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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Defining the Local Church

I'm not sure exactly where this is going to head, but I want to begin to focus again on some Simple Church ideas in my next few posts. This actually relates to the discussion we've had here on prophecy, spiritual gifts, etc. in some sort of way, because that discussion has brought to the surface some questions about "preaching", Sunday morning worship, and other related issues. There are so many different directions we could go in this area, and I hope to be able to blog frequently enough to touch on many of them without making my readers wait until sometime in November! ;)

One of my Christmas presents from my wife this past Christmas was the book Revolution by George Barna. My wife and I read that book together over the weeks following Christmas. I had intended to write a review of it on this blog, but that just hasn't happened. Rather than just review the book, however, I've decided to talk about some of the issues that are surfacing as a result of the publication of this book.

Before I get into that, I'm going to make a prediction. No, this is not a "prophecy", and I'm not in any way claiming this is from the Lord, so put the stones down and relax! ;) But this is just a personal thought and prediction as to what I think we're about to see here in America. Ready? OK, here it is:

I predict that we will begin to see increasing tension between the institutional church and alternative expressions of church, specifically the Simple Church (or House Church) movement. This tension will develop into many bitter debates, including statements by high-profile leaders.

Now, having made that prediction, I want to take yet one more step aside before getting into today's topic, and make a very serious and passionate plea to those who are on the Simple/House Church side of the issue. I'm making this plea to one side of the debate because many on the institutional side have already come out with their "fighting words". So, before any more discussion takes place, I'm making this simple plea to my brothers and sisters who have already begun to explore church outside of the institution: Please, please, please speak lovingly and with a heart toward partnership and reconciliation. Resist the urge to bash all things institutional. Resist the urge to argue based on emotion or poorly-reasoned arguments. Resist the urge to become defensive. Don't match fire with fire. Don't match accusations with accusations.

Now, those of you who know me know my passion and heart for Simple Church. But I hope that what you see in my writing here is more of a passion for the Body of Christ, regardless of how it is manifested, and for biblical guidelines. That's why I want to start with the area of defining what "local church" means. Some are standing up and proclaiming loud and clear the words of Martin Luther, "Apart from the church, salvation is impossible." And in doing so, they are teaching that anyone who is not a member of a local church (save in the case of being "between churches", whatever that means in their way of thinking) is at best in rebellion against God and at worst, unsaved completely. (The link I gave is just one representation of this discussion. My goal is not to target specific people with my comments, but to give an idea of what I'm talking about. One can read more specific reactions to Barna's book at this discussion.)

There are obviously a lot of presuppositions behind these kinds of statements. And one major presupposition is that the church is defined as a particular type of organization. For example, in this post here, James Spurgeon defines church in this way:

I am referring to an organized local body of believers in Christ who assemble together to worship, administer the ordinances, and carry out the great commission.

Now, this is the definition that is used when he goes on to state:

The individual who can claim to be a Christian and yet think it unimportant to join a congregation must never have read the New Testament. The Bible does not just command us to be a part of a church, it assumes that we will be--and just about every other command for us in the Christian life assumes church membership, also, in order to be carried out.

Recently, I read an article on House2House which offers a similar definition to James Spurgeon's. However, this definition seems to go even more in depth by defining the structure of leadership more distinctly (ironic, considering this is an advocate of house church concepts writing this definition):

church (ekklesia) is any gathering of believers irrespective of day, time or location, for the purpose of worship, fellowship, mutual ministry and the equipping of one another for the work of service, overseen by elders, served by deacons and ministered to by an identifiable five-fold ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

Personally, I didn't have any problem with the first part of this definition. That is, I am comfortable from a biblical perspective saying that church "is any gathering of believers ... for the purpose of worship, fellowship, mutual ministry and the equipping of one another for the work of service." But I think that as soon as we go beyond that, we begin to force a definition back into Scripture that goes too far. Let me explain what I don't mean first, and then I will more constructively explain what I do mean! :)

I do not, in any way, mean to undermine the biblical role of elders. In fact, I hope to demonstrate at some point in my thoughts on these topics that I believe elders are a very essential part of a mature fellowship.

Here, then, are my concerns, in no particular order, with the definitions that have been proposed above.

  • If elders are absolutely necessary for defining a church, then a couple passages of Scripture present some issues for us. For example, Acts 14 shows Paul and Barnabas travelling to different cities. In verse 23, we read that they "appointed elders ... in every church...." Yet, it seems clear from the context that these were churches already existing in cities to which the apostles had previously ministered.

