A friend of mine at church offhandedly said something very significant. He made a joke that while I was gone in Russia that I was hardly missed. I would like to explain why I feel his comment is important.
To do this, I will need to do some teaching about what it means to be a church. This is because I feel that his comment touches on the purpose of our gatherings. It’s not that I want to teach myself out of a job, but when I’ve taught, those who’ve learned won’t need me to help them do theirs.
When I use the word church, many different things come to various people’s minds. Some think of a large stone building with spires and stained glass windows. Others think of a universal group made up of believers from all places and times. Others think of denominations, or those who believe in and live in certain locale, like Oregon or the USA.
The reason people think these things is because we use the word church to mean all these different things at different times. The meaning of the word church, in its primary sense in the New Testament, isn’t any of the above. Most of the time it is used as descriptive of a specific gathering of believers. This is why Paul, for instance could say that “in the church” or the “churches (plural) of Judea”. In secular Greek the word is most often used of the town meeting where the citizens would gather together to exercise their rights and handle their responsibilities. This use is seen in Acts 19:32,39,41. Somewhere between 85-90% of all uses of the word church in the New Testament refer to this local assembly. So when we see this word, we should assume that it is referring to this specific gathering unless the context indicates otherwise.
Why is this important? Because it is in our gathering that we express ourselves as the church. This is where God’s purposes for the churches begin their fulfillment.
When God made man in his image it necessitated plurality. God is triune. Male and female were necessary to complete the image. “Let us make man in our image - male and female He made.” Only as communities do we reflect all the elements of the image of God. Just the very fact that John tells us that God is love is enough to show that to express the image of God there needs to be more than a solitary subject to do it.
Jesus, in John 17:20-23, prayed "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 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.” This unity of the Spirit is seen as concretely love.
In John 13:34-35 Jesus said, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." The world is able to know that Jesus is of God when we are one through our love for each other.
Facilitating that love and being an example of this love, is the primary responsibility of the leadership in the churches. Yet so often leaders have taken upon themselves many other responsibilities, responsibilities that are God’s. Additionally, leaders have structured churches to be pictures of something other than love.
For instance, in the older church structures, like the Catholic’s and Eastern Orthodox, each in its own way is representing the plan of salvation. Each has the communion as the focus of its service. The Catholic Church has the Pope as its head. He stands in for Jesus in the structure of the church. The Eastern Church also has its head. Even in the so called free churches, such as Baptist or Methodist, they all have someone in Jesus’ seat both locally and denominationally. These office holders have the role that can be described as anywhere from king to CEO, depending
on their checks and balances.
It is my opinion that this role actually disguises Jesus’ role in the churches rather than clarifies it. Peter writes in 1 Peter 5:1-4 “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” In this passage Peter indicates that there is only one chief shepherd. The rest of the elders/pastors/overseers are under Jesus. From this we deduce that, since in every church there is to be a plurality of elders, that they operate by consensus endeavoring to discern Jesus’ will in helping the rest of the body of Christ find their own ministry - their own Spirit empowered expression of love.
Paul wrote in Eph 4:11-16 that “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service [ministry], 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. 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. 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.” Note, once again, that that the purpose of the people God gave to the churches as gifts to be helpers was that they would prepare God’s people of works of service – ministry - later defined as the work of growing in love.
In all our efforts to organize, to teach, to do stuff, it is easy to push into the background our purpose in doing all of this. Things take on a life of their own. We look at ministries as offices to be filled rather than relations between people. Our ministry is how we help others to love God and other people. It is an expression of
who we are.
There are no permanent offices in the church other than elders. Even elders don’t have to be chosen immediately. If everyone used their gifts and abilities to encourage everyone else to love God and love people, our job would be done. But learning to love isn’t the easiest thing. For most of us it is the hardest thing we will ever do. For many people it takes a lifetime to even begin to get proficient at it. If I as a leader do not guide you into a dependent relationship with Jesus I have not completed my ministry. Jesus is the object of our love.
This is why my friends comment was so suggestive. If I am hardly missed it means to me that I have been doing my job of guiding our church into dependence upon God instead of me. Through the Holy Spirit we can get our needs met by God himself. This is true success. Paul said it this way:
1 Thess 3:8 For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.
Phil 1:27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.