Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Body of Christ

When Paul wrote "you are the body of Christ" (1 Cor 12:27) or "in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Rom 12:5) what did he mean? What exactly is the "Body of Christ"?

We take a lot for granted. For example, in the two places where Jesus spoke about the "church" (ekklesia) we assume we know what He was talking about. It's obvious isn't it? He was referring to groups of people who meet in tidy buildings, in rows of chairs neatly set out; following the same order of services they have since the apostles (4 hymns, 2 readings, an exhortation, prayers, breaking of bread and announcements); with elected arranging brethren, presiding brethren, rostered organists, etc.

Except that's clearly not what Jesus understand by "church"/ekklesia. Even if He was thinking 1800 years into the future His audience obviously couldn't have had that vision in their minds when they heard Him speak of church/ekklesia.

So what did He mean? When Jesus referred (only twice) to the ekklesia He used a word which was used in the LXX Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to refer to Israel as God's community. It was a word which meant (to a Jewish audience) "the people of God", and it was a word which included the whole community. So in Matthew 18 when Jesus spoke about being reconciled with a brother, He said we should first enlist the help of a trusted friend, if necessary get one or two others involved, and then if really necessary we should get the help of the whole community of God's people in order to be reconciled with a brother.

So we find in the Hebrew Bible that on important occasions when God's people presented themselves before God that they did so as HOUSEHOLDS. Passover was to be kept by the whole household. When the tithe was presented to the Lord the whole household had to be there to eat together "in the presence of the Lord" (Deut 14:22-27). When the Philippian jailer was converted his whole household was baptised and joined the community of God's people (Acts 16:33). The (unbaptised) children of believers are "holy" (1 Cor 7:14).

Scripture is screaming out to us in these verses and elsewhere that God is interested in families, households and communities. The community of God's people includes new converts, those who have passed down the Word of God for generation after generation, parents, their children who are also "holy", single people, the Sunday School, the Youth Group, the elderly with dementia in nursing homes, and all those in the care of God's people. Together they make up the "congregation of Israel", the ekklesia, the community of God's people, the Body of Christ.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Lord's table - thanksgiving

I think we have such an emphasis on "atonement" in our theology that we might have missed the point about the bread and wine by seeing them as symbols of the literal body and blood of a human sacrifice.

However, I believe Jesus is actually picking up on a very strong theme in the Hebrew prophets.

Here are just a few verses where the prophets talk about the kind of sacrifices God desires.

Having already said that the time would come when Israel "will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol" (Hos 3:4) Hosea went on to preach about what God wants when sacrifice is unavailable. He said "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings" (6:6).

In chapter 14 he spells it out further:
1 Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God.
Your sins have been your downfall!

2 Take words with you
and return to the LORD.
Say to him:
"Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips. [a]

[a] Or offer our lips as sacrifices of bulls
Reading the Hebrew literally (as the NIV footnote does above) we realise that the sacrifices of bulls are to be replaced by "our lips" i.e our words/prayers.

When he was inside the fish Jonah prayed and said "with a song of thanksgiving, [I] will sacrifice to you" (2:9).

Micah 6 has a similar view on sacrifice:
6 With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?

7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

8 He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Amos has a similar message (chapter 5):
21 "I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.

22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.

23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.

24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
The prophetic theme here is consistent. God would abolish sacrifices and remove the Temple and priesthood and replace them with "thanksgiving", the "sacrifice of praise" and a people who would act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, when God's justice and righteousness would prevail.

Malachi 1 even suggests that the time would come when the Temple doors would be shut and the Gentiles (nations) would bring a "pure sacrifice" of prayer (symbolised by "incense" see Rev 5:8).
10 "Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you," says the LORD Almighty, "and I will accept no offering from your hands. 11 My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations," says the LORD Almighty.
Jesus' message of the coming kingdom reached a climax when He cleared the Temple, indicating that the time had come for the sacrifices to end. Almost immediately thereafter He has a meal with His disciples when He says the usual prayers (thanksgiving) over the bread and wine and says "do this" as a memorial. Do what? Offer thanks. Acknowledge God. Offer to God our lips as sacrifices of praise.

Little wonder then that the earliest word the church coined for the re-enactement of the last supper was "eucharist" which means "thanksgiving"! This partly comes from Paul's expression that we share a "cup of blessing/thanksgiving". The point of the bread and wine is that they are about giving THANKS in place of offering the body and blood of bulls. So Jesus said of the items over which the blessing/thanksgiving would be said "THIS is my body and blood" i.e. thanksgiving under the new covenant replaces the body and blood of bulls under the old covenant.

So much of what Jesus did and said was grounded solidly in the preaching of the prophets about the coming kingdom, and the cleansing of the Temple and the last supper were "eschatalogical moments" in which Jesus was declaring that they had reached a climax in God's dealings with humanity. But if we overlook the immense influence of the prophets in how Jesus understood His own role we miss these beautiful connections.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Disproportionate grace

An Australian ecclesia recently decided to "dissociate" itself from another ecclesia because they don't like the "disproportionate emphasis on the doctrine of grace" by the other ecclesia.

A "disproportionate emphasis on the doctrine of grace" sounds like an oxymoron to me. "Grace" is all about God's abundant, overflowing, overwhelming, infinite, disproportionate generosity!

Paul used the word "grace" about 80 times in his letters. John says “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17) and “from the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (1:16). Luke said “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words [or words of grace] that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22). Paul said he taught "the gospel of grace" (Acts 20:24). Many of Jesus stories and parables emphasised the disproportionate nature of God's generosity. If we don't understand disproportionate grace we really don't understand the Gospel.

Members of the ecclesia concerned would no doubt benefit by reading some of the following helpful books:

Law and Grace by Christadelphian author W.F. Barling

Conviction and Conduct by Christadelphian author Islip Collyer

Legalism vs. Faith by Christadelphian author David Levin

The Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll

What's So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Spiritual leadership (5)

Edward Fudge


We have been considering three fundamental truths of spiritual leadership.(1) Spiritual leadership involves lowly service, not legal power. Therefore we must not confuse spiritual leadership with political position. (2) Spiritual leaders exercise grace-gifts from God, not worldly qualifications. Therefore we dare not focus on worldly achievements when choosing spiritual leaders. (3) The Bible identifies gifted people, not legal qualifications. Therefore we should not confuse technical qualifications with spiritual characteristics.

Scripture nowhere provides a single, uniform list of qualifications for spiritual leaders. There are two New Testament passages which people often read in that fashion, written by Paul to his co-workers Timothy (1 Tim. 3:1-7) and Titus (Titus 1:5-9). However, when we read these passages carefully, we discover that they differ in several significant ways. Paul gives Timothy a description of the individual gifted for the episkopes ("oversight," "episcopacy" or "bishopric"), the work of overseeing or watching over other believers. He sends Titus a description of the person gifted to serve as a presbyteros ("senior," "elder" or "presbyter"). Christian scholars differ as to whether elders and bishops served in one position or two in the first century.

These two passages also contain different descriptives. Of the 30-35 traits mentioned in the two lists, only five are the same in Greek. If Paul were listing official qualifications, we would expect his lists to be identical. In addition, the descriptives Paul does give are often negative in form (don't pick this kind of person). The named traits are almost always relative as to quality (no precise threshold given). And there is no attempt to define these sometimes ambiguous terms. Paul is certainly not listing formal qualifications for an office, but is rather giving informal descriptions of those who are divinely gifted for the ministry of spiritual leadership.

Copyright 2008 by Edward Fudge. You are encouraged to share this gracEmail freely, widely and in its entirety (including this final paragraph).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Legalism - a way of life

I received this today by email from a friend. I don't know where it originated (so I hope I'm not breaching copyright by posting it here).

