What is a Self-governing Community?
What is the goal of parenting? Short answer? Love. Longer answer? To enable our children to stand on their own feet as mature adults. To empower them to cooperate with Father God’s purpose in this world in keeping with their own unique call and gifting.
Father God’s goal for us as individuals is the same. Short answer: love. For a longer brief, it’s well captured in the idea of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22, 23), and one of those dimensions is “self-control” (v. 23). Exercising self-control, or to be “self-governing,” refers to one, who submitted to the leadership of the Spirit, selflessly serves the Father’s purposes secure in themselves. One able to stand on their own feet.
The goal of a simple church community is the same. To collectively stand on their own feet—not dependent on artificial props and external support systems—able to serve God’s revealed purposed together, discovering their shared call and synergising their communal giftedness. That’s a mouthful! Hence, the potent and punchy phrase: self-governing.
Continue reading as we look at the critical New Testament phrase “brethren” and some of the implications of such a blessed community; a spiritual family that can “stand on its own” but is not alone.
So, what’s a self-governing community?
When a simple church family can stand on its own, we call it a self-governing community. This then also defines the goal of an apostolic team as they help to birth a new work: to establish the spiritual family on the foundation of Christ, assisting the community to be self-governing .. not dependent on outside props or artificial support systems.
It goes without saying that the self-governing community would do well to remain in a mutually defined relationship with an apostolic team, connected to apostolic vision; what we refer to as apostolic alignment1. In this sense, the self-governing community can “stand on its own” but is not alone. Biblically, there is no such thing as a Lone Ranger church. This keeps a healthy set of checks-and-balances into the Kingdom equation of reproducible, integral apostolic life.
For some this phrase, “self-governing” may seem unfriendly. First, let me explain the prefix “self-“. In the same way that a believer should exercise “self-control” as a fruit of the Spirit’s work in his life (Galatians 5:22, 23)—that is, he ought to submit himself to the leading of the Spirit—by “self-governing”, we mean a spiritual family ought to submit themselves to the Presidency of the Spirit in their collective midst.
Second, let me explain the word “governing”. As the ecclesia, the cabinet or governing council of the King2, we’re called to govern over the issues of this life, knowing this is our training for reigning in both this age and the one that is to come. This starts, of course, with our own lives (Proverbs 16:32; 25:28) and then together as a mature spiritual family (1 Corinthians 6:1-5; 1 Timothy 4:8, for example).
The final part in the development process of a self-governing community occurs when the apostolic team serving the new work, affirms the emerging parent-leaders of the family and entrusts them to the Lord. After making disciples in several cities in Galatia, Paul and his team gave them space to grow as a priesthood and brotherhood of believers, returning later to “appoint elders in every church” and to “commended them to the Lord” (Acts 14:21-23). It is at this point that the apostolic team’s initial parenthood role becomes superfluous, releasing the new elders to parent the spiritual family. The relationship between these new parent-leaders (including the community itself) and the apostolic team ought to be redefined for continued mutual alignment3.
However, one of the most important principles a new spiritual community must grasp in becoming a self-governing community is the “brotherhood of all believers”. While much is made of the priesthood of all believers, and for good reason, this primarily refers to our first-hand relationship with God in Christ and thereby the functioning of each believer in ministry.
In contrast, the brotherhood of all believers refers to our responsibility to discern God’s Heart and Mind together in the issues pertaining to our relational and missional life as a community.
We, as God’s people, are first and foremost a community of equals. Yes, we all have different gifts. Yes, we’re all at different stages of maturity. And yes, we all have different roles and responsibilities in the Kingdom based on our God-given measure of grace (Romans 12:3-5; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6). If I was exactly like you, one of us would be redundant! Yet before God, we’re all of equal worth and value; we’re all sons and daughters of the Father. And we aren’t conforming down to some colourless, uniform, lowest common denominator either. No, we’re conforming up to the multifaceted beauty of the image of Jesus, who is “the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29).
Note this word “brethren”.
You Are All Brethren
When Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of His day, He addressed their tendency to consign people to different levels in a hierarchy of pride and prejudice. Listen to His words: “do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren” (Matthew 23:8). He rebuked their use of titles, exhorting them: “you are all brethren”.
The phrase “brethren” is used extensively in the epistles to address a community of God’s people and carries significant implications4. It is worth stating upfront that this is a gender-neutral word, as is the phrase “sons” of God and “bride” of Christ. In other words, the phrase “brethren” refers to both men and women (see for example, Galatians 3:15-29; Philippians 4:1-8). Ladies, if I have to be the “bride,” you can stomach being the “brethren”.
Consider that when Paul had to address the many disturbing problems in the church at Corinth, he repeatedly appealed to the “brethren” (for example, 1 Corinthians 1:10; 3:1; 4:6; 6:5; 7:24; 8:12; 10:1; 11:2; 12:1; 14:6; 15:1). It is amazing that he did not address the leadership and hold them solely responsible for the mess they were in. No doubt the leaders were responsible to facilitate their repentance and re-alignment with the apostolic correction Paul delivered. But he addressed the whole community—the “brethren”—expecting them all to take ownership and responsibility for their progress (in their case, lack thereof) as a community in Christ. There is no hierarchy in God’s community. There are no second class citizens and there are no passengers. We are all brothers and sisters. In Jesus words: “you are all brethren”.
