Summary: Each person that receives the Spirit of God is responsible to recognize God’s will in a church. But fear of this distributed responsibility leads churches to shift it and violate Christ’s new commandment and each Christian’s new identity as a priest to God. Correcting this leads to authentic unity and church transformation.
A major theme you can spot throughout the entire New Testament is the shift in responsibility in discerning God’s will from special elevated people (like kings and other leaders) to each person that receives the Spirit of God.
The Scriptures don’t prescribe God’s real-time will to people in formulas, codes or principles that can just be cut and pasted into situations willy-nilly. The words of God tell us that each person is responsible to walk in the Spirit.
How do we know if we’re walking in the Spirit? Because we imitate the behavior of God by walking in Love, revealed in how Christ loved us. (Eph. 5:1-2).
Jesus set the foundation from which church life flows when he said…
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)
If the timely influence of the Spirit and a position of Love is not applied in each situation, the recognizing of God’s will is not being practiced.
Taking this a step further, when people do not know the Spirit of God very well, they make the Bible say all sorts of things, impart principles that aren’t really there, and justify behaviors that are not of the Spirit with Scripture. People in masses believe all sorts of things concocted from Scriptures that are not of the Spirit.
Getting to know the Lord
Take Paul for example. Wait…Paul? The guy that WROTE most of the books of the New Testament? Yes, that guy. Pretty much no one knew the Scriptures better than he did, and he persecuted the One all the Scriptures point to.
Until he met that Person. Even then, it took him time to get to know Him. Any writings you read of his in the New Testament weren’t written until years after he met the Lord. The better he got to know the Lord the Scriptures point to, the better he understood what the Scriptures meant by what they said and the better he could give timely advice for the situations he was addressing in his writing.
The Scriptures point us to a Person and they tell us how that Person and people that lived by the Life of the Spirit of that Person well thought about and responded to situations. After his conversion, Paul took responsibility to get to know the Lord better and to be led by Him. As he penned in Philippians 3, his goal was “that I may know Him.”
While he communicates a lot of Spirit-inspired truth and advice to the churches he worked with in his letters, he always deals with them as responsible people who must test and approve what God’s will is themselves and make up their own minds so that they themselves may know Him.
There’s no sense in telling people what to do. How does that help them to know Him? What helps people know Him is having the responsibility to walk in the Spirit through all life throws at them individually and with others.
The fear of distributed responsibility
Well that’s scary, isn’t it? You mean we can’t use the Bible as a manual that tells us what to do? Well, you can, but you’re setting yourself up for toxic consequences. History is littered with people and groups of people that have done things the Holy Spirit didn’t direct them to do because “the Bible said to do it.”
If you’ve been a Christian for any significant period of time and you’re honest with yourself, you’ve done it. And if you’ve gotten to know the Lord better, you’ve realized you’ve done it. I’m sure all of us have been the victim of this as well.
This leaves us in a scary situation because the Lord and His Words ask us that we each be responsible to know Him and discern His will for us and the church we’re a part of. That’s how we get to know Him as a church.
The fear of this distributed responsibility leads to people in churches either taking more of other’s responsibility from them or giving up more responsibility to others. And yes, they think “the Bible says to do it” because the Spirit of Love is not joined with the words of God to result in correct understanding of how we should treat one another.
Jon Zens includes a message in his book 58 to 0: How Christ Leads Through The One Anothers given by a professor from the Institute of Christian Studies named Hendrick Hart that says this…
It’s much more comfortable to have some leader tell us what to do. It is much more comfortable to have a synod decide that this is what we may do and that is what we may not do, than to find that the Word of God ask us that we be responsible.
As the ever-popular Romans 12 passage tells us – each person is responsible to test and approve (recognize) what His will is along with everyone in a church. We all present ourselves as one sacrifice together and our co-participation in listening to the Lord with reference to His Words results in renewed minds, transformed hearts and an ever-increasing ability to recognize God’s will in situations.
Each one that receives the Holy Spirit is responsible to learn to discern the Spirit’s leading with reference to His Words.
Christians don’t live by principles. They live by an indwelling Lord. He gives real-time direction that won’t contradict His words.
But what you see everywhere is fear driving churches to shift responsibility and lock it into one or a few people and justify submission to what they say. This is a defining characteristic of the world’s system. When fear is the foundation, the centralization of control is the result. It locks it into “the experts” and asks everyone else to follow.
A correct understanding of the New Testament teaches that a healthy church whose foundation is walking in the Spirit and “loving one another as I have loved you” will show this through reciprocal relationships marked by mutual edification and submission.
Recognizing God’s will together
In another chapter of Zens’ book, he includes an article by former Harvard Divinity School professor J. Lawrence Burkholder titled The Church – A Discerning Community that says…
A congregation comes to order when it addresses itself under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and with reference to the Bible to a great question. That is church in the very best sense of the word.
This means that one was open to God’s direction so that one might be a contributing factor to the overall “discernment” of the congregation. And to give counsel meant that one must listen not merely out of democratic or personal respect for another person, but listen to that other person as one through whom God may speak.
The early church was taught that the process of recognizing God’s will together as One Body/Family was more important than any details of decisions themselves. They came to understand that this mutuality of developing in the Lord is what built unity.
Mistakes in decision-making could be corrected, learned from and used to develop and progressively sharpen everyone’s discernment capabilities. But the resulting relational damage of the counterfeit unity that comes from operating like the world’s system is hard to repair and doesn’t help people be transformed.
To be blunt, the notion that certain special people should be doing more work discerning and deciding things in a church doesn’t square with Christ’s new commandment and each Christian’s new identity as a priest to God.
To the equippers
So to those who would consider themselves mature equippers in a church…
It’s not your place to take other’s responsibility away from them under the justification that you’re “more mature and an equipper.” If you were so mature and such a great equipper, you’d be able to equip people through the process of laying hold of the Lord’s direction and making decisions together in unity. You’d equip them in their responsibility as a priest to God.
Creating special teams, boards or committees in the name of “leadership” to make decisions for other people is not equipping, it’s enabling; and it’s not loving to your brothers and sisters who have the Spirit of God living inside of them. It’s the easy way out. It’s robbing people of their responsibility to get to know Him and be a participating Body member in laying hold of the church’s Head for direction and decisions.
To everyone else…
Your Christian identity comes with a calling to walk in the Spirit you’ve been freely given. This leaves no place for freeloading. It leaves no place for either allowing others to take your responsibility or casting it on others to discern the Spirit of God’s leading in your life and for your church.
The Lord did not give you all of His Spirit so that you would play second fiddle in testing and approving His will in your community to anybody. You have just as much of His Spirit as anyone else.
You may not be as seasoned in knowing the Lord and exercising mature reason and judgment, but that’s not an excuse to be anything other than a co-equal member of the process of recognizing and executing His will as His Body/Family. In fact, it’s the exact reason you SHOULD be an equal part. Not being an equal part is like saying you want to be better at a skill and never practicing.
Working to recognize God’s will together in church life is a main vehicle the Lord provides on the path of transformation. Failing to take this responsibility is not loving to your brothers and sisters who the Lord wants to help transform through you.
Holding proper responsibility
While certain people are more seasoned in recognizing God’s will, their proper function within a church is described with words like guide, persuade, shepherd and care for. We are to help one another learn to walk in the Spirit together while holding sacred the all-inclusive process of deciding as a Body what it means to do so in the situations our church encounters together.
Those who walk in the Spirit with reference to God’s words will always require this responsibility from themselves and others without taking more of it or giving more of it away.
The rest of the posts in the Servants and Slaves series are here.