In the year 2020 the focus of my biblical studies has been the role of culture, first in understanding the biblical text, and second, in application to the 21st century world in which we live. This is an endeavor of a decade or a lifetime, not a year, but because I have felt it to be a major gap for me, I am making this my focus for at least this year. Valuable resources for getting a better understanding of culture to understand the biblical text have been books by N.T. Wright, Kenneth Bailey, Walter Brueggemann, and the Bema Discipleship lessons – all helpful in getting historical, cultural, and Jewish context. This is a work in progress, and I am not writing with a special expertise, only an increased awareness.
As I wrote in another article, “Do You Get It?”( http://gordonferguson.org/articles/do-you-get-it-by-jim-mccartney/), I have a nagging sense that I am missing something important due to my many biases as an upper middle class, western, educated, older white man. Consequently, I am continually observing the integrity of my efforts to follow Jesus, striving to balance grace and the expectation of a high moral/ethical standard. While doing so, I cannot help but think about the extent to which I am influenced by the culture, place and time in which I live, and how that often is an undertow to my heart’s desire to love God. Additionally, I consider the role of the church today, and how it is to interact with the 21st century culture to which it ministers.
The goal of this article is to explore the role of the church in addressing issues of social justice. I hope to open the door wider for dialogue and exploration of the many specifics issues only mentioned here which deserve greater thought and consideration. Again, I am not an expert, and only hope to stimulate a broad audience to engage a critical conversation.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8 (all quotes are from the New International Version, 2011)
Justice and acting justly is a major theme in the Old Testament text and Americans, especially, can completely misunderstand it. The Hebrew word, Mishpat, implies not so much a punitive justice (the punishment fits the crime) but a restorative justice, a making things right again. Compare and contrast the American judicial system with working out a conflict in a family caused by a wrongdoing. The judicial system is primarily designed to determine guilt or innocence and then to punish the guilty. In the family, however, the goal is to work things out and restore the harmony that existed before the wrongdoing. Mishpat, restorative justice, is the latter; it is a making things right again: in the family, in the community, in the nation, and in the world.
With the good creation of Genesis 1-2 as a perpetual context, God acted through history to create a justly ordered people, a community of his that would model his desire for all of creation. Because of the undertow of human selfishness, the Old Testament is filled with grace, guidance, (yes, some punishment), a perpetual call to righteousness (right relationships, with God and each other) and justice.
Consider the following scriptures that are highlighted in this video on Justice by the Bible Project (https://youtu.be/A14THPoc4-4) which is about six minutes in length :
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” – Proverbs 31:8-9
“He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – he remains faithful. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” – Psalm 146:6-9
“This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” – Jeremiah 22:3
Reading the Old Testament there is a continual call to take care of the orphan, widow, foreigner/alien, and the poor and needy. Righteousness and justice depended on it.
The Jewish people, however, could never get it right and hold it together for very long. God went to great lengths to redeem and restore his people between the Genesis 1 and Matthew 1 but ultimately it could only be done in Jesus. Through Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, God could make things right again.
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:6-8
Jesus inaugurated his ministry in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, by reading the following from Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As the promised Messiah and suffering servant, Jesus in his earthly ministry was continually caring for the poor and needy, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Jesus cared about both the body and the soul, and he demonstrated the righteousness and justice that God had been calling his people to all along. He did it right. Reading the gospels, it is amazing how much Jesus attended to the physical needs of people, elevated the status of women, and extended his ministry to those who were culturally avoided or ignored, the tax collectors and “sinners.” He also spoke to the ways that various segments of the Jewish people had assimilated to the Greek and Roman cultures and/or missed the major points in God’s desire for Mishpat, a justice that would make things right.
While dying, Jesus showed God’s love and mercy by meeting the needs of his mother, his disciple, John, and the repentant thief, and his death provided the sacrifice for our sins and the means to be restored to a right relationship with God. Then, through the promised Holy Spirit and the community of the early church, the good news of the kingdom and God’s grace was proclaimed throughout the Jewish communities and out to the Gentiles which had always been God’s plan promised to Abraham:
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3 (emphasis added)
In the words of the Bible Project video, the early church was comprised of disciples of Jesus who had received undeserved righteousness and were seeking righteousness and justice for others.
The earliest Christians were known for their love and for their care of those in prison (Christian or not), the orphans and the widows, imitating the life of Jesus. Making things more right for those who were hurting and oppressed (justice) was part of the church’s mission. But with time, many Christians came to believe that our lives on earth don’t matter much. The focus of the church narrowed to obedience, forgiveness, and preparation for a future state of disembodied spirits in heaven. And this opened the door to a sad chapter in Christendom characterized by abuses of power, oppression, and an appetite for violence. The church lost its distinctiveness, conformed to the culture of its age, and gave up on God’s desire for Mishpat.
Fortunately, over time, the Holy Spirit worked through various reformation and restoration movements to call Christendom back to God’s heart for his people. But again, because of human selfishness and the pulls of culture, the history of the church, not unlike the Old Testament history, has been full of fits and starts.
21st Century Christian Church
So, how are we doing today?
First, the “we” is problematic because there is so much diversity of teaching and practice among modern Christians in the most general sense of the word Christian. For this writing I will narrow the “we” to those who honor the biblical text, strive to follow Jesus, and practice Christian community – still broad, but a bit narrower!
