When we hear of a numerically big church, we should ask ourselves if it is a spiritual temple or just a large heap of stones. For it to be a spiritual temple, which is a true church, the spiritual stones must be built together in close relationship. They must support and protect one another. Only one surface of stone is exposed to the elements when it is built into a wall. That is a picture of the protection God affords us through committed membership of the body of Christ.
Baptised into one body
We are baptised by one Spirit into one body (1 Cor. 12.13). And yet charismatic churches often suffer from individuals wanting to do their own thing rather than function as members of the body.
It would be a strange sight to see the odd tongue wiggling off on its own away from the body or an ear functioning off on its own. But sadly this happens in the body of Christ. There are fiercely independent tongue-speakers. And there are self-opinionated ‘prophets’ enjoying their isolated hot-line to God. Then there are people who got the ministry of healing at a conference and return to inflict it upon the church without it being confirmed by the body of Christ first.
The New Testament teaches that to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good (1 Cor. 12.7). Speakers in tongues should be in submission to the church. Prophecies must be weighed. And, by inference, other spoken gifts should be weighed too, to see that they are in harmony with scripture.
The exercise of the gifts is not to be in chaotic individualism but in loving submission to the body of Christ, And that means being open to constructive criticism.
This is all beautifully summed up by Paul when he says, ‘Each member belongs to all the others’ (Rom 12:5). just think about that phrase for a moment-Is it true of you and of your fellowship? Is there a sense of mutual belonging?
The early church was described as ‘one in heart and mind’ (Acts 4.32). They were one in the way they felt and thought. Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘agree with one another’ and to ‘be perfectly united in mind and thought’ (1 Cor. 1.10). This is clearly the unity Jesus prayed for during the Last Supper. And it is sadly lacking in many local churches.
But, you say, we don’t want a church full of ‘yes-men’. True, unless they are saying yes to the Lord. Hearing the Lord in prayer is very important. If a church practises this together it can come to unity in heart and mind over the decisions facing it. Contrast that with the strife which can come from merely democratic procedures, relying, as they often do, on human wisdom.
One of the current charismatic bandwagons is spiritual warfare. A conference on that subject is guaranteed a good attendance. Some Christians want to march round and claim everything. They bind anything that moves and loose anything that doesn’t. It’s good the Lord has a sense of humour.
But it isn’t all amusing. And it can be dangerous. We want to say to some churches eager to ‘do spiritual warfare’ in their area, ‘Don’t! You’re not united enough. The enemy will exploit your divisions and be successful in a divide-and-conquer strategy.’
How can an army succeed if it is divided? If the troops are not standing shoulder to shoulder, shielding one another and bombarding an agreed target they will make little impact on the enemy. In any case some Christian troops are shooting one another in the back.
The Lord wants a united, disciplined army not a conglomeration of isolated guerillas. It is easy to pick off such isolated fighters.
Love one another
Paul clearly teaches that the body is to build itself up in love, as each part does its work. This will involve being honest with one another and speaking the truth in love (Eph 4.15-16). Relationships are so close that if any part of the body suffers, the whole body will suffer. Or if one part rejoices every part rejoices (1 Cor. 12.26).
An essential mark
Mutual love is an essential mark of Jesus’ disciples. He commanded us to love one another, so unloving attitudes are not an option to be tolerated in 13.34-35). But this love is not purely emotion and sentiment. It involves mutual submission, for submission is a way of life for Christians. We are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5.21),
No Christian is called to feel inferior but we are called to decide to treat other people as more important than ourselves. That is not because they are more important than we are in God’s sight, but because we decide to honour them above ourselves; to seek their good and look to their interests (Rom 12.10; 1 Cor. 10.24; Phil 2.3-4).
It is also clear from Paul’s writing that the range of differently gifted leaders is important for the unity of the church.
Christ has given to the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. They are to enable God’s people to minister, so that the body of Christ will be built up and reach unity in the faith (Eph 4.11-13). We believe all these ministries are in the church today including: (small ‘a’) apostles, pioneers, church builders. It is obvious that some leaders have such gifts and others don’t.
So a truly charismatic approach to ministry is essential for unity. All the Eph 4.11 ministries need to be brought to bear on the local congregation – whether from inside or outside that congregation. Then there will be true unity and variety in the body of Christ.