    If elders are necessary for a definition of "church", then how could there have been churches in those cities prior to the appointment of elders? Similarly, we read in Titus 1:5 that Paul left Titus in Crete so that Titus could go to the different cities in that region and appoint elders. While this passage is not as explicit as Acts 14 (i.e., referring to appointing elders in the "church", but rather the "city"), it still would appear from the qualifications for elder presented in Titus 1 that the church was already established in such a way that men could be seen as being faithful, knowledgable, etc.
  • If deacons are absolutely necessary for defining a church, then we have an even more difficult problem with some passages. For instance, the same Acts 14 passage mentions that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders, but doesn't say they appointed deacons.

    I'm definitely not fond of arguments from silence, but it seems reasonable to me that if both were necessary for a church to be a church, Acts 14:23 would say that they "appointed elders and deacons...." Strange oversight on the part of Luke, if it's a requirement for the church.
  • The "five-fold ministry". Where do I start on this one? Well, a nitpick argument would be to say that not everyone is in agreement that Ephesians 4:11 references five specific ministries. Grammatically, it is possible to read "pastors and teachers" as one gift, not two. But apart from that little nitpick, I have a bigger issue with the concept of "five-fold ministry" from the way that Paul references some of these same gifts in a different passage.

    1 Corinthians 12:27-28 talks about gifts in the same type of language that Paul used in Ephesians 4. But interestingly, in verse 28, he says: "And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers...."

    Wait a minute. What about evangelists? What about pastors? In other words, if Ephesians 4:11 is meant to create a specific set of gifts that are required in the church, then something seems to have changed when Paul wrote to Corinth. (Or maybe this is why Corinth had so many problems. God neglected to give them two very essential gifts! Just kidding!) I find it very unconvincing that Ephesian 4:11 is any particularly defined set of gifts that must be present in every expression of the church.
  • "Administering the ordinances" is something that is frequently referred to in defining the church. (Some use the word "sacraments" instead of "ordinances".) This is especially noticeable among Reformed believers -- i.e., Calvinists. It is not deniable that the Reformers talked about the ordinances and valued them highly. But again, I see little Scriptural support for some of the ways in which these things are discussed.

    By way of definition, the "ordinances" to which many refer usually include communion (the Lord's Supper, Eucharist, etc.) and baptism. Some also include marriage as an ordinance that is given to the Church, too. However, let me give some thoughts on each of these.

    When Jesus instituted communion in the upper room, it is true that he distributed the bread and the wine to his disciples (I assume he probably just handed it to the one next to him and it was passed around the table). However, we find no other specific references to communion being "administered" in the churches. Paul talks about the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, but makes no reference to how it really was handled with regard to "administering" it.

    Likewise, with regard to baptism, Scripture is not entirely clear on whether only certain people "administered" baptism. The practice today of churches only having their pastor baptize people seems to be more restrictive than Scripture warrants. Besides, baptism seems more tied in the New Testament to evangelism, not to church gatherings.

    Jesus told his disciples to make new disciples and baptize them. Unfortunately, we have relegated evangelism primarily to the institutional church in many situations, and seem to function in a way that implies that people must come to the church in order to be saved and baptized. This unnecessarily muddies the water (no pun intended!) with regard to the function of baptism.
  • "Carrying out the Great Commission" is not only vague (in consideration of all that is involved in the Great Commission), but again, we don't see this tied to any particular function of the local body so much so as being tied to our responsibility as part of the Church universal. The Great Commission really outlines a process which is not "carried out" in one type of program. The Great Commission tells us to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them.

    Of necessity, the first step in making disciples is sharing the Good News of the Kingdom with the lost. It is my sense that this is best carried out in two ways, as demonstrated in Scripture: 1) Public proclamation of the Gospel (i.e., Acts 2, Acts 3, Acts 5, et al.) and 2) Individual teaching of the Gospel (Acts 8 where Philip shared with the Ethiopian eunuch).

    In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul references the possibility of unbelievers being in the gathering and being convicted of their sin by the prophesying taking place. However, in the way in which Paul describes this situation, it sounds as if the effect on the unbeliever is rather peripheral to the focus and purpose of the gathering. Once a person has listened to the Good News and chosen to believe it, the Great Commission instructs us to baptize them and teach them all the Christ commanded. This is part of "making disciples".

