Cooperating with Jesus Today, Part 2
We’ve covered a lot of ground through this series. But we’re now looking at ways in which we can proclaim and demonstrate Jesus’ Message in today’s world.
We tackled the first four in the last post and we look at four more below.
This is the 20th and final article in our series on Messy Dogma. Our objective? To re-engage with the Message and Mission of Jesus. Here we look at the final four of eight suggestions/solutions to the problems addressed in this series. If you’re just joining us, you’ll find it more helpful to start with the first article in the series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation and disclaimers to the series.
4464 words (c. 11 pages) = 40 minute read
In the previous article we discussed the first four of eight suggestions/solutions to the problems raised in this series.
- Good old-fashioned repentance.
- Mind-boggling, mountain-moving faith.
- Love-fuelled motivations and pure impulses.
- Good works that make the world wonder.
While these may seem rather obvious at face-value, I urge you to read Part 1 of Cooperating with Jesus Today to get to grips with the implications of these issues.
Okay, let’s look at the remaining four points now.
5. Mission-defined Communities and Ministry
Since the ekklesia is so essential to the unfolding expression of the Kingdom message, we cannot talk about following Jesus today without discussing this topic.
While God uses and blesses all kinds of ministry models and styles, I think it’s becoming widely accepted that too much of Christendom is locked in an institutional, hierarchical and rigid construct—an indication of the degree to which Greek philosophy and Empires of this world have co-opted it. However, many are rediscovering church as organic, relational and fluid. Certainly, in a Hebrew worldview, the context of spiritual community is essentially family (not an institution) and the context of spiritual leadership is essentially parenthood (not hierarchical leadership).
In the next section, we’ll look at the importance of unity and appreciating the many differences in the Body of Christ, so in this section my intention is not to criticise those in Christ’s church whose expressions are different to mine. Rather, we can (and should) cheer each other on as we all seek to flesh out and express the values of the Kingdom, and specifically, the values of mission and relationship.
In other words, in whatever expression of church we may find ourselves in, the shaping values of mission (What Kingdom cause grabs my heart?) and relationships (Who do I serve with in pursuing this cause?) are critical to thrash out.
Once we have a sense of the Kingdom cause that makes our heart beat faster, the people with whom we walk in meaningful spiritual relationship often begin to emerge, organically. Or to be more clear, our lives merge with theirs in shared purpose. Like-minded people tend to gravitate towards one another.
Sometimes it happens the other way around. People, who are already walking closely together discover a sense of missional purpose. This only tends to happen when a group shakes itself loose from encrusted familiarity and lays hold of a degree of intentionality, but it is beautiful when it does occur.
Either way, these relationships become a Kingdom community wrapped around the Kingdom cause (or mission) that beats in our collective hearts. Praying together, caring for one another, being accountable to one another, and stirring each other up for love and good works. We’re alive, in love, and on a mission together.
These relationships may last a lifetime, or they may be for a season. They may involve frequent gatherings or occasional get-togethers related to tasks and projects. We might even have several circles of relationship wrapped around various causes, although a measure of definition and clear communication is required in such cases.
Too much of Christendom finds itself defined (and shaped) by its specific denominational affiliations, its models of ministry, its names or brands, its particular emphases or structures, or its buildings and its programs. These configurations are often rigid, stifling and restrictive. However, whether you feel comfortable within tight church structures or prefer the liberty of more organic connections, re-aligning your life and ministry with a sense of missional cause and defined relationships will kick-start a new adventure in participating with Jesus in His ongoing work today.
Further reading: What is a Kingdom-shaped Church?
6. Differences that Strengthen rather than Divide
This is another highly complex topic, and I can do it scant justice here except to point out the obvious. It was, in fact, Jesus who said these infamous words, “A house divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). Even a casual glance will note how fraught with divisions and schisms Christendom remains, and our own Master’s words indict us.
Yet, in truth, we have more in common with other believers than what we don’t have … and what we do have in common has far greater substance than what we don’t have in common.
If we allow the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed to govern our Doctrine, we’ll find the common ground on which we stand is the Godhead itself. And yes, in the awesome revelation of God Himself, everything else falls into proper perspective.
And if Jesus’ words in the Great Commandment and Great Commission guide our Practices, we’ll be able to set aside those matters that divide us.
