[September 9-13, 2010] Before I say what I thought about when I was in the woods, let me explain—albeit in garbled fashion—some presuppositions, that is, things I have previously concluded. One has to do with the nature of time in relation to eternity.
Time is something like an illusion. Eternity is what is real. It includes time; but for eternity, all “time” is simultaneous. From the perspective of eternity, time—all time—simply is. It does not take place in a linear direction, one moment after another, the way we experience it.
However, from the point of view of time, eternity exists in three ways. (1) Eternity is before time and from it time comes to be. This is the singularity at the beginning of the universe that scientists tell us about, what was there before the “Big Bang.” That singularity includes everything that is, all the universes that exist or can exist (the “multiverse”). Time does not exist—as such—in that singularity. (2) There is also a singularity at the end of time, when all matter and energy will collapse in on itself in the final “Big Crunch.” In that singularity there also is also no time. In other words, eternity comes after time and to it all time returns. Actually, the singularity at the beginning and the end of time are the same singularity, there is no difference (in Greek: they are homo, not homoi). (3) There is a third singularity, that which exists alongside of time which is not different than the singularity at the beginning and end, for time does not exist between two different singularities. Time exists in eternity and is, in a way, the “unfolding” of eternity, the illusion of eternity as if it could be unfolded and laid out in a line. We might say that as time “leaves” eternity, it is the unfolding of eternity (thus it never really “leaves” and yet it seems to depart) and as it “returns” to it, it is the enfolding of eternity (it draws near to what it has never left). Time necessarily takes place from beginning to end, but only because it is time. But the whole of time expresses eternity and at every moment of time, eternity is there “causing” it to be; or at least eternity is there as time’s real “essence,” its “mystery.” Eternity is in time’s present moment; not our experience of the past or future. But time—as time—is the illusion that it is not eternity. The experience of time by consciousness (for what other time is there?) is the “forgetting” of eternity. Time, as such—that is, the experience of it—is not eternity, and eternity, while containing time, is not delimited by time.
We speak of time and eternity using spatial metaphors, but metaphors they are, and imprecise at that. Tipler’s model shows the time of the multiverse as a ball stretching from the singularity at one pole to the singularity of the other with another singularity as the axis stretching from one pole to the other, yet all three singularities are one and the same point, without time. And from a quantum mechanical point of view, there are waves that move “backwards” in time as well as “forward”; our experience of time is only in the forward direction. Our “experience” of eternity can only be in the present moment in which time does not “exist.”)
To speak of this in another way, eternity is God, and time is that into which creation has come to exist. Creation exists in time because the soul has forgotten its origin in eternity. More accurately, the soul has fallen into time and so our (the soul’s) perception of creation is that it too exists in time.
Yet in saying that eternity is God and that creation has fallen into time from eternity (albeit only in the ignorance of the soul), there seems to be some confusion between God and creation.
According to the Christian revelation, the telos and eschaton toward which all things are moving is the divinization (or deification) of creation. This means that, when God became—in time—fully human in Jesus Christ so that the human being, Jesus, was (and continues to be) fully divine, God was participating fully in being human, in human nature or essence. Likewise, in the end, we—as fully human—will participate fully in being divine, in the divine nature or essence. God became what we are so that we can become what God is. Yet we remain fully what we are while becoming (by participation) fully the other. Eternity (at the end of time) is this cohabitation and dance between God and the whole creation in which each fully dwell in and enjoys being the other. Except for the fact that in this dance they are face to face (person-to-person), their mingled essences seem indistinguishable as they are inseparable (the “face” or person is not the same as its essences; both “faces” have two essences, fully, though one essence is by nature and the other by participation).
Are the two—divinity and humanity—truly unmixed and distinguishable even while they participate fully and inseparably in the other? Or does this distinguishability belong only to time?
From the point of view of the end, we might venture—with hesitation—a qualified “no.” If, however, the eternity of the end is the same as the eternity of the beginning, then, from the point of view of the beginning, we must say “yes,” for they fall apart and become distinguishable in time. (In other words, in eternity itself it is neither one nor the other but both yes and no. This might mean that, even though the “faces” are eternal, the distinction between “by nature” and “by participation” lies on the border between time and eternity.) For at the moment when time begins, creation becomes distinguishable, for the perceiving soul forgets what and who it is. The soul becomes blind to eternity and only knows creation in time (as a mental construct). Through the soul’s forgetfulness and ignorance, creation thus falls into time. As this happens, God becomes involved in the illusion of time as though God were an Outsider—for to the soul, God is absolutely Other—and God suffers abandonment and loss. Evil—that which God is not, the nothingness that opposes creation—becomes a force acting on the creation through the “world,” the lie, of the soul, and God suffers this too. But God’s (i.e., eternity’s) involvement in time—eventually through incarnation and revelation—recaptures the soul and eventually time returns to eternity.
