The Future of the Churches of Christ: On Congregational Autonomy, Part 2

As Americans, the idea of valuing accountability and submission is entirely foreign. We are strong believers in self-determination, independence, and freedom — defining “freedom” as freedom from anyone else’s control.

But this is not the New Testament concept of freedom. Freedom in the New Testament is freedom from sin, freedom from destruction, and freedom from the burden of law.

It’s freedom to be who we were meant to be: bearers of God’s image. And it’s freedom to use our gifts and talents in God’s service as vessels in his temple.*

You see, it’s in overcoming the curse of Genesis 3, and becoming new creations, restored to God’s own image, that we experience true freedom.

(Rom 8:20-21 ESV) 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope  21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

(2Co 3:17-18 ESV)  17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Indeed, we are not called to autonomy but to slavery.

(Rom 6:16-20 ESV)  16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?  17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,  18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.  20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.

We were once free from righteousness because we were slaves to sin. We are now slaves to righteousness but free from sin. It’s like Dylan said, “You gotta serve somebody.

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So the American model of autonomy is deeply flawed. It’s a method of seeking freedom from the control of others, whereas Christianity is at its heart all about submission.

(2Co 9:12-15 ESV)  12 For the ministry of this service [contribution of money to the church in Jerusalem] is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.  13 By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others,  14 while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you.  15 Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!

The Corinthian church submitted to the Jerusalem church by giving them money for their  support. Paul says this “comes from the confession of the gospel of Christ.” You see, when you bend your knees to King Jesus, you learn to submit to his people as well.

(Eph 5:18-21 ESV)  18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,  … 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Indeed, reverence for Jesus requires that we submit to “one another.” Well, in Ephesus, who was “one another”? Plainly, the entire church in the city, not just those meeting in a single house.

City-wide unity

And would we submit to one another if a city-wide congregation were to divide itself into hundreds of smaller churches, all serving themselves but denying any duties to the others? How does the choice to be in a separate building make us independent of our brothers across the street? They are still our brothers.

So why did the early church organize itself into city-wide congregations under a common leadership? Why were they united by more than a common denominational name?

The answer is obvious from experience. We’ve seen the alternative. It’s ugly.

In America, we quickly name those under separate leadership as rivals and competitors, seek to steal their members, put down their teaching, and separate ourselves in every way possible — even as we preach on unity every Sunday.

And the ugliness is by no means limited to our most conservative Churches. Big churches compete with other big churches. They have budgets to meet, payments to make, empires to build. And when we measure our success by congregational attendance and contribution, rather than city-wide attendance and contribution, we prove how little we care what happens to the other churches in town.

I’ve heard pastors speak of denominational attendance figures in their cities and of congregational attendance figures. I’ve never heard a preacher speak of city-wide attendance for all denominations. No one keeps up. And as the saying goes, if it’s not important enough to measure, it’s not important (to you).

We count how many meals our church gives to the poor. We might even count how many meals our denomination gives to the poor in our city. We never, ever count poor fed by Christians. We don’t think in those terms. After all, those are our competitors.

When we organize a missions trip for our teens, we never ask whether a smaller church in town — one with no teen minister — might want to tag along. And yet inviting the three lonely teenagers from that other congregation might plant the seeds of evangelism — even a lifetime of missionary work — in the minds of all three of those teens. But they attend a rival congregation.

Accountability

But there are deeper concerns. Who holds the elders accountable? Think about it. If an eldership allows a church to preach the prosperity gospel — idolatry, I believe — who calls them on the carpet? If they promote a racist agenda, who takes them aside and reminds them of the gospel?

There is more than one kind of accountability. You could choose to be responsible to those with positional authority — that is, a city-wide bishop, for example. But bishops are fallible, too. I can’t say I’d be keen on giving that kind of authority to just one person. And I see no biblical basis for such a position.

But if your church were part of a city-wide league of churches that did missions together, that served the poor together, that had countless overlapping ministries, and if the leadership of that group asked to speak to the elders of your church, they’d have to listen. After all, these men are brothers and friends and prayer partners. And that kind of authority could be much more potent than any bishop.

You can rebel against a ruler. But it’s hard to resist the influence of the friends and brothers who serve alongside you.

Moreover, that kind of relationship means that sound doctrine comes by persuasion and a gentle, loving rebuke, not by the power of who gets into office. It comes from servants of the Lord’s church acting as servants.