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Spiritual Leadership (4)

Edward Fudge


The mission of spiritual leadership is the transformation of God's people into the likeness of Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:7-16). It is not to construct buildings, create programs, attract crowds or to build an institution. However, the transformation of human beings is a supernatural result, which cannot be achieved through mere human planning or power. It requires supernatural means, in the form of grace-gifts bestowed on every member of Christ's body (1 Cor. 12:27-31). And the method of spiritual leadership is lowly service, performed in the meekness of Christ, in the power of God and to his glory (Mark 10:42-45; 1 Peter 4:10-11).

For all these reasons, we dare not focus on any human marker of worldly success -- whether academic, business, professional or financial -- when selecting leaders for the church of God. Such fleshly qualifications contribute nothing toward spiritual leadership. Indeed, they might get in the way, insofar as they tempt leaders and followers alike to lose sight of the divine mission, means and method of spiritual leadership as revealed in Scripture.

We do not create spiritual leaders by selecting people and ordaining them to leadership roles. Instead, we look among God's people and recognize individuals whom God has gifted for this service. Such people have a heart set on the mission of facilitating transformed lives. They rely already on the means God provides for this task -- grace-gifts to be exercised in his power and to his glory. They trust the divine method of spiritual leadership, which is humble service in the footprints of Jesus himself. The people whom God has gifted for spiritual leadership are clearly recognizable -- not by worldly markers of success, but by traits that identify them as intimates of the Savior, filled with his Spirit, committed to his service and devoted to his glory.

Copyright 2008 by Edward Fudge. You are permitted and encouraged to distribute this gracEmail as widely as possible, but only in its entirety, unchanged and not-for-profit.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Spiritual Leadership (3)

Edward Fudge


What does spiritual leadership look like, when one realizes that it involves lowly service and not legal power? Paul describes its conduct under three different circumstances: correcting a wrongdoer; encountering a controversialist and dealing with a divisive person.

If required to correct a fellow-Christian who is doing wrong, the person who thinks he or she has legal power will usually be rude, domineering, harsh and perhaps self-righteous. Instead, Paul tells Timothy: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2).

Similarly, controversy often brings out the worst in people, especially those filled with self-importance because of their supposed authority or position of power. So Paul writes: "Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness" (2 Tim. 2:23-25).

Even if God's leader is kind, patient and gentle as Paul instructs, controversialists are sometimes rough, short-tempered and unkind -- and persistently so in each respect. When encountering such a divisive individual, the spiritual leader whose role is to serve and not to assume power or assert authority will have as little as possible to do with that one, and will seek to avoid his or her presence. This is Paul's counsel: "As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned" (Titus 3:10-11).

Copyright 2008 by Edward Fudge. You are encouraged to share this gracEmail freely, widely and in its entirety (including this final paragraph).

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Spiritual Leadership (2)

Edward Fudge


The first scriptural truth we observe is that spiritual leadership involves lowly service, not legal power. This truth raises a caution -- Do not confuse spiritual leadership with political position. Jesus leaves no room for confusion on this point (Mark 10:42-45). Secular rulers "lord it over" their subjects and "exercise authority" over them. "But it shall not be so among you," Jesus continues. Instead, "whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all." This is the pattern set by Jesus himself, the "Son of Man," who "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Peter applies the same truth when instructing spiritual leaders among his churches (1 Peter 5:1-5). He exhorts senior leaders ("the elders among you") to "shepherd the flock of God that is among you." They will be "exercising oversight," but, if they obey the apostolic instruction, "not domineering over" those in their charge, but "being examples to the flock." Spiritual leadership is moral in nature and it is done primarily by example and by teaching.

It is entirely possible that these "elders" are not office-holders at all, but rather senior Christians who are highly-respected for their lives of faith and service. As Peter continues his encouragement, he uses the word "elders" in a relative sense regarding age and experience. "Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders." Believers of every age are told to "clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”

Copyright 2008 by Edward Fudge. You are encouraged to share this gracEmail freely, widely and in its entirety (including this final paragraph).

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Spiritual Leadership (1)

The following article by Edward Fudge arrived today as a gracEmail®

It is very relevant to a series I wrote earlier on characteristics of Christian leaders. It is numbered (1) so I'm expecting it will be a series.

Very many churches suffer today from a lack of spiritual leadership. That diagnosis is true across denominational lines. It fits both urban and rural churches. It applies equally to rich and poor, to people of all races, without regard to their country, state or province, town or village. The truth is that we all can benefit from a fresh look at biblical teaching on this subject. For the next few gracEmails, I would like to challenge us to consider three fundamental truths of spiritual leadership.

The first truth is that spiritual leadership involves lowly service, not legal power. This truth raises a caution -- Do not confuse spiritual leadership with political position. Jesus teaches this in clear language, as we will see. Peter applies the principle in writing his churches. Paul describes it in action under a variety of circumstances as he instructs and guides his proteges and trainees Timothy and Titus. The apostle shows what spiritual leadership looks like when correcting a wrongdoer, encountering a controversialist and dealing with a divisive person. We will consider his guidance for each situation.

The second truth is that spiritual leaders exercise grace-gifts from God, not worldly qualifications. This truth also raises a caution -- Do not focus on worldly achievements when choosing spiritual leaders. Too often, churches focus on educational degrees, professional expertise or financial success when seeking out spiritual leaders. Yet not one of those elements has any necessary relationship to spiritual maturity, worthiness of imitation, Christlikeness or ability to teach, model and inspire others toward godliness and Christian maturity. When churches use improper standards for selecting spiritual leaders, they are almost certain to come to spiritual stagnation (even if the institutional church thrives).

The third truth is that the Bible identifies gifted people, not legal qualifications. This creates a caution -- Do not confuse technical qualifications with spiritual character. Scripture does not provide a single, uniform list of "qualifications" for spiritual leaders. Two texts which people sometimes try to convert into such a list of legal or technical qualifications are found in First Timothy and Titus. Yet a close reading reveals that the descriptions in these two passages differ from each other, as do the very names or terms used of the servant-leadership role envisioned. Further, the descriptives found in these two epistles are often negative in form, almost always relative as to quality, and incapable of precise definition -- a task which Scripture never does for us or even suggests that we should try to do for ourselves. God willing, we will consider these three basic truths and corresponding cautions one by one in upcoming gracEmails.

Copyright 2008 by Edward Fudge. You are encouraged to share this gracEmail freely, widely and in its entirety (including this final paragraph).

Orthodoxy and orthopraxy

There is currently a discussion on the Facebook group "Christadelphians Worldwide" about the question "what's important (and what's not)?"

Duncan Heaster posted some excellent thoughts in response to something I'd written elsewhere, and with his permission I have reproduced them below.
"Practical teaching without sound theology is as impoverished as sound theology without practical teaching. The New Testament doesn’t make the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy [good practice] that we often do, nor is there any hint in the Scriptures, as far as I can see, that God will forgive bad behavior more readily than poor theology, or vice versa. We need to teach them both and teach them well.” — Steve Cook
It needs to be read a few times for it to sink in. I suspect one of the barriers to accepting what you say here is the idea folk have that the word "doctrine" refers only to theology and the propositional statements which can accompany it, positive and negative- e.g. one God, no heaven going, Kingdom on earth, devil didn't fall off the 99th floor etc.

Reality is that Biblically, 'doctrine' means simply 'teaching'- and the 'teaching' of the inspired writers was largely about intensely practical things. Thus the perceived difference between 'doctrine' [as many understand the word] and 'practice' is actually false. Teaching is practical- for the NT isn't given to just ivory tower theology for the sake of it. Indeed the whole of the NT is a collection of missionary documents- preaching, letters to new converts etc. And even when there is pure theology taught, this is always in a practical context- it is the springboard for action, not an end in itself. The way the two sections of Romans tie together is a nice example - 1-11 is the theology, the theory, and 12-16 is the practical outcome of it.

