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Archives for 126 – Unity of the Spirit

unity of the SpiritAs we wrap up the February issue I want to spend a few moments considering what the New Testament teaches us about who is in and who is out and how tightly we draw our lines.

The Bible teaches us many things and it is quite important that we pay close attention to what we find in scripture. One of the things that it teaches us is that there are two distinct groups of people in the world, those who are of the family of God (the spiritual children of Abraham) and those who are of the world and how God is trying to reconcile those two groups together into one family. I believe there are people who are lost and people who are saved because I believe the scriptures teach us as much.

There has been a lot said about who is in and who is out and how we can tell who the true Christians are apart from those who say they are Christians but we really know better. My response to that is that if we are going to make lines of distinctions between professing, baptized believers in Christ then we better do it carefully and by that I mean we better make sure we have scripture to back up the drawing of the lines in the places we draw them.

Notice what I did not say. I did not say we better have scriptures to tell us whether or not they are right on every conceivable issue to constitute them being “true Christians”. There is an idea out there that if you get it wrong on a doctrine then you aren’t really “in”. That idea is not scriptural because we see in scripture people who hold differing views, even a view that is in error on an issue but is still considered to be “in” or really a Christian. Paul may correct them but doesn’t say they are out until further notice and repentance. The example of scripture is not that error on any point of doctrine means you are “out” but that it is entirely possible to be wrong on something (not everything…some things) and still be “in”.

That doesn’t mean you can be wrong on every conceivable issue as much as it doesn’t mean you have to be right on every conceivable issue.

Are you following me so far? Hang in there! Let’s look at a few examples:

  1. Every one of Paul’s letters identifies his intended audience as Christians. Then Paul goes on to teach and correct them on things. Notice that Paul didn’t start off by saying you are not Christians until you get all of this stuff in this letter right and change your view to the right view in all the areas Paul corrects on. They are the church, in error on some issues, and yet still the church. They are wrong on some things and need to fix some things and yet are still very much Christians. Some today would have you believe that if you aren’t precisely obedient on all points of doctrine that you are lost. That is a travesty and a twisting of the repeated examples of Paul and others in scripture who viewed his brothers and sisters who were in error as still being brothers and sisters.
  2. Now, Paul did point out that in the community of faith there were things you could do that would clearly demarcate you as being “out” of the faith. Oddly enough the list is rarely doctrinal and almost always moral. For instance, 1 Cor 6:9-11 says that you will not inherit the kingdom of God if you are doing certain sins. We should teach the same and yet I rarely to ever hear that taught as much I hear taught you are “out” if you are wrong on instrumental music or women’s roles. If you believe you are out if you have it wrong on women’s roles then, regardless of your view on women’s roles, you should say Paul was wrong to call the church in Corinth a church because he corrected and instructed them in this area later in the letter. Yet I hear today if you are wrong on this you are apostate and no longer a Christian. I hope you can see that is clearly wrong by Paul’s example and teaching. We must teach as Paul taught…that one can be a Christian and still need corrected on some things and that they aren’t out just because they haven’t yet made the adjustment. Please, let’s be biblical here! How is this ignored?
  3. The antichrist(s) of 1 John 2:18-23 – Here John teaches us that anyone who denies Jesus is the Messiah is antichrist. This is not about one apocalyptic future leader who will war against God. This is about those who infiltrate the church, not to lead her astray on worship styles, but to blatantly teach against the Messiahship of Jesus. If you do that, believe and teach Jesus is not the Christ, then you are “out”.
  4. The weak and the strong of Romans 14 – The point here is these two groups of people (one group with tighter scruples than the other – as Ben Witherington would say) are still Christians with VASTLY different views on some issues that must learn how to interact with each other still as Christians. Being weak doesn’t mean you are out and being strong doesn’t mean you are out…even though they have exactly opposite beliefs on these matters. Yet, they are still both Christians even in their disagreement. Paul doesn’t make the weak and strong argument about who is in and who is out but that even in their diversity of beliefs that Paul’s teaching is about how to get along and fellowship someone who has an exactly opposite view than you on some issues. We need to hear that today. Again, that doesn’t means we can have exactly opposite views on ALL issues, see point 3 about the belief of Jesus as Messiah. It does mean that disagreement doesn’t damn.
  5. Preaching another Gospel in Galatians 1 – In Galatians 1:6-10 Paul flat out says that anyone who teaches another Gospel than the Gospel of Jesus Christ is under God’s curse. This is a very important point. This doesn’t mean if we don’t perfectly understand the Gospel that we are lost, although there is a baseline understanding one should have of the Gospel to be a Christian (the Gospel isn’t just anything we want it to be – more on that in a moment). It does mean that if we pervert the Gospel and replace it with something else that we are in danger of God’s condemnation and judgment. I am concerned about that because I believe some of what I see taught today in regard to its legalism is bordering on another Gospel. I cannot judge another person’s heart but I can evaluate their teaching and know whether or not it lines up with scripture.
  6. 2 Timothy 3:16 is an often quoted verse in our fellowship. It says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That verse says that one can be a servant of God and still need correcting and rebuking. Why would one need that if they were right on every point of doctrine? The point is, we are all learning and growing. We are all being conformed and transformed. That means we are all changing and our views on things change as we mature, which, by the way, is another thing we are called to do is to mature in our faith and in our understanding of things.

