The Basics of Life

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-3-50-04-pmRevien and I have just returned from an unforgettable weekend spent on a Free State game farm with a group of over 30 believers.

There were no special speakers.

There was no set program or agenda.

There were no presentations, projectors or video clips.

The were no musical instruments, except for a guitar.

I knew almost everyone in the group, and so I was aware of some imposing academic qualifications and remarkable professional accomplishments. I also knew how incredibly gifted and skilled some of these people were. And I knew that quite a few were involved in areas of selfless, sacrificial service that would qualify them to be sainted by the Pope.

But hardly anyone else knew, none of it mattered and nothing was ever mentioned. We were mere brothers and sisters, and what we had in common far outshone everything else we had done in our lives, both good and bad.

Our common ground, I believe, can best be described as a simple conviction that the fullness of God is to be found in Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ has made himself unimaginably accessible to each and everyone of us.

If this truth does not strike you as mind-bogglingly profound, then it can only be because the reality of it has never dawned on you.

The fullness of God… Can we even begin to imagine what this means? Those famous Hubble telescope images testify to one small part of who he is. The rainforests of the world to another. The beauty of romance, and of music… The inexplicable nature of young children… The ocean… The fragrances, from flowers to freshly ground coffee beans… The tastes…

The list goes on and on, and still we are nowhere close to describing or comprehending his fullness.

God poured the totality of this fullness into Christ, and then Christ invited us to come to him and partake of him as a starving man would partake of a banquet prepared for a king.

This is who he is. This is what he has done for us.

Most of all: He knew who he was dealing with. He knew what he had to to for the whole thing to work out and not be undermined by our imperfections.

And so he bypassed us and gave us a single instruction: Forget about yourself and look at Jesus Christ. Behold him, hear him, trust him. That’s all you need to do. Learn from him. Do so, and you shall find yourself coming face to face with the living God…

If you believe this, I mean truly believe it, then you will soon experience an unintended and inevitable consequence: You will begin to lose the taste for depictions of him.

Mere words will no longer suffice. Screaming men in suits will no longer seem to channel him. Neither will hulky youth leaders with Jesus tattoos and designer specs, or trance-like worship songs sung by beautiful girls with angelic voices, or fog on the stage, or feathers from angels’ wings, or street healings, or football stadiums filled with people…

When compared with the face of Christ, all of it will seem like the dust of death. This disturbing awareness will become progressively stronger, and you will not be able to shake or suppress it.

It will be a natural consequence of another awareness rising up in you, something that you may never have experienced and that you do not have words for. And then, slowly but surely, you will begin to understand: This thing that I am experiencing…this is the love of God…this is love for God.

I spoke and preached about faith for more than three decades, and I realize now that I hardly knew what I was talking about. What I have just described is faith. Faith is not, as some have suggested, a type of positive mindset magic that can coerce God into falling in with your plans. Nor is it a confessed belief in a series of propositional statements called a “creed.”

No, faith is to simply look away from yourself and to look to the Author of Life. This is what Abraham did, and this is the only thing that will ever qualify any person to be worthy of the name “child of Abraham.”

Believe me: Apart from this, no salvation exists.

And so God has given us faith and love, and a way to him that is so simple that a child can find it, yet too simple for those of us who think that he needs our gimmicks to turn him into an object of interest.

What type of a god needs an atmosphere in which to reveal himself? What type of a god requires dimmed lights, and mood music, and the astounding facilitation of his presence by some or other dynamic individual who knows just “how,“ in order to show up?

I’m not sure. The hypnotic prerequisites for this type of manifestation makes me think that he is not really a “he,” but an “it” – a god of our imagination.

The good news, as mentioned earlier, is that Jesus Christ knew who he was dying for. He understands our pagan inclinations. He understand our propensity to redefine faith and turn it into something “we must do.” He understands that sheep fall prey to wolves. He knows all of it, much better than we can ever imagine.

The fullness of God indwells him, remember?

