The Modern Church Era brought a NEW Philosophy as it regards How God’s People are to Respond to the Great Commission. Certain Ministries of the Church are Organized and Administered by an Echelon of Elders who regard their Offices as being ‘The Church’. Does this idea Completely meet the Standards and Criteria of the Early Church as we find Mandated in Scripture?
When we consider this matter, we must keep in mind what exactly IS the Church? Our perceptions to that question have been somewhat affected by the organizational approaches employed in our generations.
Our organizational orientation left many to allege that “it’s all about Government”. I pose to you, “it’s all about love”! The purpose of this chapter is to review and revise our perceptions in two important areas.
It’s not inappropriate that God’s Church would exhibit some form of organization. Even considering the local level, where it was forced to operate from through much of Church history, due to communication limitations and persecutions, there was and logically would need to be some form of structure in which it would function, if for no other reason than to have “all things be done decently and in order”, as Paul urged in 1st Cor.14:40. It doesn’t take much to generate disharmony if there is no unifying leadership of some sort to dampen wild doctrinal speculations and power plays of those intent on gaining control over the fellowship.
The Church is and must be a fellowship. Some allege otherwise. (I had direct experience with that point of view! (See page 10.))
Even considering the operational method found in most synagogues of the first century, which was considerably more ‘interactive’ than people would be comfortable with today, there was still a structure around which things were done. In places such as Matthew 13:54 and Luke 4:16, attendees were invited to read and to offer comment on passages of scripture. (Some of this congregational ‘interactivity’ is seen in verses 28-29 of Luke 4.) It’s likely that the environment found in the synagogue format is what caused the Apostle Paul to strongly urge women to keep out of it, ‘keeping silence in the churches’. (1st Corinthians 14:34) There was the possibility of things getting raucous as things were prone to become. We can deduce from this that there was some accommodation of the synagogue format in the early Churches of God.
A notable change was the integration of women into their assemblies. Paul’s exhortation for women to learn at home was a reflection of how it was done under the first century Jewish worship model. (1Cor.14:28 & 34 & 1 Tim. 2:12) (Rabbi Edersheim, a renowned nineteenth century Jewish historian, says that there were some 460 synagogues in Jerusalem in the first century, suggesting that congregations were not particularly large.) So while active participation was ‘men only’, it was also a more interactive format than is common today.
Presently, we are organized and we operate differently than did the early Church. In some ways, it might be better, but in some ways, we might’ve forfeited some of the benefits of ‘interactivity’. It used to be that interactivity was to be found employed in our Bible Study formats. But more recently, it seems that in our formal organizations, what is called a ‘Bible Study’ is found to be just another ‘sermon’, only, presented in a less formal manner. Few questions are asked by those attending and few answers are requested of them! We have to wonder why. What are we seeing? Have we been suppressed, have we suppressed ourselves, or are we at this point in our Church experience just too dulled-out and laid-back to think analytically as we did while functioning under our first love? After all, (some would say) isn’t that what we have a minister for, to do all our thinking and to teach us whatever it is that we ought to be learning?
It’s an easy approach to become resigned to.
The question is, what should we find happening? What should the membership be doing as it regards ‘doing the Work of God’? When we read the accounts of the Church in the New Testament, do we see reticent congregations, relying on a professional ministry to do it all, or do we see one that’s ‘carrying the ball’ in appropriate ways? (Consider 1st Thessalonians 1 & 2) It concerns me, and it should concern us all, that we today find whole congregations that have gone ‘barn sour’, a term often applied to horses, who love to be in the comfort of the barn rather than be out bearing the workload appropriate to their existence. They love to ‘attend’, just don’t ask them to actually do anything, especially if it poses any kind of challenge.
A Prime Obligation
It doesn’t take much searching to locate one of the primary obligations of the Church. We find many references to our need to love the brethren. (1 John 3:11-23 & 4:7-21) In fact, it is what the Church is to provide, that no ministry of and by itself, can offer. As a vital part of its mission, congregations are to provide an environment of comfort, support, encouragement and even direct interpersonal exhortation. (Hebrews 3:13) It is the deadest of congregations where these actions are absent.
It’s not an anomaly that there’s organization within congregations. And, with modern communication and transportation methods (especially since the nineteenth century) congregations have been able to interact and associate with one another to greater degree, making possible umbrella organizations that draw under their wings regional, national and even worldwide affiliations. These can provide benefit in the standardization of doctrinal under-standings and practice, but with it carry the potential of becoming over-controlling as did the ‘universal church’ seen since the second century. Apostate doctrines were brought in, and the structure then in place suppressed nearly all vestiges of key truths held previously. The formal ministry in that case took full control of what the church was to believe, thereafter altering the content of ‘truth’.