The dominant culture and world view of the 21st century western world has been heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman, Hellenistic world view. The importance of education, entertainment, and athletics dominate our leisure, economy, and lifestyle. We have also borrowed the concept that God exists to serve us rather than the other way around. The prosperity gospel and prayers dominated by asking God for things reflects this cultural influence. Add to the mix western individualism, and spirituality becomes much more about the individual than the community. We have also borrowed from Aristotle that our souls can live separately from a body and ultimately will congregate in an ethereal heaven (or hell) in a disembodied state. This has led to all kinds of weird thinking about Christianity and life on planet Earth, from the problems I discussed above in church history, to challenges in today’s modern church.
I would now like to focus on a text a friend and the editor of this article, Lai-Yan Faller, reminded me of from Jesus’ model prayer:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – Matthew 6: 9-10
Jesus asks us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. While we are here, we pray with a desire to bring heaven to earth. This is consistent with the promise of Genesis 12 that through God’s people all peoples on earth will be blessed. The kingdom and the church are described as a city set on a hill and the bride of Christ. The ministry of the modern church therefore should reflect the promise to Abraham and the ministry of Jesus, showing everyone how to do it right.
God cares about how we live here and now. If John Lennon understood God’s heart, he may have changed the lyrics of “Imagine” saying instead of imagine there’s no heaven, imagine heaven on earth. John was an atheist, but I think he had a legitimate complaint that those who called themselves Christians were so focused on a future heaven that they did not care enough about life on Earth.
Much of evangelical Christianity focuses on the individual’s freedoms and rights, reflecting a culture of western individualism. In addition, a philosophy that God helps those who help themselves may contribute to a lack of compassion for those who are disadvantaged. Pretty Hellenistic and not much Mishpat in this worldview.
Additionally, the church can be conflicted. There may be a reluctance to wade into the waters of social justice because it is deemed to be political, divisive, or disruptive to the church’s primary mission to get as many as possible to a future heavenly state.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the resurrection and a life after this one. And I believe that what we believe and how we live determines our next life.
On the other hand, I believe that how we live matters to this life. And how the church demonstrates Jesus matters to this life. We are to bring heaven to earth, to restore justice, to make things right today – which has been God’s heart from day one.
There is a cost to doing this. Jesus’ call to discipleship in Luke 9:23 is “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Following Jesus’ example requires self-sacrifice and an undying devotion to being like him. As wonderful as it seems to be like him there will be a strong negative reaction from those who prefer the comfortable western and materialistic approach to Christianity and don’t want to be challenged to deal with their sin, inclusive of sexism and racism and all other forms of oppression.
In the early 1960’s my paternal grandmother’s brother, Carl Spain, a preacher, missionary, and college professor spoke to an audience of Christian ministers in the Churches of Christ. He called them out on racism, denouncing the segregation of churches and the lack of accepting black students to Christian colleges. He was strong while speaking up for the oppressed, and the reaction was not mild. He received the expected nasty calls and letters from those who disagreed, an attempt was made to bomb his house, and his life was threatened…by “Christians.” Ultimately change happened, but it was slow, and even today Christian churches are some of the most segregated communities (https://carlspaincenter.org/). I am fortunate to be part of a very multicultural church in Boston, but it is still quite rare.
Is it possible that the fear of reaction or persecution from those trapped in a cultural norm, Christian or not, causes us to prefer to fit in rather than practice justice? To be normal rather than like Jesus? To be selfish rather than selfless? To be more focused on speaking up for our rights than that rights of the oppressed?
What can the church do to practice Mishpat (restorative justice), to bring God’s kingdom and will to earth as it is in heaven, in the 21st century? This is a big question, and the task may seem daunting. Indeed, just as I personally am a work in progress, so is the church. Here are a few suggestions of steps we can take:
- Take care of the poor and the needy, as part of the mission of the church, and not relegate it to a voluntary contribution to a non-profit.
- Speak up for and take care of the orphan, widow, alien, and all who are oppressed; remaining in uncomfortable silence is neither acting justly (Micah 6:8) nor rescuing from the hand of the oppressor (Jeremiah 22:3).
- Address racism and sexism: set things right biblically.
- Meet the whole spectrum of spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of people – as Jesus did.
- Speak to God’s good creation and challenge greed and the normative values of economic empire and consumption.
- As the bride of Christ, be his partner and show him to the world. He is the answer and when disenfranchised baby boomers, millennials, and others see him clearly, unclouded by a corrupt western and materialistic culture, not only will fewer walk away from the church, but they will tell all their friends about Jesus. He is the way. He is our Mishpat.
- Pray and live that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
At the end of the day, how we live on planet earth matters today and how well we practice Mishpat will draw or repel many to or from God’s heavenly kingdom – on earth and in the resurrected life to come.
The current conversations about using women in public worship are timely for sure. I personally do not think this is overdue, for I believe that any alteration in long-held practices is best rolled out slowly in the interest of unity so everyone can have time to assess their own convictions or opinions and shift, if need be. I might only consider haste imperative if the roles specified in the Bible could not be accomplished without women functioning in those roles. For hundreds of years now male leadership has kept us obedient to specified commands of God. Certainly, that is not an argument for the status quo, but it is a plea for caution in moving forward.
To be clear, I’d love to see women more visible in public worship, and I’m grateful for the careful research being done to that end. A concern has been raised that by delaying a change, we are not being “all things to all people.” Honestly, that shouldn’t be a deterrent to anyone seeking redemption and a relationship with Jesus, though it might deter some if they are looking secular-culture compatibility – a concern Jesus never entertained.