    As Philip's encounter with the eunuch shows us, baptism can take place wherever and whenever. One does not need to be taken to a church in order to let some "official administrator of the sacrament" do the work of baptism. (One may argue that, as a leader in the church, Philip was able to carry this out, but again, Scripture is completely silent on the idea that only certain "qualified" individuals can administer baptism.) There are other accounts of people being baptized in their own homes immediately upon conversion (i.e., Acts 16 with the jailor and his family).

I really must draw this post to a close and allow some comments before continuing on. I hope that I have adequately demonstrated some of my concerns with the definitions used as examples here. Going forward in these posts, then, I would like to use the working definition that follows, derived in part from those above, but really representative of where my thoughts were already before reading other thoughts on it:

A "church" is any group of believers who gather for the purpose of worship, fellowship, mutual ministry and the equipping of one another for the work of service

For those of you who want to engage in this discussion, how would you define "church"?

Until next time,

steve :)

26 comment(s):

Dear Steve,
Just a short comment. I also am reading JS's church series at Pyromaniacs. There is much that is really good there but I think I had the same reaction that you did. He seems very sure he knows what the "local church" looks like. I am not so sure that I do. I agree with his point about church 'membership' (whatever that is) as necessary, not optional, for living out a Christ centered life but I like your definition of church better. Its vagueness however can be an enemy of sound doctrine within the house church environment (i.e. almost anything can be called 'church' and that can be a problem).
PS This really did start out to be a very short post. (-:

By Anonymous Riley D Allen, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 1:20:00 AM  

Thanks, Steve, for the topic and the admonition to hold all brethren in our hearts with love and honor.

On the topic of church, here are my thoughts:

The word "church" in the Greek is a compound of two words. One means "origins" (among other things, this meaning is the one that appears to be most telling) and "call out". It is used to reference gatherings of believers in many different contexts.

Since Jesus declared that He is in the midst of any two believers together (or more) without reference to elders, we must assume that gathering together as believers does not necessitate an elder. Continuing on with other words we associate with authority, it is impractical to assume a pastor must be at every gathering of two or more. Additionally, we have to assume that His presence remains with individual believers, since the instruction to abide in Him is most logically, in context, an individual instruction. Therefore, the gathering of two which manifests His presence in between them is a function of both believers sharing Him.

This strikes me as both beautiful and logical. Since He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, two people sharing Him are at least a part of the experience of the Way; their expressions of Him are Truth expressed between them and their shared experience of being together is full of His Life. All of this would spring from their hearts wherein He resides.

Shall these two be allowed to share in the remembrance of Christ's sacrifice using the symbolic elements He identified? If I am one of those two, I certainly feel that freedom, because nothing at the Last Supper suggests that as Jesus instituted His remembrance did He place conditions on it. He provided a symbol and an instruction to do so, nothing more.

What are "ordinances?" In my view, they function as a means of determining behavior for those in the group. I cannot help but feel ordinances are largely a function of our fear of being burdened by the poor behavior of others as contrasted with the courage to love in all circumstances.

Love is, afterall, at the core of the gospel message. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. When I am with a "neighbor" who is a lost soul, I am no less obligated to love. My function in such a circumstance is as a witness of the love within me, a reconciler, an ambassador. I have the hope of glory, Christ, within me, and the opportunity to express Him and afford the lost one an chance to have a revelation of the llving Christ. When I am with a "neighbor" who is a believer, I have the opportunity to share with such a one in the fellowship of love He began. I may know this one "after the spirit" and have the joy to experience some thirty-plus injunctions of "one anothering" in the NT. Can this be accomplished as two only? Yes. Must such an exchange be ordained by men?

Our failing today is not in being in or out of the organized church. It is being out of the spirit of Christ. When those whose hearts are full of Him gather, be it two, three, four and so on, the sights, sounds and smells of the fruit of the spirit will be evident. He is in the midst.

We are not building the Kingdom of God. He is eternal. He is the King. His Kingdom like Himself, is eternal. It has always been and will always be. He is building a temple with one brick knit to another, wherein He dwells and where He is, so is the fullness of His Kingdom.

Placing ordinances of A and B upon gathering believers is an attempt to codify something that is much larger than codes of conduct.

The Word, the Truth, the Way, the Tree of Life walked among us. He calls others to walk with Him in the original love He intended for all His creation. Those who respond are are answering the call to be among those who walk in the original love of God in stark contrast with those of the world who walk in hate.