All of this hinges on our understanding of the Gospel. In point 5 I pointed out that there are things we need to understand about the Gospel because the gospel isn’t just anything we want it to be. Oddly enough that cuts both ways. Conservatives want to bind up into Gospel several dozen other issues which is just as much making the Gospel something that the NT never defines it as, just as a liberal theologians might say the Gospel is anything you want it to be (which is more of a straw man argument against liberalism than it is something you will ever hear taught in Churches of Christ). If you think Gospel means every possible doctrine and therefore to be wrong on one point is to teach another Gospel, your definition of Gospel is not in line with Paul’s by any stretch. We must define the Gospel as scripture defines it and it not an umbrella term for all things doctrinal. I wish more people would consider that.

Paul never drew up lines of fellowship against those who were wrong on a long list of details. Instead, he treated them as brothers and sisters and worked to teach them the more excellent way. He didn’t assume they were “out” until they got it right. Neither should we. Instead, we should fellowship and count as our brothers and sisters those who have faith in Christ, who have been baptized into Christ and, although they might be wrong on a few matters…that God’s grace is sufficient even for doctrinal error! The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, the unforgivable sin, was never defined as the sin of doctrinal error on one’s pet issue(s).

Let us never forget the words of Jesus, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matt 7:1-2). We are all going to make judgements on these matters and we should. Paul expected those in the congregations he wrote to that they would be discerning on matters of fellowship and salvation. But let us always remember that if we demand perfection from others it will be demanded of us. If we expect people to fellowship us even though we sin, we should extend that same grace to others even though they don’t agree with us on every single issue.

Is it asking too much to use the Bible as our standard for where to draw lines? If I am going to say you are lost because of your view on women’s roles then what do I do when I find Paul correcting aspects of that with people he calls Christians? Correcting implies they are doing it wrong in the first place! Paul corrects on the Lord’s supper in 11 and yet I hear people say that you are lost if you do the supper wrong. Let us make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, following the example of Paul to include people who disagree with us…not on the CORE issues of faith but on matters of doctrine that would in some cases still constitute error but not eternally lost, non-forgivable error. God’s grace is sufficient, even for my error…and I am willing to bet I don’t have it all down perfect but I am trying to please God. I hope you are too.

[JFG: I apologize for the length of the article, but it seemed best to present this information in a single setting, as it all ties together so closely. A draft of this article was sent to the authors of the articles mentioned prior to publication with an offer of an opportunity to respond here and a request for correction if I’ve misrepresented their views.]

the-unity-of-the-spiritLike the February issue of Wineskins, the February issue of the Gospel Advocate is dedicated to unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. I can think of no better topic. I thought it would be good to review the teachings of the writers of the GA. My own reactions are placed in [brackets].

Essential Ingredients for Maintaining Unity

Tim Lewis, who preaches for a Church of Christ congregation in Oklahoma City, leads off a series of five articles on the magazine’s theme. He takes his lesson from Eph 4:1-3, arguing, “Unity is possible for this generation of believers, but certain indispensable components must be in place if we are going to be one in Christ.”

(Eph. 4:1-3 ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

He then reflects on humility, gentleness, patience, and love. He concludes,

If God’s people do not work harder to join together in unity, the same tragic cry might ring out on the day Christ comes again, “Would to God we had joined hands sooner!”

[Amen.] Read more »

ACIt seems as if the heritage of the Stone-Campbell is forever in the throes of division. It is an odd and terrible truth to admit. You might think that for a tradition that claims to be a “people of the Book” that the very mention of division would be tantamount to heresy. The Gospel message itself is, after all, a proclamation of reconciliation. Unity is a divine indicative. It is a creation of God the Father through the costly death of his Son for the brokenness of the world, creating a single unified human family by his own Holy Spirit. As Robert Richardson noted “Men have it, hence, in their power to preserve or to destroy unity, but not to impart it.” Division is always the result of some act of rebellion against God. Why do we have these divisions then? Perhaps one reason for this is we usually have a “Pharisaic Unity Plan.” A Pharisaic Unity Plan is one where I agree to let you and I have fellowship if you are as doctrinally sound as I have deceived myself into believing I am.

Alexander Campbell’s Inconsistency

In February 1826, Alexander Campbell had been in full reformation mode for fifteen years. He had delivered his famous Sermon on the Law, engaged in public debates on baptism, and had taken up the editorial pen in The Christian Baptist. Campbell even attacked what he believed to be error especially in controlling clergy. But he remained in “full communion” with the Baptists. A correspondent wrote a long letter that Campbell dutifully published in the CB, chastising Campbell’s course of action as “inconsistent.” Campbell needed to withdraw from them because of the errors they hold. The correspondent signed “An Independent Baptist.”

The Bond of Union

Alexander Campbell’s reply to “An Independent Baptist” is six pages long. Some modern reader might disparage Campbell for his verbiage but for the editor there was serious error on the part of the Independent Baptist in understanding what the doctrine of unity looks like.

