(Gal 4:18-19 ESV) 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!
Plainly, Paul sees the goal of the Christian walk as the formation of Christ within the individual Christians (and in the congregation, as well).
This verse has led to an explosion of literature on “spiritual formation,” much of which is targeted toward the individual spiritual disciplines advocated for by Dallas Willard and Richard Foster.
But, you see, the qualities of service, submission, and sacrifice are all community qualities. You really can’t serve, submit, or sacrifice alone! And so the highest ethics of Christianity are community ethics. Jesus’ example is all about what he did for others, not how he improved himself through diligent discipline.
That’s not to say that individual disciplines have no merit; only that they are not the end-all be-all of spiritual formation. I really just don’t care how much Bible you know or how much you pray and fast if you won’t bother to submit to the church’s leadership or to your spouse and if you won’t sacrifice for the sake of your congregation or for Jesus.
And so imagine that you are hired to put together a survey or test of some sort to determine the spiritual maturity of the members of your church. What kinds of questions would you ask?
Well, historically, what do we in fact ask? Well, we ask whether the members are regular in their attendance, whether they give to the church’s general fund, whether they attend Sunday school and Wednesday night. If we’re a bit more sophisticated with our measuring tools, we ask whether they volunteer in church ministries.
And these sorts of things may well correlate with service, submission, sacrifice, and suffering, but not necessarily. Our members may have highly legalistic reasons for their good behaviors, attending and giving out of fear of hell — a selfish motivation — rather than love for others or a desire to submit to God or to the church’s leadership.
And this leads to a subtle but important observation. It’s not good enough serve, submit, and sacrifice. These must be done because they are prompted by the Spirit. They must derive from a heart that loves, rather than a heart that fears. We must serve others because we love them from the heart.
You see, Jesus did what he did purely from love. He had no fear of punishment if he’d failed to die on the cross. He could have quit and headed off to heaven anytime. But purely out of love for others, he paid the price.
Just so, we aren’t truly like Jesus — we aren’t headed toward theosis — unless we act out of love. And this tells us that our usual measures can be horribly misleading. After all, attendance hardly tells us why our members are attending. And it may not be out of love at all.
On the other hand, it’s altogether fine if our motivation is joy. If we serve because we enjoy service, if we submit because we enjoy submission, if we sacrifice because we enjoy sacrifice, well, that just means we’re very far down the path toward theosis. After all, when we do what we’ve been gifted by the Spirit to do, we ought to enjoy it.
That’s not to say that we’ll never have to walk through a personal hell to achieve God’s purposes. I’m the father of four sons. I love being a father. I love my sons. I’ve loved the entire experience — except the parts I hated. You dads know what I mean.
Nothing tears your guts out like being a parent. Great joy intermixed with unspeakable agony. And I’m confident God wanted me to be a dad and equipped me. And yet there were times of sheer hell.
Therefore, I don’t want to be read as saying that Christianity is all about suffering and misery. It’s not. In fact, I read the Gospels as presenting a Jesus who is filled with joy and laughter. I think he was the sort of fellow who smiled and winked a lot. In fact, I think his sayings often make the best sense if read with a bit of comic timing.
(Psa 126:1-6 NIV) When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. 2 Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” 3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. 4 Restore our fortunes, LORD, like streams in the Negev. 5 Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. 6 Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.
So what are the sorts of things we would look for if we were to seek to measure spiritual maturity? I don’t know. Maybe something like —
* What gives our members the greatest joy?
* What makes the most angry?
* What is their greatest passion in life?
* When they speak to their friends about their congregation or their religion, what elements do they emphasize?
* Do they keep their promises?
* Are they willing to make promises they have to keep? (An unwillingness to commit is an unwillingness to submit and sacrifice, and therefore is deeply un-Christian.)
* Are they willing to suffer criticism for what they believe in? From their friends? Family? (Or is getting along with the spiritually immature or even the lost more important than living what they believe?)
