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Discovering the Body: Part II PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jared Looney   
Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Imitation of Christ

For weeks, I meditated on the nature of the church, on Christ’s mission, and on the spiritual gifts in the body of Christ.  I began to honestly ask the question:  Is this really true?  What makes this kind of community possible?  And no sooner than I asked and the answer seemed to be everywhere.  The same thing occurred in every text about life in the body.  It was everywhere!  The answer to my question was imitation of Christ characterized by forgiveness, humility, kindness, and love.  For a community to be able to function as a body it must share a common humility with the help of the Holy Spirit.  To work together despite diversity, a church must seek humility in imitation of Christ.  To free ourselves to be taught by others, we must first recognize that the Spirit of God is at work both in others and in our own life.  Without imitation of Christ, we will always go back either to seizing control or to passive reliance on charismatic personalities.

The Missional Journey

Until the 16th Century the term mission referred to Jesus becoming flesh on a mission to save His people.  It was a theological term used to refer to the mission of God to redeem humanity through Jesus Christ.  After the 16th century with the period of European Imperialism, the term mission began to be used to describe European – and later American clergy – going to a foreign land to teach Christianity (and often Western culture) to indigenous people.  As a result, it helped to create a division between the church “at home” and the “mission field.”  Mission became something that only happened far away. 

However, there is a renewed movement in the contemporary church to re-envision mission.  As Samuel Escobar describes, Mission is everyone going everywhere with the Gospel.  There is a renewed sense of recognizing Jesus as the model for mission and for the church to follow His example as a people on mission with God.  At the same time many scholars are once again discussing the content of the Good News that Jesus proclaimed – that is the Reign (Kingdom) of God. 

With renewal of the missional church and the Reign of God as the content of the Christian message, there is also a renewed sense of journey.  There is recognition among many leaders that salvation involves both conversion and process.  And as life is very much a journey from beginning to end, the church is also the people of God on a journey.  We have not arrived; we have instead only begun the journey of discovering God’s work in & through our lives together.  The idea of being on a journey is strong throughout Scripture.  Appropriately, in Luke-Acts (a two volume work) Jesus journeys from Galilee to Jerusalem, and the church expands from Jerusalem to Rome.  Metaphorically, all of life, mission, and growth are a journey.  The church is not a frozen institution.  Rather the church is the redeemed people of God on a journey as participants in Christ’s mission.  We are the people who pray:  Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.

The Gifts of the Body

Throughout this time in Sabbath, I contemplated the spiritual gifts of the body of Christ.  The inspiration for my study began in Ephesians 4:  It was he [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 

It is Jesus that gives out the gifts.  The gifts of Ephesians are given to serve the body by equipping all of the parts for service.  What is striking in the New Testament is that the body only grows to maturity when the whole body is functioning together with the various parts serving one another in imitation of Christ.  Maturity is the result of the body functioning together with Christ as the Head.  If we take seriously that God works through flesh, then it stands to reason that He would continue to distribute gifts. 

Let us take a few moments to envision the leadership gifts found in Ephesians.  All of the spiritual gifts are of equal importance without exception.  We first examine these five gifts because they are given to empower all the members of the body.  I should say that my reflection upon these spiritual gifts has not happened in a vacuum.  Through his writing & speaking, Wolfgang Simpson, a leader in the German church, has inspired many to re-envision the nature of the church and its spiritual gifts.  I have had numerous conversations with other Christian leaders.  Let us now envision how these gifts might function in the contemporary church. 

Apostolic:  While this term is often used to describe a special office held by the Twelve and others who had physically seen Jesus, it also has a wider use in the New Testament text.  It refers to one who is sent for a particular purpose.  Don’t misunderstand.  I’m using the term apostolic with a small ‘a’ and am not referring to the office of the original Apostles.  Rather I am identifying a function in the body of Christ.  As a spiritual gift, apostolic workers especially refer to a type of servant-leader who moves across cultural barriers to establish a new movement of the Gospel.  I could use the term ‘missionary’ as a synonym, but I would risk the meaning being missed altogether due to the typically broad use of that term.  I have two choices:  Use the term ‘missionary’ and risk it being misinterpreted too broadly, or use the term ‘apostolic’ and risk it being misinterpreted too narrowly.  I choose the ladder. 

One who functions apostolically is breaking new ground.  They often serve as catalysts that move between cultures, make disciples, form faith communities, and strengthen the vision of the church as a movement.  These workers often serve as the initiators of church planting movements.  They go ahead into non-christian culture and invite the church to follow.  They will be most effective at facilitating a church planting movement when the following gifts work as a team with these servants.  Those who function apostolically often go out ahead of the body on the missional journey. 