I think I have to simplify the definition to "church = two or more gathered in Him." Are there examples in the NT and instructions for those who gather? Yes. But following those instructions or not does not make a church or not. In Revelation, He speaks to the seven churches, and in some cases He corrects them. That something about their gatherings needed correcting did not alter Him calling those groups a church. His corrections were intended to bring them more fully into the life of God. The life of God cannot codifeid or ordained by man-made devrees.

By Anonymous ded, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 1:45:00 PM  

ooops, I hit publish when I meant to hit preview. My last line should read, "The life of God cannot be codified or ordained by man-made decrees."

8^)

By Anonymous ded, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 1:48:00 PM  

Riley, welcome to the blog, and thanks for your comment. I would like to hear more of your thoughts on how you feel that my definition is vague enough to "be an enemy of sound doctrine" in house churches.

Or, let me be more to the point: How does James Spurgeon's definition protect against false doctrine better than my definition does? And I do mean that question sincerely, not spitefully at all.

You hinted at part of your thinking when you said that "anything" can be called a church, and that poses a problem for you. But I'm not sure that is an accurate conclusion from my definition.

You also raise a good point with regard to "membership" that I'm probably going to have to deal with. It's one of those words that is not defined by those who use it (for the most part), but when it boils down, it usually does require some kind of covenantal relationship (i.e., signing a card, reciting a covenant, etc.) that I fear goes beyond Scriptural teaching.

I do appreciate your thoughts, and look forward to more interaction with you on this.

God bless!
steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 2:30:00 PM  

ded,

Wow, you gave me a lot to digest there! I appreciate the time you take to interact here.

I almost went with your definition in my thinking, too. The idea of "two or more gathered in His name" is usually where I begin my thoughts on church. And I do believe that you and I have "had church" during some of our one-on-one discussions over lunch (which we really need to do again soon somehow -- I know our respective jobs make lunch nigh near impossible, but maybe a Saturday lunch or an evening coffee or something...but I digress).

I'm not sure I can give a solid answer why it shouldn't be boiled down to your definition, so I think I'll muse on that for a while and consider changing it. Thanks for the thoughts!

God bless, brother. Hope to see you again soon. Our love to you and "Mrs. ded" :) :) :)

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 2:38:00 PM  

Well, guess I will weigh in... My comments may be immediately invalidated due to my being a pastor, but here goes:

You are right -- elders were appointed after churches got established but they were appointed. It would seem that elders were a vital part of the gathering. Both Timothy(s) and Titus give instructions on appointing these men, so it would seem that this was an important point to establishing 'the church' (even using the definitions provided within the context of this discussion).

However saying that, I would like to also add some additional comments:

1. I heartily recommend that the men in our church celebrate communion within their home, with their families. Also, our worship team will use a communion set we have for them to participate in communion before the service (I am not there, and am not required to be there). So, I believe that we can celebrate the Lord's Supper, and even baptism without a formal 'leader' as long as the person leading in it understands what they are doing (in other words, is comfortable and familiar with leading).

An apocryphal story about baptism -- We were at the lake performing a baptism and down the way there were several people getting baptized by an older lady. We got to talking and found out that she was not the leader of her church, but these people wanted to be baptized, and the leader had been putting them off, so she went out and did it. She asked my opinion, and I told her, "Good for you!" She was fulfilling a bilical mandate and the leader of her church had fallen down on the job...

2. I also believe that one can have church sitting at the coffee shop with a friend. I am not a stickler for a building per se, having come from several years of being a house church person. However, I do feel that JUST meeting together and 'sharing' has the potential, unless the folks involved are disciplined, to dissolve into a simple time of visiting, without any discussion or worship of the Lord (I have seen that occur). That is where I believe that elders can keep the people focused.

I am not one who is hard-core about this, and I appreciate the tenor of this discussion, as usual, Steve you have created an environment where we can actually discuss without lots of CAPS! :-)

There is a need for God's people to gather together, I think we all agree on that, and there is a need for a sharing of the 'ordinances', I think we all agree on that. I think where we may see things differently is when it comes to where and how we meet.

On those, I am not all that dogmatic...

My .02

By Blogger Ray, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 6:12:00 PM  

Ray, you have definitely earned the right to disagree here. You're my brother, and I love having your opinions posted here! So, thanks for weighing in.

I do hope to talk about elders a bit more in a future post, because I realize that the danger in saying they are not absolutely necessary by definition for a church, is that some would then assume I think they are worthless! ;)

I'm just seeking to strip down to the most minimal definition so that we can understand the function of all the other stuff.

