This is a paper I wrote for a class I am taking at Grace Theological College. The class is Spiritual Development and the paper could be given the title Body Life and is a reflection of my experience of life in the church of Jesus Christ.
I walked through the doors of Grace Presbyterian Church in Invercargill as one who spoke in tongues, practiced private communion, held to a universalistic view of soteriology, and who had attended mostly Pentecostal churches.
There was much at this new church to repel me. The music sucked. I discovered they were Calvinists. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated less than monthly, and that with little squares of wholegrain bread and thimbles of blackcurrant juice. There was no clapping, or hand raising, or tongue speaking.
Yet after four years, I transferred my membership on amicable terms.
Broadly speaking, there are three main reasons why this was the case – The Word, discipline, and clearly demonstrated acts of love.
The first, a key reason I had left other churches on less than amicable terms. In a previous church settings I was often in a position of having to fight for what I perceived at the time to be biblical preaching. In one setting the Bible was relegated by an unhealthy emphasis on the Holy Spirit (which I would argue now that wasn’t a reflection of who the Holy Spirit is as expressed, explained, and exemplified in Scripture). Week after week I pleaded with the pastor to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ from the Bible to the people. I would write verses of scripture out on the offering envelop and put it in the basket as it was handed around (sometimes more than once). Despite sharing my concerns with various leaders within the church, they were at the mercy of a despotic I’m an apostle type pastor and I was labelled a trouble maker and told “If you don’t like it here, there’s the door”.
Prior to that, I was in a church where KJV onlyism reigned alongside a system of doctrine I struggle to find a category to associate with except that a key claim was that while the return of Christ is physical, it is not as a single man, Jesus the Christ with His people, but the Christ as His people (i.e. that there would be a strata of Christian elite, they termed the elect, who would actually become the Christ just, as it was claimed, Jesus did at His baptism). There was no room for grace or a Christocentric hermeneutic in the churches preaching. Being KJV only, there was assigned to the leaders of the church the role of interpreting what the Bible actually said despite Greek scholarship being limited to knowledge of how to eisogetically operate a Strong’s Concordance. Again, with this mantle of exclusive interpretation came a closed door to requests for preaching that made much of Jesus or emphasised grace. “If you don’t like it here…”
I was exposed to more Bible in one service at GPCI than I had in 3 months at the Hotel Charismania. The service was opened with the Bible, a call to worship. There was a sustained reading of the Bible. The sermon started from the Bible, tracked with the Bible, and was still anchored in the Bible at the end of the message.
Unlike Camp Corporate Christ, the front face of GPCI seemed to encourage each person to look closely at the text as it was expounded least there be any questions as to where the preachers preposition had come from. What’s more, I had a lot of questions. But I as asked each in turn, there was never a sense of a finger being lifted to show me the exit. There was a quiet confidence that questions are okay, that not having an immediate answer does not remove the basis of assurance, and that I’ve never looked at it from that perspective before posed no threat to an authoritative teaching ministry within the church.
What about the second point, discipline? In previous settings the concept of discipline was only ever punitive, and was really just limited to exclusion from fellowship. In none of the above situations was I ever shepherded through my concerns, nor was there ever a restorative, healing, pastoral approach to discipline.
While a member of GPCI, I did and said some things (more than once) that would lead me to standing outside in the cold at the previous churches. Though I was never formally disciplined (i.e. put under discipline), I was asked to refrain from certain responsibilities and pursue reconciliation with parties I had offended. Additionally, it became the context for some very intense and intentional shepherding from the very parties I had offended. Rather than being written off as a trouble maker, it was like I was seen as one of them, a member who was suffering the ravages of deeply rooted sin that was manifesting itself in potentially destructive ways within the life of the Body. I am sure that there was an ultimate commitment to amputate if necessary, but that was seen as a last resort. I remember writing to Barry Swann in the early days of my involvement. Amongst my questions was “If I am involved in conflict, will I have to leave?” It was a very real, pertinent question that was almost answered like this, “Leave? We won’t let you leave.” in the same way doctors would be wise and reluctant in discharging an ill and suffering patient.
The informal though intentional discipline to which I was subject was an amazing testimony to me that, here were these men who I had offended with my sin, who are committed to my spiritual welfare for my long term growth in grace for the long term benefit for the health of the church over which they had been appointed overseers, for the glory of God.
While the commitment to discipline is hard to separate from clearly demonstrated acts of love, there were other, non-disciplinary acts of love that were just as gluey. A few stand out. Ashley and I both come from homes devastated by adultery and divorce. And having attended churches where divorce statistics seemed to know no distinction between church and the world we went without robust role models on how to do marriage. Suffice to say we didn’t have a clue, we couldn’t even say why we’d gotten married, let alone answer questions like what? and how?
If one member suffers, all suffer together. Ashley and I were suffering in the context of marriage. The church recognised that our suffering was their suffering and so sponsored remedial action. We were sent for a week of intensive marriage counselling, at the churches expense. We saw, and knew this to be an incredible act of love, that here was a group of people radically committed to our marriage that prompted generous and sacrificial action.
I think amidst all this, something was clear – there was a strong understanding of church membership. Ashley and I weren’t just visitors to the church. There really was a You can’t just leave approach to our involvement that meant that the acts of discipline and clear demonstrations of practical love weren’t a waste of time, rather, were an investment in honouring one member that all might rejoice together.