ACST 60: The Body

IMG_2273The church confuses many people. Viewed as a worldwide reality, she seems too complex and diverse. Compared to Christ, who is often portrayed as a simple preacher from Galilee, the church is too many things all at once. Liturgically, she is high, low, and no. She has members who seem to live in the atmosphere of the miraculous, and other members who can apparently get along without the supernatural. She has members who reflect their socio-economic and political background almost identically to their non-Christian neighbors, and members who rebel against their culture at every point.

Granted, there are some individuals who consider themselves part of the church of Christ who are not. Some extremists are either deluded, or hypocritical. Some “churches” are missing vital elements which put them outside the parameters as well. But given that, there is still a staggering amount of difference within the churches who claim allegiance to Christ.


This complexity within the church and churches of Christ is sometimes explained by reference to various traditions which have emerged through her long history. A denomination, for example, can be traced back to a movement where some believers adopted a fellowship among themselves based on shared beliefs, standards and experiences. In most cases, the denomination formed does not seek to deny the validity of other traditions and other churches. Instead, the urgency of the perceived mandate from the Lord encourages the believers to form into a distinct unity amid the diversity.

In the case of the Advent Christian denomination, that mandate was to preach the imminent return, — the second advent of Christ. We were products of several diverse traditions who came together as Adventists because we believed that Jesus was going to literally return to this planet, and soon. In the mid nineteenth century, many of the mainline churches considered the Adventists fanatics, and would disassociate from them. This resulted in more denominations forming, Adventist denominations. This, of course, added to the complexity of Christendom as well.


Some see a parallel between the changes taking place in the churches and those that evolutionary theory suggests happens in biology. Over time, minute differences become more prominent, and eventually result in the creation of new species. At any given time, there are strains of DNA which are in the process of mutating, and hold promise for the emergence of some new variety or species. In evolutionary biology, there are two major factors at work in these mutations: the coding within the DNA itself, and the environment with its various promptings acting on it. One does not have to be an atheist or secularist to see that something similar to that happens to churches.


Another way that people try to explain why churches emerge and change, thrive or die, unite or divide, is pragmatism. Things change because the way things are does not seem to work well. When the dissatisfaction over perceived uselessness reaches critical mass, churches split, people relocate, new organizations form. When the present structure is no longer serving its intended function, the usual solution is to form new structures, or stay the same, and eventually cease to exist.

explaining diversity

Neither of these comparisons explain fully all of the dynamics of ecclesiastical diversity, but each is a component to the explanation. There is within each individual believer an impulse to rebel and a separate impulse to preserve. There is a fierce drive to preserve the code, and an urge to mutate. There is comfort amid similarity, and a desire to try something different – something that might work better.

In the church cosmos, we use different terms for these realities. We talk about orthodoxy and heresy, traditional and conservative, radical and old-school, and use a host of other labels. Whatever terminology we avail ourselves of, it is clear that we are describing a complex and diverse corpus, which is undergoing a constant process of change.

Here, then, is the puzzle. How can we reconcile this picture of what the church is with all of the other descriptions of the church revealed in the scriptures? The church is one body, chosen from among the nations, saved from among the lost, transformed into a new unity by one Holy Spirit, gathered into a unified fellowship and purpose, calling out to the world with one voice, proclaiming the one gospel. With all of these emphases of unity, how do we explain biblically the constant splitting, forming and reforming that has characterized our history?

For some, the only explanation is that we (at present) are right and they (in the past) are wrong. The current rediscovered tradition is biblical, while all that came before are unbiblical, and all current challenges to change are of the devil. They spend their lives defending the code against mutations. They know what works, and will not listen to evidence to the contrary. Others are equally convinced that the old traditions are what is killing the church. They see a fresh start as the only way to preserve the species. They see themselves in a congregation of Pharisees, and seek rescue in change. The conflict among these two polar opposites within the church often repels people.

church government

The competing methods used for church government has long been an example of how this polarization has affected us. Some of the major movements that have produced large and long-lasting denominational entities have focused on a particular method of church government. The Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches emphasize a structure where each local assembly is under the guidance and control of leaders in a military-like chain of command. The Presbyterian denominations have championed a leadership of delegated elders who lead by consensus and cooperation. Congregationalist churches have stressed the need for democracy, and the protection of the rights of individuals against their potential abuse by those in power.