As you may have noticed, one of the definitions I quoted referenced the five-fold ministry. That would unnecessarily limit the definition of church if we had to make sure all five of those gifts were present (assuming for the sake of argument that we even agreed that all five existed, that there were five and not four, etc. etc. etc.)

Anyway, thanks for stopping by, Ray. Please continue to feel free to interact on this topic and help me understand your position even better.

I am extremely curious, since you have mentioned it several times both here and on your blog, what your experience in a house church was, and why you moved away from it. You can either discuss it here or email me privately (steve@worshipkeys.com)

God bless!
steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 6:46:00 PM  

Ray,

In my mind and heart your being a pastor does not invalidate your comments. I know sometimes I must sound like I am against what you practice. I do not believe that to be so. All of your posts have encouraged me, and yours today is no exception.

I struggle with what role elders are to have in the home-church expression, not because I believe they should not be there, but because I believe they should be.

You are concerned that home church not become "just visiting." That is a very valid concern. I share it. I have told my wife more than once I do not want to be a part of a Christian supper club!

I am concerned when those officially labeled elder become more highly regarded than the unlabeled believer. Such was my experience with the group I was in, when I wore the label. Immaturity may take on many forms!

Thank you, thank you for encouraging the older lady in her love and care for those new believers!

By Anonymous ded, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 7:03:00 PM  

Steve -- I left the house church because it had lived a good life, but many involved in it were transferred and we had shrunk to a very small group... I found it be rewarding, however I missed the larger fellowship of believers and often struggled with the feeling of being disconnected from the believers at large.

I think if I had to do it over again, I would ensure that I had others who were involved in home churches as a support. At the time that we were involved in this, there were few home churches around.

Ded -- Thanks for your input. in our church, I attempt to pour my life into some folks who then provide ministry to others. I don't feel that I should be the sole input into the ministry, and we have a high level of volunteers, all of whom have taken ownership of their ministry.

While we are still a church, I have had several 'traditional' pastors ask about how we got to where we are regarding the non-hierarchical structure. In all honesty, I wish I knew! :-)

I think, in all honesty, that part of it has to do with my Jewish background, where we tend to stress community more so than many churches. And part of it is that I participated in home church models for a while and learned how rewarding it is for everyone to be involved in the ministry as opposed to warming a pew.

To all -- I would like to say that we stress community and family in our church, and we are very involved in each others lives, holding one another accountable as well as lifting each other up. I will get calls from people to check on me, or to hold me accountable to something. They know that they do not have to worry about me being THE PASTOR, I SHOULD be accountable to them!

One of the nicer things that a visitor said about our church was that they were not sure who the pastor was during the potluck, as everyone treated each other as family. I like that!

By Blogger Ray, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 7:27:00 PM  

Oh, I forgot to say that I am enjoying this interaction immensely, and I thank you Steve for bringing this discussion to the table....

Ded -- Thanks for your input, this is great stuff...

BTW, I will probably post a brief note on my blog regarding some very interesting things that are developing at our church in the very near future...

By Blogger Ray, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 7:29:00 PM  

Ray, I appreciate the tone with which you write. And, as I've commented before, it sounds like your pastorate and church are not at all typical, and it's refreshing for this "house churcher" to hear! :) Thanks for sharing.

I know that ded and I (as well as others) would sure value your prayers as we continue to seek the expression of all of this in our lives up here.

You mentioned "non-heirarchical structure", and to be honest, that's really a big part of the rub for me. Normally in the institution, it is anything but heirarchical, as I'm sure you realize.

Unfortunately, when some of us mention "non-heirarchical", the assumption is made by others that we simply don't want accountability.

Everyone reading this, please hear me clearly on this: Non-heirarchical does not mean non-accountable! I hope to post more fully on that soon.

By the way, in relation to a couple of your comments above, let me state a couple other things that I want to be clear on in this discussion:

1. Like you and ded, I am not interested in just "social" time and calling it "church". However, I do think that it is possible for very deep teaching to take place without it being a lecture format, so some might look in from the outside and misunderstand what is taking place.

2. Your point about wishing you had other house churches to interact with (if I understood correctly) when you were in a house church is a very important point to make. My passion for house churches includes the idea of "house church networks" which can encourage each other, meet together periodically for larger gatherings, etc. I hope and pray to see that in my lifetime, but if not, I will die trying! :)

Blessings, brother!
steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 8:48:00 PM  

Oops....big typo. I wrote:

Normally in the institution, it is anything but heirarchical, as I'm sure you realize.

