return to religion-online

Maturing in the Christian Life: A Pastor’s Guide by Neill Q. Hamilton


Neill Q. Hamilton graduated from Duke University, Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Basel, Switzerland (D. Th.) He was Robert S. Dollar Professor of New Testament, San Francisco Theological Seminary and Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley and later was Professor of New Testament at the School of Theology and Graduate School, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey. This book was published in 1984 by The North Creek Press, copyright Neil Hamilton, used by permission of the author. Prepared for Religion Online by Herbert F. Lowe.


Chapter 4: Maturing in Church and Mission


PART I. MATURING IN CHURCH

Humbling and Reaffirmation

The collapse of discipleship in transition to Spirit is an astonishing experience. All the confidence in the dedicated self that was building during discipleship comes undone. In the denial of that confident self, all self-confidence evaporates. Imagine with what groans of regret the original disciples kept recalling their abject failure to keep their pledge to remain faithful to Jesus no matter what (Mark 14:27-31). They had intended to do so well but had done so poorly. They knew they were forgiven, but Judas remained a reminder of the despair they all had felt. In the throes of recall all must have thought themselves chief among sinners.

The leveling of Paul in the dust of the Damascus road and the days of hopelessness that followed symbolize the humiliation that is the background against which maturing must unfold. Given captivity to the conditioning influences of the world upon even the most religious of us, there is no going on to a life of maturing without the trauma of humiliation. Luke was making this point when he revised the story of the call of the four fishermen to an encounter that dropped Peter to his knees confessing: "'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.' For he was astonished, . . . and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon" (Luke 5: 8-10).

The astonished humiliation that comes with the realization of the depths of our defection shakes disciples to the core, so that we rise with joy at forgiveness and new hope, but unsteadily. Jacob is the perfect metaphor for this precarious state-blessed, yes, but halt from then on. "The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh" (Gen. 32:31). Whether we think of ourselves as newborn or a new creation of the Spirit, both metaphors point to a shaky, vulnerable stretch of life ahead .54

Luther, following Augustine, thought of this as a time of convalescence; so did Wesley. Two weeks after Aldersgate, he wrote, "Yet I felt a kind of soreness in my heart, so that I found my wound was not yet fully healed."55 To steady up on the new course of life Wesley took a moratorium from ministry for a visit with the Moravians in Germany. He was seeking healing sanctuary. This vulnerability of the budding devotee of Spirit Luther spoke of as "the misery of infirmity" which is "only gradually healed by grace in the inn where Christ the Good Samaritan has placed us." The name of this inn is the church, We are healed in company with others.

The Church as the Body

The recognition of the church as the inn where one goes to receive healing strength for growth in maturing is the first step toward that growth. Paul's doctrine of the church as the body is most apt at this phase, since it depends on life in the Spirit. The church is that place on earth where intimacy with the risen Lord continues in a healing bond that equips us for mission in a new key. The power of this intimacy is the Holy Spirit. The distinctive mark of this idea of the church is the assumption that all its members are aware of their endowment with the Spirit .56 The church as the body of Christ is that group which is conscious of having made the transition to life in the Spirit and who covenant together to live out the implications of that supreme fact of their lives.

At this point it is helpful to make a distinction. The followers of Jesus began their journey of faith without access to the Holy Spirit for themselves. The Spirit had been given to Jesus only, but after the resurrection the Spirit became available for all as a new component of the life of faith. For us today who begin the journey of faith post-Pentecost, access to the Spirit has been granted at baptism. The gift of the Spirit to us is confirmed when we make a confession before the church that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. With Paul we assume that no one can make this confession unless the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives (I Cor. 12:3).

So all members of our congregations do have the Holy Spirit from baptism and confirming confession onward. There is no question therefore of adding the Holy Spirit afterward as a so-called "second blessing." What does need to be added on the part of all members is the realization that it was the Spirit in their lives that made their confessions possible. But that is only the beginning. The best-kept secret in Christendom is that the Spirit who is already present in our lives strains to free the cornucopia of gospel blessings that the illusions of discipleship keep stopped up. Most church members live as though the Spirit were not present in their lives. They thus suppress most of her effects beyond confession except a dutiful pursuit of the precepts and example of Jesus.

Most of us are living as the disciples at Ephesus who missed receiving the Holy Spirit because they were baptized into John's baptism and had never even heard that there was a Holy Spirit (Acts 19aff.). Given trinitarian baptism, receipt of the Spirit is behind us. Transition to life in the Spirit means coming to realize that the Spirit has been present all along, pressing for fuller expression so that the fruits of the Spirit may form on the otherwise barren- boughs of our trees of life. We are in the same circumstances as Timothy. He had the gift within him by nurture and by the laying on of hands but he needed to rekindle the gift until it delivered him from timidity to power, love, and self-control (II Tim. 1:4-7).

The church as body is the fellowship of those who together are coming to consciousness of being blessed by the Spirit. Entrance into the church as body leaves the individual behind as the primary unit of God's graceful work. In discipleship, individuals pursued their own advancement in competition with their companions -- witness the petitions of James and John and the question among the Twelve about who was greatest. These isolated and competitive selves are left behind in the transition to Spirit, and there emerge instead members of a body whose self is Christ.

