Kingdom or Structure: A Million Dollar Question

The kingdom comes in dynamism. It is then sustained by structures. This was certainly the case in Acts 2. The dynamism is seen in vv. 1-4:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (NIV)

Unsruprisingly, these events drew a crowd to which Peter preached a sermon. Three thousand people were saved. Dynamism indeed!

But notice what happens next in vv. 42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

The dynamism we saw earlier settles into a common way of life. Regularly listening to and obeying the apostles’ teaching becomes a norm in the community, as does sharing possessions and eating together. We find later in Acts 4 that the sharing of resources was systematic:

And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land our houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (vv. 34-35)

The apostles, it seems, acted as both collectors and distributors of charitable gifts.

Of course, these systems (of sharing) and organizational elements (where and when will the apostles teach, who gets together at which house to share meals) were filled with dynamism. As the last quote notes, God’s grace was “powerfully at work in them all.” This, however, does not change the fact that organization and systems were present. It is important here to note that the kingdom and structures are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, proper structures further and sustain the dynamism with which the kingdom came. Enter here church structures, which are meant further and sustain the kingdom.

There comes a point, though, when structures become problematic. This happens when structural failures begin to subvert or overshadow the kingdom. We see just this happening in Acts 6:1:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

Remember that the apostles have been managing the distribution system successfully up to this point. Now, though, the number of believers has become unwieldy, and the apostles start to drop balls. The Hellenistic widows are being overlooked, and what began as a system that propagated the kingdom has come to subvert the same.

The apostles are met here with an important question: What will they do with the structure? They have a few choices:

  1. Do nothing and tell everyone to stop whining.
  2. Fix the system by devoting more time to it. This will require the apostles to devote less time to teaching and prayer.
  3. Delegate the responsibility of the distribution system to others so that the teaching ministry is not negatively effected.

Ultimately, option 3 wins out. The apostles decide that the faulty structure must be fixed to properly promote the kingdom. The fix, though, can’t negatively effect another important part of the Jerusalem congregation’s structure: the teaching. As those chosen by Jesus to be in his inner circle, further his ministry, and provide leadership to the Jesus movement, the apostles hold a teaching position that no one else can fill. They therefore decide that it would be irresponsible to focus on distribution to the exclusion of teaching, and they call on the congregation to name “seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3) to manage the sharing of resources. Thus, the distribution system was fixed, and the teaching didn’t suffer. The structure of the congregation was once again brought into harmony with the kingdom.

Notice what the apostles did here. They weren’t so committed to the structure they designed that they ignored valid complaints. Nor were they so committed to their leadership of the structure that they allowed their teaching to suffer in order to fix it themselves. Instead, the apostles chose to let the kingdom take the lead. The distribution had to be fixed to properly reflect the kingdom, and the teaching that helped the congregation understand and embrace the same kingdom could not suffer. So the apostles found a new way of doing things by delegating responsibility. Doing so allowed them to rescue the distribution system and protect their teaching. All in all, it was a brilliant solution.

This is the rub when it comes to structures that are meant to further the kingdom of God: sometimes they don’t work. When this happens, we who lead our church structures have a choice. Will we choose the kingdom or the structure? To choose the kingdom, we must have crystal clarity of what the kingdom requires. Then we must bend both the structure and ourselves to meet those demands. This can be hard, but it is absolutely necessary.

Kingdom or structure? This is one of the million dollar questions of ministry.

Author: Mike Smith

A disciple of Jesus who likes to write about stuff.

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