Christian Ministry: Let’s do it!

I’ve been asked why I write so much about the dysfunction of American churchianity, as if I’m too negative, too narrow, and empty of constructive suggestions. If you think so, you haven’t been reading carefully enough. If you review my ‘church’ articles in this site’s Discipleship section, you’ll see all kinds of specific and constructive suggestions for Christians to grow individually, to make use of their spiritual gifts, to encourage each other, to learn, and to reach out to the world around them with truth and compassion . . . even if I do say so myself.

The reason a tennis coach keeps yelling out to his young charge to “Move your feet!” is because the player isn’t moving his feet. Until he begins to move his feet and continues to do so ‘religiously,’ the coach is obligated to exhort him, or else the player doesn’t improve. No footwork, no forehand. The reason Tevye asks his wife if she loves him (Fiddler on the Roof) is because it’s important to him that day – whatever she may have said 25 years before is not sufficient to coast on. Love is a daily work . . . unexpressed, it’s no love at all. The reason a top-notch SEAL team continues to train, and train so intensively, is that skills will atrophy . . . the stakes are too high for complacency.

Do I expect that my awkward and rarely clicked on blogs will turn churches around? No. I just hope that somebody, somewhere, might catch an idea and do a bit better – this week – in leading his family or raising her children or encouraging a discouraged brother or sister in Christ. If you’re in a typical evangelical (gelly) or fundamentalist (fundie) church, however, you’re at a great disadvantage, because your system is designed to help so little.

Regarding the charge of ‘narrowness,’ I’d encourage you to get into some of the other topics I’ve explored on this site, including economics, teamwork in business and in warfare, educational theory and practice, the history of revivals, biographies of godly Christians, human consciousness, molecular biology, information theory and statistical physics, astronomy and cosmology, the fossil record, geology, philosophy, practical apologetics, fatherhood and husband-hood, textual criticism, and comparative religions . . . not to mention evangelism and the variety of topics my wife has added to the site.

But this blog is focused on Christian Ministry: Why aren’t we doing it?, the title of a new book by Gary Maske, available on amazon.com. The issue of how churches should operate so that they actually do ministry, do discipleship, should not merely be a debate about the relative merits of methods, but rather what God has ordained for His churches – they do belong to Him! And because He has ordained certain principles and practices for His churches, we should obey and follow, because God says so and because He is smarter than us and knows what works! The clever marketing and manipulative methods of modern gelly and fundie churches don’t work because man’s wisdom, apart from God, is foolishness . . . review 1 Corinthians Chapter 1 to note God’s ‘opinion’ on this.

Gary’s book ought to be on your shelf – after you read it carefully. He does the legwork for you on the Biblical principles and the history of function and dysfunction in church history. Let’s survey some of the nuggets from the book. (I’ll italicize direct quotes from the book.) For example:

”All ye are brethren,” said Jesus. We are to call no man “master” (teacher) or “father.” By what logic, then, are we free to call a man “pastor” or “reverend”? I note that the term “reverend,” especially, is reserved for God, as in Psalm 111:9 . . . “holy and reverend is his name.”

Gary distinguishes between speaking and serving gifts in Romans 12, a distinction made explicitly in 1 Peter 4:11. The speaking gifts (prophesying, teaching, exhorting, ruling) apply both in and out of the assembly, while the serving gifts (ministering, giving, mercy) find practice mostly out of the assembly.

The author asks whether our churches function in accord with the model of Romans 12. His answer is a resounding NO, not only for the present, but for most of the church age. We don’t do church this way. The exceptions, I believe, reside in the persecuted churches, especially in Asia, which cannot operate in any other way than the way God designed!

The work of the ministry, then, is done by all the perfected saints in order that the rest of the body of Christ is edified or perfected. These perfected or spiritually mature saints minister to the rest of the church – new converts, those weak in the faith . . . and the young children and adolescents (this latter being in particular a ministry of parents to their children) – and in doing so accomplish “the edifying of the body of Christ.” Gary is not suggesting sinless perfection, of course, but simply the Biblical principle that Christian perfection denotes completeness, maturity, and discernment, determinedly on the path to spiritual growth.

He makes the Scriptural case that the prophets and apostles exercised a foundational ministry, that evangelists and teachers participate in occasional ministry, but that the goals of the apostles, along with those of evangelists and teachers, is to equip the brethren for an ongoing mutual ministry. The work to perfect the saints is to enable them to minister, so that they can minister, and not so that they cannot minister. What good perfected saints if they can never minister in the churches?