(Mat 20:25-28 ESV)  25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,  27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,  28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Is is a perfect solution? Nope. Perfect solutions come in the next age. But it would be vastly better than where we are now.

You see, mutual accountability leads to shared maturation and growth. Just as a husband and wife holding each other accountable causes them to both grow as spouses and Christians, churches that love each other enough to confront sin will push each other to develop deeper, richer theologies.

Conversation

It’s the nature of conversation. When you talk about church leadership and doctrine with prayerful, God-fearing people who are well-taught in the Bible, they all deepen and enrich their theologies.

A Methodist Hauerwas disciple might share with a right-wing Baptist his concerns about confusing church and state. But the Baptist might share with the Methodist his passion for personal evangelism. Both leaders grow. Neither “converts” the other, but both grow closer to Jesus. Iron sharpens iron. And we all could stand some sharpening.

Of course, building such a relationship requires time and prayer together. A relationship of trust and mutual respect must be built. And none of us has had much practice. But it can be done.

Freedom

Now, notice that nothing here forces an Arminian to become a Calvinist. No one is under anyone else. Rather, the relationship is mutual submission — which is deeply biblical.

Organizational structure would depend on the size of the city and the number of leaders involved. Smart leaders will experiment a bit until they find something that works.

No congregation would be under the authority of another or under a denominational superstructure. But there’d be no autonomy. Rather, there would be accountability and mutual submission. There’d be influence and persuasion. There’d be love and respect.

It would change the world in ways we cannot even imagine.

Patterns

I don’t think the city-wide, single eldership is a binding model. That is, I wouldn’t argue that it’s sin to be organized otherwise. After all, we don’t really know exactly how it was done.

For example, in a city with 20,000 Christians, did the elders all serve the entire congregation? Or did they divide the city into districts to be overseen by a subset of elders? We just don’t know.

And how would a church of 20,000 members, meeting in 1,000 house churches, select elders? Again: not a clue.

Therefore, the Scriptures give us not so much a comprehensive, binding pattern as a indication that we’ve been looking at this the wrong way.

We are so very far removed from how the early congregations worked together than we can’t even see the difference. But it’s huge difference. They were united. We talk about being united. They did what it took to be united. We do next to nothing.

The solution therefore isn’t to go looking for “patterns” but for principles — built on the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. When we begin to think as Jesus thinks, answers appear that would never have occurred to us under a patternistic approach.

____

* Imagine that you were designed to be a skillet, but you broke and so were being used as a shovel instead.

God comes in and fixes you. You are now freed from being a shovel — which you weren’t very good at — to become the skillet you were always meant to be — which suits your abilities very well and should give you great joy.

Now, imagine that you protest: I’m an American skillet and I have the freedom to be anything I want to be! Kind of silly to think that way. You are what you were made to be. You can’t make yourself into a car or a cat. You’re a skillet — made by the greatest skillet craftsman ever, to be used by the greatest of chefs to make the greatest of meals. This is freedom.

But some of us prefer being really bad shovels to really good skillets, because we don’t trust the Maker to have made us right. We know what it’s like to be a shovel. And maybe we’re jealous of the shovels that really are shovels.

The issue goes away when the skillet finally submits to being used by the Maker as a skillet. He’ll inevitably learn that his fear of the fire and of failure disappears and is replaced in the sheer joy of doing what he was always meant to do — and doing it very well indeed.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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46 Responses to The Future of the Churches of Christ: On Congregational Autonomy, Part 2

  1. Alan says:

    Acts 20:28-31 implies that the group of elders (eldership) holds the individual members accountable.

    Accountability can be abused. Abusive accountability led to the Reformation, the American Revolution, and even the Restoration Movement. The same thing happens in individual churches and individual lives as well. It’s not surprising that people get nervous when talk turns to accountability. That nervousness can only be overcome by earning (and not demanding) trust.

  2. David P Himes says:

    Your mutual submission point is an important one. And I think that is the point where your premise fails, because we are to imperfect, as a large group, to be that thoroughly mutually submissive.

    But there is an equally fundamental point upon which we disagree. Edward Fudge wrote about it recently. And I refer you to his post on this topic, http://www.edwardfudge.com, in a Grace Mail, entitled, “RANDOM THOUGHTS: CHURCH AS INDIVIDUALS AND NOT AS INSTITUTION”

    Your premise relies, in some way, on a focus on organized congregations as having some relevant role in Christian life. The ekklesia is the result of us being Christians, not a cause.