The graces for spiritual maturing are distributed throughout the community in the form of complimentary gifts. One can mature as an individual only by finding his or her place within that community. Strictly speaking, individuals do not mature; the community matures, and individuals are drawn into the growth of the community. Each member has an essential gift which it is the privilege of each to discover and exercise within the community. That is the first assignment that devotees of the Spirit have in common. Now the full implication of the gift of the Spirit unfolds. The Spirit is given not merely to assure the individual Christian of fresh acceptance beyond humbling and to lift up the believer into the incredible intimacy of the circulation of divine life among Father, Son, and Spirit. Beyond all that, each member is given a gift for equipping the church as body with all the functions necessary to its maturing. The transition to Spirit completes itself as each member becomes aware of the Spirit in his or her life and identifies the particular function given to each for building up the church. Lists of such functions appear in three places within the Pauline school (I Cor. 12:7ff.; Rom. 12:6ff.; Eph. 4:11ff.) and once in I Peter 4:10ff. Mutual exercise of these functions makes maturing as a community the proximate goal of the Christian life. For this reason, although I am willing to grant that there may be salvation outside the church, there can be no maturing outside the church. Equipment for maturing is available only within that body.

Love's Body

It follows that the true charismatic is not a virtuoso performer drawing others after her or him like some spiritual Pied Piper, but a member of a community attuned to that community's needs. The New Testament does not have the word "charismatic." There are only the "charismata" or gifts that are "manifestations of the Spirit for the common good" (I Cor.12:7). The lists of charismata all pertain to encouragement, consolation, and edification of the church (I Cor. 14).57 In contrast to the Corinthian fascination with the unusual and miraculous, Paul ranked prophetic speaking highest among the charismata while including administration, acts of mercy, and the offering of funds.58 This proves that the mark of the Spirit's presence in the church through member participation is not attested by supernatural in contrast to natural activity. That misconception in Corinth made ecstatic speaking in tongues seem the surest proof of the Spirit's presence. To correct this fascination with the miraculous and spectacular, Paul inserted the language of I Corinthians 13 into the discussion of spiritual gifts. The insertion declares that love is the only sure sign of the Spirit's presence. The Spirit engenders love in each member of the body to knit the body together. Gifts are mere instruments of love.

Paul's emphasis on love as the superlative mark of the Spirit's activity parallels John's refrain throughout the farewell discourses that the one new commandment Jesus leaves is that the disciples love one another John 13: 34-35; 15:12, 17). The greatest miracle in the sphere of Spirit experience is the miracle of love (I Cor. 13:2). Since it is the presupposition and foundation of all manifestations of the Spirit, love's appearance is the surest sign of the Spirit's presence once there is confession of Jesus as Lord. It is the will of this Lord, above all, to love. As John insisted, that meant to love "one another"; to abide in Christ as the vine is to bear the fruit of loving the members of the Spirit community John 15:7-12). Paul insisted on the same thing as he sought to deal with the pluralism of the Corinthian congregation, with Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ as supposed champions of factions (I Cor. 1: 10-13). The apostle realized that unless the congregation could be united in love, the preaching of the gospel there would be frustrated by unloving competition. If, as we are maintaining, to become a Christian is to live a life and not merely to have a conversion experience, then the congregation must exemplify that life if it is to be the place where that life is nurtured.

Moltmann notes in connection with trinity that the image of God is a community of persons, Adam, Eve, and Seth, and not just the individual, Adam. Community is required for God to share blessings in the world. Community is the only adequate vehicle for God's presence. With the arrival in history of the Spirit community, the church as body replaced the nuclear family of Adam, Eve, and Seth. Now a congregation of devotees of Spirit, rather than the natural family, is the setting in which nurture for spiritual maturing takes place. Family membership does not entail the transition to life in the Spirit that is so necessary for such nurture.

The Johannine literature has been criticized for the emphasis it lays on love relationships within the believing community. This emphasis is often interpreted as a sign of sectarian separation from the world. John's community was committed to evangelize representatives of the whole broad spectrum of pluralism within Hellenistic culture. But unless the community could overcome the alienating factionalism of that pluralism with a Spirit-generated consensus, there could be no setting in which converts could mature. Without a love that rose above their differences, those in the church would remain only a baptized version of the pluralistic life of the world. Paul argued in effect for the same transcending of pluralism in his famous declaration: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). Love bridges all of these distinctions.

So at both places in his epistles where Paul offered a list of charismata for the life of the church as body, love comes to the fore as the ground and aim of all giftedness (I Cor. 13; Rom.12:9-10;13:8-10). What makes this love so miraculous is that it is love for fellow and sister communicants whose weaknesses and failings are only too well known, not just love for strangers or new acquaintances whose shortcomings are still hidden. Apart from this love we try to get along with people in the congregation but settle eventually for wary tolerance and the protective distance of cliques. There a select, like-minded few qualify for the privilege of our caring acceptance and intimacy. This will not do. What the Spirit calls for, in Thomas Kelly's words, is for us to "relove our neighbors as ourselves." "The people we know best, see oftenest, have most to do with, these are reloved in a new and a deeper way."59 In this reloving, the superlative miracle of life in the Spirit manifests itself within confessing communities. This makes possible the maturing which equips for mission.

