the oil and vinegar of business and relationships

I’ve been talking with friends again about the hurtful things many have experienced at traditional business-like church organizations. There’s many common themes to it, but perhaps most of them can be categorized as “violation of relationship.” By that I mean that people do things to one another that violate the way relationships are to operate among followers of Jesus. This causes hurt, sometimes deeply, depending on the nature of the violation.

But here’s what I’ve come to believe: it all makes sense when we realize that there’s much more going on in the traditional business-like church organization than being followers of Jesus. I’ve come to see these traditional churches as essentially religious businesses that try to promote the Kingdom of God among it’s members and the community it considers it’s domain. And indeed, there are many wonderful things happening at these places, and there would be a huge void if suddenly they did not exist. I spent over two decades of my life laboring with others to start and expand these religious businesses, and quite successfully in terms of the common measures used. Yet I’ve also walked away in tears from more than one, confused about how/why the relationship violations occurred with me ending up with the short end of the stick. And I’m pretty sure I was on the “relationship violator” end of things more times than I know.

As much as we fantasize otherwise, I believe most religious businesses are businesses first, and doers of God-stuff second, because “Job 1 is to remain a viable business.” There’s government requirements for 501(c)3 “not-for-profit” business (huh? of COURSE they’re making a profit! But that’s a different conversation…), such as roles of president, vp, secretary, treasurer, by-laws, board meetings, blah blah. There’s people depending on their financial livelihood at this business. There’s mortages and utilities to pay, sound equipment and sunday school supplies to purchase. But all this stuff is earthly domain, man’s business, and has nothing to do with being the church that follows Jesus. Most participants probably don’t think of it this way, and rather think of it as “Job 1 is to remain a viable presence of the church.” It was true for me, because like many, the religious business model is what I believed WAS the church that Jesus intended. I didn’t know any better. And within that business model, there are also people’s career identities at stake. Now those are some strong forces.

Clearly there is massive blindness about this, and most people at these religious businesses have good intentions, and have no idea that what they are doing is not what Jesus intended for his church. It was true of me as well. Wearing unintended blinders, we don’t even see the plain spoken truths about this in the bible. But for many in our day the blinders are coming off.

My main point in this post is to say that, as heartless as it may sound, I believe that its pointless to complain about these violations of relationships that happen at these religious businesses. There HAS to be a hiearchical leadership, that HAS to establish direction and boundaries for the business, and that HAS to exert authority over the “members.” This is how business works. Business is man’s domain; and man must lead it or it will fall apart. It’s the same with any business. If an employee does things that threaten the vision/plans/success of their employer’s business, no one is surprised when such a person is reprimanded, or even fired, right? It wouldn’t matter that they had friends who worked there. At the end of the day, the leadership has to do what’s right for the business or its viability will be threatened. And the kicker is, I believe that’s how God intended business (not his church) to work. God put it in us to work (Genesis – Adam, the garden) and better our lives if we can (1Cor 7:21) and to enjoy the rewards of our labors (Eccl 5:18-20).

Mixing Kingdom-of-God intentions into earthly business is where it gets all messed up, especially if people start believing that God is the leader of it instead of man. Nope, God doesn’t take charge of our businesses. He gave Adam and Eve the charge of taking care of the garden, the earthly domain.

But when it comes to being the church that follows Jesus – now THAT’s where God is in charge, whether man acknowledges it or not, and where relationships are to operate much differently than they do at an earthly business. For example, Lording over is “illegal” in the church that follows Jesus (Matt 20:25-26), and calling people by special names that put them above others, like “father” or “pastor” or “reverend,” is against Jesus’ commands (Matt 23:8-10).

I’ve come to believe that if we are experiencing the common relationship violations that happen in religious businesses, we really have no one to blame but ourselves. Man’s vision and scope for a business will always be very small compared to God’s vision and scope for his church. So there will always be times when people have grown into as much of God’s kingdom as a particular religious business can support, and to get beyond that the people will be drawn into things outside the scope of where the leadership is comfortable, or able to lead. If the leadership feel that the business or their authority (which again, the business needs) is at risk by the actions of certain people, they will have to do things to resolve this conflict, and proper human relating as God intended among his followers will suffer, because that is not the priority in the business context. We should not expect otherwise.

