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.

The Canon Within the Canon

Back in seminary we often heard concerns about the “canon within the canon,” which was really just a way of saying that preachers have a tendency to preach from their favorite parts of scripture rather than from the whole. Good preachers, we were told, are careful to present the entirety of the scriptures to their congregations. This is one reason that some champion the lectionary – it pushes us into parts of scripture that we might neglect if left to our own devices.

I have come to believe that these concerns are greatly overblown. Indeed, I would argue that they lead us in the wrong direction. As a pastor, my job is to mold my people, by the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit, into the image of Jesus Christ. When this becomes the goal of preaching, the canon within the canon becomes an important but secondary concern.

Let’s put this another way. If a new Christian asks me what they should be reading in the Bible, should I send them to the Gospels or Leviticus? I suspect that most of us would affirm that the Gospels are the better reading assignment. This is not because Leviticus is unimportant. As part of the Torah, it most certainly is! Rather, we would point the new Christian to the Gospels because we reflexively know that the Gospels are more central to their formation. After all, if they are to become like Jesus, they probably need to know who Jesus is! I could make a similar argument for sending them to Romans next. How very important it is that they understand God’s grace and its activity in their lives! Of course, we’ll get to Leviticus, but we don’t start there. When it comes to formation, we prioritize certain parts of scripture, which means that we embrace a canon within the canon.

If this is true of personal devotion, why would it not also be true of preaching? We become concerned about a canon within the canon when the Bible becomes an end in itself. But what if the Bible is better understood as a means to another end? As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 puts it: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (NIV) According to this view, scripture is a tool to be employed in the formation of God’s people, and the canon within the canon becomes a secondary concern. Indeed, when seen from this angle, strong arguments can be made for a canon within the canon, because certain parts of scripture are more necessary to the formation of God’s people.

This is not to say that preachers can lazily circle around their favorite parts of scripture. That kind of canon within a canon is unfaithful apathy. It is to say that preachers should feel free, by the power and leadership of the Holy Spirit, to preach for formation rather than completion. When we do so, I suspect that we’ll find ourselves traveling well-worn roads again and again. Rather than feeling guilty for it, why not embrace this reality? After all, the question we will be asked when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ will not be whether we gave all parts of the Bible equal weight. No, it will be about the quality of our congregations. Did we help them know God? Did we form them well? When these questions drive our ministries our preaching takes on a new significance.

Let’s preach for formation and stop apologizing for it.

Notes on Community: A Realistic Call

Relationships can be hard. This is true when our connections are marred by envy, anger, and the like. It can also be true when everyone brings their best intentions to the table. I find it comforting, then, that the scriptures do not romanticize community. Yes, the call to healthy community rings loud and clear from the pages of the New Testament, but so also does a realism about the difficulty of that call.

I think here of passages like Colossians 3:12-14:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (NIV)

Notice here that healthy community doesn’t just happen. Instead, it is the product of the purposeful obedience of God’s people. We are to clothe ourselves with community-building virtues. This means that we are to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient on purpose. We put these attitudes on. We weave them into the fabric of our lives.

And notice that the passage assumes friction and fault. We wouldn’t need to “bear with each other” if we didn’t sometimes drive each other crazy. Nor would we need to “forgive one another” if we never got things wrong.

Colossians, then, does not romanticize community. No, community here is maintained by our purposeful embrace of Christ-like virtues, and it is restored when we choose to bear with and forgive one another. This isn’t a romantic picture of easy relationships. It is a realistic call to do the hard work of loving one another. Love, after all, is not just a feeling of good will. It is also the continued conviction to seek the good of those in our lives. Sometimes this conviction is easily lived out. Sometimes it is not. How comforting, then, that the scriptures do not gloss over this second reality. No, they call us to confront it head on by shaping our characters and bearing with and forgiving one another.

The question of Christian community is not whether or not things are perfect – they won’t be. The real question of Christian community is whether or not we will choose it. After all, it doesn’t just happen. It is the product of the purposeful obedience of God’s people.

The Messiah Complex

As the presidential election approaches, I can’t help but think that we citizens of the United States of America have something of a messiah complex. By this I don’t mean that we view our own country as a savior, though that is sometimes true. Rather, I mean that we the people tend to go looking for messiahs to save us. Most often these messianic hopes are attached to politicians. I remember well the hype that surrounded then Senator Obama in the 2008 election. Obama’s supporters had so much faith in what he would accomplish that John Stewart compared him to Jesus on the Daily Show. Isn’t that an interesting comparison? What kind of society fosters such a state-of-affairs? How can we even begin to compare a politician to Jesus Christ?