Does this mean that fall and redemption are cyclic, that once redeemed we will fall again? No. Even though eternity is one and the same at the beginning and end of time, time is not cyclic. It is the unique unfolding and enfolding of eternity (even if it takes place in a multiverse), which itself is a love story between God and creation. God “loses” creation but only in the sense of time. Creation also comes back to God in time, and all through the duration of time—in the present moment—God (eternity) never really loses the creation to time, for without God, without eternity, creation would cease to be. No, the solution (or resolution) is entire, irrevocable, irreversible and … eternal.
But what is God? That question cannot be answered (though we may venture tentatively that the essence of God is the coinherent and dynamic communion of personhood), but preliminary to the answer is the observation that creation has both an inside and an outside, the outside being the objective world of matter and energy and the inside being subjective “experience” of the outside and of itself. However, in observing the existence of consciousness (of any sort), we notice that there is that which is conscious, an observer or witness. However, this distinction between subject and object is itself a reflection of consciousness. Besides both subject and object, there is awareness, or (can we say?) “conscious-ing.” This is the “I” that cannot be objectified into the subject across from the object. This “I” or “conscious-ing” cannot be experienced, for what can be experienced is already objectified. Moreover, though consciousness is individual, i.e., my consciousness (what “I” am conscious of), “conscious-ing” is not. It is one and the same everywhere and in all things. This “conscious-ing” is neither interior nor exterior but takes in both. There is an interior experience of the body, and there is the body that can be known exteriorly by examination, but neither the interior awareness of the body nor the materiality of the body can be distinguished from “conscious-ing” any more than they can be separated from the other. One is simply the inside (or outside) of the other. It is the universe itself that is conscious, though neither the objective nor subjective universe is identical with the “conscious-ing” nor entirely distinguishable from it. This that I am attempting to describe is Spirit, the presence of the eternal God in creation.
Moreover, this “I am”—that cannot be objectified or even subjectified—is personal. It is the communion between I and You, that which becomes conscious (as reflected) in that communion, the communion of the “I” in me and the “I” in you that touch in a mysteriously aware oneness. (This “I” is not that with which I identify myself, of which I am conscious, but the “conscious-ing” which is aware of consciousness). Here is the face-to-face dance of eternity in time (at the “point” of the present moment).
While entropy describes the unfolding of eternity into space and time, life describes the enfolding of space and time back into eternity. It is life that is aware. Spirit draws forth—as though from the future—creation (in the course of time) into life; and the life that enlivens each thing that lives is spirit.
(A mountain may have an interior experience as such, but it is so slow, taking place on a geologic time-scale, that it is practically not there. On an altogether different note, the earth itself may be conscious, but what that consciousness is (or perhaps the expression of that consciousness) is the consciousness of the life on the thin skin of its surface. We are the consciousness of the planet (or the expression of its consciousness), we and all the sentient life on its surface. Likewise, the sun’s consciousness—or the expression of it—is that of its planets, presumably earth more than the others. Just a speculation.)
The Soul, the World and the Powers
The soul, however, is that identity which consciousness has created. It is the human soul that has fallen into time and, forgetting spirit, has fallen in love with itself, becoming attached to its own constructed identity. Insofar as it has forgotten eternity and spirit, and imagines itself independently, it is false. It “believes” (or presupposes) a lie. It interprets all that it experiences on this basis and therefore sees everything falsely. It is not only alienated from spirit but also from body, imagining the body apart from spirit. The soul and its falsified interior experience of the body thus become what the Bible calls “flesh.”
However, the soul is not its own construction but is created within the collective of souls, and is in fact enslaved to the powers (archons) created by the collective gestalt. Our soul is a social construction, created by the gestalt even as it also creates it. This gestalt is the “world” and seems to have an existence of its own with its own powers (gods), but it is in fact nothing but an illusion shared by the belief and agreement of souls alienated from reality. We perceive “reality” not only through the assumptions of our own soul but through the lens of the world, the deep cultural and anthropological assumptions that we share, interact with, and react to.