It’s worth stating that the goal is not to deny our differences and conform to some bland, colourless, lowest common denominator. Our differences are a strength; they often shape our unique contribution to the Kingdom of God as part of Christ’s Body. For this reason, they are good and vital. Yet they find their full meaning as part of the whole—not by attempting to represent or “be” the whole. As Paul so brilliantly explained to the Corinthians, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? … And if they were all one member, where would the body be?” (1 Corinthians 12:17-19).
Like Jesus (John 13:35), one of Paul’s chief concerns was our love for one another. He called the Ephesians to show humility and gentleness and patience, “bearing with one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-33).
I’m convinced this is only possible when…
- we renounce our self-serving agendas, embracing instead the King’s essential agenda of love;
- we defect from the religious systems that separate us through structure, name or personality, engaging instead with all who love His Name and seek to reflect His Personhood;
- we reject the temptation to demonise leaders we don’t agree with, seeking instead to believe the best about them;
- we denounce our human tendency to seek a one-up platform over others, purposing instead to put others first as our Master Himself taught and modelled.
- any other suggestions?
These four actions, in my opinion, are what is required at the very least to step out from the current fractious, brother-eat-brother world of Christendom. But repentance is only the first step. In faith, we ought to proactively…
- resolve to (really) listen as much as we want to be heard;
- admit our own weaknesses and failures while honouring the strengthens and successes of others;
- acknowledge God’s grace that has allowed us to journey as far as we have to date while giving God’s grace to others, wherever they may be in their journey;
- seek the collective good of the whole resolving to offer our part intentionally for the edifying and blessing of all;
- build relational bridges of integrity and trust so that all feel welcome to participate in the engaging dialogue around the King’s table;
- weep compassionately with those who weep and rejoice sincerely with those who rejoice;
- realise that if the team is losing we’re all losing even if (think) we’re enjoying a man-of-the-match performance;
- refrain from attempting to have the final word on a matter, offering instead a humble contribution—which we make subject to counsel—to the collective wisdom of God;
- any other proposals?
And for the record, I’m not advocating some super-sized congregation with some papal apostle bossing all followers of Jesus. I am advocating a Spirit of unity and the full appreciation of the greater substance we have in common: Christ Jesus.
Further reading: What is Essential for Church Unity?
7. The Power of the Gospel Message
Without either an integral Christ-centred lifestyle or a united Christ-filled witness our message is nothing more than hot air or loud noise. It is little wonder that these matters were among both Jesus’ and Paul’s chief concerns.
However, Jesus commissioned us to both demonstrate and proclaim His message (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-18), something Paul certainly did well. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:18).
So, what is our message?
Of course, we’ve laboured through these fairly detailed notes on just this issue. And while I’m loathe to now try to offer some quick-snap summary, I do think there’s value in trying to succinctly communicate what the Gospel of the Kingdom message is. So, in bullet points (so you can add where you feel I’ve been too brief), here goes:
- Because God is love, He created us and gave us a planet to indwell and steward.
- For God so loved us, He gave us the power of choice.
- For God so loved us and creation, He gave His Son to restore us and creation when we abused this precious gift of choice.
- Through Christ’s love triumph, God has forgiven mankind for his wrongdoing.
- Through Christ’s love triumph, mankind can enjoy deliverance from the prison of self-obsession, freedom from the shackles of the systems of this world, and fullness of life on earth as God intended it.
- Through Christ’s love triumph, God empowers mankind to use the gift of choice to bring heaven to earth, to participate in His plan to transform society and restore creation.
- Through Christ’s love triumph, every person will experience the love of Father God; His provision, His care, and His correction, as God seeks to mature us. While the Father’s chastening is mainly experienced in this life by the believer, it is primarily experienced by the unbeliever in the next.
In one sentence, then? God is a Father who, in Christ, has reconciled all of creation back to Himself.
Yes, I could add a few more bullet points, and yes, each point requires either qualification or amplification. And yes, these notes have probably covered a lot of that already. But written as they are, they provide a starting point for prayer, reflection, and discussion.
Because I haven’t commented on it yet, I’d like to enlarge on one point above, the fifth bullet point, specifically, this aspect: mankind can enjoy the fullness of life on earth as God intended it.
The sublime beauty of relationship with God and the astonishing joy of following Jesus ushers us into a fullness of life on earth that is certainly one of the great blessings of salvation.
(This gift is available now to all, through Christ’s completed work, but not all experience it. That is, unless a person repents and believes, the enjoyment of Christ in this life is beyond them. To use Paul’s words, “the power of God to salvation”—or the present manifestation of the Gospel blessing in this life—is realised only by those “who believe” (Romans 1:18).)
