When Jesus ascended into Heaven, there were likely those who believed this movement would never continue. Obviously, they were wrong! Like most movements, the effectiveness of continuing what Jesus started was closely related to how the leaders would function in the next few years. Did they catch the vision? Were they clear about the purpose? Did they feel the passion that brought Jesus to the cross and triumphant from the grave?
One of the most fascinating realities of Christian history is what occurred after Jesus ascended into Heaven. It was amazing that the believers radically departed from the politics of the scribes and Pharisees. The Christian movement was very different from the structural leadership of the Jewish movement. Most of them, at the beginning, were still Jews. They had the Jewish heritage. The Old Testament was their book. Yet, very few from the scribe-and-Pharisee quarter joined the movement. The Apostle Paul was one of them. There were some others as well. But in total, the Jesus movement was like turning a page of history.
The Book of Acts reflects that the scribes and Pharisees would meet in what was called “councils.” Many of these meetings, recorded in the New Testament, took an approach in which their members reacted to what they perceived to be a threat to their religious influence. Jesus was simply not “political enough” for them. They were so entrenched in rules and regulations, their “laws and bylaws,” that they couldn’t move with the movement. For the most part, many of them were stalled in “the way we’ve always done it.”
Being stuck in the past is a challenge for every movement, including your church or denomination. It is so easy to cling to familiar structures and approaches. Ironically, in a movement like Christianity, history proves that, at least for some, it is common for many to drift from the priorities, the content, and the ethos of the movement. Some drift from the agenda—even the purpose. The Pharisees and scribes demonstrated that they were unwilling to grow, change, and adapt to God’s dynamic movement.
This is also apparent in the recent generations of the Christian movement. Following the Reformation, many churches, primarily in Europe, were built as enormous cathedrals. As the church spread throughout the world, there were many Christians who insisted in following that same building pattern. It was as if the building was “sacred.” In the early days of America, for example, the churches provided benches for people to sit during worship. Then someone decided it would be more comfortable to add a back to the benches: the invention of pews. Then, some enterprising Christian padded them so it would be easier to sleep—although, I’m sure they just wanted to make God’s people more comfortable. However, in the 21st century, there are still many churches with pews. Meanwhile, the world moved beyond that form of seating decades ago.
Pews and chairs are not theological issues. But they represent a hard-core unwillingness to allow God’s Word to stand without exception, yet package it in worn-out dimensions that signal to unbelievers that the movement is out-of-date. This reflects the challenge that occurred among the scribes and the Pharisees. “But we’ve always done it that way.” The commitment to spiritual substance is essential. The priority for style is reflected in the incarnation of Jesus. He looked like, spoke like, and dressed like the people He came to reach. The Christian movement suffers when it abandons substance and perpetuates a style that becomes “forever” to the intended recipients.
While the scribes and Pharisees met in political “councils,” the Book of Acts reports that the apostles, when they met, gathered in “counsels.” The Christians abandoned the political nature of organized religion. They recognized the dynamic nature of God taught in Scripture: God is the “Mighty Counselor,” as recorded in the Old Testament. This issue is more than simply a title or name, or even an idea. To take counsel from God is to follow the Scripture. This approach reflects a relationship with God. Seeking God’s will is not a political structure, but a spiritual movement. The New Testament church grew because those Christ-followers watched what Jesus demonstrated: He followed the will of the Father—the Mighty Counselor.
The new believers were serious about praying for direction. They didn’t need Robert’s Rules of Order. They sought wisdom from Scripture and the teachings of Jesus. This allowed the church to be flexible in mission, but committed in content.
The disciples learned what Jesus meant when He said, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” When the early Christians had to make important decisions, develop mission strategies, and select priorities for ministry, prayer was an essential part of their decision-making groups. They didn’t just pray at the beginning or end of a “meeting.” They sought counsel from God. Spontaneously, they searched the Scriptures. They prayed for guidance. Their approach was not entirely “orderly,” just biblical: seeking wisdom from God.
The New Testament Christians searched the Scriptures. They were open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Remember, the Holy Spirit was new to these people. Yet, they understood the presence and the power. They welcomed the Holy Spirit and trusted God to guide and direct them.
The “politically” charged approach of voting was not part of their worldview. Jesus never called for a vote. Nor did they. There was no such thing as a “two-thirds majority.” Everything was directed by the will of God. As the church grew and the apostles wrote what we now know as the New Testament, healthy churches took their cues from Scripture. They clearly understood that Scripture was divinely inspired. Constitutions, with laws and bylaws, are not.
In the New Testament, the early leaders of the movement, the disciples, did use a vote system—only once. The Book of Acts reflects that they “drew straws” to pick Matthias as a replacement for Judas. It is interesting that the Scripture never mentions Matthias again. It is an argument from silence that strongly hints that voting is a bad idea. In time, Paul became the “12th man,” hand-picked by the resurrected Jesus Himself. This is a powerful demonstration that political votes are not God’s way of calling leaders.
Prayer, the Scripture (the Old Testament), and Jesus’ teachings represented the primary approach to seeking direction—God’s will. It is clear that “majority rule” was not a part of the New Testament church. God’s people, according to Scripture, relied on the Holy Spirit for direction.
The New Testament Christians were not known for their organization. In fact, if you want to be a movement like Jesus developed, the church becomes more like an organism. Jesus’ followers operated in a way that reflects the church as fluid, moving, adaptable in style, but firm in content. They learned from Jesus about the metaphors that describe the church as a living organism. They believed what Jesus taught about the church in its dynamic appearance. For them, the church was, as Jesus described, like sheep who belong to the Shepherd. They described the church as a living temple—a building with living stones where Christ is a cornerstone. The church is like a vine with branches producing fruit. They understood it as the body of Christ and the family of God. The Christian movement was not hierarchical or bureaucratic. The movement moved.
Kent R. Hunter is the author of Church Politics: Pain-Free Decision-Making. Kent is the founder of Church Doctor Ministries, now led by Tracee J. Swank. Church Doctor Ministries is a dynamic ministry that helps Christians and churches become more effective to make disciples for Jesus Christ. Church Politics is available from Amazon.com and ChurchDoctor.org.