July 2012

Elders, the ‘older brothers’ of the church

Series: The Church in Highlights
‘James D. G. Dunn said that the clergy-laity tradition has done more to undermine New Testament authority than most heresies’. Frank Viola includes this quote in his book Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity. In my previous two posts I have been presenting some highlights that capture parts of two major themes of this book. Here are some highlights that partially present a third major theme.
Here is one of Viola’s opening salvos; ‘the modern clergy system is far removed from the thought of God. It puts the living, breathing organism of the church into an Old Testament straightjacket’. Now I am a pastor of a local church, so this statement surely got my attention. However, I see myself as the lead-elder of a group of men, a plurality of elders, who lead the church. In other words, I don’t regard our local church as ‘pastor led.’ But Frank is as much against elder-led as he is opposed to pastor-led church. He writes that ‘the idea that elders direct the affairs of the church, make decisions in all corporate matters, handle all of its problems, and supply all of its teaching is alien to New Testament thinking. Such an idea is pure fantasy and bereft of biblical support.
It’s no wonder that in elder-led churches spiritual maturity atrophies and members grow passive and indolent’. Ouch! 
He continues; ‘Stated simply, the New Testament knows nothing of an elder-ruled, elder-governed, or elder-directed church. And it knows even less about a pastor-led church. The first-century church was in the hands of the brotherhood and the sisterhood. Plain and simple’.
The author has a lot to say about how elders and pastors should function in the church and he builds his argument from an evaluation of the New Testament model of church leadership. He writes; ‘The overseers of the early church oversaw by example—not by coercion or manipulation. The respect they received from the other members was in direct proportion to their sacrificial service (1 Cor. 16:10–11,15–18; Phil. 2:29–30; 1 Thess. 5:12–13; 1 Tim. 5:17). Their authority was rooted in their spiritual maturity rather than in a sacerdotal position’.  He also states that ‘elders were not organizational figureheads. They weren’t hired pulpiteers, professional clergy, or ecclesiastical chairmen. They were simply older brothers (elders-in-fact) carrying out real functions (elder-ing, shepherd-ing, oversee-ing, etc.). Their chief task was threefold: to model servanthood in the church; to motivate the believing community toward works of service; and to mold the spiritual development of the younger believers (1 Peter 5:1–3). The elders also dealt with sticky situations in the church (Acts 15:6ff)’.
In the preface Viola describes the purpose of the book as; ‘to articulate a biblical, spiritual, theological, and practical answer to the question, Is there a viable way of doing church outside the institutional church experience, and if so, what does it look like?’ In his book he covers much, much more than I have indicated in my selected highlights, so if what you have read here interests you then you should purchase the book for yourself – it is definitely worth reading, especially if you are a church leader.

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The human-centred church, reimagined

 Series: The Church in Highlights

‘Our modern gospel is entirely centered on human needs’; so writes Frank Viola in  Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity.

In this post I continue presenting highlights from this very challenging book.

The first major theme of the book is the organic nature of the church versus the institutional model so often adopted in the church today, and I covered this in my previous post. A second theme is about how the church features in God’s eternal plan. Viola introduces this theme by commenting on the Gospel as follows: ‘Our modern gospel is entirely centered on human needs. The plotline of that gospel is one of a benevolent God whose main purpose is blessing and healing a fallen world. Thus our gospel is centered on saving man’s spirit/soul (evangelism) and/or saving his body (healing the sick, delivering the captives, helping the poor, standing with the oppressed, caring for the earth, etc.). In short, the gospel that’s commonly preached today is “human centered.” It’s focused on the needs of humanity, be they spiritual or physical.’ Then he writes, ‘What was God going to do with human beings if they had never fallen?’ The implied question is, is the Good News, the Gospel, purely a divine response to man’s fall into sinful rebellion, or is it more? Viola answers this question in several ways, but the main thrust of the argument is that through the Gospel we are not only saved out of a condition of sinful separation from God and each other, but into a condition of wholeness and unity within a divinely ordained community called The Church. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is at the centre of the Gospel.

He writes that ‘from the viewpoint of God’s eternal purpose, the church exists to be;

  • the incarnation and manifestation of the ultimate passion of God
  • the organic expression and physical extension of the Trinitarian Community
  • the corporate image-bearer of the Lord Jesus Christ on the earth the family of God
  • the divine building whereby every living stone is being transformed, reshaped, and fitted together to form the Lord’s temple
  • the colonial outpost of the coming kingdom
  • the masterpiece of God
  • the spiritual “Bethany” where Jesus of Nazareth is received, obeyed, and adored in the midst of a rejecting world
  • the vessel in which the power of Christ’s resurrection life is visibly displayed
  • the object of God’s supreme affection and delight
  • the willing vehicle for Christ’s manifested presence
  • the torchbearer of the testimony of Jesus
  • the “one new man”—the new species—the “third race”
  • the fiancée of Jesus Christ—His very body, His very bride
  • the new humanity marked out in the Son of God before time and brought into existence by His cross
  • the Christian’s native habitat
  • the spiritual environment where face-to-face encounters between the bride and Bridegroom take place
  • the living witness to the fullness and headship of God’s Son
  • the colony from heaven that bears the image of its Ruler In short, whenever the church gathers together, its guiding and functioning principle is simply to incarnate Christ (1 Cor. 12:12)’
The observation that the modern ‘gospel’ is presented in a way that puts the focus on human need and not on God’s eternal plan needs to be processed and responded to – please comment on this blog if you have strong views on this subject.