The tendency has been for these major ecclesiastical movements to attack the others and defend themselves on the grounds that only one method of church government can be the biblical method. Behind that argument is the assumption that the early church had only one method of governance. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Evidence from the New Testament suggests that there were many methods of governance used simultaneously among local fellowships and in the body as a whole.


Already, at the very genesis of the New Testament church, there was an overlapping combination of governance systems in place for believers. The eleven apostles who had been appointed by Christ himself added to their number in order to replace the betrayer. These appointed missionaries continued to serve as leaders throughout the early church, and other apostles appear to have been appointed by the Holy Spirit in that role as well.[1]

But the Pentecost saints were Jewish believers, who were used to being represented by elders within their communities and in the synagogues. It is clear from the book of Acts that elder rule continued to play an important role throughout the early church.[2] So, already there are at least two systems, with no clear chain-of-command among them. The elders of the Jewish/Christian communities were not forced to denounce their role, nor were they gathered together and burned at the stake. The more complicated dual method of governance was allowed to exist, with no need for correction implied.

the diaconate

Within a matter of days, the rapidly growing church, reaching out to the Hellenist communities, felt the need to further expand its leader structure.

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing
in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against
the Hebrews because their widows were being
neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve
summoned the full number of the disciples and said,
“It is not right that we should give up preaching the
word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers,
pick out from among you seven men of good repute,
full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will
appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves
to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what
they said pleased the whole gathering, and they
chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy
Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and
Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of
Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and
they prayed and laid their hands on them.[3]

The leadership dynamics revealed in this incident are very telling. The apostles were seen as spokesmen for the body as a whole, but there was already a group of godly, Spirit filled men who were serving as heads of the bodies within the body. Although not mentioned by name here, it seems clear that these were the elders. But the influx of an entirely different group of believers from a different cultural context has lead to a need for a different kind of leadership, or at least a modification of the existing system.

It appears that the people are suggesting that the apostles take over the role of overseeing the distribution of funds/food. They were not willing to do this, since it would involve less time preaching and teaching – work within the original parameters of their call. The better response to the people’s appeal was to establish a new leadership structure.

Now, the apostles could have responded to this appeal for reform by rejecting it. They could have told the complainers that they have elders and that is all they are going to get. Instead, they saw the current crisis as an opportunity to improve on the system by making it more complex, thereby more flexible. They appear to have been more motivated to meet the needs of their people rather than to preserve their standard operating procedures.

These new leaders are not given titles in the text. While some see this as the beginning of the office of deacon, the new leaders are not specifically titled as such. More likely, they were called elders. Yet, it is obvious that the role of deacon, which would become more prominent later in the New Testament, has its beginning here. These early deacons were elders, but had a specific administrative role. At least one New Testament text indicates that this became the case for other churches in the New Testament period: Paul addresses his letter to the Philippians “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.”[4] There is no mention of elders, presumably because by that time the position had divided into two roles: overseers (with spiritual authority) and deacons (with practical administrative authority).

Acts 6 shows a kind of evolutionary process occurring in church government. As the needs develop, the church is allowed to adjust itself to meet those needs. There is an interplay between several different types of authority structure here. There are appointed apostles, delegate elders, appointed administrative elders/deacons, and there is the congregation as a whole, or “the whole gathering” which is allowed to have its say as well.


A few chapters later, another example of this multi-faceted leadership displays itself. A Council convenes in Jerusalem to decide how Jewish one has to be to qualify as a Christian. When the decision is made, it is announced as the result of a collaborative effort from three groups of leaders: “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church.”[5] So, although the apostles are appealed to, the leadership roles of the community elders are not side-stepped, nor is the will of the entire body. Throughout history, there will be many councils convened. Sadly, some of them will not seek the kind of consensus that was evidenced at the one recorded in Acts 15.

complexity breeds confusion

The evolution toward more complex leadership structures has resulted in some negatives. The original meaning and purpose behind some of the early titles has been lost or replaced. Elders (presbuteroi) were not merely lay leaders whose responsibility was to keep the clergy honest. Bishops (overseers: episcopoi) were not originally one level above local church leadership, but had oversight of local congregations. Deacons (deaconoi) were not one rank below elders, but elders with a different function than that of overseers (episcopoi). Both deacons and bishops were elders. Apostles (in the generic sense, roughly equivalent to the modern term missionary) were not limited to the twelve. Yet, in each of these cases, the meaning of the term has become obscured or changed as new leadership structures emerged, and roles changed for those who took on the titles.

