A Shift in My Ecclesiology

I recently revealed that I’m experiencing a shift in my ecclesiology. For the sake of clarification, I do still agree with much of what Sparks, Nee, Viola, and others have written about Christ in “organic” community. I don’t want anyone to think I believe a little institutionalism is cool or that the church is nebulous in nature. I think both miss the mark for Christian community.

As for the nebulous church idea, I really appreciate the work of Wayne Jacobsen, but his view of community is a bit loosey goosey for me. Knowing Christ in community requires people in committed relationships—that’s the very nature of a worshipping “community.”

I agree that the church should function as an organism in its familial context. But I also think it’s possible that it can at times look like an organization–depending on the season and the context of the church. That’s the great thing about an organism. It can do that. Nevertheless, it will always adhere to Christ in community, regardless of the changes in culture and context.

That means that I don’t think it is possible to fully know Christ in community when the center of church life is a one-hour weekly service (or Sunday school) where only a few function and there is little interaction among the saints. That isn’t to say larger gatherings with music and teaching are off limits to us. That would be prohibiting something that can and does edify folks. I have heard this time and again, “We miss the music and teaching.” I hear a longing to receive these gifts.

The problem for a lot of “organic” church folks is that’s all they had ever experienced. After having experienced face-to-face community, it’s easy to then voice criticisms of the large corporate gatherings. In some minds there was abuse there in that setting, therefore, everything that resembles that sort of thing should be rejected. I have also met folks who have experienced pain and abuse in small groups and house churches. So they run to the isolated pew or leave the church altogether. It’s all reactionary thinking.

Constantine did not invent large gatherings involving worship and teaching. The Jews, and later Jewish Christians, were doing that in the synagogues long before the great dragon polluted the church and set a full-blown priesthood in place to rule over church services.

No matter what order you adopt, some great stuff can happen in a larger setting, but the rubber hits the road in the face-to-face community. Unfortunately, most folks view church life as a teaching time or two during the week, not a shared life together in and outside church meetings.

What I intended to communicate in my last post is that I am disassociating myself with a strict order and calling for a redefining (or clarification) of the NT pattern, which is Christ alone. The church is free to edify and structure their life together any way they choose. As long as “Christ in community” (which at the heart means every-member functioning) is being known in their practice, not just in rhetoric and theory, there is freedom to allow the Spirit to mold that local ekklesia into a unique vessel for God’s glory.

If a church chooses to have a larger worship and teaching time for the exercise of those gifts, an event that the early church was likely not able to do on a regular basis, that’s awesome! But I believe this should only be seen as the dessert, not the main course—a great thing, but not the main thing. Discipleship plays out in relationships through Christian community.

The challenge is building a church life centered upon Christ in community, not upon a one-hour service. I may write on this later, because I think there are things that a church could do to see to it that the body of believers steers away from taking on the trappings of an institution that works only to maintain its overhead. That’s where my thoughts are currently going.

I suppose I’m exploring the many ways Christ can be experienced in community apart from a rigid order or trying to reduplicate the same context and experience of the first-century church. That might be easier for Christians in Mexico or China to relate to in their political and cultural context, but most folks in the US know a different context.

That’s not me shirking the NT pattern of church life, that’s me seeking to uphold it in the pattern of Christ.

Therefore, we should not envision any set order for any church. The Spirit will shape every community of believers each according to their gifts and context—always at the same time holding them to the pattern of Christ. The Lord sees in color, not in black and white. And the Lord may show us colors we have never seen before if we are open to receiving them with joy.

It’s not about finding the right church order or the secrets of the first church for a new book. It’s simply about learning to appreciate the many ways God is able to work his power through faithful followers of Christ.

D.D. Flowers, 2011.

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About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

28 responses to “A Shift in My Ecclesiology

  • Matt

    I think your point rings true- if Christ is getting his way through the mutual submission, mutual participation functioning of the body, the group may have seasons where the meetings look different. The key is that it must be a group consensus on how it looks, not one man’s desire overruling everyone else.

    I’m starting to realize that not everyone’s gifting may be gifts that are 1 Cor 14:26 “meeting focused”. If I have a gift of helping or mercy, of course there may be times where I am led by the spirit to contribute to the meeting but it is also likely that my gift truly functions in the many one-anothering events that take place when we are living in community. These gifts are equally important, even though they don’t highlighted once a week when all of the saints are gathered around in a living room.