The Independent Baptist completely misunderstood “the principles of union and communion advocated” by Campbell. Campbell states unambiguously, and always does, the bond of union.

And what is it but a sincere and hearty conviction expressed or confessed by the lips, THAT JESUS IS THE CHRIST; and this belief, exhibited by an overt act of obedience which implies that the subject has put on Christ, prepares him, or qualifies him, if you please, to be saluted as a brother. So long as he confesses with his lips that he believes in his heart this truth, and lives conformably to it and supports an unblemished moral character, so long he is a worthy brother.

Faith that Jesus is the Christ and simple baptism as the “overt act of obedience” is the only bond of union. The faith and act of obedience is evidenced by a life that conforms to the claim we make about Jesus.

Campbell charges the Independent Baptist with “artfully” keeping out of view all that we have in common in the “one Lord, the one faith, the one hope.” But unity is not unity of opinion on various biblical matters but on the facts that Jesus is the Christ and the fact that we have confessed him as Lord in baptism and the fact that our lives show we mean what we say.

Paul Could Never Have Fellowshipped New Testament Churches

Campbell’s critic noted that he and the Baptists disagreed on various matters. Fellowship could only be based upon conformity to “the New Testament law, as respects doctrine, worship, and order, exhibiting the MODEL of Christ’s house.” Thus unity is impossible without complete conformity to the New Testament pattern, as understood by the Independent Baptist.

Campbell’s reply reveals a man that has wrestled with this matter deeply, prayerfully and in light of God’s word. The position would forbid fellowship with the churches in the New Testament itself!

I question very much whether Paul the Apostle could have broken bread with the congregation in Rome, in Corinth, in Thessalonica, or with the congregations in Galatia, and others, at the time he wrote his letters to them. Nay, I do not think that the Saviour himself could have instituted the supper amongst the twelve, or they could have had full communion on your principles … For none of these congregations at the times alluded to were exhibiting the model of Christ’s house, ‘were conformed to the New Testament, as respects DOCTRINE, WORSHIP, AND ORDER [sic, i.e. NT churches did not measure up to the NT pattern, BV], …”

The Pharisaic Unity Plan

Alexander Campbell directs some of his most powerful words at the real issue behind the Independent Baptist’s false reading of the New Testament. The problem is rather the cancer, “sectarianism,” which is “the offspring of hell.” A failure to see the example of Jesus, Paul and an awareness of our own self-righteousness blinds the sectarian. Campbell frankly admits that in his younger days he too followed the Pharisaic Unity Plan, which is simply a plan to isolated and congratulate ourselves on our supposed superiority. Power flows from these words …

I have tried the pharisaic plan, the monastic. I was once so straight, that like the Indian’s tree, I leaned a little the other way. And however much I may be slandered now as seeking ‘popularity’ or popular course, I have to rejoice that TO MY OWN SATISFACTION, as well as to others, I proved that truth, and not popularity was my object; for I was once so strict a Separatist that I would neither pray nor sing praises with anyone who was not as perfect as I supposed myself. In this most unpopular course I persisted until I discovered the mistake, and saw that on the principle embraced in my conduct, there could never be a congregation or church upon the earth.”

The Pharisaic Unity Plan is nothing but sublimated pharisaism gone to seed, a mockery of God, the Bible and the church.

Dear sir, this plan of making our own nest, and fluttering over our own brood; of building our own tent, and of confining all goodness and grace to our noble selves and the ‘elect few’ who are like us, is the quintessence of sublimated pharisaism. The old Pharisees were but babes in comparison to the modern: and the longer I live, and the more I reflect upon God and man—heaven and earth—the Bible and the world—Redeemer and his church—the more I am assured that all sectarianism is the offspring of hell … To lock ourselves up in the band box of our own little circle; to associate with a few units, tens, or hundreds, as the pure church, as the elect, is real Protestant monkery, it is evangelical nunnery.”

I Will Do as Paul Did for the Corinthians

Campbell declared that he intends to be true to his understanding of the biblical basis of unity. He will follow Paul’s example with the Corinthians as his model. He will praise God for the things held dearly and exercise his right to say where he disagrees. But the disagreement is not the bond of unity. In the meantime he will join in worship of the Creator God and his beloved Son in the power of the Spirit with anyone that confesses Christ.

I will unite with any Baptist society in the United States, in any act of social worship; such as prayer, praise, or breaking bread in commemoration of the Lord’s death, if they confess the one Lord, the one faith, the one hope, and the one baptism: provided always, that, as far as I can judge, they piously and morally conform to their profession.”

The Path of Love

Alexander Campbell cannot embrace the policy of the Independent Baptist. Eva Jean Wrather declared Alexander Campbell’s six page response “To An Independent Baptist” his “declaration of toleration.” Campbell will gladly join even him in worship of our dear Lord but he cannot embrace the Pharisaic Unity Plan for it is nothing but sectarian illusion on multiple grounds. Instead he exhorts his readers to love lavishly. I close with Campbell’s words.