In my next post I will present some highlights which partially present a third major theme of the book, Viola’s conviction that the modern clergy system is the single biggest impediment to the realisation of God’s plan for the church.

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The institutional church, reimagined

Series: The Church in Highlights
‘The institutional church as we know it today is not only ineffective, but it’s also without biblical merit.’ That’s quite a statement, but it is one of the phrases I highlighted as I was reading through Frank Viola’s book, Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity.

Almost all my reading nowadays is by means of my Kindle and when I highlight passages they are uploaded to my account at Amazon and I can review them online. As I was reading through these the other day It occurred to me that you might be interested in some of my highlights from books I have been reading recently, so in this blog series I am reproducing some of these highlights along with brief comments.

I read the first half of Reimagining Church quite some time ago but then I got waylaid with something else and  only returned to complete reading it a couple of weeks ago. A lot of the book is focused on showing the shortcomings in what Viola calls the ‘institutional church’.  He clarifies what he means by this with the statement that ‘the church of Jesus Christ is a spiritual organism, not an institutional organization’ and that ‘properly conceived, the church is the gathered community that shares God’s life and expresses it in the earth. Put another way, the church is the earthly image of the triune God’.

I highlighted the following because I thought it captured what the author has in mind when he writes of organic rather than institutional church. ‘Because the church is truly a spiritual organism, its DNA never changes. It’s the same biological entity yesterday, today, and tomorrow. As such, the DNA of the church will always reflect these four elements:

  • It will always express the headship of Jesus Christ in His church as opposed to the headship of a human being. (I’m using the term “headship” to refer to the idea that Christ is both the authority and the source of the church.)
  • It will always allow for and encourage the every-member functioning of the body.
  • It will always map to the theology that’s contained in the New Testament, giving it visible expression on the earth.
  • It will always be grounded in the fellowship of the triune God. The Trinity is the paradigm informing us on how the church should function. It shows us that the church is a loving, egalitarian, reciprocal, cooperative, nonhierarchical community’. He continues a little further on with, ‘The DNA of the church produces certain identifiable features. Some of them are the experience of authentic community, a familial love and devotion of its members to one another, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the native instinct to gather together without static ritual, the innate desire to form deep-seated relationships that are centered on Christ, the internal drive for open-participatory gatherings, and the loving impulse to display Jesus to a fallen world’.
I would be interested to read how you respond to Viola’s four elements of a church’s spiritual DNA – why don’t you comment on this blog?

In my next post I will continue with highlights that reflect a second major theme of the book.

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Why Hell?

Over the last few years Hell has become quite a hot topic (please excuse the pun but I just couldn’t resist it).  Rob Bell stirred up the flames of controversy with his book ‘Love wins’ and more recently Francis Chan has responded with his ‘Erasing Hell’. Bell and others claim that Hell can’t possibly exist as a ‘place’ of endless punishment because God is all loving. Chan, and most other evangelicals, claim that although the idea of eternal Hell is disquieting to say the least, it is unequivocally taught in scripture. I am not going to add to the debate concerning the biblical validity of Hell. I am satisfied that the scriptures, and Jesus in particular, provide ample evidence of its existence. I believe in the inspiration, authority, and trustworthiness of the Bible and so I see no point in re-asking the question ‘does Hell exist?’ because the biblical answer is a clear ‘yes it does.’ I want rather to ask, and attempt to respond to, a related but different question; why does Hell exist?’ A reasonable answer to this question will help those of us who are struggling to evaluate the various alternative theories that form the basis of the current debate. The immortality of the soul/spirit is one such theory – if the immaterial component of human nature does not exist eternally then perhaps there is no need for Hell and God could simply annihilate ‘sinners’. Another strand is Universalism – everyone will ultimately be saved, perhaps even the devil, and so Hell is redundant. I won’t attempt to address these issues in this short article but Bell and Brian McLaren have stated why they believe there is no purpose to a hell, so I want to state two reasons why I believe there is a need for Hell. 

One reason Hell exists is because God is righteous and just. In Deuteronomy 32:4 God is described as, ‘a faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he’. Again, Abraham appeals to God’s character of righteousness with, ‘Far be it from you to do such a thing — to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25). We come to understand what is right and fair because God has established the standard of justice and righteousness. Yet we know through observation and logical deduction that great injustice is not always punished, or even accounted for, in this life time. However, if God is righteous and just then how can a Hitler, Stalin, or Bundy receive the same eternal treatment as a Billy Graham? If there was no Hell then there would be no reason to believe that God was righteous and just. 

