It is interesting to observe people’s interests. I have watched people sit quietly during a Sunday afternoon discussion, and then suddenly come to life when the subject changed. Later, when the subject changed again, they dropped out of the discussion again. We can tell a lot about people by noting the things they are interested in. Especially there is something wrong with a Christian who can sit passively listening to a conversation about what God has done for us.
How can we have a warm brotherhood relationship in our local fellowships? I would like to suggest some things in this essay that we don’t often think about. Please read them carefully and pray about them before you reject them outright. All of them have both historical and scriptural precedents.
James 5:16 tells us to confess our faults to each other so that we can be healed. While this is in the context of physical healing, other passages (ie 1 John 1:9) place this same thought in the spiritual setting. According to Strongs, the idea of “faults” here means exactly that – not just sins we have committed but inadvertent shortcomings. In other words, this verse speaks of baring our hearts to each other and allowing our brothers to see what we really are inside, with all our quirks and idiosyncrasies.
I think this is one of the greatest shortcomings of brotherhood today. In our large congregations it is too easy to hide. I can think of two things we should be considering. First, I know of congregations who have periodic informal brethren’s gatherings where they get together to pray and to share on a regular basis. By regular, I mean weekly or biweekly. Just imagine the aid to Christian victory it would be if you knew that on Saturday you would meet with your brethren and would be both free and expected to share the struggles you faced on Tuesday morning at work.
It would take some time to get used to this kind of church life for many of us. I squirm a bit at the idea, and you probably do to. But I do not think that the word “church” will take on its real meaning in our lives until we catch this vision of openness.
There is another reason that we do not have this kind of close brotherhood – our groups are too big. I’m suggesting here that we should never allow our congregations to get bigger than a dozen or fifteen families before we divide them in half. I read a secular book one time that quoted a study proving that no leader can stay close to a group of more than 150 people. We should be keeping our group sizes well below this. And certainly all of us would find it much easier to open our hearts to a group of 10 or 12 brothers than to a group of 25 or 30.
I would really like to see our congregations even smaller than this – maybe only five or six families (see Mat 18:19, 20). This would provide a setting that would be much more comfortable for your ungodly neighbor to visit. It would force families to really get to know each other and to NEED each other. It would give room for growth, and it would make it possible for a congregation to gather in a simple setting (historically God’s children have gathered in caves, in forests, in barns, and warehouses, but seldom in special, expensive church buildings). I wonder if we realize how much damage we have done to the witness of our lowly Galilean leader, Jesus, by the large expensive buildings we put up to worship Him in?
Jesus warned the apostles very clearly about the dangers faced by men in authority (see Mat 20:25-27). Peter echoed these warnings later (see 1 Peter 5:1-3). We tend to make the word “church” synonymous with the word “leaders”. But by doing so, we destroy the autonomous operation of the brotherhood. For instance, in Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus gave us an illustration of how brotherhood should work. Here we see a problem in the brotherhood, but it wasn’t brought to the leaders to deal with, it was brought to the brotherhood. And the brotherhood disposed of it.
Large groups of people need powerful leaders who administrate with the sheer power of their position and personality. But that is not God’s way – it is the way of the Gentiles, as Jesus pointed out in Matt 20:25-27. If we adopt these ways, brotherhood is gradually lost, and leadership authority needs to take over in order to avoid chaos. But if we could return to the historical precepts of small groups of brethren whose leaders are servants of the group, I think we would be amazed at the transformation that would take place.
In the early church when a man was ordained to leadership, he took a vow of perpetual poverty. His time was God’s and belonged to the service of the church. He didn’t receive a salary; he just received help, similar to the help received by widows and orphans.[i] And of course, he had God’s blessing, which makes rich in many ways much better than material things.
Most churches today—even conservative ones—have adopted the Clergy / Laity pattern. We need to get back to the Biblical precept of leaders being servants, respected and loved by their brethren, leading by their pattern of good works. In a brotherhood patterned after the principles expounded here, leaders and laity are on one level, equally accountable to each other as the whole group is accountable to God. I think many of today’s leaders would sleep better in a setting like this.
