Leadership in the New Testament Church

September 19, 2017

This was a message prepared for a small group of the Lord’s people whose insightful and careful leader is being lost to retirement and other volunteer work.  The group is seeking direction.  There is denominational pressure toward “standard” patterns, but some are concerned that the New Testament- style we have been choosing could be lost in such a situation.  Perhaps it will be helpful to others who are in a similar dilemma.

Leadership in the Church

Many, if not most of us have chosen to be at GMF precisely because it is NOT like other “church” groups that we have encountered. We need to keep this in mind as we discuss and attempt to discern “What now?” as Jim and Ruth have felt led to move on. Who we are, and who we choose to become, will both affect and be affected by that decision.

It is fairly easy, for example, to observe whether the primary loyalty of a group is to a “kingdom of this world” or the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus, if, as soon as you walk in the door, you observe that an idolatrous national symbol adorns their “center of worship.”
It is similarly easy to discern a group’s “definition of church” by the titles and the deference accorded to their “leadership”. When well-meaning people responded to the news that we were “looking for a church” with an enthusiastic “Oh, you should come listen to our preacher (or minister, or pastor, or bishop, or choir, or worship team)”, we knew immediately that we would NOT find the fellowship we were seeking there. An “audience” at a “performance” is not our definition of “church.”

When, years after a couple of earlier abortive visits, we visited GMF again, we saw something quite different, and very rare. We saw a group trying to function as a brotherhood. And for better or worse, here we are.

More than 60 years ago, I had been attracted to a small group at college who were trying to become a brotherhood informed by and copied after the New Testament. It has been a long and often futile effort. I have never understood why folks who say they follow Jesus pay so little attention to the only source of reliable information about his instructions! Seems like that should be a no-brainer! It is only in the New Testament that we can find any reliable record of the transformation of a wildly diverse assortment of people into the “Body of Christ” – the Kingdom of God!

These folks knew they had become involved in a drastically different new life. Teaching was crucial, in order to learn how this new life was to operate. Fellowship, the sharing of their lives, provided the context for practical experience in Kingdom living. “Wonders and signs” accompanied the message, but the greatest wonder of all was the transformation of those thousands of individuals into a cohesive brotherhood.

Recently, Jim has done a beautiful job of describing some of the challenges of becoming the Body that the Lord intends for his people. In fact, the decision to be joined to the Body of Christ should be the last individual decision of a person’s life! From then on, he is no longer a single individual, but a part of a larger whole, a member of the Body. Alone, a hand, a foot, an eye, an ear, can neither survive, nor fulfill its intended purpose. It can’t even be properly related to the Head, without the necessary connecting parts! A finger is of no use unless it is connected to a hand, which is utterly dependent upon an arm, and thence to a shoulder — were each individual part connected directly to the head, the result would not be a body, but a monstrosity! “Just Jesus and me” does not work! Only together can his people become an extension of his presence in the world. Stanley Hauerwas posed a crucial question: “Can we so order our life together that the world might look at us and know that God has been busily at work?”

Probably the most detailed instructions in this regard are in Paul’s letter to Ephesus. He speaks of various functional persons being given to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers — PLEASE NOTICE THAT THESE ARE ALL PLURAL!!! – for the purpose of “equipping the saints (that’s everybody, folks!) for works of service!!!” THESE ARE NOT OFFICIALS who do all the work or give orders to the others. They are ENABLERS, who teach and create opportunities for the rest, properly to represent their Lord in the world! (Jim has accepted this responsibility as skillfully as anyone I have ever seen! But there is only one of him. The church needs many, many more.)

This is the context in which the various “spiritual gifts” are found, and in which they are intended to function. That is another subject that we should study carefully, but there is not time today. For our present purpose, the message is simply that in a healthy Body, whenever a need arises, the Lord has a member of that Body available and empowered to minister to that need. If the Lord assigns a job outside the Body, he likewise provides one or more members with the ability to accomplish that task. These empowerments are not diplomas, titles, or status symbols, and certainly not hired positions; they are simply the wherewithal to get a job done. They constitute a delivery system, bringing the power of God to bear upon the human situation.

The life of the Lord Jesus will not flow through a Body whose fragments are all rushing off in different directions, taking their cues from some flamboyant “leader” other than the Head. His life will not flow through a body whose parts are atrophied from disuse. The Body will grow, mature, and become what the Lord intends only when all its parts are working TOGETHER, sharing with one another all that he has entrusted or revealed to each of them. EVERYONE IS INDISPENSABLE, if we learn rightly to “discern the Body.”

Is it necessary to assume, then, with all the Biblical emphasis on the contribution of every member, that no leadership in the conventional sense is needed, required or welcome in the Body of Christ? By no means! Leadership has not been eliminated: it has simply been redefined. True, there are no positions of dominance, prestige or power in a faithful Body. But there are many needs for leadership on the part of those who see their task as simply fulfilling one of many functions and not as a position of status or domination.

This orientation of the Kingdom, of course, was as diametrically opposed to the prevailing cultures of the first century as it is those of our own.

The Jewish and pagan religious systems had a surprising amount of common ground. In both, the ordinary person was denied the privilege to approach his god directly. The office of a priest-intermediary was required. After all, one had to be frightfully careful: a mistake could offend the deity, and result in disaster. People were familiar with the Old Testament stories of death and disaster coming upon those who dared to come too close. Pagan priests also held a tight rein on their constituencies. They ruled by dint of their esoteric knowledge and trickery shared only with their own initiates.

The gods had to be appeased, and only the priests knew how to mollify them. We saw in an earlier study how in the Jewish temple, a heavy veil was used to exclude ordinary folks from the presence of God, and how that veil of separation was utterly destroyed at the moment of Jesus’ death. For citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom, THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY once and forever!

Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus has chosen to speak TO and THROUGH ALL of his people!

In practical terms, this means that ALL of the secrecy and exclusion common in the surrounding religions is totally out of order for the people of God – even – or especially – when it is enshrined in “official” structures like denominations or conferences! The New Testament, by contrast, is replete with examples of people who, entrusted with roles of leadership, went to great pains to be certain that everything was done with the utmost integrity. From every congregation that contributed to the relief offering for Judea, Paul took along a representative to ensure its safe delivery. Peter, even tho called and specifically instructed by the Holy Spirit, took along brethren from Joppa as witnesses when he visited Cornelius. After each missionary journey, Paul and his co-workers reported back to their sending congregation at Antioch. Free-lancing was not and is not the mark of faithful leadership.

Neither is taking personal credit for what the Lord does. Very early, Peter and John had opportunity for a “glory trip” after the healing of a lame man in the temple. They overtly rejected the plaudits of the crowd,, and attributed the event to the resurrection power of Jesus. Paul and Barnabas reacted the same way to the worship offered them at Lystra (Ac.14).

There will – there must – be leadership in the Kingdom. But faithful leaders will take care that there be NO VEIL – total openness, total honesty, and the complete absence of any shred of secrecy or manipulation, is absolutely necessary.

Another safeguard which helped prevent any abuse of authority is the consistent pattern that every assignment, every “office” in the N.T. church is always spoken of in the PLURAL. In every group, apostles appointed local elders (plural) to supervise the new brotherhood. Eph.4:11 lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers (ALL PLURAL) who are to facilitate the ministries of ALL THE SAINTS. And even a cursory study of that term reveals that “saints” consistently refers, not to individuals of superior power or holiness, but to ALL the people of God. There is no hint of expectation that all the jobs in any given congregation will be filled by one or two individuals hired to “run” the church. In a faithful colony of the Kingdom, NOBODY IS OVERWORKED!! If in any congregation or denomination someone is overloaded with responsibility, then someone else – probably many ‘someone else’s’– are being cheated out of the privilege to be active in the King’s service. THE PRIMARY JOB OF ANYONE IN LEADERSHIP IS TO SEE THAT THE BODY BENEFITS FROM THE CONTRIBUTION OF EVERY BROTHER AND SISTER!!!!! The second is to be busily training his replacement.