the “biblical”pattern

As a result of this evolution, and the confusion that exists about the meaning of leadership titles, it is a very dangerous thing to argue for only one kind of leadership structure on the grounds that it is the biblical pattern. Vast amounts of time and effort have been wasted attempting to do just that. The assumption that the LORD wants us to return to some original design for leadership as depicted in the New Testament churches is flawed for two reasons: 1) there is no monolithic leadership structure ever revealed in the New Testament as a whole, 2) the New Testament reflects a pattern of change within its leadership to respond to the needs of the churches’ members, and to reach the world with the gospel.

the body

The best explanation of this reality is found in a metaphor the New Testament uses to describe the church. She is the body of Christ.[6] A body has one head, but it is also a combination of inter-related systems, with different purposes and functions. The Church government puzzle cannot best be solved by means of tradition,evolutionary theory, or pragmatism. The best answers to the puzzle come when believers take the body of Christ metaphor seriously, and see themselves as a combination of interrelated systems designed not to have dominion over each other, but to equally submit to the head. When we ask the question of who among the members is in charge, we risk belittling someone’s role and function.

For the body does not consist of one member
but of many. If the foot should say, “Because
I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,”
that would not make it any less a part of the
body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am
not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that
would not make it any less a part of the body.
If the whole body were an eye, where would
be the sense of hearing? If the whole body
were an ear, where would be the sense of
smell? But as it is, God arranged the members
in the body, each one of them, as he chose.
If all were a single member, where would the
body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet
one body.[7]

The multi-systemic approach, allowing for multiple different types of church government (operating simultaneously) best preserves the body analogy. It also allows for all-important checks and balances against tyranny and spiritual abuse. It also allows different church organizations, missions, and conferences to emerge which function within their cultural norms, instead of being forced to operate the way their parent church or mission did.

There will be dangers in such an approach. A church which is constantly redefining herself can be distracted from her primary mission. A multi-systemic approach can lead to fighting for prominence among the various types of leaders. Confusion can occur as to who is responsible to whom. Yet, all of these problems existed in the early church, and still she was remarkably successful at her mission. The genius of a multi-systemic approach is that it is flexible enough to adjust to the needs of the present, instead of being trapped in outdated structures inherited from the past.

A body changes over time. At certain phases in a body’s development, certain functions become more important, more protected. When those phases are over, other functions take the lead. This fluidity and flexibility is what makes growth possible. It preserves the organism, and prevents stagnation and decay. It allows the body to continue to be what it is. A flexible approach to governing the church will ensure that she continues to be the LORD’s chosen, saved, transformed, gathered body, speaking with his voice.

[1] Acts 1:2, 26; 2:37, 43; 4:33, 36; 5:12, 18, 29, 40; 6:6; 8:1, 14; 9:27; 11:1; 14:4, 14; 15:2, 4, 6, 22f; 16:4; Rom. 1:1; 11:13; 16:7; 1 Cor. 1:1; 4:9; 9:1f, 5; 12:28f; 15:7, 9; 2 Cor. 1:1; 11:13; 12:12; Gal. 1:1, 17, 19; Eph. 1:1; 2:20; 3:5; 4:11; Col. 1:1; 1 Thess. 2:6; 1 Tim. 1:1; 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:1, 11; Titus 1:1; Heb. 3:1; 1 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1; 3:2; Jude 1:17; Rev. 2:2; 18:20; 21:14.

[2] Acts 4:5, 8, 23; 6:12; 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22f; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 22:5; 23:14; 24:1; 25:15.

[3] Acts 6:1-6 ESV.

[4] Philippians 1:1 ESV.

[5] Acts 15:22 ESV.

[6] 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12.

[7] 1 Corinthians 12:14-20 ESV.

Some Guidelines for Prayer



A chapel message at Oro Bible College

Cagayan de Oro, Philippines


Based on James 5:13-20

1. Pray what you feel (13).

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.”