That should read that normally, it is anything but NON-heirarchical!

And I even previewed it! That's what I get for commenting while watching the Super Bowl... ;)

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Sunday, February 05, 2006 9:54:00 PM  

Just letting you know I'm watching, and it's all good to the eyes. Ray got me curious, so I guess I'll add him to my blogwatch list.

God Bless Y'all

By Blogger alamar, at Monday, February 06, 2006 3:48:00 AM  

Steve -- Yes, you are correct, I was thinking of a home church network. That is (IMHO) a necessity.

I will pray about that, and about your efforts as you move forward.

Alamar --Y'all? From a Kiwi, that does a Texan's heart good... LOL :-)

By Blogger Ray, at Monday, February 06, 2006 9:26:00 AM  

Dear Steve
I don't think I really expressed myself very well in my first post. The concerns I have with "house churches" are:

1) The possible lack of accountability that may lead a small group to an unscriptual path, especially if the group is lead by a strong individual who may come to dominate discussion and leadership. I think you addressed this from your perspective very well in your post above responding to Ray.

2) The difficulty in defining exactly what the church is as a unique entity, something more then simply the sum of the believers who happen to be gathered together in a particular time and place. For example, I think I would probably have the disagree with the interpretation that would say wherever "two or three are gathered together" there is the Church. I think that scripture implies (although it never gives a clear and definitive discription) that the Church is an organized and ongoing entity that requires more structure than is perhaps usual in a typical house church (I realize there is a real question as to whether there IS such a thing as a 'typical' house church.(-:) My position on the issue of what exactly is The Church is problematic because I am deeply troubled by and suspicious of many of the traditions that have come to define it. For example, while I believe that formal ordination can be a useful and practical filter for preserving the integrity of the pastorate, I find little scriptual justification for it. So, while I find myself in agreement with much that exists in the simple church movement I have real concerns that the Idea of what Church is scriptually becomes too watered down by some in that camp. (present company excluded of course (-: )

On a more personal note, since I am new here I just want to say that I have been drawn to your site because of the servent's heart I have seen in you as you have dealt with some of the more divisive issues floating around blogsphere (i.e. the EOTS issue for one example). I hope to continue to share here. God Bless Riley

By Anonymous RDA (formerly Riley D Allen), at Monday, February 06, 2006 3:45:00 PM  

Riley, thank you for your comments. I am truly humbled by your closing comments there.

The issues of what may be wrong with the institutional church vs. what may be good about simple church are very tricky issues because on both sides, we can find evidences of good and bad.

Take Ray for example: Ray is, in my experience, a very unique pastor of a very unique "institutional" church. Likewise, we all have heard of house churches that have gone off the deep end (although I have to admit that I, personally, have not known one firsthand or even known anyone who was in one).

We'll get into that a bit more as we go, I'm sure.

In the meantime, thanks for being here and for commenting!

steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Monday, February 06, 2006 3:52:00 PM  

Ray,

Kiwi for "y'all" would be "you's" I guess. Kiwis also think Americans are loud and proud. They might just get that confirmed if they went to the Pyro site ;)

By Blogger alamar, at Monday, February 06, 2006 11:33:00 PM  

rda,
I can fully understand wanting to expand the meaning of the word church as a hedge of protection over its integrity. I have both a rationale and a motivation for keeping the word itself limited to simply represent a gathering of believers.

My rationale is the nature of the balance between form and function. I believe it serves a useful purpose to recognize and develop our understanding of the body of Christ. In so doing, I find it beneficial to describe the form simply and then expand to functions. Consider an analogy drawn from history. George Washington died of illness but the weakness of his body was furthered by the doctors' use of the then favored practice of bleeding a patient. The doctors understood the form of the circulatory system. They completely misunderstood its function. When believers make the function of church the issue, with what is intended to be a zeal for God no doubt, their decisions can become focused on the the outer condition of the group and the inner reality of being with God may be lost. I wonder if Pyromanias' "loud and proud" appearance to alamar is not an excellent example of zeal focused on form missing the boat that has Jesus' spirit of meekness and peace in it?

Further, if the function of the body, the church, is to fulfill all of God's will on earth, then we must develop a view broad and sound enough to be inclusive of both the sum effect of a billion believers, the mutual experience of a "local" body which includes many personal relationships and the condition of each individual.
I admit I am a bit focused myself on only one part of the triple view. That is, I tend to be concerned over the condition of the one before I am concerned about the condition of the one hundred; since I believe that if you put enough truly healthy individuals together, then the condition of the one hundred will also be good.