Jesus himself had sharply defined the function of leadership in the Matthew passage we read this morning, and strictly forbidden the use of any honorary titles or deferential treatment of anyone filling ANY role. The lesson was apparently learned so well that at this distance it is difficult to determine who had what responsibilities. Steven, for example, chosen for deacon work in caring for widows, became a powerful preacher. Paul’s letters refer to “apostles” (using both male and female names) of whom Acts bear no record. Philip, also starting out as a deacon, was later known as an evangelist. The concern clearly was getting the work done, not in handing out certificates of merit or protecting anyone’s “turf”.

Jesus had stated it very clearly: “You have one Teacher and you are all brothers.” Different people may be in charge of directing different aspects of Kingdom work, but NO ONE INDIVIDUAL IS IN CHARGE!

In fact there is only one NT reference to one person being “in charge” of a local group – In III Jn.9-10 Diotrephes is chastised for speaking against elder apostles, loving to be first, refusing to welcome other brethren, in short, “running the show.”

No leader must ever be beyond challenge. Paul reported to the Galatian church about his encounter with Peter, when Peter stood in need of correction. On several other occasions he challenged the “pedigree game” and deliberately rejected the “value” of his own.

How then were assignments made? In many different ways.
Saul, who was used to giving orders, was introduced to his new role by Ananias, an obscure disciple in Damascus, who is never mentioned again. Ananias’ obedience to the Lord, however was a link in the chain that gifted the world with the ministry of Paul. Later, Barnabas took him in hand and encouraged the other apostles to accept the authenticity of his conversion. How much poorer would we be, had these two not acted in faithfulness!
Matthias (Ac.1) was chosen by lot at the initiative of the first disciples, after the congregation had chosen two nominees.
The deacons were selected by the entire congregation, to minister to an unmet need among them. The twelve, who obviously exercised a degree of authority, did not act threatened or defensive when the oversight was called to their attention. They did not call a private “ministers meeting”. They threw the issue back to those who had perceived the problem, and said, in effect, “you’re right: find some qualified folks to do the job!”
Prophets (plural) and teachers (also plural) in Antioch were enjoying a prayer meeting when the Holy Spirit spoke, directing them to call Paul and Barnabas for a special assignment.
At Lystra, Paul met a promising young man and invited Timothy to join the work.

The method of selection does not seem to have mattered.
But please notice, that IN NO INSTANCE was a permanent or even a temporary title conferred upon anyone. Jesus had forbidden that!!! Each was simply called to perform a needed function!

In view of the importance of function a look at the system in action may be helpful. A good example is the account in Acts 15. The Gentile brethren in Antioch were being hassled by some self-appointed “defenders of the faith”. The troublemakers had not come with the endorsement of the brotherhood, but on their own initiative. Discussions became heated. Consequently, the church commissioned Paul and Barnabas and some others who are not listed, to take the matter to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, who were apparently serving in a supervisory capacity. Their choice is described by the same word that is translated “ordain” in other contexts. Sent by the church, they set out, reporting as they went the work of God in calling Gentiles into his Body.

In Jerusalem, they met with “the church, the apostles, and the elders.” As they repeated their report, some folks objected: likely either the ones who had caused the problem, or some of their cohorts. At this point, (perhaps there was too much commotion to make any sense out of things!) the apostles and elders gathered to study the matter. BEFORE A JUDGMENT WAS MADE, however, ALL THE ASSEMBLY (literally “all the multitude”) listened to the testimony. In an eloquent demonstration of New Testament leadership, James summarized the argument, related it to Biblical precedent, and recommended a solution. “Then it seemed good to the apostles and elders AND THE WHOLE CHURCH, having chosen men from among them, to send them to Antioch…” Their letter speaks of “having come to one mind”, and confidently reports “It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

Here is New Testament leadership at its best: hearing all sides, bringing them face to face, and helping them to a Scriptural consensus that results in “great rejoicing” among the brethren. THERE WAS NO CLOSED DOOR MEETING OF AN HIERARCHICAL IN-GROUP, but simply open sharing of perceived light among the citizens of the Kingdom.

Clearly, there will – there MUST – be leadership. That is to be neither lamented nor celebrated, neither sought nor avoided, but carefully controlled, and conformed, not to the pattern of the world with its executives, flow charts and committees, but to the model of our Servant King. In the Kingdom, all the citizens function together, in obedience to their ONE leader, each filling the role assigned to him at the moment, in the power of God, in faithfulness and joy.


Why Faithful Kingdom Citizens can’t “Go to Church”

May 22, 2017

(Prepared for our small congregation May 21, 2017)

I will begin to address this topic with our favorite teacher’s favorite question: “Well, what did you find?” I hope some of you did your “homework” and have some ideas to contribute.
(This was followed with responses by people who had looked up a few references as requested ahead of time, most of which were properly focused on the word “church” in Scripture).

This is not at all what I “grew up with”. My family usually “went to church” – a weekly visit to a large, gray stone building where you had to dress up (heels and stockings, hat, and gloves!) and be quiet. Children did not go to “big church”, but to “Sunday School” where you heard stories, sang songs, memorized a few psalms and other “verses”, and dressed up in bathrobes and long nightgowns (with cardboard crowns and tinsel halos) for a yearly “Christmas program”. In early teens, you “joined the church”, after which you were expected to sit quietly and listen to the skilled, hired choir, organist and preacher. I did not meet Jesus there.

I only encountered people who were serious about following Jesus after I went to college. I found the way they studied the New Testament, interacted, looked out for each other, and included me, fascinating and attractive. From these fellow-students, I learned that our most genuine need was to focus on trying to become the kind of disciples that the New Testament described. It was several years and (thankfully) in another context before I was subjected to the rhetoric about “wrath” and “being lost.” By that time, I was already immersed in the study of the New Testament and its original language, first just to learn more, and then to prepare for translating it for people who lacked that privilege. This had two very helpful results: it both led me to the practice of trying to figure out just what was meant by many of the words that most folks used almost automatically, and protected me from the unBiblical threats of some who called themselves “evangelists”. The New Testament itself became my standard and my goal.

The word translated “church”, “ekklesia”, which etymologically means simply “called out”, was not at all uncommon in classical usage – but not in the way I had ever heard it used. As early as Homer, in the 6th century BC, it was used of any assembly officially summoned for a particular purpose: legal, civil, or even military. It is used that way in the account of the riot in Ephesus, described in Acts 19, referring to both the angry mob and the legal jurisdiction to which the town clerk referred them. The classical dictionary notes that the NT uses it to refer to a “body of Christians”, and notes that the word was not applied to a building or to a cadre of officials, until sometime in the 4th to the 6th centuries, well after the Roman emperor Constantine had restructured the “church” into a civic institution.

But we are concerned today with the faithful New Testament pattern. The word occurs only three times in the Gospels: once in Matthew’s account of Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ true identity (16:18), and twice in Jesus’ instructions for reconciliation among brethren (Mt.18:17). Very likely, the lack of gospel references is due to the more common use of sunago and its related words (English “synagogue”) as a gathering, or the gathering place, of the Jewish faithful. If this is the case, then Jesus’ deliberate choice of a different word takes on sharp significance. When he says “I will build my church”, he clearly intends to do a new thing. Please note that Jesus says HE intends to do the building! In recent years it has been in vogue for individuals or groups – mere people – to set out to “build” churches. With all due respect to their sincerity, THAT IS NOT OUR JOB!!!!! Peter casts it properly in the passive voice, (I Pet.2:5) that we are to BE BUILT into Jesus’ household! We are the building materials – called “living stones” – not the builders. We need to make ourselves available as building materials – but leave the building to the Master Builder! HE knows what he wants done and how he wants to operate. He, after all, is the architect, the head contractor, and the construction superintendent!!