For those who find themselves in that situation, the good news is that God is taking many into a new journey of being and finding the church that wants to follow Jesus alone, and that wants no part of mixing it with the business aspirations of man.

I love this verse from Hosea 6:3:
“So let us know, let us press on to know the LORD.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;
And He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring rain watering the earth.”

peace for the bride

<Note: this is a continuation of the thought/email mentioned in this post from a few days ago.>

I love Psalm 122.  It’s one that I put to music many years ago and I love to sing it still. 

It’s clear from Genesis to Revelation that God’s passion is for his bride, the new Jerusalem mentioned in the book of Revelation.  Every time I pray for peace among the bride of Christ, I’m praying for the peace of this Jerusalem.  Every labor I put into bringing about the peace he desires for his bride, I’m laboring for the peace of this Jerusalem.  This kind of activity has been a primary focus of my life for about 35 years.

Jesus made it clear that it’s never been about the physical descendants of Abraham, which are an earthly body of people.  The children of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob were all about his plan for bringing salvation to the entire human race, his highest creation, the descendants of Adam and Eve.  Jesus was about his bride, which is a spiritual or heavenly body.  Placing one section of humans on a pedestal above others is sinful, like idolatry.  And I say we should beware the blindness that thinks the current, earthly nation of Israel “can do no wrong.”  That group of people is made up of the same “stuff” that every other group on earth are made up of – human beings with a sinful nature that need Jesus.

There is certainly lots of injustice done in the world, by every nation, against every nation, including lots done against Jews.  I am not attempting to make any comment on what to do about the conundrum of strife in the Middle East.  My point in this conversation is to say that I do not accept that the current, earthly nation of Israel, and the earthly city of Jerusalem, is the same “Israel” and “Jerusalem” spoken of prophetically in scripture, which I believe is focused on the spiritual bride of Christ.

Thus, I do not see David’s prayer in Psalm 122, “may they prosper who love you <Jerusalem>” (NAS) as involving any kind of promise from God that he will prosper those who love the current, earthly nation of Israel.  This also means that I am not confident that the forming of the earthly nation of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of biblical prophesy or in any way connected to the promises of Christ’s return.  I am not aware of any place in scripture where we are encouraged to go about trying to fulfill prophecy, but I see this in some of the thinking of the church, especially with regard to “end times” and the current, earthly nation of Israel.  Jesus specifically taught against such thinking in Acts 1 when the disciples wanted to see him restore the nation of Israel even then, and he essentially said, “it’s not for you to know these things” and he focused them on following the lead of the Holy Spirit.  In my humble view, this is where we as his church need to keep our focus still.

thoughts on Easter and similar traditions

<I posted this over at simplechurchseattle.com, but thought I’d post it here as well for my own records.>

“Hey gang, what should we do this Easter?”  It’s a question that evokes a variety of different responses among those we gather with.  Here’s mine:

There was a time when I thought it was one of the more exciting Christian traditions, and my heart was pure about it.  I love the beginnings of Spring, I love early mornings, and the triumph of Jesus beating the enemy at his own game, getting up from being dead – it’s the best!

And it’s not that I no longer value those things, but I’ve come to a different place with respect to religious, man-made traditions.  They are so hollow, empty, dead – like the ash in a fireplace.  They’re all used up, there’s nothing in them that fires me up anymore.  After so many years of perpetuating the traditions of man, and the religious businesses of a church subculture, thinking these were things “ordained” from heaven, I loathe to lift even a pinky finger to do them anymore.  At least this one.  And I don’t want to encourage the thought in my children that performing the obligation of a religious tradition pleases our loving Father in heaven.

Parenthetical insert:  Like many, I grew up thinking Easter (and Christmas) were holidays all about Christ.  We know now that both actually have pagan roots (for more, google the three words together: pagan christian easter).  Pagan roots alone hasn’t been a big issue for me – so what if we take something with pagan roots and turn it into an opportunity to worship Jesus and the one true God!? 

