A Church in Outstandingly Good Shape: A Congregation with an A+ From Paul , Romans 15:14

Cars break down and require repair, even in 2019. Nowadays with computerized systems, problems can be complicated: the AC, motor, transmission, suspension, brakes, sensors, or the electronics can fail. So, not just anyone can put our vehicles back on the road again. Instead, we take our vehicles to certified, trained mechanics because they are competent to diagnose hidden issues and apply needed repairs.

neonbrand-60krlMMeWxU-unsplash.jpg

Christians Require Repair

Christians break down and require repair by competent men and women who can put us back on our feet.

Christians Require Repair

Christians also break down and require repair. People’s life problems can be simple or complicated. It takes competent men and women who have been trained to diagnose our issues, repair us by applying God’s resources of mercy and grace, and put us back on the discipleship path in healthy walking condition.  

The hidden counsels of a person’s heart are deep waters,

But an understanding person draws them up. Proverbs 20:5

Admonish: Overcoming Barriers to Growth

The Bible uses the word admonish to describe that repair process. The verb “admonish” is stronger, carries more weight, and includes more steps than the verb “teach.” Teaching imparts God’s truth and knowledge. But admonish takes the process a few steps further.

Admonish includes diagnosing[1] a person’s life problem—incorrect thinking, unhealthy emotions, sinful attitudes and habits—and then applying God’s resources to make repairs and improve our spiritual condition.[2] Admonish presupposes some type of obstacle that must be overcome: an attitude to correct, a wrong that must be made right, or to improve something deficient.

Similarly, a mechanic isn’t someone who can merely teach us the facts from the repair manual, the car bible. He encounters an obstacle—something below the surface is keeping the vehicle from running efficiently. So, he uses his knowledge from the repair manual to diagnose the faulty part, replace it, and put a vehicle back on the road again.

Who are the Church Technicians?

So, who, then, are the people technicians in Jesus’ church? Who should be competent to diagnose and fix the ongoing spiritual problems of men and women in Jesus’ church? The professionals? The Pastor?[3] The leadership? The top brass?

Scripture disagrees with this traditional institutional approach to being church, and answers the question of who? unexpectedly:

But I myself[4] am fully convinced[5] about you,[6] my brothers and sisters[7], that you yourselves[8] are full of goodness,[9] filled with all knowledge,[10] and competent to admonish one another.[11] Roman 15:14

Paul is not known for flattery. Luke’s portrayal of Paul in Acts shows him to be a man of great judgment and integrity, wise enough not to be played, and yet, too honest to flatter.  

So, it was a testament to the authentic goodness of the Roman church that he commends them so highly. He provides three pieces of evidence to support his opinion—without any lingering doubts—that the Roman church was in A+ condition, outstandingly good shape, a good place to bring broken down people: “full of goodness,” (a plentiful supply), complete in their knowledge (of Christ), and competent to admonish one another.  

He portrays the Roman congregation as an auto repair shop with competent mechanics at every station: every man or woman in the Body was able to admonish and fix people’s life problems, whether in a public or private setting. Paul describes a rare, conspicuously striking feature: congregational self-sufficiency, a mark of Christian adulthood. Paul was no advocate of the traditional, institutional way of being the church.

Mutual Ministry

Pew sitters and Bible students alone they were not. The men and women had learned—via discipleship and training—to do mutual ministry. They were competent to admonish and thus restore each other. Yes, they could teach one another the truths about Christ from Scripture.[12] But the verb Paul uses, “to admonish,” is far stronger and heavier than the word “to teach.” Teaching imparts truth and knowledge. But admonish uses the truth to diagnose a problem and then fix what is broken or amiss by applying God’s gracious resources in Jesus Christ.

A Plus

Paul gives the church in Rome an A+. Why? Because they knew the Bible? No. Because they were problem free? No. They were in outstandingly good shape because, like a competent repair garage, they all were self-sufficient admonishers. What a striking contrast with today’s institutional church! No wonder Paul commends them so highly.