I have a good friend who was working to establish a house church in a midwestern city. He befriended a fifty-something couple who were discouraged with the lifelessness in their pulpit/pew church. They wanted more substantive fellowship, some real discipleship . . . they wanted MORE. They had been members for many years and had been Christians since their youth. Yet the fellow couldn’t muster the courage to step out and take responsibility to study, to learn, to minister apart from the warm cocoon of his “church” – in which he wasn’t really studying, learning, or ministering. (That’s the pastor’s job, after all.) He professed he wasn’t trained enough, educated enough to be part of a group of believers where they shared all the responsibilities. What he couldn’t seem to understand was that if he wasn’t equipped after so many decades within the system, his system was dysfunctional. (Not that my friend was making any demands on the guy whatsoever . . . the fellow simply anticipated that he couldn’t just sit in such a group indefinitely without stepping up at some point.)

In the first churches all were ministers, and not just in theory . . . Church function, order, and polity subsequent to the demise of the apostles is nothing if not a contradiction of the plain and unvarnished teaching in 1 Peter 4. Not that the meaning of 1 Peter 4 was ever openly refuted in the churches, it was simply not believed or practiced. Instead, the prevailing notion in the churches has long been that the “pastors and teachers” are both speakers and ministers, to the exclusion of almost every other speaker or minister. What is this if not unbelief?

“But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.” (Rev 2:6) The meaning of the word “Nicolaitane,” from its Greek roots, is “to conquer the laity.” ”The church was divided in two by this conquering, and this has continued throughout church history to the present day. Nicolaitanism has come to be known by another name, “clericalism,” which is chiefly characterized by a division of the church into “clergy” and “laity.”

Chinese house church

Gary notes that Paul told Titus to ordain elders – plural – in every city in Crete. (Can you say, “Area-wide house church network”?!?) Titus was an evangelist, exhorted by Paul to do that work in 2 Tim 4:5. Acts 14:23 records that Paul and Barnabas ordained elders – plural – in every church. There is no level of authority and responsibility above that, except for the Lord Jesus Himself. If a “bishop” or “senior pastor” acquires or accepts authority, interposing himself between the flock with its elders and the Great Shepherd, he does so in defiance of the New Testament. Yet the singular one-pastor / one-church model dominates in Catholicism, Protestantism, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism.

Non-Catholics pay lip service to the doctrine of the priesthood of believers, but don’t actually believe it. John Calvin and the Reformation never changed church polity one iota, except it replaced the priesthood of Romanism with a quasi-priesthood called “the pastorate.” Protestants and gellies often cite “the church fathers,” but these “fathers” were the establishers of Romanism and the papacy. When we venerate the “church fathers,” we heap contempt on the apostles. Sadly, even the independent, persecuted churches of Europe during the Middle Ages (and later), the Waldenses, Albigenses, Anabaptists, Pilgrims, Puritans, and Baptists retained clericalism, all the while insisting that they were the Biblical remnant.

For many years my wife and I were part of fundie churches, buying into that insistence – that we were part of the only genuine New Testament churches around, despite the un- or extra-Biblical practices of pulpits, tithing, the man-of-God senior pastorate, scripted services, an altar (an altar!!), and absence of true discipleship via exercise of the spiritual gifts of the body. In order for us to find opportunities to minister – to encourage within the body in a variety of ways – we had to make time outside of the busy program, which included Sunday School, Sunday morning service, Sunday night, Wednesday night corporate prayer and Bible study, Thursday night visitation, and weekend bus ministry. We tried, but what little time we had to make the attempt, it seemed like everyone else had the impression that “church life” was 100% fulfilled within the already intensive program.

In modern gelly churches, the program is more diverse and much less intense, but the result is the same. The vast majority of gelly church members are tapped out with one weekly service, one occasional ‘small group’ meeting, and a once-per-quarter-perhaps ‘outreach’ activity . . . you know, food for the homeless, shoes for the orphans, boxing up goods for earthquake victims, etc.

Within the body, the sermon displaces the operation of the spiritual gifts in the church. In the sermon all teaching is vested in one man. The operation and the development of the speaking gifts in the churches are thus preempted. No exercise of the gifts, no development of the gifts. As a result the saints remain carnal, even babes in Christ, for we do not and cannot grow to maturity in Christ apart from the exercise of our spiritual gifts. Each grows in part due to the exercise of his own gift; but mostly we grow due to others ministering their gifts to us.

Want me to say something positive? OK, here it is: Get out of your anti-Biblical so-called “church” so that you can take a chance on growing, on exercising gifts, on encouraging other believers, on learning how to evangelize as opposed to hoping that you might get someone to visit your program so that the Gospel can somehow magically rub off on them. Do it. Do it positively, eagerly, hopefully, and obediently and you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to leave behind the glue trap of clericalism.