There’s plenty of work that IS assigned to us. This is found in the epistles, which are addressed to the growing churches – NOT, please notice, to officials in charge of them! Check out to whom the vast majority of the NT letters are addressed: “to all the saints” (faithful) at a particular place.
It is “through the church” – not a place, but a people – that “rulers and authorities”, whether in heaven or on earth, are expected to see a demonstration of the “many-faceted wisdom of God”! as was read in Ephesians this morning.

For this purpose, Jesus has been provided to us as “head over everything with respect to the church, which is his Body” (Eph.1:22, Col.1:18). Paul has furnished us with an “instruction manual” (I Cor.12) for learning to function as members of that Body – with each person actively contributing to the interdependent unit.
The closest we come to a “recipe” in the New Testament for a gathering of the church is found in I Cor.14 –
especially verses 24-31, where everyone was expected to come with something to share. I have never seen a group try that, have you? It would be a truly wonderful meeting! Admittedly, it would probably be upsetting to anyone who has a need to be in control, or who feels he “needs” to be under the control of some sort of “superior”. But please note that when anyone speaks, the rest are expected to evaluate what is said. It’s not a situation of an “anything goes” free-for-all. Nothing is to be automatically accepted without that evaluation. The description of their other activity in Ac.2:42-47 is similarly attractive, and just as rare.


Being composed of very human people, of course,
even the early church was not all glorious sweetness and light. Jesus himself (Mt.18:17) had given instructions for dealing with conflict, with the help of the church. An excellent practical example is described in the conference at Jerusalem (Ac.15), dealing with conflict concerning the inclusion of Gentiles – an outstanding example of mediated reconciliation. Notice that this was a meeting of the whole group, not just the “apostles and elders”. Paul emphasizes in I Cor. 5 and 6 that the church, and not civil courts, should be called upon when mediation is needed, and gives explicit instructions for dealing with someone who needs to be corrected.

So, what is “the work of the church”?
The church at Antioch, after consensus about the Holy Spirit’s leading at a simple prayer meeting, sent out Paul, Barnabas, and Silas (and possibly others) to carry the message into unreached areas. Paul, however, is careful to remind folks that he has earned his own support and did not beg it of others (Ac.20:34). On occasion, congregations also volunteered to help support their work: the letter to the Philippians is basically a thank-you note. See (Phil.4:15, II Cor.11:8, 12-13), and a sizable group cooperated to send relief to needy brethren (II Cor.8) when they heard of a famine among distant brethren.

The church” was also charged with the care of widows who had no family – which would have been a serious concern in groups under persecution. Paul gave very explicit instructions for this responsibility to Timothy in his first letter. The description at the end of Ac. 2 and Ac.4 lists some of their other activities, as does the extensive reference to the relief offering in II Cor.

Most of the church groups seem to have met in people’s homes. Ac.2:46 speaks of “breaking bread from house to house”, and Paul mentions groups meeting in the homes of Aquila and Priscilla (I Cor.16 and Rom.16), and Titus Justus (Ac.18:7) in Corinth; Nympha (Col.4:15) and Philemon (Phm.2) in Colossae; Lydia (Ac.16) in Philippi; John Mark’s mother in Jerusalem (Ac.12:12); and probably Gaius (Rom.16) wherever Romans was written from. Occasionally, as in Ephesus (Ac.19:9) at the beginning, a rented hall was used – perhaps to accommodate a larger group, or before a host was available. It was natural, then, for Paul to refer to the church (I Tim.3:15) as “the household of God.” About half of the references are plural, which probably indicates more than one congregation in a location. In any event, real estate does not seem to have been a concern.

There is no reference to the church as “a place to go on Sunday” to sit and listen to a learned lecture (or less-learned diatribe) and professionally performed music or other entertainment. There is no prescribed agenda or “liturgy,” except for Paul’s advice referenced in I Cor.14 and mentioned earlier.

It is important to note that, except for his instructions to Timothy and Titus, who seem to have been serving as his “deputies”, Paul addresses his letters to “
all God’s people [the “saints”] at ….” [a location], and not to officials of any kind. In Phil.1:1, leaders are included in the address, but are not primary. This makes one wonder about the addressing of the “mail” in Rev.2 and 3 to “the messenger” (aggelos)– traditionally rendered “angel” (there is a word study on this usage), and the “you” words are singular, which is uncommon. Might this person have been some sort of corresponding secretary? But even in this case, everyone is called upon to heed “what the Spirit says to the churches.”

So what is this New Creation called “the church”?
I like the suggestion of a student years ago in a word study class, “a combination of a colony of the Kingdom and a support group!”
These are people gathered, as in Ac.2:42-47, to celebrate and share the resurrection life of their King.
As in Ac.11:26, to learn his ways, in order to represent him faithfully to those outside,
As in Ac.12:15, for mutual support and prayer in the face of persecution.
They deliberately avoid (Heb.10:25) neglecting to get together, since they need to keep coaching and encouraging one another
to faithfulness,
(I Cor.14:12) each seeking to excel in what will edify the church, as they
(Heb.10:24) concentrate on prodding each other with love and good deeds.
They serve as a “demonstration project” of the wisdom and glory of God (Eph.3:10)
being “built together into a permanent dwelling place for God, in the Spirit.”(Eph.2:22).


No, the citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus do not and can not “go to church.” If they are faithful, they never LEAVE!!! “Church” is not a place to go. It is WHO YOU ARE!!! Not a place, but a people. Remember, that “you” is plural. Jesus’ statement that he is present whenever two or three of his people are deliberately “gathered in his name” (another subject that needs serious study, along with the rest of Mt.18), has far-reaching implications. The identity of the “church” and those who compose it is a personal, but not a private, affair. One’s decision to commit his life to faithfulness to Jesus should be the last wholly individual decision of his life. Only together can we be truly faithful to the gracious calling that we share.

May we learn to do so faithfully!


A Christmas Story for “Ordinary Folks”

December 19, 2016

This little illustration was first published in a church magazine in 1984, when I was already sympathizing with fellow-disciples who were also being denigrated for doing their level best to be faithful. I think it is even more needed now, so I am offering it to you as an alternative narrative that just might bear consideration.
I called it “A Word in Defense of the Much-maligned Innkeeper”.

The Christmas season is upon us again, and with it the usual deluge of abuse, printed and preached, for the defenseless “villain” of the story, the innkeeper who sent Mary and Joseph to the stable, “because there was no room for them in the inn.” That is all that Luke says: yet from those few words, for some perverse reason, people have conjured-up the image of a heartless, unfeeling man, who had no sympathy at all for the lowly folks on his doorstep.

I wish I could have invited you to our home years ago, on Christmas Eve. You just might leave with a different view of the innkeeper. In fact, I am heretical enough to suggest that the innkeeper might have done for the expectant parents the very kindest thing in his power.

When we lived in the country, we enjoyed the delight of having a few animals. They included, at various times, sheep, goats, and a cow, as well as the ubiquitous dogs and cats. On our first Christmas there, one of the kids got the idea, “Why don’t we have our Christmas worship down in the barn with the animals?” Sort of the “authentic real thing?” We invited a few friends, and all were so impressed that this became an annual tradition.

All of our animals were pets, to the great amusement of the neighbors who were “real” farmers. Very likely, our relationship with our animals was more like what you would have seen in the rural Middle East of the first century, where people lived very close to their creatures, (even sometimes in the same house!) – than to the situation of those neighbors, for whom their animals had only commercial value. Our barn was sheltered, and surprisingly warm, in spite of being cheaply built of salvaged materials. The straw and hay was clean-smelling and cozy. The sheep, especially, were friendly and curious. One would often come and lie down with her head in my lap, sharing the warmth of her beautiful thick wool.

