Dialogue on "Give me back my church!"

This dialogue arose in response to my article of June/July 2003 titled "Give me back my church!".

My correspondent has asked to be anonymous, so I have removed any reference to his name and locality (except that he is in Canada).

His questions are in this sort of text. His quotations from my article look like this.

July 19th 2003

I really just want to get a better picture of your beliefs as they relate to the church in your essay. I think the best way to get some clarity is for me to quote a section of your essay and then then we can discuss it...I attend a Baptist church here in Canada...We have our share of troubles and I am struggling with the role of the modern pastor, that's why I found your essay thought-provoking. Here's what I'm wondering:

"we are so used to it that almost all of us have been deceived."

I believe that much of professing Christendom shows very few signs of repentance of sin and regeneration in Spirit. So, I too view the church as a remnant among the professing. Are you making a further separation or do you see some overlap between - i.e. the apostate professing believers and the believers that show fruit of the Lord's work in their life (repentance and faith).

The fact that people are trapped by the system doesn't make them not Christians. I think that the true church in any place is the whole sum of those who have repented of their sins and confessed Jesus as their Lord. That body will include many who are in traditional churches and some who are not. There will also be people who look like Christians but actually are not (tares v. good seed); they pass for Christians until the time of harvest when their fruit shows what they really are.

But I believe the time of harvest has at least begun.

If someone claims to have repented and believed, but is content to allow sin in his life, one may doubt whether his repentence was genuine. Since I wrote the piece you are responding to, I have been reading other stuff that has made me realise more fully what we are really called to, namely the realisation of Jesus in our lives, just as he realised the Father's life in the world. Everything that is of the flesh (i.e., not Jesus living in us but our old nature) has got to be put to death. If it isn't dead it can't be raised to new life. So all self-effort is actually sin. All our life here on earth needs to be spent in constantly putting to death the old self (take up your cross daily) and giving up to Jesus the parts of our life where the Spirit reveals sin. He doesn't do this all at once, but goes only at the pace we can cope with.

The extent to which someone is in Christ determines how much God can work in him; the more readily we yield to him, the quicker he can bring more of our lives to be in him.

Jesus' flesh was just the same as ours, but he did not allow it to rule him at all. Since all of his life is available to us, it is possible for us not to sin at all, if we are fully yielded to him. So our aim has to be to yield ourselves fully; and if we don't have that aim, are we Christians at all?

"The false church in Revelation"

I will confess that I have not studied the prophetic scriptures very much, so I can relate to your comment that "it is sad that so little attention is paid to it" for a couple of reasons.

I know what you mean, but the more you look at it, the more you will find things that make you unsure of the big picture you construct for yourself, which, if acknowledged, is a good antidote to pride. In the end, we need to realise that God wants us to look into these things: "all scripture is given by God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works", and at least one quarter of that scripture is prophecy.

  • I have found many who swallow (hook, line and sinker) the teachings of men and women who appear to make a living off of explaining the end times. It has made me very sick to see, especially when many books, videos, messages, etc. involve so much conjecture. There tends to be a "professionalism" around eschatology - i.e. experts in the field and I don't like that. I don't want to get drawn into this type of circle. So I have avoided for these reasons, but I'm the first to admit that I have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and I hope to be balanced out more in the future and give it the proper place in my walk.

The test of anything is whether or not it glorifies Jesus and whether it is in tune with all of scripture. If it glorifies man, or jars with scripture, throw it out.

She is specifically identified with Rome (v. 9) by the seven hills.

I was wondering how you made the link to Rome so directly here.

Rome was built on seven hills, and this was universally known, I knew it long before I was a Christian (we did Latin and Greek at school). They were as well known a feature of Rome as the Statue of Liberty is of New York.

Additional comment (July 2006)

Opposed to this is the following from Andy Woods:

...the reference to the seven hills is better understood as referring to seven kingdoms. In order to correctly understand the symbolism of the seven mountains, it is necessary to look beyond the immediate culture of John' s day and instead to look to John' s Jewish heritage. Thus, Revelation must be interpreted in light of the Old Testament. Such an approach makes sense because 278 of Revelation' s 404 verses allude to the Old Testament. Jenkins explains:

The book of Revelation is the most thoroughly Jewish in its language and imagery of any New Testament book. The book speaks not the language of Paul, but of the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The Old Testament frequently uses the term "mountain" to refer to a kingdom or empire (Ps 30:7; 68:15-16; Isa 2:2; 41:15; Jer 51:25; Dan 2:35, 45; Hab 3:6, 10; Zech 4:7).