Reciprocal Ministry

So, what did this A+ ministry look like in action? If we videotaped the congregation day-by-day, both in public meetings and private conversations, we would capture men and women exercising a reciprocal, brotherly or sisterly oversight with each other.

Our video tape would show men admonishing men and women in public and private; we could also watch women admonishing men and women in private and in public. Reciprocal ministry without a hint of institutionalism. You’ve heard of A-1 Steak Sauce. Jesus’ church in Rome was an A-1 congregation.

Paul affirmed a congregation as being in outstandingly good shape because both men and women were proficient people-techs, qualified to fix each other when issues arose. It was like a successful auto repair shop where all the technicians are skilled and know what they are doing.

Paul alludes elsewhere to something very similar about just who should put God’s people back on the pathway again:  

Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual[13] restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness. Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too. Galatians 6:1

Hard to Imagine

So, imagine an institutionalized congregation where only a few of the members were competent and knew what they were doing: a congregation divided into human-made categories of clergy and laity. No high praise from Paul.

Or, worse, imagine a partly restricted congregation where half of the members/technicians were forbidden to admonish or restore people with life’s problems. Not hard to imagine, then, the multiple but hidden, unsolved problems in individuals and families. Would Paul give an A+ to such a church? They might grade themselves favorably. But not Paul. Flattery played no role in his agenda.

Imagine a Congregation in Outstandingly Good Shape

But, then, imagine a congregation in good running shape like the Roman church. Imagine a church where every member, male and female, was encouraged to acquire skills and confidence in diagnosing problems based upon Scripture.

But don’t limit the bounds of your imagination. Go on to imagine those same men and women being given a platform to actually make people repairs, publicly and privately. No one watching the game sitting on the bench or spectating from the bleachers or star-gazing from a church pew or confined behind iron bars of tradition.

Unsolved Problems Decline

Paul gives the Roman church high praise because they were in outstandingly good shape. Each member—male and female—was competent to admonish the other members. The number of unsolved problems in families, parent-child relationships, marriages, and individuals would soon decline. Imagine a non-institutionalized, self-sufficient church in such good shape.

 Good News

And the good news is that you don’t have to just imagine it. You can actually be part of a Church Body in outstandingly good shape. But it will have to be a church that intentionally jettisons the institutional model, deliberately removes the restrictive jail bars, and enthusiastically adopts the New Testament model of ministry.

 The Ministry of Multiplication

How can we develop such a model? Start discipling, developing, and equipping men and women in your own congregation. When you’re finished discipling them, they will carry on the ministry of multiplication.

Do exactly what Jesus and Paul did as they prepared successors for their departure.[14] The message of Jesus in Scripture is inspired, but so is his method: discipling people one life at a time. When he finished developing them via teaching and admonishing, they were in good shape, prepared to take the baton from the hand of Jesus and carry it until it was time to hand it off to the next generation.

 

Thank you for reading.


NOTES:

[1] Based upon the gathering of facts by careful observation, intense listening, asking pointed questions, and then, interpreting the information you collected.

[2] (J. Behm, TDNT, IV, p. 1019).

[3] I use this term grudgingly, yet of necessity. There is no such thing as THE Pastor of a church. It does not exist in Scripture. There are no examples of it anywhere in the Bible. And, what is more, the word “Pastor” is an imported transliteration (not a translation) from the Latin language into our English Bible versions. Translated correctly, it is our word “shepherd.” See Ephesians 4:12 where Paul describes the Teaching Shepherd, not as an office in the church, but as Jesus’ gift (a gifted leader) to His church whose task is to equip, train, and prepare God’s people to do the work of ministry.

[4] This particular phrase (“But I myself”) is very emphatic. See Romans 7:25 for a similar construction and form of emphasis.

[5] “Fully convinced” is in the perfect tense and points to Paul’s complete, ongoing confidence in the Roman believers, a persuasion not tinged by any lingering doubts.