It is lame charity which requires all its objects to be as rich, as wise, and as strong as ourselves.”

white-dove-hd-720p-animalIf the Spirit brings unity then it only follows that the flesh brings disunity because the two are antithetical to each other. In Greek the word flesh is sarx (you get that in the word sarcophagus = flesh + eater). In its most basic sense the word sarx means our physical flesh, the part of us that covers our bones (BDAG). But flesh can mean more than that. Here is the thing about the nature of flesh. Flesh is corruptible. It is decayable. That is what it does because of what sin and death have done to our bodies. The fleshly component of our physical bodies is also part of what gets redeemed and restored in the resurrection which is why Paul says in 1 Cor 15 that death is an enemy to be defeated and that in the resurrection we truly will have bodies but not bodies of sarx in all its decayable properties but bodies of a spiritual nature, which are still very much bodies. That’s another point for another article but it is still one more piece of the puzzle that spirit and flesh stand in opposition to each other. I am not talking about Platonic dualism where material things are bad and spiritual things are good. I am talking about a particular characteristic of our earthly bodies, not material things in general.

Paul contrasts life led by the Holy Spirit vs life led by the fleshly desires in Romans 8. Here is what he wrote,

Romans 8:1-4:
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,
because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

The “therefore” reminds us that what he is about to teach us is directly connected to what he said about life under the Law in Romans 7 and the connection between Law and sin and the result of our “body that is subject to death” (7:24). Paul ends that chapter in the very next verse, 7:25 where he says that the solution to that is deliverance that comes through Jesus Christ.

Paul just got things set up for a discussion on the difference between life lived in line with the desires of the Holy Spirit and life lived in line with the desires of corruptible flesh. You see this same distinction made in Galatians 5:16-25 where we find the “fruit of the spirit” contrasted with the life of the flesh,

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

There are two ways to live in this world – the way that satisfies the desires of corruptible flesh or the way of new life by the Holy Spirit. When you examine the results of each you find they are diametrically opposed to each other…standing in direct opposition to each other. They are mutually exclusive in any given part of life. So when we live by the Spirit we are not living by the flesh and vice-versa.  The Spirit brings life, the flesh death. The Spirit is new creation, the flesh the old man of sin. The Spirit brings light. The flesh brings darkness. The Spirit makes us united. The flesh provokes division.

If you look at divisive moments and decisions in the life of the church, you will often see the desires of the flesh at work in what is happening because that is the nature of the flesh. People seeking to find unity in the Spirit are not people who promote division. The Spirit unites but the flesh divides. The Spirit unites because it leads us in a unified direction as a unified people, sealed with and indwelled by the same Spirit. Flesh gives birth to division because the way of the flesh is the way of discord, bitterness, envy, strife, etc which is what results when we seek to fulfill our most base and carnal desires to please ourselves at the expense of others.

It is impossible to find unity while trying to gratify the desires of the flesh. It is important that we constantly test our desires to make sure that they are truly in line with the Holy Spirit and not our own selfish, sinful, fleshly desires masquerading as Spirit-led living. Even scripture itself can be used in ways that propagate fleshly desires. The devil did this in Matthew 4 and many Christians have followed suit over the years in using scripture to justify all manner of carnal things.

You can always tell what kind of tree it is by the fruit that is produced, which is why I say if you find division you can almost always track it back to fleshly desires. Peter told us that in 1 Peter 2:11, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” “Sinful desires” is literally “desires of the flesh.” These desires, by their very nature bring war not peace and discord instead of unity.

Here is the rest of what Paul wrote in Romans 8:5-13
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

The other side of the unity of the Spirit is the disunity of the flesh. It is important that we are tune with the antithetical nature of flesh to Spirit so that we can better discern where our desires are truly coming from and be aware of the consequences. If we ever want to achieve unity in Christianity, we are going to have to address our fleshly desires that make unity impossible to achieve.

Every year, Abilene Christian University’s Siburt Institute for Church Ministry provides an ongoing service by collecting compensation data from ministers in Churches of Christ and publishing the results electronically. The late Dr. Charles Siburt initiated the Ministers’ Salary Survey in 2004 as one of his many efforts to build congregations and their leaders.

We value your input! If you are currently in a paid ministerial position within a Church of Christ, please take a few minutes to complete the survey. Thank you in advance for completing the instrument, which should take under 15 minutes. Please feel free to pass on the survey link to any other person fitting the above description. Our secure link protects your privacy by avoiding the need for your email address or any other identifying information.

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I suggest five (yes, count them, five) modes of visible unity that give expression to the underlying unity of the Spirit among believers. These practices not only exhibit the unity of the Spirit but are also means by which the Spirit dynamically works among believers for unity. The Spirit acts through them to manifest the unity the Spirit has already achieved. At the same time these practices are also transformative as they not only move us into a deeper experience and recognition of that unity but they also transform us as exhibits of that unity.

