This is the third in a series of six articles first published in Oikos in 2007. They are a further simplification of my ‘John Yoder’s Body Politics Simplified’ – this time with a specifically house church audience in mind.
Baptism brings people who were enemies into one body. Eating together as the church shares food, money and time between the members of the body. Practicing our spiritual gifts together builds the body up.
The Holy Spirit has poured out gifts on each member of the church. We miss the importance of this in conventional churches; we give all the jobs to the super-pastor and sit passively in the pews. But the fact that everyone has a gift is radical and powerful. It means the end of the religious specialist in Christian churches. It means a church where everyone contributes, where everyone is part of a body: an interdependent unity.
A role for everyone
Paul often wrote about how everyone was given a gift in the church, a special role to play in encouraging and strengthening the group.
- Ephesians 4:11-13, RSV: Paul writes that God’s ‘gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers… for building up the body of Christ.’
- In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul writes that ‘to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.’
- In Romans 12, Paul talks about the body having many parts with different gifts, and each person is to use their gifts according to the measure they’ve been given. When he writes ‘according to the measure of faith God has assigned’ (12:3), he does not mean that some people have been dealt out a lot of faith or grace and some only a little. ‘Measure’ is not like a ‘measuring cup’, but more like a serving, or a portion.
Today, there are differences between different denominations on the pattern of roles in the church, but there is a basic dominant assumption that in each church, just one or two or three people have the special role of ‘minister’. Only especially qualified person can do the special thing that makes the church what it is supposed to be. For everyone else, their ‘special role’ is taking up the offering, or welcoming people at the door, or pouring out cups of tea. These things need doing, but Paul’s vision is much more radical!
In a conventional large church, it’s difficult to get past this divide between the minister who has all the prominent roles and the laity who don’t. In a house church, we can share things around much better. Here’s just a few of the possible gifts:
- A couple of people will have a gift of teaching, and be able to take turns explaining the Bible to the group. They shouldn’t be the only people to have an opinion on the Bible; it’s just that they will be able to help out with some theological knowledge and should be able to explain things in a way everyone understands.
- Several people – sometimes shy and quiet people – will have the gift of prophecy, and be able to speak God’s Word to the group. They might clearly sense that it is time to stop a discussion and pray. They might feel that the teaching from someone else in the congregation has a particular application to the group.
- Everyone should strive for the gifts of hospitality and encouragement – ringing up other people in the group, visiting them, having them over for dinner. It’s these gifts that make people in the church feel loved and appreciated.
- People with the gift of music might be able to get the whole group singing and dancing in praise to God.
- People with a gift of wisdom will know just what to say when things are getting heated in a discussion. Their quiet word might just restore peace.
No more religious specialists
Paul’s message that everyone has an essential role to play goes against our instincts and against our traditions. Religions from all cultures and societies tend to put access to God in the hands of one special priest or shaman or minister. This role is a profession for a specialist. There is usually a special ceremony that only the priest can perform.
The specialisation of religion is a sign of the fallen nature of the world. But God has been at work throughout history reversing this fallenness.
Already in Ancient Israel, God was acting to de-centralise the priestly specialist. Abraham was not a priest; he took his sacrifice to Melchizidek. Moses was not a priest; he let his brother, Aaron, and then the Levites do those rituals. In Numbers 11, at God’s instruction, Moses calls seventy men to share the Holy Spirit’s empowerment with him. When these men become ecstatic, Joshua asks Moses to stop them. Moses replies, ‘I wish that the Lord would give his spirit to all his people and make all of them shout like prophets!’ (11:29 – Good News Bible).
When the Jews were sent into exile and no longer had a temple, Judaism survived by replacing priests with rabbis. Synagogues were formed of any ten households, with no religious specialist needed in their midst at all. (In modern Judaism, ‘rabbi’ is an ordained position. It wasn’t so in the time of the New Testament; it was simply a title of respect for a learned layperson.)
By the time of Jesus, the temple and its priesthood had been restored. Jesus relativised it again. He formed a movement out of fishermen, zealots, publicans and women and sent seventy of them (the same number as Moses) out across the countryside. This set the stage for the churches Paul was writing to, where everyone had a special gift and role. Since Pentecost, when the Spirit fell on all God’s people, priests have been out of work – they no longer have special access to God.
Sometimes the early Christians said they were all priests; sometimes they said that the priesthood was done away with. The meaning is actually the same. All members of the body are Spirit-empowered. There is no longer a monopoly on access to God. Yet in the centuries since then, it’s one of the parts of the Gospel message which has been least understood and least practiced.
Sometimes renewal movements have begun to recover Paul’s vision by giving power and roles to everyone. However, it rarely lasts long and it is rarely thought through as part of the renewal project. The Quakers, the Plymouth Brethren and the Salvation Army have come closer than most Protestants to breaking the priestly monopoly and recognising varied gifts. Yet they did not set out to put in place what Paul wrote about. Instead, as they were being led by the Spirit they found God empowering non-clergy, including women, and they honoured these gifts.
Many house churches are formed with the deliberate intention of starting a church where everyone can participate. Even when this isn’t a conscious intention, house churches lend themselves to everybody participating because they are small and they don’t usually pay a minister. Recovering the idea that everyone has a role in the church might be a reformation which, through house churches, finally sweeps the globe.
- Make sure you’re not just looking to one leader in your house church to have all the gifts.
- Expect the shyest, oldest, youngest people in your group to have important things to contribute to the meeting.
- In a house church I was a part of, we spent a night discerning each other’s spiritual gifts. After a discussion about what types of spiritual gifts there were and how to use them, we each wrote down (anonymously) on separate pieces of paper the gifts we thought the others in the group had. We collated a pile for each person and shared the results to see the patterns form. Each person was then given their pieces of paper to keep, an affirming and encouraging thing to have.
If you are a leader in your house church, try to spread leadership roles around. Don’t do all the talking in the meeting!