[6] Plural pronoun: “you all,” men and women.

[7] Observe the warmth Paul expresses to this congregation as he addresses them as family.

[8] There are no rebukes in Paul’s letter to the Romans, a vivid contrast with his letters to the Corinthian church where Paul’s authority was questioned and where squabbles were an ongoing problem. 

[9] The Romans were full of goodness, not occasionally good or virtuous. Their goodness was plentiful, outstandingly good. The same word for “good” is used to describe Barnabas. See Acts 11:24.

[10] Knowledge involves the intellectual dimension of the Christian faith. See Paul’s prayer for the Colossians in 1:9-13 where increasing knowledge is emphasized as a sign of growth.

[11] Greek text: δυνάμενοι καὶ ἀλλήλους νουθετεῖν. The Greek verb admonish is nouthentein, νουθετεῖν; literally, “to put into the mind,” from nous (mind) and tithemi (to put, or place). To admonish, at the very least, involves the element of teaching, placing truth into people’s minds. But it also goes beyond mere teaching. Paul uses “teaching” and “admonishing” together as two separate concepts in Colossians 1:28 and 3:16.

[12] Colossians 3:16

[13] Perhaps we might have expected Paul to instruct the Roman church leaders (Elders/Overseers/Shepherds) to restore people. But, again, he surprises us: it is the men and women who are spiritual—those who bear the fruit of the Spirit and are controlled by the Spirit (rather than controlled by anger, bitterness, envy, jealousy, resentment, materialism, or greed) who should restore the fallen within the Body.

[14] Both Jesus and Paul invested at least three years in developing their successors by way of discipleship. Just as Jesus discipled the apostles for three years, so also Paul admonished the Ephesians Elders for three years. “Remember that for three years, I never stopped admonishing each of you night and days with tears.” Luke uses the same word “admonish” (νουθετῶν) as he did in Romans 15:14. Some disciples require longer periods of time.

Men and Women Together as Worship Leaders: We Do Worship Better Together

Moses and Miriam the prophetess leading worship together is a familiar case in point (Ex 15:1-12). But less known is the male-female worship leader duet of Barak and Deborah the prophetess (Judges 4-5). Two examples provide us with a double-duet. But even lesser known is the fact that both these stories are intentionally arranged to mirror one another. Though separated in time, they are twin stories. Let me explain what I mean.  

Transitions

The month of May here in Florida is all about transitions. Fledglings (baby birds) start falling from the nests by the thousands. They can’t fly yet, but the nest is either too small or they lose their balance and take the plunge. Out of the safety of the nest for the first time, the fledglings are experiencing a transition, the most dangerous period of their lives.

Last week, a fledgling Blue Jay fell from its nest in a Live Oak tree and landed in our backyard, unable to fly, and easy lunch for hawks, raccoons, snakes, or crows. So, I brought the little Jay inside, cleaned it up a bit, took a picture of it, and took steps to help this cute fledgling survive the transition.

Transitions.png

“Due to God’s goodness, we are not uncertain or anxious. We are confident in this time of transition for the same reason that readers of the transition in Acts 1 could be confident.”

A new marriage, a new position in a company, a new baby, a new house or school, death of a spouse, a child going to kindergarten, the kids leaving home for college or military service — these all involve the normal feelings of uncertainty and fear that accompany transition.

We Are in a Transition

We are in a transition. We have been led by Jesus’ Spirit to begin a new congregation. It certainly wasn’t our idea. A year ago, the concept was unthinkable. We had no such plans, desires, or dreams.

But as events unfolded, the prompting from the Spirit about starting a new congregation emerged slowly but clearly. The concept grew and was confirmed in multiple ways by Jesus’ abundant provision.

Transitions Can be Messy

Transitions can be messy, marked by uncertainty and anxiety, especially when there are no designated leaders. But due to God’s goodness, we are not uncertain or anxious. We are confident in this time of transition for the same reason that readers of the transition in Acts 1 could be confident.

Let me explain.