Another reason Hell exists is because of the consequence of sin, which is death. God told Adam that he would die if he chose to sinfully rebel against Him. Thousands of years later Paul wrote that ‘sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.’ (Romans 5:12). Unregenerate humankind exists in a state of separation from the presence, life, and wisdom of God. Unless people are spiritually born again (John 3:7) they remain separated from God. There is no biblical indication that this separation does not continue after physical death and there is ample biblical evidence that it does (Matthew 25:41-46 et al). This on-going, post-earth separation makes Hell a necessity. By the way, on earth nobody is totally separated from the influence of God because He is present by His Spirit through the church. However, Hell is characterised by an absolute separation from God. God is good, merciful, and loving so a state devoid of His qualities is indeed hellish.
I am a passionate advocate of Christocentric interpretation of scripture and it is significant that Jesus spoke more about Hell than anyone else recorded in the Bible. 
He taught, alluded to it, and told several parables concerning it. Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3) and in Him ‘all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form’ (Colossians 2:9). So what Jesus said is definitive, and He said that the original reason why Hell was created was to provide an eternal abode for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Unfortunately, He made this statement in the context of the fate of those who do not live out a relationship with himself and His disciples.

Does Hell exist? Yes I surely believe it does. Is Hell necessary? Yes it is, as an eternal consequence of Gods righteousness and justice, and man’s rebellious separation from Him.

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The Mystery of the church

In Ephesians Paul uses the word ‘mystery’ four times. He writes of ‘the mystery made known to me by revelation’, his ‘insight into the mystery of Christ’, and how God has appointed him to ‘make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery’. In verse six he states the mystery in plain terms; ‘This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus’.

To us modern day multi-cultural Christians this hardly seems a mystery at all, but to the Jews of Paul’s day it must have been a shocking revelation. The Jews were the chosen few and the Gentiles were the lost many, and now Paul was saying that these blasphemous goyem were included through Christ Jesus in the people of God! What an outrageously radical idea!

Paul’s mysterious revelation goes even deeper. He was a student of ancient Jewish mysticism and would have been familiar with the concept the Rabbis’ called the Adam Kadmon, the Heavenly Man, or what later became known as the Cosmic Christ. This mystical being was believed to be the final revelation of God, representing the fusion of the divine with the human. His head was in the heavens and his body was on the earth and as such he filled the entire cosmos. Paul uses ‘Cosmic Christ’ type language extensively in Ephesians and is suggesting to those in the know that the church, the mysterious body made up of all types of people, is the Adam Kadmon. That’s why he writes that God’s intent was that ‘now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Ephesians 3:10-12). Jesus is the head in heaven and the church is the body on earth! 

Now, it may not be particularly relevant, or mysterious, to us today to accept that Jews and Gentiles alike make up the Body of Christ, but it is certainly relevant to know that the church is in some sense part of the mystical co-joining of divinity and humanity. Now we can understand why Paul wrote  that ‘God placed all things under his (Jesus’) feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way’ (Ephesians 1:22-23).

So the Gentiles as well as Jews are part of the church, and the church is the Body of the Cosmic Christ. But there is more, there is a third level of mystery that Paul is revealing in Ephesians. He writes of the riches of God’s ‘glorious inheritance in the saints’ (1:18) and he ends his wonderful prayer in chapter three with ‘to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus’. The blessings of Israel are now the blessings of the church. Ephesians 3:6 states that ‘through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.’ They are therefore the blessings of each of us who are part of the church. But here’s the thing; the promises and blessings that Paul prays for are for us, not in isolation, but as members of the church. The blessings set out in Ephesians, and elsewhere, are corporate! He writes that we (plural) ‘may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God’ (3:19), and in chapter four verse thirteen he continues, ‘until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ Do you know of any single person apart from Jesus himself who has attained to this? No, because the promise applies to us corporately as part of the church, and not to us as independent individuals.

This idea of our corporate identity is as shocking to many of us today as the revelation of Gentiles being included in the church was to the people of Paul’s time. Why do I say this? I believe this because for centuries now Christians have been taught that Christianity is all about ME; what I can have, my health, wealth and happiness, my eternal destiny, and my personal relationship with God.  Yet this idea is utterly alien to Jesus’ message because He said that it’s all about others, giving, and community.

Now, if I believe the ‘I lie’, then what is the church to me? Well, it’s a supplier of services of course. It’s there to supply me with life principles, friendships, music, community projects, and so on. The church is a supplier and I am a religious consumer. No wonder church leaders moan about the fact that only 20% of their church members are active, committed, and growing spiritually. No wonder Christians move from one local church to the next when they feel that their needs are no longer being met. Why not, because if one supermarket no longer stocks the brands I like, or raises the prices, then I move to another supermarket without a thought – so why not with church?

What a tragic misunderstanding! We miss God’s purpose for us almost entirely, and we miss so much of His blessings, when we fail to see that we are saved into the body of Christ, the church, not into a self-centred consumerist individuality. This is indeed a mystery, but a glorious and blessed mystery!

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.