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.