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.

No Logo

Jesus puzzle3Last week I stumbled upon a “tribal chart” compiled by a leading Neo-Calvinist of the Young, Restless and Reformed variety. It aimed to delineate the differences between the major tribes of evangelicalism.

As one would expect from a visionary “tribal chief” (the compiler’s term for the leaders of the packs, including himself), the clarion call was to understand and learn from each others’ tribal preferences, avoid disagreements about trivialities and work together with those who agree on the primary issues of the faith.

Whilst momentarily enjoying the weirdness of seeing the names of Joel Osteen, John MacArthur, Scot McKnight, Joyce Meyer, Al Mohler and T.D. Jakes all on one page, I became aware of a strange sense of unease.

I was mystified. Surely this passionate call to Christian unity is an extremely noble and worthy one? Why was I feeling uneasy? But then it dawned on me. There was no category for those who had left the tribes. I wasn’t on the page, and neither were any of my non-tribal brothers and sisters.

Don’t get me wrong. My unease was not inspired by being ignored or dismissed. Where I find my spiritual home anonymity is highly regarded, and so offense had nothing to do with it.

No, it was the message underlying the omission that got to me.

The tribes were encouraged to intermingle, not to question the legitimacy of their tribal identities. It was okay to follow Cephas, as long as we appreciated and learned from the Appolians and Paulines. It was fine to follow Paul, as long as we gained a healthy working relationship with the Cephasites. It was fine to have tribal chiefs and a tribal identity, as long as we acknowledged the rights of others to have the same.

The problem with this type of thinking is that it turns the order of the body upside down. “From Him, the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work”, Paul wrote to the Ephesians.

Note the words “from Him.” They tell us that the body members discover their working relationship with one another through their connection with the head. They don’t discover the intention of the head by being joined to one another.

The difference is monumental. You don’t make a functioning head by sewing body parts together. You make Frankenstein’s monster that way.

I know, I know. How dare I suggest that you are not connected to the head because you are proudly wearing a tribal badge? Well, I’m not really. I’m just slightly befuddled that you define your connection to the head through your connection to something that is infinitely inferior to it. Does Apollos contain Christ, or does Christ contain Apollos? Who defines who here?

And no, I don’t really buy the “I love soccer and Man United is my team” line, as though it is entirely legitimate for believers to be united in their passion but divided in its expression. Christianity is no contest. Allow your body parts to compete with one another and you may end up looking like a cross between a Giraffe and a T Rex, with a neck that is twenty times the length of your arms.

The soccer analogy is only honest when you consider that all believers belong to one team, and that the call to unity is embedded in a single name that defines the entire team as well as its individual members. (Man United – just in case you missed it.) And so, if we stick to the analogy, a whole lot of ecclesiastical attitudes out there would be better expressed in statements like: “Of course I submit to my coach and honor the team, but I’m going fishing if anyone takes my ball.”

The point is that the game plan was developed for a single team, and that there is no real game to be played once you exit the team. Unless you cross over to the other side, of course. But who wants to do that?

As for the snooty attitude underlying the exit, I understand it well. It defined me for many years as I travelled through the tribes, determined to find the perfect one. I went from Dutch Reformed to Classic Pentecostal to Renewal to Charismatic to Baptist to Reformed Baptist.

In the process I discovered my own wicked heart, but I also discovered something else: Inevitably, I made many wonderful friends along the way. Inevitably, old friends would sometimes meet new ones. Inevitably, I learned much during those meetings.

I remember a very serious Pentecostal friend who laughed uncontrollably when he heard that I had become a Baptist. I remember a Charismatic friend and outstanding worship leader who helped out with the music in the church I pastored during my Reformed Baptist years, and how no one knew where to find the words for the spontaneous “new song” that he began singing whilst leading worship.

I remember many other things.

I also remember sitting in a coffee shop and mistaking the little decorative white stones in the center of the table for sugar cubes. I remember stirring, and stirring, and stirring….

Some things just don’t mix, no matter how hard we try. That’s a dear lesson I learned during my ecclesiastical wanderings.