    If our message begins with “loving others the way Jesus loves us”, the issues you raise disappear. So, it’s not about congregational accountability, it’s about following Jesus, one by one.

  3. Jerry says:

    David,
    I’m not so sure that “free-lance Christianity” is a viable, workable model for our service to God. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” We all have too many “rough spots” that need to be smoothed – and we need interaction with others to make that happen. It is not just “me and God.” It is me with God in company with others. God uses those others to “tame” me into subjection to Him. Those around us influence us more than we imagine.

    Now Edward is right in pointing out that the “group” can take on a character that differs from that of Jesus. When the goal becomes maintaining the group, that group becomes an idol to its members who serve “the group” rather than serving Jesus. Jesus must be first in our hearts or the whole thing fails. That is why it is so important to acknowledge Him as our Lord of Lords and King of Kings – and to do this in action, not merely with lip-service.

    Before Jay began this series on autonomy and accountability, I wrote an item – and posted it about the same time as Jay first posted on this series. In it I talk about autonomy and isolation. Are we so autonomous that we isolate ourselves from fellow Christians in other congregations/denominations? You can read more of my thoughts on this here. Enjoy!

  4. Jay,

    How is your congregation moving to the model you describe?
    This is not a cynical or rhetorical question. I really want to know how you are doing this.

  5. Jerry,
    I’m not advocating “free-lance” Christianity, in which Christians never collaborate or gather together or isolate themselves from each other.

    I’m suggesting that being pre-occupied with the accountability of congregations is the wrong question. Christians should collaborate, gather, cooperate, support each other, edify each other, serve each other and service together.

    But these should be the results of our faith, not the result of our organizational membership in an institution.

    By concentrating, even a little, on congregational accountability, we encourage group think. We encourage believers to be concerned about what the group does or does not do.

    My understanding of the Text is that Jesus was about changing the hearts of individuals, not creating an organization.

  6. laymond says:

    David said “My understanding of the Text is that Jesus was about changing the hearts of individuals, not creating an organization.”
    David, wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do was to join a “saved organization”
    just be dragged along by those saved by their faith. If their faith can save them, why couldn’t their faith save you?

  7. Tim Archer says:

    Please don’t take this example further than it was mean to go. There are real problems with this church. But the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, organizes a church of hundreds of thousands (Wikipedia says one million) of people under one set of leaders, ultimately under one pastor: David (or Paul) Yonggi Cho.

    So a church of 20,000 under one eldership is not impossible, though I’m not sure how effective the shepherding could be.

  8. nick gill says:

    Who holds the elders accountable?

    Interesting question.

    if your church were part of a city-wide league of churches that did missions together, that served the poor together, that had countless overlapping ministries, and if the leadership of that group asked to speak to the elders of your church, they’d have to listen.

    Who watches the Watchmen? If that league’s leadership is necessary to hold the elders accountable, who holds *them* accountable?

    It’s hard to resist the influence of the friends and brothers who serve alongside you.

    But that resistance to being influenced by the friends and brothers who serve alongside you is the precise reason why the leadership of the hypothetical league of churches is being asserted as necessary – because the “friends and brothers who serve alongside” the elders are failing to influence them.

    What am I missing?

  9. Adam says:

    I firmly believe that this idea – one of mutual, reciprocal submission – is the truest test of right theology that exists. It is the practical and visible thing that shows the cruciform, kenotic heart that follows Christ.

    David says it is about following Jesus “one by one”, and of course he is right. But he is also completely wrong, because, definitionally, following Jesus is submission not just to Christ’s Spirit, but to His body. To value one over the other misses, literally, half of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

    Alan is right about the dangers of submission, the abuses of submission, the fact that it is earned and not demanded. But he misses the main point that the way in which it is earned is by the initial submission of one believer to another as a first act of faith and invitation towards conversation. How else will the trust be earned if it isn’t first freely given with no strings attached? Hence submission.

    As God was with us, we are to be with others (humble, submissive, kenotic, relational, sacrificial, etc). We didn’t deserve it from God, and yet, as an offering of love, he chose to bridge the gulf simply because that is who He is.

    Will it lead to pain, messiness, ugliness, heartache? Of course. When God decided to bridge the gap it lead to the same for Him. Why do we expect our path to be different? Why do we demand “security” in “earned trust”. Is that not simply loving those who love you? Don’t even the heathen do that?