* Are the members who’ve been members the longest more like Jesus than the newer members? (Or does our teaching actually take submissive Christians and turn them into entitled Christians?)
* Are the members’ demands on church leaders mainly about how the leaders can serve the members or about how the members can serve others?
* Do the members look for ways to serve others or for ways to be served?
You know, I found it really, really hard to put those questions together. This is just so far out of how we usually think, you know.
And maybe those questions are too tough. But go through them and ask how Jesus would measure up to each one. Then compare that to yourself. And to your friends at church.
What other questions would be appropriate?
Jay asked, “Are they willing to suffer criticism for what they believe in? From their friends? Family? (Or is getting along with the spiritually immature or even the lost more important than living what they believe?)”
Jay, good question, because its a tough one.
Frankly, I have known those who fight and take criticism for what they believe simply because they enjoy that sort of thing. While for others, they know how and when to stay quiet and let example speak.
So, in regard to your question I believe we should take people as they come. Some can speak up when it takes great courage to do so. Others go gently from soul to soul molding hearts and minds with a simple word or gesture. We all have been molded by our past and I believe the grace of God can use whatever shape we have been molded into.
I want to be clear that the proposed questions aren’t about testing who is or isn’t saved or in good standing — that sort of thing. These are designed for the leaders to evaluate themselves.
That particular question is borrowed from the Beatitudes — that we should count criticism, even persecution, as a blessing.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Obviously, not all members will meet that standard. But surely that is a target the leadership should be aiming toward. If a congregation is more concerned with what the critics say about us than whether we are following Jesus, then the leadership needs to take stock and ask how they can do a better job.
You know, if we hesitate at the thought of measuring our leadership in terms of the Sermon on the Mount, we’re practicing something other than Christianity.
Jay, there is certainly nothing you said above with which I would disagree. There is no greater standard than the beatitudes. I was simply approaching the question in regard to our individual personalities and gifts. And, yes, whatever one’s personality and gift may be, there should always be a growth toward the way of Christ.
Jay, we attend a large congregation that has been and is heavily criticized by legalistic churches of Christ. It has no impact on how we see ourselves or what we do. It is all about serving God. The membership is so diverse and yet unified as to purpose, I think many don’t pay attention to it or may not even be aware of it.
I’m glad you are approaching this subject, for I believe it is one too much neglected – and when approached, it is often approached without real spiritual formation in view.
Too many times we overlook Paul’s explicit statement about “bodily exercise” profiting little as having nothing to do with spiritual formation. The context of 1 Timothy 4:1-10 shows that “bodily training” (ESV) is not what happens at the gym – but is a program of physically based “disciplines” intended to make us “godly.”
The first paragraph (vv. 1-5) sets the stage for the second paragraph (vv. 6-10). In vv. 1-5 he speaks of deceitful spirits, teachings of demons, forbidding what God has created to be good, demanding that people abstain from certain foods. It is a rigid approach that has much in common with the asceticism Paul denounces in Colossians 2:20-23. These rigid rules, I believe, are what Paul speaks of as “bodily training” in 1 Timothy 4:8. This is the sort of “discipling” done in the “discipling movements” in various denominations in prior decades. (Among churches of Christ, this is what was done in the past in “The Boston Movement” or International Churches of Christ, a much different group today.)
Such rules do not develop godliness, they have no benefit in “stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Yet these rules that govern Bible reading, quiet time, fasting, church attendance, inviting friends or strangers to church activities, etc. do not develop conformity to Jesus. They may develop conformity to a group-think mentality within the group pushing them – while pushing everyone that resists such things out of the group, sometimes with disastrous spiritual results. While these things are not evil in themselves, they can become evil when rigidly applied by the “leaders” of the group enforcing them on their “disciples.”
On the other hand, godliness follows when our focus is fixed on the eternal values by fixing our hope on the living God, especially as He reveals Himself to us in Jesus, the Christ. It is in walking as Jesus walked that we become like Jesus – not by imitating the monks of the early days who who were deep into mystic piety that gained them notoriety and influence, but short on humble service, such as Jesus practiced when He washed His disciples feet.