There would be a lot of worse places to have a baby! Starting with a smelly, crowded, vermin-infested inn! Remember, it was not a Holiday Inn that turned away the wandering couple. Inns of that day consisted of one large common room, shared by all, with no privacy and negligible sanitation. Give me a clean, quiet barn any day! I would much prefer friendly sheep as birth attendants, to a horde of stinking, swearing mule-drivers snarling their displeasure at being forced to register for yet another oppressive Roman tax!

The only people who think of a barn as a dirty, uninviting place are those who have never been around people who cared for their animals. Surely, for rural people accustomed to living with their flocks, the stable would have been the most comforting place imaginable, if they were denied the privilege of staying in their own home!

As we read the Christmas story, and the earlier prophecies, and gave thanks for the Lord who did not scorn to identify with humble folk, a very different scenario suggested itself:

A simple couple arriving at the door of an inn, tired from their journey, and somewhat frightened at the impending birth, is greeted by a kindly old grandpa-type and his wife. Hardened by the harshness of many of their customers, the sight of the soon-to-be-parents awakens a compassion that they had almost forgotten. “The inn is crowded – see for yourselves! This is no place to have a baby! You need quiet and rest. We ourselves have only a corner off the kitchen. But if you wish, out back here, there is a quiet spot…”

Throwing down some clean straw, and shooing the occupants out of one stall, they lead the young parents out of the noise and shoving, and into peace…..

Thanks be to God!


Adoption and Inheritance

September 18, 2016

Much of this information is available under the word studies of similar titles.  I am posting it here to give you an idea of how messages can be prepared from the topics treated in particular studies.  This one was prepared for our small fellowship on September 18, 2016.

“Adoption and Inheritance”

It is interesting that with all the noise in self-styled “evangelical” contexts about the concept of being “born”, or “born again” (which latter term appears only three times in the entire New Testament!), another rarely-appearing idea, the related topic of “adoption”, to which Ben referred in his message some weeks ago, in spite of its appearing more times – but still only 5 – seems to have escaped the fertile imaginations of the commentators, who so delight in establishing and defending long lists of regulations for including or excluding their fellows and narrowing their definitions of the Kingdom of Jesus.

Very interesting light is cast on this subject when one researches first century cultural patterns. Since inheritance is legally connected, and central in all of these cultures, it seems appropriate to examine together the two ideas, “adoption”, and “inheritance.” One could also include the references to one’s “birth family” and a “resurrection life” (more commonly mentioned than either “birth” or “adoption” in the New Testament) symbolized in baptism, and I have included those in other word studies, but in order not to become too ponderous, we will look primarily today at the much-misunderstood concepts of “adoption” and “inheritance”.

It is also interesting, that although the English translation “adoption” historically represented eleven different classical Greek words, related to at least three different roots, only a single form, huiothesia, appears in the New Testament writings, and it is unique to Paul’s epistles. It does not appear at all in the LXX. Accurate understanding of the cultural implications of huiothesia – etymologically a combination of huios (son) and a noun iteration of the verb tithemi (to put or to place) – is complicated by the fact that in the first century middle east, one is confronted with three major cultural streams: Greek, Roman, and Hebrew. These are augmented with a smattering of other customs introduced by traders who frequented the area from farther afield. Roman law prevailed, of course, since the legions of Rome had subjugated the whole area. I found the old classic, Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, most helpful in this research. As pointed out in the Jewish Encyclopedia (online), the subject was not really addressed in the Hebrew context, because their system of requiring the brother (or another “near kinsman”) of a deceased man to provide for the decedent’s wife and children filled the need for both the responsibility and the privilege of inheritance. In the other cultures, however, “adoption”, or, rather, huiothesia, the word which has been translated that way, was an integral part of the legal technicalities of inheritance. It had little or nothing to do with our modern concept of providing for the care of young children. Now please understand, I am in no way intending to disparage the modern procedure of “adoption” to fill this need. It is a commendable institution: but it is NOT what the New Testament is talking about.

In all three cultures, an heir acquired not only the property, but also the debts and obligations of the deceased, as well as responsibility for the care and protection of the rest of his family. Under Roman law, there was even a provision for a debt-ridden father to arrange for his son/heir to be formally adopted by someone else, in order that the overwhelming debt might “die” with the father.

Although Greek customs in their various city-states were often more lenient and less highly defined than Roman law in many respects, it was important to both that a male heir be established to comply with legal requirements. Hence the advent of formal, legal adoption – especially when royal succession was involved. (The emperor Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, had been adopted by the family of Julius Caesar for that very reason.)

This version of adoption necessarily involved an older child, not a baby, as both the survivability and the competence of the adoptee were a serious issue, since the administration of an estate was involved.

Adoption was also a common way of cementing an alliance between families, in a way similar to the function of marriage in medieval Europe, and the son in question often maintained ties to both families.

The long-term welfare of a family without male progeny required the adoption of a son to whom responsibility for their care could be passed on. This could be the son of a friend or relative who had more sons than he needed, or even a trusted servant or slave. A formal court procedure sealed the agreement, and the adopted son assumed the name of the adoptive father.

Interestingly, under Roman law, a formally adopted son could not be disowned, as could a natural son.
Adopted sons shared all the rights and responsibilities of natural children.

Daughters were not adopted, for a very simple economic reason: a father would be expected to provide a substantial dowry for a daughter; whereas a son would be expected to add to the family’s wealth by marriage.

But there was another aspect of these cultural expectations that sheds important light upon the New Testament translations of the word huiothesia.
In the case of any family, but especially one with multiple sons, another legal provision came into play. When the designated heir attained majority – the age of legal responsibility – the father was required to make a formal legal and binding statement to that effect. This was necessary whether the son in question was naturally born or adopted. This too was described as huiothesia – the same word. It has been suggested that this requirement may have been culturally connected to the “voice from heaven” mentioned at Jesus’ baptism and again at the time of his Transfiguration. Although the word does not appear there, the statement “This is my Son” would have been readily recognized as the format of the standard legal acknowledgment. This is the reason for my choice of “acknowledgment” rather than “adoption” as a more accurate translation of the word.

On a purely civil level, responsibility would normally pass to the eldest son – the “firstborn” (prototokos)– which term, 8 of the 9 times it appears in the New Testament, uniformly applies to Jesus. Only in Heb.11:28, when the reference is to the death of firstborn sons in Egypt, is mention made of anyone other than Jesus. Twice the designation “firstborn” is in relation to Mary’s first child (Mt.1:25 and Lk.2:7), and it appears three times in Paul’s letters, twice in Hebrews, and once in the Revelation. Two of these reference Jesus’ resurrection: “the firstborn from the dead” (Col.1:18 and Rv1:5), his ultimate triumph. In Romans 8:29 he is called “the firstborn of many brethren”, in Col.1:15 “the firstborn of every creature” (or “of all creation”), in Heb.1:6 of the Father “bringing his firstborn into the world”, and Heb.12:23 speaks of “the church of the firstborn.” In assuming this title, Jesus has accepted responsibility for the welfare of ALL the other children! This realization also may help to shed light on the response of the eldest son in the parable read last week, of a younger son squandering his share of the father’s property: Now the eldest would need to provide his profligate brother’s total support! No wonder he was annoyed!

Huiothesia is the word used in all five New Testament occurrences of the English word “adoption” – Romans 8:15, 8:23, and 9:4, Gal.4:5, and Eph:1:5. All but the Rom. 9 passage refer to all the faithful. In Rom.9:4, Paul laments that the Hebrew nation, for whom the assignment was intended, refused the responsibility. Remember – huiothesia is a designation not only of privilege, but of responsibility faithfully to administer the assets and to care for the people and the property of the father! They were only interested in the privilege part! And unfortunately, privilege is the orientation of most of the modern rhetoric about “inheritance.”

