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An Example to Follow

Developing a well-rounded congregation.

As I sat in the pew and observed the rest of the congregation I wondered, yet again, what the point of it all was. On the surface, the congregation was dynamic and vibrant. There was lots of enthusiasm and optimism. The music was contemporary and the services were upbeat and well conducted. There were lots of ministries. The congregation was enjoying numeric growth. But, if you took the average person in the pew and stood him next to a pagan randomly snagged off the street, how could you tell the difference? My cynical eye couldn’t detect much difference in dress or behavior. The speech and attitudes of both seemed about the same. Worst of all, their thought patterns and world-view seemed very similar.

No doubt I was allowing my disillusionment with that particular congregation to indulge in hyperbole and color my view. But the basic observation was valid. What made the observation particularly ironic and painful to me was that the congregation had, at least historically, made a point of conforming to the pattern of the New Testament church. Yet, in spite of the claim, the results seemed very different. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of transformation taking place. I couldn’t help but think that something had gone drastically wrong.

My experiences with that and other congregations have prompted me to do some thinking about the kind of church which is pleasing to the Lord. It’s been my observation that even congregations which are strong in one area are usually lacking in another. Is it even possible to “get it right”? Are trade-offs inevitable? Let me draw an analogy from the discipline of engineering.

Inevitable trade-offs?

Picture a triangle. Label one corner ‘fast,’ a second one ‘good,’ and the third, ‘inexpensive.’ This classic triangle describes the constraints not only of products but, also, the processes used to design and manufacture them. Each product and process will lie somewhere within the triangle. The three qualities are mutually exclusive. The closer a product or process is to one of the corners, the further away it will be from the others. A particular product or process may be optimized for two of the qualities, but not all three. For example, if a product is inexpensive, it may also be of high quality but not fast. If it is fast and of high quality, it will not be inexpensive. Similarly, if a crash program is initiated in order to implement something quickly, either it will be inefficient or it will be expensive.

There is something else worth mentioning about this. The attempt to optimize a particular attribute does not guarantee that the goal will be achieved. On the other hand, not to make the attempt to optimize almost guarantees that a product or process will fail in all three areas.

It’s also worth noting that the three attributes of quality, speed and inexpensive are somewhat relative – particularly when viewed historically. In other words, standards and perceptions have changed over time. Take, for example, a computer system. A system which today is regarded as rather slow is blindingly fast compared what was available only 10 years ago. At the same time, it is much less expensive and the quality is much higher. Yet, the fact remains that in the context of its own time a particular product or process cannot be optimized for all three characteristics simultaneously. Trade-offs are inevitable.

Does the same thing hold true for the church? Over the centuries there have been many attempts to make the church what it ought to be. (The difference between reformation and restoration and which movements fit into which category is beyond the scope of this essay.) With few exceptions (for example the Oxford Movement which looked to the early church ‘Fathers’ and Catholicism for inspiration) they have all looked to the Bible to discover the attributes which the church ought to have. What are the attributes the various movements emphasized? Here’s a partial list.

Bible Study – (Pietists, Restoration Movement)
Lifestyle – (Anabaptists)
Moral Purity – (Pietists, Holiness Movement)
Social Consciousness – (Christian Humanists, Methodists)
Observance of ‘sacraments’ (baptism, Lord’s Supper) – (Protestant Reformation, Puritans, Restoration Movement)
Doctrine – (Christian Humanists, Restoration Movement)
Evangelism – (Anabaptists, Puritans, Restoration Movement)
Covenant – (Puritans)
Form and Structure – (Congregationalism, Restoration Movement)
Church Discipline – (Puritans)
Unity – (Restoration Movement)
Work of the Holy Spirit – (Holiness Movement, Charismatic Movement)
Anticipation of Christ’s Return – (Puritans, Restoration Movement)

As already indicated, this is not a complete let alone an exhaustive list. No doubt the associations I have made between the attributes and movements can be criticized as well. I may well have missed one or more of a particular movement’s characteristics. The broader point I am trying to make is this: Some groups or movements emphasized one thing, others another. No one group or movement seems to have been strong in all areas.