The powers of the world, as elemental principles, are none the less real to the soul and keep it imprisoned within the world. These gods, or “archons,” angelic beings though they may be, are our prison-wardens.
Salvation through Gnosis
Salvation comes by knowledge (gnosis) of who we are, where we have come from, from what and to what we have fallen, what it is that imprisons us, and so on. This “knowledge” moreover is not the knowledge of the soul but the immediate and direct present-tense “knowing” of spirit. It is something of which the soul is not capable, nor can the soul give such knowledge to itself. Such knowing can only be revealed from outside the soul, by grace given autonomously (outside of our control). That revelation takes place in an encounter with the eternal, with God, who encounters us personally, in the face-to-face communion of Spirit and spirit.
In the revelation of Jesus Christ we encounter God face-to-face in an Anthrōpos (the New Man who is also the Original Man) and we encounter—we recognize—eternity, in our spirit. In the face of Jesus Christ our own true face is revealed, as if He were a reflection of our own true nature, our original face before our fall, our telos or destination, and our hidden and unknown present. He is the divinization of our human nature. He is the One seen in the transfiguration and the glory of resurrection. This revelation creates “faith” in Him.
For the Christian this gnosis is awakened by the Gospel (which is the eyewitness testimony of those to whom Jesus was revealed). The Gospel, when the Spirit uses it, conveys this gnosis and this awakens recognition (epi-gnosis) and thus faith.
But “faith” is not something of the soul, a blind acceptance of historical facts or dogmatic assertions. It is commitment or fidelity to what has been revealed, to the gnosis that has been given in the revelation (and remains in the spirit). Indeed, faith is not just the gnosis but a believing into the revealed Christ, the God-Man.
That others beside Christians have “seen” the Man of Light, the Anthrōpos, etc., need not be questioned (for example, Zoroastrians, Kabbalists, Shi’ite Sufis). But what is unique about the revelation given in Jesus Christ is the death of God in His human death and resurrection. For in the alienation of our souls we come under “judgment,” the abandonment of the divine whom we have abandoned. By identifying with Jesus as our true “Self”—in whom the eternal identifies with time but does so only under the condition of judgment—He becomes the vehicle whereby we—in Him—bear the judgment and suffer the death of our soul. It is the death of the soul that saves the soul for life. In Him we are not abandoned or alienated from the divine but discover our peace on the other side of judgment. The gnosis that comes by His revelation awakens faith, and when we believe into Him we find that He is the atonement that we need (because He passes through death), and indeed, He—the God-Man—is the fullness of all things. He does not just reveal these things but He reveals these things because everything takes place in Him—as the “Firstborn of all creation”—and are thus contained in Him. He is what He reveals.
Our salvation has only just begun at this point, for we must still come to know the salvation of the soul through its daily death, both in the disciplines and trials of the daily grind and our identification with the death of our true Self, of the One revealed in Jesus.
From the point of view of eternity, creation is already divinized (and the revelation of Christ makes creation transparent in this way), but from the point of view of time, creation is in the process of divinization. That is, time places a veil over the glory of creation. However, the process of “sanctification” makes the soul transparent to spirit—as the soul gives up its attachment to itself—so that the hidden glory of creation can break through and will break in the eschaton.
Historic Gnosticism, the early Christian speculation and heresy, floundered on several points. It did not understand faith, supposing faith to be the blind acceptance of certain textual (or cognitive) propositions concerning particular facts. Consequently they imagined a contrast between gnosis and faith. This misunderstandig was probably intensified by their anger as a result of their being rejected by the churches. Their rejection by the churches was the result of their confusing the “world” (as described above) and the creation, and the soul (especially as “flesh”) with the body. What drew forth harsh condemnation was not their emphasis on gnosis (this was emphasized by Peter and Paul) but by their portrayal of the body and the creation as evil and that in which we are trapped and from which we need to be delivered. Also, while their speculations were often based on a true insight, as it spun out it often seemed to lose the track of that insight and soon was on a purely cognitive rather than a spiritual track, that is, their speculations about the spirit became soulish. What they needed was a practical discipline such as monastic practice and community later provided. These three problems have continued to plague the historic church to the present.