    Some of the prominent organic church “plants” seem get around this by the “apostolic worker” assigning exercises to the group in which each person has to bring a specific sharing tied to the theme of the week. No doubt that exercises do help folks function, however this does not mean that they are functioning in their gifts. It also doesn’t translate to them functioning in that way once the exercises stop being assigned. The body is diverse and a one size fits all approach that is billed as “everyone bringing their portion of Christ” can be learned if it taught enough but again that does not mean it is a gifting vs. following what I was taught that I should do in the meeting.

    • David D. Flowers

      @ Matt: Amen, Amen, and Amen!!! Good stuff, bro.

      @ Tim: Thank you for sharing. I think you’re right. Yes, I do hope that I can be a bridge between the two groups.

      @ Frank: HELLLLOOOOOOO!!!! Love you, brother.

  • Tim

    I’ve been trying to rethink ecclesiology lately myself, but I find it so hard to engage in conversation with others about this stuff.

    The eternal purpose of God. The reality of Christ being manifested on earth by all the members coming together and functioning. The priesthood of all believers. Being a family, and the Bride of Christ. I want so badly to connect with others over these things, but the conversation always gets riddled with statements like what the church is supposed to do or look like, and not who she ALREADY IS in Christ.

    It’s exhausting talking about house church, organic church, traditional church, etc. and trying to flesh all these things out. I think if there were a large-scale spiritual unveiling of who we are in Christ, both individually and corporately, that a lot of these discussions would soon become irrelevant.

    Anyways, thanks for your post David. I feel like the tone and content of your writing can help defuse the current tension a little and move us toward our common ground and identity in Christ.

  • Frank Viola

    Good work, my friend. Settling neither for “biblical blueprintism,” institutionalization, nor “postchurch” . . . but “Christ existing as community” as DB famously put it, wherever and however that may be. What infinite grace and mercy!

    Christ is ALL.

    fv

    Psalm 115:1

    p.s. Helllooooooooooo!!! 😉

  • Heather Goodman

    I think the biggest problem with institutional church contexts is not that the idea of having a large meeting with a decent band is somehow wrong, or that teaching in a large meeting is somehow wrong, especially when there is authentic community going on – you are right, it is all about Christ, and specifically about Christ in the form of His Spirit, being among us. BUT the biggest problem with those formats is the clergy/laity divide, and that in and of itself is opposed to Christ flowing through His people.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey, Heather. I agree with you. That’s the very problem I wanted to point out in this post and the previous post. As you said, it’s the biggest problem. A great deal would change if folks would embrace what Christ has taught and the rest of the NT has expounded upon concerning the priesthood of all believers. I really appreciate your input. Thanks!

  • Josh

    For the record, brother, I never thought your view was anything other than this to begin with. 🙂

  • Marshall Diakon

    David, you have written:
    “I am disassociating myself with a strict order and calling for a redefining (or clarification) of the NT pattern, which is Christ alone. The church is free to edify and structure their life together any way they choose.”

    “any way they choose”? What happened to “Christ alone” just 1 sentence before? Or then, now is “Christ in community” to become Christ and community?

    reason of intellect, unrestrained, does tend to get us up to straddling 2 or more fences (i.e., organic and organization). We might imagine this is how it first began for the early church?! What Christ gave (and who/what is in Him) remains distinct from concise human definition; frustrates the book authors, academics, philosophers, etc.

    To rush past the immense damage being administered daily by religious institutions and movements, citing against reactions; soon enough to be occupied with sighting Christ in bars, strip clubs, social & religious sects… carousel. This is truly a “large group” with whom you seem to be gradually moving in, David. Possibly a little tardy, but you’re not alone.

    Yet, not all are reacting in the change. A few have seen the King.

    • David D. Flowers

      Marshall, please consider the overall context of what I have written and refrain from isolating a sentence or two from the spirit of the post. Your comment, especially the last sentence, exemplifies the very thing that prompted me to express my concerns for believers thinking too much of their own spiritual disposition while in pursuit of Christ in community. It’s nothing more than elitism veiled in the language of special revelation (secret knowledge) that others have failed to receive. It strangely resembles Christian Gnosticism of the second century. You should really stop talking that way for all of our sakes, especially for Christ’s sake.