  1. Confession – we confess Jesus is Lord by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Paul provides the ground of this point: “No one is able to say “Jesus is Lord” except by (in) the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Contextually, this stands in contrast with those who say “Jesus is cursed” or who serve idols. This is an orienting confession. It is a centered-set confession, that is, we confess Jesus at the center of our faith journey. It is a directional confession, that is, we have turned our face toward Jesus and we walk toward him. But none of this is possible except by the work of the Spirit. The confession arises out of the Spirit’s work, operates within the life of the Spirit, and lives because we have all drunk of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).

This confession is made from within a story, which is essentially what is called the Apostles’s Creed or the developing Regula Fidei (Rule of Faith) of the early church. It gives shape to the confession of the Lordship of Jesus and locates believers in the flow of the history of God’s people. We confess the Father as creator, Jesus as the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit as the communion of believers.

Theologically, we acknowledge this, whoever confesses “Jesus is Lord” does so “in (or by) the Spirit.” We recognize the work of the Spirit in the confession itself. Whenever we hear Jesus confessed, or the Triune faith articulated, we confess that the Spirit is at work. We may embrace the unity of believers through this confession that is the result of the Spirit’s enabling presence.

  1. Transformation – we are sanctified by the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).

We all know Jesus’s saying “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). Sanctification belongs to the Holy Spirit who indwells, empowers, and gifts us for new life in Christ.

Theologically, transformation is the goal of God’s agenda. Transformation is an effect of communion. Through mutual indwelling, we are transformed by the presence of the Spirit in our lives. The fruit of the Spirit, then, is evidence of our union with God. The fruit of the Spirit is the life of the Spirit already present in us. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared sanctification or mutually experienced transformation that is the result of the enabling presence of the Spirit.

  1. Liturgy – we worship in the Spirit (John 4:24; Philippians 3:3).

The foundation of liturgy—not necessarily the foundation of liturgical forms—is the work of the Spirit. Our liturgical acts—not necessarily our liturgical forms—are deeply rooted in the work of the Spirit. Assembly, as communal praise and worship, is mediated by the Spirit. We worship the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Assembly, as an eschatological, transforming and sacramental encounter with God, happens in the Spirit; it is a pneumatic event. This is what gives significance and meaning to Assembly, and it is also the root of the unity we experience through Assembly as the whole church—throughout time and space—are gathered before the throne of the Father in the Spirit.

Liturgy might not appear to be a very fruitful approach to thinking about the unity of the Spirit since “worship” has often divided communities. The point will turn on whether or not we are able to discern the role of the Spirit in liturgy that transcends specific forms. If we take seriously the point—made in the Gospel of John—that the Spirit vivifies all life, sacrament, and worship in such a way that the reality is rooted in the work of the Spirit rather than in the specific form, then we can move beyond binding the Spirit to that form. There are no fixed forms that bind the Spirit. Rather there are gracious gifts—even specific forms—through which the Spirit offers communion and grace (e.g., sacraments). We may have preferred forms or even think some forms more biblical or more theologically coherent, but the forms are not boundaries for the Spirit.

To recognize that the Spirit is the means by whom we commune with and experience God, that this means is not dependent upon perfectionistic obedience to specified forms, and that the Spirit is not limited by forms, enables us to affirm the presence of the Spirit among those communities who do not share the forms that we think are most biblical. We may embrace the unity of believers (worshippers) through our eschatological and sacramental encounter with God in assembly by the enabling presence of the Spirit.

  1. Practicing the Kingdom of God – we minister in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:18-19).

Spirit Christology is particularly important in the Gospel of Luke. The Spirit anoints Jesus, leads him into the wilderness, and empowers him for ministry in Luke 3-4. This is the ministry of the kingdom of God in which Jesus practices the kingdom of God by heralding the good news of the kingdom, exercising authority over the principalities and powers, and healing brokenness. Jesus is sent, and he sends a people.

This is the missional ministry into which believers are called. This praxis is an expression of the life of the Spirit within the community, and the community of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, continues the teaching and doing of Jesus, that is, they continue to practice the kingdom of God.

When believers practice the kingdom of God, the Spirit is present. Where the Spirit is present, Jesus is present. This manifests the unity of the Spirit through praxis. It is a missional unity. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared ministry (shared participation in the good news of the kingdom of God) by the enabling presence of the Spirit.

  1. Spiritual Formation Practices – we pray in the Spirit (Jude 20).

In Luke’s Gospel the kingdom of God comes in response to prayer by the ministry of the Spirit. This connects points four and five, but it also calls us deeper into the experience of prayer itself.

The unity of believers through the presence of the Spirit in prayer is a common theme in the history of spirituality. Throughout that history we see evidence of the presence of the Spirit in communal and individual experiences. This is where an acquaintance, if not a full immersion in, the history of spirituality might open doors for conversations about unity.

Theologically, we recognize that the practice of prayer (as well as other disciplines) is rooted in the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is present to listen and speak in these moments. When a community practices them together, or each member of a community practices them in their own walk with God, the Spirit works to unite through shared experiences and shared communion. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared experience and communion in prayer by the enabling presence of the Spirit.


The present experience of visible unity, however, is progressive (though not always evident). The present is not a “perfect” manifestation of the eschatological telos. Consequently, we pursue unity, just as we pursue sanctification. The church is constantly undergoing a process of communal sanctification parallel to the process of individual sanctification. It should not surprise us that the church is not united in experience since we all acknowledge our own progressive sanctification.