Church Order Within the Body

Recognition of the church as the body of Christ composed of members mutually gifted by the Spirit for building up the community in love sets the stage for a radical reconception of church order. Until realization of the Spirit's presence dawns and mutual gifts are identified, the church is bound to order itself by rank.

Hierarchical order arises when ordained leaders operate as the only gifted persons in a crowd of disciples with little spiritual equipment. The crowd's main task is to gather passively to receive the benefit of the leader's charismata. This arrangement implies a qualitative distinction between clergy and laity. Our scheme of the Christian life reveals that this is really a distinction of phase of maturation. When disciples grow into giftedness, they can perform the functions of spiritual leadership as well.

Unless hierarchical ordering of churchly gatherings makes a place for another companion order more appropriate to a gifted community, the ordering necessitated by discipleship will inhibit maturing in the Spirit. In communities gathered as the body of Christ, Christ operating through the Spirit as head and source of life in the gathered body takes the place that clerical leadership must occupy in the discipleship phase. There is here a ranking of gifts according to the importance of their contribution to building up the body, but there is no longer any ranking of persons by office. From a human point of view the body is a leaderless group. Leadership circulates as the Spirit inspires those present in response to the issue at hand. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (I Cor. 12:7). When they come together then, "each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation," as all things are done for edification (I Cor. 14:26). This passage in I Corinthians and the similar one in Ephesians 5:18-20 offer glimpses of the church gathered under an ordering of the Spirit appropriate to the church as the body of Christ knit together and led by the Spirit.

Continuation of the Crucifixion

Transition to this kind of gathering after long practice of the rank and file ordering of discipleship will entail continuation of the crucifixion of self that launched entrance to life in the Spirit. Official leaders of disciples will have to suffer the crucifixion of the selves formed on the basis of clerical elevation within the local congregation and within the church at large. Disciples comfortable in the passive roles of listening observers and dependent followers will have to suffer the crucifixion of their passive selves as they accept responsibility for sharing leadership with the people. This reordering is bound to entail fear. Those defined as clergy will fear loss of status. Those defined as laity will fear inability to perform the new roles. The latter can take comfort in remembering that the Spirit has prayed through them when they did not know how to pray. They may expect the Spirit to lead through them when they have not known how to participate in leadership. Those with grace to risk body gatherings will find that as in everything else God works for good with those who love and who recognize the Spirit's mothering toward new levels of maturing.

No doubt a Spirit-generated order complicates the administration of a congregation where many, if not most, members are still in a discipleship phase of maturing. It means that two different church orders must be carried on simultaneously. We should not be put off. This is a familiar story in the history of the church. The Spirit has always been forming an ekklesiola within ekklesia. What makes them manageable is the recognition that both orders are authentic expressions of church and that both are necessary to serve the whole spectrum of maturing. Each is appropriate to the combination of levels of maturing of a particular gathering. Care must be taken to encourage and to enable disciples to gather in ways that supplement the traditional Sunday morning service lest it become the final form of churchly gathering. The same care must be taken to encourage devotees of Spirit not to disdain gathering in common with everyone else on Sunday morning so that the means of grace offered Sunday morning keep check on the subjectivity of Spirit experiences. Sunday morning worship is not just for the less mature. It is common worship for all phases of maturing. It is the place in the life of a congregation where love binds the whole congregation together. Members who disdain gathering with the less mature reveal their own decline in spirituality.

Each congregation member deserves a continuing invitation to a place in a body group as well as to a particular seat in the sanctuary for Sunday's common worship. Maturing members will reserve places in both. The functions of smaller groups and common worship overlap.

The prospect of managing such a split-level church will no doubt seem to many to be an impossible task. Administering and resourcing a one-level congregation is already a 150 percent time commitment. To add another whole set of meetings and programs may seem beyond human limitations. The whole idea of keeping peace between the mass of the congregation and the small groups who think of themselves as maturing may make some pastors want to reject this whole scheme out of hand. The leadership called for here may seem beyond human capacity, but that will be the key to its implementation. To begin with, there is the call to "complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col. 1:24). The greatest danger to pastors is not the complication these two orders bring to their lives. The greatest danger is that by avoiding a Spirit order they will become locked into the role of sole leader and forfeit the help for ministry that the breeze of the Spirit brings.

From the point of view of disciple-leadership, stepping aside to make way for the Spirit may seem like a come-down as well as an invitation to chaos. From the point of view of life in the Spirit it will mean rising to a level of congregational life unattainable before. Nor should a congregation expect less order when the Spirit leads. "For God is not a God of confusion but of peace" (I Cor. 14:33).

Perhaps it only seems threatening beforehand. After the fact, pastoral leaders may find themselves for the first time in a position to receive ministry as well as give it. The Spirit waits to comfort clergy as well as laity. After all, placing oneself at the disposal of the Spirit through the church as body is the answer to burnout. To offer one's gifts in love for the maturing of the church as body and to receive the benefits of the loving gifts of others in return is what ministry is all about. To discern the body of Christ in mutual ministry is as crucial as discerning the body in the partaking of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. By the same token, many of us are ill and weak, and some have died, so far as maturing is concerned, precisely through failure to discern the body in mutual ministry (I Cor. 11:30).

