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.