  • Marshall Diakon

    David, please take opportunity to raise your reply above ad hominem. The “narrow gate” Jesus relates in understanding the Kingdom has seen charges of “elitism”, while we do not expect one such as you to be bringing them. I have no “secret knowledge”, and no one should presume such. It is by the mercy, grace and power of God that we are found to be in Christ. If a post seems overt, obtuse or confronting, should not rightly follow that progeny of the second century Gnostics are behind it.

    • David D. Flowers

      Marshall, it’s all in the way you word things. I did not intend to aim any ad hominem arguments at you. Yes, it is by the mercy, grace, and power of God found in Christ. That’s the very thing I intended to communicate in the post above.

  • Tim Chisolm

    Awh, horse hockey! lol. i thought i’d lighten things up and i do agree with your assessment of this IC/OC conundrum that most of us have placed ourselves in. I love you dude, good post and keep ’em comin’.

    ps. i do know of your secret desire of being a mega-church ‘super pastor’

  • Austin

    Dear David,
    you’ll have to pardon my ignorance in some areas, as the way ‘house church is done today, is vastly different to the way it was done back in the 1980’s. Back in those days, I found myself with a bunch of 20 odd refugees from the mainstreams, who gathered in a holy huddle several nights a week, and then used the entire weekend for evangelism. We were isolated from all contact with IC churches in our city.

    We saw many people saved, lots of people who experienced divine healing (genuinely so) but hardly anybody stayed. People just were not ready to become a part of ‘church in a house’. Nobody stayed long enough to ask what doctrines we believed, or how we ‘ordered’ our meetings back then. (I’m not so sure that “doctrine” will be a hindrance for those coming into the Kingdom, through your ministry.) The organic church as it stands today, was nowhere in sight.

    Having left that situation in mid 1986, and having travelled half way around Oz in that time (mainly amongst the IC setting) I found a stirring within myself in more recent times for something real. The days of the ‘corner shop church’ are long gone – the Mega Church has seen to that, but then, neither of them will be an adequate expression of the church in these last days. “Smaller, cheaper, lighter,” may sound like a catchy jingle for some new product or service, but the harsh reality is that the IC with all of its buildings, programs and full time staffers will become unsustainable in the near future.

    It is true to say that sooner or later, that the old wine skins of denominationalism eventually become cracked and dried up, and it is definitely time for the saints to move on, when the Holy Spirit says to move. Whatever is left behind becomes the next old wineskin, because the people of God failed to hear His voice and obey His direction at that crucial time when a new wine skin was forming.

    I call it ‘cicada shells’. Cicadas make a lot of noise of an evening, but try find one the next morning. They’ve all burrowed underground, with many of them leaving behind an empty shell on top of the grass. This is what happens too, when a previous ‘move of God’ has moved on, leaving behind it an echo chamber of the life that was once contained within the skin.People cling to the empty shell because of nostalgia etc, but the real move of God has ‘gone underground’.

    When a person peers through ‘a hole in the fence’ between the IC and the nearest OC, there are some seemingly strange and confronting concepts that are hard for IC folks to embrace. If I were you, I wouldn’t be expecting too much from them for the first little while – maybe the first six months or so. Perhaps the biggest challenge in these times for the OC, is not its missional evangelising of the world, but accommodating within its ranks of the rather large influx of former IC ‘refugees’ when that time finally comes? Just a few thoughts I wanted to share with you.

    Austin Hellier
    Downunder

    • David D. Flowers

      @ Tim: Ha! Where did the phrase “horse hockey” come from?

      @ Austin: Thank you for sharing your insights, bro. I have actually had similar thoughts, and heard others share the same vision. Could it be prophetic? Maybe so. I truly appreciate you weighing in on the topic. There is a great deal of wisdom in what you share. Thanks again.

  • John Metz

    David, your last two posts caught me by surprise. After a summer of only a few posts (for good reason I’m sure), you came out with these two so quickly! I would like to say a lot more but I think I need to digest your posts a bit. Some thoughts:

    The nature of the church is organic, is of life, i.e. it is Christ lived out in the members and incorporating them into his Body. But, how to describe how it ‘looks’ on the earth!

    In Revelation 1, the churches are seen as golden lampstands. Although each had a particular location, history & condition and were different in their negative points, they all were golden lampstands. In the essential matters, they all were the same–their essence was gold, indicating something of the nature of God the Father; they all had the same very detailed shape (a lampstand) signifying Christ as the embodiment of God (Col. 2:9); & they all had the same function, the shining of the lamps to give light to the darkened world, showing the function of the Holy Spirit.