The Dreambody, Reincarnation and Resurrection
Our soul does not only have its body in the “world” but it also shares in another realm, the realm of the dream. This realm is no less real (though in a different way), it seems, and yet it is intimately connected to the other, and to the other souls in our waking life. I wonder if in death, while the soul’s relation to the waking-body ends, its relation to the dream-body continues. Perhaps—but this is highly speculative—this “spark” or karmic “residue” of the soul transmigrates to another waking-body where its former identity is forgotten in due course as the new life develops. It would be as if the dream-body which carries the residue of our lives is like a vine that runs through all our lives. The common sense view is the opposite: that dreams are the fleeting shoots of the vine that is our waking life; but the dream-body actually continues to be active in our consciousness, particularly in our relationships, even when we are awake—so, for example, Jung.
We construct our soul in this life within the matrix of the world, but it may be that we did not begin with the conception and birth of our physical being. Certainly our spirit preceeds us, coming directly from God and animating our body and soul with consciousness. Our soul too perhaps inherits the forgotten dream-body of “another” (or rather, the dream-body works on reconstructing a “soul,” that is, the identity of the new waking life that it has entered). When death comes to the organism, body and soul die, but something survives (sustained by our spirit, no doubt). Is it this dream-body, which we are (also) but that can shift identities like clothes? Again, these are highly speculative thoughts that try to make room for ancient, medieval and eastern investigations into these matters.
As the universe, however, draws to an indeterminable close, our individual identity will be recreated. Our souls that were left “unsolved” in falseness and ignorance will need to be resolved or dissolved. If there is any weight to my speculations, it would be as if each of our lives is a bud along the vine that runs through them all from the beginning to the end of time and each bud needs to blossom and fully express itself. Our former identities as souls will be “recalled” into a body (the same yet different from what we know now), and the salvation of our souls will continue—under the “reign” of God (rather than the archons of the world)—until eventually we return—as creatures—to eternity, as divinized, like Christ in glory. In the end, all creation will be divinized in the eternal face-to-face embrace and dance of God and creation.
The church is the environment in which or from which the revelation of Jesus Christ through the Gospel takes place and in which the salvation of our souls can be nurtured. This is where my “wilderness musings” struggled most, for the “church” is something ambivalent, hardly what it seems to be at face value. In its historical form it is, in fact, a scandal because it contradicts the revelation which it claims to “believe.” In fact, those who wear the label of “Christian” and who speak in the name of Christianity are often more enslaved to the archons of the world than those outside. In the Apocalypse given to John, Babylon (a euphemism for the world as the grownup version of Babel) has a whore whom the radical churches have often identified as civil or cultural Christianity. This makes sense to me. Yet as the churches react against this, they usually become entangled in other unhealthy dynamics, often mirroring what they are trying to avoid. Baptism is an effectual sign that separates the confessing Christian from the world. The life that follows baptism, however, often does not reflect the liberty that baptism signifies and initiates.
One of the subjects of my thoughts consequently became what form is proper for the church if it is to function best for the purpose for which it exists, which is to be an optimal garden for salvation to work itself out, providing structure, freedom, challenge, the proper nourishment of sun, shade and soil, and pest and border control. The local church is something, as a whole, but for this it depends on and also exists for the active development of the Christian. This is correct as well as being a common way of looking at the Christian community (though we differ on what Christian development entails and for what it aims). Nevertheless, it is only the few within the church who do “overcome” and in whom the church actually ever fulfills its function. In view of this, what is the church’s proper form?
My understanding of Christianity was formed by my experience and study of the Scriptures, history and theology. Initially, growing up, I was influenced by the Anglican tradition and, as a teenager and young adult, by Watchman Nee (with the help of Jessie Penn Lewis) and my experience with the Christian-Believers in Flushing, NY. The later was within the broader culture of Asian Evangelicalism. Later, my academic understanding of Christianity, including ten years at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, was much informed by my study of the broader traditions of historic Christianity, and afterwards by my obtaining a more accurate understanding of Judaism, and by my studying psychology, transpersonal psychology and the spirituality of Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism.
