Order vs. Life: Directing Our Attention Where it Really Matters
For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (II Corinthians 4:11).
The New Testament Church is not to be identified with a certain order, program, liturgy, or structure. The Church of the New Testament is recognized by the life of Jesus Christ being expressed through its members. As Professor Burnett Streeter, in his classic work, The Primitive Church, wrote,
Whatever else is disputable, there is, I submit, one result from which there is no escape. In the Primitive Church there was no single system of church order laid down by the Apostles. During the first hundred years of Christianity, the Church was an organism alive and growing—changing its organization to meet changing needs. Uniformity was a later development (Streeter, 267-68).
Streeter is correct as is borne out by the fact that the New Testament itself bears witness to a variety of church forms and order. The order of the church in Jerusalem is different from the order of the church in Antioch. The order of the church in Corinth is different from either Jerusalem or Antioch, and the order of the churches of the Pastoral Epistles is different still. Commenting on the diverse forms of order and ministry in the New Testament, Michael Harper says it only makes sense, “If you view them as the ad hoc promptings of the Holy Spirit amidst the most taxing circumstances.” David Scholer, late professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote,
The patterns of authority in the early church are varied and fluid. There are no fixed patterns, terms or offices. No single church structure and/or pattern of authority or office is validated by the New Testament. The patterns of authority in the early church are determined and described primarily by the functions they served within the church (Scholer, 28).
Why does the New Testament reflect such diversity in outward form and order? The answer seems clear. The New Testament writers are obviously more concerned with the inward life of the Church than with the outward form through which that life is expressed. After all, Jesus came to bring us life, not a particular ecclesiastical system (John 10:10). We might also recall the words of the angel to the New Testament apostles when, in Acts 5:20, he freed them from jail and instructed them to, Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.
If life rather than order was the emphasis of the New Testament Church, should it not be the emphasis of the Church today? Should not the churches today, therefore, be seeking a revival of New Testament life rather than some elusive government or order that cannot be found in Scripture? And if, in the first century, this life of the Spirit was expressed through a variety of outward forms, should we not expect it to be expressed through a variety of forms today?
The insistence by some on a particular church order may, in fact, be the major hindrance to the life of God being expressed through genuine revival in the Church today. Professor James L. Ash, Jr. says that virtually all historians of early Christianity agree that the institutionalization of early Christianity (the implementation of a rigid church order) was accompanied by the loss of Spiritual gifts and power.
In the 1970s a number of Christian leaders, including well-known teacher Bob Mumford, talked of reviving and restoring the New Testament Church, and were focused on implementing a particular church order that they believed was revealed in Scripture. One day Mumford heard the Holy Spirit say, “Bob, to have a New Testament Church you must have New Testament people.” Mumford suddenly realized that they were wrongly preoccupied with establishing an outward order and form, when God would have them focused on helping His people to know and experience the life that Jesus came to give. He realized that “church” would not be realized by a particular organizational structure, but in a living, functioning body of Spirit-filled believers bringing glory to Jesus Christ.
Those who claim to have discovered the divine or Biblical order, and want to impose that order on everyone else, have been hoodwinked. The Church is not like a McDonalds franchise where uniformity of food, surroundings, and service are the same everywhere. Big Macs look and taste the same in Caribou, ME as they do in Paris, TX. Not so the Church! At its very core, the Church is an organism--not an organization--alive and growing, changing its form to meet changing needs.
The Church exists to communicate Christ and His life to this world. If we are not doing this, our church programs, titles, forms, and structures are absolutely meaningless and have become a curse instead of a blessing--a hindrance instead of a channel for the life of Christ to flow out to the world.
We must always remember that the life of Christ flows through people, not a particular organizational structure. So, as we create new forms and expressions of “church” let us follow the words and pattern of Jesus who taught that leaders in His kingdom are not rulers of God’s people but are diakonoi—servants—who will use their God-give gifts to help others become (Mark 10:35-45).
This means that we will not be seeking office, status, and importance, but we will use our leadership gifts to serve others. We will create structures, not as a goal or an end, but as a means to facilitate and nurture the gifts and callings of God’s people. This will, in turn, facilitate the flow of the life of Christ and will result in what has historically been called “Revival.” We will be “Releasers of Life.”
Harper, Michael. Let My People Grow: Ministry aNd Leadership in the Church. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1977.
Scholer, David. "Patterns of Authority in the Early Church." Vol. 1 of Authority and Governance in the Evangelical Covenant Church. n.p.: Covenant Publ., 1993.
Sreeter, B. H. The Primitive Church. New York: MacMillan, 1929.
by Eddie L. Hyatt