Much territory has been covered in the previous essays. We must believe in the churches because Christ does. We must find our identity within the churches of Christ because these are His Family, and because he is Our Lord, they are our family – blessed with every spiritual blessing1 and filled with all the fullness of Christ.2 We must be on a pathway to rediscovering the churches because they form the only biblical context for discipleship – the entire NT has been written to the churches to help them shape the discipleship of all the disciples. The big
picture is this: Christ is our Lord and Master; the churches are His chosen bride – identified from before the foundations of the world3 and prepared through the work of Apostles and Prophets with Christ Jesus as the aligning cornerstone.4 This apostolic work taught how each of us fits into the Church. In the fullness of time He will return for her – His rich and glorious inheritance.5
So now I trust that you can see that you clearly cannot centralise Christ without centralising the churches; something that 21st century evangelicals are not very good at. Note how this happens: We – western evangelicals – prefer to talk about what Christ began to do and teach (His work in the gospels), and not what He continues to do and teach (His work through human leaders; Apostles).6 We want Jesus confined to His earthly body – as recorded in the gospels, not the greater work that Jesus said He would continue to do through the Church by His Spirit.7 We want what Jesus said was incomplete teaching that He gave in His earthly ministry, rather than the clarified, complete teaching that He gave to the church through His Spirit.8 Essentially, we want Christ in an individual form that He was in back there and then (the form that fits our individualistic western philosophies), rather than in the communal form that He is here and now by His Spirit. In wanting and insisting on these things we fall into a deep trap. We have fervent desire to promote Christ but through our desires for individualism we essentially remain at various levels of resistance to His core agenda – we find ourselves resisting what He is building – The Church; resisting Him.
We need to get our minds to frame in the scriptures in the way they were originally intended - with Christ’s churches and not individuals at the core of God’s agenda.9 Then we see unity across all the books of the NT, and it is then that a powerful unbreakable paradigm emerges. Christ is building the churches to bust through the gates of hell; gates that, even in our day will come down, enabling the churches to once again flourish right across this world – even in our post-Christian western nations.
So what is the shape of this paradigm? What traditions did the Apostles teach for those who are in Christ; in His family? This is the question that the Apostles grappled with after Christ busted up their ironclad Jewish paradigm and sent the gospel sailing around the Mediterranean. What was the new shape of faith for those gentiles that trusted the Lord? How much Jewish tradition should they hang on to? Conflicting answers to these questions raged in the first century, with plenty of colourful clashes recorded for us in the Scriptures.
But Christ did not leave the question unanswered. In the NT He gave us an administration for the church.10 Not a business administration, but rather a stewardship; house-law is the literal translation - a phrase primarily used for the management of a household. The Apostle Paul makes a clear claim that Christ
gave him the specific task of showing everyone – 1st century and 21st century – the administration of God’s household,11 hense the multitude of his letters cannonised as well as the background to these letters given to us in Acts. In these letters Paul gives us some very simple, very versitile traditions or principles that he taught the churches that he started. These form a crucial part of this administration and are confirmed by the other apostles – particularly seen in Peter’s ministry epilogues [1 and 2 Peter] after momentous shifts in his understanding of the traditions throughout his life. Even Peter, totally reshapes Jewish tradition and harmonises with Paul.12
C.H.Dodds summarises Paul’s teaching into some very simple principles:
The New Testament Christian is enjoined to reform his conduct
The typical virtues of the new way of life are set forth
The proper Christian relationship within the family, the primary unit of the Christian community are reviewed
Right relationships within the Christian community are set forth
A pattern of behaviour towards pagan neighbours is described
Correct relationships with constituted authorities are defined
There is a call to watchfulness and responsibility13
These simple foundational ideas – covering all of life – sit at the base of all that Paul teaches the churches and are all taught for the sake of aligning the believers with the Cornerstone – Christ.14
These principles form an administration of the grace of God, for the wisest of older men to the youngest of infants with nobody left out; nobody in need; each of us within the family of God, stewarding the infinite Grace of God to one another and to the world. Through these principles Christ builds God’s unbreakable strength into the churches; they are the First Principles of life15 in Christ’s family.16 Here the gospel is taught, lived, spoken, and passed on to our children. It was communities of believers living out these principles that were the defining factor of the churches in the first century. Adhering to this life was their gospel apologetic.