And so he is patient with us. He will even allow us to see something of him whilst pursuing his presence in the most ridiculous of manners. But this is not to endorse our behavior. It is to assist us to turn from it. Whilst we are presuming on the riches of his kindness and forbearance, he is giving us time to repent.

Which brings me back to the weekend. And to an observation of what happens when a group of people who have been spoilt for the God-facilitation industry come together in the name of the One who has spoilt it for them.

It is an amazing thing to share a common interest in the Christ who is within us. It is to stare at one another in utter wonder and amazement, knowing that the revelation of the Jesus in my brother is complimentary to the revelation of the Jesus in me.

It is to behold one another as though one is beholding Christ, knowing that we will encounter dimensions of him in and through one another that is not accessible anywhere else.

And so we had to force every conversation to come to an end. Our insight into the mystery of God expanded again and again. It would have been no different if he was sitting there in our midst, speaking to us, revealing the Father to us.

In fact, that is exactly what he did. He was there – in his body.

A wise brother said something towards the end of the weekend: “You cannot put the wind in a box.” And we all understood. There is a depth of understanding and “knowing” that is restricted to the fellowship of the body. When we “behold” Christ in one another, we see things that are not seen when we are by ourselves. We cannot capture these revelations, box them, take them home, turn them into information and retrieve them at leisure. Moses and Elijah won’t camp on mountains.

And so we left, longing for our next gathering, longing for that part of Christ that can only be seen when we come together as his members and display the miracle of God’s fullness in our love for one another.

Where Can I Find a True Church?

Astronaut3He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. (Paul, writing to Timothy)

Have you ever heard a fellow believer say that he or she is interested in the “deep things” of God?

Perhaps the words were stated differently, but with the same basic meaning: “I believe the Lord has called me to a higher Christian life.” Or something similar.

Have you ever witnessed the excitement when such a person discovers a group of believers with similar noble intentions, especially if the group appears to have already made some progress into these “deeper” or “higher” things of God?

Have you ever noticed how often such liaisons fall apart? And how often somebody (or a few bodies) ends up disappointed, offended or hurt? Or, if they manage to stick it out, how often the group tends to become so insular and elitist that you end up feeling more comfortable around the shallow folks from the little traditional church around the corner?

Paul’s words to the Romans come to mind: The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.


1. Romans 7: The Efforts of the Flesh

Firstly, Paul’s apt words above come from Romans 7 – the chapter that is famous for teaching us that any religious intentions are doomed if they depend on the abilities of the flesh. Whilst the law does a great job of formulating the spiritual “ideal”, it does not impart the life necessary to live up to that ideal.

Of course we regularly forget this, and so we take God’s “thou shalt” to mean “thou can”. But we are mistaken. As Paul concludes in Romans 7, the desire to do good does not imply any ability to do so.

Similarly, a group’s desire to be the “true church” says absolutely nothing about their ecclesiastical aptitude. Passion is not necessarily an indicator of talent, as television music reality shows regularly reveal. Spiritual passion is even less so, according to Paul. When acted upon, it will only succeed in revealing spiritual incapacity, the aim being to force us to look away from ourselves and to God who is the builder of his own church, thank you.

2. John 4: The Religious Wish Dream

Secondly, human liaisons that aim to fulfill personal needs are doomed to fail. The alarming divorce rate testifies quite clearly to this. When we are attracted to people because they make us happy, we will end up feeling contempt for them when they make us unhappy. That is, unfortunately, the tail end of the deal.

Of course the same goes for people who make us feel spiritual…

No chapter in the Bible illustrates this quite like John 4. Jesus uses the water at the bottom of the well as a metaphor for the serial marriages of the Samaritan woman. “Drink of this, and you will thirst again”, he says. In essence: “You keep on drawing from a well, but it does not satisfy. You are looking for me, but you are looking in the wrong places. No husband can fill the emptiness within you or make you whole. You are, in fact, attributing God-like characteristics to fallen human beings when you expect them to do so.”