My great desire as we move into greater public use of women, whether in praying, teaching or song leading, is that women exhibit a “gentle and quiet spirit.” It is easy to come across as strident when one’s voice is raised with emotion or when one tries to be heard in a crowd. It will take some input and practice for some women to accomplish a bearing of humility in these more visible roles.
I am concerned that the same loud cultural voices demanding more public visibility for women in leadership in churches (not just our own) may reside in tandem with perspectives that shy away from having a humble learner’s spirit – a problem common among many millennials today. (Of course, this does not apply to every proponent of women’s leadership, nor to every millennial.)
But I have a greater concern still. Within the fellowships with which I have experience, I have not found many younger women seeking to sit at the feet of older women. Perhaps Paul’s instruction to Titus put the onus on older women to teach, but what responsibility lies with the younger women?
“Likewise, teach the older women to teach what is good….Then they can teach the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” (Titus 2:3-5)
Yes, older women need to be willing and available and this passage primarily addresses domesticity, but there are attributes like self-control, purity, and kindness that apply no matter the marital status. These are attributes best taught by someone who embodies them and who through life-experience has fought off the natural temptations to be otherwise.
God values life-experience when it is combined with an effort to conform to the nature of God. Older women, therefore, must apply their minds to a thoughtful replaying of memories regarding success and failure in scriptural application in order to pass along lessons that can help younger women. God affirms his value of life-experience in referring to the needs of infants requiring milk versus the mature who need solid food.
“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use [of spiritual food] have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:12-14)
In the concern for women’s gifts to be more fully used in our churches, it shouldn’t be about visibility or positions of leadership, but about respect earned by a godly life plus God-given gifts of leadership (Romans 12:6-8). It is certainly not about advanced years. Regardless of age, Jesus changed the way women were respected – dramatically and beautifully – and we should follow his example. But we must value what he values. A clue to this is given to Timothy when being instructed which widows were to be honored with financial support in the churches.
“…and [she] is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.” (I Timothy 5:10)
I believe that our churches teach respect of older men and women, but it is rarely evidenced in seeing the younger using their elders as “life coaches.” Perhaps as an act of benevolence our young visit with the older, but is it in order to learn from them? I simply do not see many younger women actively seeking to sit at the feet of older women.
It seems odd to me that in an era when hiring a secular life-coach is a popular trend, the money-free offer of spiritual life-coaching (aka, discipling) is neglected. It saddens me to see wise older women having little or no influence in the lives of younger women. We should be so proud to be part of a church where women mentoring women is a hallmark of our fellowship – not just teaching at a midweek devotional, but in one-on-one relationships where wisdom is prized!
I think we must be careful to discern the difference in the world’s definition of wisdom and God’s. Men and women alike can be persuasive, articulate, and talented, but that does not make them qualified to lead. It can make them appear wise, but it does not make them wise. God defines wisdom by qualities of character.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is…pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:13-18)
Again, I am not against women serving in more public ways and I applaud the papers being written and the conversations being had, but it makes me wonder, whether, if we restored more basic New Testament practices to our current church culture, we might ramp down the urgency and controversy. I also wonder whether we might shine a brighter light by exhibiting the character and spirit God values in women than by placing them in roles that may be desirable, but not mandatory.
A number of people have asked me what my thoughts are about the current ICOC 3.0 discussions taking place among leaders in our family of churches. It perhaps goes without saying that ICOC 1.0 would be a moniker for our earlier days as a movement; 2.0 would have begun after our unsettled days starting in 2003, and 3.0 would describe where we would like to go in the near future. I had an opportunity to participate in one of the earliest discussions of ICOC 3.0 in Dallas when three of the Service Teams met. The sessions were lively, as each began with a presentation and was followed by small group discussions. Evangelists, elders and teachers were mixed in each of the groups, to gain perspectives from those in each role in all groups.
Discussions and Tentative Conclusions
Since those meetings, leaders (staff and non-staff) have been discussing specific questions in each of our geographic families of churches. Roger Lamb of Disciples Today recently posted a second update on the progress of these discussions, which included the following:
The results are pouring in and a clear picture is coming into focus. We have overwhelming agreement on a wide range of topics including:
- We are, and want to be, a global brotherhood
- We want to be organized globally
- We long to see more souls saved by the grace of God
- We are willing to share our financial resources to meet “brotherhood” needs
This brief segment from the update gives essentially what the topics of discussion include. Bottom line, the specific assigned questions address how people feel about having more of a global organization to accomplish a greater global impact in evangelism. Of course, this organization would also include the sharing of resources to accomplish these goals.
My thoughts about the matter are pretty simple. How can any organization have a global impact without a global structure and how can you have a global structure without sharing the financial needs in a defined, understood and accepted way? So yes, I am quite in favor of what the majority of other leaders evidently are feeling, based on the update report. This is hardly rocket science, is it? I doubt seriously that any example exists of a global organization of any type making a high impact on a worldwide basis without the components of structure and shared finances. Of course, the organizational aspects have to be developed and implemented to fit the resources available and the goals of the group. That part must become the primary focus of the discussion much sooner than later.
Not All Will Agree
However simple this whole matter seems to me, it is not to others. While those others are evidently in the minority, they should be (and are) a part of the discussions. Unity is not unanimity, but it should include a broad consensus. Disciples, especially younger ones, also ask me why those who have issues with cooperation on a global basis have such issues in the first place. It seems odd to them. Understanding history helps us grasp the reasons behind the reluctance, and I think two aspects of history are most fundamental in explaining this phenomenon.
