5 Things Everyone Forgets About Doing Church According to the Apostle Paul
Given how many books, sermons, podcasts, and blog posts have been written about how to "do" church, it's curious how easily we forget some pretty basic stuff smack dab in the heart of Paul's epistles.
Some people claim that the New Testament doesn’t really talk much about what we should be doing in a church. Therefore, there’s nothing wrong with various ecclesiastical and liturgical traditions that have arisen over the centuries. I’ve also heard it argued that essentially what you see going on in a typical Protestant Evangelical church service is what the New Testament says to do. (Ahem, let’s save that discussion for another time….)
Instead, what I’m here to present is five very interesting things Paul was quite direct about in his writings regarding how churches should practice their communal faith. To the extent that these concepts get ignored in Christian circles, it illustrates a lack of commitment to uncovering what the Scriptures really say uncolored by our theological traditions and religious biases. Are you ready? Let’s do this thing!
1: Every Person Has Unique Gifts
“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other…. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have.”
1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 11 NLT
I an in awe of chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians—I wish I could quote the whole thing! I particularly revel in Paul’s language about every member of Christ’s Body being vital: how the “eye” can’t say to the “hand” that it’s not needed and how even the “private parts” are important and are valued just as much. What I’d like to emphasize here is two things Paul says which I think are stunningly brilliant: (a) God works in different ways through different gifts, and (b) the Holy Spirit alone decides which gift to give each person. In other words, you shouldn’t expect God to work only in ways you expect. If every church service you attend, week in, week out, month in, month out, just sort of blurs together into a monotonous rut…with certain “official” churchy people going about their typical churchy business in a very predictable way…well, that doesn’t seem very “Spirit-sourced” to me. On another note, I’ve been a part of Charismatic Christian circles with oodles of teaching about seeking out “mantles” and laying claim to gifts you wish you had and so forth, when here Paul is quite adamant that God distributes gifts how and when He decides. It’s our job simply to discover what God has already given us and nurture those gifts gratefully.
2: Those With Equipping Gifts are Meant to Help Others, Not Become Celebrities
“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children….Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. He makes the whole body fit together perfectly…healthy and growing and full of love.”
Ephesians 4:11-16 NLT
When I first read this passage back in 2010 during a serious soul-searching time, trying earnestly to find out what the New Testament really says about church practice, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The job of an apostle, a prophet, a teacher, etc. isn’t primarily to do the things they’re gifted at (planting churches, prophesying, teaching, etc.)—rather it’s to equip the rest of the Body of Christ to do the things they’re good at. In other words, it’s all about reproduction. Your #1 job as an Evangelist is to equip others to discover how they can proclaim the Good News effectively. Your #1 job as a Pastor is to equip others to shepherd God’s people in loving, encouraging ways. The end goal of all this is so, as Paul expressed, “we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.”
If you find yourself in a church where the leadership seems mostly focused on keeping the leadership in place to do their shtick, rather than focused on equipping everyone else to lead so they can happily take a back seat after a time, then you know their priorities aren’t lining up with Paul’s instructions.
3: Christ Only Has One Church, So Start Living Like It
“I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose….Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter, ” or “I follow only Christ.” Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not!”
1 Corinthians 1:10, 12-13 NLT
It may seem ludicrous in this day and age to talk about church unity when we have 5 gazillion denominations and people on social media arguing with each other night and day about any one of 800 theological positions. But it’s still something that needs to be said: has Christ been divided into factions? Or does Christ have only one Church, completely unified and constant in time, place, and dimension?
It’s taken me a long time to arrive at this conclusion, but I no longer consider myself part of any particular “flavor” or “tribe” of Christianity. These days, I sometimes self-identify as a “Contemplative Christian” but I consider that more a description of my overall philosophical stance than any particular set of concrete doctrines. Am I an Evangelical? No. Am I a Protestant? No. Am I a Charismatic? No. Do I follow Pope Francis? No. Do I follow Bill Johnson? No. Do I follow Joel Osteen? No.
Sure I may have strong opinions about certain issues. For example, I am an Egalitarian (as opposed to a Complementation), which simply means I believe men and women are equally called to serve in the Body of Christ out of their God-given gifts without restriction. Does that mean I refuse to extend my hand in fellowship to a Christian who is a Complementation?
People get way too fixated on the differences that seek to divide us, instead of taking a stand to find points of agreement and common ground. I try to stay away from blogs and social media accounts that have a poisonous air of self-righteousness about them. I seem to remember a certain saying of Jesus: Blessed are the Peacemakers. Many more Peacemakers are needed in our time! Speaking of which…
4: Just Say No to the Culture Wars!
“Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them….Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them….Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.”
Romans 12:9, 14, 18 NLT
It’s downright shameful how often certain words by Paul have been used as weapons to eviscerate people we don’t like (aka those “wicked sinners”), when the general thrust of Paul’s writings lean in the direction of having immense compassion for others and a sincere desire to see everyone living in harmony with each other. Romans 12 is a chapter chock full of such sentiment, and these particular verses excerpted from that passage highlight Paul’s directives that we actively engage in loving others and building bridges of peace.
They also fly directly in the face of the so-called Culture Wars that in my opinion are destroying the legacy of Christianity in this country (USA). In many interviews and surveys conducted by sociologists, Christians are seen by the general populace as being judgmental bigots who seem to “hate the sin” a whole lot more than “love the sinner” and in many cases turn out to be hypocrites who don’t even live up to their own lofty standards. I’m not saying I embrace this view, but there’s no denying certain segments of Christendom seem all too willing to perpetuate these stereotypes. Here’s my question: why aren’t we known as people who passionately seek to bless others, even those who don’t like us? Why aren’t we known as people who love, deeply and authentically? Why aren’t we known as people who engage in efforts of peace, trying to bring different groups of people together at a common table? Could it be that the “peace and love” hippie movement of the 60’s espoused more true Christian theology than we care to admit?
5: In God’s Kingdom, We Are All the Same
“For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Galatians 3:26-28 NLT
It’s easy to lose heart sometimes when you turn on the news and see yet another report of racial tension and tragedy unfolding. Whites and Blacks. Jews and Arabs. Europeans and Immigrants. And then there’s nationalistic fervor run amok…hey, let’s all engage in a contest to see which country is the “greatest” on earth. Please, no! Then there’s the age-old hostility between the sexes, or more recently between the sex identities…male, female, gay, straight, transgender, queer…I simply can’t keep up with who’s outraged at whom!
Meanwhile, I take comfort in the Good News that none of that matters in the fulness of Christ’s Kingdom living in our midst. All of the distinctives and differences that seek to divide us fade away in the light of Christ’s love. Should we then downplay our differences, the things that make each of us uniquely ourselves? Certainly not! But what I am saying that, in terms of our value and our worth in God’s eyes, we are all completely equal. Nobody is more important than somebody else. Nobody is on the fast track to God’s good side. Everyone has equal and full access to the throne of grace.
Jesus himself demonstrated that everyone deserves to be treated with honor, dignity, and respect (I guess unless you’re a Pharisee!). Anything other than total commitment to agape-loving every person no matter what their background, language, ethnicity, gender, orientation, income level, and social status, falls short of God’s perfect standard.
I realize that I’m treading on dangerous theological ground here with some of my assertions. Heck, the “me” of several years ago might have taken exception to certain conclusions stated above. But I humbly entreat you to study these passages of Scripture more closely and meditate on what Paul is trying to convey—especially when you consider his (and Jesus’) radical countercultural stance in an age where overt racism, sexism, misogyny, classism, and military prowess were the norm.
The Spirit has something to say to the Church today. The question is, are we brave enough to listen?