Christadelphianism has some good theology, that's why I am a Christadelphian and not in some other group, but the challenge is to articulate all that true theology in practical terms. If that's not done, then the true theology hasn't been believed in the sense it is intended to be believed- it's simply been assembled and protected in a glass case. The talent has to be traded, not wrapped up and 'preserved' in the earth.

Jonah 2:9 contains the enigmatic statement that those who "hold to empty faiths" (Heb.) "forsake their own hesed". Hesed basically refers to the capacity a superior has to show mercy, grace and love to someone in an inferior position. For over 20 years I wondered what Jonah was really getting at. I think I then grasped it- those who hold to empty faiths forego the capacity to show hesed, favour to others- the implication being that the result of the one true faith is that we are empowered to show hesed, love, favour, grace, mercy, to others. And this ties in perfectly with 1 Pet. 1:22- we obey the truth unto, with the result that, we show "unfeigned love of the brethren". This is how and where true doctrine comes to its ultimate term- love of others.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

AD381 by Charles Freeman

This new book by historian Charles Freeman looks good.
"'We authorise followers of this law to assume the title of orthodox Christians; but as for the others since, in our judgement, they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious names of heretics.' Emperor Theodosius"
In 381 AD, Theodosius, emperor of the eastern Roman Empire, issued a decree in which all his subjects were required to subscribe to a belief in the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This edict defined Christianity; all other interpretations were now declared heretical. Moreover, for the first time in a thousand years of Greco-Roman civilization, free thought was unambiguously suppressed. Yet surprisingly, this political revolution, intended to bring inner cohesion to an empire under threat from the outside, has been airbrushed from the historical record. Instead, it has been claimed that the Christian Church had reached a consensus on the Trinity which was promulgated at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

This groundbreaking new book shows that the Council was in fact a shambolic affair, which only took place after Theodosius’s decree had become law. In short, the Church was acquiescing in the overwhelming power of the Emperor. Freeman argues that the edict and the subsequent suppression of paganism not only brought an end to religious and philosophical diversity throughout the Empire, but created numerous theological problems for the Church that have remained unsolved. The year AD 381, Freeman concludes, marked “a turning point which time forgot.”

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and the Word (3)

Some Christadelphians argue that the Holy Spirit was given to certain people in Biblical times so that they could perform miraculous signs to prove that their message was truly from God. They then go on to argue that seeing as we now have the Word of God in its final and complete form (i.e. in the Bible), there is no further need for these authenticating miraculous signs, and therefore no further need for the Holy Spirit.

However, this argument lacks Scriptural support.

For example, John the Baptist (of whom Jesus said: "among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist" [Matthew 11:11]) was "full of the Holy Spirit even from birth" (Luke 1:15). If the Holy Spirit was given to individuals for the purpose of authenticating their message through miraculous signs then we should expect that this man who was the greatest of the prophets (and indeed the greatest among those born of women!) and who was full of the Holy Spirit from birth would have performed some outstanding miraculous signs. Yet we are told very specifically in Scripture that "John never performed a miraculous sign" (John 10:41).

A couple of things puzzle me. The Christadelphian writer I quoted in an earlier post also wrote: "When God pours out his Spirit, He gives unmistakable signs so that others can see and believe."

However, this is not what I see in Scripture. David had the Holy Spirit (Psalm 51:11; Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 4:25), but what "unmistakable signs" did he do "so that others can see and believe"? John the Baptist was full of the Holy Spirit from birth, but what "unmistakable signs" did he do "so that others can see and believe"? What about those in the early Corinthian church who Paul quite specifically said could not speak in tongues or perform miraculous signs, yet were filled with the Holy Spirit? What "unmistakable signs" could they do "so that others can see and believe"?

Some Christadelphians resort to emotional arguments when it becomes clear that their position lacks Biblical evidence. For example, I've had Christadelphians say to me "if you have the Holy Spirit then why don't you go into hospitals and heal everyone? If you were truly a loving and compassionate person you would use this gift to eradicate suffering." This question and its accompanying comment not only lack logic, they actually ignore the Biblical evidence. If anyone could go into hospitals and heal all the sick then it would have been our Lord Himself. Yet Jesus didn't heal all the sick people He encountered, even when He had the opportunity. In Acts 3:1-10 we read of a man who had been crippled from birth and who was carried every day to the Beautiful Gate at the Jerusalem Temple. Anyone going into the Temple had to pass through this gate. It was the perfect place to beg. This would have meant that Jesus passed him every time He went into the Temple, and every time He passed up the opportunity to heal this man. Did Jesus lack love and compassion?

In 2 Timothy 4:20 we read Paul saying that "I left Trophimus sick in Miletus". Paul clearly had the Holy Spirit, yet he didn't use this gift to heal a fellow-missionary who was sick. Either he couldn't heal him, or he wouldn't. Did Paul lack compassion?

The assertion that someone who has the Holy Spirit should go into hospitals and heal all the sick is not only contrary to the examples of people full of the Holy Spirit such as Jesus, Paul and John the Baptist, but is based on the false assumption that the Holy Spirit enables its recipients to perform miracles and to heal the sick. John didn't perform miracles, and Jesus and Paul didn't heal all the sick they encountered. Paul explained very clearly to the Corinthians that while all believers have the [Holy] Spirit, they do not have the same kinds of gifts: "There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit" (1 Cor 12:4). He explained that there are different "manifestations" of the Spirit. Through some people the Spirit is manifested in miracles, through another in healings, through others in faith, words of wisdom, or knowledge. Paul went on to ask the questions "Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?" (vv. 29-30). Obviously not everyone can work miracles. Not everyone speaks in tongues. We can't all heal the sick. Yet everyone in the body of Christ has the [Holy] Spirit (e.g. see verses 3 and 7).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and the Word (2)

In my previous post I referred to a theory advanced by one Christadelphian writer and widespread in Christadelphianism that the Bible uses the term Spirit to mean a "mental and moral likeness of the Lord Jesus created by the impact of the gospel on an individual" while the term Holy Spirit means "God's power ... given in the first century for specific purposes".

This theory does not explain the many Scriptures I quoted in my previous post where the terms "the Spirit" and "the Holy Spirit" are used interchangeably. But if we accept the theory as reasonable for a moment and apply that writer's definitions to the parallel Gospel accounts then we will see that it is impossible for these texts to have both meanings at the same time.

For example, in Matt 3:16 we read that after Jesus' baptism they saw "the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. " If the popular Christadelphian theory is correct then Matthew meant that a "mental and moral likeness of the Lord Jesus (or God) created by the impact of the gospel on an individual" descended on Jesus. That would hardly make sense, and would be difficult to reconcile with the parallel account (Luke 3:22) which says that "the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove" and would therefore mean that "God's power ... given in the first century for specific purposes" descended on Him. So what was it that descended on Jesus? Was it God's power, given for specific purposes, or was it a "mental and moral likeness of the Lord Jesus (or God) created by the impact of the gospel on an individual"?

As another example, Matt 12:43 refers to "David, speaking by the Spirit" while Mark 12:36 says David was speaking by the Holy Spirit. So was David speaking by God's power, given for specific purposes, or by a "mental and moral likeness of the Lord Jesus (or God) created by the impact of the gospel on an individual"?

John 7:39 refers to "the Spirit, which those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified." How could this mean the "mental and moral likeness of the Lord Jesus created by the impact of the gospel on an individual" and not the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost or "God's power ... given in the first century for specific purposes"?

In John 14:17, 26; 16:15 the "Counsellor" (parakletos) is also called "the Spirit of truth", simply "the Spirit" and "the Holy Spirit". How could the Counsellor be both a "mental and moral likeness of the Lord Jesus created by the impact of the gospel on an individual" and "God's power ... given in the first century for specific purposes" at the same time? How we are able to tell when the Counsellor is "a mental and moral disposition" and when it is "God's power", or can it be both at the same time?

