This month: 189 - Freedom in Christ
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Matt Dabbs

Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

Homepage: http://mattdabbs.com

Reading this book was an extended experience of clarity for me and I think it will be for you as well. There are things we hear that we just aren’t so certain are true but don’t have the background or information to back it up. It isn’t that we are upset, we just need clarity in order to see reality.

Leonard Allen’s new book, “In the Great Stream” offers historical background into the influences of Churches of Christ that accomplish several very important things:

1 – The book positions us in the broader Christians/denominational spectrum in regard to our influences, philosophy, and theology. Many of us grew up hearing and believing that our roots circumvented all the man made denominations and impurities of doctrines and simply went back to the first century and brought it into our day. Dr. Allen does a fine job of demonstrating how that is not true. He maps out the various influences and how they shaped the Restoration Movement at large and churches of Christ in particular in the centuries leading up to our movement. These influences are denominational/religious (Anabaptists, Free Church, etc) they are philosophical (John Locke and Thomas Reid’s “common sense”, rationalism, empiricism, and modernism), and they are cultural. The point of all of this is to demonstrate that regardless of our claim, we already have philosophical underpinnings that tie us to broader Christendom. This should be acknowledge more readily as the evidence has been put on the table. He gives many examples of things I heard growing up quoted from people who pre-dated Campbell.

2 – The healthy place of tradition in the life of the church and the resulting acceptance of a connection to the “Great Tradition”. Allen makes the case that our a-historical claim and lack of connection to the denominational world has resulted in an unnecessary (and inaccurate) disconnect from broader Christendom that has been unhelpful for our movement as a whole. I was taught the opposite – that any connection with those things would be absolutely detrimental. He spends quite a bit of time talking about the value of tradition and the necessary place of creeds in Christianity and how we have rejected some things that could have been quite helpful to us over the years. Having a creed or a Rule of Faith can anchor us, especially as those things are derived directly from scripture. Tradition and connection with other Christian groups isn’t just something we should accept, it is something we should celebrate and appreciate for a very ironic reason. Rather than other groups and church tradition pulling us away from the truth, they can actually help anchor us more firmly in the truth of the Scriptures!

3 – The history of Churches of Christ in relation to the Holy Spirit. Chapter 6 explains the view on the Holy Spirit starting with Stone and the growth of early Churches of Christ in the South in the early 1800s and then the advent of Alexander Campbell and his hyper rational approach that won the day. From there Allen highlights major influences in the Restoration Movement and the varying views on the Spirit that will surprise many in Churches of Christ. Our history is varied and it is important we recognize that because it is one more reminder that the first century Church didn’t just carbon copy itself and drop into the early 1800s to be lived out consistently until this day. Once again, this reminds us of our varied history and doctrine and how that can help us get along with others who have views that don’t overlap with our particular piece of the Restoration puzzle.

All of this is written in such a kind and considerate tone. I cannot begin to say how much I appreciate that. Much more could be said about this book and all of it positive. I hope you will inform yourself by picking up a copy, reading it and passing it along or getting a copy for a friend. You will not regret it!

Freedom is a beautiful concept. There are so many things in this world that can enslave our thoughts and even our very soul. Exodus through Judges to the Exile and return in the prophets plus Ezra and Nehemiah we see how God is a God of liberation. We see the same thing in the New Testament in Jesus and the Kingdom Gospel. Jesus comes to deliver us from all who oppress us and release us from the power of sin and death along with the principalities and power who bind us up.

Freedom is a glorious thing.

Freedom can also be abused. We are “Free in Christ” not “Free from Christ.” Free in Christ is recognizing the liberation Jesus brings us to live a kingdom life. Free from Christ would mean free from his kingdom rule and reign and the expectations of life that kingdom.

I look forward to discussing these things further in how we find the biblical place of freedom without taking it to a place that is harmful to us – complete libertinism.

“The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If
they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are
simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.”

– CS Lewis

When Peter gave the great confession in Matthew 16:18 Jesus replied with only one of two times he mentions the word “church” – that upon the confession and truthfulness of Jesus’ Lordship that He would build His church.

What kind of church was/is Jesus building?

What kind of churches are being built today?

Are they the same thing?

First, church comes from the Greek word ekklesia, which is a group of assembled people. Of course, Jesus didn’t speak Greek. He spoke Aramaic. If He had used the Hebrew word it would have been Qahal which is also a reference to a group of people.

