Tag Archives: Neil Cole

An Organic Church Challenge

For those who follow my blog, you know I’ve been reassessing my understanding of “organic” church life in the NT. As I mentioned in a few recent posts, I’m finding that it’s not really helpful to use the term, especially since it has gone viral.

I agree with much of the contrast that is drawn between the church as institution vs. organism. So, I’m currently opening myself up in order to imagine a church life that does not grow out of reaction to the abuses of the organized church, or from the neglect of the NT by those who believe they have obtained something of Christ that others have not.

Here are some thoughts I’ve been having.

It is entirely understandable that many people hear what some “organic” folks are advocating (as I have also advocated) sounds like an abandonment of all ecclesiastical structures. It then becomes confusing for folks to hear them say that it’s OK to have some sort of skeletal structure, you just need to find the “balance” in it all.

What does that look like? We can all say, “It doesn’t look like this or that…” but I don’t see how it’s possible to judge one church from another on whether Christ is truly reigning in their meetings based off our prescriptive readings of the NT. I’m fine with saying there are things the NT does not explicitly teach, advocate, or allow—even prohibits—things that are antithetical to every-member functioning. But beyond that I think we need to be careful how we proceed in setting boundaries.

It seems to me that the “organic” promoter viewing another person’s practice of church life (with all of their biases, interpretations of Scripture about church practice, good/bad personal experiences, etc.) could make many wrong judgments about many churches because they don’t fit their own vision of NT church life. This concerns me.

Something else that troubles me is the constant downplaying of teaching and doctrine. At the same time I hear “organic” advocates affirming that teaching and doctrine are good for the church. Huh? Which is it? Naturally, folks in and outside of these house churches hear this and think that doctrine can only divide and that it’s not conducive to “gathering around” Christ.

I don’t think that’s what the “organic” leaders mean, so I think it really needs some clarification if they’re going to help others hear what they’re trying to say about Christ and the church.

I also think it assumes that we have a prescriptive church life, instead of a descriptive one contained in the NT. It might at times be necessary for a church to become a forum for discussing doctrine. Just like there are times the church needs to adapt for other concerns facing the community. I believe the unveiling of Christ can happen during these times as well.

Could it be that assuming Christ can’t be unveiled during these times is also a reaction that equally leads to wrong conclusions?

Having spent a few years in “organic” church life, I’m beginning to think that we should keep a big vision of Christ and a small vision of the church, as far as our ideas and expectations are concerned.

We can learn this from those who first pioneered the house church movements within China and the United States.

This would require us celebrate Christ in community wherever we find it (calling others to that), and say less when it comes to critiquing the church practices of others who sincerely love the Lord and are being faithful to him where they are.

I hear more lines touching on what church life is not, than what it is. Which seems to translate that there are tons of things that folks serious about church life will not do if they want to meet around Christ. I don’t think that’s what is intended, but I feel that’s what those on the outside hear. I heard that on the inside, and I’m now hearing it as I have put a little distance between myself and the “organic” folks.

I tend to think a generous ecclesiology that is Christ-centered in community, is not continually preoccupied with denouncing what may be “pagan” Christianity, but rather it is concerned for sharing the Christ you know and leaving it at that. Are “organic” folks OK with that?

Some days I’m not so sure.

I don’t think this means there isn’t a place for deconstructing the church, (cause I do!) especially among those who are asking questions and are open to rethinking the wineskins. However, if we’re not careful, we can easily set ourselves up against those that don’t meet like us or share the same vision for the church. We can easily build more walls than open up doors.

We can forget our visions of Christ at this point… they will only edify those that agree with us. Though in the end it’s not edification, just spiritual narcissism nicely contained in elitism masked as dreams and visions.

Since it is a “balance” that we seek (one that is hard to reach and know when we’ve reached it), I don’t see how it’s honest and edifying to talk like we know exactly what the church is supposed to look like when we’re getting it right (or when we think we are). Lord, help us!

In a nutshell, we need more humble recognition that the Lord moves through the church in more ways than one. Then we may rejoice with others receiving their own revelation of Christ and being faithful to their calling.


1 Cor 14:26 Descriptive or Prescriptive?

I have been known as a proponent of “organic” church life for several years now. Due to the confusion over this now popular nuanced term (cp. Sparks, Cole, & Viola’s usage), I have decided to stop using it when describing the sort of church life that is to be enjoyed by all Christian communities in every cultural context until Christ returns.