  10. laymond says:

    “The Corinthian church submitted to the Jerusalem church by giving them money for their support.”
    Submit means to yield, and you can only submit to what you disagree with, If you agree with a thing, joining in on it is not submission.

    1Pe 5:1 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed:
    1Pe 5:2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight [thereof], not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;
    1Pe 5:3 Neither as being lords over [God’s] heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.
    1Pe 5:4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.

    What are you calling for submission to, are you saying the sheep should submit to being lorded over by the shepherds, or the shepherds sumitting to the needs of the sheep.?

  11. Adam says:

    Laymond – I think you are right on.

    Submission, at its core, is built on the choice to submit while disagreeing (hence humility). Similarly, unity is built on the choice to continue in relation (fellowship) while disagreeing.

    To think otherwise is to demean the mystery of Christ, to simplify God to set of doctrinal statements, or to elevate our own understanding to God’s Mercy Seat.

    Also, I think the Biblical idea is one of reciprocity – the leaders submit to the body as the body submits to the leaders. Hence the foundation of Christian leadership is submission, not authoritarian or totalitarian dictatorialship.

    Leadership as example, invitation, and submission. Following not through agreement, but through humility, love, and service. All done simply because it is what God did first and what God continues to do in and for us.

  12. Bob Brandon says:

    Nick wrote: “What am I missing?”

    This will probably not provide the missing piece, but I suspect many/most/all of our conversations about elderships and servant-leadership (which I think is, by the way we want to define the terms, an oxymoron of our own making) are about about making modern executive/military management a scriptural norm. Too many who want vertical accountability via a chain-of-command/organizational chart are frustrated with a biblical standard that is a lateral sense of accountability: accountable to each other as part of being equal subordinates of God.

    So, instead of abandoning the former, they want to co-opt the latter. As if sticking a “dog” label on a cat makes the cat a dog. We all (should) know that it’s not, and we (should) know why it’s not, but we wonder why people insist on it: “well, we’ve always put these dog labels on these animals called “cats;” my dad did and his granddad and his great-granddad, and I would feel bad if I didn’t do it, too.” But it doesn’t matter even when the “dog” comes up to you and meows.

  13. Orion says:

    I am having trouble understanding why submission requires disagreement. What word would you use to describe my being in submission to Jesus while aggreeing that his way is the way I want to go. Can I not submit to the speed limit agreeing that it is best and safest for all on the roads. Certainly submission is easier when we agree and more difficult when we don’t agree, but it is submission none the less.

  14. Bob Brandon says:

    “I am having trouble understanding why submission requires disagreement.”

    I was wondering about that, too.

  15. Charles McLean says:

    Actually, it is disagreement that reveals whether we are submitting or simply finding ourselves in agreement. As a social worker, I often work under court orders. A judge recently told me to move a child into a new foster home, a move which I argued against strongly, and one which I still believe is inappropriate. But I am currently making this move. That is submission. When I agree with the judge, I continue to do what I think is best, and this is exactly the same thing as I would do if the judge did not exist. On the other hand, submission requires a step beyond this; it requires me to subordinate my own will to the will of another, not because I think the other is wiser, but because of who he is.

    It’s not really submission until you DON’T want to do it…

  16. Charles McLean says:

    laymond asked: “What are you calling for submission to, are you saying the sheep should submit to being lorded over by the shepherds, or the shepherds sumitting to the needs of the sheep?”
    >>>
    This question presents a false dichotomy, suggesting that we choose between two bad alternatives, which we won’t do, in hopes of brushing the question aside. Peter tells these people to take oversight, but not in a lordly way, as some do. We are not to be ruled by needs any more than we are to be ruled by autocrats. Probably the second worst facet of my CoC heritage was my total and abject rejection of authority in my life. When I knew the bible better than my elders, I felt no need to follow them. I came from a heritage where we don’t submit, we split instead. Every man does what is right in his own eyes. As our doctrine does not recognize any authority except congregational elders, and we are free to dump that set of elders and move along to another set of elders across town, the doctrine effectively undercuts any REAL submission.

    The sheep still decide who rules. It’s American democracy, but it’s not the Kingdom of God.

  17. Charles McLean says:

    Where two wills are the same, there is no submission, only agreement. This is not a bad thing, in fact, it should be the mark of maturity in Christ. Submission may be (and should be) a predetermination in our own minds; that is, I may have already determined in my heart that if Jesus tells me to go where I don’t want to go, that I will go. That is a godly submission of heart, but it is invisible (and perhaps only theoretical) until the rubber meets the road. It is only at that point of disagreement that I can “show you my faith by my works”.