If you want to know what kind of church is being built you need to know what kind of people are being built. If you want to know what kind of people Jesus is building you look to Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit to transform us more and more into Christ’s likeness. The process where that transformation takes place is discipleship – learning the ways of Jesus to be identified with Jesus and be made more and more like Jesus with the Spirit’s help.

How have we traditionally defined “church”? I have lots of opinions on that but I will keep them to myself in this particular article. I will let you ponder that for yourself.

Have we identified church with the spiritual development and maturation of those who assemble? If not, why not? Why is it that some of the most “mature” among us are often not very Christ-like…have a faith that could be blown over by a gentle wind…because we defined church in a way that allowed that to happen. This person, like most of us, has had zero accountability in their life with little to no actual expectation to grow in their faith formation and spiritual character maturation to be “more like Jesus” rather than to “know like Jesus” (doctrine) which often meant “know like Paul”.

What gives us our identity as the gathered people of God is Jesus himself. What unites us even in the midst of our diverse opinions is the Holy Spirit. What keeps us moving in the same direction is our mission and marching orders in the Great Commission. And as we live into that mission the assembled people of God deepen in faith and maturity, together.

We need to spend more time considering what kind of disciples we are producing and the character and maturity of those disciples. If your church is composed of immature Christians who have been through thousands of Bible classes, shouldn’t we ask ourselves how that ever happened?

What kind of gospel have we accepted that results in the production of perpetually immature disciples?

Disciples are not adequately produced because you followed the pattern. Disciples need to be instructed in the ways of Jesus. They must be mentored…walked along side…not invited to hundreds of passive studies with zero follow through and no accountability.

What is more, mature disciples are reproducing disciples. If the disciples we are producing are not active and involved in what Jesus instructed then we aren’t doing our job. If we think our job is to get people to worship correctly on Sunday and that is what pleases God, then we aren’t doing our job.

We need to take a close look at the fruit of our labor. It needs to be inspected. Paul wrote this in 1 Cor 3:10-15,

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”

What will happen when our work is tested? What will be revealed? What will happen when the churches we started are tested? The disciples we made are tested? Will they be found lacking or will they be found mature in their faith? These are serious matters!

By David Kneip

“Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

– William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream III.2.325

This famous quotation, a statement of pride by many a young woman, is not the only example in literature of a diminutive hero or heroine.  Novels frequently feature characters described as small or short, whether young people like the valiant Gavroche in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, or small adults like Charlotte Brontë’s title character in Jane Eyre.  As Christians, we also see this theme in Scripture.  The Bible is full of unlikely, “small” heroes, like the insignificant Hebrews becoming God’s chosen people, or the youngest son David becoming the greatest king in Israel’s memory.  As readers, we are often drawn to these characters because we can see how the odds are stacked against them, as they try to make their way in a “big” world.

For many decades, ACU’s annual Summit has been big.  Like, “thousands of people on campus at one time” big.  “Row after row after row of exhibits” big.  “Major national speakers” big.  We’ve had big themes and big dreams, and those big dreams have often brought big results.  

But over the last several years, we’ve noticed that “big” seems to have lost a bit of its luster.  Perhaps it’s due to the very power that brings these words to you – the internet – which has brought the big world out there into our homes and even our pockets!  People don’t need to come to gatherings like Summit in order to hear those big speakers or participate in large worship gatherings; we can simply subscribe to our favorite preacher’s podcast, or join the Zoom worship at a big church!  And people seem to be making that very choice, as attendance at gatherings like Summit has been declining all over the country. 

And then COVID showed up and shut down most events like Summit. But at a more personal level, we have faced a whole complex set of challenges as a result of this pandemic: isolation, uncertainty, illness, grief, and anger, just to name a few.  Regardless of their source, these challenges sap our joy and weaken our hope; taken together, they can be – and have been – highly debilitating for believers.

As a result, we have created Summit 2021 with these developments in mind.  Our theme this fall grows directly out of the past 18 months: “Seeking Hope, Finding Joy.”  We will speak frankly about the challenges that we face as disciples, as ministers, as servants.  We will seek to renew our hope in Jesus Christ, to refresh the joy that comes from the Holy Spirit, and to revitalize our desire to serve in God’s kingdom.  And we will do those things in some tried-and-true ways: through worshiping together, through hearing engaging speakers, and through Christian fellowship.