Hence my motivation to draw this line between form and function. I believe the fullness of the abundant life of God rests fully on Jesus Christ. The expression of that life in a believer is a function of the believer's faith.
If we insist on maintaining a form for church, individuals who do not fit the form may draw wrong conclusions about whom and what they are to God.

Think about what any of us experience inside a bureaucracy. Decisions are made for us, the full power and authority of the institution expects compliance, and we must comform or suffer the consequences. I teach kids. Testing is designed by the bureacracy to ensure that my students are progressing. Yet one standardized test represents their learning about like a set of encyclopedias represent a library.
The system justifies its decisons for the good of the group it serves. My students, human individuals lose on a variety of levels.

Unfortunately, a group of people focused on form, can be labeled a church because it can be said they meet for worship, prayer and fellowship. Yet, the individuals involved can be starved for the presence of God.

Therefore, if we leave the form alone to the individuals involved, I believe we position the group for the best possible growth in God. Is the risk present that the a small group may get off track? Yes. Is there opportunity for them to walk with God? Yes. Any group, regardless of size will gain what it seeks. Life is not without risk and neither is faith.
I accept the risk of being small because I believe the opportunity to spur individual faith is more direct in the small group.

I do not believe I am "right", but I do believe that God has moved me to this place. I offer these comments to encourage the development of individual faith regardless of the context of the group. May God spare all of us from zeal labeled "church" that is a miry clay of pride and fear.

By Anonymous ded, at Tuesday, February 07, 2006 7:16:00 AM  

I think I mixed up my metaphor in the discussion of form and function. Oh well--this blogging is challenging. I hope you get my drift.

In my opinion, limiting the definition of church to just a gathering of believers serves a useful purpose regarding the development of the indiviudals and the development of a particular group's function.

By Anonymous ded, at Tuesday, February 07, 2006 7:54:00 AM  

Dear ded
I really appreciate your response. By the way, I did figure out your 'drift' but I was a little thrown on the first reading (-: . This will be short as I intend to post an extended comment working out my position (such as I have one) to Steve's next post. I want you to know that I really agree with you in all that you said. I was born again in 1970 in Southern California as part of what they called the Jesus People movement. I have always leaned very heavily towards the idea that me, my Bible, and the Holy Spirit were all I needed. Since that time I have several times run into the stifling effect of the bureaucracy in the 'institutional' church. In fact, I am struggling right now with issues in that area. The problem is that over the last few years I have had the scriptural reality of the Church as an institution thrown in my face by someone who seems to bare an uncanny resemblance to God (-: . I really wish this hadn't happened because I was pretty happy avoiding formal church membership and having my little circle of christian friends that I fellowship and share with where I have little or no commitment or responsibility. This easy and comfortable situation does not look like it is going to last however. I'm very afraid that I am being called back to that ugly, dead lump that is an institutional church, Oh woe is me (-: . I will post more above. One thing however, look at Acts 6:1-6. There it is brother, in black and white, the birth of church bureaucracy in all its glory. Because even as born again, spirit-filled believers we are mean-spirited, jealous, and unloving, willing to cheat our brothers and sisters out of their fair share because they speak Greek rather than Aramaic. Some things are necessary not because they bring us closer to God but because they prevent us from tearing each other down.

By Anonymous rda, at Wednesday, February 08, 2006 1:20:00 AM  

Some things are necessary, yes. I knew sometime someone would note the example of Acts 6:1-6.

rda, you are very right to bring into focus that example. This exchange highlights for me a fact with which we all wrestle. We each bring interpretation and rationalization to the Scripture.

Does an example in the NT Scripture equal a mandate to do the same? If so, then all women should cover their heads in public meetings to pray and prophesy, and slavery need not be condemned as a practice. These are examples for us since that is what was done then and recorded. What do we do with examples? Literal application or not?

Focusing more directly on Acts 1:1-6, should we assume that we must be meeting everyday in large groups which are sharing a meal before we organize and appoint deacons? Clearly, no. Rather, a more logical interpretation is that because their circumstance was meeting everyday
with a meal and a problem arose, they looked at the problem and came up with a solution. Their solution is an example of how to divide work when the size of the gathering warrants it. Perhaps it is more. I will not argue that it is no more, but I will allow myself the following interpretation (and feel no conviction from Him that the interpretion I give it must changed): though, the institutional church, in fact, has roots in this event and others in Acts such as the meetings to determine how to handle the problem of Gentile Christians not keeping Jewish law, it does not follow that the institutional church as it has evolved is a mandate from our Lord.