    A genuine church-life will have the features of shining out the Trinity to mankind with the divine essence, the testimony of Jesus & the shining, enlightening Spirit as their content and expression.

    I was saved in 1970 through “grass-roots evangelism,” about as free and unencumbered as it gets. More and more I am captivated by the vision of the Body of Christ universally expressed as golden lampstands locally.

    I fully agree that the one-hour, one-man show is not the staple of the church. This does not negate the need of teaching. Paul taught for one year in a rented space in Ephesus.

    David, I apologize for the randomness of this reply. As I said, I need more time to digest your posts. Thanks for being so bold.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey John, I can understand that you were caught off guard with two quick posts. I’m glad you noticed. That means you are a regular reader. 🙂

      I stay pretty busy. I teach full-time during the day, go to grad school several nights a week, and study other evenings. I was in school over the summer and writing a big paper. I would love to write more for the blog, but for the time being my posts seem a bit sporadic and coming from all sorts of different angles. I like to think it gives my blog some flavor. Also, those who subscribe don’t get bombarded with little posts every other day just to bump up my blog rating. I like to process things and put forth a good meaty post. That’s the way I roll!

  • John Metz

    Thanks, David. I expected that you were busy over the summer. Sounds like you were busier than I expected!

    I do check your blog regularly.

  • mark

    Thanks for posting this, David. Where Christ is King, legalism is put to death and the need to force our will/views/expectations on others dies with it.

  • jaredcburt

    David,

    I must say I find it hard to disagree with much of what you said. Local congregations may take different forms, but ultimately the heart of church is “Christ in community” as you put it. I have taught our church to call it Gospel Fellowship. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings us together in fellowship (1 John 1:3, 7).

    You mentioned Sunday School… What I find is that Sunday School, like other things, is something that may or may not be biblical. What I mean is, the actual words “Sunday School” never appear in all of Scripture. This, however, does not mean that the content, purpose, and design of Sunday School may not be biblical. If the gathering brings about interaction, discussion, dialogue, actual fellowship, builds Christian relationships/friendships, discipleship, study, conversation, and so forth on the basis of knowing Christ then it is without question not only biblical but a necessary dynamic to “doing church” right. However, if Sunday School is merely a lecture then, while that may be helpful, it is not really what church is all about. There must be fellowship outside 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Sunday School (or whatever one wants to label it) must merely be the launching pad for the week. I think the name brings confusion for many. But the mission and purpose of it could still be very biblical.

    Great post! Now, write something I can disagree with so we can stop this bonding mess! 🙂

    Jared

    • David D. Flowers

      Jared, thanks for commenting. 🙂

      I do agree that learning from Christ in small groups (“Sunday School” or whatever) can be a good thing. However, I do think we should consider that the shared “familial” life we seek in community is best encouraged in small groups that meet in an intimate and informal setting, away from a building where there is going to be corporate worship and a sermon the very next hour. I don’t intend to be critical of corporate worship and a message given by an elder/teacher. I affirm these things as opportunities for edification in my last two posts. I just mean to say that giving the wrong impression to the church that meeting in a classroom for an hour or so is biblical community, maybe better than what some folks are doing, but it will not be the most conducive to the kind of familial “face-to-face” community that we both long to see in the Body of Christ—which is getting involved in each other’s lives in our homes, the gym, the school events, etc.

      I think we both see the church being the church by really sharing in the lives of others in the fellowship outside of formal meetings in a church building. I think that’s why some organic folks think that the “clergy” and the buildings create confusion about what the church is according to the NT. I certainly understand this, but I’m not real sure if we should go to such an extreme and say that Christians can’t rent property or obtain a meeting place for larger gatherings. However, I do think that owning elaborate buildings (or church malls!) not only causes a great confusion about what the church is, but it is a terrible waste of money! That money should be going to the poor and widows in and outside the church. The church could do so much with what is spent on overhead.

      Depending on the size of the church in a specific location, I’m presently thinking that believers can benefit from larger gatherings involving talented musicians and gifted teachers. But I do think that these things, the sort of activity mentioned in 1 Cor 14:26, should be happening in small groups of believers who are sharing life together—something much more than a quarterly Bible-study group or a cell group that meets for a short time before disbanding.