We know of one church which had three elders. Two of them were pastor/teachers and the other more prophetic. The latter became frustrated with the situation and eventually left the church. Now you would have thought that this fellowship would have been really secure, being led by two loving pastor/ teachers. It fell apart because it had lost its sense of direction after the third elder left.
This illustrates our point that the whole range of God-given leadership gifts is essential to unity. It is physically true that people will be drawn together if they are aiming for the same spot. And it is spiritually true that they will be drawn together by moving towards a mutually agreed vision.
“You keep talking about the vision the parish has but what is it?” The questioner was one of our leaders and the year 1980, I realised that I could not give a precise answer, so I went away and wrote out a 12 -point “Vision of the nature and mission of the local church.” With a few minor modifications, this was officially agreed by the church council and became the foundation of our work in the parish.
Later it dawned on us that more was needed. As the church developed in renewal, more and more visitors came. Some of them from the more local area, liking what they saw, wanted to join us. This posed a few problems.
Firstly we wanted to be a parish church (in the best sense of the term) not a commuter church. And we are thankful that some 85% of our regular members came from within one mile of our churches.
Secondly, we didn’t want to be involved in ‘sheep-stealing’. We recognise, though, that it is right for some people to change churches.
Thirdly, if anyone wanted to join us we wished them to know exactly what we stood for. It wasn’t just lively worship but a deep commitment, plus we had a few nettles that needed grasping.
At the same time, we saw the need to educate our own people, including new converts, in what the church stood for. We had rather assumed agreement to the vision. Then we had noticed new converts went into house groups and were immediately involved in teaching which might not be relevant to their needs. They required more basic training.
So I hastily wrote the first commitment course, which expounded the vision. Although very inadequate, it proved an effective instrument in God’s hands. The leaders did it first, then the whole congregation. Finally we set up a regular commitment group for new members. Later Patricia and I wrote the revised commitment course, which was used by many other churches around the world.
An agreed vision
The final stage in this process of achieving unity through an agreed biblical vision was vital. We have noted Jesus’ words in Matthew 28. He tells us to make disciples ‘teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (v20).
It is our contention that much biblical teaching is theoretical: it is a very hit-and-miss affair as to whether it changes lives. But we are to teach people to obey the Word. So, towards the end of the course, we talked privately with each individual or couple.
We dealt with fears and misunderstandings. But we also ask them if it is in their hearts to commit themselves to make every effort to fulfil the biblical teaching. Then we made a corporate commitment to act on God’s Word in the power of the Spirit. It meant that we encouraged one another and gently corrected one another as necessary. We renewed the commitment annually.
The result in Hawkwell was that a very divided church (about which the previous rector warned us), by the grace of God, came to enjoy a remarkable depth of unity. We thank God for this, and for the privilege of sharing what we are learning with other churches. The unity was not an intense, inward-looking unity but a united commitment to do the Word so as to be effective in evangelism.
The unity for which Jesus prayed is a complete unity of those being sanctified by the truth of the Word (Jn 17.17-23).
It is the unity of those who show their love to Christ by keeping his commandments in the power of the Spirit (John 13.34; 14.15, 21, 23). The fact that the motive is love and the means is the Spirit saves them from legalism or dead orthodoxy.
Although we stress the priority of the unity of the local church, wider unity is also very important. The Lord does not recognise denominational barriers,
It is possible to relate at different levels of unity across the boundaries. One cannot expect the depth of unity and mutual commitment stressed in this article over a wide geographical area. But it is possible to enjoy a measure of unity.
Learning to relate
What renewal has taught us is to try to relate in the Spirit. Sadly, a fair number of ecumenical ideas fall into the category of good ideas rather than actions the Holy Spirit is actually initiating.
This sets up tensions for those who don’t want to appear negative and yet sense the absence of the Spirit’s prompting and inspiration. It requires sensitive but firm handling. We cannot afford to be involved in ‘uncommanded works’ however good they seem. The Lord will fully bless what he initiates.
God is seeking to bring all things into unity under Christ. The church should show the way in a unity which involves incorporate obedience to God’s Word.
[First published in Renewal magazine, July 1989]
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction