by Mike Ratliff
In a careful reading of the Apostles as they explain the gospel, the workings of the Church, the way to know God, doctrine, et cetera, it is amazing that their appeal is never to their position as Apostles to be believed because of their authoritative position. Yes, they used that to be heard, but the appeal to belief was never unto that, but unto the Word of God and the completed work of Christ. It was always for the glory of God, not their glory. Paul’s suffering for the gospel was legendary, but he knew that God used that to both humble him and prepare him for even greater service (Acts 9:16). In our day, the appeal to truth should be no different, but in reality in the visible church; we see the exact opposite nearly everywhere we look. We are told to believe what we are told because of subjective reasoning. The person speaking claims that what he is saying is the truth because he or she experienced something that is in no way verifiable nor is it in any way a biblical standard. What this sort of thing does is point people to focus on their leaders rather than Christ and His Word. Christ gave us His doctrine in His Word and we are told in Matthew 28:20 to teach only that which he has given us to teach to those we disciple; nothing more, nothing less.
During my forced Sabbatical at the end of April into May, I did a great deal of reevaluation of my walk and my ministry. When I came back, I decided to tackle some things that were really bothering me in the visible church before dealing with some other things. Those things that I dealt with had to do with the recovery of the Gospel in the Church and the refocus of the Church from the things on this earth to where it should be, on Christ and the will of God. Before I focus on where God is taking me from here, let me say that since this all began back in 2004 with His radical spiritual awakening or whatever it was He did in me that took nearly the whole year, nothing has been the same. My expectations have been proven wrong on almost everything. The closer I walked with my Lord the further He drew me away from the workings of the visible church. What? I know. It made little sense to me as well. The closer to Christ I walked the more obedient to His will I was in every part of my life and this became an indictment against the simply religious. Those ensconced in their positions of authority in the churches I served in or tried to become part of wanted nothing to do with someone like me. Those churches that had no issue with me were usually either too far away to attend or my wife and I could not agree on them for one reason or another. What I am trying to say is that it is my perception that God has been using this whole thing to train me or to teach me about something vital for me in this ministry and it is now starting to come together.
In May, I was asked to read and review a book titled Corinthian Elders by Jack Fortenberry. I had just finished with Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola’s book Jesus Manifesto so I was a bit leery of doing this, but I agreed. I was not able to read it until this week, but I am very glad I was finally able to do so. When I first started reading it my first impression was that this was just another attempt to restructure the Church to become “Missional,” but that is not what it is about at all. It is an honest reassessment of the structure of the local Christian Church since the time of Constantine as opposed to that which existed prior.
Jack uses very good Greek word studies to show that passages throughout the New Testament used to support a clergy class or a silent laity with teaching elders are based on incorrect interpretation of those words. He shows that the Church model that Paul and the other Apostles implemented in the First Century was very different than what we have now. Elders taught, but they taught as part of discussions rather than sermons with everyone simply being silent. The Elders were unpaid. The only workers in the early Church who were paid were the Apostles who were paid with meals and lodging so they could concentrate on planting churches. The Elders in the Churches worked just like everyone else and everyone came together, fellowshipped and discussed Christ and His doctrines and were edified as Christ came into their midst for His glory. That is the essence of a local house church then and is no different today.
Here is the book’s Prologue from pp 7,8
Jesus says, …I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit. The purpose of this essay is to encourage a biblical examination of the role of Christian preach and teacher in order that we may enjoy he one-on-one relationship with our Savior that He designed.
The absence of a New Testament model for the present role of preachers or leaders has not slowed the prevalence of the current model of one or two elders leading a congregation of followers since the time of Constantine. But Scripture warns us of being defrauded of our prize by following leaders in the church. Not just bad leaders but leaders.
By eliminating our use of a favorite teacher and turning to New Testament commands in order to grow in knowledge of our Father, we will have an unobstructed view of Christ. By our progress in understanding and trusting the person and character of Jesus Christ, God will grow us into conformity with His joy, holiness and loving kindness.
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. II Corinthians 3:18
II Corinthians 3:18 tells us that our transformation is being accomplished through the revelation to us of the character of Christ. The character of the Lord is revealed by the truths of Scripture but also in the application of our know and trusting Him.
Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. II Peter 1:3
The result of this one-on-one relationship of trust and love of Jesus will then be evident in our joy and fellowship with God’s children. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him 1 John 2:10.
I know that some of you reading this are asking yourself if I am suddenly turning on all my Pastor and Elder and Bible teacher friends across the world, throwing them under the bus and moving into a strict house church mode with simply a few Elders who only assist the Body in worship and Bible study. Well, no I am not advocating that. I am asking questions. I am praying. I am asking God what He has been showing me since He has driven me from the visible Church and what I am to do in response to that. I am convinced that the visible church is consuming itself in apostasy. There are still some good churches and good church leaders out there. There are still some churches that have not apostatized. However, when I visit these churches as an outsider, and that is what I am anymore, I see the compromises. I see the world creeping in. I see things going on that would never have been tolerated not that long ago. This is only my theory, but I am convinced that we are in for a new Reformation of the Invisible Church. That is the genuine Church, the elect, not the professing, non-elect that make up a large part of the visible church. Could this new Reformation be a turn back to the model implemented by the Apostles in the 1st Century? That would be a model of small local bodies of believers lead by a few elders very well documented by Jack Fortenberry in this book. Of course, in these last dark days before the light, we could be driven underground anyway and I cannot think of better place for the church to go than into this model. What do you think?
I highly recommend this book to you my brethren.
Soli Deo Gloria!