One, our movement history had for some years a much more organized approach to evangelizing the world. The organizational structure aided in planting churches in over 150 countries. The downside of that organization was in how it functioned. A few people at the “top” made decisions for everyone else, with little inclusion sought or accepted. It was a combination of military and corporate models, the former of which I discussed in chapter 4 of my book, Dynamic Leadership.
But was the problem with the structure itself, or with the implementation of said structure? We seem to have a difficult time ascertaining the difference between something wrong in and of itself, and something good but implemented wrongly. I personally had no issue with the structure of the past, but definitely had issues with how it functioned. Can we not have a global structure while avoiding the mistakes of the past? Surely we can! If we cannot learn from the past and change as a movement, we cannot learn from our past as individuals and repent. Resistance to moving forward when we are stuck (and we are) is scary business. Failing to build is just as bad as tearing something down once it is built, according to Proverbs 18:9: “One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys.”
Two, based on my experience, the majority of those who have difficulty accepting cooperation on a broad scale (which includes structure and money) share a common spiritual heritage – the Mainline Church of Christ. That also was the case when we were discussing the Unity Proposal some years back. I too share that religious heritage, which helps me understand those with whom I share it. One of the foundational tenets of that particular movement is congregational autonomy. It is in the DNA of those with a Mainline background, especially those who were raised in it from youth.
Saying that is in the DNA of that group is another way of saying that it is systemic, like nationalism or racism in the United States. You can have it whether you realize it or not, and it can drive your thinking without your being aware of it. The exception would be those like me who rebelled against it, believing that church autonomy as we saw it practiced was a guarantee of failure in evangelizing the world. Just be prepared to expend much patience in dealing with all of us from that background – the typical “heel draggers” and the atypical “toe pushers” (me being among the latter)! But it is a fact that the Mainline congregations are dying and have been for decades now. A well-known minister among them was on a panel back in 2004 and made the statement several times that they were in the last days of a dying movement. His fellow panelists from the Mainline didn’t like what he said, but he said it and he was right. Their statistics clearly prove it.
Statistics Don’t Lie
Our statistics in the ICOC show that we are starting to follow a similar path, in that our growth is slowing down and unless it reverses, we too will soon enter decline. It is that phenomenon that prompted the introduction of ICOC 3.0 in the first place. I have followed our statistics for years. When I first became an elder in our then flagship church, Boston, in 1989, my fellow elder Al Baird showed me a graph that hit me like a kick in the gut. It showed one line for the baptisms and one line for those leaving the church. The latter was moving in an upward direction faster than the former, meaning that when the walkaway rate (by whatever term you prefer) intersected the baptism rate, the overall membership decline would begin.
As a movement, we are now in a similar place. I mentioned some statistics last year in my book, My Three Lives. The overall growth for our movement of churches in 2015 was 1.9% and that of the US and Canadian churches was 1.3%. Our movement growth dropped from 1.9% in 2015 to 1.2% in 2016. Do you think we need an updated version of our IOS (operating system) in the ICOC? The answer seems obvious.
Not unexpectedly, the younger generations among us loved the honesty and the urgency with which I wrote in my book, while some older leaders had quite the opposite reaction. I suppose they didn’t like me making our statistics public, but we have to remember that the church is first of all the church of God and then the church of the people. It is decidedly not just the church of the leaders. Our members have a right and a need to know where we are as a movement. They are a part of the problem and must be a part of the solution.
An Introduction and Commendation!
That statement provides us with the ideal segue into the article I am introducing, written by a dear friend of mine, Jim McCartney. Jim is a member of the Boston church and one of the most reasoned and reasonable brothers I know. Jim understands that being a disciple means by definition that you must be a learner, and that being a learner means you must be a listener. He listens to those in all segments of the church, especially those of the younger generations. He is one of the most in-tune older brothers I know. His article is entitled “ICOC 3.00,” described by him in this way: “my thoughts are ancillary to ICOC 3.0, not a recommended revision or next version.”
To me, ICOC 3.0 is quite an obvious need, while the details of designing and implementing it are not yet so obvious. Having said that, I agree with the thrust of Jim’s insightful article, that deeper needs must be met if any organizational structure is to help in the long run. In a word, spiritual issues are far more important than organizational issues. I don’t think it is an either/or situation, but a both/and need, and an urgent one at that. Please read what Jim wrote, carefully and prayerfully – and keep your seat belts buckled tightly! Enjoy!
The energy and enthusiasm around the recent ICOC 3.0 initiative are impressive, and I respect and appreciate all the work that is going into it. As a local church Board member, I was able to participate in the New England/New York meeting in Hartford CT and was encouraged by the focus, energy, and balance of younger and older ministry staff, elders, and administrators engaged in the process.
I have some additional thoughts, so I am taking this time to “put a pencil to paper.” For fun, I am calling this ICOC 3.00. The point: my thoughts are ancillary to ICOC 3.0, not a recommended revision or next version.
I believe that an international organization is going to help us with missions, specifically planting and maturing churches around the world. An observation from Acts 6, however, is that organization does not necessarily beget growth but it helps meet needs when there is growth. So, we need something more to bring about the level of healthy and sustained growth we desire.
My thoughts speak to two issues: 1. the spirituality and example of our most influential leaders, and 2. the role of the next generation, which I identify as age 25 up to age 40.