Egos are like that. They don’t mix, unless they are first pulverized. The day that I understood this, I understood why the temple was built on a threshing floor. You can never be part of God’s building process unless you have ceased to exist.

Only when your own identity perishes, and that includes your extended “tribal” identity, can you become known by a name that is bigger than your own.

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?

Vital Organs

God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 1 Corinthians 12:23-25

Some time ago I was sipping hot coffee at a great restaurant in Johannesburg, when I found myself staring at the scene in this picture. I was amused and took a photo, certain that I would be able to use it to make some or other point in a teaching or article.

Well, the opportunity has arisen. A few weeks ago I read the well known words above, from Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth, and it ministered to me in an incredible way. It was clearer than ever, a perfect answer to a question that everybody (believers and non-believers alike) have been asking for at least seventeen centuries: Why are Christians so divided?

The passage above, I believe, provides the key.

But before we get there, consider for a moment the implications of this sentence: “God has … that there may be no division in the body…” That’s quite a statement. God has done something to prevent disunity in the body. There is a “secret” to Christian unity, and the verse above fills in the blanks and reveals exactly what it is.

Paul begins his argument in the preceding verses. We treat our “unpresentable parts” with “greater modesty”, he says. That is where my picture comes in. We buy clothes to hide our bulging waistlines. We colour our greying hair. We are attracted to the services offered in the picture, and the reason is obvious: We spend time, energy and money on our unattractive parts, not the attractive parts. In short: We adore the unadorable.

In the same way, Paul says, God gives “greater honour” to the parts that lack it, and so makes them indispensable to the body.

Before we speak about the body of Christ, which is what Paul has in mind here, let us pause for a moment and consider how true this principle is in the human body. I have never seen a pair of kidneys on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, and I certainly do not ever expect to. Kidneys are not exactly… attractive. However, to compensate for this fact they have been given a function that is so incredibly essential to the health of your body that it has earned them the proud title of “vital organs.” And so that magnificent face of yours simply cannot expel them from the body, or look down on them, or say to them “I don’t need you.” In fact, one of the things that causes a healthy complexion is a well functioning pair of kidneys.

Which brings us to the body of Christ. The very same principle applies here. Note that God has “chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith” (James 2:5). Also not that the “lowly brother” must “boast in his exaltation” (James 1:9). As Paul said to these Corinthians earlier on in the same letter, God chooses the foolish, weak, low and despised in this world.

Hmm. I am reminded of Kierkegaard who said that God always creates out of nothing, and that he can only use something after he has reduced it to nothing. This explains why Jesus Christ made himself nothing before he could be used by God. It also explains why things went terribly wrong for the great visionaries of the Bible before their so-called “sense of destiny” could find fulfillment. Think of Joseph, Moses and Peter, to mention a few. All of them were aware of a calling, and all of them had to lose it in order to find it.

Most of us are more or less aware of the Biblical pattern in this regard. Most of us know that the way to the promised land lies through the wilderness, that the cross precedes the glory, that brokenness is a prerequisite for service. But the verse above adds an important dimension to this principle. God empowers the weak for another reason besides the obvious ones that we are so aware of.


People who are insignificant according to the standards of the world are indispensable in the ekklesia of Jesus Christ. Their extraordinary gifts are crucial for the church’s health. She needs to be aware of this, protect them and care for them. The foolish, weak, low and despised in this world are the vital organs of Christ’s body. It is as simple as that.

I say this to my shame, but there was a time in my life when I turned my back on my brothers and sisters in Christ who did not see things the way I did. I became sick of their theological shallowness, their constant emphasis on experience and emotions, their hyped-up gatherings. At least that is how I experienced it. And so I turned my back on them and searched out likeminded spirits with whom I could discuss the books, authors and issues that interested me. It did not take long to find them, and when I did I rejoiced. We could be deep together. Really, really deep. So deep, in fact, that no else could find us. Except of course those gifted souls who were just as deep as we were…