That is why a correct understanding of the word huiothesia is so critical to the interpretation of the Galatians passage read this morning! Begin with 3:26:

“For you are all God’s sons, in Christ Jesus, through faithfulness. For whoever was baptized into Christ, has been clothed with Christ. There isn’t any Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, and heirs according to the promise.” …. then follows an explanation that inheritance does not take effect until maturity, and then (4:5-7) “God sent out his son … in order that we might receive acknowledgment as his sons! …So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son also an heir, through God!”

Now before anyone starts getting bent-out-of-shape over all these references to “sons”, please consider the implication of this usage of the word “sons” in the cultural context we have just examined! Embedded in Paul’s explanation is the very clear, unambiguous statement that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are all one in Christ! The key is in the last clause: “if a son, also an heir!” We are ALL considered “sons”, because legally, only sons can be heirs! That statement is NOT exclusive, but gloriously INCLUSIVE!!! Like nothing the world had ever seen before – or since! Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are, by the decree of God and the life given by the Lord Jesus, equally gifted and equally responsible for the administration of the gift of his inheritance! He has made us ALL his sons” – his specifically designated heirs – in order that we ALL may become faithful executors of his will!

The idea of inheritance deserves its own study – and maybe that can happen at another time. But there are a few points that it is necessary to address here:

1. An inheritance does NOT take effect after you die! There is no “pie in the sky bye and bye” in this equation. The distribution of an inheritance requires the certification of the death of the testator – the one who wrote the will – the one from whom the inheritance is received! But the heir, who receives both the inheritance and the responsibility for its administration, is very much alive! There is a careful explanation of this process in Hebrews 8 and 9. The references to “inheritance” in Eph.1:11, Rom.8:17, and Gal.4:7 are present tense – not future. You/we ARE heirs. NOW. The Hebrews passage carefully explains that such certification is/was a major reason for the death of Jesus! Where have you ever heard that celebrated in song or sermon?

2. “Will” and “covenant” are used in most English versions as translations of the same word. And as explained in Hebrews, the new one instituted by Jesus is “not like the old,” which it labels a failure. A will has no connection with any sort of “sacrifice”, ceremony, or shedding of blood. It is a legal document. Period. No more and no less. A “covenant”, likewise, is a legal, business agreement, with carefully stated requirements assigned to both parties, and includes the stipulation that a breach by either party renders the agreement of no effect.

3. Nevertheless, the inheritance we presently are called upon to administer faithfully as executors of the Lord’s will, is not “all there is.” We have received a down-payment on our inheritance, the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph.1:14), whose job is to enable the proper administration of the will – but there is much more to come – Heb.1:14 and Rv. 21:7 – participation in which is dependent upon the faithful handling of what has already been received. Jesus’ future tense statement, “The victor will inherit these things, and I will be God for him, and he will be a son for me,” again, the formal statement of a father concerning his designated heir, immediately precedes the arrival of the Bride of the Lamb, and the joyful final consummation of history.

Perhaps this historical overview will shed some light on the confusion of folks who wonder, “Why the interest in adoption, when we have already been born into the Lord’s family?”
Life does indeed begin with birth, the result of the expression of love.
But the acknowledgment / adoption of sons is an expression of earned trust – and that is for grown-ups!
Inheritance is the exercise of responsibility, not the popular but shallower concept of a personal, private “reward”.

Might it be, then, that Paul’s frequent admonitions to “grow up” into the life to which we have been called, have in view the faithful administration of our inheritance?

May we faithfully “grow up” together into the Kingdom of our Lord.


A “Christian Nation?”

May 6, 2016

Recently, I heard the question raised, “Doesn’t living in a ‘Christian nation’ change the context of the various New Testament statements about behavior and attitudes, especially with respect to ‘enemies’?”
Although that might be a quite valid concern in a context that assumes, contrary to the previous study of the concept of “institutional church”, that such a situation is even possible, it is troubling for people committed to a New Testament understanding of faithfulness. From a perspective of total commitment to the Kingdom of Jesus, one’s life can no longer be compartmentalized!

Although I am quite certain that it is not what Rodgers and Hammerstein intended in “Oklahoma”, they have described a distinct parallel between Jesus and (of all unlikely people!) Will Parker, when he sings, “With me, it’s all or nothin’! Is it all or nothin’ with you? It cain’t be in-between – it cain’t be now-and-then! No half-and-half romance will do!”
In a drastically different context, that is exactly the choice faced – not only in the first century under threat of execution, but in every age – by those contemplating citizenship in the Kingdom.

Although “This is a Christian nation!” has become a popular battle-cry for encoding some people’s version of “morality” into legal requirements or prohibitions, the fact is that from the very beginning, there has never been such a thing as a “Christian nation”. No such entity exists today – or has ever existed (even in areas that boast of “state” churches) – or ever will exist – until the final consummation of the King’s arrival.
There is only one way to be “Christian”: and that is by making – and living by – a personal commitment of loyalty to Jesus Christ. Those who have done so are gradually and deliberately incorporated into a Body – but that Body is made up of people who have deliberately chosen his sovereignty.

No political structure on earth is so composed. Like it or not, virtually every “nation” on earth is composed of people of varied – or no – faith commitments, some of whom lead exemplary lives.

People may join an earthly nation by their personal choice. But most are merely “citizens” wherever they were born. “State churches”, being institutional, have tried to enforce a similar pattern, but as we saw in the essay about the “institutional church”, the result is a far cry from the interactive, voluntary New Testament brotherhood described in Scripture. Please refer to the first chapter of Citizens of the Kingdom.

No one who has deliberately ceded absolute loyalty to Jesus and his Kingdom can thereafter offer that total loyalty to a mere human institution, whether political or ecclesiastical.
And no one who has not so ceded his loyalty can – or should – be expected to be capable of Kingdom behavior! This is not to say that there are not many good people who have no such commitment. There are. However, making laws for other people, and legislating what we have failed to teach, is not part of our job description.

Please refer to word study #62 for the New Testament treatment of the word “nations”. It is clear that the concept of “nation” as defined in the 21st century did not exist in the first. The Roman Empire had dominated many “nations”, allowing most of them a considerable degree of autonomy, as long as both the puppet leaders and the common citizenry overtly acknowledged that “Caesar is Lord”. (See Word Study #4.) “Nation” defined ethnicity, more than political allegiance.

Notice that in Paul’s testimony in the trials recorded in Acts 24 and 26, and in his interview with the Jewish leaders in Rome, he speaks of “my nation”, obviously referring to Israel, although he also on occasion referred to his Roman citizenship. Citizenship in Jesus’ Kingdom does not expect one to renounce nor to reject his earthly allegiances and responsibilities. It simply subjects them to his ultimate, primary loyalty to the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, this is seldom acceptable to the people in power – in any institution, political or ecclesiastical – and consequently may incur the wrath of one or the other – or both.

Peter is the only one of the New Testament writers to refer to the committed as a “nation” (I Pet.2:9). We are not only a “nation” (of common birth and cause), but a “holy nation” – one set-apart for God’s deliberate purposes. The rest of his description makes abundantly clear that this is a very different sort of a “nation” – one designed to demonstrate, by its faithful living in the face of extreme persecution by the “official” nations with which it co-exists, the excellence of the Lord who has called its people “out of darkness into his amazing light”!

Notice, please, that Peter does not call for his readers to oppose the structures under which they suffer, but “by doing good” to counteract the wrong that surrounds (and even abuses) them. It is an exercise in futility to expect the uncommitted to exhibit behavior that is enabled only by the Lord we serve.
Obeying when we can, and refusing only when we must in order to remain faithful to our prior commitment, bears testimony to the true justice of our King.