It was in that era that the concept was first accepted that the formal ministry was the definition of ‘the Church’! The subsequent move was to cut off the people from the scriptures, leaving their ‘ministry’ to read and interpret what the people would hear. This was how it was for centuries! Someone stood between you and the words of scripture. They had to, they were perverting and misrepresenting the Truth and they didn’t want us to know!
Love of the Truth
It is the second obligation of God’s Church to uphold the Truth as once delivered to the Saints. In this area, the cognitive activity of the congregation (taking the Berean approach) determines the degree to which that congregation is responsive to its intended function. (1st Tim. 3:15 doesn’t refer to Timothy himself!) Whole church organizations have been known to fall because they gave over to a ministerial echelon absolute control of what it would believe and teach. The idea of the membership being co-stewards of the Truth is not well received in certain of our tightly run organizations.
We have a modern example where the leading ministry of an organization decided to overthrow wholesale the fundamental doctrines long held by the Church. Members in that situation saw themselves as just bystanders, and idly stood by while major repudiations of truths were imposed upon all.
It was that detachment from their personal responsibilities that greatly facilitated the atrocity. This was a consequence of the membership having accepted a misdefinition, that the organization (particularly its leadership) was the Church! Their steadfastness was subordinated to another authority. Thus their fall was a foregone conclusion and the perpetrators knew full well how to use the system that we’d allowed to be!
The Church is What?
Besides loving the brethren and upholding the Truth, church members are obligated to provide the environment that facilitates meeting those basic obligations. That isn’t always possible under a misdefined concept of what IS the Church. If we allow that it is the organization, with the ministry providing all meaningful leadership, and controlling all function, we place ourselves in constant jeopardy of being blocked in performing our duties of love and steadfastness. It may sound extreme, but even the Apostle John, in his senior years, was blocked from having dialog with a certain local congregation run by an over-controlling (self-preeminent) pastor. (3 John 9-11) It extended beyond just this one man, as he threatened members of that congregation with expulsion if they associated with God’s beloved and senior Apostle!
In days past, there was a confidence and a contentment with the idea that the Church was its leadership or its organization. We were allowed good standing in the Church so long as that was ‘an understood’. Though one leader in his later years chided us for our misconception, (ironically, one that came into being under his watch) that the Church was a spiritual organism, not the organization. It apparently gained too little traction, evident by what we saw happen after that. But in spite of the lessons, a vestige of the old idea remains in the hearts and minds of many who experienced the organizational demise. We are not fully done with it even yet. Basic Nicolaitanism exists in the modern era!
The message to the first Church in Revelation chapter 2 chides them for having lost their first love. We can see in that dialog that another imperative of the membership is to do ‘works’. In their case, the first works. Though they are credited with perseverance in doing appropriate works, they had become less zealous, not operating under the same fervent love of the brethren and love of the truth as they had originally. It is an easy condition to fall into as time passes. Though the early Church conducted themselves commendably against the Nicolaitan element, and did their homework when it came to examining those who professed to be God’s servants, particularly ‘apostles’, their zeal faded into a more routine expression. Not fully what God wants to see in His Saints.
But what can frustrate love in its fullest expression, if we let it, is the imposition of authority focused-in on human leadership. We saw from experience in the early church and in recent times that an over-focus on church authority structure causes a shift away from our being appropriately considerate of the brethren. It also factored into our regard for and hold upon the truth. When the titular apostle or ‘leading pastor’ took the church off in a new direction, all who were oriented to the supremacy of the leadership felt some degree of obligation to ‘go with the flow’. Doing so was as much reciprocal as it was contagious. Each followed the lead of the other, none daring to openly state the obvious. Those who did pose objections were quickly denigrated. Of those who saw the situation, most chose to take the ‘God will correct this’ approach. Members who stood fast in the truth and who spoke out were regarded as dissidents. Their position and esteem were forfeit. So much for love!
In this reaction we have a perfect illustration of where an improper regard for authority can lead a church. Is this in any way a component of ‘losing ones’ first love’? Was a concept of the Church being first and foremost its authority structure rather than its people and was a loyalty to the organization supplanting our primary obligation in any way a factor in the demise of that organization? If it wasn’t, then what was? After all, a major organization of recent date did come to nothing!
This thought opens another. We are told that the gates of hell will not prevail against God’s Church. So, when we see organizational entities (of whom we could name many) go the way that so many have, fading into oblivion, can we deduce that they weren’t the real definition of ‘The Church’, as they are effectively gone while the ecclesia (God’s called-out ones) are still very much in existence?
Christ Was Unequivocal!