The answer? “Come and drink from me. That is the only place where you will find life and satisfaction.”

The same goes for church life. When our personal needs manifest as an ecclesiastical “wish dream”, as Bonhoeffer called it, we are heading for disaster.

Wayne Jacobsen has done a wonderful job of addressing this very thing in his article Why House Church isn’t the Answer (you have to read it) so I will not elaborate any further.

3. 1 Timothy 3: Conceit

Finally, and most importantly, the single thing that is most deadening to a group of believers is the sincere conviction that they have discovered something that others are still looking for. The problem with this type of thinking is more than the sheer arrogance that underlies it. It is the insinuation that God reserves his fullness, and the glory thereof, for a select group of believers who have discovered the secrets to access it.

Here too, Bonhoeffer, is worth quoting. (keep in mind that monasticism is a mindset rather than a movement.)

Monasticism was represented as an individual achievement which the mass of the laity could not be expected to emulate. By thus limiting the application of the commandments of Jesus to a restricted group of specialists, the Church evolved the fatal conception of the double standard—a maximum and a minimum standard of Christian obedience. Whenever the Church was accused of being too secularized, it could always point to monasticism as an opportunity of living a higher life within the fold, and thus justify the other possibility of a lower standard of life for others. …By and large, the fatal error of monasticism lay not so much in its rigorism as in the extent to which it departed from genuine Christianity by setting up itself as the individual achievement of a select few, and so claiming a special merit of its own.

And then, of course, there are the wise words of T. Austin Sparks:

We must beware of thinking in terms of advanced or special doctrines. Scriptural teaching is not departmental or sectional. We may hear of ‘higher truth’ or ‘advanced teaching’, as though there were something special reserved for the few. So there arises the idea of ‘higher life’ with ‘higher teaching’, as opposed to being a simple believer, content with ‘the simple gospel’. I want very emphatically to contradict any such notion. Wherever you look in the New Testament you will never find any support for this idea… Nobody should make a special kind of ‘Overcomer’ teaching, for this is what God intended Calvary to mean for every believer. God had spiritual victory as His thought when He first forgave us our sins, and in His mind this is to be the normal development of every Christian’s life.

Years ago I posted a cartoon that generated more interest on this blog than anything else I’d ever posted, probably because it was truer than anything else here. It was drawn by Saji George and beautifully captures the mindset referred to above.


The Way of Deliverance

There is a remarkably simple way out of this trap, and it is to be found in the realization that less is always more in God’s kingdom.

Paul solves the riddle of Romans 7 by stating that the Spirit does what the law cannot do. Similarly, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that there are no longer earthly pockets of God’s presence, and that worship will now be in “spirit and truth”.

True worship is now accessible without a pilgrimage, without ever having to ask “where”? We no longer need to look for the house of God. The house of God has come to us. Jacob’s ladder has replaced Babel’s tower. Knowledge is no longer the enlightenment of an elite inner circle, but an awakening to love which is accessible to all. The Holy of Holies is no longer an elusive and mystical destiny, but a continuous reality in the heart of the believer. The fire is no longer on the mountain. It has come down to rest on each one of us.

Where can I find a true church? The question is fundamentally flawed. You cannot find what you already are. To leave a group of regenerate believers to find the true church is like leaving your wife and kids to find true humanity. Unless the situation has become so dysfunctional that your personal spiritual health depends on it, or unless you have a sense that the Lord is sending you to become part of a group of believers for the sake of fulfilling your call to service amongst them, you should think twice before packing up.

“I, the one speaking to you — I am he”, said Jesus to the woman at the well. What we are yearning for has been under our noses all along.

The Lord has designed his body to function optimally in its simplest form. Two or three are needed, and there He is. Surely we do not believe that we need more than Him? So then what is all the fuss about? In Him is the fullness of the Godhead, and through Him that fullness dwells in us. His presence is continuously there, and it will not leave or forsake us. When two or three gather, his indwelling presence manifests as an objective bodily presence, and church happens in its most optimal form.