    An important distinction: We CAN subordinate our own wills without holding a healthy form of submission. We might obey God against our own will because we are afraid he’ll hurt us otherwise. That’s the one-talent man’s version of submission– simply trying to dodge the whip. OR, we might doggedly submit to elders who lead us against the will of Christ, because “they’re the elders”, thus excusing ourselves and blaming the elders for our own bad actions. Neither of these decisions reflect a healthy relationship with the authority of God in our lives. The first form mis-characterizes our Father, while the latter is really just passive-aggressive irresponsibility.

  18. nick gill says:

    Submission is saying, I will trust you and do what you say.

    Sometimes I will agree with you.
    Sometimes I will disagree.
    Sometimes I won’t have an opinion on this matter.
    Sometimes I will be afraid – being afraid to do something in no way suggests that you disagree that it ought to be done.

    Submission is the active decision to align my will with another’s, regardless of my opinion on the matter.

  19. Bob Brandon says:

    “The sheep still decide who rules. It’s American democracy, but it’s not the Kingdom of God.”

    This is also a bit of a false dichotomy: We don’t have God among us to rule directly; we ultimately apply the rule of God ourselves among ourselves. How we do that in the particulars is largely left to ourselves. We can know from the text how that was done (more aptly, how the epistlers wanted their fellow believers to proceed), but there is a great deal of trust on the part of the writers to their readers. In fact, there is a great deal of trust on the part of Jesus as he sent his 70 out among the people and a great deal of trust on the part of Jesus in those who proclaimed the gospel but who were not among the Twelve (much to the annoyance of the Twelve, that annoyance then becoming a teaching moment). The Apostles had a great deal of trust in the Jerusalem congregation to choose their own deacons. One First Century Church “model” is that one of trust in each other in Christ.

    No matter how it’s put (or objected to), there is a great deal of polling in any organization, including churches. It’s a reliable means for determining where the group is and what the group is presently capable of. If a particular issue has become so heated as to be reduced to “counting votes” (and voters – and our family has been in one such dysfunctional one that did exactly that – and because of that we left and never regretted the departure), then there is a much greater problem of division and authoritarianism within the community, and it is those religious cancers that should first be confronted. But ultimately, we do vote in our churches if only with our feet and often with our level of participation.

  20. laymond says:

    Bob and Orion
    I thought I had covered this question before it could be asked, but evidently not. I included the following statement because I expected this question.

    Submit means to yield, and you can only submit to what you disagree with, If you agree with a thing, joining in on it is not submission.
    let me expound a little bit– If you agree with the idea of a thing, you cannot submit, to it but you certainly can commit to it.

  21. For purposes of discussion:

    How does “elders submitting to their folk” manifest itself?

    Most of this discussion, so far, seems to be reflecting on the folk submitting to the elders.

  22. laymond says:

    Good question David, I will wait on others to answer.
    I could have just referred to Adam’s comment to explain why one has to disagree in order to submit/yield.
    Thanks Adam

  23. Bob Brandon says:

    Laymond wrote: “Submit means to yield, and you can only submit to what you disagree with…”

    So, I submit to the secular authorities because I disagree with good order (see Rom. 12; I Pet. 2)?

    I submit to the authority of God because I disagree with Him?

    You see how this starts to break down quickly, right?

  24. Adam says:

    To begin an answer to David’s question, there are the obvious answers – spend time among the people, work with the people, go to their houses, visit them in the hospital, etc.

    We get that. We do that.

    One particular that I think can show submission is in the willingness of the eldars to participate in the “worst” jobs at the church. As a symbolic gesture, I think it mirrors greatly what Christ did in leaving heaven. Every church’s “bad jobs” are different, and of course not all elders are physically able to participate in all the jobs, but as much as possible I think this helps immensely.

    A higher-order sign of elder submission to the congregation is seen in openness. It’s not simply about asking for input, but making deliberations public when and as much as possible. Hiring new staff, missions, how money is spent, church finances – when elders don’t simply report but open their deliberations up to the congregation, showing us some of the messiness involved, and then how they stand united in spite of the disagreements – that can be a powerful witness.

    Of course not all can be public, but as a goal I think it is worthwhile.