But the biggest harm that I see from these holidays is that so many of us who seek to follow Jesus still feel trapped by thinking God is somehow pleased/appeased by our observance of these religious rituals, and we have to do SOMEthing “spiritual” to commemorate this religious holiday, or somehow we haven’t measured up to being a true follower of Jesus.  And how does that color our entire relationship with him?  Or said another way, what are the roots of this sense of obligation in us, and what would be Jesus’ response to it?

So for me, hearing the question, “what should we do this Easter?” evokes, not a quest for the right answer, but a fresh realization that it’s the wrong question.  It’s simply one I don’t hear the Lord asking (not among the NT church, not among many who’s relationship with God I know of and respect, not in my own heart), so I’m not inclined to seek an answer for it.  The only redeeming value I see in this question is if it becomes a spring board to honest thought and discussion about how this and similar religious practices may still have us enslaved, and lead us to him afresh for the freedom he so desires for us.  My view is that we shouldn’t waste another ounce of time, energy, or resources coddling or even pacifying a man-made, religious tradition that holds no life for us; in other words, that God is not filling with his life.

Of course, I’m sure there are others who enjoy the traditions of this holiday and don’t have concerns about enslavement to it.  I’d like to think we can find creative ways of grace and freedom to allow each other to do as we please with traditions of man.  Having the variety helps to communicate the bigger picture of what’s a core essential of the faith, and what’s optional.

it’s all about faith

I had a recent email exchange with a friend about the different views of the modern day Israel nation vs. the one in the Old Testament of the Bible, and fulfillment of scriptural prophecy.  Here’s a quick overview of my thoughts – not in the spirit of an exhaustive treatise, but just in the vein of sharing general thoughts:

The way I see it, Jesus put the focus on faith in him, not blood connection to Abraham.  In fact, understanding that God’s intention was to use Abraham’s descendants to bring about faith on earth puts an even sharper point on the fact that his focus was always on seeing faith raised up in Adam & Eve and their descendants.

Galatians 3:6 Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

(the above quote “all nations will be blessed through you” occurs in Genesis 12, showing that the plan was about faith since then).

Matt 3:9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.

To further emphasize the point that it’s all about faith in him, not blood connection to Abraham, Jesus points out to some Jewish leaders of his day that they missed the boat and were actually following the devil, not God:

John 8:44 “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.47 “He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.”

For me, the value in Jewish customs is in the ways that they illustrate more of who God is.  Reading/hearing about them and understanding those points is interesting, though I don’t see it as absolutely essential to the faith.  As in Romans 1, God can use creation alone to stir one to faith.  Paul emphasizing this is further evidence that faith is, and always has been, the priority.  Some may choose to do some sorts of re-enactments of Jewish customs to gain an even greater understanding of God’s heart revealed in them, and I have done some of this in the past, but for whatever reasons, I do not feel compelled to do this at this time.

Regarding the raising up of an earthly country/nation called Israel, I don’t see this as a focus by Jesus, the apostles, or the NT church, which makes me wonder why some put a high focus on this.  I went along with all the interest in this for the first decade or so of my own pursuit of following God, being focused on end times, seeing great significance in 1948, etc.  But I’ve come to question whether there is clear understanding of prophesy in this area, especially with discerning the spiritual nation of Israel vs. an earthly/physical nation.

The general trend I see in Jesus, Paul, NT, is to honor how God used the descendants of Abraham to bring the roots/foundations of faith in Christ to the earth, but then to clearly make the focus on faith, including explanations of how the Jew/Gentile barrier has been removed.

If I were Jewish, I would hope to appreciate how special it is, on a human level, to be connected to Abraham, the man God chose to use to illustrate faith to the world.  But I would also hope to remember that this has nothing to do with being part of those who will make up the Bride of Christ.

Ephesians 2:14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

So the creation of the “one new man” – which is neither Jew nor Gentile – is the focus of Christ.  This is the direction I see in all of scripture, and how I sense the Lord moving to this day.  My heart’s desire going forward is simply on hearing God’s voice to accomplish the part he has for me, as he continues to raise up on earth the “one new man” as he has already done in heaven, in other words, the point Jesus made with, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

you can't count the wind

On this journey of gathering simply, with the single desire of following Jesus, I’ve been thinking about what it’s looking like to see it expand out to others.  Most of us know the “religious business” model for doing this, where there’s buildings, leadership structure, financial basis, etc.  There are clear boundaries of scope and reach, even if there are many such religious businesses in close proximity.  That model of church life has the ever-present mix of kingdom of God desires with earthly business necessities, so you’re never in the dark about which religious business is sponsoring activities, having both Kingdom of God and earthly, religious business growth hopes.