Jesus’ redemptive program was in transition. He was preparing to depart and ascend up to a royal throne in Paradise as the Davidic King (at His ascension; Acts 1:1-11). But His hand-picked apostles could not accompany Him on the upward journey. They would stay behind and carry out the task of proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24: 45-49) on the basis of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

To establish confidence in us (as readers) about that transition period, Luke provides us with evidence, which all focuses on what Jesus did for His apostles, His designated successors, during the transition period.

Evidence for Certainty

For His fledgling church, Jesus hand-picked men who had His full support and showed leadership credibility. He intentionally presented Himself alive to these men, the men He had chosen (Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:2). Over a period of 40 days, Jesus provided them with many convincing proofs that He—the same Jesus who had discipled them for three years—was indeed alive after His death on the cross (Acts 1:2-3). It was Jesus who gave them orders[1] through the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:2). He shared a meal with them,[2] something a ghost could not do (Acts 1:6).

So, why does Luke record the efforts on Jesus’ part to persuade them that He was alive?

Well, any doubts or uncertainty on the part of Jesus’ apostles (quite expected for folks who’d never witnessed a resurrection) that He was alive—and not just a ghost or apparition—would be replaced with certainty and confidence.

Jesus knew that His apostles needed to be absolutely persuaded that He had indeed risen from the dead. Their task as His witnesses and the message of forgiveness of sins depended entirely on their being persuaded.

Without certainty for the claim of His resurrection, they would hesitate, perhaps even refuse, when facing threats and danger to boldly proclaim the message of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins. And without the message of forgiveness of sins, there was no Christianity.

If these men had not been convinced beyond a doubt that Jesus was alive, Christianity would have collapsed and died in the transition of leadership. This explains Jesus’ multiple, intentional efforts to persuade His hand-picked apostles that He was alive after His passion. Jesus’ efforts described in Acts 1:1-3 establish certainty in our hearts about His full support of His designated successors during transition.

The Credibility of Successors

These men didn’t sign up for the job—they didn’t volunteer. They also didn’t win an election or a popularity contest. The apostles did not choose themselves and the choice was not left up to the fledgling church.

It was Jesus Himself who wanted them. Jesus chose them for the task and deliberately went out of His way to present Himself alive to them. They were convinced.

So, Acts 1:1-5 is all about persuasion, providing proof to us of the credibility of the men Jesus chose as His successors.

Jesus’ church may have been in a transitional, fledgling stage of its life, but we can be certain that His designated successors weren’t fledglings. Jesus knew they could fly and could teach others to fly as well.

The risen Jesus supplied the fledgling church His choice of leaders, personally trained, hand-picked apostles who would carry on the task during the time of transition. This story of the passing of the baton establishes certainty in our hearts about the leadership of Jesus’ church after His ascension.

According to Luke, the credibility of leadership is foundational to the vitality and longevity of Jesus’ church.

We are Confident

We, too, despite being a fledgling congregation, are confident during our time of transition. Jesus has supplied us with credible leaders who have experienced the risen Christ in their lives, have been discipled and trained, who actually know the Scriptures, and can teach them accurately. They have endured trial by fire, persevered through it with grace and humility. They have credibility. They’re the kind of leaders that a fledgling church requires.

Leaders, established by Jesus with the foundation of credibility, build confidence in the hearts of men and women of a fledgling church. That is why we are confident in our time of transition.

And, by the way, I relocated that fledgling Blue Jay to a high but covered perch where its feathered parents could feed it and guide it to the stage of adulthood. The fledgling survived the transition period. Today, it’s a member of the noisy flock of Blue Jays in our neighborhood.

Thank you for reading.

Tim Cole

NOTES:

[1] Probably referring to His order to remain in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit. Saul of Tarsus is also told to wait for further instructions (Acts 9:6).

[2] The Greek word is συναλιζόμενος, literally, “sharing salt.” This is undoubtedly a figure of speech (a metonymy) for sharing a meal together.