- The Spirituality and Example of Our Most Influential Leaders
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8
In my opinion, the ills of ICOC 1.0 were not structural but spiritual, starting from the top, and not limited to just one person. There were sins of faithlessness, humanism, pride, and anger that manifested in many practical ways, such as hyper-control of people and outcomes, shame as a tool to motivate short-term behaviors, and a breakdown in discipling relationships. The breakdown in discipling relationships at the top of the organization further contributed to a whole host of other sins not appropriate to enumerate in this paper.
I do note, however, that structure can drive behavior, and therefore perhaps the structure itself made it easier for the above sins to grow unchecked and explains our consensual reticence to go back to a similar structure. ICOC 1.0 used known business and military models of success to organize and motivate us. Today’s business models of success are different (it has been 40 years!) and may, in fact, more closely resemble the structure of the early church when it experienced explosive growth. The early church and its leadership were agile and not hierarchal, which is the case with today’s most successful organizations.
At the end of the day, I believe that the most important qualities for those who exert the most influence (and will drive the current change process) are:
- God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble
- A learning spirit manifested in listening, learning, and openness to input
- I saw this to be the case in our regional discussion but this should also be a daily lifestyle thing
- When driving change (a few months into it) it is tempting to get impatient for outcomes and default to old behaviors and sins
- The willingness to learn from critics and those who think differently rather than discounting and marginalizing; for example, our current process may be an opportunity to include and even learn from some of the churches who were not comfortable with the cooperation agreement and the delegate system
A Consistent Example of Prayer and Evangelism
- So, being too busy traveling, organizing, administering, and making decisions should be unacceptable excuses for our top leaders and influencers
- Lasting godly influence is rooted in personal example and relationship, not position
In the upper management of larger churches, and in any kind of a parachurch organization, it is easy to be incredibly busy but to sacrifice the basics of being a disciple of Jesus. Then it is natural to build up defensive mechanisms, justifying the lack of meaningful personal Bible study (to change me!), evangelism, hospitality, confession of sin, and one-on-one relationships that go deeper than organizational problem-solving, planning and story-telling.
In sum, a global structure to better organize missions, training of missionaries, and other global initiatives will be powerful, but we should be careful not to create a layer of leaders who exert the most influence but become removed from the daily lifestyle of following Jesus. A better structure with leaders who are spiritual and exemplary in their personal lives will be powerful.
- The Next Generation
“Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity….Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” – 2 Timothy 4:11-12, 5:1-2
This is what I think about the most. Being in my later 50’s, it is hard not to. I have four children between the ages of 27 and 32, three sons by birth and one daughter by adoption. When I get with my adult children I listen more than I talk – because that is my temperament but also because I want to understand what they are thinking and where they are coming from. I also spend time with some of their peers, ask questions, and listen.
I observe a generational gap that rivals or exceeds the one dramatized in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. And the gap is in the church, largely hidden. This is because we, as older leaders in the church, 1. Listen primarily to the young staff who are being paid to execute directions given by older leaders, and 2. Success is defined by doing well within a paradigm created by my generation. We therefore discount and marginalize younger disciples whom we don’t consider successful in ministry.
Let me provide some context. My generation broke away from the traditional church due to convictions but also in a broader social context of generational rebellion and innovation. We changed the way “church” was done, focusing on campus ministry and propagating soul-talks in the dorms and apartments to evangelize those who did not go to church. One-on-one relationships were transformative, growing into discipling relationships intended to implement the myriad of one-another passages. Church plantings replaced male only missionaries.
Churches were racially integrated, and radically so in places like Johannesburg, South Africa. The priority of serving the poor and needy was restored. Women went into the ministry. House churches were implemented and non-staff leaders were empowered to preach, teach, and raise up other leaders. Seriously following Jesus was an expectation for everyone in the church. Evangelism was contagious. Unity among churches replaced independence and division. We restored, innovated, created, and took ownership of the church – its growth, health, and future.
The next generation now belongs to their parents’ church; their parents run it and “own” it. My generation figured it all out, implemented it, and now explain it to the young.
So, what’s the problem? The next generation has its own mind and its own ideas for restoration, innovation, and creation, and a different sense of what church might look like if they “owned” it. But they also have limited influence and opportunity. Generally, they have some very different core generational values. For example,
- We value leadership. They value collaboration.
- We value control and uniformity. They value inclusion.
- We value confidentiality and circles of influence. They value transparency and communication.
- We are motivated by numbers of members, conversions, churches, and nations. They are inspired by authenticity and the Holy Spirit.
- We want to evangelize the world. They want to change the world (which includes evangelism but is not limited to it).
- The church is our community. The city/town/county is their community.
Our default will be to train the next generation to lead the church and “do” church the way we have, and because of our values of control and uniformity, we will stifle restoration, innovation, and creation. We will become what we once rebelled against.
I think the beginning of the solution is simple:
- Be humble. The last 17 years have not been glorious; maybe we have something to learn from those who are younger or those who have thought differently from us.
- Create a church culture that encourages restoration, innovation, and creation. Decide not to protect the status quo.
- Be open to both custom and flexible solutions to address challenges and opportunities.
- Be willing to try and fail.
- Reframe the mistakes of our youth. We did not have or respect elders; this generation does.
