The Misunderstanding of the Church

The understanding of truth and church are fundamental to ministry. A German Protestant professor in Zurich, Emil Brunner opened up for me new perspectives on each. He is regarded as one of the top four or five Protestant systematic theologians of the mid-20th century.

He saw Truth as Encounter, the name of his book. In my philosophy and seminary days, I thought truth was presented in books that had carefully formulated propositions all in a logical order.

In contrast, Brunner highlighted that truth is relationships experienced, not doctrine tightly defined. Encountering Jesus is the truth, the way, the life. Life-changing encounters happen in the heart, not just the head. Heart-work is done by the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.

The other fundamental new perspective came through his book The Misunderstanding of the Church. In his time when most church leaders thought of church, they had in mind church institutions, which in Europe were well developed over centuries. They saw the Christian church of the first several centuries as the “primitive” church. The “early” church is a better name. I regard the early church as the best source for re-learning how to do church more effectively in our times.

Emil Brunner was at his peak in the 1950s, when the ecumenical movement was at its height. This was a time when institutional church leaders tried to work out their differences and be united. A few mergers happened, like the one that produced the United Church of Christ. But the movement soon died.

Brunner was telling them they had the wrong understanding of church. It is fundamentally the fellowships brought together by the Holy Spirit. These exist prior to whatever institutional form they take on. He called for a greater appreciation of the freedom the Spirit brings. Some institutional churches seem intent to limit that freedom. Many believers who have learned the Spirit’s freedom refuse to have anything to do with institutional churches that are intent on restricting them in ways they personally find unnecessary.

Extending his starting point brings two fresh approaches to organizing the fellowships of the Spirit at the congregational and denominational levels.

There is no biblically prescribed organizational form a congregation should follow. Paul distinguishes overseers and helpers. The Greek words from which we get bishop and deacon were everyday language for those functions. The category of elders was adopted from the synagogues and basically meant recognized, trusted leaders. The category of “clergy” does not exist in Scriptures, nor is there evidence for a special ordination to that elevated office.

Informal fellowships need some structure to survive. The function of that formalized organization is to look after the health and safety of the underlying fellowship: provide for the spiritual welfare and growth of the participants, resolve conflict, take responsibility for property and plan for the future.

Judging by the declining health of so many traditional congregations, their leaders have not been doing a good job. Most are responsible and mature men and women who are trying to make sensible decisions within the traditional options they inherited. Those who are really failing are the spiritual leaders of churches that have drifted away from recognizing the authority of Scriptures and the presence of the supernatural at work around us. They don’t have a conceptual framework for appreciating the work of supernatural Holy Spirit today or for understanding the concept of Spiritual energy different from the human energy available to social clubs.

Denominational structures need to leave behind any notion that they are the church. The defining fellowships are at the congregational level. Headquarters exist to help the congregations lead their underlying fellowships effectively. It is foolish to think that a small group of national leaders can speak for all the million or more believers in their national church.

In the community church movement, the emerging effective congregations don’t form highly defined denominations. They develop informal networks with other leaders and congregations who share interests. They may be involved in two or three networks at the same time. This is especially true in mission work.

For networks versus denominations, see my 1987 book Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance.

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