Willard and Foster do include service to others among their spiritual disciplines – but if service is approached in this way, it is likely to devolve into “promoting my spirituality” instead of truly becoming like Jesus.
Jay, thank you for a basically balanced approach. The one area I would question (even a little, and I think you would agree with me) is that there are times when ungodly leaders of the church need to be resisted. Think for example of Luther’s famous resistance to the Pope when he made his “Here I stand; I can do no other” speech. That is a far cry, however, from resisting the leadership of the church over matters of personal preference. Otherwise, when the church is under the influence of a spiritual tyrant, the membership has no recourse.
It seems rather hard to distinguish between what gives me personal joy to do in service and that which i do because of the love for others mich less trying to discern that in others.
That’s why we should expect joy, even though we can’t expect wealth, fame, or even appreciation from our fellowman. Joy comes from being close enough to God to see his delight in our service for him and from being close enough to those we serve to see Jesus in them.
Entirely agree, although the lines are devilishly hard to draw. After all, if I only submit when I agree, then I’ve not really submitted at all. On the other hand, clearly leadership that is opposed to the gospel is to be resisted. I keep trying to come up with a “bright line” test, but haven’t managed it yet.
For sure, we have to oppose and resist division within the church (which you can hardly do by dividing!) Of course, this requires a healthy understanding of the boundaries of the church.
And any rebellion against God has to be resisted — rebellion being subjective. Not a mere, honest mistake.
Most importantly, the gospel must remain the gospel. We must remain true to our faith in Jesus and our love for God and others. These are also non-negotiable.
Part of my difficulty derives from our choice to have so many congregations in one town, whereas the early church had but one. We were never meant to church shop. But picking a congregation in a new town is now inevitable, leading to concerns the Bible does not directly address.
On other hand, once we accept the centrality of the image of Jesus in our theology, surely the best church is the church (true to the faith and love, of course) that equips me to live like Jesus — which may be a far cry from the church with the best worship or the coolest teen ministry.
Just thinking outloud, you know.
I don’t know Jay, I’d still be pretty happy if i could combine your classes with my church.
Sorry, Zach, too much kneeling for these knees. I always stand and sit and kneel at the wrong time …
Since I was just a young man, I have been a leader in my church. I became accustomed to being a leader, to being where the action was, to being one of the “in crowd” who knew what was happening in the church. Now, later in my life, I find myself in the postion of not only not being in leadership but not wanted in leadership and I must admit that it puts a whole different spin on being a member of the church. My ideas and plans are routinely dismissed whereas they once were routinely accepted. Sometimes it seems as if I have very little to contribute to my church. Sometimes this is personally painful to acknowledge.
I have almost accepted that this new place for me is where God has placed me and that there is something new to be discovered here. One can be a leader so long that they forget what it means to be a servant and I believe that was or perhaps still is…me. I find myself desiring leadership less and less while at the same time accepting servanthood more readily. I know someone has to lead but it now seems to me that every leader should spend some time out of leadership so that they know what those who only follow feel and deal with. It would make them better leaders.
I agree that the “bright line” marking the point at which to resist leadership rather than to submit, which should definitely be the norm, is devilishly difficult. It is easy to submit to men who live and teach the gospel. It is more difficult to follow when leaders lead us in the wrong direction – as they demonstrate by word and deed that they care little for Jesus., but are only interested in their own agenda.
Doug, it was a very hard lesson for me to learn that part of being a leader is raising others up to be leaders. Sometimes I didnt have a choice and it was frankly just easier to be in charge. What I didn’t realize was how fullfilling it was to do that which i didnt want in the first place and I really beleive now that that is exactly what God calls us to do–that sometimes being a leader our job is to encourage and uplift others to leadership.
Not sure how my last comment says by doug heh