but rather as opportunity. God was not waiting for perfection before he put them to work, and so it is for us, His servants, in modern times. He expects results despite our limitations, including those things that make it difficult for us to get along. In fact, Jesus describes Himself as an austere Person. If he gives us a talent, He still expects results where conditions are not perfect.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul gives an account of his restrictions in chains that caused others to step up their game. This is an account to consider, for even though Paul was an apostle, he didn’t exhibit a need for control as he commended their efforts to perhaps fill the void. The lesson here is that getting behind somebody as many have in the past is not exactly where it is at. The Philippians were not a dependent people, waiting for permission to do the work. They felt enabled by a non-controlling apostle. We must acknowledge the fact that there are churches with leaders who are evidently more interested in control of the brethren than they are in preaching the gospel of the kingdom.
Interestingly enough some thought of Paul’s detention as an opportunity. “We’’ will show Paul we can do this. Their intentions were not sincere. Even then Paul felt that so long as the gospel is preached, he still rejoiced in the fact that it was being preached regardless of motives.
When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he did not write to a select elder but wrote to an entire church. What we need to consider here is that Paul is not recognizing a single leader or a few leaders. He is recognizing everybody. The Thessalonian church was a strong church because they depended on numerous leaders. A weak church builds itself on a few leaders, especially a single leader.
We understand the Thessalonian church to be strong because their faith preceded them to the extent that Paul and his group “do not need to say anything.” They are getting the job done.
The True Strength in Delivering the Gospel
We have all heard of strength in numbers, and so it is. Jesus Christ, however, takes us beyond such thinking and teaches that the greatest strength is the sum of all our weaknesses.
When Paul was struggling with his thorn in the flesh, he must have considered it a dampener on his efforts even to do God’s will. He notes three particular efforts to convince God to remove whatever it was that was holding him back. After the third effort he received his answer:
Can we not understand this too and come to see where the real capacity is for growth beyond our own abilities–even when we are at our best – and to be excited as Paul was when we get it? I believe we can if we forget our contemporary experience that elevates numbers and charisma higher than it should and look instead to the early church for inspiration.
No matter how much Truth we cry aloud about, if we take credit for our ability to broadcast it, it will not make the kind of impact it could unless Jesus Christ is utilizing us in our weaknesses. Any ministry that starts to glory in its work is about to end. There can be no boasting.
When Paul first delivered the gospel to the Corinthian brethren, his goal was not to impress upon them that they should think of their conversion and transformation as the work of a man. It is a lethal combination to have leaders desiring recognition and control beyond the Lord’s boundaries, combined with followers willing to put trust in their leadership:
What did Jesus Christ have in mind when he said “I will build My church”? Is it Jesus Christ’s ideal vision of his church as a kind of an organization? From experience are we then to conclude we have been only partially successful and partially frustrated in our efforts to bring them together? Have we allowed things to happen that have hampered our ability to spread the gospel of the kingdom? These questions are worth exploring.
If God had wanted to build a lean mean gospel spreading church building machine, I suppose He could have done that. It would have been a top down structure, which would have been well defined by the apostles so it ended up in the scriptures and clear in its organization and governance. It also would have been well funded by the unwavering tithes and offerings that Jesus would have emphasized in specificity. False brethren and persecution would not have been tolerated and would be bowled over and disregarded by confident brethren and bold leadership.
I believe it is an admirable thing when I read exhortations about teambuilding and co-operation in an organization, particularly when it is intended to produce an outcome greater than the sum of the individual parts. But we need to step back and look at the first century church before we jump to conclusions on how to best accomplish collective goals. Is there strength in numbers as is commonly proposed?
The Corinthian church was dealing with a number of issues that came out of being a collective. Paul indeed was offering guidance on specific issues and promised to elaborate on them more in person. At a certain opportune point, however, he switches gears and introduces a better way.
We are more apt to default to the thinking that principles of teamwork naturally would lend themselves to personal development and accomplishment. Indeed there would be an increased ability to share the gospel, and it has been shown to work. If we take a lesson from the Corinthians, we can start to see that this approach will have limited success because, as they learned also, we will stumble in our best intentions. What many church workers stumble on is the difference between uniformity, which comes about by pressure from without, and unity, which comes from within. Unity is the better way, is a matter of the heart, and is a state that calls upon our highest spiritual motives.
The better way is more sustaining and fruitful. Christ identified His followers not as efficient, or numerous, or reporting positive statistics. He identified them as having love for one another. We need to get this before we get anywhere.
From our understanding of love as it is presented to us in 1 Corinthians 13, we learn that it does not lend itself to efficiency. To bear, endure, believe, and hope all things is not an efficient way to operate. Efficiency makes short work of people as it favors profit over losses and always chooses the lesser of two evils rather than taking the fall for the failure of others. Efficiency seeks allegiances and manipulates as required to control and favors the strong over the weak even as loyalty and favors are rewarded for the purposes of more control. It is the protection of the self.
The church of God routinely stumbles on efficiencies believing they are for the common good, responsible, and prudent. It is the aspiration for uniformity at work. Long term practice of this kind of thinking makes one become institutionalized and seems impossible to reverse. Many are the walking wounded who have identified God’s church itself with these efficient practices.