  25. Charles McLean says:

    Bob observed: “This is also a bit of a false dichotomy: We don’t have God among us to rule directly; we ultimately apply the rule of God ourselves among ourselves. How we do that in the particulars is largely left to ourselves.”
    >>>
    Yes, I believe in delegated authority. But, I think we would continue to learn many of these real-time “particulars” from the Holy Spirit, had we not retired Him soon after the autobiography came out. The idea that we do not have God among us to rule directly is the old doctrine of God as absentee landlord. Jesus promised that the Spirit would take what was of Jesus and make it known to us; that the Holy Spirit would be with us forever, that the Holy Spirit himself would lead us into all truth, and teach us all things. We very clearly still have that need. Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.

    Note that the main expectation of the Twelve when they had the church select the Seven was that they select men full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. Even administrative servants were expected to be able to hear God as a prerequisite for running the Jerusalem Meals On Wheels. It is clear that Stephen, for one, was no simple bean-counter or soup-ladler.

    Yes, we should be consulting each other in the Body of Christ. But not just at the level of “what do you want?” or “how do you feel?” but at the level of, “What is the Spirit saying to you?” If we are being led strictly by human consensus, bounded only by broad general principles, how is that similar to living in the reality Jesus promised us?

    As to our voting with our feet, as long as that is the result of our following the leading of the Holy Spirit, I don’t see that as unhealthy. But if it’s just following the spirit of Popeye (“That’s all I can stands; I can’t stands no more!”) or worse, if it’s just “taking our religion business elsewhere”, then perhaps we are again doing nothing more than “what is right in our own eyes”.

    I am not suggesting that we have no freedom of action. We are following Jesus ourselves, not being pulled along in a trailer. We are indeed free. But free to do what? What is the difference between liberty and anarchy? The source. Anarchy is freedom of action granted by individuals to themselves. Liberty is freedom of action granted us by One who has the right to limit us as well.

  26. Alabama John says:

    Not understanding submission and disagreement?

    Surely you understand this well if you are married!

  27. Adam says:

    Bob,

    Definitionally, submission is independent of agreement.

    Being children of the reformation, we have the privilege of choosing to whom we submit, but we don’t have the privilege of withdrawing our submission simply because we disagree. Otherwise it was never submission in the first place, only agreement.

    We will withdraw our submission for the silliest of reasons while Christ submitted to the very ones who were to kill him. Kinda silly to withdraw submission over missions or church buildings or instrumental worship when our example is to submit – willingly and joyfully – until death.

  28. Orion says:

    Thanks to all for the input helping me understand what is meant by submission. I guess my understanding is more along the lines of Nick’s reply:
    “Submission is the active decision to align my will with another’s, regardless of my opinion on the matter.”
    To me that is “submission” regardless of the word used to describe it.

  29. Bob Brandon says:

    A.J. wrote: “Not understanding submission and disagreement? Surely you understand this well if you are married!”

    I, for one, understand not to be disagreeable. You?

  30. Charles McLean says:

    David, I personally know a number of CoC elders who have progressed past many of the old distinctives, but will not teach this –like Pilate– “because of the people”. They cannot andwill not teach their belief that acapella music is tradition, not the will of God, for fear of alienating certain church members. I have seen a new member re-baptized, not because the elders really thought it required, but because the congregation knew the lady was previously Baptist. I have been hired and fired three times by CoC’s, and five of those six decisions originated with a particular constituency, and was presented to the elders as “If you want us to stay, you’ll do this”.

    Sometimes, it can be very healthy for elders to see where the Spirit is leading people and to pitch in to support their pursuit of God. But when authority vests in interest groups or cadres in the local group, it makes for an untenable situation.

  31. laymond says:

    Bob said, “I submit to the authority of God because I disagree with Him?”

    Bob, if it is the case, that you have always, agreed with and obeyed the will of God, you had nothing to repent of, did you?
    Pray tell what did you confess, you can disagree with another through words, or action. I wish I were in your shoes, if you never sinned against God.

  32. Alabama John says:

    April 6th we celebrate 50 years as one under God.
    I understand pretty well.

  33. Bob Brandon says:

    Laymond writes: “Bob, if it is the case, that you have always, agreed with and obeyed the will of God, you had nothing to repent of, did you?”

    You seem to be terribly confused. If “disagreeing with God” means sinning, then even Paul has no standing with God; from your peculiar point of view, his lament makes no sense: “Wretched man that I am? Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Rom. 7:24-25.