I think this is one of the key touchstones of the Gospel. Or to use crude language, one of the ‘selling points’ of the message.
However, parts of Christendom have attempted to amalgamate this incredible truth with, for a lack of a better phrase, the American Dream, and have in so doing, incorrectly re-instated Self at the centre of the story, validating (and even sanctifying) a sense of self-advancement. In short, we allow today’s dominant framing reference to co-opt the message.
Again, I’m not saying they deliberately intended to do so; I’m merely pointing out how easy it is to make such a mistake. It’s not too difficult to quote John 10:10, and then say things like, “God wants you to be happy, to be wealthy, to fulfil your dreams … Jesus wants to so bless your socks off … you can have it all.” And then this is often followed up with: “Now, do these five things to secure God’s blessings on your life…”
The fullness of life on earth that God intends for us refers to a quality of life—inner peace and joy, freedom from fear and death, deliverance from guilt and shame, etc. etc.—that comes from being delivered from Self and our ravenous self-seeking impulses, from being empowered to make choices that sync with His will, and from the thrill of participating with Him in His restoration plans for the earth.
(It goes without saying that God does not promise to make us wealthy, or to fulfil all our dreams, nor does He guarantee a trouble-free life. And while true joy is found in following Him, denying our self-seeking impulses will leave us unhappy at times.)
In discussing this qualification with a few close friends, the need for balance was reiterated. A balanced approach emphases (1) the Nature of God, (2) the Plan of God, and (3) the Blessings of God.
- The Nature of God refers to God’s essential Fatherhood and His love for all of creation.
- The Plan of God refers to Father God’s restoration of all creation and the sense of mission that we derive from it.
- The Blessings of God refer to the quality of life Father God bestows upon us now in Christ Jesus.
All three are important, and the order sets the context. In other words, if we harp on the third item (as we’re prone to do), we distort the message. In fact, we sell-out to the prevailing frame story of our day. However, if we skimp on the unblushing promises of God, we communicate an incomplete and, ironically, imbalanced message. So, to stress the point again. All three are important, and the order sets the context.
In conclusion then, I think there is exceptional Good News in each of the seven bullet points listed above, yet each one also pokes at our responsibility and begets some form of response.
8. Ephesians 4:11 Equipping Gifts
There are two ditches I want to avoid in turning the spotlight on the Ephesian 4:11 equipping gifts, also called the five-fold ministry.
The first ditch to avoid is the elevation of these gifts above other gifts, exacerbating the clergy-laity divide that has crippled God’s people for centuries.
The second ditch to avoid is failing to appreciate the specific role some people do have in fulfilling the Great Commission. As will become clear in a moment, their specific role doesn’t make them superior to other gifts and ministries, or give them license to subjugate others, but unless we recognise the roles correctly, we’re all weaker for it.
There is a growing consensus that we should interpret the Ephesians 4:11 list of gifts consistent with the way in which we interpret the list of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 and Romans 12:3-8; that is, they are expressions of grace that every believer may be given. There is nothing in the Ephesians 4:7-16 passage that would lead us to conclude that these gifts are only given to a select group of believers. We come to this conclusion based on our traditional viewpoints not anything in the text itself. Thus, there is simply no validation for elevating one gift over others, or a few over the many.
Having said that, there are different “measures” given (Ephesians 4:7; Romans 12:3), and with these different measures come varying ‘spheres of influence’ (2 Corinthians 10:13). To avoid cluttering the matter by referring to obvious (but loaded) gifts like apostle and prophet, consider the gift of singing. Yes, I choose this because there is no direct Scriptural reference to a gift of singing, but we all know that some have the gift, while others, like me, clearly do not.
Most people can sing; that is, they can keep a note. (I seriously can’t. Yep, I’m utterly tone deaf.) While most people can sing, they don’t all have the same measure of this gift. Some should simply lend their voice to a singing gathering of believers (and, of course, I join in, adding my faith to the mix). Some can confidently lead a small group in song; others excel in leading a larger group in praise. Still others have a significant measure of gift that extends their influence to multitudes via a career in music; some to national acclaim, others to global fame. Then there’s me. I reserve my singing for the shower, and even then I’ve got to be careful.