When Jesus said "But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matt 12:28) did He drive out demons by the "mental and moral likeness" of God, or by "the power of God"? If the latter, then why did our Lord use a term that we should understand to mean "a mental and moral likeness"?

Once we put this theory to the test we see that the Christadelphian distinction between Spirit and Holy Spirit cannot be applied consistently through Scripture and that in many instances an attempt to apply the distinguishing definitions makes the texts nonsensical.

The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and the Word (1)

There is a theory which is widespread throughout Christadelphianism that in the Bible the terms "Spirit" and "Holy Spirit" mean different things. One Christadelphian writer explained the perceived difference this way:
The Spirit is a "mental and moral likeness of the Lord Jesus created by the impact of the gospel on an individual" while the Holy Spirit is "God's power ... given in the first century for specific purposes".
In this post I'd like to dispel these myths and demonstrate that the Bible uses the terms "Spirit" and "Holy Spirit" interchangeably and that any distinction between them is artificial and unBiblical.

By comparing the following parallel accounts in the Gospels we see that the Gospel-writers understood "Spirit" and "Holy Spirit" to mean the same thing.

1. Matt 3:16 "As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. " (cp. John 1:32 "Then John gave this testimony: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.")

cp. Luke 3:22 "and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. "

2. Matt 4:1 "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil."

cp. Luke 4:1 "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert."

3. Matt 10:20 "for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you."

cp. Luke 12:12 "for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.

4. Matt 12:31 "And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. ."

cp. Mark 3:29 "But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin." (cp. also Luke 12:10).

5. Matt 12:43 "He said to them, "How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him 'Lord'?"

cp. Mark 12:36 David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: " 'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet." '.

6. Luke 2:26 "It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ."

cp. the next verse (27) "Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts."

When we read further in the New Testament we see that other writers also meant the same thing by the terms "Spirit" and "Holy Spirit".

For example, 1 Cor 12:3 "Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit."

Also, Jude 20 "But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit." Cp. Eph 6:18 "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions."

Again, 2 Cor 1:21-22 "Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." Cp. Eph 1:13-14 "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, which is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession--to the praise of his glory."

The similarity between these passages is striking. The writers obviously saw no difference between 'the Spirit (of God)' and 'the Holy Spirit.'

The following passage shows that some other terms have the same meaning and are also used interchangeably:

Rom 8:9-11 "You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, which lives in you."

I believe therefore that it is demonstrable that in Scripture these terms have the same meaning:

• the Spirit
• the Holy Spirit
• the Spirit of God
• the Spirit of Christ
• Christ in you

Other texts show that the NT writers thought of 'the Spirit of God' or 'Holy Spirit' as the same as 'the Spirit of Christ' or 'Spirit of Jesus'. For example:

Acts 16:7 "When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to." Cp. the previous verse "Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia."

Also, Phil 1:19 refers to "the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ." Are we to conclude that this is a diffferent 'Spirit' to the help-giving Spirit referred to elsewhere? e.g. Rom 8:26 "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness"; 2 Tim 1:14 "Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you–guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit which lives in us."

Consequently, I believe that to say God dwells in us, or Christ dwells in us, is the same as saying the Holy Spirit dwells in us. This is confirmed by the following texts:

John 14:16-18 "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth (referred to as "the Holy Spirit" in verse 26). The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you."

It is through the parakletos, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, that Jesus comes to us. Cf. verse 23 "Jesus replied, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him."

The same concept (i.e. that God 'dwells' in the church and the believer through the Holy Spirit) is found in the following places:

• 1 Cor 3:16-17 "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple."

• cp. 1 Cor 6:19-21 "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, which is in you, which you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body."

• cp. 2 Cor 6:16 "What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people."

• Eph 2:22 "And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit."

• Cp. Eph 3:16-17 "I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith."

• 1 John 4:13 "We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit."

This selection is by no means exhaustive, but it is more than adequate to demonstrate that it is quite wrong to make an artificial distinction between the Spirit of God and the Holy Spirit. The Bible uses both terms to mean the same thing, but never uses the term "Spirit" to mean "the Bible" (more on that later).

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Permission needed to start a new ecclesia - IMPORTANT UPDATE

I reported earlier that a motion has been proposed for the Business session of the 2008 Australian Christadelphian Conference which would require new ecclesias to obtain the permission of five other local ecclesias in order to be recognised as a bona fide ecclesia meeting on the basis of the Unity Agreement.

Fortunately common sense has prevailed and the ecclesia proposing this has now withdrawn their motion.

This is very encouraging indeed. It tells me that we don't have to put up with the bullying intimidation of a vocal minority, and that the voices of moderate Christadelphians can still have an effect in stopping the progressive spread of extremism and fundamentalism in the Christadelphian community.

I've also heard that one or two ecclesias in the Brisbane area who were previously members of the G13 have now distanced themselves from that pressure group. The G13 was a group which met to discuss other (uninvited) ecclesias to devise ways of either bringing them into line with their own views or excluding them from the wider fellowship of the Christadelphian community. Such groups are described in clause 44 of the Ecclesial Guide as "collective despotism which would interfere with the free growth and the true objects of ecclesial life".

It's very encouraging to see that some ecclesias which were previously associated with this bunch of bullies have come to their senses and withdrawn from the group.

I am sure that these two recent developments have partially come about as a result of blogs like this and the considerable number of Christadelphians who have been saying "enough is enough" and making it clear that such conduct is un-Christadelphian and unacceptable. Let's hope that these moderate Christadelphians will have an even louder voice in the future and that the controlling and intimidating elements in the Christadelphian community will eventually be silenced.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Christadelphian SWOT analysis (4) - the Holy Spirit

In this message, for the first time in this series, I will look at an area of Christadelphian theology where the weaknesses seriously outweigh the strengths. The subject for consideration in this message is the Holy Spirit.

STRENGTHS - the Christadelphian view of the Holy Spirit is that it is the power of God, and not the third person of the trinity. One Christadelphian publication describes the Holy Spirit this way: "by His Holy Spirit, the expression of His power, He [God] controls the affairs of the world according to His ultimate purpose with mankind" and goes on to say "It [the Holy Spirit] is the power by which God achieves His ends, both physical and spiritual" (Fred Pearce, Who are the Christadelphians? Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association Ltd).

Christadelphianism has correctly taught that the trinitarian understanding of the Holy Spirit as a 'person' in the Godhead has no basis in the New Testament or the beliefs of the earliest Christians. Christadelphian theology understands the Holy Spirit to be one with God, and not as a distinct person within the Godhead (The Holy Spirit is "His invisible power or energy breathed forth from His presence, and of like nature with His Glorious Person ... God and His Spirit cannot be separated. They are both one. The sun and the light that comes from the sun are both one. So God, and the Spirit that comes from God, are both one. God is the centre and glorious substantial form of the Spirit that fills heaven and earth." The Christadelphian Instructor questions 17 and 18).

WEAKNESSES - While Christadelphians generally explain the relationship between the Father and Son quite well, Christadelphian teaching about the role and purpose of the Holy Spirit seems to be rather inadequate. Christadelphian literature rarely explains how God "achieves His ends" through the Holy Spirit (especially not His "spiritual" ends), and sometimes restricts the activities of the Holy Spirit to "power concentrated through an individual or angel for the purpose of a specific miraculous event or activity" (The Testimony: The Distinctive Beliefs of the Christadelphians, Vol. 58, No. 691, July 1988, page 254).

This rather limited view and emphasis on the miraculous does not adequately explain how we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:16; 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2) or how God can "strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being" (Eph 3:16-19). It does not come to terms with the numerous New Testament references to the continuous activity of the Holy Spirit, such as these:
  • "God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit" (Rom 5:5)
  • God and Christ "live" in by the Holy Spirit (e.g. 1 Cor 6:19-21; Eph 2:22; 1 John 4:13; John 14:16-18, 23).
  • The Holy Spirit brings about our rebirth and renewal (Titus 3:5)
  • By the Holy Spirit we receive hope (Rom 15:13) and joy (Rom 14:17; 1 Thess 1:6)
It is not enough to say the Holy Spirit is "the power of God". The Holy Spirit is the indwelling presence of God which enables us to become what God intended us to be. Yet Christadelphians rarely explain this well (a notable exception is the excellent work by Christadelphian writer Edgar Wille: The Holy Spirit - an Expository Survey of New Testament Teaching).