The seminary only develops (perhaps) the speaking gift of one man and not the myriad saints of Romans 12. As I’ve noted many times before, have you not noticed that all of the epistles were written to all the saints in the local area city-wide house church networks at Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, etc.? New Testament teaching is for the saints to embrace. There is no instruction to find a seminary-trained man to do it all. The church is its own proving-ground for teachers. The seminary is an unauthorized proving-ground.

Gary asks, What if the man’s sermons are always sound? Well, they cannot be sound on church polity and, at best, even on Biblical subjects with sound doctrine, he is simply reinforcing the age-old tradition of a Christian pastorate that overthrows the ministry of the brethren found in Romans 12.

Is it possible to have both “sound teaching” and an order in the churches contrary to Christ’s design? By no means. It is a contradiction in terms.

Gary suggests that another name for clericalism is “displacement theology,” the effect being a displacement of Christian ministry. When men act as heads of the churches, Jesus Christ is deposed. It sounds outrageous. How could it be? But at the end of the age Jesus stands at the door of His church and knocks. In Rev 3:20 Jesus appeals to individuals, not for salvation, but for fellowship with Him – no priest in between. During the Great Tribulation, Jesus pleads (Rev 18:4-5) with His people to come out of the false religious system that has taken over the world, the structure of which is already established in our day.

The author describes three major categories of errors under the umbrella of clericalism. In Scholasticism schools are established as the arbiters of doctrine, usurping the local churches, which the Lord Jesus established as the pillar and ground of the truth. Clerics are qualified for leadership only by these schools. Seminaries and “Bible Institutes” that are attached to one-man-pastor churches are part of the problem, not the solution.

In Gnosticism . . . the church is separated into “those who know” and “those who really know.” Gnostics claim secret knowledge, manifested in today’s pulpits by an alleged unique knowledge of “what the Greek really says,” and seminary curricula that incorporate much of man’s self-puffed wisdom.

Thirdly, Sacerdotalism divides the church into those who administer “sacraments” and those who receive them. But Biblically there are no sacraments – God’s grace comes by faith alone. I have been challenged by fundie pastors, who cannot imagine how I or any of my house church peers could dare to baptize someone or administer the Lord’s supper. The first time I heard such a challenge I was shocked. I had labored under the false impression that fundies don’t see themselves as holding to Roman Catholic doctrine.

It is God’s plan and it is the Biblical pattern that a new convert should study the Word so that he is able to minister the Word to others. The Word of God is not rocket science. It is far higher than rocket science, but it is intelligible to a vast majority of us in a way that rocket science is not.

Gary’s right. Speaking from the perspective of a research scientist I can attest that the Bible and its applications to life and its meaning are far richer than the discipline of science and its application to the mere analysis of particles, fields, and their interactions. Mind and spirit are more than matter; not just more, but more complex, more fascinating, and far more meaningful. The world idolizes scientists like Einstein or Feynman or Hawking – who develop equations to predict the effects of mere forces. The world writes biographies and makes movies of fellows like Henry Ford or Steve Jobs who design technology in cute, svelte packages.

Richard Feynman

In principle, physics and chemistry are simple, disciplines that can be reduced to mathematics which, in turn, can be solved by rote methods, despite the apparent difficulty of calculus, partial differential equations, and group theory to those who haven’t pained themselves with the required ‘advanced degrees.’ Biology is tougher because it involves complex systems of machines and processes, hard to measure at the nanoscopic level, and harder still to reduce to tractable mathematics. Therefore, much of biological science tends to be descriptive rather than predictive – it’s just too hard. But the mind of an individual and the dynamics of a society? Psychology and social ‘science’ are no sciences at all. Those practitioners consistently ‘get it wrong’ because they don’t understand the underlying principles, which are spiritual . . . derived only within a Biblical worldview.

Thus, ironically, the ‘plowman in the field,’ the fellow that William Tyndale had in mind when he translated what would become the KJV in the following century, can know, understand, and exercise wisdom in his life and the lives of others in a manner far superior to that of the psychologist . . . or the physicist or medical doctor or lawyer or politician in their vaunted worldly wisdom.

The potential for wisdom in the plowman, and his potential for fruitful service, love, encouragement, and counsel into the lives of others – namely, things that matter for life and eternity – is unlimited, because the Bible is inexhaustible and the indwelling Holy Spirit is infinite in wisdom and eager to energize good works. Pray tell me . . . what is it about the conventional church program that even recognizes this? The ‘program’ certainly doesn’t provoke it. But YOU can choose to grow. God is willing if you are.