This, and this alone, is what matters.

(PS: Joshua Lawson has recently written an excellent article along these lines, Beware the homogenization of church life, which I highly recommend.)

The Elusive Elephant

Confucius JPEGThose of you who have visited my About page will recognise the picture on the left. It appears there as a biographical sketch, and that is indeed what it is. Literally and figuratively.

The picture is called Denominational Nightmare, and the man behind the scream is Confucius (A derivative of confusion, nothing to do with the revered Chinese philosopher). I drew it in the mid-nineties, when I needed to express an emotion that could not possibly be conveyed with words.

I use the picture nowadays for teaching purposes. It is an ideal representation of five main streams of Christianity. See if you can spot them:

1. The Intellectuals or Dogmatists. Some would say “the thinkers”.
Some key words: Doctrine, teaching, truth, study, objective.
Some labels: Reformed, Calvinist, Neo-Calvinist.
Some names: Piper, Sproul, Mohler, MacArthur, Schaeffer.
Some books: Anything by the Banner of Truth Trust.

2. The Contemplatives. Some would say “the feelers”.
Some key words: Meditation, solitude, quietude, inward, deeper life, subjective.
Some labels: Mystic, Existentialist, Orthodox, Neo-Orthodox.
Some names: Guyon, Nouwen, Brother Lawrence, St John of the Cross.
Some books: Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God, Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.

3. The Conservatives. Some would say “the doers”.
Some key words: Holiness, modesty, KJV, creationism.
Some labels: Independent, fundamentalist.
Some names: David Cloud, John Rice.
Some books: Anything by these authors, Jack Chick tracts and comics, above all the 1611 King James Version.

4. The Socially Conscientious. Some would say “the doers”.
Some key words: Conscience, poverty, hunger, brotherhood, compassion.
Some labels: Social gospel.
Some names: Ron Sider, Mother Theresa, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo.
Some books: Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

5. The Charismatics. Some would say “the feelers”.
Some key words: Pentecost, Holy Ghost, power, gifts.
Some labels: Charismatic, Pentecostal, Neo-Pentecostal, Third Wave.
Some names: Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Kenneth Hagin, Benny Hinn, Gordon Fee.

Confucius’ problem is a very simple one: Each time he runs into a representative of one of these streams, he is convinced that he has encountered the truth. But this only lasts until he runs into one of the others. Then, like the sheep in Animal Farm, he is swayed by the new rhetoric.

This leaves him with a problem. What should he do with his former allegiance?

Cognitive dissonance is the term used by psychologists to describe the discomfort a person experiences when trying to hold on to two conflicting beliefs at the same time. It is in fact impossible for the human mind to do so, which explains why you or I cannot serve God and Mammon simultaneously. The heart has the capacity for only one overriding allegiance.

This is Confucius’ problem. In fact, it is worse than that. Confucius is trying to hold on to five conflicting beliefs at once. His problem is more than mere dissonance. Confucius feels cognitively blown apart.

You may wish to interrupt me at this stage and ask: Why do these views need to be presented as conflicting ones? Why can they not be integrated? Why can someone not introduce Confucius to the old Indian legend about the blind men and the elephant?

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a snake!

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain, quoth he;
‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: Even the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!?

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a rope!

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The version above is John Godfrey Saxe’s, and I share it because of the last stanza. Confucius’ problem is not the elephant. It is the blind men. Understanding the connection between the tusk and the tail is not the difficulty. Any sensible person who has a bit of time for exploration and reflection can connect the two. The difficulty arises when, instead of exploring and reflecting, one tries to connect them through the mediation of the second and sixth man in the poem. In fact this is impossible, for how can a rope and spear be the same thing?