In sum, let the next generation lead, make mistakes, and take ownership of God’s church. Let me explain. As my generation reflects on our 40-50 year history, and as we restore the biblical role of elders, we focus on mistakes we and others made when we were young, and we are now guarded against their repetition. And as we get older, we raise the experience level required to lead. It is now easier and more attractive for many of the next generation to lead in their careers and in their community, rather than to lead in the church. We need to give the next generation the space to innovate, and the time to try, test, fail and then succeed.
Our most mature leaders (Gempels, Bairds, Shaws, Fergusons, and others) are retiring, slowing down (officially), and facing increasingly significant health challenges. Our other leaders (those in their 50s and 60s) have miraculously held our fellowship together but are not the engine of growth and innovation they once were. We stopped shrinking (overall) but have been going sideways.
We need youth, energy, continued restoration, innovation, and creativity. We need the next generation to take ownership of the church and how to reach their peers. What will be the next iteration of a soul-talk or a house church? How do we become more community-centric? How do we unleash the talent and enthusiasm of the next generation (and not just those who go into the ministry)?
I don’t think it is just about passing the baton. The next generation may drop our baton and map out a new race. In fact, the next generation may not be so interested in an ICOC 3.0 or 4.0, a tweaking of the current, but may be dreaming about something more disruptive – like what Jesus did in his day.
Being judgmental is an interesting concept. An over-used and often misapplied verse from Jesus is this one: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Jesus also said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24). Paul wrote about judging in opinion areas in Romans 14:4, 10: “4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand…” “10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”
So what should we make of these passages? That judging by mere appearances, based on our assumptions, and by our personal opinions is forbidden. On the other hand, we are to judge correctly, or righteously, which means using the Bible’s teaching as a basis for judging rather than our assumptions and opinions. The problem is that we often have a difficult time distinguishing between personal opinions and biblical doctrine. Dogma is easily mistaken for doctrine. Dogma is defined thusly: “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” If that authority is man and not God, error has entered the picture.
Well over a decade ago, our movement of churches went through a time of upheaval, examination, repentance and change. The repentance often was expressed in public settings by individual leaders and by leadership groups. One oft-repeated apology by church leaderships was that we had been too judgmental of others outside our fellowship of churches. However, we did not define that well, if at all, leaving the impression that anyone who claimed to be a Christian probably was. One result of that poorly defined statement was that evangelism dropped off rapidly because it became hazy regarding who was a Christian and who was not. Another result was that we actually did not become less judgmental in how we viewed others. Without a specific definition of sin, how can anyone repent of it?
A brother sent me a letter and an article recently in response to an article I had posted on this website entitled, “How Important Are Doctrinal Differences?” He came into our family of churches in the same year that I did – 1985. He and his family have been a part of several different congregations, but are now members of the Los Angeles church. He is a sales representative / account manager by career, but he is also a very good student of God’s Word and of restoration church history. His article addresses the topic of judging righteously, and one point he makes caught my attention especially. It is going to raise some eyebrows, but I think in a good way. Read the article carefully and see if you can discover that eyebrow-raising point!
The Gospel Divide
By John Teal
How in the world could Christians divide over the gospel? The answer largely depends on how they define the gospel. Gospel means “good message,” and it is biblically used to describe the message of salvation through Jesus. Yet, sadly Christians throughout the centuries have defined the gospel in ways that encourage sectarian divisions. Good hearted disciples have embraced false assumptions leading to unnecessary divisions. The gospel gives birth to the baby Christian and doctrine feeds the child into maturity. In The Twisted Scriptures, Carl Ketcherside explains how equating the gospel with the entire New Testament revelation leads to disunity.
The common fallacy assumes that all of the apostolic epistles are part of the gospel of Christ and any exposition of the doctrine contained in these letters is preaching the gospel…It is further assumed that those who do not subscribe to the orthodox interpretation placed upon every passage thereby “reject the gospel.” Each sect, party or faction, thus makes its traditional explanations and deductions “the gospel” and we end up with as many “gospels” as we have parties. It is easily understandable that the ones who so reason will conclude that only those who are allied with the party will be saved, and all others are outside the pale since they have not “obeyed the gospel.”
Thousands responded to the gospel long before the first word of the New Testament was penned. Yet, Peter set the standard for conversion at Pentecost – faith, lordship, repentance, and baptism. We should not add or subtract to the gospel he preached. Certainly, converts were fed by “the apostles’ teaching.” But, they were added by grace through faith and not by obedience through knowledge. Isn’t defining the borders of the kingdom based on knowledge or performance inconsistent with the gospel of grace? Surely, knowledge leads to repentance and repentance to a change in behavior. But, knowledge or performance is not a biblical litmus test for salvation.
Baptismal cognizance is one such doctrine. Some argue that the one who lacks understanding that sins are forgiven at baptism, even in the presence of faith, lordship, and repentance, are lost because they lack understanding of the purpose of baptism. This argument is based on inference – not sound exegesis. Certainly, we can guard against soft teaching and at the same time embrace that we are not the judge or the spiritual police force – we are ambassadors of Christ. Gordon Ferguson, in his paper on baptismal cognizance, warns against extreme positions yet challenges us to hold firmly to biblical truth about baptism.
We cannot soften or alter the message of passages like Acts 2:38; 3:19; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27; Titus 3:4-7 and 1 Peter 3:21. Baptism is inseparably connected to the forgiveness of sins as we come out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, and no man has the right to disconnect it. Period. 