Philippians 2 teaches us to have the mind of Christ. Have you ever read the Gospels through to find out what the mind of Christ really is? Try it, and pay close attention to both His teachings and his actions. As you do so, ask yourself: How could I emulate this example? I think that you would be startled – if you did this honestly – to see how far that all of us have drifted from Christ’s standard.
A person could probably write a whole book about this, but let me point out just a few things for now. First of all, note how materialistic we all are in comparison to Jesus. Are we really leaving the example to society that Jesus wants us to leave? North American Christians spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and maintain large homes, while thousands of people around the world are dying without food every year (many of them die without Christ as well). Jesus would not have done that.
Second, Jesus warned us in Matthew 15:9 to avoid teaching for doctrine the commands of men. He had very little good to say about the philosophy of the Pharisees. Yet, our little books get bigger and bigger as time goes on. It seems that we have reached the point where we are more worried about what our church thinks of us than we are about what Jesus thinks of us. I wonder, if we could return to the Scriptural precedent of pure brotherhood, if we couldn’t get along without much of the structure and institutionalism that we deem to be so necessary for scriptural church life.[ii]
Third, I have no experience in having all things common, and I am not impressed with what I have seen of the average Hutterite colony. Yet, in a setting like I am describing, I think that brotherhood sharing would be very important. Jesus and his disciples evidently lived out of one purse while they travelled. The brethren forming the congregation would be responsible to work out the details of this, but I think it is an important area that should be discussed further.
Banished to the island of Patmos, with only criminals for company, the apostle John didn’t have life very easy. But John still had Jesus, and he spent the Lord’s day “in the Spirit” (Revelation 1:10) worshipping Him. And God blessed him with the glorious vision we now call the Revelation.
I wonder sometimes if we really know what it means to worship Jesus. I have, on occasion, sat in church and studied the faces of those in the congregation, wondering what was going on in their minds. Many were expressionless, as if in state of disconnect. A few even looked totally bored. I probably would have been hard put to find a half dozen people who appeared to be genuinely interested.
On the other hand, I have several friends (both in the ministry) who have admitted to me that at times of personal worship their hearts burst with praise to Jesus. One admitted that at times he actually shouted. Now I’m not advocating that we should have a lot of shouting in our services, but I do think that our relationship with Jesus should be so meaningful that we can hardly keep it bottled up.
The same thing is true in a “worship” service. When I was a boy you heard an occasional amen from the audience during sermons, during prayer, or even after a stirring song, but that seldom happens in the average congregation. Do we no longer take our time with God seriously? It seems to me that if we are going to revive brotherhood in our churches, this is where we must start. Our preachers can preach their hearts out, but if we sit there passively waiting for the time to pass, we will get nowhere.
True worship doesn’t start in church, it starts in our hearts. Is Jesus the true love and passion of your heart? Of my heart? Our Anabaptist forefathers learned to read so that they could read the Bible. They did this to learn more about Jesus because their first joy was serving him. If Jesus is number one in our lives, church life will fall into place and be what it should be.
I have a vision of small groups of believers scattered throughout North America. Each brother in each of these groups would be accountable to the other brothers in his little group, and each group would be accountable to the other groups closest by. However, I do not envision powerful leaders with authority over bishop districts. Rather, I would envision each little fellowship having its own leaders after the Biblical pattern of an elder (deacon) and an overseer.[iii] These local leaders, if necessary could help with ordinations and teaching elsewhere, but would be mostly responsible to serve their own little group.
Can you imagine the potential witness in such as setup?
I am also thinking of the needs that we might face in the future. We could easily be on the verge of a vast economic meltdown. We might soon find ourselves walking to church. Often such circumstances also include religious persecution, and the signs are all around us, if we take note. I suspect that whether or not we chose to adopt this kind of an approach, God will bring it upon us in the future. But those who have voluntarily adopted this would probably be much more ready to face it.
[i] I’m not suggesting that a leader may never own a business or have a job, because the Bible does teach us to provide for ourselves and our family. But that business or job must always take second place to God’s work.
[ii] I am NOT advocating a casual church life where everyone does what is right in his own eyes! However we have developed a theology of unity and uniformity that our Anabaptist and earlier forefathers knew nothing about.
[iii] The KJV calls this a bishop, after the Anglican / Catholic pattern the translators were familiar with, but the term overseer is more low key and better fits the Scriptural description.