      Can an ekklesia see this sort of community as being church life? Could they then view the corporate gathering as a special event, a side order attached to the main course of day-to-day (life-on-life) activities of the church? I’m not sure. It’s hard to imagine that with the way things are structured and most folks are conditioned to think because of years of church tradition. I’ll keep my heart open to how the Lord might manifest himself in a church that has the ability to have large and small meetings where the gifts are exercised among the entire priesthood of believers.

      Love ya, man. It’s a joy to be able to share this journey with you.

  • david bolton

    David, I’ve loved these last two posts and am blessed by the things you are bringing to light. Thank you and keep ’em coming! There are many good things that get stirred in me as I read them and the comments following. I am encouraged by where the discussion is going.

    As I have been reading, there is also stirring in me a growing burden that I’d like to throw out here as well, for you consideration and of those who may read it. The burden is this, that the movements that are seeking a return to an expression of the Church according to the mind of God in His Son, are flying under, secondary and, therefore, sectarian banners. The banners of “Organic”, “Simple”, “House”, “Missional”, “Emergent”, etc… are distinctives that focus us on, and rally us around, matters other than the main point, which is Christ. They pitch the battle at issues of form, practice, expression, N.T. principles, ecclesiology, etc… rather than the essential and main issue which is Christ, central, supreme, and All in all. It is no different than the Corinthians flying under the secondary and sectarian banners of “I am of Paul”, “I am of Apollos”, etc… which Paul rebukes as carnal and divisive. In 1 Corinthians 1-3, He masterfully brings them back to Christ, and Christ alone as the main point and their only distinguishing foundation and unifying identity. Their divisive labels were evidence that Christ had been subtly supplanted from being central and supreme in all things, and His workers had moved into that place of preeminence in defining their circles of fellowship.

    This matter of labeling is in our blood stream. From the first day that man was created, he has had the impulse to name things. (This was the first recorded activity of Adam.) It is part of our dominion-taking nature as man. When it comes to the Church, we likewise have the insatiable need and desire to label, name, classify, denominate, and identify. Whenever we do so with secondary labels and identities for the chruch, however, we do so with categorization in mind, which is an act of dividing and separating along certain lines other than Christ. When those secondary classifications become our “banner” and confession, i.e. “I am of Paul”, they become sectarian and serve to divide the Body of Christ. The IC/OC classifications of our present situation do just this, for instance.

    The matter of the identity of the Church, however, is something that God has not left to man to decide. He has placed us into Christ and now “Christ is all”, or as Paul says concerning the body,”…so it is with Christ “. He is our identity both individually and corporately. His Identity is what integrates us. His Name is what unites us. His Name is “the name above every name”. All lesser names make divisive distinctions and classifications that stand contrary to the Person, Work and Spiritual Reality of Christ.

    There is indeed a growing revelation in the Church of the centrality, supremacy and all-sufficiency of Christ in all thing related to the Church, and we are making great strides in returning to God’s Pattern for the Church, His Son. I am afraid, however, that we will only go so far if we do not return to the centrality, supremacy and all-sufficiency of Christ in this matter of IDENTITY as well. We will become just another “eccentric” movement that stands as a testimony to our incomprehensible ability to rally around lesser things. I pray that in what God is doing today, we will learn to rise above this carnal tendency.

    In your previous post, you spoke of those things which are “prescriptive” and “descriptive”. I guess I could boil down what I am saying by affirming that Christ is Both to the Church:her only “Prescription” and her only “Description”. A truly Christ-centered movement will be centered in Christ as her only Identity, Description and Banner, to the glory of the Father.

    May God deliver us from lesser fascinations, and restore us to the unity, purity and fullness of His Son in all things.

    Love and blessings in Him, David B.

  • jpuddy

    I really appreciate this, David. I’m on staff at a large charismatic church, while working remotely over the internet, and we gather locally at home in Finland! We’re moving back to Toronto soon, and I am excited at what God can do in and through those who have a strong sense of the person of God, and are slowely discovering community. I believe this is something that can also be played out in our workforce. I’ve starting writing on that topic here: http://www.jpuddy.net/2012/the-new-missional-paradigm-part-1-the-promised-land/

    Definitely like your thoughts!

  • Gregory

    thanks for the article David, it confirms what the LORD is doing in my heart practice with other “lovers of JESUS”

    grace and peace

    https://www.facebook.com/gregory.sterner.5

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