Launching a Soma Group

Everyone knows what church looks like as it gathers for Sunday morning worship. We have less experience with groups that intend to take shape as the body of Christ. The Greek word for body is soma, so we call groups with this special intention "soma groups." What distinguishes them from other gatherings?

Soma group members have in common some experience of transition to life in the Spirit. That means they have come to see the difference between upward mobility and maturing in the Spirit. They are seeking to explore how that maturing works. They have come to realize that this maturing will require power beyond the self. They believe that this power is available in the Holy Spirit. They are seeking to make connection with the Spirit for this power in order to mature beyond the shaky beginnings of humiliation at the failure of discipleship. They live in fresh hope that a new level of life is in prospect. They have begun the startling identification of a chronic weakness in their makeup as Christians. They understand that they are gifted in some particular way so they can contribute to the group's maturing. They probably have not yet identified that particular gift. They may or may not have had practice in exercising it so that it benefits a group. Some probably have been exercising their gifts in the life of the congregation without identifying them as gifts of the Spirit. They understand that their maturing depends upon participation with others in something like a soma group. These distinguishing marks of soma members suggest an agenda.

Some groups might begin by recounting faith journeys that brought them to readiness for a soma gathering. The convener need not supply content for the group. The content is already there in the lives of the members. The convener's task is to facilitate a process by which members may comfortably share their faith stories with the group. The convener can also help the stories come out by asking questions that refer to the facets of experience I have mentioned above that make up transition to life in the Spirit and maturing in the church. As the members hear from one another the Spirit finds opportunity to confirm, encourage, and draw each member and the group as a whole on to greater maturing. The group obviously must be small.

I would not expect a soma group to form in a parish until the pastoral leader has done considerable preaching, teaching, and counseling about life in the Spirit and about the marks of the church as the body of Christ. The pastor must also have followed up public discussion with pastoral conversations that have elicited faith stories. Probably the first soma group in a parish should form by personal invitation from the pastor after he or she has heard enough faith stories of prospective members to be reasonably sure they are ready with the elements of experience and consciousness that characterize a soma group.

The group should begin as a contract group. Members contract to share their faith journeys in weekly meetings for as long as it takes for each person's faith story to be told with leisure. In these first weeks of the group's life I would not allow members to offer help to one another unless someone asks for specific help. I would make that a ground rule. The first stage of the group's life is for listening. To begin with, that will be help enough.

After all the stories of the group are out, then I would ask the members what they found helpful in hearing the stories of others, and, only after that, what each found difficult to understand or accept. "I" statements would be the norm, rather than "you" statements with their implied judgment. The initial contract period would close with an opportunity for each member to say whether he or she wishes to continue into the next contract period. The contract in the next stage would be to begin to explore how to help one another in a common quest for maturing in the Spirit.

In addition to assembling the group by invitation, the pastor would probably want to tell her or his story early on to model the procedure of sharing. After that the main business of the convener would be to monitor the process to see that it kept to the group's contract.

The group should open with a brief devotional period on some aspect of life in the Spirit. Time should be set aside in each session when the group would meditate together in silence. Begin and close with a hymn or song. I would close the silent prayer portion with the Lord's Prayer in common. Spontaneous group participation in prayer would fit the second stage when members had contracted for greater intimacy.

This is enough to indicate the initial stage of the life of a soma group. Its beginning focus would be the life stories of the members. All together these would amount to the story of the activity of the Spirit in the lives of the group so far. It would also amount to the beginning of the story of the life of the Spirit in the group as a group in process of becoming the body of Christ.

The second contract stage would concentrate on discovering the disciplines that facilitate life lived consciously under the empowering, comforting guidance of the Holy Spirit. The group would agree to reinforce the discipline of Bible study, devotional reading, and prayer and meditation that each member is developing. In that context the group would offer help in overcoming obstacles to practicing the presence of God in the Spirit. At this point the group would begin to exercise the gifts they had begun to identify in the initial stage. In addition to continuing the format of the first stage, each weekly session would end with a go-around for each person to say what help the session had been that time. These suggestions address nurture, only one of the two foci of a soma group. The other focus of a soma group is mission.

 

PART II: MATURING IN MISSION

 

Worldwide and Cosmic Scope of Mission

Whether gathered with a body group on a Sunday morning in a sanctuary or on a weekday evening, the sojourner in maturing only pauses there. Church gatherings are not the final destination of the journey of faith. The journey of faith is ultimately a journey in mission. The church is a training facility or staging area to launch members into mission, a M*A*S*H unit to return them to service when they are wounded in the line of duty, a rest area in which they can catch the breath of the Spirit when fatigue in mission sets in. "There remains a sabbath rest for the people of God," says the writer of Hebrews, but that final rest is not here, not now (Heb. 4:9).

Paul probably invented the idea of the church as the "body of Christ."60 He makes clear that its ultimate function is not upbuilding for its own sake. The church as Christ's body is the vehicle of Christ's mission to the world.

