Sunday, August 10, 2014

Restoring the Primitive Church – and You

Early in the 1800s several religious leaders from differing denominations met together in agreement.  They agreed that it was bad that there were many different Christian groups, each of which claimed to follow the bible.  In the New Testament, there is only one church.  There is only one “way,” as it was then called (Acts 9:2; 18:25ff; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).  Each of these preachers agreed that the bible was true and that Jesus was the head of only one church, but which one?  Among their numbers most were Presbyterians and Baptists, but there were others. 

Finally they agreed that instead of all of them becoming one of the existing groups, they would all quit being whatever they had been, and they would instead be no denomination at all.  Baptists would leave their group, and so would the Presbyterians and Methodists, etc.  Instead of having a denominational label, they would be simply: “Christians.”   

When it came to church organization and practice, they would imitate what they called “the primitive church,” which is to say the churches found in the New Testament, established by the Apostles.  They would meet, speak and organize just as the Apostles had established the church to do, 1700 years earlier. 

In the years since that group formed, they (predictably) began to splinter all over again.  Today that “one” church is four different groups with many sub-groups.  So … did they fail? 

I don’t believe so.  The first church splintered, and the “restored” church splintered.  It happens.  Satan corrupts the Lord’s people at every opportunity, and nothing is a better tool for corruption than the notion of power or control.  Once a group forms it tries to grow and needs leaders.  Leaders are occasionally good, humble, loving, protective and honest.  But for most, leadership is merely a tool to attain the appearance of respect, and the ability to “win” disputes.  Other leaders are simply incompetent, fearful, greedy, or ignorant of the scriptures.  After all, leaders are humans, too, and no man is flawless but Jesus. 

Jesus’ church is just like each of Jesus’ followers – in need of constant cleansing.  Just as we get dirty and bathe every day, so we also sin often and need to live lifestyles of repentance.  It is the same with a group of disciples (church).  Sometimes we need to repent and sort of “start over.”  And even if we do everything correctly, it won’t be long until we are “dirty” again. 

The early/primitive church was formed on principles inspired by God and appropriate for their times and culture(s).  But it didn't take long for problems to arise.  In fact, almost every “book” of the New Testament after Acts is (or contains) letters to churches and preachers addressing problems.  In some cases Paul was correcting problems in churches that were still in their infancy!  
In one of those letters, Paul compared a church to a building or a temple.  Just as God’s temple has a perfect foundation, we each build upon it.  And since none of us is perfect, we must “be careful” how we build (1 Corinthians 3.8-4.2).  And as we are cautious – we must also be humble.  The deceiver is relentless.  He will use any means to coerce us into believing a lie, and if we strengthen or expand a church based on a false idea, we will be building weakness into the structure itself.  Even with a perfect foundation, a small error on the first floor becomes catastrophic for a skyscraper. 

I’m writing this because I believe that all disciples are participants in the construction of the church of Christ.  No matter what congregation we are with, we have an impact.  Most people merely go along with the existing group.  A few become questioners, challengers, and sometimes troublemakers.  Others see a group and want to “get involved,” and join committees, attend meetings, and one day teach classes and do other things that make them “leaders,” or at least representatives of the group.  Whatever our role, we are all participants.  Or if not, we are those who bury the talent God entrusted to us and so we will be condemned in the last day.  As far as I can tell, the only person guaranteed hell is the lazy, worthless, fruitless disciple. 

I hope and pray that each person reading this will take their role within the Kingdom more seriously as you interact with other “Christians.” 

If you’re already a part of a group ask yourself “why.”  Are you helping that group grow stronger, wiser, more loving, or do you merely show up? 

Are you in a group that is good for you?  Do they motivate you to be more focused on God daily?  Do they help you become stronger, purer, and wiser, or do they load you up with activities that bear very little eternal fruit? 

All “churches” have room for improvement, just like individuals.  Furthermore, the leaders have a “vision” that they will fight for, and are terrified of change.  The church member is usually doomed to be little more than a cog in the wheel, and attempts to change the group will be seen as “trouble-making.”  So be careful not just “how” you build, but with whom you try to work!  As our Lord said: 
“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”  (Matthew 7:6)

Our first calling as disciples is to love God with all our being.  To serve Him with love, energy and wisdom is our greatest work.  Our second command (and really the only way we can obey the first) is to love our neighbor.  Sadly, our neighbors are sometimes reluctant to change (repent, grow, improve), and so we are unable to help them.  Worse yet, our neighbors who claim to be Christians will usually treat God’s servants as they always have.  Remember Stephen’s challenge to God’s people, and how that ended for him:
“Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One (whose betrayers and murderers you have now become) you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.”
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him….  But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning.… They went on stoning Stephen as … falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.  (Acts 7:52–60)

What we often overlook is that Stephen spoke nothing but the truth!  Not one person in Stephen’s audience could dispute a single word – except maybe that he claimed Jesus was “The Righteous One,” but even then they could not deny that they had murdered a man who was innocent.  In other words, they were furious at a man for doing nothing more than stating what they all agreed was the truth!  Each of us should expect no less than this furious response.

Prophets will be persecuted, but be one, anyway, because true prophets serve God, not men.  True prophets will have a limited effect on others, or in some cases simply make them so angry they’ll hate you and crush you.  The effect you have is limited by the freedom God gives to Satan and to people to attempt to poison your work.  This is where we must trust God – and not ourselves.  Our job is to obey, not to understand. 

Disciple-Making is Job One

Be disciple-makers first

Remember that disciple-making is just like parenting: first a child is conceived, then born and then trained for years.  Be a disciple maker as your FIRST order of business. 

Then let your “church” grow from that prime directive 

If each person in a group is a disciple, then that group is a church.  And if each one is focused on disciple-making, then the function of church will come into focus.  And after – AFTER – you have become a disciple maker and found the church’s function … then “form” of church will follow as naturally as the sunrise follows night. 

In our religious world, we get these things out of order.  First we seek to “plant” a church, and have leaders dictate the formFunction is merely assumed … we gather “to worship.”  Sadly, not one bit of that is found in scripture.  Our reasons for gathering are never called worship in the bible, ever.  According to the Apostles, our reasons for gathering are for “equipping, strengthening, encouraging, accountability, etc.”  Or to wrap it all up in one word: “edification.” 

The function of a church is edification.  But to what end?  Are we here to cheer one another, to confirm one another’s beliefs, or to bind together and fight against the world?  Not according to the bible, no. 

The primitive church (established by the Apostles) was a gathering of God-lovers whose reason for gathering was to equip and strengthen each other to be better, stronger, wiser, more effective (fruitful) disciple-makers. 

Today consider yourself - and your group of believers:

Consider your function (and theirs), and how to help them change (or if change is even possible). 
If not, it might be time for you to focus on working purely for God and letting Him guide your steps until you can find others who, like you, whose greatest love is God – not church, family, friends, money, power, doctrine, telling non-disciples how they should live, etc. 

Remember that often Israel’s prophets found it was better to be separate from the population, whom they could not help, and who (often) wanted the prophets dead. 

Live only for God.  There is no one who loves you like Yahweh.  No one even can.  And if our King gives you others to work and grow with, then work together to seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness. 

Build well!  

You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you are being built together into God’s dwelling in the Spirit. 
(Ephesians 2:19–22)

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