I recently saw this post in RELEVANT’s “Church” section of the message boards: I can’t help but think of how Paul was never much of a member to one church, and one church only.
Here’s a cultural truth: We bring to our reading of scripture whatever values we currently hold. Our eyes and hearts are sensitized to recognize the things we already agree with and to ignore those things which run counter to our convictions (and yes, I will readily acknowledge that I do it, too).
So here’s the deal: I’ll agree that we don’t need to be connected to a local church only if: (1) we have been members at a local church for at least a decade; (2) we are called to missions by the Holy Spirit speaking to the church leadership; (3) that call is affirmed by those guys in church leadership; and (whew, 4) we return to that church after our missionary journeys to report on our ministries.
The first three verses of Acts chapter 13 are clear beyond cultural leanings—Paul and Barnabas were invested in the body of believers in Antioch. The church in Antioch was a powerful testimony of a multi-ethnic community that embodied the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Paul and Barnabas were a part of a leadership team who heard the voice of the Spirit together and even after hearing prayed and fasted together before ordaining two of their own to missions. Then to drive the point home, the Scripture reports that at the end of this journey Paul and Barnabas returned to their home church and gave a report of what God had done (Acts 14: 26-28).
From time to time someone I don’t know comes to me at our church—I’m the pastor (yes, they’ll let anyone do it these days)—and says to me, “I need a ‘covering’ for my ministry. Will your church be my covering?” My response is usually something like “Yes! We’re all about releasing people into their calling and ministry. Why don’t you hang out with us for six months or so, and we’ll consider laying our hands on you and asking for God’s blessing on your calling.” It only takes about two weeks, and that guy is gone!
Is six months too long to get to know someone and—together—to affirm God’s calling on someone? How about 10-to-14 years? Depending on how you read Galatians, Paul indicates that he was a part of his local church for a considerable length of time. Take just a moment and compare Acts 11: 19-26 with Galatians 1: 11-2:5 (go ahead, and do it right now; I think you’ll be amazed). These two passages show a man sovereignly called by God who obeyed Him relentlessly and still respected the Church. I’m willing to give way to an interpretation that comes up with the shortest possible length of time, but that’s still more than a decade! And then there’s always the danger of comparing ourselves to Paul, the giant of the faith who influenced Christianity more than anyone other than Jesus Himself.
It’s true that the Apostle Paul had a unique and powerful ministry on the road. It is also true that he did more than “preach the gospel.” The record of the book of Acts and the epistles is that he planted churches. Everywhere he went he shared the good news of Jesus and, significantly, established bodies of believers to provide a context for living out the gospel. Each of his letters testifies to the second fact—establishing churches. Even the letters to Timothy and Titus are about churches. That leaves only the letter to Philemon, which was likely read out loud in front of Philemon’s home church.
So are pastors (fools like me) people who are out to prevent people from following God’s sovereign call? Sadly, there are probably pastors out there like that. But most are trying their best to follow the Biblical model of church as they understand it. And even if local church leadership is messed up (take my church for example), should we ignore the examples in Scripture just because other people are getting their roles wrong? Isn’t there something the parentals say about “two wrongs don’t make a right?”
Part of Spirit-led Bible study is to ask for the grace to open our hearts to His value system, not ours; and in North America and Europe, we should be on guard against Biblical interpretations that simply affirm radical individualism over collectivity. Individualism is one of the great spiritual strongholds of our time, and it’s true that we should stand strong as individuals for God’s calling and purpose in our lives. But (you knew that was coming!) how easy it is it read the Sacred Text in a way that allows us to “be ourselves?”
Here’s my prayer: “Gracious Lord and Savior, please save us from being ourselves.”