This type of imagery seems to be employed in Revelation 17:9 because verse 10 explains that the seven mountains are a metaphor for seven kings. This symbolic understanding of the seven mountains seems buttressed by the fact that the harlot sits on or beside seven mountains (17:9) just as she sits on or beside the many waters (17:1). Since the waters are symbolic of peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues (17:15), consistency seems to dictate that the seven mountains are symbolic as well. This non-literal interpretation of the seven hills is also strengthened by the fact that the other references to oros in Revelation are sometimes to be understood non-literally as well (Rev 8:8).

"All God's faithful people are warned to get out of it"

It certainly is distressing to see that many churches and professing Christians don't mind desiring and seeking out the same things that the ungodly world (Babylon) seeks. "Get out!" seems to be such a strong use of language, but from what I've seen many don't even flinch what it is uttered.

I'm applying it to the current fleshly church; but each person has to know God's leading in his own life. We stayed in the church for 25 years (with a limited understanding of its inadequacies) because God told us to stay in; now He has told us to come out, so we're out! (What a relief!)

The role of pastor/elder/bishop

This is most of what you are talking about - the insertion of a human priesthood in place of Christ. This is the key issue for me, when reading your essay. We see that the scriptures talk about elders - that they are to "rule well" and 1 Timothy 3 lays out some pretty clear requirements for "overseers". The fact appears to be them many overseers may not even meet that eligibility, but of course that's stereotyping on my part - I know many that do.

I think that "overseer" has the wrong connotations in modern English. To me, it is associated with slavery and the plantations. Think of the episkopoi as people who "watch over" the church. They are there to protect their fellows rather than to tell them what to do. The primary fashion in which they are to operate seems to be by being examples, and I think that is why the qualifications are stringent. They need to demonstrate how to be Jesus; in the same way Paul says, "Follow me as I follow Christ". The other word for them, presbuteroi (elders) shows that they should be mature men, probably middle-aged at least. I would be reluctant to acknowledge someone in his twenties as an elder.

Paul moves on in 1 Timothy 4:11 to say "Command and teach these things". So where does this seeming authority to do this come from? It appears to be from the confirmation of other elders who laid hands on him - it's his gift.

First, Paul doesn't say that the gift that is in Timothy is that of commanding people or being an elder. It seems clear that Timothy wasn't an elder but an apostle, but in any case the passage does not make it clear at all whether this was the gift of which Paul was speaking. However, it seems at least to be a gift that is helpful to him in the apostolic role. Secondly, the laying on of hands is not the means by which authority is conferred, but a sign that people are with you in the task the Lord has given you and agree with you that that is a task from the Lord. (At Antioch, the Spirit said "Set apart Paul and Barnabas for the work to which I have called them", and thereupon the church laid hands on them, but the calling was from the Spirit, not the church.) Paul's authority came directly from Jesus, which is how he, like the Twelve, was able to write scripture. Note that in various places Paul makes a distinction between things that are commands of the Lord, which he commands in turn, and other matters where he urges and persuades.

1 Timothy 5:17 says the good elders should be given "double honour".

Yes, because their good example is certainly worthy of honour. Then too, the elders are appointed for our protection, so we ought to honour them and pay heed to them ("be persuaded" by them) so as not to throw aside the protection God has given us. But elders must beware of letting the people give up to them the responsibilities which God gives to individuals or to the whole church. There is always the tendency for the people to want a king in the flesh, whereas God has appointed none but Jesus to be King.

I bring up these above points for further discussion. How do you see the role of elder if they are:

  1. Not in a position of authority
  2. But have responsibility to their calling/gifting
  3. To be treated like any other brother

Do you believe that the "true" elder has authority (or merely responsibility) over other believers?

No one but Jesus has authority over people. ("The rulers of the Gentiles exercise authority over them...but it shall not be so among you.")

Elders are guardians and examples, but their guardianship is to be exercised by exhorting and persuading both individuals and the church, not by giving commands. Authority for discipline belongs with the church, not the elders. The elders' responsibility is to watch over the individual churches of their town, to protect the believers among whom they labour and to show by their own lives how to live. All believers, including the elders, are responsible for each other; there are something like fifty "each other" commands or exhortations in the New Testament.

Do you believe he is to be held accountable for his role as an elder?

Certainly. He more than anyone is like Ezekiel - if you fail to declare God's warning, the sinner will die in his sin, but you will be responsible. If you warn and the warning is not heeded, the sinner will die in his sin but you will not be responsible.

I appreciate what you say about just listening to a sermon being likened to entertainment or merely enjoying good (or not so good) oration. In the Canadian churches I've been in, we just sit and listen. We don't interact. Any disagreement or questioning of what is said is often taken so personally by clergy that it causes them great distress.

...which is a sign that they are working in the flesh, not in the Spirit.

They get burned out too as they run here and there "keeping busy". Apparently many believe that they are to model how to "keep busy" to the congregation so they can "burn out for Christ" too.

Again, burning out is a sure sign of operating in the flesh. It is Christ who should be working in us, and his resources are inexhaustible.

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