I’m not inferior to those who exhibit a significant measure of this gift. I’m just not gifted in this area. My gifts lie elsewhere. I accept my limitations in terms of this gift, and appreciate those who do have this gift. The same is true for all the others gifts—those listed in the Scriptures, and those that are not (such as the gift of mathematics, business, dance and the creative arts, etc. etc.)
The New Testament clearly portrays people who enjoyed a significant “measure” of the gifts listed in Ephesians 4:11. However, it is important to remember that these words were not used as titles, or positions in some hierarchical institution. Paul was never called Apostle Paul, just like we wouldn’t call someone Singer John or Dancer Jane. We read about “Paul the apostle” or “Philip an evangelist” just like we’d refer to “Jack the accountant” or “Jill a photographer.” Paul’s gifts shaped his function, just as John’s gift of singing or Jill’s gift of photography would shape their lives and ministries.
In terms of fulfilling the Great Commission, it seems that those who have a significant measure of the Ephesians 4:11 grace have a specific role—not a superior role—to play. Jesus raised eleven men who had the embryonic gift of apostle. Either this was an amazing coincidence, or He selected them knowing their God-given makeup. He then entrusted the words of the Great Commission to those “eleven” apostles (Matthew 28:16-20). I think the fact that Matthew specifically mentioning this is significant—remember Jesus appeared to various groupings of disciples after His death over a period of forty days, some as large as five hundred (1 Corinthians 15:6).
While we’re all called to participate with the ongoing work of Jesus today (Ephesians 4:12-16), Paul implied that in terms of function “God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that…” (1 Corinthians 12:28). And he said this after labouring to make it emphatically clear that every “member” (body part) is crucial to the “body” (vv. 12-27), so we know he was not advocating some hierarchical big-cheese superiority. Paul is referring then to the priority or sequence of an apostle’s function in spearheading the Great Commission.
Think of it this way:
If you’re going to build a house, who do you call on first? An architect, of course. This doesn’t mean the architect is more important than the builder, plumber, plasterer or painter. Not at all. Rather each one has a specific role to play.
This is a rather apt metaphor since Paul used the word “architect” (Greek: architekton) to describe his function as an apostle in the phrase “master builder” (1 Corinthians 3:10).
So, what is the Great Commission? Again, there are several valid definitions. Some view it as a teaching mandate to the world, others see it as a church planting strategy, while others see it as the task of making individual disciples. I’d like to suggest that it includes all of these and that a broader definition is probably most helpful.
The Great Commission, for me, is Jesus’ authorisation to proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel of the Kingdom message—in any and every way that we sense Him lead us.
So, how do the Ephesians 4:11 gifts feature in this regard?
In my opinion, the answer lies in the words of Paul himself. Paul explained that the grace gifts in Ephesians 4:11 are given “for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).
Familiar words, I know. But before you nod your head and yawn, consider this.
The Greek word (katartismos) for “equipping” means “to render fit, complete.” In classical Greek, it was used to describe the setting of a bone during surgery, and as this passage actually describes the “body” and its proper functioning (vv. 12-16), surely the equipping gifts are essential in helping others become correctly aligned in Christ’s Body; that is, to help others fulfil their collective and individual functions in advancing the Kingdom of God in the world?
In other words, equipping the saints doesn’t just refer to teaching theology from a pulpit or training believers through course material to improve their ministry skills. It involves helping people sync with God’s Kingdom message, align with other followers of Jesus, and function fruitfully in Jesus’ ongoing work on the earth. (This may or may not include means and tools such as teaching from a lectern, training in a classroom … or coaching over a coffee table, one-on-one mentoring, small group workshops, apprenticeships, being a big brother to another, etc. etc.)
And while believers graced with any “measure” of the Ephesians 4:11 gifts ought to play what role they can in this regard, those with a significant “measure” of these gifts of grace, are typically those we find pioneering ‘new frontiers,’ whether this is across cultural boundaries or international borders; or breaking ‘new ground’ in terms of the mind-moulding sectors of society (such as education, politics, economics, science, etc.).
These ‘new mission fields’ often require a significant measure of Christ’s grace through gifted individuals who, in opening new frontiers or new ground, then make room for others to function in their giftings, and in this way, King Jesus uses the multifaceted expression of His Body in advancing His Kingdom.
If you feel that God has graced you with an Ephesians 4:11 equipping gift, let me offer something that I have found immeasurably helpful.
But first perhaps, some context. I have served in various traditional church-defined roles over the last two decades, from youth pastor to senior pastor to apostolic co-ordinator. I enjoyed the opportunities those roles afforded me, used them to serve in the grace I felt God has given me, and laboured to the best of my ability in them. In the process, I learnt much about the faithfulness of God, and about my own strengths and limitations.