At the same time, however, we are not left with nothing. Though we have not yet experienced the fullness of our unity with God and with each other—and we will not until the eschaton, we do—even now—experience that future when we give space to the presence of the Spirit. We are already united, and we progressively experience that reality the more the Spirit sanctifies our communities and our lives. The present practice of visible unity though marred by brokenness is healed by mercy; it is hindered by human brokenness but empowered by the gifts the Spirit offers to the church, which include the five gifts listed above.

Through the practice of these gifts, the Spirit mediates an already-but-not-yet experience of that unity. Together, we confess Jesus is Lord; together, we seek transformation; together, we participate in the eschatological assembly; together, we practice the kingdom of God; and together, we pray in the Spirit. Yes, you counted correctly. The number is five.

[For a fuller reading of this perspective within the context of Stone-Campbell history, click here.]








PatrickMeadAfter my last post – a look at a Jesus story out of Mark – I was asked to look at this story out of John 9 and walk through that in the same way. Okay, here we go…

But before we can get started in chapter 9 we need to remember John’s overarching theme. We don’t have to guess at it because he lays it out in chapter 1:1-13. Jesus is light and the bringer of light. The darkness doesn’t “get” Jesus and remains in opposition to him. Go through John (s.l.o.w.l.y) and notice all the darkness vs. light stories.

The story in John 9 seems to stand alone quite well so, without any further setup: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.” Stop right there. Jesus noticed people. He saw them. He didn’t hurry from one place to another with the kind of me-based tunnel vision that most of us have. In our world of noise and rush and the constant siren call of the next thing it can be hard to practice this one discipline: to see and, more specifically, to see others. Here is a man who has been blind since birth. He has no standing in society but he is worth Jesus’ time and notice.

This is a critical thing to absorb before moving on to verse two: “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” Did you catch that? Jesus saw a man; his disciples saw an object lesson or theological issue. It was reported to me by a friend years ago that several churches in his community met to discuss “the gay issue” and the “gay problem.” If memory serves me, my friend said that it was hours into the discussion before a young man stood up and said “I am not a problem. I am Mark.” The churches had been discussing problems without realizing (I assume) that there was at least one gay man among them and he wasn’t a problem, he was a person. Regardless of where you come down on this or any issue, it helps to remember that the other person is a person, not a problem.

The apostles were trying to make sense of their world. That’s how we come up with a lot of our ideas about God: we want things to make sense. If we believe in a good, all powerful God and if we also believe in justice we have to believe that there is some penalty for sin. It is an easy move from there to assigning blame to those who are suffering, assuming that there is some sin behind that suffering…but whose? This “blame the victim” mentality doesn’t just exist in religion, it is everywhere. Eastern religions push the horrible doctrine of Karma that says we suffer to balance out the evil we have done in the universe: we get what we deserve. When entire nation systems are built on that doctrine, we get India with its caste systems and lack of provision for the poor.

We see people who are continually sick and on the prayer list and after awhile compassion fatigue sets in and we wonder what they’re doing wrong to be so sick all the time. We fall for supplement quacks and TV doctors with gleaming teeth that tell us we are suffering because of this or that food we eat (or don’t eat) or because we didn’t do their exercise program or…We find ways to blame the victim (or a conspiracy or the government) when we suffer. The apostles were just like us: they saw something (not someone) and wanted to understand it. In one sense, we are all Job’s counselors and after awhile we default to blaming the victim.

Perhaps they just wanted to settle an old argument among themselves – and their society – about exactly how God struck back at sin and if He might use the children’s misery to punish the parents. Perhaps they were frightened at seeing someone disabled and wanted to find a reason that they weren’t and, by finding it, keep from becoming disabled at the hands of God themselves. Some of our veterans who’ve returned with missing limbs and horribly burned and scarred faces feel this every day as people glance their way and then either stare in horror/fascination or quickly turn and go the other direction. It is a natural human response to seeing reminders of our frailty. “It could’ve been me” or “there but for the grace of God go I.”

This next part has caused a lot of trouble in some circles and rejoicing in others. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Calvinists have written reams on this, saying that this proves that all things are in God’s plan. They say that God planned from eternity that this man be born blind so that when Jesus came by he could heal him and, thus, show his power. This begs a lot of questions and raises a lot of issues: weren’t there enough blind people already available in 1st century Judah? Couldn’t Jesus show his power another way? Didn’t he? Are you saying that the bringer of light is a bringer of darkness, too?

Jesus sees this man’s blindness as an opportunity to do good “along the way” as Deuteronomy 6 might say. “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Did you notice? There’s that “light theme” again. Jesus cuts off the theological debate for it is not a question of who sinned or even if sin had anything to do with the man’s blindness, it is a question of who is going to help the blind man. I believe that Jesus is actively speaking against the assumptions of Calvin and his followers who claim that this passage proves that blindness is as much a part of God’s plan as is the restoration of sight. That makes Jesus not only a bringer of light…but the reason for darkness in this man’s life. The consequence of strict Calvinism is to lay at the feet of God the blame for every evil deed, every moment of suffering in human existence (and even that in the animal kingdom): all planned, all determined by God. One of the most famous Calvinists in the US today was asked the day after the school shootings in New England if God determined which child was shot and which child was not and he said “Yes.” I find that abhorrent and I don’t see that teaching in John 9 – or elsewhere.