The church in mission lies at the root of Paul's whole understanding of his apostleship. The great contribution of Eduard Schweizer's fresh appreciation of Romans is to enable us to see that the book did not arise primarily to teach the doctrine of justification by faith to disciples struggling under the burden of producing their own righteousness, but as an expression of Paul's implementation of the church's calling to be the missionary body of Christ.61 The thrust of the letter and the church consciousness it represents is summed up in Rom. 1:16: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." Although Paul was not personally acquainted with the church of Rome, he fully expected that as church the people would sympathize and support him in the common mission to spread the gospel where it had never been heard by Gentiles (Rom. 15:15-21). In this case it meant support to go to Spain (Rom. 15:24).

In Colossians and Ephesians the mission of the church as "body" takes on cosmic dimensions. The author revises the hymn at the base of Colossians 1:15-20 so as to make Christ the creator and reconciler of all creation. As a by-product of this cosmic reconciliation the gospel has in principle already been declared from heaven to every creature (Col. 1:23; Eph. 3:9-10). The task of the church as "body" is to implement this cosmic principle with the concrete preaching of the gospel to the whole world and especially to the Gentiles (Col. 1:27; Eph. 2:11-19).

Christians are destined to be missionaries. We were warned from the beginning. Before the first four who were called to discipleship knew quite what they were getting into, Jesus had declared that they would continue to be fishermen, only it would be people they would catch (Mark 1:17; Matt. 4:19; Luke 5:10). Jesus modeled this missionary, fishing function from the beginning.

For the sake of presentation I have concentrated the consideration of mission toward the end of this discussion. That was not the order in which mission was experienced in the New Testament church. Wherever and whenever men and women began the journey of faith it was always in the context of the mission already in progress. Jesus recruited and trained disciples while he was engaged in the mission. New Testament Christians were always missioners in on-the-job training.

While the disciples were granted some time to observe and listen, they were soon put into mission themselves as extensions of the ministry of Jesus. This occurred long before they had experienced the maturing enlightenment of the transition to life in the Spirit. Even at an immature stage they were able to do exorcism and healing, although their preaching of the kingdom of God must have been distorted by their misunderstanding of it. The lesson is that it is better to risk the errors immature disciples will make while engaging in mission than delay participation until disciples are more mature. What is to be avoided is the impression that mission is optional. Jesus gave the first disciples authority to engage in mission despite their immaturity (Matt. 10:1; Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1). Mission engagement is an obligation in every phase of the journey of faith.

Worldwide mission is mandated or assumed by every New Testament author. In Mark, world mission fills the time until the return of the Son of man (Mark 13:10). The result of that mission will be that when the Son of man comes there will be elect to be gathered "from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven" (Mark 13:27). Matthew's great commission fills the same time with the worldwide ministry-in-mission of the disciples until "the close of the age" (Matt. 28:18-20). Luke also filled the time until the end with the church in mission "to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). John's departing Christ sent the disciples into the world for mission just as he had been sent John 17:18). Their whole function under the Paraclete was to be witnesses (15:27). Worldwide and transcultural mission in John's community is implied by the arrival of Greek inquirers (12:20-22) and by the trilingual declaration over a crucifixion (19:20) designed "to draw everyone" to him (12:32). The authors cited represent a consensus of the New Testament church. To be a Christian is to be engaged in one way or another in world mission.

The mission went forward primarily by the preaching of a cadre of apostles and prophets appointed to this special function. Still their ministry depended on the recognition, commission, financial support, and hospitality of the rank and file of local congregations. The prophetic witness to the gospel depended for its authentication upon the quality of life of these local communities. Even when a disciplelike understanding of church order put charismatic figures alone in leadership roles, the witness of every individual was still crucial. Members were recruited continually for this confirming witness. That is the force of the commission to the cured demoniac from the country of the Gerasenes: "Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you" (Mark 5:19). In obeying that commission the cured demoniac fulfilled the equivalent of a prophet's ministry. Mark called his confirming witness "proclamation" (Mark 5:20).

At the more advanced stage of maturing in mission the distinction between prophetic and ordinary witness disappears. We have seen how this happens when the church becomes a body of mutually gifted believers. Paul's letters show he had fellow workers-traveling companions, such as Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25; 4:18), and people in every local congregation, such as Aquila and Prisca (I Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3-5)-who seem to have shared the mission fully with him though they were not bearers of any office. They were people who had heeded Paul's advice to seek the gift of prophecy above all others, and their prayers had been answered (I Cor. 14:1). The lesson in all this is clear. In every phase of the Christian life, those who are willing to participate in the mission of the church to the extent of their ability grow and mature. By the same token, apart from mission, spiritual growth stops and atrophy sets in. This lesson is a familiar one. What is not so well understood is how we get from New Testament mandates for mission to the modern mandate for social change.

 

Social Mission

The cured demoniac reminds us that healing accompanied the proclamation as a standard feature of mission. These healings, as the constant accompaniment of oral witness, symbolize the fact that the church in mission always took care of every human need at the same time that it offered the particular blessing of salvation. This "second mile," beyond the formal obligation of religious propaganda common to every other religion of New Testament times, was what made the mission effective. I am sure John Gager is largely correct when he accounts for the success of Christianity in the competition with its rivals by the fact that it was social as well as religious .62 That implied, among other things, total care for the neighbors to whom the mission was brought. A Roman emperor put his finger on this caring as the factor that made the church's witness so effective. "Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that has done the most to increase atheism [he meant Christianity]? It is disgraceful that when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans support not only their own but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us."63 This care for the needy (Matt. 25:34-39), coupled with the oral witness, made the mission effective. This is the point that growth evangelism tends to overlook.