So many of our prayers are just reciting formulas and words that we have learned. The LORD is more interested in our being honest with him. He wants to hear our complaints when we are suffering, and our praises when we are happy. He’s our Father and he wants to hear our voice.

2. Get help when you need it (14-15a) (16a).

“Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him” “pray for one another”

Sometimes our pride keeps us from getting the benefits of prayer, because the LORD wants others to minister to us, but we want to do everything ourselves. The LORD loves us all, and he is pleased when we pray for others, and others pray for us.


3. Unconfessed sin can ruin your prayer life (15b-16a).

“if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” “Therefore, confess your sins to one another”

Sin puts a barrier between us and the One we are praying to. It cuts off the connection. Nothing destroys relationships like guilt. We need to keep short accounts with God, so that our prayers are not hindered.

4. Pray for both spiritual and physical healing (16b) (19-20).

“pray for one another, that you may be healed” “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death.”

Sin and sickness are both evidence that there is something wrong with this world we live in. God created the universe in a state of perfection, but when our ancestors rebelled, sin and sickness and death entered in. Our prayers are not always going to stop people from sinning, being sick, or dying. But we do know that reconciliation and restoration can happen, and the LORD encourages us to keep praying until it does.

5. You do not have to be a spiritual giant to pray powerfully; you just have to pray in tune with God’s desire (17-18).


“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently”

Elijah was an ordinary man whom God used. The LORD is looking for ordinary men and women who are willing to pray. That way, he gets the glory for his work, not the instrument he uses. When we find out what God wants, we pray accordingly, and let God be God. But, even then, there are no guarantees. That is why it is called the prayer of faith.

Four Passions of a Committed Discipler

Colossians 1:24-29 ESV
 24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,  25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,  26the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.  27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.  28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.  29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
When people truly encounter and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ, a number of transformations happen:

First, they become aware that they are sinners, totally incapable of solving their sin problem.

Secondly, they realize that the only person who can do anything about their sin problem is Jesus, and that he has already solved their problem by dying on the cross.

Thirdly, a profound gratitude emerges in their lives.  They are so grateful for having been set free from the penalty of sin, that they naturally seek to worship their Savior forever.

Fourthly, they have a strong desire to please Christ, and be transformed into his image as it is reflected in their daily walk.  This is the desire to be discipled.

Fifthly, their hope is now firmly placed not in this age, but in the age to come.  They now have the blessed hope: the hope of the glorious appearing of Christ – the expectation of his second coming.
All of these transformations are the natural result of the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and the Holy Spirit who indwells believers.  Yet, for some people that is not enough.  The apostle Paul was one of those who wanted more, and God called him to be and do more.  He was not content to be a mere disciple.  The LORD called him to be a committed discipler.
I want to be that kind of a believer too.  I want my life to make a difference in the lives of others, helping them to come to Christ, grow in Christ, and be more than conquerors for Christ.  I do not think that this kind of life will require a second blessing, or second touch of the Holy Spirit.  I think it comes to those who are willing to make discipling a priority in their lives.  It comes when people embrace the passions that governed the lives of the great apostles and evangelists.  Today’s passage reflects some of those passions.
proclaiming Christ
Let me draw your attention to today’s text, and three words which are found in verse 28:  “Him we proclaim.”  A committed discipler makes witnessing a priority.  It does not say “ourselves we proclaim.”  The gospel is not about us, our church, our denomination, our goals, our families, our programs, our methods, or even our doctrines or our choices or our lifestyles.  The gospel is about him. Him we proclaim. 
You can do a lot of things for your church that do not by themselves proclaim Christ.  You can do a lot of religious things that never convey the fact of Christ’s existence.  You can even say a lot of religious things without communicating the reality of Jesus Christ.  A committed discipler understands that it’s not about me, it’s about him.  When the apostle Paul entered a new mission field, he brought the message of Christ with him.  Committed disciplers do that. 
In order to capture the passion of proclaiming Christ, we need to really believe in the sufficiency of Christ.  I think this is the reason  there are so many Christians who fail to live up to this standard.  They trust Christ for their eternal salvation, but they trust the doctors to heal them, and the lawyers to take care of their interpersonal problems, and the politicians to change their society.  Those who have a passion for proclaiming Christ understand that he is not just one of the answers, he is the answer.