Instead of accepting that some people have to suffer and be born blind because sin is in the world or because God has a higher purpose, Jesus immediately goes to work to restore light to this individual. I am chastened by his response because I have often caught myself thinking and puzzling over ramifications, doctrine, and issues instead of just acting in love where I was with what I had to the people in front of me at the time. Jesus doesn’t say “he was born blind so that God’s power and works may be revealed” but that is way we usually read it because we read it so fast and we read it through our humanity: assumptions and all. Greg Boyd says this in God at War “…Jesus is simply saying that, in contrast to the misguided moralistic speculations of the disciples, the only thing that matters concerning this man’s blindness is that God can overcome it and thus be glorified through it…” (pg233). Jesus made it plain in Luke 13:1-5 that the doctrine of karma and the assumptions of Job’s counselors are groundless and false: there isn’t a sin-punishment matrix that perfectly fits over human experience.

Sometimes we suffer because we are alive on a planet where everything dies. Sometimes we suffer because bad people do bad things and their evil splashes consequences on us. Sometimes we suffer because we took too long coming down the birth canal through no fault of our own or our mother’s. Sometimes things happen. Full stop. The question is, how we will treat those who’ve been caught by the crashing waves of evil or disease or suffering and how we will behave when it is our turn to be swept out by that same wave? Jesus reminds the disciples that their time is limited: see a person, help a person. Now. Don’t wait. Don’t spend time in arguing the theology of it, just do it. Reminds me a bit of Romans 14:1-15:7.

There is much more to be said about this story but I will let it wait for a few days. Thanks to all of you who wrote me, shared the last post, and who’ve encouraged me to write more of these. I am praying about doing a book length treatment of these stories since they brought me back to faith and have kept me there. As a non-theologian, that is not an easy decision. Pray that I will have the wisdom to do them justice here and elsewhere. Peace.

white-dove-hd-720p-animalStone’s point regarding our need for fire (Spirit) union leads inevitably to —

(Eph. 5:18-21 ESV) 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Our spiritual disease, which Stone calls book, head, and water union, is amply demonstrated by the fact that, to many among us, this passage is about what it does not say. It says nothing of instrumental music, and so it’s read as a prohibition against instruments. We thereby entirely miss what it does say!

It says that we are to “be filled with the Spirit … .” The references to singing are, grammatically, participles hanging on the verb “be filled.” You can’t get the participles right if you don’t understand the verb they modify. Hence, we should not make the least attempt to apply this passage without first exegeting “be filled with the Spirit” — as this is the central point of the passage — and yet this is the one part of the passage the we refuse to read, teach, preach, or understand! Read more »

hot-300414_1280     I don’t know how many times I have spoken of it. Or written about it either. But over the years I have talked often about the hymn I’ll Fly Away.

There is something quite compelling about the lyrics:

Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.
When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away.
Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away.
I’ll fly away, Oh Glory I’ll fly away;
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away!

It’s probably not the most theologically correct song. Certainly the words are not the most erudite you will ever find. But it resonates. Oh, how it resonates.

I have no death wish.
I have no desire to leave my family.
Immeasurably more than I could ever explain, I love my wife, my family, my work, and you.

It’s just that simple.

But still the song resonates.

In a world where death stalks the living, in a world where evil seems to thrive, in a world where life can be so fragile, we can look forward to the day when the final victory is ours. And because there will be a day, we can live now! We can find meaning in the darkest hour, hard though it might be.

So, while we wait, I want to live life to the fullest. I want to know joy. I want to spread sunshine. I want to be at peace and happy no matter what this world brings.

How about you?

I haven’t always done the best at that. My faith has not always been as strong. I have faced challenges that cut my sea legs right out from under me. I have been angry and bitter toward God and others. But I have come to understand and experience peace in the valley.

Philippians 4:4-7, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

That’s how I want to live today, tomorrow, and every day…

Let’s learn to really live, together, you and I! Even better, let’s learn how to live together in unity–because there will be a day!

There will be a day with no more tears
No more pain, and no more fears
There will be a day when the burdens of this place
Will be no more, we’ll see Jesus face to face
There will be a day he will wipe away the tears
He will wipe away the tears
He will wipe away the tears
There will be a day
(Jeremy Camp)



Les, Jr.
Madison/ Ridgeland, MS

PatrickMeadI’ve mentioned before that I took time decades ago to read the Gospels over and over for six months. It changed my world. It changed everything. On Wednesday evenings at Fourth Avenue in Franklin, TN I share some of the stories in a class called “Just Jesus Stories.” We covered one last night that hasn’t stopped rocking my world since the late 80s when I spent weeks thinking about it.