It’s just not worth having to respond to all of the questioners with, “Well, what I mean by it is…” It was helpful (at least to me) for a while, but not so much anymore. I do still use it when I’m among close friends, but other than that it only becomes one more obstacle in communication.

I must admit that over the last year or so I have been led to believe that some dear saints run the risk of promoting organic church life at the expense of Christ and unity among all believers—as well as promoting Christ while attached to a specific church model (though they would claim they are not promoting a model) or even a “no order at all” approach.

The first group is likely not aware that they have bound Christ to a rigid church order. And the later group, while talking a lot about Christ, is mostly concerned with maintaining no set order in their meetings. No order has become their order. They will do nothing that even comes close to resembling organized Christianity (a person standing to deliver a message longer than 10-15 minutes is definitely out!).

If that fellowship doesn’t change its reactionary thinking, it will eventually meet its demise. Hopefully, there will be enough folks who grow tired of just chatting about Jesus over coffee for a couple hours a week to bring about a healthy change.

I found that it is possible to begin with a new vision of Christ in community, only later to gravitate toward an “us vs. them” mentality. Of course, it might have always been a mix of both—some days more of this, other days more of the other. I have become sensitive to those thoughts of mine that set myself above another person that clearly loves Jesus, but is just currently being faithful to Christ in a different setting.

Christ in Community

Looking back over the last several years of study, reflection, and experience, I’m convinced that the NT reveals some basic principles concerning church life that can be summed up like this: Everything should look like Christ and build up the saints (Eph 4:16; 1 Jn 2:6).

Beyond that, there is no church law. There is no restrictive law that says, “You can’t do that!” Nor is there the libertarian law that says, “Anything goes!” The law is Christ… Christ in community.

Regardless of what side of the church fence you’re on (organized or organic), you may think my “no law” declaration needs a qualifier. Well, I just don’t think so. Anything beyond “Christ in community” leads to divisions among us, and becomes self-righteousness dressed in the garb of the centrality and supremacy of Christ. It’s time we stop it.

“Christ in community” does involve what some have called a NT pattern. But let’s be clear, the principles of that pattern are known only in an examination of the person and work of Christ. Failing to closely examine and take serious the life and teachings of Christ is something that both institutional and organic churches do regularly.

Both groups have isolated and eisegeted (read things into) certain texts to promote their church order, all the while neglecting the life and teachings of Jesus, the very center of our faith.

For example, when his disciples were arguing over who would be greatest in the kingdom, Jesus made it very clear that true leadership was not reflected in the “top-down” hierarchal leadership seen with the politicians and corporations of the world (Mk 10:35-45; Jn 13). No, you can’t have a nation of priests when one person, other than Jesus himself, gets to be the “high” priest and the inheritor of special treatment, and regular monetary blessings.

Therefore, a prime example of the Jesus prescription—the one that goes to the heart of what’s wrong with organized religion—is that anything that doesn’t look like servant-leadership, or creates an unhealthy dependence upon one human priest, leads to spiritual paralysis in the body of Christ.

Whatever each local ekklesia decides about the role and function of pastor/teachers today, our conclusions should always be based upon the example of Christ and what he said about leadership. Church practice should always reflect the person and work of Christ among his first disciples.

Paul in Community?

What about Paul, you ask? Well, what about Paul? Paul’s idea of community comes by merely expounding upon Christ. Therefore, viewing anything Paul says as a rigid “prescriptive” order for the church in every age, when Paul is merely describing a communal life that flows out of Christ, is to put forth a law other than Christ himself.

Jesus is the only prescription for the church in every age.

That isn’t to say that Paul can’t tell us anything about church order in the 21st century. By no means! Instead, it means that Paul should be read as an apostle who guides each church to creatively adhere to the life and teachings of Jesus in their own unique context.

In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul addresses the believers at Corinth concerning their disorderly meetings. If the saints in Corinth were not squabbling over spiritual gifts, we likely would not even have Paul saying anything about order for the church. So notice, the pattern is given in a context of disorder and division over the way things ought to be done.

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.  1 Cor 14:26 NIV

The pattern here is not that all these things, and nothing else, should happen in a church meeting. It’s simply what was happening in Corinth at this moment in time. Paul was not intending to say that every church meeting for all time should always look like what is described here (i.e. every single meeting should always and forever be open-participatory).

