Apostles and the Apostolic

The meaning of the person as an apostle strikes either a new understanding of church leadership or something that died off nearly 2000 years ago. On one hand, some charismatic churches embrace the notion of the apostle as a much needed restoration within the Body of Christ. How this is defined and worked out in these churches is for another discussion. On the other hand, other churches (often those that hold to the cessation of certain spiritual gifts) scoff at the idea that apostles could come back to play a particular and needed role in the church. Both of these views express extremes in the Body of Christ yet I believe a middle path can be found between the two perspectives.

The apostle is defined often as one sent forth (with certain orders), a messenger or a delegate. If you consider the life of Paul, he was sent forth with the Gospel as a representative of Jesus Christ. Now for those who think the apostolic lifestyle is full of signs, wonders and massive conversions, please think again and reread 2 Cor. 11.23-28. Paul along with other apostles knew suffering which few ‘apostles’ here in America would know. The pattern that Paul roughly followed was this: bring the message of Jesus Christ (Jews first then Gentiles), gather together disciples, teach them for a period of time, i.e., lay a foundation, leave. How many bearing the ‘apostle’ title would dare do such a thing? Sadly, many have missed the main point that Christ is the head of the church and not some apostle.

Some of those that have missed the point seek to establish a new hierarchy with apostles at top then trickling down with prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, of course with the apostle having the greatest authority. I find it exceedingly ironic that those coming from a Free Church background would embrace such an idea. This again sets up an authority structure that the Free Church sought to abandon as seen in Roman Catholicism. This also flies in the face of Paul’s example. He gave the disciples in the churches the freedom to discover how to meet, how to organize and who, if anyone, would be a leader. Eph 2.20 speaks of apostles and prophets as foundational in the church. If foundational, they would occupy the lowest place in the church by providing support for building up and being of service to all in Christ. Such a person is difficult to find these days…

While speaking of someone as an apostle these days might seem pretentious, misguided or downright silly, the need for apostolic people is a great need in the church today. This is a call that takes the great commission in Matt. 28 as applicable to all disciples. (Others may argue that this only applies to apostles.) Whether the application of ‘Going into all the world…’ is for all disciples or only for those called as apostles is open for debate. The greater need is for all disciples to love God and love neighbor. This fleshing out before others the love of God by loving neighbors could provide an apostolic flavor that many churches lack though they seek to attract people through branding and spectacle.

My gut tells me the era of self-preservation in the church is coming to an end. The end may result in some kicking and screaming, but the embrace of the cross will lead to the emergence of new life in some unexpected places. These places that emerge to express the new creation in Christ may look radically different than what we expect. Where would Jesus, Peter, John, Paul and Timothy hang out today? Who would they try to reach? What would those discipleship communities look like? If we are honest, I think the answers might surprise us.

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The Prophetic – Speaking Truth to Power

This one aspect of the prophetic ministry to the church takes a turn from the upbuilding of the church. One could see this as the prophetic witness of the church to speak to those in places of power. Speaking truth to power has it roots in the OT prophets in the varied calls to embrace justice and care for the poor and marginalized. This is the simultaneous call for the people of God to reflect the alternative community of theKingdomofGodand to address those institutions in the world system that would hinder the cause of justice and compassion.

We can’t expect the world system to reflect the justice of God. However, we can call the powers that be into account when justice is not worked out and the people on the margins are neglected. This is often viewed as meddlesome by some Christians who think our only task as the church is to save lost souls. Saving lost souls is only the beginning of God’s purposes in the earth. Salvations is not only about individuals but also communities and the transformation of God’s creation. The church is an expression of the new creation which is (or least should be) a glaring contrast to the system of the world.

One way to speak of this new reality is through the arts. Keith Giles wrote a blog post regarding the role of the prophetic in the arts.  This may provide a way for those creative types in the Body of Christ to speak prophetically and speak truth to power. In addition, this can provide a way of envisioning the alternative community that the world needs to see. Creativity in the church should not be limited to the sugar coating of some pop culture expression but express that deep and burning longing found in the very heart of God for humanity that bears His image. So what would such art look like?  Ultimately, such artwork will challenge and inspire the church and the world. For the church, it would be a reminder to rise to her calling. For the world, a reminder that all is not okay and transformation is needed. For those in power, a reminder that the power they have is fleeting and is subject to the power of God in the cross of Christ.

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The Prophetic Voice

The prophetic ministry is one area of gifting in the church that is controversial yet worth investigating in greater depth. From Moses to Paul, the prophetic gift was something that they wished all God’s people had. That being said, the gift of the prophetic much less that of the function of a prophet has led to a wide range of responses in the church. On one hand you have those that deny outright that such a gift even functions within the Body of Christ today. On the other hand, you have those calling for a restoration of the prophet and the prophetic that is taken to extremes with to much emphasis on prophetic words over the living Word.

Rev 19:10 states, ‘The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” Yet all too often, the spirit of prophecy overlooks Jesus for the personal, strategic or big word that makes us feel better without pointing us to Jesus or encouraging us in our growth to Christ-likeness. Granted this is an extreme among certain charismatic folk but the problem remains something not even addressed among cessationist Christians or pointed out as to why such gifts should be avoided. Ultimately, balanced prophetic words will point to the living Word, encourage us in our Christian maturity and play a part in Christ being formed in us.