OPPORTUNITIES - the Christadelphian understanding of God is definitely on the right track. It correctly understands God to be One, and Jesus as the Son of God who was begotten in the womb of Mary and not before creation. Christadelphian theology could benefit enormously by taking into account how the work of God and Christ in bringing believers to maturity is accomplished through the Holy Spirit.

THREATS - there are definite signs that Christadelphians are losing members to churches and denominations which have a greater emphasis on the operation of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. Perhaps this is because of a void in Christadelphian teaching and practice. It has been said that as a body without breath is dead, so a church without the Spirit of God is spiritually dead. This maxim would explain why those who leave Christadelphianism often complain of the lifelessness, the stifling rigidity, the dullness and morbid legalism of parts of the Christadelphian community. If this threat is not addressed Christadelphians are likely to continue losing members.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Christadelphian SWOT analysis (3) - prophecy

Continuing with the 'SWOT analysis' theme in this message I will look at the Christadelphian approach to prophecy.

STRENGTHS - a major part of the most widely used Christadelphian statements of faith is devoted to the interpretation of prophecy. The Christadelphian approach to prophecy focuses on three things: (1) the second coming of Christ; (2) the kingdom of God on earth; and (3) the restoration of Israel. None of these things are unique to Christadelphians of course, and with an increasing interest in eschatology (study of the 'end times') in mainstream Christianity more and more Christians are coming to accept the importance of some things which have always been important to Christadelphians. I personally agree that these three things are important and valuable for Bible study, and I believe it's good that Christadelphians have always recognised this.

WEAKNESSES - in some parts of the Christadelphian community certain interpretations of prophecy have been elevated to the status of 'essential to be believed'. For example, some ecclesias insist on belief in John Thomas's continuous historic interpretation of Daniel and Revelation, and regard several details of his prophetic interpretation as 'core doctrines'. I've heard some Christadelphians demand that John Thomas's interpretation of Ezekiel 38, including his view that Rosh is Russia and that Tarshish is Britain and the USA, should be recognised as fundamental Christadelphian doctrine and anyone holding an alternative view should be 'rejected' (which may mean exclusion from the platform and ecclesial positions, or even disfellowship). I know of at least one 'Central fellowship' ecclesia which demanded belief in Thomas's view that judgment would be at Mt Sinai as a condition for fellowship.

This emphasis on prophecy has sometimes led to outrageous interpretations of prophecy being advocated as Christadelphian teaching, when it may only be the opinion of a few. In my own lifetime I've attended public Christadelphian lectures which claimed, for example, that "Man will never walk on the moon" and that "Britain will never enter the Common Market". I've heard Christadelphians publicly predict dates for the second coming (a 'tradition' which began with John Thomas who set a date for the second coming more than once). I've seen Christadelphian advertising saying "the rise of Russia is a sign of Christ's second coming" as well as "the fall of Russia is a sign of Christ's second coming"!

This all contributes to a public perception that Christadelphians are a group of crackpots and that their interpretations of prophecy are nothing more than guesswork and speculation based on the daily newspaper.

OPPORTUNITIES - some Christadelphian commentators such as Harry Whittaker have made substantial contributions to the interpretation of prophecy. While maintaining a focus on the three key areas I listed above, these scholars have helped to draw the brotherhood's attention back to the methods of interpretation rather than just rigidly adhering to the ideas of one man. I believe there is an opportunity here to build on this and to re-look at many of the 'uncertain details' while exploring further the rich sources of Biblical prophetic material and examining many of the prophetic texts which have been glossed over in the past. It would be especially valuable, in my opinion, to study the issues which were important to the prophets (such as justice and equity) rather than just reading prophecy as a way of predicting the future.

THREATS - Christadelphians have lost much of their credibility because they have allowed or advocated some 'loony' interpretations of prophecy, some of which have easily been proven to be wrong. It has practically become part of the Christadelphian tradition to interpret current events in the light of questionable interpretations of prophecy and to make very shaky predictions based on a very narrow reading of Scripture (John Thomas, for example, said it was his "maturest conviction" that Rome would never be the capital of Italy!). Christadelphians will continue to lose credibility if they do not shake themselves free of what one brother called the "Christadelphian parlour game" of predicting future events and if they do not take a fresh look at the real social and religious concerns of the prophets.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Christadelphian SWOT analysis (2) - the Kingdom of God

In this message I will do a brief SWOT analysis on the Christadelphian understanding of the Kingdom of God.

STRENGTHS - traditional Christadelphianism has emphasised that the Gospel is the "good news of the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ". It has rightly focussed on Jesus' teaching that the Kingdom of God will be established on the earth and that our hope is the resurrection of the body. NT Wright, the Bishop of Durham, recently published a book titled Surprised by Hope in which he explained that the hope of Christianity is the resurrection and the restoration and regeneration of the earth, and not some disembodied state in heaven. His teaching is readily catching on apparently (for example, at this years Spring Harvest gathering in the UK several teachers said that there is no immortal soul, no heaven when we die and no torments in hell and there was an emphasis on physical resurrection and the coming kingdom of God).

It's great to see mainstream Christianity accepting to some degree a truth which Christadelphians (and others) have always understood.

WEAKNESSES - Christadelphian teaching on the Kingdom of God concentrates almost totally on the future consummation of the Kingdom and says very little about the present aspects of the Kingdom. It ignores almost completely the Scriptures which speak of how Christians in this age experience the "powers of the coming age". It also tends to focus on the details of the Kingdom, including the events prior and subsequent to the 'second coming', the building of 'Ezekiel's temple' and the boundaries of the Kingdom. Disagreements about some of these details have also been the cause of divisions in the Christadelphian community.

It seems to me that a potential Christadelphian influence for good on the wider Christian community has been significantly thwarted by the divisions, infighting and negativity.

OPPORTUNITIES - as mainstream churches look closer at the subject of the Kingdom of God, particularly in Jesus' teachings, there is an opportunity for groups such as Christadelphians to join in the dialogue with a spirit of cooperation rather than confrontation in helping our Christian friends to come to a clearer understanding of truth.

There is also an opportunity for Christadelphians to learn from other believers about the present aspects of Kingdom living, and to have a more complete understanding of the subject and a greater experience of God's grace.

THREATS - if Christadelphianism continues to ignore or neglect the present Kingdom realities there is a very real possibility that members may shift to denominations which teach both the coming Kingdom and the present realities. There are some signs that this shift has already begun.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Christadelphian SWOT analysis (1) - Christology

We're currently at the Australian Restoration Fellowship Conference in Brisbane and I'm writing this message during one of the few breaks in a intensive programme. Each day we've had 7 sessions and all the speakers have come with different perspectives. At times it has been quite challenging as we've been presented with information and ideas which we may not have seriously considered before, as the speakers and participants come from a variety of denominational backgrounds. Yet the atmosphere here is very 'united' as we celebrate the things we have in common, discuss various ideas with respect for each others point of view, and embrace the opportunity to share where God has taken us in our individual study of the Bible.

One of the things that has really impressed me is that participants who come from the various denominations represented here have all spoken of Christadelphianism respectfully, sometimes admiringly, always lovingly and with great sensitivity, even when discussing where they disagree. This has prompted me to think about the things which Christadelphians have to offer to other Christians, as well as some of the things that Christadelphians could learn from others. I though I would do a 'SWOT' analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) as a short series of messages.

In this message I'd like to comment on Christadelphian Christology - that is, the Christadelphian view(s) of the nature of Christ and His relationship to the Father.