Even so, an unfortunate experience with an organization is not permission to regard all efforts of groups or organizations with disdain and withhold participation. I once encountered an individual who said he wouldn’t have any part of another organized church for this reason, but such thinking is a result of succumbing to a temptation to excuse oneself from active participation. Experience sometimes skews judgment. God’s people can work together in unity, and the wisdom of God must rather be sought.
Jesus Christ has shown that He is able to use unfavorable circumstances and weaknesses to achieve his will, and He is more than capable of working with scattered groups to accomplish it. It is by His design that we have not been taken out of the world. We are as stones, along with the Chief Corner Stone that is hewn in humility in an imperfect quarry, with the world full of evil and a church with false brethren. We are being jointly fit together with others in the church of God of whom we may never have heard.
Thinking it Through, What to Do …
What would the apostles offer us today in the way of counsel for scattered churches and brethren beyond what we have discussed already? I find 1 Peter revealing as he addresses a scattered church in Asia Minor.
Those whom he is writing are Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor. They are “pilgrims of the Dispersion.” These opening verses describe the state of his readers, i.e., they are both dispersed sojourners and the very elect of God. This describes the true state of Christians in every age.
Just like my friend I met in southern Ontario, many in the church of God today lament not having a unified force, a single or cohesive organization to promote the gospel (as there once was for some in the Worldwide Church of God). They believe that it was Satan’s effort to scatter and fracture the church to diffuse the efforts of promoting the gospel. Although Satan must have played a role, Peter rather proclaims the real reasons:
Peter suggests there is nothing wrong with being dispersed and has no difficulty implying that the Father Himself sees nothing unusual about their state. In fact, God’s people are by nature a scattered and conflicted people. There often has been a sense of isolation and sorrow. Ask any prophet. We wrestle with two opposing realties: we are the object of our Heavenly Father’s affections yet seemingly abandoned in out of the way places and circumstances that leave us bewildered at times.
We should take particular note that there is not any hint of Peter having concern for their scattered state in his epistle. He does not offer them a call for unification nor encouraging hopes for their return to a former state of cohesion. He offers them something far more significant: grace and peace (v 2).
Moreover, Peter doesn’t begin with any call for divine intervention on their behalf or give them advice (plenty of time for that). He actually takes his readers to a whole new level and pronounces blessings on God (v 3)! We are blessed because He is blessed. The remedy for our feeling of isolation is found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we are already alive in Him.
Peter also repeatedly spoke of the future glory, which is also a theme of this epistle. It is good to be reminded that our pilgrimage has an end, and that end will be our transformation into glory. Peter’s words should be readily transposed on the modern believer, for whether a trial comes by persecution or by any other means, Peter is giving encouragement by reminding his audience of the reality that is as immediate today as it was in the first century – that Christians are begotten for glory and nothing less. Peter is reflecting the same words of our savior in Luke 12:32:
“I guess this is what He meant by “Little Flock””
Do not fear little flock. I am not sure of a way to truly quantify what our Lord means by little, but this is not the purpose of his message here. Perhaps He means a few, one or two dozen or a few hundred in a congregation, and thousands in a collective group of organized churches? Perhaps He means little in influence?
What is of primary interest to Him is that we do not fear, and why we should not fear in light of being either small in number, small in influence, or both. In the mind of Jesus our fears that are born out of being little in strength by virtue of our size and influence is countered by realizing the desire the Father Himself has in giving us the Kingdom. Jesus understood what our fears would be born out of, which is our own measure of what makes us acceptable and blessed
When I hear that 30% a year church growth is evidence of God blessing the work I tend to agree as long as it is not a result of attrition from other churches of God. When I hear of dwindling congregations and splits, I have no less reason to think God is with them also. Why? Because God’s reality often differs from our perceptions, and God’s reality IS the reality. Countering our fear of being small is that the Father Himself is large and of ultimate influence. This is why we are not to fear, for despite disappointments in organizational churches and opposing forces within and without, God will not allow Himself to be diverted in purpose and wants us to feel the same way.
So there is no room for post mortem thinking on how to fix what went wrong and who is to blame in Peter’s mind. Books and countless articles in print and in the Internet spend time ad nauseam on what happened in large organizations such as the Worldwide Church of God. Some of it comes from good intentions to promote healing and support, but even this approach is flawed if we take our lessons from the Apostle Peter. Peter’s words enable and call us to focus on what is real in God’s mind. Other remedies if dwelt upon for any given amount of time will become disabling.
So, if you would permit me, perhaps a message for us today would be:
To the Angel of the Scattered Church:
Thus says the Son of God, with eyes a flame of fire, feet like fine brass and holding a sharp two edged sword: I know your works of, love, service, faith, patience, And you have endured persecution, Nevertheless I have this to tell you, that you being few in number and scattered have weakened your resolve. I counsel you to find strength in Me and not of yourselves,
And your works, the last will be more than the first. Hold fast till I come with the crown of life. And may my love prevail in your hearts forever.
He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the scattered churches.