    Plus, John himself leaves room for one to make mistakes while under submission to God: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” I Jn. 1:8-10.

  34. laymond says:

    Bob, I was working off your sarcastic statement –, “I submit to the authority of God because I disagree with Him?” although I recognize sarcasm when I see it, I took this to mean you never disagreed with God even before you joined the church. When I submitted to God in baptism, I vowed not to disagree with god on purpose anymore. through word or action. before I submitted to God I disagreed with him out of ignorance.

  35. Bob Brandon says:

    Laymond:

    I was not endeavoring to be sarcastic; I only took your conclusion and plugged into scripture to show how wrong-headed it was. Your equaling submission with disagreement is simply incoherent.

  36. laymond says:

    I know you don’t grasp the logic of it, but others do. maybe someday.

  37. Bob Brandon says:

    Laymond:

    Oh, I grasp the proposed logic alright; that’s how I know it’s not.

  38. Charles McLean says:

    laymond wrote: “When I submitted to God in baptism, I vowed not to disagree with god on purpose anymore.”
    >>>
    That would be a pretty tough vow to keep. Shucks, “Love one another as I have loved you,” trips me up enough to shatter that oath. It’s not just that sometimes I don’t do it, sometimes I don’t even want to.

    But then, I’m probably the only one.

  39. Charles McLean says:

    Jesus sometimes submitted when he disagreed. And sometimes, even when he knew the authorities to whom he submitted were just flat WRONG.

  40. Bob Brandon says:

    Let’s not make too much of Jesus’ submission to authorities who “were just flat wrong.” Context matters; He submitted to the Jews and the Romans because He first submitted to the Father with whom He remained in agreement.

    And just because I trip up on “love your neighbor as oneself” on a daily (and, some days in court, often on a moment to moment basis) doesn’t mean I disagree with the second greatest command any more than missing an easy layup means I disagree with playing the game of basketball. What it does mean is, and God understands it as such if I read I Jn. 1 accurately, that I remain in relationship with Him, a relationship obtained by the blood of Jesus and despite my failures and shortcomings as his servant, as long as I continue to endeavor to live my life according to his will.

  41. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    David P. Himes wrote,

    Your premise relies, in some way, on a focus on organized congregations as having some relevant role in Christian life. The ekklesia is the result of us being Christians, not a cause.

    I don’t think you can read the NT and avoid the conclusion that congregations have a hugely relevant role in Christian life. It’s true that many congregations and many elderships are dysfunctional, but that does not change the fact that God wants individual Christians to be part of congregations.

    We are added to the church-universal by our salvation. In NT times, we were also added to the local congregation, as there was but one. We were required to submit to the leadership of that singular congregation.

    In modern times, we’ve formed countless congregations in each city, and we’ve given ourselves a choice of congregations. But we are still supposed to be part of the body of Christ, joined to the Vine and to the Body. We can no more be separate from the congregational manifestation of the church than a toe can be separated from the body.

    Again, I acknowledge that there is great sin and worldliness in many congregations. But I don’t that doesn’t justify pursuing an individualized, personally autonomous existence separate from the Body.

  42. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dwayne,

    We are taking the very first steps — and have a long way to go. The churches in Tuscaloosa (all denominations) are severely disorganized. There is very little momentum toward missions cooperation. Much in theory; very little in practice. The problem was revealed during the tornado recovery. Committees and task forces created during Katrina completely failed to function. The local churches seem to have formed three different cross-denominational agencies all designed to coordinate church efforts, not a one of which is particularly effective.

    We are working to build a “missional network” of church leaders. We just spoke to a preacher in another city that has helped do this, and we’re taking notes on how to do it. But it’s a long, tall hill to climb.

    You start with a vision …

  43. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    David P. Himes wrote,

    My understanding of the Text is that Jesus was about changing the hearts of individuals, not creating an organization.

    Jesus is the one who told us —

    (Mat 18:17 ESV) If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

    The apostles organized the first 3,000 converts into a congregation overseen by the apostles. The apostles were soon joined by elders.

    Paul had Titus ordain elders in every city.

    It’s a false dichotomy. Jesus was about changing hearts, and one method for doing that was and is the church as an institution with leadership ordained by the Holy Spirit.

    (Act 20:28 ESV) Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

    Is the church the end goal of it all? No, the congregations are important enough that Revelation was written to congregations —

    (Rev 3:22 ESV) “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'”

    (Rev 22:16 ESV) “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

    Obviously, it’s individuals who are saved, but speaking of individual Christians as somehow separate from the congregation is like speaking of body parts separate from the body. It can happen, but it doesn’t work very well.