1 Cor. 12-14 provides a great deal of insight into the prophetic gift and the story of Acts also provides the role of the prophets in the early church. From these two examples one can see two different types of prophetic words, the personal/corporate word and the prophetic word regarding events effecting regions or nations. The words for an individual or a church provide a source of encouragement for the building up and assembly of the Body of Christ. Such words can come from a prophet or from one having a prophetic gifting to provide the right word at the proper time. The main point in receiving such prophetic utterances is not about ‘us’ but about the formation of Christ in us and the establishment of the Body of Christ.

The role of the prophet as told in the book of Acts focuses on the future events that would affect nations and the believers in those nations such as the famine predicted by Agabus. This is probably the trickier type of prophetic word that I have not had the opportunity to see this in action. I say trickier, because of the future orientation and the often conditional nature of such prophetic words. This would seem to place a great burden on the one functioning as a prophet. The book of Acts records prophecies that came to pass. However, if the word is mistaken or does not come to pass, do we as the church allow for grace and restoration or do we quickly condemn the ‘false prophet’?

Others in recent times have spoken prophecies on a national scale. Often phrased in terms of blessing or wrath, such prophecy is problematic by its very nature. We expect such things from an OT style prophet but we are now under a new covenant; again, tricky stuff. The big question is does such prophecy have a place in the church?  I believe people (even large groups of people) should be called to repentance, but should this apply to nations as well? Under the new covenant, should prophetic words still be framed in language of blessing and cursing? Maybe the bigger question is this, if one has a prophetic function in a church, what language and character would they express under the new covenant?

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Going Underground

A few years ago I wrote the following as an introduction to my final paper for a graduate seminar on Metaphor in/and Theology. I was trying to paint a picture of “religionless Christianity” as Bonhoeffer put it. I’m now putting my money where my mouth is. I’m going to spend this summer in an organic house church environment. What happens after the summer is anyone’s guess.

Imagine a world in which the church buildings, cathedrals, mega-churches and other structures used for Christian gatherings are no longer, or at least less often, the places they once were.  Now these buildings are museums, community centers, homeless shelters, theaters and so on.  The people that once filled these buildings gather there much less frequently if at all.  What now occurs are smaller gatherings in homes, coffee shops and bars that are unique expressions of the Body of Christ in each particular city, culture and nation; expressions of faith that seek to express and work out what it means to follow Jesus in their specific contexts.  Large numbers of Christians have left the traditional practices and structures of going to church for the option of being the church, taking seriously the metaphors of being salt and light.   Large portions of the Christian community have intentionally gone underground, not because of persecution, but for the purpose of pursuing and modeling Jesus Christ through a cruciform life.  This cross-shaped life calls for a discipline unrivaled by some mystics but also a giving of oneself in love to share in the suffering of others.  This desire to commune with God leads to a love of the world on all levels.  An ever-expanding network of simple, flexible, mobile fellowships, with no central headquarters, that seeks to be the parable of Jesus Christ for others in the world.

Could this be a possible future for the church in America? in other parts of the world? Is the era of the mega-church over? I’m interested in your thoughts.

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The Question of Evil

The question of evil, also known philosophically as the problem of evil, is a perennial dilemma within Christianity and the Abrahamic religions. Briefly stated, if God is loving and all powerful why is there evil and suffering? This past Sunday the Los Angeles Times had an article dealing with this problem as seen through the eyes of Vincent Bugliosi, an agnostic who is a former LA county prosecutor and has written a book, Divinity of Doubt that tackles this question. While having not read the book, I will address some points raised in the article.

One point he raises is, “according to Christianity, God, being all-powerful, could have stopped all of this [regarding the Holocaust]. But he apparently decided it was just fine with him.”  Here he has expressed the conception so prevalent in philosophy of religion and in some areas of theology. This is not the conception of God presented in the Bible. The suffering of humanity and the evil perpetrated by the same is the concern of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This God took on human flesh and suffered on a cross at the hands of religion and empire. This God is near in Spirit, who comforts and comes along side us in the midst of our sorrows.  Our brokenness is not “just fine” with God and he desires our healing and restoration.

He also states, in reference to the God of Christians, “…if they have any respect for logic, they’re going to have to redefine him.” Those with an Anselmian perspective of ‘faith seeking understanding’ may take Bugliosi to task regarding the rationality of the Christian faith. One can give reasons and justifications for religious belief in coherent ways. Alvin Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense” is a refutation of the logical problem of evil by appeal to human freedom and possibility and is widely accepted by many philosophers. The redefining of God is another matter. Defining reality, including God, is endemic to Western thought. Maybe we in the west should take a hint from those in the east and stop trying to define God. Maybe it’s more of a matter of being defined by God and responding accordingly. Of course, such redefining may not be amenable to Bugliosi.

Rationality has its place in the Christian faith but reason is not the only aspect of the faith. Some, like Tertullian, go the other direction of “I believe because it is absurd.” This is a facet of the Christian faith that embraces the mystery and ineffability of God. This approach to faith can provide a place for agnosticism because of the limits of reason. An investigation into the medieval mystics might provide some insights into the Christian faith in whicht Bugliosi might find some common ground.

Just on the surface, this challenge to God does not take into account the many facets of the Christian faith and the multiplicity of responses to the problem of evil. He seems to treat Christianity as a monolithic entity when in reality; the multifaceted expressions of the Body of Christ provides many answers, some better than others. The Body of Christ continues the earthly ministry of her head. If Jesus came to those who are blind, broken and poor, those subjected to evil; shouldn’t we continue the ministry of healing and proclamation of freedom? Do we want to participate in the work of God? Or do we stay content in our own little domain?

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