In the last few weeks, I’ve had several very encouraging conversations with people who are attempting to live out their beliefs. During these conversations, the person would usually say (or infer) something like this:
“I’ve been studying Scripture, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the church that we see in Scripture is not like the church that we see today in many ways. But, the problem is, I believe this in theory, but I don’t know how to put these things into practice.”
Interestingly, the discussions have been about several different aspects of ecclesiology (the study of the church). I’ve talked to people about leadership and authority, fellowship, mutual teaching / edification / discipleship, missions, giving, serving. In each case, the person or people indicated that they believed that Scripture teaches something different from the way they usually see the church living. But, while they believe these things “in theory,” they don’t know what to do about it.
I remember a certain seminary class in which the professor was talking about elders and Scripture. The professor made the statement that there is no hierarchy among elders in Scripture. Someone asked (it may have been me… I don’t remember), “Then why do most churches have senior pastors or head pastors today?”
The professor replied, “Well, in theory there should not be a hierarchy among elders. All elders should be equal. But, it doesn’t work that way in practice. Someone has to be in charge.”
I think the church has bought this logic for too long. Many agree that the church should not do certain things in certain ways “in theory,” but those same people are perfectly willing to live in ways that contradict Scripture “in practice.”
Last Sunday, I was reminded of this problem when a brother read Jesus’ words from Matthew 7:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:24-27 ESV)
In this parable, both people hear what Christ says. But, only the one who actually does what he says has a firm foundation. The one who only hears but does not do builds his life on a weak foundation.
I like the way Eugene Peterson translated the end of this passage in The Message:
“But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.” (Matthew 7:26-27 The Message)
We like to think that we have accomplished something great by studying Scripture. However, as Peterson points out above, our Bible studies, sermons, commentaries, books, etc. are worthless if we are not actually working these things into our lives.
Don’t misunderstand me, as an elder, it is not easy to lead without “lording it over” other people, but Jesus said, “It shall not be so among you.” So, it does me no good to state that I should NOT have authority over others, then go ahead and exercise authority. I must try to work this into my life.
It is not easy to actually fellowship – share our lives – with other people. It is uncomfortable, time consuming, often expensive, and sometimes inconvenient to invite people into our lives. But, it does us no good at all to say that we should have fellowship with one another, then do absolutely nothing about it.
Similarly, we can state that all believers should be responsible for teaching, encouraging, admonishing, etc. But, if we are not willing to actually teach, encourage, or admonish others AND allows others to teach, encourage, or admonish us, then our statement is meaningless.
In other words… following Christ is not something that is done “in theory.” Following Christ is about real life. As Peterson translated, we must attempt to work these beliefs into our lives. And “these things” should come from our understanding of Scripture and what God is telling us to do. As James would say, we must be doers and not only hearers.