We can make such an absurd comparison because we place great faith in our political leaders. This is certainly true in the 2016 presidential race. We have one candidate who promises to “make America great again” and another who calls us to be “stronger together” with promises to carry forward the legacy of the current administration. Regardless of what you think of either candidate, just listen to the fervor of their supporters. Surely this candidate will bring about the change our country so drastically needs! Surely this candidate can act as an American savior!

To Christians this phenomenon should be utter nonsense. You see, we already know the Savior. He conquered death around 2000 years ago, and he has now taken his ascendant place at the right hand of God the Father. No other savior is needed, which makes this American messiah complex especially troubling for Christians.

At least it should. But how many times have we found ourselves entering the political fray just like everyone else? How many times have we been guilty of pledging our allegiance to a party or placing our faith in a candidate? How many times have our peers known more about our politics than about our faith? How many times have we been Americans before Christians? This is a sad state-of-affairs.

“But what is the alternative?” some may ask. Simply put, we place Jesus first. If we did this, we would see very quickly that Jesus is not beholden to either political party, and indeed that he calls both democrats and republicans on the carpet. For instance, Jesus would chastise many democrats for their support of abortion. And he would in the same breath rebuke many republicans for their neglect of the poor. When it comes down to it, Jesus would condemn both parties for their disagreements with the kingdom of God. Then he would call them to repentance. A similar argument can be made for presidential candidates, perhaps especially in this election.

Our allegiance to this Jesus means that we cannot pledge allegiance to a political party and that we cannot place our faith in a political candidate. Can we support them? Sure. But there is a world of difference between support and allegiance, and there is a world of difference between support and faith. In the end, our political choices are choices for the present age. As those called to look to the good of our cities, we must interact with the political machine. At the same time, doing so often means little more than making the best choices that we can with the fallen alternatives before us as we pray for God’s will to be done. (More positively, we can also seek to affect our laws and policies for the better, but that is a different discussion.)

While we Christians must live in the present age, we belong to and wait for the age to come. This is the age of Christ, when everything that disagrees with God’s kingdom will be brought into line, when every knee will bow and tongue confess the Lordship of Jesus, when there will be no more mourning or crying or death or pain. Because we belong to the coming age, we must always hold the present age before us at arm’s length. Our challenge is to be in but not of the world.

In a presidential election, this means that we make the best choices we can with the fallen alternatives that we have. It also means that we refuse to enter the frenzy that names candidates as messiahs and parties as the kingdom. We Christians are reserved for a higher kingdom, and Jesus, the King of that kingdom, requires all our allegiance and faith. Let’s be careful in coming days to remember where our loyalties lie.

Take Your Place

If you compare different translations of Ephesians 4:11-13, you’ll find an interesting disagreement.  The passage speaks of Christ giving apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers to the church.  This is a point of unity among translations.  Disunity, however, comes in the reason for this gift.  The King James Version reads: “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”  Newer translations (NKJV, NASB, and ESV among them) opt for a slightly different understanding.  The New King James Versions renders the reason for the gift like this: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”  Did you catch the difference?  The words are almost exactly the same, but the number of commas differs.  For the KJV, the reason for the gift of church leaders is three-fold.  They are to perfect the saints, work in ministry, and edify the body.  For the NKJV and the other translations already mentioned, the roles of these leaders are cut down to two.  They are to equip the saints for the work of ministry and edify the body.  The placement of a comma seems slight, but the difference in meaning is great indeed!  At stake is nothing less than our understanding of ministry.  Does it belong to church leaders or to the church itself?

In my opinion, the newer translations are nearer the mark, and all Christians have a part to play in ministry.  Unfortunately, things do not always play out this way.  Many times, church leaders are understood as solely owning the task of ministry, or small portions of congregations end up doing the bulk of the work.  Yet each of us is gifted by the Spirit and has been given a role to play.  And it is when we each inhabit our roles that we find a practical outworking of the body of Christ.

This idea of shared ministry throughout the body will be important in the next couple of months as Immanuel’s Nominating Committee seeks to fill different positions of service in the church.  As this process unfolds, I invite you to prayerfully consider your own giftings and the role that you might be called to play in the coming year.  And I invite you to take your place.  As the Apostle Paul said so well in Romans 12:6-8:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (NIV)

My prayer for the coming year is that Immanuel will find itself full of ministers, each working according to his or her gifting, and that we will find that God has gifted us well for this moment in our life together.