STRENGTHS - It's interesting that there have been some very definite trends in theological scholarship over recent years towards a Christology which is remarkably similar to core Christadelphian teaching on the subject. Scholars such as James Dunn have challenged the 'orthodox' view of the pre-existence of Christ and an increasing number of theologians are coming out and saying that the Trinity is not Biblical, cannot be explained in Biblical terms, and was not the belief of the first Christians. Christadelphians have generally done a good job in explaining the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and in dealing with the various Scriptures which have been quoted in support of the Trinity or pre-existence. Of course, Christadelphians are not alone in this, although they have probably produced more literature on the subject than other non-trinitarian groups.

I've have taken note that at this Conference a number of people have commented favourably on the contribution that Christadelphians have made to study of this subject, and some have remarked that their own ideas have been directly or indirectly influenced by Christadelphianism.

WEAKNESSES - despite having the same core beliefs it is indeed tragic that Christadelphians have splintered over the doctrine of the nature of Christ, almost always over matters which are extremely technical and often beyond the comprehension of the rank and file of members. There has been a great deal of bitterness and anger between brethren of different 'fellowships' and some divisions which were created generations ago still haven't been been healed. This is to the shame of Christadelphians. At this Conference I've heard people remark that it's staggering almost beyond belief that Christadelphians who understand Christology so well have divided over minor technical issues rather than standing united and presenting a strong case to other Christians.

The Christadelphian disputes over the 'sinfulness' or otherwise of Jesus' human nature, whether He needed to 'offer for Himself' and whether His human nature was the object of God's wrath have, in my opinion, often degraded into personal attacks where the beauty of the core doctrines has been lost in the muck that has been thrown around.

OPPORTUNITIES - as Christians in mainstream churches examine the challenge that has been created by the trend amongst theological scholars towards a more Biblical Christology, and as they wrestle with these theological issues, there is an opportunity for those who have held to a Socinian-unitarian position (such as Christadelphians) to weigh into the dialogue with a spirit of cooperation rather than confrontation. We should adopt the attitude that we are helping our Christian friends to come to a clearer understanding of truth, rather than attacking them for their 'apostacy'.

There is also an opportunity for Christadelphians to learn from other believers, whether they are trinitarian or non-trinitarian, to clarify their own thinking, to 'fine tune' their theology and to adopt a healthy respect for the enormous scholarship that has been done in other areas.

THREATS - If Christadelphians don't dump their baggage which has been accumulated over generations of infighting and schism and adopt a gentler method of explaining their views, they may become useless to God as His witnesses to these truths and become an irrelevancy. Some serious work has to be done to not only repair the breaches of the past but to put an end to the divisive spirit which created them in the first place.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

I will praise You in this storm

This is one of my favourite songs from Casting Crowns (words by Mark Hall/music by Mark Hall and Bernie Herms).

It is based on themes taken from Scriptures such as Job 1:21 ("The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised") and perhaps Psalm 150:2 ("Praise him for his acts of power").

To me this song captures some of how I've felt when I've wrestled with why God doesn't "reach down" and "fix" things, why sometimes He takes away people that we love, and why in the midst of the storms of life His voice sometimes seems to be just a whisper.

Just over three years over ago I lost one of my closest friends in a tragic accident, and my wife Stephanie lost her only brother. Barely a day goes by when we don't think of him and miss him dearly. Mike had suffered some terrible injustices in recent years and was just getting his life back when it was snatched from him. I couldn't understand why God would allow this accident to happen when life was just coming good again. It seemed to me that God's timing was all wrong - it made no sense at all to me.

This Scripture had real meaning for me at the time: "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised". These are the words of Job when everything had been taken from him, yet he praised God. I think I learned from Job's experience that God's ways may not make sense to us, they may seem to be untimely or even unjust, and we may struggle to find meaning in what He does. Yet if we praise Him in our storms we find comfort in the knowledge that He is in control and we are reminded that He is with us, even if we don't clearly hear His voice.

I hope this song will speak to you as well.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Fellowshipping an out-of-fellowship person (2)

This is Cliff's response to comments made about an earlier message.

Firstly, who is the Brother who is in Pine Rivers who has been "dis-fellowshipped"?

Why was he "dis-fellowshipped?"

By whom was he "dis-fellowshipped?"

By God? Does God recognise men's "dis-fellowships?"

By Jesus? Does Jesus recognise men's "dis-fellowships?"

If the brother under discussion was "dis-fellowshipped" (a totally non Biblical terminology) by men, and if those who are "spiritual have restored such a one in the spirit of meekness" (cp Gal 6) surely this should be reason to rejoice, just as the Father in the parable of Luke 15 rejoiced when the prodigal returned home.

It is interesting that it is the elder Brother in Luke 15 who refused to come and eat at the Father's table of Grace when he learned that the prodigal was also eating there. And the prodigal was welcome at the Table of the Father (Lord) without the Elder Brother even being consulted or giving his consent.

So "Anonymous," by refraining from taking the emblems (at the Fathers Gracious Table at PRWC) when another was present at the same table whom you don't think should be there, who are you identifying with? The elder Brother!

This just highlights one of the major (and very important) differences between (some) modern Christadelphian's teachings and practices and Christ's teachings and practices.

For example, in Matthew 9:10 (also in Mark and Lukes records too, so the incident is more than significant; it is vitally important) we learn that "as Jesus reclined in the house, behold, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, Why does your master eat with tax-collectors and sinners?"

This is exactly the same question as asked by some Christadelphians today! Different time and place - but the core issues are identical.

"Why do you eat (fellowship) with those whom we have dis-fellowshipped?"

The terms 'tax-collectors and sinners' were the appellations given to those "dis-fellowshipped" or "cast out" by the religious leaders of the day. Obviously Jesus did not have a problem having fellowship with those who had been "dis-fellowshipped" by the religious elite of His day. Remember, mealtimes in Israel were the equivalent of our modern "Breaking of Bread"... in those days you judged others by whom they had meals with. And Jesus says of this practice of having meals with "outcasts... "Do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor 11). So "Anonymous", would you agree, to obey Jesus we must do what Jesus did?

As Jesus said in another teaching parable of His... "Go, and do likewise!"

To do other that what Jesus clearly taught us to do, as is the "main stream Christadelphian teaching" according to our "Anonymous" friend, is to actually disobey the Commandments of Christ.

Not only did Jesus eat with those the Pharisees (the Elder Brother group) called "sinners" (incidently, Jesus never used that term Himself to describe others - anytime He does use the term "sinners" it is only when He is quoting the Pharisees back to themselves or to describe them!!), He reclined with them too. This was more than just "a sip of wine and sliver of bread just before Midday on Sunday"- this was a full on, relaxed fellowship meal. True fellowship was being had at every level in each these Gospel records and on every occasion where Jesus "Broke Bread"- not just at a superficial "Spiritually Elite," "in the club" level.

It is interesting that the Gospel writers are careful to tell us that the Pharisees did not dare question Jesus about His Table Manners. But they were bold to talk to the disciples on the side, in an effort to drive a wedge in between them and Jesus Himself. After all, Jesus was totally defying their long established culture and traditions and teaching His Disciples to do exactly the same.

Jesus was fully aware of what motivated the Spiritual Snobs of His day, and He said in Matthew 11 "But to what shall I compare to this generation? It is like little children sitting in the markets and calling to their playmates, saying, We played the flute to you, and you did not dance! We mourned to you, but you did not wail!" [In other words, the Religious Leaders in Israel were dismayed that Jesus would not dance to their tune. Jesus refused to abide by any of the socially and religiously acceptable conventions and traditions which would Spiritually Abuse any who the Father had called. And this man is the one we are to copy in every way. That is what True Worship really is: imitating in every way the one who is the Boss! It has been truly said, that we become just like the God we worship.]