Notice also, please, that IN NO INSTANCE are the faithful called upon to force their own principles upon any other individual or group – legally or by any other form of coercion. It is not only impossible, but not even permissible, to expect Kingdom behavior of the uncommitted. We are not called to reform the society around us, but to DEMONSTRATE AN ALTERNATIVE to the futility, the oppression, even the evil that prevails there – whether or not such a demonstration project is acceptable to that society.
To what extent it is ever appropriate for Kingdom citizens to participate in any sort of prescriptive action beyond their own brotherhood, is a question best settled on a situational basis by a consensus of folks personally and corporately committed to their acknowledged King and to Kingdom principles.

For the most part, our energy would be far more productively spent in working together to become the Body – the brotherhood – the “holy nation” – in which onlookers can see “the excellence of the one who called you /us”. That is the only truly “Christian nation”.


Making Everything New

April 24, 2016

This was prepared for our local fellowship in April 2016.
Everyone was asked to  prepare by looking for everything they could find in the New Testament that was characterized as “new”. The response was excellent.  This was an attempt to pull several streams together.

Making Everything New

Jesus’ triumphant statement, “Behold, I am making everything new!”, has been variously interpreted ever since the first time it was recorded, as have so many of the things he talked about.

It is certainly true that commitment to the Lord, especially for someone like me, who at that time had only recently been introduced to the life that Jesus advocated and enabled, often results in what some have called a “honeymoon phase”, where the whole world takes on a surreal sort of beauty. But all too soon, it is time to get down to the business of learning a new way of life.
There are still people and groups who insist on proclaiming a hyped-up “victory” over all problems and situations, which they attribute to their narrow definition of “faith” (auto suggestion?).
There are others who get around the difficulty of when the “magic” doesn’t work, (as well as ignoring any personal responsibility) by postponing all evidence of the “victory” until the Lord comes.
And there are all sorts of variations in between.
One major deviation of the Anabaptist movement from the “mainstream” was its determined effort to bridge the gap between the “already” and the “not yet” in their efforts at Kingdom living. This is especially true of attitudes regarding the contemporary phase of the Kingdom. They made an earnest effort to contradict the little ditty “To live above with the saints in love, Oh that will be glory!
But to live below, with the saints we know,Well, that’s a different story!”
It is precisely among the “saints below”, with all our oddities, stumblings, bruises and warts, where the “newness” of life in Christ most needs to be seen!

The writer to the Hebrews (8:13) observes, “In saying “new”, he has made the first “old”. And what is old and has been superseded, is near to disappearing!”
Even so, to examine the new situation, we have to start somewhere, and the logical place is at the “new creation” that happens whenever a person commits his life to the Lord.
I Cor.5:17 “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation! (or, “creation is new!”) Old things are gone, and something new has happened!”
In other places (notably the first paragraph of Romans 6), Paul uses the figure of baptism to represent death, burial and resurrection, to emphasize the same point, and in Ephesians 2:15, he expands it to include the bringing together of Jew and Gentile – formerly bitter enemies – into what he calls “one new person” – the Body of Christ!
In that Body, LIFE IS EXPECTED TO BE DIFFERENT!!! There has been a New Creation!

For many – perhaps most – of us, this doesn’t happen instantaneously. One is neither “born” nor “re-born” as a fully mature adult! We don’t expect adult behavior of our two-year-olds. That’s the perfectly reasonable impetus for all the admonitions to “grow up” into the image of Christ that appear like a refrain in so many of the New Testament letters. We’re not there yet. The direction has been set, but it will take the rest of our lives to learn to conform them to the “image of Christ”!

Unfortunately, in many groups that represent themselves as “Christian”, no change, radical or not, is expected. If a group represents itself as “welcoming” (the new codeword for “liberal”), people’s “lifestyle choices” – of whatever variety – are considered their own business, and are not to be questioned, let alone challenged or critiqued. “I won’ t mess with your choices, and you better not mess with mine”!
If, on the other hand, a group congratulates itself on its careful “faithfulness” (read, “conservative”), a simple but rigid list of rules is imposed, with very specific (and non-negotiable) requirements and prohibitions regarding both thought and behavior.

Neither of these bears the remotest resemblance to a New Creation!
Jesus’ creation of a Body, growing together into his image, stands in equally sharp contrast to both of these positions.

He spoke very deliberately of a people brought together under a New Covenant.
Probably this is picked up in the most careful detail in the letter to the Hebrews because the concept of “covenant” was such an integral part of their history and culture. But notice how this idea is treated, especially in chapter 8:6-13. Repeatedly, they are reminded that this New Covenant is “NOT LIKE the old one”, which is characterized as a total failure!

To make sense out of this concept, we first need to clarify our understanding of the idea of “covenant”. Most significantly, we need to recognize the error of the assumption that a “covenant” is or was somehow an unconditionally permanent thing! A covenant was and is a legal contract – seriously binding, after ratification, but (as is clear even in many Old Testament accounts) a breach by either party renders a contract or covenant of no effect! Subject to litigation, perhaps, but no longer binding!
There is nothing mysterious about a covenant. Employers have them. Neighborhood associations have them. Real estate or other financial deals require them. They impose responsibilities upon both parties.
A covenant is cast, historically, legally, theologically, and linguistically, in a series of “if x…then y” statements, which, grammatically, are classified as “conditional” constructions. A covenant is neither a threat nor a promise. It is a legal contract – no more and no less.

The writer of Hebrews then goes on to explain the actual historical meaning of the word translated “covenant”. In the larger society, it referred to one’s legal will, and seldom to contracts or covenants at all. (I have devoted two word studies on the web site to this subject, if you are interested). The “doctrinally” over-emphasized, ancient pagan requirement of “blood sacrifice” to seal a covenant is corrected by the simple statement that a will only takes effect after the death of the testator is certified! That topic deserves an entire study of its own, for which we don’t have time this morning. Chapters 8-10 of Hebrews elaborate on the connections between the concepts of covenant, inheritance, and the Body of Christ, which could be very helpful to our understanding. Remember that the letter to the Hebrews is pointing out differences from the old system, not ideas to be copied!

Additionally, as Paul points out in II Cor.3:6, we, the people of God, are the administrators – the executors – of that will! Executors are responsible to see that a will is carried out according to the wishes of the one who wrote it! They don’t make their own rules. They simply follow instructions. And that is our job, people! We have been appointed the executors of our Lord’s will! That is a huge – and perhaps somewhat intimidating – assignment, also calling for deeper study.

Finally, just as the Old Covenant was based upon instructions (“commandments”) relayed to the people for whom it was instituted, so is the New Covenant/ inheritance predicated upon Jesus’ New Commandment.
It would have been so much easier if he had just given us a check-list! Although that obviously had not worked under the old system.
But Jesus must have really meant what he said, since he repeated it so many times (Jn.13:34, 35; 15:12, 17). Love of – and among – the brethren is our passport – our Kingdom ID.
“If you love me, you will follow my instructions!” (Jn.14:15,21) is not a demand, but a simple statement of “cause and effect.”

Interestingly, it is right after this repeated statement that we find the inclusion of his analogy of the Vine (15:1-8). A branch MUST be connected to the vine in order to fulfill its intended purpose – bearing fruit. However, the most elementary observation reveals that branches are connected to a vine only by other branches!!! Connectedness is essential!
Actually, this is the beginning of the formation of Jesus’ people into the Body of Christ! That Body is integral to the New Creation!
Only together can such a disparate collection of people become the “demonstration project” in which the world can see Jesus’ Kingdom. A recent example of this is Shirley’s report of her neighbors’ reaction to the roofing job. Kingdom behavior was demonstrated.