This is the problem. The confusion does not lie in the different dimensions of our faith, but in the insistence of our faith’s commentators that their particular analysis of it is the most important one and the exclusive paradigm or interpretive grid for making sense of all the others. Integrating such claims is impossible, for each excludes the others.

There is clearly only one way out of the predicament. Confucius needs to meet the elephant. A personal and unmediated encounter will reveal the truth. There is no other way.

In the first “Simply Organic” post I pointed out that I wished to say something about the fact that we (or some of us) are not a celebrity cult. I did this to an extent with The Last Revival post, I further elaborated on it here and I will do so in the next post. There we will address the obvious question:


The Last Revival

A long time ago, in a world very far from here, two fingers were having a conversation.
“I like you,” said the one.
“I like you too,” said the other.
“You are prettier than that toe over there,” said the first.
“So are you,” said the other.

And so a long and intimate conversation began between the two fingers. They were amazed at how similar they were. They could relate with one another’s frustrations, hurts and dreams. They found it astonishing that they both preferred to touch rather than be touched, and they had many other traits in common. They soon became best friends, and began spending almost all of their free time together, speaking about the things that fingers most like to speak about.

One day a large finger arrived in their part of the world. They heard that he was giving finger talks, and so they attended one of them. They were stunned. The large finger articulated everything they had ever spoken about, only better and with more authority. He spoke so well that many other parts of the body also came to listen to him. The toes, especially, found him very appealing. But he also attracted hands, ears, eyes, noses and so on.
“This is the day of the finger!” he said.
“This is our day!” the fingers answered.
“Now everybody together: This is the day of the finger!” he shouted.
“This is the day of the finger!” everybody shouted, even those body parts who were least like fingers.

These events came to be known as the Finger Revival. The entire countryside was transformed by the understanding of how remarkable the fingers were. One would think that the other body parts would have been offended, or felt inferior, but in fact they did not. The large finger had taught well, and he had convinced all the body parts that it was quite possible for all of them to do finger things. Of course they would never be as good as the fingers, but the honour of being allowed to do what the fingers did was more than enough.

Many decades later, when community halls with finger signs on their roofs were found all over the countryside, two toes were sitting on a park bench.
“I like you,” said the one.
“I like you too,” said the other.

You guessed it. The whole process repeated itself. There was one difference, though. During the ensuing Toe Revival there was fierce resistance from the fingers. Some of them joined the revival and started doing toe things, which was not too difficult as toes and fingers are very similar, but mostly the fingers were outraged.
“Who do these toes think they are?” the leading fingers asked. “We need to warn the body parts against them. They are destroying all our work.”

This led to a very sad state of affairs in the country. Toes and fingers were fighting like never before, and not a few of the finger community halls were divided. Eventually the toes erected their own halls with toe signs on their roofs, and the body parts could decide for themselves which halls they would attend.

This went on for a while, but then the Ear Revival broke out. And after that two kidneys happened to run into one another and experienced an affinity that led to a very unusual revival.

So it went on for centuries, until each part of the body had had its own revival. You would drive into a small town and find twenty or thirty different community halls scattered all over, each with different body parts constructed on their roofs. It was truly an amazing sight.

One day, towards the end of the age of that world, it so happened that an eye and a tongue sat down next to one another.
“I don’t like you,” said the eye.
“I don’t like you either,” said the tongue.
They were quiet for a while.
“What is it that you do?” asked the eye.
“I lick ice cream,” replied the tongue.
“I have always wanted to lick ice cream,” said the eye.
“You can, but unfortunately you have to be connected to me,” said the tongue.
Again they were quiet.
“So what do you do?” asked the tongue
“I look at sunsets,” replied the eye.
“Wow,” said the tongue, “I have always wanted to do that.”
“You can, but unfortunately you have to be connected to me,” said the eye.
They were quiet yet again.
“Perhaps we should think of connecting,” said the tongue.
“Perhaps we should,” replied the eye.

And so the two of them connected, and they ended up spending many happy and interesting hours together, licking ice cream and looking at sunsets.