I see things differently nowadays. Besides being obviously embarrassed by the pharisaical snobbishness that I had made myself guilty of, I have come to realise how incredibly shallow my so-called depth has been. Whilst my new friends and I had a roaring time debating things like supralapsarianism, we were missing out on a vitality that could only be provided by certain … organs. We simply did not have the fervour to save the lost that I had seen in that tent evangelist who could hardly spell his name. We did not have the compassion on the poor that I had seen in the theologian with the “mystical” tendencies. And so on.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing for some happy ecumenism at the expense of Biblical truth. I am merely saying that different parts of the body have different functions, and that all of us run the risk of becoming severely deformed without the restraint provided by the unity of the body. We need one another. The thinkers need the doers who need the feelers who need the thinkers…

John Ruskin once said “When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package.” I wish to edit that statement somewhat: When a man wraps up Jesus Christ with himself, he ends up with a pretty small Jesus.

The body is not an eye, or a collection of eyes. It is a body. One body with many parts, as Paul said to the Corinthians. One body with all its parts, for God has clothed the dishonourable parts with greater honour so as to make them indispensable.

The key to Christian unity is diversity. Ironically, we have allowed our differences to drive us apart instead of bringing us together.

(A shortened version of this article appeared in Bloemnews.)

Witness Lee: We Were Wrong

It took a lot of courage, but after an intense six year investigation the world’s most respected counter-cult organization, the Christian Research Institute (CRI), issued an apology under the heading: “We Were Wrong.”

President Hank Hanegraaff summarized the findings of his organisation’s research in a 50 page treatment of the matter (Christian Research Journal, Issue 32-06. See Under scrutiny was a movement simply known as the “local churches” (without capitilisation), associated with the work of the Chinese Christian Witness Lee, who worked with and under the direction of the legendary Chinese martyr Watchman Nee.

Nee sent Lee to Taiwan in the late 1940’s to expand the work there, and was imprisoned for his faith soon after. Lee carried on with the work, which experienced tremendous growth under his leadership, and took it to the United States in the 1960’s. Today there are thousands of local churches worldwide.

For years many churches in the West called Lee’s work sectarian and even cultic, hence the investigation by CRI. Some of the accusations against Lee included anti-Trinitarian views and the “deification” of man, but both were refuted by the investigation.

The real unhappiness, it would appear, stems from Nee and Lee’s teaching that denominationalism is sinful and divides the one body of Christ. As with the churches in the Bible, each town or city should have only one local church, named according to location (e.g. The Church in Bloemfontein), even if they meet in different venues for practical purposes. Nee was so slandered for his criticism of denominational division that he once wrote “The Watchman Nee portrayed by them I would also condemn.” And Lee is still called a heretic by thousands, in spite of CRI’s findings.

Cultic? Perhaps we should not shoot the messenger because we do not like the message.

What’s in a Name? II

The What’s in a Name post (January 2011) has attracted quite a bit of traffic and some thought-provoking discussion, and so I was inspired to dedicate my weekly newspaper column to the topic:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus … to the church of God that is in Corinth. 1 Corinthians 1:1-2

In the city of Toronto there is a church with the name The St. Francis National Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith Archdiocese of Canada. And no, it is not the longest church name in the world. Ever heard of The House of God which is the Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of the Truth without Controversy, Inc? It’s in Ansonia, Connecticut, in case you want to pop in for a morning service.

If you don’t feel comfortable going to a church where the sign outside takes more space than the parking lot, you can always go to one of the trendy “emergent churches”. They have short hip names like Apex, Liquid, Quest and so on. Or, if you want something really unpretentious, you can pay a visit to the Scum of the Earth church in Denver, Colorado. These guys are not only humble; they want everyone to know it.

Can you imagine if Paul had to write Colossians 4:15-16 in our day and age? “Give my greetings to The True Holiness Divine Revelation Church of the Apostolic Succession and to Nympha and The Church of Our Lady Of Perpetual Succour. And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in Touch Not My Anointed; and see that you also read the letter from Touch Not My Anointed” (No disrespect intended; these are all actual church names!)

Perhaps we can learn something from the churches of the New Testament. They had no names but were named according to locality, loudly proclaiming that their only identity was to be found in Christ and Christ alone.

(Bloemnuus 4 February 2011)