Yes, without question, we ought to submit to God’s authority; a relational authority that is revealed through His Truth and facilitated by God-appointed leaders who parent the spiritual family “among” whom they serve (Acts 20:28)5. Of course, we need to submit to (and be accountable to) our leaders as unto God (Hebrews 13:17). But just as I seek to hear my children’s voice and to accommodate their contribution in our family (as simple and seemingly insignificant as it may at times seem), so it ought to be in the family of God.
Too often we relegate to the realm of leadership responsibility decisions that ought to involve the attention and concern of the whole church family. In so doing, we miss the joy of testifying as a community, one in heart and mind: “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (Acts 15:28).
This of course does not mean we should vote on issues. Nor does it mean we must seek 100% consensus on the issue concerned. The community of God is not a democratic society. The centre and constitution of our redeemed society is not the “rights of man”. The centre of our society is Christ and our constitution is rooted in the Truth He reveals.
The brotherhood of all believers means that while every voice will be heard, we are seeking nothing less than the Mind of Christ in our community. True parent-leaders help to facilitate the community in discovering God’s will and, in faith, obey what He is revealing; even when the way forward—as often happens—cuts against our childish notions and faithless opinions. And it is in this process of discerning the Mind of God together—patiently and intentionally—that all mature in the ways of God.
I’m convinced that the spiritual family is the God-appointed training ground for growing into maturity and our mandate to rule and reign. Parent-leaders, who patiently listen and gently yet firmly assist their communities to process decisions that affect them, will grow believers that are strong and robust in their faith.
From issues that are seemingly small—such as how we manage and discipline our children in each other’s homes, how we respect one another’s personal boundaries and how we affirm and admonish one another—to those issues that seem to be bigger (they are not, every issue is important)—such as how we engage with mission, support each other’s witness and influence in the world, how we ensure new believers are discipled and how we multiply the life that occurs in our midst.
If we relegate these kinds of decisions to “the leadership”, we rob the rest of the family, “the brethren”, of the chance to grow. Then we end up spinning our wheels trying to “sell” them our plans, wondering why we can’t secure ownership from the group. We keep them immature … and then lament that “the people” are childish.
In a self-governing community, our goal is that we all grow up into Christ’s likeness and this only occurs when we all contribute into the mix rather than being perennial children spoon fed by a few.
Take for example the analogy of “meat” and “milk” the writer to the Hebrews uses (Hebrews 5:12-14). I’ve had people come to me after I’ve taught say things like, “That wasn’t just milk … you really gave us meat today”. While I’m grateful for the encouragement, it is a complete misunderstanding of the analogy.
It implies that what’s shared on that occasion was somehow more stimulating, or deeper in some way, than on other occasions; that is, “meat” is a gripping message for a “mature” audience while “milk” is more simplistic for “less mature” listeners.
However, milk is what we receive from another. The writer to the Hebrews explained, “you need someone to teach you again … you have come to need milk … everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word” (vv. 12, 13). Maturity is learning to hear God’s voice for ourselves. Thus, meat is what we discover for ourselves.
Therefore, no matter how stimulating a message may seem, it’s milk for those it’s dished out to. This is not to belittle teaching or sharing what God has revealed to us. However, receiving truth from others is milk, so to speak, and the aim is to nourish others so that they can get meat for themselves.
Again, this doesn’t mean we somehow outgrow receiving from others. New truths are often sown into our lives as a seed by others—or as milk in this analogy—no matter how long we’ve been following the Lord. Even mature believers, as they remain teachable, recognise when they need milk.
The key issue here is this: too much of how church is often done keeps over-fed believers coming for a fifth helping; keeps them immature and dependent on ear-tickling messages spoon fed by the leadership. However, in a true spiritual family we serve each other milk—out of what is meat to us—in order that every one learns to receive meat for themselves through a dependence on the Holy Spirit and a love of the Scriptures.
Dealing with Conflict
Perhaps a word on interpersonal conflict is necessary here.
Conflict is inevitable in a spiritual family. Yes, it’s going to happen. If we’re going to do authentic life together, our imperfections are going to expose and be exposed by the imperfections of our brothers and sisters. Conflict doesn’t mean something is wrong; it just means something is happening.
When conflict happens, the community may have to help but Jesus is very clear about the process in this regard. First, Jesus taught, the offended brother should speak to the offender “between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). He should speak to him privately in a spirit of reconciliation not with a chip on one shoulder and a bazooka on the other (Proverbs 15:1).
To be clear; if two brothers disagree, they should attempt to sort it out personally and not involve others. And those who aren’t directly involved would do well to give them the space to do so. As the wisdom writer warned, “He who meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a dog by the ears” (Proverbs 26:17). Long story short: if you get involved prematurely in someone else’s disagreement, you’re going to be bitten!