So, what I am saying is that being built into Christ is something that we can think very practically about. As an example just based on the family order principles, an older lady is often a wife and a mother – beautiful, gracious roles given to her by God.17 Through these roles she is built into her own family. She no doubt has motherliness which also extends out to all of the children in the local church,18 and can teach the younger women all the wisdom that she has accumulated across her life.19 Intentional orientation to these broader roles is how she builds herself into the very fabric of the church family. As she gets older she will become needier and the church has the ability, both through her family and directly through the church to assist – the natural reversal of good deeds within a family.20 Through these roles is a perfect way for the gospel to spread beyond the church, and the perfect context for a full expression of reformed conduct, and the virtues of this new life.21
Like the older woman, each of us is given a set of roles; older men, husband, father, younger men, brother, sister, younger women. Each of these roles is a real opportunity to build ourselves more vitally into the family of the living God. Fulfilling our own uniquely interwoven set of roles in our own home and within the churches is the God given context for all of our learning and our entire ministry. Imagine a church where each believer was oriented and committed to all of these principles as God’s central agenda for their learning and ministry. Imagine what non-believers would say about a community where each member is developing the necessary character to richly fulfil their family roles at every level within a local church. How loved and protected would each member be! How effective would the furtherance of the gospel be through them?
So to sum up: It is in this context that we find ourselves in Christ’s family. It is here that discipleship encompasses all of life. It is here that Christ shapes us by the churches, and shapes the churches through us as He builds us together. It is here that we find our lives intrinsically, inextricably – completely inseparably linked to the churches, and in this place, we find ourselves right at the centre of what Christ is doing on earth.22
When we get our minds into this frame, a powerful unbreakable paradigm emerges
...nobody left out; nobody in need; each of us within the family of God stewarding the infinite Grace of God to one another and to the world.
1 Eph 1.3-23
2 Eph 1.22-23, Col 3.11c – Which is the primary argument of the whole book of Colossians. Christ is supreme – the fullness of the Godhead, and He is within us. Col 1.15-29ff.
3 Eph 1-5
4 Eph 2.19-22
5 Eph 1.18
6 Acts 1.1
7 Jn 14.12
8 Jn 16.12-13, Matt 13.10-15, Col 1.24-25, Eph 3.8-9
9 E.D. Hirsh has a masterpiece called Validity in Interpretation, aiding us into the same orientation as an author
10 Eph 3.8-9 – Same word is used in Eph 1.10, Col 1.25
11 Eph 3.8-9, Col 1.25
12 All of Paul’s work was in circulation before Peter wrote his books-in harmony with Paul’s claim Eph 3.8-10 See also 2 Pet 3.15-16. These new principles are expressed in 1 Pet. 2 Peter shows the depth of Peter’s convictions around these. 13 C.H. Dodd, Gospel and Law. Kevin Perotta builds on Dodd in his work ‘Leading Christians to maturity’ esp Ch7
14 Check Eph 2.19-21Eph 5.22-32 as an example of this
15 Jn 10.10, Mark 10.29-31
16 BILD International have a First Principles Series which I highly recommended as a tool that helps a church carefully engage in study and dialogue around these key ideas. BILD also has a multi-levelled leadership training program designed to strengthen and mature a network of churches in these principles. They will not fix your church in a day, or a week, or a month, but they will undergird it for many generations to come.
17 Eph 5.22-24, Eph 6.1-3
18 Mark 10.29-30
19 Titus 2.2-5
20 1 Tim 5
21 Tit 2.5, 2 Pet 3.15
22 These essays are followed by a series called ‘The Practitioners’ showing how each NT author built on these principles.