Archive for August 2012
Some time ago our brother Dylan down in Cape Town (I know, he is a blessed man) commented on the One Bread Many Pieces post. Dylan asked an important question which prompted quite a lengthy response from me.
The issue is close to my heart, and so I post my response here for those who may have missed it. I quote from Dylan’s comment:
“Once moving out of institutional church there is a level of haziness with regards to oneness. Especially because there are so many different groups meeting outside the institutional church, but all in different ways. Before, in the institution, there is oneness in a way of doing church. But now, outside, there are also different ways – they just don’t have a brand name and bank account attached to them. Our desire is not to be fixated on a way but on Christ alone, and to have unity in Him with every believer. But is this realistic? And is it biblical? I do not know. Up until now, it is the one area of theology that we are all struggling with. I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this.”
Here follows a part of my response:
As far as the New Testament view on church unity is concerned: Paul links the unity of the body with the “knowledge of the Son” in Ephesians 4: “…so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
There are a few things to notice here. Firstly, the “building up of the body” is a process during which the church has not yet attained to the “unity in the faith”. This work of “building up”, together with the temporary offices necessary for it (as described in the previous verses) will continue “until” this goal has been reached.
By implication, the church being “built up” is marked by two primary characteristics that necessitates the work of “building up”, and without which spiritual maturity according to the “whole measure of the fullness of Christ” has not yet been reached: Disunity and an insufficient knowledge of the Son of God.
At the heart of all ministry we find these two ultimate aims, and the link between them makes perfect sense once you begin to think about it. The well known division in the Corinthian church (“I follow Paul”, “I follow Cephas”, etc.) was due to the Corinthians being “infants in Christ” (1 Cor 3:1). Paul says they were “being merely human” (v4) by following men.
It would appear that spiritual immaturity manifests itself in one primary way, namely division.
Why? Because people who are spiritually immature need “milk, not solid food” (v2). The difference between the two is that the one is a predigested form of the other, that is, it necessitates some spiritual mediator who can digest the food on behalf of the immature recipient. And so immature Christians are dependent on following some or other person for their spiritual well being as they cannot feed on Christ himself.
In the words of the Hebrews author, “everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness” (6:13) and in need of “someone to teach you again” rather than being “teachers” themselves (6:12).
The problem is that this inherent need of someone “to teach me” malfunctions when it comes to identifying a teacher, for the Adamic nature (whose mindset pretty much still dominates the infant in Christ) favours one who reflects his/her own sentiments. And so choosing a teacher becomes like choosing a rock star. The musical tastes in my house serve as a metaphor, ranging from Opera to Rap to Kurt Darren to Dan Patlansky to Flogging Molly to Pink Floyd to Teletubbies (amongst our nine kids there is a 3 year old). Furthermore, the younger the kids the harder to predict what they will get into next month (We had a High School Musical wave some time ago but it was replaced with the music from the Twilight Saga which is now also becoming old news).
All of this is strangely reminiscent of the statement Paul makes to the Ephesians to further clarify the “mature manhood” characterised by the “unity of the faith” and “the knowledge of the Son of God”: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ…” (4:14-15).
What this means is that disunity has a purpose. It reveals the degree to which people has not come into a direct, unmediated knowledge of the Son of God, which happens to be the essence of spiritual maturity. This may very well be what Paul had in mind with his later statement to the Corinthians: “… for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine may be recognised” (11:19). Ouch.
The link between spiritual maturity and knowing Chris is confirmed in Philippians 3. Here we read that Paul has counted his Pharisaical past as “dung” for the sake of one pursuit only: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain to the resurrection from the dead…” (v10). This knowledge of Christ, culminating in the resurrection, is revealed in the next verses as the goal behind Paul’s “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (v13), and his striking, conditional conclusion: “Let all of us who are mature think this way…” (v15).
The bottom line? Mature people understand that the ultimate goal is to know Christ and to forsake the teachings and traditions of men as ends in and of themselves. They are the ones who “glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (v3). They understand that Christ is not divided (1 Cor 1:13) and that he alone is the source of our life in Christ Jesus (2:30). They have learned to feed on Jesus Christ, and they derive their life from him alone.
There are several practical implications to the above:
Firstly, unity amongst the brothers and sisters is a quality of their unity with Christ. Without the latter they cannot have the former. Unity is a flower, never a root. It reveals the true nature of what is within.
