There are times in our lives when we are suddenly confronted with unexpected opportunities to make dramatic changes in our lives, to take a different course than the one we have been following for a long time. It is at those times that we can look back and, if we choose, learn from past mistakes and seek to know what God would show us to move in paths more in line with those He has outlined.
One of those kinds of opportunities is when a church finds itself in upheaval and disarray. It may seem like a terrible disaster at first, but if one seeks heaven's perspective and tries to view everything through the context of God's Word, they will find that what at first appears to be nothing but pain and carnage may in fact be a golden opportunity to redefine core assumptions and beliefs of why a group of people meet together and call themselves as church to start with. It can be a time to reassemble a body of humble, thoughtful worshipers who desire to create a safe haven where sinners like themselves can be rehabilitated and come to experience the transforming power of God in their lives.
What are some of the important factors that are vital to redefining a church when such an opportunity arises?
What are the fundamental reasons for the very existence of a local church in particular?
How should members relate to each other?
What safeguards need to be firmly in place to prevent chaos, loss of spirituality, in-fighting or pride to dominate?
How is a safe environment fostered where the weak, the spiritually immature, the ignorant, the wounded and victimized are no longer afraid to mingle and worship with the more mature or even those who may have previously been abusers?
The New Testament church is the only example of such an atmosphere that I know of presently. Many who came into that group of believers in the early days were just such a group of people. They were not high-functioning spiritual people who were mature and stable; they were a wide spectrum of believers from the riff-raff of society to thoughtful and highly educated priests and scribes who had repented of their resistance to the truth about Messiah. And then there were Gentiles and Jews who had been mortal enemies as well as spiritual enemies all of their lives who needed to come into the unity of the Spirit.
But this unity would have been impossible were it not for at least a core of solid leaders who had a firm grasp on the true meaning of what Jesus was all about. At Pentecost this core of believers had finally grasped the real message and experience of love and had put away all of their infighting, their offenses against each other and had fully humbled themselves before each other and God to allow God to be supreme in each of their lives. It was not until this had happened that God was able to infuse them with supernatural power from the throne of God to represent His character through them before the world and shape a body of diciples that was so attractive to spiritually hungry souls that they were drawn like iron filings to a magnet when they saw the effects of love in the lives of these new witnesses.
But just because people poured into that new church by the thousands did not mean that they were up to speed or grasped fully what they needed to experience inside to function well in the body. However, there was some very important criteria that they all had to have in order to live in the rarefied atmosphere of the Spirit's power that was intensely present with them during those early days. Those were times when making a decision to identify with the body of Jesus-believing followers meant being willing to be fully open and transparent about what was on the inside and renouncing all practices of deception. It meant letting go of resistance to receiving the truth about God even when it ran across life-long beliefs or even common sense. It meant choosing to be transparent and accountable to others, to leaders and even fellow members in a spirit of complete humility while embracing a radical new direction in life involving a personal on-going, deepening connection with God Himself.
The focus of that early church was not so much on who should hold leadership of the church but was on Jesus Christ and what His life revealed about how God really feels toward sinners. It was a place where beliefs about life were in stark contrast with traditional religious assumptions which created intense hostility in mainstream religion. It was a place where the interest was not on who was going to hold positions in the body but who could learn to serve others the most effectively. It was a place where faults were viewed as opportunities for healing and growth rather than excuses to shame and condemn or intimidate.
This new microcosm of existence gave the world a brief glimpse into a whole different dimension of reality that had seldom been seen since the fall of Adam. Nearly all the paradigms within this new society were in stark contrast with those of surrounding culture and it appeared very strange and even highly vulnerable by those who viewed it with suspicion. Religious people found it very threatening for there was an immediate drain on their level of influence over the masses as more and more interest drew common people to examine this fascinating, compelling and convicting new alternative. Not even during the days when Jesus Himself was walking the earth did it seem so clear to so many that their hearts really yearned for such fellowship. But now that the life of heaven was being demonstrated in reborn sinners and they could see transformation of lives of others, many decided that it was worth the risk to bare their souls within this body of believers and allow all their fears and shame and guilt and filth to be exposed with the promise that in this place – and only in this place – they would find acceptance, hope, healing, bonding and strength, not only to recover but to thrive and live with joy in fellowship with others.
Satan was infuriated by this invasion of heaven's atmosphere into his territory and was at first baffled as to how to diffuse this transforming power that was stealing so many of his victims. The presence of God was so intense among these believers and their hearts were so open to the Spirit of God and with each other that for some time they presented an insurmountable resistance to his attacks. From common sense perspective they appeared the most vulnerable people on earth, for they they had let go of all their typical defenses they had previously depended on to protect their hearts and their lives. From a human perspective their were like sitting ducks just waiting to be killed and eaten. But from a spiritual perspective they had suddenly become an invincible army of joy that was attracting joy-starved souls from all over the world and they were threatening the very foundation of Satan's government based on fear. He had to find some way to diffuse their effectiveness or he would soon lose far more of his subjects.