One day, while they were doing so, a solitary ear came past.
“Who are you and what are you doing?” asked the ear.
“There is no name for us,” replied the strange connection, “but we don’t mind because we’re having fun. We are licking ice cream and looking at the sunset.”
“Gosh, that does sound like fun. I’ve always wanted to do both those things,” said the ear.
“You can, but unfortunately you have to be connected to us,” said the connection.
For a while no one said anything.
“So what do you do?” asked the connection.
“I’m listening to Beethoven’s Fifth,” replied the ear.
“Oh wow…” said the connection.

I’m sure you know what happened next.

And so the last revival broke out. It was unlike any revival that had preceded it. It had no name, because the bigger the connection became, the more difficult it was to give it a name. And so it came to be known as The Anonymous Revival or The Revival of the Body. There were no strong body parts leading it. It did not exclude all of the other revivals, as every single one of the previous ones did, but included all of them. For the first time it was believed that all the other revivals were necessary, but only in preparation for the Anonymous Revival. It was truly something phenomenal.

That world is no more, in case you wondered. The final result of the last revival was something so amazing that the old world could not contain it. The Body, once mature and free from focusing on its parts, was taken to a world as glorious, whole and complete as itself.

We believe some sort of a marriage took place there, but it is said that the occasion was so wonderful that words cannot describe it. So I’m not even going to try. Besides, this story is for those in other worlds that may need to hear it, and that is why I wanted to share it with you.

(This post is the seventeenth link in a chain blog, started by Alan Knox, on the topic ‘One Another’. Please have a look back through the other links and comments to join in the topic. You can even join in the chain – read the rules below to participate.)

Links in the ‘One Another’ Chain Blog
1. Chain Blog: One Another – Alan Knox
2. Linking One Another – Swanny
3. What Does It Mean to Love One Another? – Chuck McKnight
4. The treasure of ‘One Another’ – Jim Puntney
5. This is how the world shall recognise you… – Kathleen Ward
6. Accepting one another in love – Chris Jefferies
7. One Another-ing: A meta-narrative for the church – Greg Gamble (also see part 2)
8. Individualism and ‘one another’ – Pieter Pretorious
9. All Alone with One Another – Jeremy Myers
10. When it’s OK for Christians to compete – Joshua Lawson
11. Jesus Christ: the Corner Stone for One Another – Peter
12. Be Superficial With One Another – Jon Hutton
13. The Unmentionable One Anothers – Alan Knox
14. Loving more fully and widely – Chris Jefferies
15. The one another weapon – Dan Allen
16a. Corporate one anothering (Part 1) – David Bolton
16b. Corporate UN-Anothering (Part 2) – David Bolton
17. The Last Revival – Tobie van der Westhuizen
18. Love: A ‘One Another’ Comic – Dan Allen
Who will write the next link post in the chain?

Chain Blog Rules

If you would like to write the next blog post (link) in this chain, leave a comment on the most recent post stating that you would like to do so. If someone else has already requested to write the next link, then please wait for that blog post and leave a comment there requesting to write the following link.

Feel free to leave comments here and discuss items in this blog post without taking part in the actual “chain.” Your comments and discussion are very important in this chain blog (both this post and the other link posts in the chain).

When you write a link in this chain, please reply in the comments of the previous post to let everyone know that your link is ready. Also, please try to keep an updated list of links in the chain at the bottom of your post, and please include these rules at the bottom of your post.

One Bread Many pieces: A Question and Response

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.

One Bread, Many Pieces

The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 1 Corinthians 10:16 – 17

Over the past two decades the subject of Christian unity has become a big issue in our country. With the dawn of the new South Africa many churches and denominations were forced, for the first time, to review their beliefs and confessions in this regard, leading to fierce debates in the media and elsewhere.

According to the apostle Paul, the basis of Christian unity has nothing to do with cultural similarities, an allegiance to the same creed or the desire for similar worship styles or liturgies.