Let us protect biblical truth and at the same time avoid extreme judgments. Furthermore, let us guard against using knowledge as a test of fellowship, for when we do we become exclusive and we compromise grace.
After being “pierced to the heart” and responding to Peter’s message of the lordship of Jesus, Peter issued the following:
“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”
In this passage, there are two commands and two promises. The commands are to repent and be baptized and the promises are forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we repent and are baptized in faith, surrendered in lordship, we receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. There is no need to discuss exegetical arguments over “eis,” for clearly sins are forgiven at baptism. The question is are we saved by a responsive faith or by specific knowledge.
Being in the state of California does not depend on whether one accurately identifies the precise time and place he/she entered the state, i.e. crossing the state line. A legal marriage does not depend on one’s precise understanding of when it became effectual. Was it at the vows, the pronouncement, the kiss, signing the license, or the actual recording of the document? The specific knowledge of this is not a prerequisite. Likewise, salvation does not require an understanding of the precise point in time or the efficacy of baptism for sins to be forgiven. One must simply respond in faith, lordship, repentance, and baptism to receive the promises.
In Romans 14:4, 10, and 13 Paul challenges attitudes and judgments regarding disputable matters. He says:
Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand…But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God…Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.
Many in the ICOC are concluding that the lingering exclusive attitudes toward those outside our fellowship are negative and spiritually toxic. They are realizing that one can hold firmly to the gospel truth and at the same time refrain from judgmental attitudes. They are not compromising on the expectation that the one placing membership should embrace a clear understanding of the biblical purpose of baptism. However, they are concluding that one who has made Jesus Lord, and who has been immersed outside of our fellowship, may not need to admit they are lost or require rebaptism.
They are reasoning that these decisions should be left to the individual and their God. If we have taught the gospel truth, if they are confident in their conversion, and if they accept and adhere to biblical conversion, then we should welcome them into our fellowship as fellow members of our congregations. As we struggle with our tendencies to define the borders of His church we might ask ourselves the following: “Could we be trusting our discernment over and above the power of the Holy Spirit to inspire, lead, and move His people unto salvation?”
The church of Christ functions more like an organism than an organization. It is the universal body of believers – the redeemed regardless of tribe or sect. Organisms are fragile and they require sustenance to survive. Their health can be compromised by a toxin or virus. False narratives or assumptions, like the one above, can jeopardize the health, well-being, and growth of the fellowship. Let us hold firmly to sound doctrine, for it will ensure the health of our fellowship. However, let us distinguish between the gospel that brings salvation and doctrine that matures and sanctifies. Let us apply caution when tempted to define the borders of the kingdom with doctrine. May we surrender all forms of legalism and fully embrace grace.
As humble servants and ambassadors, we recognize that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The important distinction is that the “Lord added,” thus we are not the ones who add to the body. As we grow in our understanding, let us value open and healthy dialog. Let us coordinate, communicate, and collaborate. Let us value all, ask all, and listen more than we speak. Let us pray diligently and trust the One who judges justly. And let us preach the gospel boldly remembering “we are free to differ but not to divide.”
 Gospel: Neuter Noun: εὐαγγέλιον euangélion, yoo-ang-ghel’-ee-on; from the same as G2097; a good message, i.e. the gospel:—gospel. / Verb: εὐαγγελίζω euangelízō, yoo-ang-ghel-id’-zo; from G2095 and G32; to announce good news (“evangelize”) especially the gospel:—declare, bring (declare, show) glad (good) tidings, preach (the gospel).
 http://www.unity-in-diversity.org/Books/tts/index.htm?inside e-book accessed July 12, 2017, Chapter 4
 James was the first NT book written, dated approx. 49 AD. Acts written approx. AD 63.
 Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Acts 2:42
 Ibid. Eph. 2:8-9
 The Church of Christ debated baptismal cognizance fiercely between 1897 and 1907. It was referred to as the Tennessee and Texas Traditions (rebaptism). John Mark Hicks article Rebaptism: “The Real Rub” is a must read. http://johnmarkhicks.com/2009/01/30/rebaptism-the-real-rub/ Accessed July 15, 2017
 Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 2 Cor. 5:20
 http://gordonferguson.org/articles/baptismal-cognizance-a-deeper-look7/ Accessed July 14, 2017
 Holy Bible: New American Standard Bible (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Acts 2:38-39
 εἰς eis, ice; a primary preposition; to or into (indicating the point reached or entered), of place, time.
 The Holy Bible, New International Version, Biblica, Inc, 2011, Acts 2:47
 “We are free to differ but not to divide” was a slogan of the American Restoration Movement.
The Mystery Solved!
I first met the group of churches in 1981 that was later to be called the ICOC movement (International Churches of Christ). I was highly impressed with their evangelistic effectiveness and level of commitment, and figured out almost immediately that those two things were a result of discipleship. Bottom line, our lives should be all about discipleship, from both the vertical and horizontal perspectives.
Up, Down, and Sideways
Vertically, we are Christ’s disciples, totally committed to him and his purpose for our lives. To help people climb that lofty pinnacle, we not only have to preach commitment, but also love for Jesus. We cannot obey just out of fear or duty, but out of love for him because of his ultimate sacrifice on the cross for us.
Then we have the horizontal discipleship – our “one another” relationships within his Body, the church. This “discipling” relationship is also focused on Jesus – helping each other to become more and more like him and working in his power to carry out his mission to seek and save the lost. We have to not only teach it, but leaders must expect it, which means that we must have a return to clear expectations and accountability – applied in the right ways this time. The Bible has become an ideal for far too many, rather than a standard of what God actually expects of us.