Jesus continued: "For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a demon." [Have you ever noticed that Jesus NEVER corrected any of their false ideas about devils, demons and supernatural forces. He even stood up in their synagogues, using their platforms where they preached such false teachings, and never once took them to task or enlightened the audience about their misbeliefs in this area. Paul and the other Apostles did exactly the same, for the Kingdom message is about how you show God in action to your fellow by your actions, not by convincing your fellow of what you do not believe!]

The observations of the Spiritual Leaders in Jesus' day was that "the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they said, Behold a man who is a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners. But wisdom was justified by her children."

This man is more than our Redeemer and Saviour! He is the very pattern upon which we are to model our own lives. As He said, "wisdom is vindicated by the results" - and the massive results of Jesus' pattern for living, is that any one of us has been included by Grace within His "Forever" family. And to act petulantly and to refuse to take the very emblems of His life and power and mission and victory because someone else [who you might not agree with in some way] may also be present at the same table, is to snub the Lord of Heaven, slap Him in the face, and deny the very power that drew you and the "other" to that Table in the first instance.

Jesus whole life is one that denied "Guilt by Association" in any form for Holiness is far more powerful than sin any day. To act otherwise at His Table, (or at any time really, for worship is a 24/7 deal - not just a Sunday thing) is to "eat and drink condemnation to oneself," says Paul. (cp 1 Cor 11).

We declare, as we take Jesus into our lives, "Jesus, you are indeed the pattern for my life, so I eat this Bread (your Body Lord) and drink this wine (your life blood Lord) and it becomes an essential part of every living cell in my body - I am fully energised by you!!!" To then act towards others differently to the way Jesus taught, nay, commanded us to act, is to deny the very Lord who died for us all.

Jesus not only ate meals (had full on Fellowship) with those who had been cast out ("dis-fellowshipped"), He went out of His way (John 6:37; John 9) to have or renew fellowship with them, despite the written and oral traditions of His day. It cost Him His life in the end.

And that has ever been the pattern of the "Elder Brother" of the parable in Luke 15 to refuse to share the great love of Him who died for all, and to use "dis-fellowship" as a control mechanism to maintain religious control, (cp 3 John v9-11). Dis-Fellowship is the "iron fist enclosed in a not so velvet glove" (referred to in Matthew 24:49) to quote a much loved Brother who has gone before us.

It is so sad to see that the Diotrephian spirit still lives on - even in the 21st Century.

Whilst this may indeed be seen by some to be "main stream Christadelphian teaching" it is actually diametrically opposed to "main stream Christ teaching."

So the question is: who should we obey? God/Jesus, or men?

At the risk of disobeying (and even disappointing) men, I choose to obey God any day.

Fellowshipping an out-of-fellowship person (1)

This message arose out of comments on an earlier message about a proposal being put to the 2008 Australian Christadelphian Conference in Sydney to restrict the start-up of new ecclesias.

An anonymous person left a comment describing how he visited another ecclesia and would not participate in the breaking of bread because of the attendance there of a person who had been 'disfellowshipped' by another ecclesia. He wrote: "If a Brother has been disfellowshiped and you visit another meeting and he is there then the main stream Christadelphian teaching is not to partake of the emblems which happened on this day."

In earlier posts on 'fellowship' I have discussed the Christadelphian practices related to breaking of bread, so I won't go into that again right now. However, I challenge the notion that "main stream Christadelphian teaching is not to partake of the emblems" if a disfellowshipped person is present. In fact, the Ecclesial Guide specifically deals with this issue in section 42. Here is an excerpt:
"There ought to be no interference of one ecclesia with another. At the same time, they have reciprocal rights. Ecclesial independence is a principle essential to be maintained. But it is no part of that independence to say that no ecclesia shall consider a matter that another has decided upon, if that matter comes before the first ecclesia, and challenges their judgment, and, in fact, requires a decision. In the example already discussed, if a brother withdrawn from by one ecclesia applies for the fellowship of another, that other ecclesia is bound to consider the application, and it is no infringement of the independence of the first ecclesia that it should be so, subject to the rules and attitudes indicated. It would, in fact, be a renunciation of its own independence, were it to refuse to do so. Respect for the first ecclesia requires that it accept its decision until it sees grounds for a different view; and in the investigation of these grounds it ought to invite its co-operation, as already indicated. But the mere fact of the application imposes upon it the obligation to consider and investigate the matter, if there are prima facie grounds for doing so. The other ecclesia would make a mistake if it considered such a procedure an infringement of its independence, Such a view would, in reality, be a trammelling of the independence of every assembly; for it would then amount to this, that no assembly had the right to judge a case coming before them if that case happen to have already been adjudicated upon by another ecclesia. The judgment of one would thus be set up as a rule for all."
The writer of the Ecclesial Guide then goes on to say
"An ecclesia has no right to judge except for itself. This is the independence not to be interfered with; but a similar right to judge must be conceded to all, and the exercise of it, if tempered with a respectful and proper procedure, would never offend an enlightened body anywhere."
A little later he deals with "cases where a reasonable doubt exists, and where a second ecclesia will come to a different conclusion from the first" and says that each ecclesia should exercise their prerogative of independent judgment:
"let each abide by its own decision, without interfering with each other. The one can fellowship a certain brother, the other cannot".
To do otherwise would be "to aggravate the misery of a perhaps very trumpery and unworthy affair by refusing to recognize each other, because they differ in judgment about one person".

Applying this to the situation mentioned, visitors to an ecclesia should recognise the right of that ecclesia to exercise "their prerogative of independent judgment" and to make their own decision about a person who may have been disfellowshipped elsewhere. To refuse to participate in the breaking of bread on such an occasion is not only rude and an affront to ones hosts, it also demonstrates a refusal to recognise the principle of non-interference laid out in the Ecclesial Guide. It undermines the principles of mutual respect, autonomy and the prerogative of independent judgment which are "mainstream Christadelphian teachings".

In a subsequent post I will also publish Cliff's response to the comment which was a reply to his.

House meetings

This message arose out of some comments on an earlier post reviewing Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna.

The authors of this book provide evidence that the earliest churches probably had a maximum attendance of around 35. That is based primarily on archaeological evidence. We know the first century Christians met in homes, we know the kinds of homes which were often used for such meetings, and we know how big they were. These gatherings were limited in size by the homes in which they met. As the Christian community in any area grew they would start new house-meetings.

According to the archaeological evidence, it was not until the early third century that Christians had any special buildings. The earliest identifiable Christian meeting place is the house-church of Dura Europos in modern Syria (pictured is the baptistery of the 3rd-century house church at Dura-Europos, now on display in the Yale University Museum, USA. This is the oldest Christian church ever discovered. The baptismal bath is visible. The surviving frescoes of the baptistry room are probably the most ancient Christian paintings.) It was simply a private home remodelled as a Christian gathering place around AD 232. This house was essentially a house with a wall removed between two bedrooms to create a large living area. This house could accommodate about 70 people (Pagan Christianity? page 14-15).

I don't think Viola and Barna are suggesting that our practice of meeting in special buildings is necessarily "wrong". They are simply saying that we cannot claim to be continuing or restoring a first century Christian practice if we do. The very nature of meeting in halls or special church-buildings affects the kind of meetings we have, and meetings in halls or special buildings have a remarkably different character to meetings held in homes around a meal table.

In my view, much of the intimacy of the early church/ekklesia was probably lost in the shift from homes to special buildings. Certainly the informality, spontaneity and full participation would have been lost as the church went to structured formal services.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pagan Christianity

Book Review
Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices
by Frank Viola and George Barna

Speak of the paganisation of Christianity to most Christadelphians and their minds are almost certain to go to Easter and Christmas and the claims that they have pagan origins. Some might even be quick to point out that ecclesiastical vestments, adoration of saints, feast days and other elements of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity also have their roots in paganism.