All the great traditions have their limitations, including Evangelicalism. The great liberal traditions are for the most part not even Christian in any catholic sense. And it is also obvious that the Catholic, Orthodox and other liturgical traditions which practice infant baptism, though they keep generations of believers, have had impoverished results in terms of the spirituality of the average believer: they are barely converted, if that. What these later traditions lack can be attributed to their marriage to civil authorities and culture, their hierarchical polity, and their sacerdotalism and sacramental theology. But the Evangelical tradition (which tends to be reductionistic to begin with), when it is robust, does not produced sustainable results past the second or third generation. They end up “dumbing down” to the point of error or missing the point entirely. The Evangelicals also have a powerful tendency to be divisive.
Nee started out as an extreme fundamentalist (which American “fundamentalists” are not, since they rarely honor the text of Scripture) and discovered—through others (such as Margaret E. Barber and those to whom she introduced him)—a much deeper way. Then, after much success in forming churches but also after many difficulties that included ostracism, he worked primarily on practical teachings (catechesis) for new believers and a way to pass this on in the churches during the approaching time of state persecution. Was his vision of the church carried on? Variations of it were. Witness Lee had some intellectual insights of his own and was a master of practicality. But he ended up as the sole leader of a movement that was closed off to new ideas and ways of looking at things. The movement gave him the kind of honor that would have made Confucius proud of them. This was (and continues to be) unfortunate, especially since neither Lee nor Nee before him were consistent in their understanding of spirit and needed to further clarify their understanding of spiritual things much further than they did, though they both went miles past the Evangelicals of the West. I continue to learn much from them and from Stephen Kaung, who is in the same tradition, though in a different trajectory from Lee.
I have a high regard for the great mystics of the church. Mystics do not make a church, but the church ought to be the kind of environment where they most naturally develop. To put it another way: the church is all about receiving revelation in the spirit and the salvation of the soul. The question I wrestle with is what kind of environment is best for this? What is its form?
Nee was onto something when, at least in practice, he realized that rank-and-file Christians simply need to learn much more than they have in the past. This involves theology and some intellectual frameworks, but mostly skills (such as private and corporate prayer, having a broad knowledge of the Scriptures and being able to read and interpret the Scriptures canonically and accurately, being able to think theologically). They need to be trained, really, not just taught. And the only sensible place to do that is in the local church, in the course of its normal life. The question then is, what should the normal life of the church be that is able to do this?
Observing the apostolic pattern in the Acts and Epistles and having a keen pedagogical intuition, Nee realized that the church needs to be based in small household groups that meet in a round, not in the traditional form of clergy and people, or platform and audience. Only in this way can every believer be encouraged to take spiritual responsibility for themselves and the community. The traditional Evangelical model of pastor and people essentially cripples the people spiritually, however much the pastor may enjoy his own devotion and control.
The problem, as Karl Barth points out and the Presbyterian Church actively demonstrates day by day, is that if the church is “democratic” and the people remain “lay” people then the church will more and more adopted the attitudes, values, assumptions and mindset of the prevailing society and become increasingly secular. For example, the “great ends of the church” become offering humanitarian aid and seeking social justice along the lines of the progressive agenda (and supporting denominational industries such as pensions and benefits and the publishing houses). The canon of the church’s interpretation of the Scriptures becomes these external referents rather than its internal and self-referential revelation. The clergy are then culled up from these secularized ranks and can offer no corrective. A democratic church is a worldly one; this much is obvious.
What is the alternative? Should authority be imposed from above? A democratic General Assembly imposing its authority from above—the domination of the whole over the parts (the essential principle of presbyterianism)—simply makes the secularization of the congregations take place faster. By the end of the second century the churches had adopted Ignatius’ hierarchical system of bishops, one elder set apart from the others to oversee them, with authority invested in him.
But it is evident that the apostles did not do this. Nor did the apostles set up pastors to take charge of churches, ever. They set up a group of elders in the local church without the Scriptures ever speaking of formal authority being given to them or their being told to exercise it. Together the elders led, they did not rule; nor was their role public except in the exercise of particular charisma (especially teaching), which they exercised not as elders but on the same terms as all others in the church; as elders they shepherded “behind the scenes.”
Nee was right to postulate that the apostolate (the “work”) and the churches were two “administratively” independent spheres. The apostolate and the Gospel manuscripts themselves exercised an innate and informal spiritual authority over the churches, but this was never imposed or forced on the churches. The people needed to recognize the authority of the Holy Spirit themselves. The apostles could implore but they could not command except when this was invited. Locally, the apostles were not there. They exercised their spiritual authority—when it was recognized—by what they left behind, the Gospel manuscripts, their letters and the memory of their teachings. In other words, the churches and the work were separate, one local and one intra- or trans-local. The apostolate had an innate spiritual authority—that depended on its spirituality!—without any means to enforce it except the churches’ own ability (and willingness) to spiritually discern and recognize it.