Unity is not uniformity, in other words.

The basis of our unity is to be found in one place only, namely our participation in Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that Paul rebuked the Corinthians, earlier on in the very same letter, for their schisms and sectarian tendencies by asking one simple question: “Is Christ divided?” (1:13)

In chapter 11 Paul expands on this theme by referring to the fact that Christ broke the one bread and distributed the pieces amongst his followers, saying “this is my body”. He took our brokenness and disunity on him and in its place provided us with his unity and wholeness.

The implication of this divine transaction is quite clear: We each possess a portion of Christ, and unless we unite as believers and express our spiritual unity visibly, his image will remain invisible. In our unity he will be made manifest.

As John Michael Talbot reminds us in one of his songs: “Christ has no body here but yours.”

The Glorious Church

It has been almost five years now since a group of us started meeting weekly in a house in one of the suburbs of Bloemfontein.

We have never had a name or the need for one. In fact, we have been highly suspicious of church names since the outset (See related blog posts here and here).

Recently I decided to do a blog for our fellowship, and so I was faced with the dilemma of a name. There was only one that I could truly embrace, that accurately reflected what I had come to learn and believe about the glorious church of Jesus Christ over the past 3 decades of my life: The church’s name is… The Church.

Of course I mean “Church” in the sense of the Biblical “Ekklesia”, that is, the “Assembly” or “Gathered Community”. I certainly do not mean it in any one of the other ways sources like Webster define it, such as “a building for public Christian worship”, or “a religious service in such a building”, or “a Christian denomination”.

Some of us appear to have a need to read more into this word than what the New Testament means by it. The error is quite understandable. Apart from the words that we use on this planet to speak about the Godhead, it is the single richest word in existence. Of course such a word calls for scrutiny and exploration. Of course it seeks an expression that will truly reveal its essence. Of course it calls for all kinds of synonyms.

But in doing so we need to go deeper, not wider. Such a word can never be expanded. It has to be expounded. And you are not doing so if you use adjectives like “First”, “St. John” or “Shekinah”. Even “Covenant” and “Grace” do more to detract from the glory of this word than add to it. If you choose to highlight one attribute associated with the Ekklesia you inevitably make the others fade into the background. Church names, like idols, have the habit of turning on you in the end.

There are great synonyms in Scriptures for the Ekklesia, such as “the wife of the Lamb”, “temple”, “body” and so on. These will take you deeper, not wider, and they should be reserved for that purpose. There are others, too, and even if you manage to fit all of them on the sign outside your building, they will still mean nothing to the casual observer. To truly understand something of the church’s nature requires the best part of a lifetime, which means you can save yourself the trouble of trying to provide a synopsis by cramming a selection of her attributes into a name.

There is no name more beautiful to me than my wife’s, for it represents to me all that she is. She need not be called The First Glorious Revien Beautiful Wife Mother Lover of the Cedars of Lebanon (yes, she descends from there), for I know her to be all those things. I may whisper them to her, but I have no need to see them printed in her passport. This knowledge is reserved for those who are close to her.

Less is more, we often say, and this is truer about the name of the church than most anything else. Writers know that one of the golden rules of their trade is to never overstate the obvious. In fact, you should hardly ever state anything that your readers can figure out for themselves. Don’t preempt the mystery. Don’t rob them from the exhilaration of the quest and the glow of discovery. Refrain from the temptation to mediate the revelation. Trust God’s Spirit to decode their parables.

And so we adopted the only naming convention that we can find in the Bible. We called ourselves “The Church in Bloemfontein”, followed by the street address of the house where we meet. We make it very clear on our blog that the name does not belong to us but to the body of Christ in Bloemfontein, that we are not the only church in Bloemfontein and certainly not more officially so than any other one of the local churches. The only distinction is the address, which is part of our name for the sake of maintaining the principle of locality.

We’re challenging others who meet like us to do the same, although we certainly won’t split hairs about it.

What do you think?