Gary expands on the roles of the apostles and prophets who revealed the Word, evangelists who call unbelievers to repent and become part of a church, and pastors and teachers who continue the work of perfecting the saints, bringing them to an adult understanding of truth via a working knowledge of Scripture. However, the churches operate as if the saints never grow up . . . the brethren hardly minister to one another, but they are ministered to, again and again, the basics of the Christian faith . . . short passages of Scripture for thirty minutes . . . reiterating the same Bible truths over and over. He cites Hebrews 6:1-2.

I have observed the debilitating fruits in my visits to many churches. Even among the ‘senior saints,’ very very few actually know how to share the Gospel with a lost soul, and of those who do, hardly anyone has the guts to do it, despite professing belief that their lost sister, neighbor, or co-worker is headed for Hell. Is sharing the Gospel, exercising the Great Commission in your own life, an advanced topic? No, no, no! It’s the most basic practice of all for the new believer.

Gary’s chapter on house churches is worthwhile. Here’s a poignant paragraph as a sample:

God does not intend for Christians to become settled in the world, spiritually speaking. We are pilgrims on a pilgrimage to a city with foundations. It is not that “church” buildings are proof of the apostasy but rather that they are a symptom of it. In parts of the world where Christians are persecuted, they still meet in houses, or cellars, or secret rooms. If they meet openly their buildings are often destroyed. It is only in the parts of the world where Christianity is respectable that it is harder to avoid the inclination to really settle here. And we build buildings. The great cathedrals of Europe readily come to mind, where Christianity is mostly dead and these buildings, awe-inspiring, are truly spiritual tombstones. But America has plenty of its own awe-inspiring cathedrals and edifices.

Christians are to be made perfect (mature) a day at a time, through life experience in business and family, through interactions with the world and with fellow believers, in everything applying God’s word and praying for guidance from the Holy Spirit. Life in the church must include exercise of gifts, to offer advice and counsel, to exhort and encourage, to teach by example and by exegesis. The Christian in business who struggles needs counsel from a Christian with business experience. The sick need encouragement from those who have endured illness, and the persecuted from those who have persevered. The young mother needs counsel from older women who have raised children to maturity, and who have learned to love husbands who fall short of perfection. The single young man needs accountability from men who have entered into marriage having escaped the temptations of fornication, and from men who have succumbed but repented, and have cautionary tales to warn of the consequences.

Lakewood Church

The professional pastorate does not share “life” in the same way as the “laity.” Clerics insist that qualification comes through seminary schooling, as if that is superior to the Christ life experiences of the entire body. But the Scriptural view of elders indicates qualification by experience demonstrated over many years, elders which remain a part of the body, not usurping the Head, who must be the Lord Jesus Christ.

Gary concludes with the hope that if the New Testament teachings on the church were believed, it would have a revival-like effect on the saved, and would convert many of the professors to genuine conversion. I know Christians who are praying for revival in the churches, or perhaps for revival in the nation, and none that I know is concerned with the way churches function. They hope and pray for a revival of spiritual fervor within the existing paradigm. But the existing paradigm is not conducive to spiritual fervor; it is in opposition to it.

Are “separatists” – like those who start house churches – guilty of not loving the brethren? No, the reality in American Christendom is that gelly and fundie church members reserve some small measure of love only for those in their particular church. As Gary says, This is sectarianism. I have experienced this countless times, offering friendship and partnership with Christians in various churches, to little effect. The irony is that if my wife and I actually committed to membership in such churches, the fellowship is superficial at best – it’s just not part of the program. And partnership in evangelism? Virtually nonexistent, if by evangelism you actually mean telling lost people that they need to repent and trust Christ.

Gary offers advice that I also have given, to new Christians who are looking to grow, and don’t have a Biblical house church environment to attach to. We have the Word, and the Spirit, and we retain the fellowship of the saints. Look for Christian fellowship wherever you find it. I don’t necessarily mean “find a church” (as “finding fellowship” has come to mean), I mean look for fellowship wherever you find it. We can have fellowship with many Christians whose church we would not attend. I agree that should be possible, but as I just wrote, it’s not easy.

I’ll close with some words at the end of Gary’s work, which I endorse:

I offer these words of encouragement, not to those who are comfortable in the fellowship of their churches – for those do not require this encouragement – but to those of you searching for fellowship, any fellowship, in Christ. Especially I would encourage young believers who, in moving away from home, find themselves very much in the world, and yet aliens.

Of course all believers are aliens here. We are looking for a city with foundations. There are none of those here. We are on a pilgrimage through the valley of the shadow of death, and that means we have no continuing home. Some of us are more settled in this world than we ought to be. I do not write to these, for they will not receive it. I write to those not settled.

– drdave@truthreallymatters.com

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