We know some of the sad history of how Satan finally did manage to infiltrate the church and rob it of its dynamic power and attractiveness to draw souls into an intimate relationship with God. However, I'm afraid we are so far removed from that time and so blinded by traditional religion once again that many of the props we now trust and depend on to maintain a shell of Christianity left over from that early experience blind us to the true elements that gave those early believers such effectiveness. We have moved so far toward focusing on the externals, to giving more importance to educational attainments or other achievements rather than humility and character maturity, that we may be blinded to what is needed to once again experience the joy and power seen in those early days. But God is still the same God and is just as eager to work in us just as He did back then if we will only come to humble ourselves and start over at the very beginning like the disciples did in that upper room before Pentecost.
For three and a half years the disciples had argued over the externals, over position and importance and public perceptions. While Jesus was attempting to speak to their hearts, they were preoccupied with trying to get the external arrangements ready to introduce a kingdom based on power, prestige and control. Because their focus was so incessantly on the externals, most of what Jesus was trying to teach them did not soak very far into their minds until after He was gone. Since God never uses force to open up our hearts and find entrance, He had to wait until they had exhausted all of their attempts to do things their way and see the tragic consequences of their obsessive focus on the externals while largely ignoring the real condition of their hearts. After their shameful betrayals and abandonment of Him during the time when He could have been encouraged by them the most, they finally began to see that their whole life's focus was in the wrong direction.
Many times it takes a crisis of identity, a major meltdown, a time of judgment when the secret things hidden in our hearts are exposed into the open before many of us are willing to admit that the religion we have trusted all our lives is insufficient to really connect us to the true God and save us. But even after the resurrection and all the joy and restored enthusiasm for life that Jesus brought to them again, these disciples were still infected with notions based on the externals even up to the time of His ascension.
It seems to be human nature to be distracted by cravings for external glory rather than internal transformation. But then, that is the fundamental contrast between the kingdom of God based solely on love and the kingdom of the enemy based on force. The Bible clearly shows that the first mistake of Lucifer while serving right at the very throne of God was to shift his focus from internal glory – the quality of the internal characteristics of a person – to the externals, the appearances, what others think about you and how to manipulate your reputation. When Lucifer became stuck on giving more importance to his externals at the expense of his internal integrity, then his heart was ripe for sin to be invented and the great Light-Bearer morphed into the great Satan – an accuser, liar, pervert, rebel.
What does this all have to do with an opportunity to redefine a body of people into what might be termed a church? I believe it has everything to do with it. It is not until we seek to learn from past mistakes and successes that we are able to apply those lessons to current circumstances. And in my opinion, cultivating an environment safe for human hearts to thrive should be the primary reason for the very existence of any church. If church is not a safe place for sinners to heal and grow into maturity, then it is nothing more than a counterfeit and a social club. If church is not a place where a person can expect to encounter the presence of a holy God passionate about restoring His children into fellowship with His heart, then it is promoting its own agenda above God's. And by 'place', I am not so much talking about a building as I am about a group of believers.
What are some of the key ingredients that cannot be ignored for a safe environment to exist? What are some of the dimensions that cannot be missing that will allow the Spirit of God total freedom to work? I do not claim to have all the answers, but I think these are important questions that must be addressed.
First of all, I believe there must be an incessant emphasis to keep everyone's focus primarily on their personal relationship with God ahead of any other relationship, even their relationship to the church. If we allow or encourage people to feel more allegiance to a church than to their Creator, then we have undermined the very reason the church should existence. Each member of the body must be not only connected to the body but most of all must have a direct vital connection via the 'nervous system' to the Head of the body. Otherwise they will unavoidably begin to malfunction and cause disharmony and dysfunction in the body. Each part of the body must also relate to each other with accountability on this point and make the Word of God the supreme authority over all other material including church traditions, manuals or policy books.
I believe that instead of following the tradition of filling slots and predetermined offices in a church, that a true body of believers will seek, through the guidance and influence and wisdom from the Spirit of God, to ascertain the gifts that God has already placed in the hearts and lives of those He has led into the fellowship. Many of these gifts may need encouragement, development, mentoring and training. But the Word of God says that He has given gifts to all. If we followed the example of the early believers we would be looking to affirm what God is doing through others or is asking them to do rather than conducting popularity polls to fill offices. However, the extremely limited roles that traditional churches have defined as typical offices in a church overlooks to a great extent possibly some of the most needed but obscure gifts and functions that are necessary for the health of the body. Therefore, if we were to let go of our suffocating traditional methods of simply filling slots through popularity votes and began seeking to know the mind of God collectively as to where every single person is designed to serve, then I believe God will have far more freedom to coordinate His own body, to operate and exercise it as He wants to rather than the way we have tried to force it to function.