It’s the focus on “how many” – how many people attend your church, how many church groups are gathering in an area, how many churches have you helped plant, how many groups has your house church spun off.  I had a couple decades of active involvement in so-called “church planting” — on college campuses, in growing small groups within a larger religious business, in starting new religious businesses from the ground up.  It’s amazing how I took for granted this thing of counting church groups, as if that’s what God was doing too.

Over the last 10 years our family has been gathering with several others in the Seattle area.  I can’t tell you a single multiplication event that has happened among us in the vein as described above.  Every now and then I would meet someone who would ask about it, with the obvious hint that, “shouldn’t you have planted other churches from yours by now?”  All I could say was, “well, that just doesn’t appear to be what God is doing among us.”  When someone asks the standard “how many” questions from the religious business backdrop,  “how many people do you meet with?” “how many times a month do you meet?” – my answer sounds something like:

“Let’s see, a couple times a month we get together at our house on Saturday nights.  A couple times a month a few of us guys get together at a local brew pub, and then head over to Don’s house afterwards for more talk and prayer.  A couple times a month some of us – and other folks from other circles – get together at the Doty’s house and dig into the bible together.  Roughly monthly some folks may get together at the Butz home for worship.  Oh yes, and sometimes at the end of the month a few of us get together on a Sunday morning.  Now and then groups of women in the area – beyond those we would see at the other gatherings – do things together. Some are homeschooling moms and get together with others from the co-ops and resource centers for events with the kids.  Some are involved with groups that help the poor in our city.  Some are committed to the regular activity of building homes for the poor in Mexico, which they do with larger extended groups of people across the country.  Some are getting connected online and meet up occasionally with an ever-growing network of families in the area that gather in homes and are helping people find or start simple church gatherings like ours.”

It’s a messy answer, and it’s just getting messier.  It’s getting harder and harder to force some kind of boundary around the various gatherings.  It’s a meshed network of relationships that defies clarity.  Sure, some basic patterns have formed – people that you go deeper with on a regular basis.  But then the patterns are also in a gentle state of constant flux as new relationships form.  It seems to happen in waves.  You can’t get your arms around it.  You can’t count “how many.”  Is that a problem?  Not as long as you don’t need to answer the quantitative questions.  And the good news is, I have yet to sense God asking those questions.  I’ve only heard them from man.

I’ve often realized that what I know most about what God is doing comes from looking in the rear-view mirror – at what he’s done.  In our experience, God is not focusing us on the rapid multiplication of small groups of people gathering in homes.  And I don’t see the New Testament church having that focus either.  There’s the realm of what God sovereignly does, and there’s the realm of what he calls us to do.  In my view, a regular error in the church is us trying to take charge of his realm.  God gave Adam the job of “taking care of business” in the garden, and of course, that still happens in the work environments today, as it should.  But when we do this with church life, my experience is we turn it all into a religious business, and there you are right back in the muck we left, eh?

The specifics of what God IS focusing us on is in constant flux, but in general, he seems to be about bringing us into a loving relationship with him, into the community of believers, and together growing us in faith, in hearing his voice, and following his lead in every aspect of our lives.  Of course, that means that we find ways to gather regularly with other followers of Jesus.

So my point is that there’s this matter of keeping the emphasis on the things he’s emphasizing.  I accept that each person and group of followers have to decide what that looks like for themselves.  But I plead, “beware the yeast of church growth energy (entrepreneurial-ism).”  I’ve lived it first hand, and know what it does to your heart, and I’m watching with sadness as it is sweeping up many of the “simple church” gang these days.  If we find ourselves off in the weeds of flesh effort, hardly knowing the Lord’s voice anymore, we can always take time to pause and check in.  His arms of grace will always receive us.

I love this verse from John 3: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (that’s us!)

Blessings,

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