Secondly, division is the inevitable manifestation where the ego still dominates. The pursuit of self is always at the expense of relationships. Genesis 11 teaches us that our vision, our name, our building, our ability to build bricks, even our oneness… will result in one thing only: A God ordained division.
Thirdly, the growth of the church in this world is a growth from infancy to maturity, from division in the faith to unity, from following men to knowing Christ, from denominating ourselves from other believers to “receiving one another as Christ also received us” (Rom. 15:7) and from using names of people as a badge to distinguish ourselves from other believers to simply being the church in any given locality.
Fourthly, the “unity of the faith” is not an idealistic dream. It is a very definite destination and we will get there, according to Paul. The question is not “if” but “when”. It is interesting to note that Jesus also refers to this in his prayer that refers to both “knowing Christ” (John 17:3) and the unity of the church: “…I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Lastly, none of this detracts from our responsibility to make every effort to be one in a practical and visible manner in the here and now. This is clear from Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthians as well as his statement in Ephesians 4: 3-6: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The oneness of the body is the logical and inescapable conclusion of the unity that exists in the Godhead.
And so, while we are awaiting the maturity of the body and the answer to Christ’s prayer, we are obligated to express unity as far as is possible. This means that churches who agree with the basic thesis as set out above are under an obligation to function as one body, even though they may meet in different localities.
One way to do this, I believe, is to adopt the naming convention I referred to in The Glorious Church post a few weeks ago. Another is to meet & eat together if and where possible. Another is to minister at one another’s fellowships. And so I can go on.
There is so much more to be said than this, and I have already been too longwinded. But let me close with a last observation. I am not sure I agree with any prescription as to how a church must be “planted”. No matter how much a group of brothers and sisters love the Lord and wish to express their unity with other churches, the moment that their “church” can only be officially established though the intervention of a certain “church planter” or “apostle” the human element enters into it and the subtlety of the “I follow…” attitude resurfaces. I am seeing this amongst Godly people who will shout “Amen” to everything written above. They heartily agree, but they differ on who is an actual church planter who is qualified to officially “plant” churches. And it is causing the same old division under a different guise.
Making a whip of cords, he drove them out of the temple… And he told the pigeon-sellers, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” John 2:14-16
USA Today reported in 2009 that American retailers “sell about $4.6 billion worth of Christian products annually.”
One cannot help but wonder how big that figure is today and how big it would be if the rest of the globe were included in the statistics.
According to the report, you can now wear a “Jesus Christ wants to be your friend” Facebook shirt and an “iPray” hat while listening to your iPod. Preachers can buy material for sermons based on the popular television reality series “Survivor”.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Christian merchandise include dolls, jewelry, stationary and a host of items sporting designs that are oftentimes trademark rip offs of well known brands like Coca-Cola (“Jesus Christ—Eternally Refreshing”).
Other designs are totally original, like the one that has Jesus dressed as a hockey goalie accompanied by the words “Jesus Saves!” And then there is the rubber Jesus duck for your bathtub, and the “Wash away my sins bubble bath” to accompany it.
I still have my three-decades-old coffee mug with St Francis’ Peace Prayer on it. And I have joyful memories of buying my first Christian bumper stickers shortly after my conversion. But I think we have lost it somewhere between the Jesus revolution of the early seventies and today. The new vision of a culturally relevant Messiah, expressed joyfully and colorfully by Hippies who had become “Jesus People”, appears to have become a corrupt money-making machine.
In fact, I am quite convinced that we would see a repetition of the events described by John above if Jesus were to return today.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24 – 27
This week the words “hope and glory” flashed across my television screen. I was not watching a religious show, but a broadcast of the 2012 Olympics. Above the words was the face of a man in rapturous ecstasy. He had just won a gold medal.
I know the feeling. I experienced it for the first time after having won a yo-yo competition in the mid seventies. I was a mere kid, and that night I went to bed feeling intoxicated. The feeling could best be described as a mixture of bliss and immortality.
But it did not last. And so I had to follow it up with other victories. When victory evaded me I learned to resurrect the feeling by siding with others who were winning, such as a boxer or rugby team. The stadium atmosphere in the face of victory was equally glorious – an experience of joyful communion and collective invincibility.