    Regarding Edward Fudge’s article (http://www.edwardfudge.com/gracemails/individuals_not_institution.html), he was making a very different point —

    Nowhere does the Bible speak of action by or on the ekklesia or “church” tthat involves an institution rather than live human beings. There is one verse thatdistinguishes between an individual’s personal responsibility and the broader responsibility of a local congregation of believers (“church”).

    In the context of CoC disputes of the 20th Century, many believe their standing before God depends on what their own congregation does or doesn’t do, rather than what they themselves do or don’t do. It’s a valid and important point in terms of CoC thought.

    But it hardly means that congregations are therefore necessarily strictly autonomous and not required in any sense to be in submission to their sister congregations. Indeed, in the NT, we see apostles demanding submission to the apostles, and the apostles in submission to the apostles and elders, as a body. Moreover, we see a rejection of the modern preference for countless denominations all competing with rival churches, with utter unity being the most scriptural mode of operation.

    I’m not so naive as to imagine that all congregations in town might unite into a single church tomorrow, but they would do well be more united than they are today. The way we treat our sister congregations today is a travesty and shame to the notion of Christian love, unity, and submission.

  44. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Nick asked,

    But that resistance to being influenced by the friends and brothers who serve alongside you is the precise reason why the leadership of the hypothetical league of churches is being asserted as necessary – because the “friends and brothers who serve alongside” the elders are failing to influence them.

    What am I missing?

    I’m not looking for an ideal situation. That comes after Jesus returns. For now, the goal is to be as much like Jesus as we possibly can be. Leaders have to be held accountable by some standard.

    Obviously, the members of the congregation SHOULD be able to do this, and just as obviously, we have often seen that this just doesn’t happen — even when the members try.

    But imagine an eldership that is humble and submissive enough to work with the leaders of other local churches, who are willing to work side by side with them.

    A couple of things happen. First, in a church culture where elders are EXPECTED to cooperate with PEERS, hearts are changed (or the church does a better job of ordaining the right kind of men). You see, the culture changes because we have a truer understanding of what it means to be an elder.

    Second, iron sharpens iron. Ministers who’ve participated in prayer networks with ministers of other local churches often report that their time together is life transforming. And yet they fail to invite their ELDERS!! What’s wrong with this picture?

    Imagine a church where the ministers and elders are team, working together toward a common goal. Now have the elders join the minister and elders and presbyters of other churches in town for prayer, for planning, for shared missionality.

    How are the elders changed? Are they better, more Christ-like men for having shared prayer time and their vision for the Kingdom with like-minded men and women?

    I just left Tulsa, where I spent 3 hours with elders from several different states, sharing our passions, our congregation’s needs, and visons. And I’ve been re-energized and strengthened just to have been in the same room with such Godly men! But I shouldn’t have to travel to Tulsa to experience that.

  45. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Adam wrote,

    I firmly believe that this idea – one of mutual, reciprocal submission – is the truest test of right theology that exists. It is the practical and visible thing that shows the cruciform, kenotic heart that follows Christ.

    AMEN! AMEN! AMEN!

    When we begin to define “Christian” as “Christ-like” as “submissive” we begin to get the gist of life with Jesus. And “submissive” necessarily entails “accountable.”

    And Adam is exactly right to point out that it’s an imperfect system that will disappoint and hurt us at times. That’s life in the Kingdom this side of the Second Coming. It’s one of the prices we pay to be like Jesus.

    We insist on individual and congregational autonomy in a desperate effort to avoid pain. We hope we can find the perfect church with perfect doctrine where we’ll never be hurt or disappointed, and life is never that kind to us. Some give up on their fellow Christians. Some give up on the church. Some give up on Jesus.

    But Jesus didn’t call us to serve him in a perfect world. That comes later. For now, we are called to be beacons of God’s light in darkness, and sometimes that darkness lives in our home congregation. Sometimes the darkness is overwhelming.

    In Tulsa, I heard many sad stories of courageous individual Christians working hard to build better churches that had been nearly overcome by darkness. It’s a tough, tough task. Sometimes it’s beyond human capacity. But we can count on God to reward faithfulness — especially faithfulness in the darkest of places.

  46. Jay,
    I’m not advocating an individualistic Christianity … see my second post in this thread.

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