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A Higher Standard for the Church

by Rick Owen

INTRODUCTION As I have tried to slowly and carefully understand from Scripture how deeper fellowship and greater fruitfulness in the Lord might be cultivated and experienced in the church, I have come to the conviction that this process is fairly straightforward and simple, but it does require a high level of commitment from the whole church body. Most of all, it is supernatural. It requires the Holy Spirit to make it happen. I believe the New Testament (hereafter, NT) teaches this level of commitment involves mutual participation and edification through the use of our God-given spiritual gifts. This calls for some faith-driven risk-taking and self-denying disciplines practiced in a welcoming, non-threatening, accepting, encouraging environment. I believe this is how Christ designed his body to work. The church has survived despite man-made obstacles and restrictions. But how might it flourish as we seek to remove such impediments? THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD One place where a higher level of commitment is needed for most churches is the ministry of the word. This is true even in churches where faithful expository preaching takes place. Many believers have said they feel only 'partially edified' by listening to a sermon, or one-way presentation of any kind, which does not at some point invite or encourage the sharing of insights, either from Scripture or firsthand experience, by others in the body of Christ. The NT ministry of the word should involve the entire church body. All saints are God's chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation, and acquired possession who are called to praise God (1 Pet. 2:9), contend for the faith (Jude 1:3), build up one another (1 Thess. 5:11; Rom. 14:19), and speak the truth in love in concert with the proper working of every part of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:15-16). Please note that speaking the truth in love and the proper working of every part," in verses 15-16 of Eph. 4, relate to "growing up." This stands in contrast to verse 14, "so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro" (cf. Heb. 5:12). This requires more than good preaching. It takes the whole body communicating and working together . . . in love. "Teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom" (Col. 3:16) is the responsibility of all the saints. Preachers and teachers should contribute to this spiritual process, but not supplant it. They are to train the rest of the body how to skillfully use the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:17). They should be spiritually seasoned members who equip fellow members for active service in the church and witness in the world; not experts instructing a class which never graduates. Paul was describing the collective community of the saints, not just its leaders or preachers, when he spoke of "the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15, ESV). The body is well-established in the faith only when the whole body, not just a few of its members, is strong in the word of God. This includes training and involving others in the ministry of God's truth and praise (2 Tim. 2:2). "Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name" (Heb. 13:15).

OUR RESPONSE TO GOD AND HIS TRUTH A second area where the church needs to practice whole-body (versus partial-body) ministry, as a higher standard, is the church's response to the word. I believe the body-life and spiritual-gift passages of the NT (e.g., Rom. 12-14; 1 Cor. 12-14) indicate this should include authentic, Spirit-led (supernatural), spontaneous participation. This means expecting and relying on the Holy Spirit to work through every member of Christ's body -- resting not in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (1 Cor. 2:5; cf. 2 Cor. 4:7). This may involve seasons of corporate prayer, fasting and waiting -- spiritual disciplines many believers are not accustomed to -- looking to God to work things out in his time, in his way, for his glory. On this basis, I believe the body as a whole should be encouraged to recommend or contribute songs, prayers, Scripture readings, confessional statements, personal testimonies, exhortations, etc. when the church is gathered. Instead of this practice, however, most churches have only one or a few members doing this for the rest of the body. Why? Is this based on the NT model for the church? Not at all. Prescribing our response to God (worship) and interaction with one another (fellowship) via a bulletin or 'order of worship' seems to me to be as unnatural and unsatisfying as pre-scripting a family's conversation at the dinner table. Providing a few constant elements here and there as guides and anchors for continuity is fine; but everything does not need to be ritualized or choreographed. Doing so stifles the spiritual life and growth of the body, because it fails to walk by faith and the Spirit. The well-known hymn "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" says, "Let the 'amen' sound from His people again." I believe this should be more than an occasional murmur in a conventional church service. Biblical affirmations (amens) should be substantive responses to New Covenant realities which Gods people possess and celebrate in Christ together. Hebrews 10:19-25 highlights what our response should be to the "new and living way" obtained by our Savior: let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith . . . Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering . . . And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. OUR COMMUNION IN CHRIST A third area needing a higher NT standard is our practice of the Lord's Supper. After years of study, I have accepted the view that this biblical practice was (and therefore should continue to be) a full meal -- a covenant feast; a thanksgiving feast; a love feast -- experienced in robust, corporate, Christ-centered festivalizing (Greek literal, 1 Cor. 5:8). Sharing this meal corporately (versus individually or as separate families) demonstrates and cultivates the unity of Christ's body. This is also an occasion to serve one another. Jesus illustrated humble service ("I am among you as the one who serves") and modeled it by washing his disciples' feet in the context of the last supper (or Lords supper). He told his followers to follow his

example ("do as I have done;" "you are blessed if you do these things;" "love one another as I have loved you"). Segregation and exclusion was the problem in the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:17ff). When it came to the Lords Supper, this division amounted to a failure to "properly discern" or "judge" the Lord's body. Some take this to mean the church failed to respond to the ethical implications of Christs 'bodily sacrifice' for the church. Others understand this to speak of the poor treatment of the brethren as 'Christs body.' Either way amounts to about the same thing; and it brought severe chastening from the Lord in the form of sickness and death to many. So this was a very serious matter. I believe the spiritual health of many churches today suffers from neglecting Christ and his body (as a unified community) in the Lords Supper. We should carefully understand and follow the NT practice of the Lords Supper and not do whatever pleases us or is most convenient for us. See for a biblical summary of the Lords Supper. Please note the links to some succinct and insightful resources at the bottom of this page. They are worth your time. CONCLUSION In underscoring the participation of the saints, I do not intend to minimize the role of leadership in the church, or dismiss sincere submission to faithful shepherds. I believe the bar needs to be raised for everyone -- for leaders and those they lead. My longing (and the desire of many others I know) is to see churches pursue and experience a rigorous and satisfying NT calibre of fellowship and fruitfulness in the Lord. Rather than circumvent leadership, the NT calls for sacrificial servant-leadership working synergistically with the rest of the body. A synergism is defined this way: the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions, etc. This is how the body of Christ works. When every member does his or her part, and works together in love, the outcome is greater than the sum of the parts. The richness of this is multiplied even more when the Holy Spirit is involved as the One who supernaturally gifts and empowers each member of Christs body. The church will build itself up in love and mature in Christ, to God's glory and the good of his people, as each member takes his or her calling more seriously. Our Lord has summoned us to forsake our own interests for his cause, his people and the age to come. He invites us to build up heavenly treasure which will last forever. Through the agony of the Cross, Jesus secured for us an eternal and imperishable inheritance, and has gone to prepare a place for us. How much more incentive do we need? If you know these things, Jesus said, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:17).