Prophetic:  Prophetic ministry should be seen as multidimensional.  In general it is someone who speaks for God.  While at times it may involve revelation of future events, it is most often someone who warns their audience of sin and the need for repentance.  To speak prophetically may also be to directly identify sin or other issues through the Holy Spirit without any previous knowledge of the situation.  Those who function prophetically often recognize the action necessary for the body to move ahead on the missional journey and speak directly into these situations.

Evangelism:  While every Christian is called to be a witness for the Gospel, an evangelist is especially gifted in this area.  While grounded in Scripture and the Holy Spirit, he or she is extremely skilled at relating with others and helping them transition into faith in Christ.  An evangelist takes joy in the process of conversion.  What is especially true about an evangelist is a specialized ability to effectively connect with the worldview of unbelievers and compassionately communicate the Gospel into that worldview. Those who function primarily as an evangelist move with the body on the missional journey but on the fringes as they focus on sharing the Gospel with outsiders. 

Pastoral:  Often this term is used for identifying (Protestant) professional clergy, especially involving preaching.  While one may possess a gift for public teaching of the Word in addition to serving pastorally, the two are not necessarily synonymous.  Also, in some traditions this term is used interchangeably with the office of overseer, bishop, or elder.  While this may be a fair interpretation, it requires a much more in depth study.  There is a need to re-envision this gift outside of institutional settings.  What does pastoral leadership look like in an organic expression of the contemporary church?  While it is likely that shepherds will eventually be recognized in a house church movement, it is wise to allow time & experience to identify those servants.             

Those who function pastorally are actually those who extraordinarily care for others, are trusted quickly, and have the ability to effectively walk alongside groups of believers in such a way that encourages growth and unity.  As Lynn Anderson’s often-consulted text, They Smell Like Sheep, reveals, those who serve as shepherds should be chosen from among those who already naturally guide the body.  They smell like sheep because they spend their time loving people.  Those who function pastorally most often move within the body on the missional journey in order to serve the body and overcome obstacles to growth. 

Teaching:  The teacher is a much needed role in the body of Christ.  The teacher can effectively communicate truths that lead people to a clear understanding of the Gospel.  Teachers may incorporate a variety of methods including public speaking, small group discussions, or writing curriculum.  Teaching that equips the body is also teaching that leads believers to learn to interpret Scripture, to teach one another, or to communicate the Good News to unbelievers.  Those who function as teachers most often move within the body on the missional journey in order to assist the theological formation of the community and to encourage understanding of the Word of God. 

Gifts of the body:  Romans and I Corinthians also identify spiritual gifts in the body of Christ.  There’s no reason to believe that these lists are complete.  Their difference demonstrates the varied contexts into which the writer was communicating.  Ephesians provides a study of the church.  Paul knows this church and is reinforcing their identity as the people of God.  In Romans Paul had not yet been to this city.  Paul is essentially writing a letter for missionary support as he hopes to use Rome as a launch pad for church planting in Spain.  As an introduction, he writes out a theology to the Roman Christians.  As a result, Romans contains a very general list of gifts.  The letter to the Corinthians is intervention in a church in conflict.  The various house churches are divided, and the members are envious of one another’s gifts.  In this case Paul mentions specific gifts that are related to the controversies and the spiritual ambitions taking place within the Corinthian assemblies.  I have included these additional lists of gifts.

  Romans 12:    I Corinthians 12  
  Prophecy Wisdom  
  Serving Knowledge  
  Teaching Extraordinary faith  
  Encouraging Worker of miracles  
  Contributing financially Distinguishing between spirits (discernment)  
  Leadership Apostles  
  Showing mercy Teachers  
    Prophets  
    Gifts of healing  
    Those able to help others  
    Administration  
    Languages  
    Interpretation  

What person in our communities of faith can we think of that may possess any of these gifts?  As mentioned previously, these lists are not exhaustive.  I have included these lists to encourage us to consider the many ways that we can build up the body of Christ.  It can also be assumed that the Lord has given more gifts to the body than only those mentioned above.  However, these lists give us a glimpse into the functioning of the body.  Each serves in their unique way while imitating the love and humility of Christ.  Let’s also consider some additional possibilities as well:

  Teaching small children Counseling  
  Singing Intercessory prayer  
  Fixing computers Serving the mentally ill  
  Medical knowledge Conflict mediation & reconciliation  
  Serving others with their car Etc.  

Table as Center

As I thought about the emphasis on ‘one another’ in the New Testament, I couldn’t help but think about the context in which we commonly think of church.  In order to understand “one another” as the context for ministry it may be important to recall early Christianity.  Many agree that the earliest church centered its assembly at the table.  The recent archeological discovery in Israel including the words – This table is dedicated to the Lord Jesus Christ – should help to substantiate this position. 