While I wouldn’t trade those lessons for the world, I do think I operated in very tight and even restrictive ‘models of ministry,’ even though the organisation I had the great pleasure of serving in was not a controlling one. In fact, the opposite is true. I’ve been cheered on in pressing the boundaries, and allowed to think outside the box. I am extremely grateful for this.
In my understanding of the Gospel of the Kingdom that has evolved over these years, I now find myself with tremendous freedom to participate with Jesus’ ongoing work on the earth with very little restriction, save only for the precious relationships to which I make myself accountable (and in this, it is hardly ‘restriction,’ but empowering ‘protection’.)
However, within this freedom, touchstones are necessary to guide or even govern the use of the gifts and tools I’ve been given. And in this, I think the two parables in Matthew 13 are extremely helpful. (And I trust you’ll find wisdom in this, too.)
In the first parable, the Parable of the Sower, Jesus taught us about sowing seed, in this case, the “word of the Kingdom,” into the field of the heart (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23). In the second parable, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, Jesus taught us about sowing seed, in this case, “the sons of the Kingdom,” into the field of the world (Matthew 13:24-30).
Here’s how this empowers me.
On the one hand, we are encouraged to sow the word of the Kingdom. This relates to the message of the Kingdom, and specifically, the way in which I proclaim and demonstrate that message—my ministry contribution based on my sense of calling.
In this, I am encouraged to sow freely and widely whenever and wherever God leads. If my Kingdom cause relates to ministry to the poor, or to the business world, or to marriages, or to helping new spiritual communities grow, or to environmental issues, or whatever, I am empowered to disseminate this ministry message, or scatter seed, as He gives me grace to do so.
That only one in four, according to the parable (in practice, I wish I got those odds!), receive the ministry message of my life should not dampen my spirits. Nor should I cajole those who don’t respond. As I have freely received, I can freely give … with joy and grace.
On the other hand, there will be those who do respond to my ministry message and catch my heart. These precious people may become, to use the phrase in the parable, sons to me. And it becomes my privilege to parent them, impart all I am into them, and like a good father, raise and release them into their function and destiny in God. It goes without saying that I’m not to derive my sense of self-worth from them, or use them to further my ministry ambitions.
So much more can be said about these issues, but this is not the place to expand on them. The point is this. On one hand, I must scatter seed; on the other hand, I must raise sons. In some seasons, I may be more engaged with one more than the other. If I have a number of sons I’m parenting to maturity, I’ll probably need to prioritise helping them learn to scatter the seed of their ministry message. Once my task of releasing them is done (and though I may still have the pleasure of enjoying close relationships with them), a new season of sowing the ministry message of my own life may take precedent.
Even after all I’ve written in this final section, I still feel like I’ve only just barely scratched the surface. What I mean is, I feel my proposed solutions are not nearly sufficient enough. And I realise that what I have said is hardly rocket science.
And then it dawns on me.
Just how important our faith is.
That is, the answer lies in our believing the scope and space, the extent and range, of Jesus’ New Story. If we truly believe the King, and His otherworldly Gospel, this belief will transform us … and as we allow this Kingdom seed to germinate and blossom in our hearts, we will, in turn, transform our world.
And what if millions of Jesus’ followers began to believe, truly believe?
Can you imagine a world in which even a fraction of the resources that are pumped into maintaining the husk of Christendom—time, energy, manpower, finances, prayer—is channelled instead to answering the needs that cripple the globe?
And in this I can rest:
My faith does not hinge on my ability to perfectly grasp the way forward; it’s anchored in His ability to perfect that which concerns me. To perfect that which concerns us.
Yes, “all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him, Amen” (2 Corinthians 1:20). The God of the rainbow and the God of the cross has promised.
And in this rest, I can think differently about messy dogma and re-learn what’s necessary to become more fruitful in co-operating with Jesus’ ongoing work on the earth.
One more time … in the love of Father God, in the grace of the Lord Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
That’s all folks … but it’s really just a start
I hope this series has made you think. And pray. And think some more.
I hope it’s challenged you. To the core.
Above all, I hope it provokes Kingdom change in your life.
And like with all change, patience is required in processing both the internal transformation and the external actions required.
But be intentional. Be intentional in bringing the internal changes to light.
Because our world needs the light of Christ.
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