However, if reconciliation fails here, the offended party should invite an unbiased mediator to assist in the reconciliation (Matthew 18:16). The mediator shouldn’t be primed with the offended brother’s side of the story and should make reconciliation the principal goal (Proverbs 18:17). Remember, in mediation: it’s never about who’s right but it’s always about what’s right.
If the offender still refuses to reconcile, Jesus said: “tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). This is not a license to gossip or even to make some condemning statement from the proverbial pulpit.
If the offender refuses to reconcile and thus refuses to act consistently with the love of God, the specific community he’s a part of must be brought into the knowledge of the conflict. And by this, I think, it should be the simple church in which the duelling brothers belong. This family’s involved for good or bad and is the relational configuration in which they’re accountable. It seems to me both obvious and wise that this is where the discipline should be carried out by the “brethren”. The circle of discipline must match the circle of influence. And this means that on some occasions it may involve more than just a single simple church; if the damage of the conflict extends beyond these relational boundaries.
I believe that it is the role here of leadership to facilitate this sad state of affairs and to do so in a spirit of gentleness and the fear of the Lord (Galatians 6:1). This is certainly a moment where those “who are spiritual” must parent-lead the church through these difficult issues of communal life. And they are to do so accepting that this is not an interruption to life but a part of life through which God can work deeper levels of grace and truth into a community. A commitment to resolve conflict rather than dissolve relationships is a core value for each simple church to embrace.
Leadership Decisions vs. Community Decisions
This brings us to a necessary point about leadership decisions. There will, of course, be times when the spiritual family must trust the leadership to make decisions with confidential information that may not be wise to disclose. There are decisions my wife and I have to make in which we do not involve our children and it is so in a church family too.
However, the default principle for parent-leaders is to include the “brethren” unless confidentiality necessitates otherwise and even then, in implementing such decisions, they should respect the conscience of the community; patiently leading the “brethren” into peace and truth. Expecting the community to accept a decision because “we said so” doesn’t engender the grace and love of God.
All the epistles were addressed to the church community, the “brethren,” rather than to the leadership; Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the only exception6. It is the only epistle that includes in its address the “bishops and deacons;” but even here, it is first addressed “to all the saints” (Philippians 1:1). Some epistles contain specific comments to the leaders (such as 1 Peter 5:1-4) but again, they’re addressed to the believers as a whole. The corporate conscience was always respected; that is, the “brethren” were called to Truth and leaders were the parents to help the church live in this revealed Truth. The New Testament simply does not advocate a hierarchical body which bosses over a church community.
A key to being a self-governing brotherhood is found in two words: affirmation and admonishment. Affirmation is the value of sincerely appreciating the worth and effort of others in a way that honours the Lord. A family that learns the art of affirmation will not only create an environment of encouragement but also provide the context in which life-giving admonishment can be received. And as a rule of thumb, a community needs five times more affirmation than admonishment.
Admonishment is the value of speaking the truth in love, respecting one another and loving one another enough to do so. “Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1). Without this willingness to be honest and transparent, coupled with a wise dose of tact and discretion too, simple churches become plastic and artificial; sweeping under the carpet the seemingly small issues that often build up to toxic levels.
Listen to Paul’s superb confidence in a Christ-filled community: “Now I myself am confident concerning you, my brethren, that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another” (Romans 15:14).
First, notice that he addressed them as “brethren” affirming them as a self-governing community; they needed no external life-support systems. Second, filled with “goodness” (Greek: agathosune) – referring to the nature of God – and the “knowledge” of the truth, Paul was confident they could admonish one another.
The Greek word for “admonish” (noutheteo) literally means, “to put in mind;” thus, “to instruct and counsel by word”. It is both our privilege and responsibility to admonish one another as a spiritual community; with only one qualification, we are to do so full of God’s goodness and His truth. Without truth, people rot. Without love, people struggle to swallow the truth that will heal them.
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). True brothers stab you in the front because you’ve asked them to!
In closing, let’s look at one more passage of Scripture.
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1, 2)
Notice, first, Paul appeals to these “churches in Galatia” (Galatians 1:2) as “brethren”; that is, as self-governing communities. Second, he does not directly address the leadership but those “who are spiritual”. No doubt this includes the parent-leaders in their midst but the point is that his appeal is inclusive; he speaks into the conscience of the community. A man overtaken by a trespass is not the sole responsibility of the leadership; as a self-governing community, it’s a matter that ought to concern them all.
Learning to be a self-governing community equips us to be “ambassadors for Christ,” agents of “reconciliation” in this world (2 Corinthians 5:18-20); cooperating with the King, knowing that “of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7).
1 What is apostolic alignment? <A Few Good Fathers>
2 What does ecclesia mean? <Lost in Translation>
3 How does authority work? <Like Father, Like Son>
4 It should be clear that the word ”brethren” is not just a term of greeting. It is in no way similar to contemporary means of addressing a group of people such as the word “folks,” for example. Rather it referred to the community’s identity in Christ and had vital implications.
5 How does authority work? <Like Father, Like Son>
6 Yes, what are often called the “pastoral epistles” were sent personally to Timothy and Titus. Of course, these were instructions give to those who were in team with Paul, not to church communities.