Today, many Christians are accustomed to the pulpit being the center of the Christian meeting.  While Biblical teaching in the earliest church was a major part of many Christian meetings, it most likely took place around a table.  As Dr. Douglass Stuart, an Old Testament scholar, has explained:  there is no worship assembly in the Bible without food being involved.  There is much more to say about this, but it is only meant to serve as background information.  

I also don’t believe that there is just one outline for how to conduct a church meeting.  God cares more about our heart more than our organization, and the Bible never actually commands a certain church structure.  Rather there is great freedom to discern what is necessary for honoring Christ in our particular time & place.  However, re-imagining the context of the church meeting helps us to better grasp the relational, ‘one another’ nature of Christian meetings as described in the New Testament.   

Our Current Challenge

As I contemplated the situation we find ourselves in, a scene from one particular movie kept flashing across my mind.  In Shawshank Redemption Morgan Freeman’s character describes the difficulty of being an elderly prisoner who has spent decades in the system but is soon to be released.  He explains that they do not know how to live in a world that is free because they have been, in his words, institutionalized. 

It is difficult for many of us to embrace an experience of the church as relational and as interdependent as what is being envisioned because many of us have become accustomed to passive participation.  One another ministry too often gets replaced by enlistment in a program.  Now, I do want to be careful here and encourage readers not to overdo the comparison.  I am simply pointing out the power of institutionalization over a person’s worldview – nothing more.  God loves the church in all its forms and is continuing to use a number of institutional churches to accomplish wonderful things for His Reign, and I will myself continue to work alongside believers from both very relational and program-driven churches.  However, the church is in desperate need of maturing as a body that teaches and cares for one another.

I have worked hard to point people to reliance on Jesus and towards one another ministry.  In recent years I’ve tried to encourage others whom I’ve taught that Jesus continues to show up when I am not present in their meeting.  For me, being obedient as a leader is calling others to depend on Jesus rather than on my personality.  It feels good to be missed; I miss them too.  However, Jesus is the Lord; my life is only a moment.  And I hope to point others to depend on God and become interdependent as a community of faith.  Those of us who have given years of service in program-driven churches often find it necessary to undergo a type of conversion if we are to thrive in a relational church life where one another is the context for maturing in faith and for mission. 

Conclusion:  Getting Practical

I started out explaining that I desired to meditate & study Biblical themes that would have a direct application for the faith communities that I serve in the city.  Let us conclude briefly with practical applications.  There are significant questions to ask ourselves as we face tomorrow’s challenges.   

Although the worldwide church has numerous expressions, Bronx Fellowship has been called & committed to experiencing church as a relational, organic expression.  Church is a community on a journey that is shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   

  • What contribution can you make to meetings where we build up one another?
  • Do you believe that non-christians will experience the body Christ when they visit your church?  Why or why not? 
  • Are there barriers in your own heart that keep you from experiencing one another ministry?  Can you identify them? 
  • Think of ways that you can show Christ’s love to others in your church next time you meet.  You might try to encourage a different person every few weeks. 

            As we experience life together, we embrace diversity within Christ’s body, and we seek to celebrate the appropriate function of spiritual gifts.  We can safely assume that every baptized believer has some spiritual gift to contribute.  We can also assume that the unbaptized are making a contribution as they seek Christ among us and are indeed swelling with potential as they move towards faith and submission to Christ.

  • What abilities or skills would others identify as your spiritual gifts?
  • What spiritual gifts do you see in others in Bronx Fellowship?  Think of some specific people & how you think they may function in their unique way.
  • What can you do to lovingly encourage others to use their particular gifts for God’s glory?

One issue that I have not taken time to explain in this paper is the subject of prayer.  However, prayer will have the final word.  I consider Ephesians’ description of spiritual warfare to be profound, and as I’ve read Colossians, prayer has an equally powerful presence in the text.  Actually, prayer is repeatedly found woven throughout the Bible, and after a chose to meditate on particular New Testament writings, I have even less doubt that people’s encounter with spiritual realities is dynamic & active.  We live in a world in conflict, and prayer has always been a theme in every movement of God’s people.  Prayer points to God as the source of power and teaches His people to depend on Him as their God.  It is a primary way that He reveals Himself and battles against evil. 

I’ve also continued to contemplate Luke 10 and to pray to the Lord of the harvest for workers.  For Jesus, mission is initiated with prayer.  He gives us few strategies outside of this one.  Of course, it is God’s mission anyway; we are only privileged participants.  When we consider Jesus’ teaching on prayer, there should be no surprise at the statement:  A prayer movement always precedes a church planting movement. 

·        When praying, what issues are you most passionate praying about?

·        What person or group can you commit to pray with on a consistent basis?

·        What non-christian person(s) in your life needs you and your prayer alliance to pray for them?

·        What difference do you believe a prayer movement would make in New York City?

Lord, teach us to pray.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 21 August 2007 )
 
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