No, the pattern for every generation is always and only Christ.

So, what does Christ look like in this particular gathering? He looks like ordered sharing, not disrespectful neglect of others and their gifts (14:27-33). It’s this open-participatory meeting, and only this type of meeting, that we hear Paul addressing with his guidance.

We should not gather from the NT that there is never a place for a meeting set aside to hear a teacher. Paul’s concern in this open meeting is that Christ would not have chaos and disrespect of others when meeting in such an intimate familial setting. I imagine that he might have said something similar in spirit if there was a church who opted to have teaching times in a larger setting. He apparently was cool with this sort of thing when he held his own “apostolic meetings” (Acts 20:7).

There is no church manual that prescribes the activity and function of church meetings. Even if you were to gather up all of the “one another” verses of the NT, you are still not given a rigid order of how things must be done in a church meeting. To force that upon the NT is not only promoting an agenda, it undermines the only prescription, which is Christ.

Biblical scholar and “house church” attendee, Robert Banks, writes:

“The basic principle that Paul lays down for the conduct of the church is that all things should be done for edification. Only when a contribution has this as its object should it be exercised” (Paul’s Idea of Community, 100).

Jesus (and Paul) leaves a great deal of freedom to all local churches. However, that freedom will in the long run never undermine Christ expressed throughout the entire priesthood of believers over the many seasons of the church.

D.D. Flowers, 2011.


New Year’s ReVolution

There is a great deal of talk about renewal, revival, transformation, and mission these days. I don’t see that any lasting change will come from focusing on any of these good things. Primarily, because I think there is something that is better.

I don’t see a return to “mission” and having a big pep rally for Jesus within pop-culture Christianity is the answer. Maybe the Lord doesn’t want a pep-rally. I tend to believe He is tired of all the things we DO in his name and would like us to sit down, be still, and listen.

And yes… even “organic church” can become a substitute for the Lord Himself.

I see all of this as more evidence that many people are still looking for fulfillment outside of knowing the Person of Christ in simple community. They do not see that every good thing comes out of this one thing: being built together as living stones into the centrality and supremacy of Christ.

The Lord moves forward and brings His Kingdom in this way.

This takes time and it calls for us to deny our insistent desire to “do something” for the Lord. It calls for us to wait. And that isn’t something many of us like to do. Especially in this day and age.

We finally come upon the Lord in a new way… and before we know what we really have… before we’ve allowed time for some learning of the Lord’s Person and work… we’re rushing out to convert everyone to a new way of church and trying to convince them to join the “movement.”

Movements can be good for a time, but movements eventually come to an end. Revolutions, on the other hand, permanently change the landscape of the world.

Revolutions are bigger than a few men spearheading a tour that celebrates a new way to do church. A “spiritual” revolution is led by the Spirit and moves in the Lord’s own way and time.  And this way seems foolish at first.

Spiritual revolutions are not due to the organizing of men or even to the publication of a few books. They largely move forward underground by a Power quietly working inside the hearts of unknown revolutionaries who are drawing the attention of heaven instead of men.

These revolutionaries recognize that the invitation is open to others, but it is not a revolution that uses coercion. When folks are touching Jesus… He will bring them in to His glorious work in His time.

Outreach is the Lord’s doing by us first doing our in-reach… touching the Lord’s Spirit with our own. When we are doing this… what follows will look much different than the organizing and “evangelizing” of man.

It’s not man’s revolution. It’s the Lord’s reign and rule upon the earth. The Lord’s revolution and His renewing of creation will come by patient endurance in the face of much opposition… letting the Lord have HIS way with folks.

A spiritual revolution doesn’t need the approval of the established institutions. It moves forward with the approval of the Lord and cares not for the observations of the religious.

I see the Lord leading a mighty revolution. But this revolution runs deeper than the surface hype and momentum of man’s organizing and endless scheming for Jesus.

The Lord’s revolutionaries are not distracted by the hype of movements. They are concerned for the Lord’s work in the world, but they see this as first living peaceably with their own community of saints. They know, in time, the Lord will reach out and build his Body in due season.

For those who see the need for spiritual revolution instead of religious reformation… my prayer in 2010 is that you will join the quite revolution and find satisfaction in being discipled by Jesus in a local expression of God’s Kingdom on the earth.

And leave the hype, the movements, and the mission to the Lord.


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