This book however provides startling evidence that most of what Christians do in present-day churches is not rooted in the New Testament, but in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the death of the apostles. Christadelphians will almost certainly be shocked to discover that many of their regular practices had their origins well after the first century. What they cherish as a return to first century Christianity is in fact the accumulation of traditions which have little or nothing to do with apostolic practices.

The authors provide ample evidence that first century Christians met in homes and shared a common meal together. Their meetings were informal and everyone actively participated. Formal structured meetings, buildings specifically for church/ecclesial meetings, a 'sermon' or 'exhortation', even sitting in rows of chairs which all face the front where the 'action' takes place on the 'platform', are all practices which developed much later in Christian history. In fact, the shift from house-based informal meetings around a meal to formal meetings in a special building with a structured 'order of service' took place after the Council of Nicea. Ironically, the same church council which gave us the doctrine of the Trinity also gave us the framework for the modern Christadelphian memorial meeting!

Many ecclesial practices which Christadelphians assume are a 'restoration of first century Christianity' actually have little or no basis in Scripture. The authors of this book provide numerous examples of traditions and practices which originated much later, including the following:

- the earliest believers were baptised immediately after conversion. The practice of 'preparing' people for baptism by teaching them the 'doctrines of the church' began much later.

- the 'sermon' or exhortation is a relatively modern invention. We learn from 1 Corinthians that when the early church came together "everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation ... for the strengthening of the church" (1 Corinthians 14:26). The practice of only one person (always a man) addressing the church/ekklesia began well after the development of a professional clergy and largely as a result of doctrinal conflict (so that the priest/bishop/pastor could indoctrinate the church in orthodoxy, or 'correct doctrine').

- the practice of passing out the 'emblems' as tiny glasses of wine and a morsel of bread began with English Methodism. The earliest church celebrated 'communion' as a full meal, of which bread and wine was only a part. Everyone participated, including unbaptised children.

- 'dressing up' for church/meetings is a Victorian tradition. For centuries Christians wore their everyday clothes to church. There is absolutely no Scriptural basis for the practice of wearing ones 'Sunday best'.

- appointing or electing some brethren to leadership or management positions has no Biblical basis. The first Christians recognised people's gifts and acknowledged mature Christians as 'elders', but no one was given any special authority to 'rule' or 'manage' the church/ekklesia. Christadelphian 'Arranging/Managing Brethren' are simply a variation of the pagan practices which produced a professional 'clergy'.

I recommend this book to anyone who is serious about examining the practices of the first century Christians. You will certainly find it challenging in places. You may still wish to hold on to cherished traditions, but will have to confess that they are just that - traditions - and have no Biblical basis. I doubt very much that after reading this book anyone will continue to claim that Christadelphian meetings and structures are a 'restoration of first century Christianity'.

But this book is not primarily about tearing down cherished traditions. It provides valuable insights into the beliefs and practices of the first communities of Christians and is a useful resource for anyone wanting to know what church/ekklesia meant to the earliest disciples. It encourages a return to the simplicity of New Testament Christianity and to a fully functioning body in which all believers play an active role.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Permission needed to start a new ecclesia

The following motion has been proposed for the Sydney Christadelphian Conference 2008:
Proposed Motion # 5:

'That the Australian Christadelphian brotherhood adopts a practice that, prior to the formation of any new ecclesia, a representative of the proposed ecclesia contact the Central Fellowship ecclesias in their local area, for recognition as a bona fide ecclesia meeting on the Australian Unity Basis of Fellowship.'

Moved by South Brisbane

Seconded t.b.a.

Rationale, as provided by South Brisbane


To provide a framework for effectively assessing the bona fides of all new ecclesias seeking fellowship on the Australian Unity Basis.


1 All new ecclesias wishing to be recognised as a Christadelphian ecclesia meeting on the Australian Unity Basis should write to the recorders of established ecclesias in the local area of the proposed new ecclesia, stating they meet on the Australian Unity Basis of Fellowship.

2 The proposed ecclesia's location will determine the number of established ecclesias to receive such a letter, but it is suggested a minimum of five ecclesias should be approached for recognition as a bona fide Christadelphian Ecclesia.

3 Ecclesias receiving such notice should consult one another, after determining their own position, and if no objection is communicated to the proposed ecclesia's representative within one month, the request should be accepted and the new ecclesia notified in writing by the local ecclesias involved.

4 If any objections are raised by the local established ecclesiae, discussions should take place in order to resolve the perceived impediments.

5 A reasonable time should be allowed for resolution of the difficulties on the basis of the Ecclesial Guide and the Unity Booklet.

This motion raises a number of interesting matters.

First, we need to question the intention of the motion. Never in the past has a new Christadelphian ecclesia in Australia (or anywhere else in the world as far as I am aware) needed to obtain the consent of other ecclesias in the area. So why now? What is the reason for changing the practice of more than 140 years? Is this motion designed to restrict new ecclesias starting up or to control the activities of new ecclesias? If so, why?

Second, the motion appears to be totally impractical. Let's take one Australian city as a hypothetical example. Newcastle currently has three Christadelphian ecclesias: Newcastle, Charlestown and Boolaroo. The last time I spoke at Charlestown ecclesia I was asked to sit on the platform for the entire meeting as the hall was literally filled to capacity and there were no spare seats in the congregation. This is a good sign of a healthy ecclesia, and because there is "standing room only" the ecclesia is considering extensions to their meeting place. However, another option they might consider is starting a new ecclesia as an 'offshoot'. Under this proposed motion they would need the consent of at least five ecclesias in the area. But there are only three ecclesias in the area! Under this proposed new rule they would have to look further afield to other cities for approval to start a satellite ecclesia. Charlestown is a well-established ecclesia with a solid reputation and was an original signatory to the Australian Unity Agreement. To suggest that they can't start a satellite ecclesia without the permission of other ecclesias is not only insulting to them, it raises the question as to what authority the other ecclesias might have which Charlestown lacks.

Third, this motion smells of fear, a controlling spirit, and authoritarianism.

Are some ecclesias afraid that new ecclesias might operate differently, and do they find this threatening? There was a recent example (in Brisbane) of an ecclesia sending out an appeal for people to move into their area and join them because they were declining so sharply in numbers that they were at risk of dying out. At the same time this same ecclesia was a party to a move to restrict the activities of a new ecclesia which was bursting at the seams and which was growing numerically almost week-by-week. Are they afraid that as they die out their remaining members will transfer to the new dynamic meeting? What do they find so threatening about this?

It smells of a controlling spirit because new ecclesias sometimes do things a bit differently from the older ecclesias in the area, and some traditionalists don't like this. Instead of an organ they might decide to use guitars and drums (God forbid!). Instead of 17th century hymns they might want to sing contemporary music! They might even drop "thees" and "thous" and Elizabethan English and pray to the Almighty in contemporary English!! Where will this lead? It must be stopped!!!

It smacks of authoritarianism because it suggests that a 'group' of ecclesias should be empowered to control the activities of other ecclesias in the area. There is already at least one case in Australia of a 'group' of ecclesias in an area banding together while excluding other ecclesias in the area which might see some things differently, and then attempting to impose their collective will on the excluded ecclesias (and it's significant that this proposed motion comes from one of the ecclesias which is a party to this 'group'). This motion, if adopted, would give more power to these 'groups' which Robert Roberts condemned as"collective despotism":
Ecclesial independence should be guarded with great jealousy with the qualifications indicated in the foregoing sections. To form "unions" or "societies" of ecclesias, in which delegates should frame laws for the individual ecclesias, would be to lay the foundation of a collective despotism which would interfere with the free growth and the true objects of ecclesial life. Such collective machineries create fictitious importances, which tend to suffocate the truth. All ecclesiastical history illustrates this. (Clause 44 of the Ecclesial Guide)
I would hope that the majority of ecclesias represented at the 2008 Conference will see this proposed motion for what it is and soundly reject it.