It took me years to realize that these feelings were religious ones. Like a prophetic dream, they revealed a deep longing within to fight and conquer the enemy, to finish a race, to receive a “crown” (literally a “prize of honour in the public games”).
At the end of his life, Paul used these words again, this time with hindsight: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7).
In the final analysis, the Olympic Games presents us with a parable that can only be decoded in Jesus Christ, and with a startling contrast between the shadow and the real. As Paul said above: “They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
The verses above are important as they present one of the clearest contrasts in Scripture between true and false glory (See related posts here and here). Also, they explain why human beings are so obsessed with winning. In the absence of God we try and satisfy the demands of our spiritual instincts by fabricating lookalikes of the divine.
The greatest of human instincts, such as desire and love and fear, are manifestations of our yearning for God. Idolatry is not nearly as crude a thing as we have been led to believe. No, human beings are usually most idolatrous when most sophisticated. The act of substituting God with self is what human history is all about, and we have become extremely good at it.
It is this single-minded focus that Paul addresses in the passage above. If we miss this, we miss Paul’s central point. Whilst the passage in 1 Corinthians 9 presents a striking contrast between two types of running and fighting, and also between two “crowns”, the most important contrast drawn by Paul is between two types of preparation: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training… They do it to… but we do it to.”
It is not only the nature of the competition or the ceremony afterwards that is different in Paul’s analogy. It is the life before. The Christian fights a different enemy, runs a different race, has a different goal, experiences a different hope and anticipates a different glory. As a result, the Christian has a different training program. This is Paul’s point.
What does this program look like? “I beat my body and make it my slave”, Paul says. I subject my human appetites, desires and needs to the heavenly calling.
There is much to be said about this, and I do not wish to do so with this post. The best commentary on these verses, in my view, comes from Watchman Nee. If you are not familiar with his book The Character of God’s Workman, and especially with the section that deals with this issue (chapter 3), I would advice you strongly to read it. Simply click here for chapter 3.
Blessings to all fellow runners and fighters.
(This post appeared in abbreviated form in Bloemnews.)
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Philippians 3:1
Some things are so vitally important that they need to be said more than once.
Years ago I wrote an article that is buried somewhere under the posts in this blog. I believe it to be one of the most important things I have ever spoken or written about. I also believe it to be more relevant today than ever before.
As many of the newer visitors and subscribers to this blog have not read it, I feel quite compelled to repost it. Please feel free to copy the content, post it elsewhere or distribute it in any form.
Blessings to all.
There is something wickedly satisfying about arriving first in life. This I learned at a tender age after my first success in beating my older brother to the kitchen table in our house in Namibia. Our lunchtime races down the long passage had become somewhat of a ritual, and, being the smallest, I was usually the last one to arrive. But when success did come it came sweetly. After all the thrashings, I enjoyed his defeat even more than my victory.
This is why I call it wickedly satisfying, for joy derived from another’s misfortune is wicked indeed. The Germans speak of “Schadenfreude” (leedvermaak in Afrikaans), that is, that warped sense of relief we experience when something bad happens to others instead of us. It explains why humans enjoy gossip and are morbidly fascinated with vehicle accident scenes, and it reveals something of the universal human drive to end up on top of the heap, to always win, to die with the most toys (See Ecclesiastes 4:4). The rat race is indeed an apt description of life on planet earth.
Ego-death a Non-negotiable
Many prophets and sages have warned for millennia against running this race, and they have done so in the names of many gods. Examples abound, but I will mention just one. Buddhists have a real issue with the ego, and they teach that “man is a bundle of desires”. The solution? If you remove the source of envy you also remove unhappy and resentful feelings about others’ possessions, they say. And so the Buddhist authorities in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan have banned advertising.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, has a completely different approach to the matter. Instead of warning us against running the rat race, it tells us that we are rats. We are, therefore, perfectly consistent when we behave in the crazy ways we do. It is not our behavior that constitutes the problem, it is our identity. Hence the New Testament’s one and only prescription: The annihilation (read crucifixion) of the competitive rat.