making God’s word known
Another passion we see reflected in Paul’s words here is in verse 25.  A committed discipler sees his ministry as a “stewardship from God.” The purpose of the stewardship is “to make the word of God fully known.”  I like that translation which uses the word “stewardship” because it implies that the word of God is a valuable treasure.
But there is a difference between the stewardship from God and other kinds of stewardship.  Usually stewards are hired to protect a treasure, but stewards of God’s word are called to give it away.
Also, notice that Paul’s passion was not just to preach some of God’s word, but to make it “fully known.”  Lots of preachers today are experts at proclaiming some of God’s word – usually the positive parts.  But Paul made it his ambition to give people the whole message.  His confidence was in the whole word, not just the parts that are easily digested.
The full word of God is not a simple message, and it defies our attempts to put it in a nutshell.  Read your Bible.  Read the whole Bible.  Some parts you will cheer and proclaim with confidence.  Other parts will confuse you.  Some might even anger you.  But if you are really going to make a difference in the lives of others, you will have to embrace and declare those parts too.  The word of God is not a buffet table where people are free to pick and choose what appeals to them.  It is a full meal, because it is a balanced meal.

laboring to produce mature Christians
A third passion revealed in this passage is seen in verses 28-29.  Paul says “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” He worked hard to produce mature Christians.  He was not just about bodies in the pews.  He wanted to prepare disciples of Christ.
One of the means that Paul used to make mature believers was the systematic instruction in the word of God.  In some of the places where he planted churches, he spend long periods of time training them.  In others, he send other missionaries like Timothy and Titus to do that.  But he never dunked people and dropped them.  He was a believer in intensive systematic training in the word of God.  My challenge to you is that if you are serious about producing mature Christians, get all the training you can get, from whatever source you can get it.

suffering to build the church
My last inference from this passage is perhaps going to be the hardest to accept.  I am convinced that there is a missing element in much discipling today.  Paul says in verse 24 “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”  I think that in some way suffering has a role to play in the process of disciple-making.
Now, I do not think that Paul is saying that it is necessary for disciplers to suffer for the same reason that Christ suffered.  He suffered and died on the cross to atone for the sins of the world.  There is not a one of us who is qualified to do that.  Besides, Jesus has already paid the price for every sin of every sinner.  When he said “it is finished” on the cross, God stamped the bill with the words “paid in full.”
So, what could Paul have been implying when he spoke of “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”?   I think the key to interpreting this challenging text is seeing it in the light of the question we have been asking in this message.  Just as Christ suffered in order to save us, he calls disciplers to suffer in order to build up the body.
If that is the right way to read his words here, it means that if we want to make a difference in people’s lives, we need to be prepared to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations for their sake.  We need to cross boundaries that exist outside our comfort zones.  Discipling is a messy business.  Nobody comes gift wrapped in appropriate clothes, proper attitudes, and in complete agreement with our theology. If you are looking for people like that to disciple, you will never be a discipler.
In fact, I think it can get worse.  Discipling means daring to represent Christ.  As such the discipler will be praised by those who praised him, and quite possibly crucified by those who crucified him.  Disciplers suffer at the hands of unbelievers because we represent a message that unbelievers reject, and a master that unbelievers have rebelled against.  In one of Jesus’ parables, a master sent his servants among his people to collect his tribute, and they beat them, wounded them, and sent them away empty-handed. 
Suffering, then, does not mean that we have failed at our job.  It means that we are doing our job correctly.  Fortunately, we do not always suffer. Sometimes by God’s grace, the rebellious repent and return to their master.  But if we are serious about being disciplers, we will have to endure many hardships. 
In fact, some of those hardships will be at the hands of those within the church, not outside it. Paul himself is an example of that fact.  He wrote some of his epistles to churches which he had founded who were beginning to reject his ministry and criticize his methods.  But some of the most profound and life-changing words in scripture are found in those epistles.  By Paul’s suffering, the body was built.
I want my life to make a difference in the lives of others, helping them to come to Christ, grow in Christ, and be more than conquerors for Christ.  If you examine your heart closely, I think you will find that you want that too.  Will you join me in praying that the Holy Spirit will make us more than just disciples?  Will you dare to be a discipler?
Jefferson Vann
Maranatha Bible Church
Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines

Sunday, June 9th, 2013.