When I suggest you read Mark 10:46-52 I am really suggesting that you take a few weeks to read and absorb it. While the Book of Mark is, to me, frustratingly episodic and almost devoid of explanation and context I think that might have been part of the plan in that it makes us sit back and fill in the gaps – if we are willing to take the time to enter the story.

Jesus and his disciples are being followed by a large crowd as they leave Jericho (as usual, Mark tells us nothing of why they went there or what happened there). A blind man is outside the city begging for alms. Giving alms was a big part of Jewish culture; there was no workman’s compensation, Social Security, welfare, or Medicaid so those who were disabled had to rely on the goodwill of their fellow men for survival. Stories abound of them begging for alms here or there on high trafficked routes (such as by the Beautiful Gate to the temple in Jerusalem in Acts 3). Friends and family would bring their disabled loved ones out in the morning and get them set up for the day’s begging and then come get them in the evening if, indeed, the beggar was fortunate enough to have friends and family. It was a harsh life and it would do us well to sit back and contemplate what might have gone through their minds each and every day as they sat or stood helplessly relying on others for their very survival.

But something amazing happens next and by “amazing” I don’t mean the miracle of restored sight. It may seem odd to you but the miracles are, in some ways, the least impressive part of these Jesus stories to me. I believe that Jesus was the Son of God and creator of the universe so, as the developer of Eyes 1.0, I am not at all surprised by his ability to restore sight. No, first amazing thing in this story is…we know the beggar’s name.

Think about that. Beggars had no standing in the social order of the day. They were not respected and held no rank or property. And yet…God seemed to think it was important for us to know this man’s name: Bartimaeus. When that first hit me I stepped away from this story for nearly two weeks to give myself time to work out the ramifications of that: God knows that beggar’s name and He wants us to know it, too.

I found myself stopping after walking down a street or in a mall and turning around to see who I’d missed. Who wasn’t important enough to notice? Who did I actually notice and turn away from, perhaps unconsciously? Who were the Bartimaeus’ in my path whose name was known by God but whom I had treated as less important than myself or my mission of the day? I still make this a spiritual discipline, an everyday call to worship. On Sundays, I know that the members of my church want to greet me and visit with me but I find myself darting around looking for the Bartimaeus’ who might have come in and been unnoticed. The fact that God gave us this man’s name changed me.

Who does God see? Who does He think is important? Why did He want us to know this man’s name if not to impress on us the value of this person – and every person? The story moves on. Bartimaeus, once he hears that this is Jesus of Nazareth, calls out for alms and calls Jesus “Son of David.” It is at least possible that this beggar was also a son of David — of the same tribe as Jesus. It would have made sense for him to call that out and use that relationship to help his odds of receiving alms. It could even be that he had met Jesus before. Jesus had relationships with many people that can only be ascertained by backwards engineering the stories we find in these books: a colt is released for his use as soon as someone says it is for him, men immediately drop nets and follow him when he calls them. That only happens when you’ve already met a person, know them, and have a good relationship with them. As much as Jesus seemed to crave privacy and quiet, alone time he worked at building relationships that paid off time and time again in the Gospel stories. Maybe this was another one.

The crowd tried to shut the beggar up – a common response to beggars hassling you right when you’re trying to do something else like listen to a famous local rabbi – but Jesus “stopped” and told them to bring Bartimaeus to him. I like it that Jesus stopped. Until I spent a lot of time in these stories I assumed that just meant he stopped walking but that wouldn’t explain why the crowd was so adamant that the beggar be quiet. I now think that Jesus was teaching the crowd and they were straining to hear his words. Bartimaeus was interrupting church, shall we say. That was impolite, impolitic even. But Jesus wasn’t interested in what the polite rules of the day were – he stopped.

I spent a few weeks thinking about that before I moved on. Will we – do we – stop church services, our formal or informal liturgies, for sudden needs or because we noticed someone that was in pain or left out?

And here is where it really gets stunning: Bartimaeus is brought in front of Jesus, a meeting of a beggar with zero standing in the world with the creator of the universe. And Jesus says…”What do you want me to do for you?” Sit back and let that rock your world. Almighty God looks at a beggar and doesn’t rush in, doesn’t intrude, doesn’t demand or assume. Rather, God looks at the beggar, whose name he knows, and asks what he can do for him.

Wow. I remember the old hymn we sang when I was a boy “Does Jesus care when my heart is pained too deeply for mirth or song, as the burdens press and the cares distress and the way grows weary and long? O yes, he cares, I know he cares. His heart is touched with my grief…” Mark has Bartimaeus saying “Rabbi, I want to see.” Some versions have a more poignant rendering: “Lord…if I could see…” And so Jesus gives him his sight. That restores more that sight, though – it gives him back his life, his standing, his place in the world…a place he had never lost in God’s eyes. He’d only lost it in the eyes of men.

And Jesus walks on. He does that a lot after healing people and even after raising a girl from the dead. He doesn’t capitalize on the miracle or bask in the adulation of the crowd. He merely does good to the Bartimaeus’ of the world and walks on. So when he tells us to “Follow me” I get the sense of what he really wants from me today.

From me. Because he knows my name, too.

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