We can discern a great deal from the clear and unequivocal statements regarding the Love of God as defined and as we’re told to exhibit within the community of Faith. It began early in Christ’s ministry, where He said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15) The first level of love. John in later years confirms the same: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.” (1st Jn. 5:3) Christ went further to define where that love is to take us: “So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17) 1 That love is to translate into providing the environment in which God’s called out ones can be appropriately fed and brought into a full spiritual understanding.
John carried this matter to its fullest intent with his premise posed to all disciples in his first epistle: “He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him.” (1st Jn. 2:10) “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” (1 Jn. 4:10-11) “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.” (1st John 5:2-3) Here we see the full circle between love of God and love toward His called-out ones as realized in commandment keeping.
A Three Way Lock
As it regards the love of the brethren, we see an interlocking set of responses, laid out by Christ Himself, re-affirmed by the beloved Apostle: John. First, we are to express our love toward Him by keeping His Commandments. (1 John 5:3) Those Commandments involve interacting with His called-out ones in a supportive and an educational way. (John 21:17) Then John wraps it back around on itself by affirming that our love toward Him is not only to reflect back directly, but is to reflect back to Him indirectly through our love of the brethren! (1 John 5:2-3) We’re to express that same love toward one another in the community of Faith as He had toward us from the beginning!
Wouldn’t it be sufficient for us just to love God? He loved us, and we love Him back! Well and good! The way God structures our response requirement is for us to draw-in His called-out ones and energize a second channel of our love toward Him through them. Do we in this see part of the underlying question Jesus posed to Peter in John 21:15-17? We can love God genuinely and fervently, but if it doesn’t also include His brethren and prospective Bride, its value is compromised.
It is the imposition of Church Authority as being the primary definition of what is the Church that sets up the condition we read of in Ezekiel 34.
Our greatest fault (found even in earliest times) is our failure to hold, cherish, and nourish those whom God has called into His Church. We too often are remiss in maintaining contact with those spun off by interpersonal clashes or unbearable political situations that exhibited a serious lack of love. God severely faults His ministry for their failure in this important area. (Ezek 34:4-8 etc.) This message isn’t for the ministry alone! In this age, it extends to the Church as a loving, functioning environment.
We need to ask ourselves and come to under-stand, what is the purpose for authority? Who is the over-riding authority? How much and what kind of ‘authority’ did God intend ministers (our servants) have? (Mat. 20:25-28) Does authority exist to promote and uphold the love of the brethren and the truth, or does it exist to assert and perpetuate its own preeminence?
Is the Church answerable to the people, or is it the people to the Church. (That too tests our definition.) Is the Organization the Church, or is the Church in varying ways at various times organized?
Challenges to modern perceptions are where we see the membership being the ones directly involved in the selection of deacons. (Acts 6:3) Members were admonished to have their senses exercised by being involved in making judgments. (Heb 5:14 & 1st Cor. 6:2) Members then were commended for examining ministerial credentials, even those of highest levels. (Rev. 2:2) So they were diligent in some regards. Then, what was this diminished ‘first love’ in Revelation 2, verse 4? Was it this area of love: the love of the brethren? Were they politicizing, were they becoming ‘respecters of persons’?
Loyalty with Accountability to God
As God intends, the body is to have a mind of its own! One conforming to the mind of Christ, not one exhibiting an unruly rebelliousness, but a steadfastness, functioning apart from any form of authoritarian suppression.
Christ intends His Body be thoroughly equipped for all good works… (2nd Tim. 3:17) Of what value is being equipped if there is no latitude or effort to actually DO those good works?
Now, consider Revelation chapters 2 & 3. To whom do these messages speak, the ministry or the congregations? Who are “the Churches” being addressed in those seven insightful evaluations?
If our first loyalty is to a man-created / man-focused entity, it can come between ourselves and God if we let it. Where this matters the most is when ‘loyalty to the organization’ interjects itself between ourselves and our love of the brethren. It can make people disregard our obligations to one another in deference to that clear loyalty desired by the organization! Of course, the organization appreciates ‘loyalty’ as it defines it, rewarding its loyalists with promotion, thus aggravating the problem.Where there’s a conflict of interest between the organization’s expectations and considerations due a brother, the brother is often the one shorted. That is to our shame.
“Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently:” (1st Peter 1:22) Truth and love are shown to be inseparable!
Where do we stand when there’s a conflict between organizational considerations and the congregation? Here is where our actions put color onto the litmus paper. God requires that we love the brethren. No proper authority, no legitimate organization, with God’s sanction, will in any way compromise that essential expression of Love toward God’s true Saints.
1 There are those who point out that the terms for love and sheep in John 21 are progressive. With sheep, He used terms indicating a maturing process. Choosing different words for love each time, He alludes to a growth condition. It’s interesting also to notice that Peter’s word for love in response wasn’t the same word posed in the question.