Care in the early missionary church was not so obsessively interpersonal that it lost track of the sociocreational context that determined the quality of personal life. As Christiaan Beker takes pains to point out, Paul looked forward to the redemption of all creation to which our bodies now bind us in premillennial groaning (Rom. 822-23) .64 Not only Pauline thought but the whole apocalyptic undercurrent of the New Testament assumes that salvation for individuals is inconceivable without a transformation of the structures of society and creation; therefore the indispensable hope of the end. The promise in Colossians and Ephesians of the redemption of life from the tyranny of the principalities and powers carries out this same concern for the sociostructural side of life in terms of Hellenistic cosmology (Eph. 3:10; 6:12; Col. 1:16; 2:15).

This cosmic, sociocreational dimension of redemption grounds the modern mandate for social change. The lordship of Christ in the present is already working toward the transformation of social structure. Christ will complete this project only at the end, but he is engaged in it already. His body, the church, must engage in it with him. The principalities and powers that oppose God come to expression in the social forces that social structures embody. All Christians are obligated by connection with Christ to work for social structures that embody his blessed reign.

The Risks of Social Mission

Taking missionary responsibility for the sociostructural context of life is what makes participation in mission so risky. When those who depend upon existing structures for "the good life" detect that the church's mission involves shaking up these very structures, a profound change of attitude sets in. Engaging in mission becomes dangerous. The resistance of those who benefit from existing structures is what tradition calls persecution. When the Roman emperor Julian described Christians as "atheist" and "impious," he meant they were subversives who threatened the social and political structures of the Roman Empire. . In the light of these structural implications of mission, the cross becomes as relevant to service in mission to the world as it was to maturation within the church -- only now it has much more direct correlation with Jesus' crucifixion. As we grow in faith the significance of the cross for the journey of faith shifts. To begin with, it appeared at the Lord's Supper to provide in some unspecified way forgiveness "for many." Then in Gethsemane it blocked the way to religious upward mobility and came to symbolize the death of the self formed by that enterprise. In the church as the body of Christ the cross came to mean the extending of self-denial to incorporation into a community where the personal religious quest of each member was subordinated to the upbuilding in love of the whole. Finally, in risky mission the meaning of the cross comes full circle as the world's response to those who, like their Lord, not only reject the world's way of life but also bring the critical and transforming witness of the gospel to bear on the structures that support and define that worldly way. In short, when loving witness escalates to a concern for justice, as it must in the maturing missioner, the church as missionary body of Christ will seem as threatening to the world as Jesus did in his original body.

From the world's point of view it was bad enough when the early church only witnessed to the imminent but future transformation of the structures of the world by a final act of God at the end. When the church takes steps to implement some degree of that transformation now, the reaction escalates. To accept with love the suffering that this reaction entails, still rejoicing in the grace of God, is a sure sign of maturing.

The full scope of loving mission to the world is threefold: verbal proclamation of and testimony to the gospel (witness); relief of every human need we encounter (charity); challenge, reformation, and recreation of all of the social structures of life that affect the well-being of each member of society (social action). The New Testament is full of the first two. The expectation of the end eclipsed the third although it is witnessed to in the renewal of creation and society promised as part of that end. With the passing of time and the realization that the structures of society are of our own making, concern to implement justice now must take its place as equal in importance to witness and charity. If love has its way with us, we must realize, sooner or later, that passing out cups of cold water to thirsty neighbors is no substitute for a public water system; that coming to the imprisoned is no loving substitute for legal aid if the imprisoned ought not to be there in the first place; that visitation of the sick is no substitute for a system of adequate medical care available to all.

To mature in mission is to be willing to engage in witness, charity, and action for justice simultaneously whatever the risk in loss of worldly status and reward. Maturing in mission means becoming willing to grow to the place where we are relatively indifferent to the punishing reaction our efforts may inspire in some. Even Jesus' opponents begrudgingly admired this indifference. "Teacher, we know that you are true and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men, but truly teach the way of God" (Mark 12:14).

It takes some time to mature to this point. When Paul first encountered opposition from the representative of the dominant social structure in Arabia, his gospel apparently had challenged the final authority of King Aretas. When persecution set in, the novice missionary became a basket case, turning tail to run for safety to Jerusalem. In retrospect he recognized that as a genuine weakness (II Cor. 11:30ff.). He grew beyond that weakness, as subsequent imprisonments prove. It is indicative of Paul's final maturing that the church last remembered him as in prison making the most of his opportunity to preach the gospel and generalizing from his lifelong maturing in mission: "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (II Tim. 3:12). The world notes when the missioner is willing to pay a price to witness. This willingness to risk loss seals the sincerity of the witness in the eyes of a world suspicious of every kind of huckster.