The reality, to which I am not blind, is that the larger the group has grown, the increase and complexity of associated problems demands administration. I can accept that. I can live within it, if that is my circumstance.

I am not surprised that you have had put into your life a godly believer who is a part of the institution. Anecdote: a pastor friend of mine felt God tell him to accept the pastorate of a small organized church which was extended to him. He did so not understanding why or to what end. He is a supporter of meeting in homes, but He obeyed God with much good fruit. Then after two years God told him to stop accepting the salary. Which he did. (A deacon openly asked him, "Then how will we control you?") Finally after three years, he felt God release him and he resigned.

The institutional church will not be dismantled and I am not an advocate of such. God always works on the people who have a heart for him, and these people will find themselves in various experiences much broader perhaps than we would expect! (I do believe the day is not far off, when an open and visible institutional church will have to marry the state to be able to exist, but I believed Y2K was going to happen, also!)

Our call, it seems to me, is regardless of our circumstances (mysteriously a function of His will in our lives and our free will over our lives)to hold our hearts in the narrow way of the spirit of Christ which in-dwells us.

The narrow way is an inner reality not an outward practice. Thank you very much for challenging me! I appreciate your interest and tone!

By Anonymous ded, at Wednesday, February 08, 2006 9:29:00 AM  

ded, thanks for the thoughts in response to RDA. Ironically, I just finished typing a response to Ray on the more recent post (about IE 7 and Heresy) and I addressed similar thoughts about the Acts 6 reference!

I've been doing a lot of thinking about your "form vs. function" comments, and I think (as I explained to Ray in my reply on the other post) that is a big part of the discussion for me.

The function is to enable maturing believers to do just that -- mature. The form does not have to be anything specifically institutionalized, but should not inhibit the function.

Is that a fair way of saying it?

steve :) (who's about to start using SCS in response to ded and RDA....hehe)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Wednesday, February 08, 2006 9:40:00 AM  

By the way, ded, two questions completely unrelated to the blog:

1. Are you off work? You posted both yesterday and today at times that surprised me. Hope you're not sick or anything.

2. Did you get my email last week (since our history is so bad with emails getting through to each other!!) about Sunday evening's open house fellowship?

God bless!
steve :)

By Blogger Steve Sensenig, at Wednesday, February 08, 2006 9:42:00 AM  

Steve, I am blogging when kids are not in the room and I really should be grading papers or something! But then there are evenings and Sunday afternoons when I am home but doing school work. I hope it balances! The current topics have really gotten my attention.

Sorry, I did not e-mail back. Yep, we're coming. The e-mailing I have done was for the men's group, I have been working on my wood pile--I'll be glad when May gets here--and working some on my latest oil painting. I really should have let you know. I'll be more responsible in the future. 8^)

By Anonymous ded, at Wednesday, February 08, 2006 9:50:00 AM  

Steve,

I didn't take the time...kids were due back in five minutes... to respond to form/function. What you said is completely fair. I know a guy can get too hung up slicing hairs off the meanings of words, but as I have pondered "Why is it so?" about so many church issues I keep coming back to the family of believers needs to function more like a family, a living organism, and less like an organization. As function is left as a trust in the hands of an inspiring God full of goodness, then our focus becomes more of Him and of being children of Himtogether.

Yet what I see is large discussions about the proper functioning of the organization, which then dictates form must adhere to certain criteria to enable and push forward the organization.
People saved and unsaved end up not being served as a result.

It is a given, some organizations are keen and have well targeted programs that often do much good.
Here, I hear those most sobering words, "Depart from me. I never knew you."

I am not anti-organization. Good organization is a very useful tool.
Should God expand the dreams of our hearts into a network of churches in homes across our county, we will have many organizational issues that need administration. No?

By Anonymous ded, at Wednesday, February 08, 2006 4:46:00 PM  

Greetings Steve,

Good thoughts. Came across a link to your post and resonated with the heart of what you're talking about so thought I'd leave you a note.

I've been grappling with the same search to define the church, and after pouring over the New Testament, I've written down some (initial) thoughts on my blog if you're interested in seeing them:

http://www.brumme.com/articles/EEuyuFEFFZmaqxQiVe.shtml

blessings as you seek after Him!

By Anonymous Andrew Brumme, at Thursday, June 01, 2006 1:00:00 AM  

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