Case in point: My own spiritual heritage is from the Restoration Movement of the early 19th century. The pioneers of the movement were the likes of Raccoon John Smith, Barton W. Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell. Some of the early leaders, Alexander Campbell in particular, were heavily influenced by the ‘common sense rationalism’ of John Locke and the ‘Age of Reason.’ One of the positive results of this was the application of some of the principles of the scientific method to the discipline of Bible study. This was a genuine advance. On the other hand, there was a tendency in the movement to look at the Scriptures in a very pragmatic and formulaic way. To a certain extent, Scripture was reduced to a series of ‘how to’ – almost mechanistic – prescriptions. It is no accident that Campbell’s most comprehensive book on doctrine is titled The Christian System. It became common to refer to the ‘plan’ or ‘steps’ of salvation and ‘the five acts of worship.’

A strength of the movement was its emphasis on restoring the form and structure of the early church. On the other hand, the influence of Reason led to minimizing the role and work of the Holy Spirit. Some went so far as to say that the Spirit works only through the revealed Word of the Scriptures. In other words, the movement tended to focus on the doctrinal part of Christianity while, in effect, downplaying the experiential side of it. Unfortunately, it is entirely possible for someone to know all the right teachings but not display a Christ-like character.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Charismatic Movement has emphasized the role and work of the Holy Spirit often to the exclusion of doctrine. Truth takes a backseat to experience. It is not uncommon for those in the movement to ascribe things to the Spirit which clearly contradict what the Spirit has already revealed in Scripture.

Christ’s priorities for the church

So then, where does the balance lie? When we take a look at the list of attributes given above, which ones are the most important? Clearly, different groups have different answers. We need to rephrase the question and ask which of the attributes are important to Christ.

In fact, all of them are. Every single one of them are either directly addressed or implied in Christ’s messages to the churches in Revelation, chapters 2 and 3. Let’s take a look:

Bible Study – 2:12 and 2:16 mention Christ’s “sharp, double-edged sword” which is symbolic of the Word. 3:3 instructs the Christians at Sardis to remember what they have received. The church at Philadelphia is commended for keeping Christ’s Word (3:8).

Lifestyle – In 2:23 Christ says that He will repay each person according to his deeds. He commends some in Sardis who “have not soiled their clothes” (3:4). The church at Laodicea is castigated because its deeds are lukewarm (3:15-16).

Moral Purity – Christ stresses the need for purity time and again. He commends the church at Ephesus for not tolerating wicked men (2:2). He threatens severe punishment to those in Thyatira who will not repent of immorality (2:21-23).

Social Consciousness – Christ commends the church at Thyatira for its service (2:19). The word which is translated ‘service’ is just a different form of the Greek word which we transliterate ‘Deacon.’ Assuming that the men who were appointed in Acts 6 were the first Deacons, and there is good reason to think so, that account demonstrates that service involves taking care of the poor and needy.

Observance of ‘sacraments’ (baptism, Lord’s Supper) – Christ says that the church at Sardis is dead (3:1). Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 that one of the causes of spiritual illness and death is the failure to partake of the Lord’s Supper as one ought.

Doctrine – At least twice Christ rebukes the churches for embracing or tolerating false teaching. See 2:14-16, 2:20-25. Christ counsels the church in Laodicea to buy “gold refined in the fire” (3:18). When we compare this to 1 Peter 1:7 we see that this refers to a genuine faith. In addition to whatever else it means, I take a genuine faith to be one which is based on truth – in other words, it is based on correct doctrine and teaching.

Evangelism – Christ refers to Antipas as a “faithful witness” in 2:13. This brings to mind what Christ told the disciples in Acts 1:8, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (NIV) He also tells the church in Philadelphia that He has opened a door for them (3:8). Paul uses this same figure of speech to refer to evangelism in 1 Corinthians 16:9, 2 Corinthians 2:12 and Colossians 4:3.