Details of the composition and function of that Body are most specifically outlined in Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12-14, and supplemented in Ephesians and Colossians. The lists are not identical. They address different needs, different situations. We could – and should – spend a good chunk of time exploring this aspect of Kingdom life. The common thread, which is absolutely essential, is that each membereveryone! – has a very necessary contribution to make for the formation, growth, and fruitfulness of the Body, and to enable the recognition “by all people” that we are our King’s citizens.

This is a totally new way of operating. It had never been tried before! and therefore extreme caution is required. Creation is new, but not everything represented as “new” is necessarily better. Discernment, one of the Spirit’s essential gifts to the Body through its members, is desperately needed, to distinguish between the actual leading of God and the half-baked theories of “new” ideas (Colossians 2:4-10 is an example) where some were suggesting that Jesus alone was not sufficient, and needed to be understood as just one element of an elaborate, mythological hierarchy invented by some pagan Eastern cultures; or the revisionists referenced in Galatians 1:8-9 whose legalistic, abusive and oppressive teaching threatened the faithful message of freedom in Christ. Both of these are parallel to some contemporary threats as well. Only careful discernment by a faithful Body committed to a reliable standard can evaluate whether what is represented as “new wine” that needs “new wineskins” is really from the Lord. Maybe it is – or maybe not.

This has to be why, after a long discussion of the futility and failures of the old system, the writer to the Hebrews urges (10:24-25) “Let’s concentrate on prodding each other, with love, and good deeds! Let’s don’t neglect getting together, as some have made a habit, but keep on coaching each other more and more, as you all see the Day getting nearer!”

Functioning as his New Creation – under the New Covenant – obedient to the King’s New Commandment – may we learn together to keep coaching each other into greater faithfulness!

April 24, 2016, GMF


A Brief Introduction to Anabaptist History

September 15, 2015

This piece was developed for a small group that traces its roots to the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation in 1525.  Like so many groups with a unique and troubled history of attempted faithfulness, the modern progeny of those devout New Testament students sometimes lose sight of the vision of New Testament living that drove their antecedents to risk, and often to sacrifice, their very lives in their search for New Testament Christianity.

Perhaps many of you are also unaware of the serious devotion to Scriptural principles of the folks whom the formal “Reformers” tagged with the label, “Anabaptist heretics.”  It is for this reason that I am including it among my postings of New Testament studies, in the  hope that it may contribute to the “Recovery of the Anabaptist vision” among people who, although they may or many not share that heritage, find the New Testament descriptions of the early church to be attractive, and worth the effort to emulate.

May we all become better acquainted with the Lord Jesus, as we seek together to “follow him in life”!

A Brief Look at Early Anabaptist History

I usually prefer to use the opportunities I am given to share, to examine some specific aspect of the New Testament. But Tim Wyse’s testimony a couple weeks ago was such an excellent summary of what a gathering of folks of Anabaptist persuasion should be, that I feel compelled, for the benefit of those who, like me, did not grow up acquainted with the reasoning behind much of our history, to highlight some significant parts of Anabaptist beginnings, in the hope that perhaps at some point we may all engage together in a more in-depth look at “where we came from” as a guide to “where we are going.” This is an attempt, neither to idealize, nor much less to idolize, the past, but to learn from it.

Tim, as you may recall, attributed much of the attractiveness of our little group to “a focus on discipleship rather than doctrine.” This matches the statement on our bulletin very well.
There could be no distinction more appropriate for a group of Anabaptist origin.
That is not at all to discredit the importance of “what one believes”, but rather to push beyond the theoretical, to ask “OK, now, what are we going to DO about it?”, a question which most other groups answer, if at all, in very different ways.

Of primary importance to this question is a proper linguistic understanding of the word usually translated “faith”, which actually would be better understood if rendered “faithfulness” or “loyalty”. It was classically a very practical word, not at all theoretical. If you are curious, please check out the very first word study in my online collection. Or try substituting “loyalty to Jesus” in places where you are accustomed to reading “faith”, and you will begin to see the difference it makes.
It is precisely that difference for which our forefathers (spiritual, if not genealogical) gave their lives.

There is an old saying, most frequently applied to social or political issues, “Those who choose not to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This is readily observed on the world scene, where formerly oppressed individuals or groups who become “liberated” waste no time in becoming the oppressors of their former masters, or even of former fellow-victims, and the cycle repeats endlessly, just with a different “alpha dog” on top of the pile. Examples abound around the world, whether of national, ethnic, religious, racial, gender, or any other origin.
Sadly, the self-proclaimed followers of the Prince of Peace have evidenced little deviation from this pattern.

When the emperor Constantine, in the early 4th century, declared that “Christianity”, the formerly persecuted minority, was to be the officially recognized “religion” of his empire, “conversion” and baptism became a legal requirement rather than a daring departure from convention. Only political loyalty and submission to ceremonial duties, were required, after the pattern of the earlier “worship” of the Caesars. It had little, if anything, to do with anyone’s way of life. Officials of the already-growing church hierarchy hailed as a victory,what was in actuality an ignominious defeat for a true NT church.

The problem with that is, commitment to Jesus was never intended to be a “religion” – simply one of many ways for people to attempt to understand and manipulate powers that are beyond common human control. JESUS DID NOT COME TO ‘START A RELIGION’, NOR TO REFORM AN EXISTING ONE! By his own testimony, he came that his people might have LIFE (Jn.10:10), and have it abundantly!

I have often previously quoted Solomon’s excellent summary: “He did not come to tell us what to think but to SHOW us how to live.” The “inaugural address” of Jesus’ Kingdom (Lk.4) detailed “good news to the poor, healing broken hearts, release for captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed!” I have never seen any of those items in the “doctrinal statement” of any group, have you? If that was Jesus’ agenda, why is it not the agenda of those who claim to follow him?

It certainly did not describe Constantine’s agenda, or that of the burgeoning church hierarchy! As the clerical and political hierarchies merged and their wealth and power increased, the true King’s “Inaugural” lay pretty much forgotten. When an occasional brave soul advocated any of its principles, such an advocate was either peremptorily disposed-of, or elevated to “sainthood”– either one of which conveniently marginalized their influence on the average person.

The powerful church-state alliance established, and canonized, very carefully crafted statements of “doctrine”/ “belief” to which all were required to subscribe, on pain of exile, or even death. What the religious rulers had been unable to achieve by persuasion, they demanded by legislation – a very 21st century “solution” which really belongs to the middle ages!   (NOT the editorial pages!)
Compulsory assent to official pronouncements or accepted “doctrines” forcibly replaced the loving, mutually sharing brotherhood which had been the lifeblood of the early, persecuted church.

It was into this atmosphere that a tiny spark of light exploded, and became a conflagration that had to be reckoned with, in the early 16th century. “Reformers” had already tried to tackle some of the most egregious abuses by the powerful, but they all allowed their “reforms” to be vetted, approved (or not), and regulated by the political rulers, and tried to fix things by simply creating new hierarchical structures to replace the old: the power of the state was still invoked to enforce the submission of everyone in a given territory.

But in a small home near Zurich, in January of 1525, a small group of students who had been introduced by the reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, to Erasmus’ compilation of the Greek text of the New Testament, had finally had enough of waiting. Having compared the findings of their New Testament study to what claimed to be “the church”, they realized that the results just didn’t match! That’s exactly what happened to me as a college student.
With no official or clerical authority or approval, they declared their intention to follow Jesus Christ in their whole life, baptized each other in testimony to that commitment, and at the same time, ordained each other to spread the word – the New Testament – that had encouraged them to do so. And all the drownings, burnings, tortures, and assorted other abuses heaped upon them by both political and religious officials could not quench that flame. It spread like wildfire.