The greatest obstacle to maturing in the American churches in our time comes from our division into parties, one of which practices witness and charity to the exclusion of acts of justice, while the other practices justice and charity to the exclusion of witness. Maturing in church and in mission means creating "one new person in place of [these] two, so making peace" as surely as reconciliation in the first century meant a new person created out of the party heritage of Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:15).

Intimacy with God in Christ by the Spirit binds all three facets of mission together. Out of Spirit intimacy the willing missioner is led to see which facet of mission is appropriate to each occasion. The party of the church committed to witness and charity is familiar with this guidance, but their prejudice usually has excluded guidance to action for justice. On the other hand, those committed to action for justice usually scorn the piety of intimacy and the guidance associated with it. We need to recover the wholeness of maturing in mission modeled in the life of one of the authentic saints of the American church, the Quaker, John Woolman. It was precisely intimacy with God and the guidance flowing from it that led him to the "concern" for freeing slaves in colonial America. That piety guided him to simplify his business and family life so that they would serve the "concern" that grew upon him until he became a one-man abolition society traversing the colonies to act for justice in the case of slaves.65

Maturing piety eventually leads each of us to a "concern" for some aspect of justice in the world that becomes a lifelong missionary calling giving special point and focus to love for the world. Only God can bear the care of all the fronts for justice in the world. In mercy God distributes that care in modest, individual-sized bundles to match the gifts for mission the Spirit bestows on each of us. No one ought to suppose that he or she has received the full experience of the journey of faith until having received his or her bundle. But the bundle comes with no promise of resounding success.

Patience

Faith, hope, and love abide. We have seen how faith leads to intimacy and intimacy to an appreciation of the greatest of these, love. We have seen how love grounds all that the maturing believer does in church and in mission. But, finally, the maturing sojourner lives in hope, for none of the great projects of justice worth attempting in faith and love ever comes to completion in this world. We have been adequately warned of this by Paul's description of the Spirit as "first fruits" and "down payment" (Rom. 8:23; II Cor.1:22; 5:5). This does not imply that the Spirit has been given to us only in part, that God withholds something of the Spirit from us here and now. It means that the Spirit is a power from the age to come when the purposes of God will be completely realized in a way that is impossible under the circumstances of this age. What one hopes for in this life is the grace to stay in the service of one's "concern" in spite of all discouragement at the lack of results. The hope that social transformation will happen in God's good time, though we may not live to see it, enables us to wait for it with patience (Rom. 8:25). This connection of patience and hope makes the triad of faith, love, and steadfastness (Titus 2:2) just as apt as the one in I Corinthians 13 .66 Those are the virtues recommended especially for "the elder," which means the more mature, person. A decisive mark of maturing is the strength to stay lifelong with an unfinished mission assignment. This is no human achievement but is a gift from God. Its mood is joy and thanksgiving rather than Stoic apathy (Col. la 1-12). John VVoolman knew the gift of "looking less at the Effects of my Labor, than at the Motion and Reality of the concern as it arises from heavenly Love" with the result that when he continued to follow his God-given concern "in Patience and Meekness, heavenly Peace is the Reward of our Labors."

Completing the Soma Group's Agenda

The soma group resembles a parabola with two foci. As we saw above, the initial focus is nurture. The culminating focus is mission. The risen Christ is as restless to get on with the mission in his second incarnation in the church as he was in his first incarnation as the historical Jesus. "Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out" (Mark 1:38). "I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following" (Luke 13: 32r33). Luke dramatized the shift from one focus to another in his portrayal of the soma group in the upper room in Jerusalem. At first they concentrated on the nurture focus in prayer (Acts 1:12-14). Then the mission focus exploded on them in the form of Pentecost (Acts 2:11). The parabola pattern completed itself.

This stage of the life of a soma group features a contract to share the ways in which the sites where members live, work, and do their politics offer opportunity for mission. At last we come to the goal of all institutional church life -the ministry of the laity in the world. Everything that happens within the institution up until this point is mere preparation. The agenda of the group now becomes the relating of the circumstances of each member's life as these circumstances call for witness, charity, and justice. What is called for? What is each attempting? What is working? What is not? How shall we be strengthened to attempt what we are afraid to try? How shall we proceed to meet the opportunities that we clearly see?

Now the group must tap the gifts and graces of all to meet the challenges that mission brings. The time for merely listening is over. Help must be offered. If the problems that emerge are beyond the resources of the group, then they must decide together where to go to get the help they need.

The prayer and meditation that is already a feature of the group's life will now take up the problems and challenges of each person's mission. Some mission opportunities call for study and research. There will be homework to do. The group will become a study group as well as a discussion group, a prayer group, and a workshop for mission. In the measure to which the group embraces the work of both nurture and mission foci, it is coming to share the work of the pastoral leader. In soma groups the laity come to share the ministry of the church professional.

The End of Clerical Isolation

As the institution structures it, the task of the church leader is the loneliest profession in the world. Although in theory the ministry of the church belongs to the whole people of God, until soma groups emerge the minister does the church's ministry almost single-handedly. The laity just receive that ministry. With time this arrangement becomes an intolerable burden, for no one member of the body has the gifts and graces necessary to carry out the whole ministry of nurture and mission for the church. God has distributed the gifts and graces for the church's ministry throughout its ranks, clergy and laity included. But until a soma group forms, the gifts and graces of the laity remain mostly untapped. Laity choke in their development at a point where they scarcely suspect they have any gifts and graces to offer. With the emergence of soma members as gifted missioners, the clergyperson finally gets the comradeship in ministry that good theologies of ministry promise but that the institutional church is simply not structured to deliver. If they emerge soon enough, soma groups are the clergyperson's best insurance against burnout and mid-career crisis. If these emerge later, the soma groups are the best remedy.