That word “fellowship” is crucial here.  It’s not just Summit’s content that attempts to address the realities of our world – it’s also the format.  As we’ve all learned over the past 18 months, there’s just nothing quite like face-to-face, embodied fellowship with other believers.  It is absolutely true that we can worship together online, and that we can pray for one another, sing together, and hear an excellent sermon via Facebook Live.  The same is true for ministers and other congregational leaders.  They need fellowship with others – in their town, in their church fellowship, in similar ministry roles – but like an online worship service, affinity groups on Facebook are just not quite the same.

So this year, in response to realities on the ground, and in light of the things we think we can provide, Summit is “going small.”  Rather than inviting you to a smorgasbord of events, hoping that you will find something meaningful to you, we are curating a set of experiences to which we want to invite you.  Both this fall and this spring, we will host short, intense gatherings of ministers and congregants for spiritual renewal and growth.  This fall’s Summit, to be held at ACU on October 14-15, will feature gathered communities of preachers, children’s ministers, and ministers in small churches, along with a “general interest” group for folks of all stripes.  Next spring, we’ll do it again at the end of March, with another set of focused communities for renewal.  You can learn more about all things Summit at www.siburtinstitute.org/summit.

We know that this model of Summit will be unfamiliar to some, but our goals are to equip church leaders and help churches thrive.  And as we see in Scripture, those goals can be met by moments big or small.  This year’s Summit is leaner, hopefully more efficient, and certainly more intentional.  Our hope is that, after you leave Abilene this October, you’ll be able to say of Summit, “though it was but little, it was fierce!”

I have thought for years that the church in the West is in decline. It seems that decline has accelerated as of late. The only issue is, it depends on who and what you count.

If you count “phonebook churches” – established churches with a building, street address, etc then yes there is a lot of decline going on. But if you count churches as a whole (which means including house churches) the numbers level out a bit. God is doing some amazing things through house church networks in the United States and I believe this is only going to grow.

I want to be careful this month to not sound like this is a criticism of institutional churches. My belief is that God needs all kinds of churches – big and small, in homes and in buildings for various purposes. God isn’t through with the institutional/traditional model of church. I also believe that God is just getting started in the house church movements in the U.S. and that is great news!

So welcome to August at Wineskins. I am excited to share what I have learned with you as we planted a church last year and God continues to show us how to do it!

A great number of ministers are closet introverts. Part of the reason for that is that becoming a minister requires much work that introverts enjoy doing (the ministry of study) while the actual work of ministry requires things extroverts enjoy doing. I am painting with a very broad brush and speaking very generally here.

This can create a problem – train ministers in the introvert world to send them out to do practical ministry in the extrovert world.

One of the challenges for the introvert minister is developing meaningful connections in the church. There is a belief among some ministers that people in the congregation should be held at arm’s length, to not let people get to close so that you don’t compromise your message. I don’t think that view has biblical or practical merit. Instead, I believe the person best able to speak into the life of the church and teach biblically is someone who has a deep knowledge of the congregation (formed through deep relationships) and what is going on in the lives of those the preacher preaches to week in and week out. Only then does the preacher have the tools to study and make local application in their ministry.

The extrovert minister may struggle to find the time to study and prepare (not always but this happens) and the introvert minister will have to pull themselves away from the books and the Logos Bible software in order to spend more time with people.

It can be hard to kick against the goads of our inclinations and drives. I am not saying we should be someone we aren’t but I am saying part of the responsibility of ministry is making needed shifts for the advancement of the kingdom. Advancing the kingdom is not done in isolation. Jesus didn’t even do that and we certainly aren’t better than him!

It is also important to not neglect the gifts we are given. Again, play to your strengths. If you strength is study and teaching, don’t neglect that. Just make sure you are making some effort to find balance so that your ministry can be healthy. Remember the first thing in creation that wasn’t good? For man to be alone – don’t let your personality lead to isolation in ministry. It is a dangerous place to be.

If your minister is an introvert, take initiative and invite them to lunch. So many people think their minister won’t have time for them but by and large most ministers would enjoy the opportunity to have some individual time with a member who reached out.

I want to be clear up front that the issue I am discussing isn’t directed toward any specific people or congregations but are more general observations over a long period of time.