Without this event, which we can call “ego-death”, any effort at Christianity is as sensible as attempting to climb Everest by staying at home. It simply cannot be done. The cross is no different to the guillotine, the noose or the electric chair. It is an instrument of death and serves the explicit purpose of executing the criminal. What a silver bullet and wooden stake are to a vampire, the cross is to the ego. The funeral of baptism is the funeral of self, and so 2 Corinthians 5:17’s “new creation”, resurrected in the image and the likeness of Christ, is a creation that seeks not to win but to serve, for this is what Christ came to do.
It was Adam and Eve, under the inspiration of the serpent, who thought that equality with God was something to be grasped, not Christ (See Genesis 3:5 and Philippians 2:6).
A Religious Masquerade
Egos, of course, hide well, and they hide best under cloaks of righteousness, which is why we so constantly run into them in churches. In the Bible religious self exaltation is personified by the sect of the Pharisees: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others… they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” Their dress code, behaviour in the religious assemblies, status and titles all conspire to elevate them above the masses, giving them the bizarre privilege of fusing the religious pilgrimage with the ego-trip, impressing God and people simultaneously, obtaining heaven with earth still in their pockets.
Winning means arriving first, as my early races down the passage taught me. To win one must have arrived, and winning religiously implies having arrived religiously. For clerical supremacy to survive some sort of arrival is required, and, as it happens in churches, a fitting doctrine is needed to prove and clarify the arrival.
A doctrine of arrival, put very simply, is a theologically constructed idea which proposes some final insight, experience or realisation of promise. It distinguishes the one who has arrived from those who are still on their way. It also offers a circumvention of the painfully humbling business of believing, hoping and waiting. Proud people do not wait well, which explains why God employs time so successfully in humbling his servants. Forcing arrival by fabricating a destination is humanity’s attempt to appear victorious and to bypass the discomfort caused by the impatience of the ego.
The Error of Realised Eschatology
There is no heresy as deceitful as the one which offers a shortcut to the Promised Land. Such impatience led to Adam’s sin, to Esau forfeiting his birthright, to the Israelites constructing a golden calf and to the Prodigal leaving the family home. Every time the underlying philosophy is the same: We want it all. We want it now
Since the time of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who taught “that the resurrection has already happened”, doctrines of arrival have littered the ecclesiastical landscape. Theologians speak of “realised eschatology”, that is, the erroneous and dangerous view that the blessings linked to the resurrection of the saints, the Lord’s return, the visible and final coming of the Kingdom and the restoration of all things are to be appropriated somehow in this world and age.
There are many modern day examples of this age-old heresy, for instance prosperity theology (the restoration of our finances and possessions), extreme teachings on healing (our bodies and health have been restored), obsession with signs and wonders (natural laws have been made subject to us), the conviction that doctrinal perfection is possible (we understand perfectly), elitist churches who believe that they have a perfect understanding and practice of “fellowship” (we love and meet perfectly), post-millennial Reconstructionism or “Kingdom Now” theology (we have the perfect political system) and the belief in sinless perfection (we are perfectly holy).
All of these, of course, are just different and novel ways of proclaiming “we have arrived”.
The Biblical Doctrine of Waiting
It was David who said “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” This principle runs like a golden thread throughout Scripture. Abraham had to wait for the promise of a son to be fulfilled. Moses had to wait 40 years in the wilderness before God called him, and then another 40 years before he was afforded a glimpse of the Promised Land. The disciples had to wait for the promised Holy Spirit, and in the letter to the Romans we read that we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
The Kingdom has come in part but not fully. We haven’t arrived yet, and the pain of the planet is one of God’s most efficient tools to remind us of this and to build our faith. The heroes of Hebrews 11 were all looking ahead to a heavenly country. They were not perfectly healed, prosperous, organised or, if you look closely, sinless. Their ‘perfection’ beckoned from a heavenly country.
The ironic thing is: To the degree that we want to drag heaven down here we cease to find it in our hearts, we cease to live by faith, in other words. Perfectionism in its many guises is nothing but veiled materialism. It is an insistence to make the intangible tangible, a refusal to live by faith.
The answer to all of these is quite simple:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18 – 25)
Christianity is a waiting religion. When we wonder why this is so, we are reminded by Scripture that we are “saved in hope”, and that “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Ultimately all waiting experiences are intended by God as exercises to strengthen us for the great wait: The day of his coming. Through them we are taught and reminded that the gratification of Christianity is not instant but deferred. Through them we learn to live by faith, not by sight.