Churches for the Unchurehed Clergy

Clergypersons need soma groups to fulfill their ministry as much as laypersons do. The institutional church structures the role of the parish leader so that he or she is practically unchurched. The pastor is forever dispensing the means of grace but only rarely receives them. Most clergy cannot worship well while leading worship. Even fewer clergy can hear the Word of God adequately through their own preaching. This is why clergy are so starved for common worship when they gather for continuing education events. They have been accumulating hunger for the means of grace for monthsl

The only answer to nurture for clergy so that they are enabled to fulfill their ministries is for them to take the initiative to form soma groups of their own. Unless clergy do this for themselves they are bound to deteriorate in their own spiritual maturation as well as in their capacity to minister. The bitter irony is that Protestant clergy are the least churched members of their churches although they are always in church. The constant offering of the means of grace largely passes them by. It is as though the world’s famous chefs, as a group, suffered from malnutrition bordering on starvation. Clergy must come out of the kitchen and sit at table to be fed like the rest. Their table will be the soma group composed of clergy who follow the same staged agenda we have suggested for everyone else in the church. At this table the personal trauma and crisis that the institution builds into the profession as now constituted can be eased or prevented by the same good news and divine care we see our parishioners enjoy.

For clergy, the first stage of the agenda will include relating the call to ministry and the meaning of that call to each as part of personal stories of faith. Nurture for clergy will include tips and encouragement from one another for mastery of the various roles the institution expects of its professional leaders. Getting good at what they are required to do is the foundation of respect and self-esteem that permits further development.

Performing the roles that the institution calls for, however, does not yet shift the clergyperson to the mission focus. That happens when pastors start to turn parish ministry outward to the world where unchurched people are. Only when clergy too engage the world in witness, charity, and justice, thereby escaping the ghetto of the institutional church, does their soma group become the body of Christ with its peculiar gifts and graces. In this they are just like laity.

The ultimate agenda item for clergy gathered as body of Christ will be finding how to lead the parishioners as individuals and as a congregation to fulfill their mission in the world. The resistance that arises within the congregation to this definition of its reason for being will be the modern clergyperson's equivalent of the persecution that arose within Judaism to the ministries of Jesus and the early church. I do not expect, however, that we need to anticipate martyrdom as the final seal of our ministries. If we offer our parishioners the chance to grow spiritually, they will come to see this meaning for themselves, just as clergy have. Thus everything depends on our skill and commitment in turning the roles assigned to clergy within the institution into occasions to nurture parishioners toward maturing in the church as body of Christ in mission beyond the institution. In terms of master role, the prophetic guide makes strategic use of each professional role to offer the resources for laity to mature in the Christian life. Maturing parishioners will come to see that the institution is worth the trouble it takes to support and maintain only when it serves their ministry in the world. Let us see what this means role by role for the pastoral leader as prophetic guide.

 

Notes (Notes 1 - 53 are in the previous chapters)

54. This vulnerability is reflected in the pericope threatening dire consequences to those who cause "little ones," i.e., new converts, to stumble (Mark 9:42-50 and pars.).

55. Outler, John Wesley, p. 69.

56. Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament, pp. 94ff.

57. Other occurrences of "charisma" are sexual continence (I Cor. 7:7) and office (I Tim. 4:14; II Tim. 1:6) when the Pauline idea of church as body has faded.

58. "He [Paul] includes among the gifts of grace the performance of such `natural' ministries as the guidance of the Church, or the care of other people-things that it would never have entered the Corinthians' heads to regard as the effects of the Spirit." (Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament, p. 102.)

59. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, pp. 123, 100.

60. Eduard Schweizer, Neotestamentica (Zurich: Zwingli Verlag, 1963), p. 290.

61. Schweizer, "The Church as the Missionary Body of Christ," in Neotestamentica, pp. 312-329.

62. John G. Gager, Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity (Prentice-Hall, 1975), p. 131.

63. Ibid., pp. 130f.

64. J. Christian Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Fortress Press, 1980), pp. 3631

65. "Through the mercies of the Almighty, I had, in a good degree, learned to be content with a plain way of living. I had but a small family.... Then I lessened my outward business, and, as I had opportunity, told my customers of my intentions, that they might consider what shop to turn to; and in a while I wholly laid down merchandise and followed my trade as a tailor by myself, having no apprentice. I also had a nursery of apple trees." (The journal of John Woolman, ed. with an intro by Thomas S. Kepler, pp. 43-44; World Publishing Co., 1954.) Woolman's remaining two occupations gave him most freedom to follow his "concern" which included Indians with whom he visited and his countrymen in England where he died of smallpox while pursuing his concern there.

66. Theological Wordbook of the New Testament, Vol. 4, p. 591.

Viewed 50883 times.