Getting Off Track
When the challenges of 2003 came, for those familiar with our history, I knew immediately that several things would be discarded, and quickly. One of those was the practice of discipling and all that makes it function effectively. This one biblical concept and practice (even though it was too often practiced wrongly) was what drew me into this movement. I wrote a lengthy book about the topic back in 1997 and the book was later condensed in order to make it easier for younger Christians to use. It is still available after having gone through several revisions, and now carries the title, “The Power of Discipling.”
When the majority of our people stopped practicing discipling, I understood that a big part of the reason was because they had experienced wrong applications of it and been hurt. I was almost immediately hoping, begging, teaching and praying that we would return to what was a clear biblical teaching and expectation of God. You simply cannot dismiss the large number of passages that speak of our “one another” responsibilities. Yet, that is what many did and continue to do. But why?
Why, Why, Why?
The common answer, of course, is that people have been hurt and simply don’t seem to be able to get past their hurts and associated fears. I confess that I bought into that excuse too readily, especially when it kept being held up for so long as the main reason that people were not practicing what I believe the Bible clearly teaches. I recently read an article by a retired Methodist minister that jarred me. Keep in mind that the Methodist Church is not known for its evangelistic outreach with the concept of discipleship driving it. However, this one minister in that group makes his case strongly – more strongly than most of us who claim to still believe in the concept would make it.
So what is the real issue behind our all but missing ingredient of discipling? Is it the fact that we have been hurt and can’t get over our fears of a repeat experience? No, that’s not really it. The same people who cling to this excuse have also experienced wrong applications of marriage dynamics, parenting dynamics, and other interpersonal dynamics. Yet, they have worked through those challenges to try and correct these wrong applications and find smoother sailing in healthy applications of these other human relationships. They are not dumb folks; they realize that humans are imperfect and “bumps” between them in all types of relationships are a part of life that will take ongoing work to keep correcting. They handle those situations pretty well.
The Honest but Painful Answer
Why won’t they apply these same principles of seeing relationships to be an ongoing, learning process when it comes to discipling? The old Methodist preacher nailed it. Listen to what he wrote: (See his full article at: (http://www.transformativechurch.org/2013/02/25/why-arent-christian-churches-more-committed-to-making-disciples-2/)
We don’t like being disciplined. The word “disciple” comes from the same Latin word discipulus as does the word “discipline.” The dictionary defines a “disciple” as one who is a pupil or an adherent to the teachings of another. Discipline is defined as the “training to act in accordance with rules.” It also means “behavior in accord with rules of conduct; behavior and order maintained by training and control.” Do you see the problem? We don’t like to discipline ourselves, much less submit ourselves to the discipline of others. We Americans are radical individualists. We don’t want anyone else telling us what to do or when to do it. We avoid accountability like the plague.
It is not rocket science, but people must have real convictions about what following Jesus is really all about. As interested onlookers outside of our movement have said of us, we are now a nicer, gentler, more comfortable version of our former selves. We are enjoying our comfortability, and enjoy no longer feeling the need to be radical in our religion. We have for the most part become just another nice little church on the corner of Main Street, USA. We thus have fallen prey to the American view of church and Christianity. We may not be fully engaged in the race to catch that “American Dream” of materialism and worldly success, but we are almost fully invested in the race to catch the “American Church Dream.”
Rather amazingly, the old Methodist bard sees this one pretty clearly also. Listen to him:
We have an unregenerate church membership/culture. The quote above comes from Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. Many leaders in today’s church are so concerned about attendance numbers they lower the cost, hoping more will be willing to buy. The results have been that with each new generation the American church culture has become less and less “disciplined” with fewer experiencing genuine spiritual regeneration. Once the church culture makes this transition it is extremely difficult to restore an environment where lives are truly being transformed… Making disciples is a process that takes a great deal of time and personal investment. Accountability is more important than entertainment. It requires submission and vulnerability and sacrifice.
Is this us? Are you getting defensive reading this? If yes, I have one word to describe it – Bingo! If it doesn’t describe you, you wouldn’t be getting defensive, now would you? The idea that past hurts are behind the loss of discipling one another is merely a smoke screen. The real reason is that we like having the freedom to pick and choose what we will and will not do as church members. We don’t like having people in our lives spiritually who have expectations of us and are willing to hold us accountable – even if those expectations are God’s!
The Bottom Line
Here’s the real bottom line of this issue, and it’s not a pretty thought. We have missed the very foundation of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it’” (Luke 9:23-24). So there we have it; a refusal to deny self and embrace whatever Jesus asks of us, including even a cross – and certainly including the goal of becoming as much like Christ as possible in order to carry out his Great Commission of trying to help save a lost world.
Of course about now, I can just sense someone asking, “Are you saying that we are not disciples?” Listen, I’m just quoting Scriptures and sharing obvious observations; that’s my job. Your job is to examine yourselves, if Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 13:5 are going to receive due consideration. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?”
I’m also reminded as a preacher of Paul’s words to Timothy, when he commanded him to “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Finally, as Jesus concluded his very strong admonition to a church that he described as being “lukewarm,” and about to make him vomit (the literal translation), he said this: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Revelation 3:19).
The ball’s in your court; what will you do with it? What do you need to do with it? What does God want you to do with it? What are you going to do with it? Enough questions; you and God must provide the answers.