The Restoration Movement often feels like a movement that isn’t moving. By moving I don’t mean radical anti-biblical changes. I mean movement in clear biblical instruction that would lead to health, vitality and growth in congregations. I believe this lack of movement is a direct result of the conclusions reached through the way we read the Bible that we need to reconsider.

Let’s start with what is often called the Fivefold ministry of Ephesians 4,

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 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.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Eph 4:11-16

In attempting to restore New Testament Christianity a large number of Churches of Christ would narrow this down from a Fivefold ministry to a Threefold ministry – excluding apostles and prophets. Apostles would get excluded because they died and when one reads the New Testament looking for authority to approve practice, there wouldn’t be any reason to think the apostolic role is still warranted much less authorized. Prophets are excluded because, the thought goes, the gift of prophesy ended a generation after the apostles because that gift was only (so they say) given by the apostles laying on of hands so when the apostles died so did the ability to give those gifts (never mind people in Acts did receive the gifts directly from the Spirit like in Acts 10).

What happens when the Fivefold ministry becomes a Threefold ministry? There are two parts to the answer:

1 – Look at what Paul said the five parts were designed to do when the church has all five:

  • Equip the church serve others
  • Build up the church
  • Bring unity to God’s people
  • Increase our knowledge
  • Grow us to maturity
  • Keep us from heresy

What happens as a result of dropping apostles and prophets is – We have little equipping. I believe the church spends a lot of time building itself up, lots of fellowship, lots of encouraging. Unity is lacking. Knowledge is increasing. Maturity is lacking in many instances because we have equated maturity with lots of knowledge but maturity is more than that (more on that another day). We have been serious about keeping away from heresy.

However, we haven’t embraced the full range of what God wants for His church as seen in the list above because we reject the mechanisms God put into place to ensure these things happen. What is more, those who have gifts from God go unused because we don’t see much need for those gifts or those gifts are seen to challenge (rather than balance) the gifts we think do remain (see below on pastors and apostles/prophets).

2 – Look at what each role is designed to accomplish and consider what you are left with if you remove two and keep three. The results I just outlined at the end of #1 above make sense when you consider the roles that were kept and the roles that were not. When you lose your apostles, you lose your visionaries. You lose your church planters and lead equippers.

When you lose your prophets you lose the ability to have any authoritative way to critique the way things are. You are left with pastors who are tasked with shepherding the flock – making sure everyone is okay. Making sure everyone is okay needs the balance of apostles and prophets or else no one goes anywhere. Apostles and prophets need the balance of pastors to make sure everyone gets where God is taking them.

You are also left with teachers – those who will build the knowledge of the congregation but, again, without the checks and balances of apostles and prophets it is easy to get stagnant. Unapplied knowledge goes unchallenged and people become biblically obese.

Last, you are left with evangelists – the evangelists evangelized on Sunday to those who are already saved. Some did more and some produced fruit, let’s be fair. So much of the focus of the church became internal in the loss of the apostle (those sent out on mission) and the prophet (those given direction from God to critique the system).

We need to ask ourselves whether or not we were correct in tossing apostles and prophets. Keep in mind in the New testament there are over 20 named apostles. The apostolic role was not only for the 12. Are there people today who have the apostolic leaning? I believe there are and they go severely underutilized unless they want to go to a foreign country. Are there people in our midst who are in tune with the Lord on a very personal level that it would be important to hear their input?

If your answer is no to both of those items, that they aren’t warranted today, then it is important to figure out how to not grow stagnant within the convictions and interpretations you already possess – to be faithful to the scriptures that tell us to go out, to make disciples of the nations, etc even if you don’t think the roles exist. Maybe you are in the middle – open to these roles still having a place but not sure how it looks or works out. That’s good – pray that God would make that clear and that those who possess the abilities would be empowered to use their gifts. Or maybe you are already out ahead of the curve and bought into the Fivefold ministry in some form or fashion today. I would love to hear how that has been played out in your church and life.