Covenant – Christ promises the faithful in Pergamum “some of the hidden manna” (2:17). This calls to mind Jesus’ sermon on the Bread of Heaven in John 6:22-71 which is closely tied to the theme of Passover and the giving of the Law. In other words, there is a strong covenantal inference in manna. Another reference to covenant is in Jesus’ words to those in the church in Laodicia where He promises to “eat with him, and he with me” (3:20). This brings to mind what Jesus said when He instituted the Lord’s Supper, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.”” (Mark 14:22-25 NIV)

Form and Structure – Christ commended the church in Ephesus for testing those who claimed to be apostles (2:2). He also condemned the church in Thyatira for tolerating a false prophetess. Since both Apostles and Prophets are, metaphorically speaking, in the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20), this speaks to the issue of structure and of church government. Not only is the teaching and fitness of such people to lead to be evaluated, structures and mechanisms must exist to test them, refute them and remove them.

Church Discipline – Confrontation of sin and the need for repentance is a repeated theme in these letters (2:5, 2:16, 2:21, 3:3, 3:19). In 3:19 Christ specifically links the concept of repentance to discipline or chastening.

Unity – Though the letters in Revelation 2 and 3 are addressed to individual churches, everyone is commanded to listen to what Jesus says (2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13 3:22). This demonstrates that the message is for all. All the churches are in it together regardless of their individual problems or individual commendations. They are all serving the same Christ and will share in the same rewards and promises.

Work of the Holy Spirit – Though it is Christ who addresses the churches, in each case we are instructed to listen to “what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13, 3:22). Obviously the message of Christ and that of the Spirit cannot be separated. The two go together. To ignore or diminish one is to downgrade the other as well.

Anticipation of Christ’s Return – Christ tells the faithful in Thyatira to hold on to what they have “until I come” (2:25). He tells the church in Philadelphia, “I am coming soon” (3:11). The other letters also contain allusions to Christ’s second coming.

If all of these things are important to Christ (and there are other things in these letters which I haven’t mentioned), why do we made such a hash of it? Why is a church which is strong in the areas of form and function lacking in unity and the anticipation of Christ’s return? How can a church have a tremendous social consciousness yet pay almost no attention to sound doctrine? How can a congregation major in the work of the Spirit yet be totally deficient in church discipline? What’s with a church which is strong on doctrine but can’t seem to carry that doctrine over into lifestyle?

Putting the First Thing first

Could it be that we’ve gotten the cart before the horse? What I mean is that the attributes I’ve been talking about are really symptoms of something much more fundamental. If we get that fundamental right, the attributes will be a natural result. Whenever we put emphasis on one or more of the attributes instead of on what the attributes are an outgrowth of, we run the risk of missing the point and getting out of balance. It’s like a preacher who spends all his time on technique and the process of communication but has nothing to say. He says nothing, but says it eloquently. He’s forgotten that the whole point of the exercise is to deliver a message.

If I’m correct that the attributes are an outgrowth of something more fundamental, what is it? I submit to you that it is Christ, Himself. The more we focus on Christ, both as individuals and as a church, the more we will develop the attributes and characteristics of Christ, the more we will desire the things which please Him and the more we will desire to fellowship with Him.

It seems to me that we have often gotten so wrapped up in secondary issues, important though they are, that we have forgotten to pay attention to what is most important. Paul told the Corinthians to follow his example to the extent that he followed the example of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul longed for the day when Christ would be formed in the Galatian Christians (Galatians 4:19). He instructed the Christians at Ephesus to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1). But how do we know what God is like? By looking at Jesus (John 14:9). Paul instructed the Philippians to have the mind or the attitude of Christ (Philippians 2:5). He commended the Thessalonians for imitating the Lord (1 Thessalonians 1:6).

The more we become like Christ, the more what is important to Him will become what is important to us. When we have the same priorities as Christ, our congregations will have the same priorities as Christ. Our churches will reflect Christ. When the world looks at the church, it will see Christ instead of us. We won’t be like the engineer who has to deliberately optimize his machine for one attribute at the expense of another. By “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2) we can be strong in all areas.

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