Jesus made it clear repeatedly that those who will lead out in His body are to have certain characteristics reflective of God's to qualify them as leaders reflective of Him. Uppermost of these characteristics is humility, love and a genuine desire to serve others and view others as more important than themselves. Sadly I'm afraid that modern religion has reversed the priorities of God and we tend to place our external estimations and prerequisites ahead of this fundamental requirement. Thus we now see the results of attempting to imitate the religious effects of being a Christian by following leaders who harbor characteristics very unlike Christ.
In this area, I would like to experience a body of believers who would actually take seriously the descriptions of the New Testament in particular about the qualifications that best suit people who should be recognized as those others should imitate. The very idea of leadership itself has become so infected with the practices of the world that it is almost impossible to even use the word and disconnect our thinking from false implications embedded in it. We have moved so far from making the Word of God our standard we have opened the door wide to counterfeit systems and traditions.
The Spirit of God and the methods of God always exclude the use of force, intimidation, shame, condemnation or deception. Where the Spirit of God is profoundly present, there is never room for self-exaltation, clamoring for control over others, pride or selfishness. When these attributes display themselves in the attitudes of leaders then we can know that the church is not going to be reflective of the beauty and attractiveness of our God and is not going to draw broken people toward a place of safety and healing. These are the attributes of abusers, and those who have been victims of abuse are not going to want to live in close proximity to those who have not genuinely repented of their attitudes of abuse.
But just as importantly, the church must also be a place where abusers can find healing, hope and restoration as well. If the church is only a safe place for victims but remains indefinitely suspicious of repenting abusers, then it is still not a safe place for sinners to be redeemed and restored to wholeness. Far too much emphasis in our society is put on protecting victims but at the same time seeks to harshly punish and even victimize those accused of abuse. This actually creates the very problems it claims to address by giving those in authority opportunities to abuse those they claim should be punished for abusing others. This opens the door for abusers to seek to maneuver themselves into positions of authority so they can mask their true nature while exploiting their office to indulge in their vices.
I do not yet know how, but I am quite certain that we must address the issue of leadership and governance and how all of this is coordinated to maintain a safe environment in which the Spirit of God has full authority and freedom to conduct God's business in people's lives God's way. We sometimes call the church a 'sanctuary'. One of the main definitions for that word is 'a safe place' for some creature. We have bird sanctuaries where birds are protected and allowed full freedom to do whatever they want. So why shouldn't we have a 'God sanctuary' where God can be safe to dwell and free to operate without anyone interfering with all that He wants to do in wounded hearts and confused minds?
Ultimately, each person who wants to identify with the body of Christ in a local church should remember that the church building is not the primary place of worship, for worship is a spontaneous act of the heart in response to an awareness of the presence and goodness of God. If a member of a church is relying on church attendance to define their spiritual life and that is the primary focus of their spiritual identity, then they are terribly deceived and in desperate need of reform. The word 'church' as originally used was an assembly of believers who came together, even on a daily basis, to fellowship, to share meals and everything else they owned, and where they had opportunity to share with each other what God was doing in their lives. The very word 'church' has even been loaded with false connotations as it was never used in New Testament times. The idea is a leftover from the dark ages and carries implications of dominance and control that was used by the false system of Rome's religion. The word was forced into the language in the English translations of the Bible by the intimidation of Rome and it was accepted under that threat by Protestant translators. We are stuck with it now, but we should be aware of the baggage that it still carries.
False concepts embedded in this word are also embedded in the very architecture that we associate with churches. However, it is a serious mistake to think that New Testament believers had any such notions. They were not seeking to go about building imposing edifices with long straight rows of seats all aligned to face one direction with one person facing everyone else to tell them how to think and what to believe like we have today. These believers had a community structure where they met in homes, ate together, sang and worshiped together in buildings or in the open without the severe restrictions and inhibitions that we suffer under today. Their fellowship was reflective of the freedom they had found in Christ, and their times of learning were far more flexible and interactive than most of what we allow today. If the New Testament is carefully examined along this line we might be shocked and maybe even scandalized by how those believers conducted themselves in their assemblies together.
But where do we see the greater evidence of God's power and presence and effectiveness, in their day or in ours? We have become obsessed with racking up numbers and tallying up baptisms, but is the sweet presence of Jesus so intense in our midst that not only are people flocking into our fellowship by the hundreds but others are also terrified to get too close because the the lethal level of the power of God's Spirit in our midst that might destroy those who are unwilling to be totally transparent? God's presence is too dangerous for us to currently experience it to any great degree in our current condition. But are we going to insist on perpetuating the status quo because it is comfortable, or are we willing to allow God to reform and reshape our relationships with each other into a body where He is free to function like He did back in the days of Pentecost?