Do you see any parallel here? The early church had thrived and spread throughout the empire, despite brutal persecution by Rome. The Swiss Brethren, likewise brutalized, spread rapidly through Switzerland, Germany, and surrounding territories: so rapidly that the more institutionally-inclined reformers were alarmed, and turned up the heat on the “heretics”.
What was their “heresy”? It was perhaps best defined by Hans Denk, who simply stated: “No man may truly know Christ, except he follows him in life.”

As summarized by historian Harold Bender, “The Anabaptists could not understand a Christianity that made regeneration, holiness, and love a matter of intellect, doctrinal belief, or subjective experience, rather than the transformation of life.” For them , the operative word was not “faith”, a theoretical concept independent of observable evidence, but “following”, for which any “theology” might perhaps be a means, but certainly not an end.
Even their enemies recognized this, and a “godly life” was frequently cited in trials as proof that someone was an Anabaptist, and the person was thereby condemned, either to drowning or the stake!

Two years after the initial meeting, a group of brethren under the leadership of Michael Sattler (who was martyred soon thereafter), met to define their points of departure from the state-church system.
The resulting “Schleitheim Confession” did not focus on any “doctrinal” deviation from the basic theology professed by the official churches. It’s seven brief articles dealt specifically with the resultant behavior to which the brethren had committed themselves. Primary was the voluntary nature of the church. The baptism of mature adults at their own request, careful discipline within the group, and the informal celebration of the breaking of bread among the committed, were all outgrowths of this principle, and “separation from the world” (a phrase later badly abused, as if it had been instituted as a new “Law”) was simply the observable result of their commitment. As part of their rejection of any and all coercion, they rejected both “the sword” (political coercion) and the oath (a follower of Jesus was committed to absolute truthfulness on every occasion.) Out of necessity, they also detailed the rapid replacement of their leaders, since martyrdom was so frequent. Notice that nothing whatever was said about “doctrinal” issues. Accused of “trying to abolish the clergy”, someone is said to have retorted, “Not at all: in obedience to Jesus Christ, we intend to abolish the laity”!

In those turbulent early years, councils, debates, and “disputations” were convened by various authorities to halt the spread of “heresy”, but to no avail. Every faithful person had become a preacher/evangelist!

In 1531, a “disputation” was arranged, in which the principals were Martin Bucer, an ally of Martin Luther, and advocate of a “Christendom” promoted and coerced by civil authority, and Pilgram Marpeck, who considered the gathered church to be an extension of the Incarnation of Christ, (detailed in word study #150), an “advance party” of his Kingdom. Marpeck maintained that in order to create a true community, one’s commitment must of necessity be voluntary. True faithfulness can never be coerced.

Bucer, on the other hand, argued that the church was a continuation of the Old Testament “people of God”, and equated baptism with circumcision, to which all children must be subjected, and by which they were obligated to eventual membership. He therefore held the OT to be of equal authority with the New – the “flat book” approach advocated even today by many denominations, self-designated “evangelicals”, and even some who claim Anabaptist roots, and therefore ought to know better!

Bucer also insisted that the civil government was “ordained” to enforce this system. Consequently, of course, since he maintained that it was the duty of the state to enforce conformity, Bucer was declared to have “won” the debate.

Marpeck did not reject the OT, but considered it merely preparatory, and saw the relation between the testaments as “preparation vs. fulfillment”. He held that where there was conflict, the New must always take precedence. Jesus made the deciding call, and served as the prime example.

Notice, that here, too, the Anabaptist objections were practical, not theological. The basics of “belief” were challenged only as they impinged upon the expected behavior of the “church” and its members. It was the practical outworking of commitment to Christ that was in question.
None of these debates or arguments even touched on the “theological” issues so carefully defined, proof-texted and footnoted by modern “defenders of the faith.” That preoccupation has been copied from 19th and early 20th century Fundamentalism. It was nowhere present in historical Anabaptism.

In his essay, “The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision”, Harold Bender highlights three areas where the Anabaptist brethren departed from the prevailing norm:

  1. The essence of Christianity is discipleship: the transformation of one’s life according to teaching of Jesus. Life is expected to be observably different.
  2. An entirely new concept of church as voluntary, not automatic, and definitely NOT an adjunct to state citizenship. Church is expected to be observably different.
  3. The ethic of love and nonresistance in all human relationships, which allows no room for coercion of any kind: theological, civil, or military. Members are no longer under the Old Covenant, expected to do battle on behalf of their god, but now serve the Prince of Peace, in a lifestyle patterned after his.

Please note that they were not trying to change the prevailing social order, but to create a new one!
They neither made nor imposed any rules upon people outside of their own committed group.
They never expected to be a majority – persecution was assumed, and for over 200 years, even after the initial executions subsided, advocates of the “free” or voluntary church were hounded from their homes and property. Sheltered by the occasional compassionate local potentate, they took refuge wherever it could be found: in the Netherlands, Moravia, some German duchy areas, and even czarist Russia!

In the early 18th century, battered from centuries of abuse, with most of their original leadership executed, those who eventually found refuge in “Penn’s Colony” just wanted to be left alone. For a time, they maintained their defensive isolation– and who could blame them? It was pleasant not to be constantly running and hiding in order to survive. I could still take you to Pennsylvania churches where an opening prayer would predictably include “We thank thee that we may gather here today unmolested and undisturbed”!

But peace has its own perils. Both the descendants of the folks who had received Constantine’s decree with a sigh of relief, and the progeny of those who found refuge in Penn’s colony, eventually learned: The absence of overt opposition can quickly dull the edge of commitment.

Although it is noted by some Church of the Brethren historians, that when in 1719, Benjamin Franklin asked their elders to provide a “creed”, and a list of “officials”, in order that they might be enrolled as a legitimate “church”, they refused, saying “We have no creed but the New Testament, and acknowledge no superior but the Lord Jesus Christ”, one would be hard-pressed to find such a response today. (We have tried!)

And what a contrast is the brief but bold statement that emerged at Schleitheim, to the so-called “Mennonite Confession of Faith”, with its 20 lengthy articles, fully half of which appear to be designed to identify with evangelical protestantism rather than to describe a difference, and only one of which refers to the group’s official attitude toward the state.

Have we so completely lost sight of the central principles by which our forebears governed their lives – and for which they even gave their lives?
How did nearly five centuries of persecuted minority status become a burden instead of a badge of honor?
Is a retreat to “doctrine” always safer than an exemplary life, and therefore to be preferred?

In the last half-century, a few voices have again been raised in advocacy of a deliberate, even if costly, choice of discipleship over the comfort of a passive reliance upon “accepted doctrine”. This is a hopeful sign.

But have you noticed how many of the agenda items for “official” meetings (which are announced as being open only to “credentialed” individuals) in recent years have been issues already noisily aired in the popular press?

Or how frequently the announced “conclusions” are also those already “approved” by the general populace, or proclaimed in national legislation?

I am not saying that we were better-off being burned and drowned – not idealizing the days when faithfulness meant a peremptory death sentence. But have we really deliberately decided, with the rest of society, that it is more appropriate to “fit in” than to wrestle with the challenge of discipleship? Or have we just carelessly slouched into that stance?

What will we do, if we again find ourselves placed into a position where we must make a choice?

We need to make every effort to become fully aware of the alternatives and their implications, in order that we may choose faithfully.

 

Suggested resources for Anabaptist History:

The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision – ed.Guy Hershberger, 1957

Becoming Anabaptist –J.Denny Weaver – 1987

The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism – Franklin Littell, 1964

Introduction to Mennonite History – C.J.Dyck, 1974

The Politics of Jesus – John Howard Yoder, 1972

The Priestly Kingdom – John Howard Yoder, 1984

The Believers Church– Donald Durnbaugh, 1970