I believe our lack of leadership is rooted in our lack of embracing all the gifts God gives the church and the source of those gifts – the Holy Spirit. If you no longer believe God gifts and sends people in the power of the Spirit to embody all God has for the church, the church has and will continue to suffer a leadership vacuum that won’t end well. If all you keep are the gifts that are internally focused (and even evangelists have turned inward thinking the invitation is evangelism) then the church will fail to thrive. But if we re-embrace the idea that God has gifted people among us to be sent on mission in our own neighborhoods and communities…and that God has gifted some with the ability to see things closer to how God sees them and give a healthy critique of what is happening in the church – then we can get back to seeing all of the purposes of all five gifts fulfilled. If not, the church will run on in an unaccountable, directionless, mission-less course where elders deacon, where evangelists teach the saved, and where teachers cover the same topics relentlessly for decades because that is how they were modeled what good biblical teaching looks like.

I hope this doesn’t sound harsh. I don’t mean to be harsh. I do mean to be direct. This requires a lot of prayer!

Jesus came in the flesh to “dwell among us.” God in the flesh is relational.

Jesus was amazing at connecting with people. He always took interest in those around him. He noticed details about them and was curious about them. He asked them questions and I can only imagine that people around Jesus could feel a sense that he thought they mattered.

Pharisees mattered.
Tax collectors mattered.
People caught in adultery mattered.
Samaritans mattered.

If we take a page out of Jesus’ book – people will matter to us as well. We will take a genuine interest in those around us. Get to know them…ask them questions…give them a sense that they truly do matter to you.

When Jesus left the earth and went back to the Father he left us here in his absence. He gave us the Holy Spirit to help us. And now we get to “dwell among” the people we encounter on a regular basis and impact them with the good news about Jesus.

When we encounter people, do we see them as a project or for what we can get out of them? Or do we see them as Jesus saw them – as people made in the image of God and loved?

So the next time you are around someone knew, ask yourself what Jesus would say about them if he met them?

Take notice of them…look for things about them that can give you an inroad into conversation that might just bring them closer to the one who cares the most – Jesus! Then dive in and see what happens. You will find most people enjoy conversations with those who take a genuine interest in them and most people can spot a fake a mile away.

I am an introvert…relationships can be challenging at times but I am growing! Maybe you are in the same boat or maybe relationships come quickly and easily for you. It isn’t that relationships aren’t important to introverts, we just go about things a bit more slowly (and in some cases deeply).

One thing we know for sure is that God is all about people. God is relational. Even in his own being – the godhead is by its very nature relational: Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three in one.

If we are going to follow God’s example, desire and design we will also recognize and embrace the importance of people and how we relate to others (relationships).

Let us spend some time this month talking about how we connect to others: Christians and non-Christians alike in ways that draw us all closer in relationship to our heavenly Father!

Welcome to July!

I am a raging introvert. I also want to love people well. Those two things are not incompatible but the combination comes with challenges. That makes evangelism a bit difficult. IT is easy to have reservations about starting conversations that I don’t already have an idea how they might turn out on some level.

It occurred to me a while back that the most loving thing I can do is bring people to faith in Jesus. And this is helping me overcome reservations in interacting with people in an evangelistic sense.

There are lots of things we can do to express love – acts of kindness and service, giving of our time and money to people in need, etc and all of that can be done without paying attention to the greater need – the need for people to find Jesus and the implications of what happens if they do (the blessings) and if they don’t (judgment, separation from God, punishment, etc). Many of us do nice things but we need to take that next step and do the most loving thing.

God is love.

God sent Jesus and Jesus showed us what love looks like.

God’s love, modeled in Christ, comes into our lives and we share that love with others. Sharing the good news is loving. I believe it is the most loving thing a person can do.

John 15:13 says that there is no greater love than to lay down our lives for a friend. That can be taken in a literal sense – to die for someone but that isn’t the only way to look at it. Laying down my life can also be an attitude I have of how I view my life in deference to you – that your needs come first and if your greatest need is Christ and what is getting in the way of me telling you that is my uncomfortability then I am really not living out the greatest kind of love because of my unwillingness to set aside things that are blocking you from having abundant life.

We can look at the inverse – if you believe people need Jesus to be saved then to withhold that from them would be an unloving thing to do. Maybe the not sharing is apathy or ignorance but at some point it becomes about faithfulness and love can drive us to that faithfulness.

Let us be loving people and let that love drive us to many things and many ways of serving AND let us make sure that it doesn’t stop at just being nice…but that we are intentional about talking to people about Jesus. If you don’t know how then let’s talk about learning how. God is love and God will help us love others well. God will help us when we reach out to people to draw them closer to Jesus because God is always doing what is most loving and we need to as well.