What also exercised an indirect and providential authority was the existence of the synagogue (inclusive of its past history) alongside the church, reminding the church always of its—Israel’s—continuing election and therefore the authority of its sacred writings. The synagogue was a reminder that the church too (the Gospel of Jesus Christ) was defined in terms of God’s revelation to Israel.
So the main corrective to hierarchical domination is the spirituality of the people themselves. They cannot simply be “lay” people. Christians ought to be much more than that. It is their spirituality that enables them to recognize the authority of the Tradition (the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament and the Canon of Faith which governs the right interpretation of the Scriptures), which recognition also depends on their being continually and thoroughly trained in the Tradition and their understanding of it. The Tradition has its own authority, but only when it is understood, that is, when the revelation in it is perceived and recognized. Its authority, like all spiritual authority, is either recognized or it is not. It cannot be imposed. It is hard to imagine how this kind of structure could succeed; but the “success” of the alternative is even more questionable.
Historically, though, the great episcopal traditions (Eastern, Orthodox and Catholic) have succeeded—except in the path of Islamic aggression—in preserving the Tradition of the church (the Scriptures and the Rule of Faith). Protestant churches (including the episcopal traditions), on the other hand, tend to move with each generation increasingly towards some form of morality-based deism or folk religion, revelation being completely lost to them. When democratic religion is socially popular, it becomes indistinguishable from a civil religion based on morality (whether individual or social) or superstition, because spirituality escapes it. That ought to be a severe warning. Spiritual authority and democracy are incompatible (the issue of the council in Acts 15 was not decided democratically), and the basic principle of presbyterianism is democratic hierarchy. The post-apostolic churches were led by councils of bishops, who were not democratically elected by lay people; and bishops—appointed by their peers—were more likely to be spiritually qualified than popularly elected leaders. They and their presbyters were intimately connected to the people and listened to them, but they were not elected by them. Still, the great sacerdotal systems err in substituting the sacraments for revelation (by the work of the Holy Spirit in the individual) and thus rendering the lay people servile, passive and ignorant (though perhaps this later is changing). They also err in their rejection of Israel when, interestingly, the lay people intuitively felt and maintained the connection for centuries. The sacerdotal systems err in many things, though they have preserved—even when they have ignored it— the Tradition of the church until now.
A church, if it could be organized properly and was growing by the practice of household hospitality, would provide optimal conditions for revelation to take place and be an environment in which spirituality would be nurtured and those who could go further in overcoming the world, saving their souls and pursuing the mystical life would not be hindered.
I have not succeeded in replicating the apostolic pattern.
I have designed the liturgy for the Lord’s Day in a way that makes sense of the role of the synagogue, second century descriptions of Christian worship, and catholic and Reformation principles. Instead of the way the Lord’s Table is celebrated among the churches established by Nee and Lee and Kaung (who were taught in this matter by the Plymouth Brethren), I think the celebration of the Supper/Table needs to be preceded by the reading of the Gospel (and comments that point towards Christ and clarify its meaning)—that this is first of all what the “remembering” refers to. The community hears, remembers (through the eyewitnesses), and perhaps recognizes the Lord. This is essentially passive. Then we actively receive Him through praise, and songs of praise, and the sharing of the cup and eating of the loaf. My failure is that I have not trained the congregation to offer their own spontaneous praise, and I think this is essential. I have this followed by an apostolic exhortation (a reading from the apostolikon) and then prayers, but time constraints prevent us from doing justice to these. The reading from the apostolikon ought to be followed by an exhortation based on it, for example. There is some formality to it, but this is not really a problem. The liturgy begins with silence, then a hymn of praise, after that the Sh’ma, then we give attention to the Scripture readings of the synagogue and share responsively in a psalm. Then we read the Gospel, hear some comments on it, and confess our sins (on the basis of the Gospel). After that, we offer ourselves and what we have to the Lord as we begin the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There is catholic and reformed logic to it. The Bible does not oppose formality as such. Jesus and the apostles participated in the formal prayers at home and in the synagogue and Temple, and in the churches the reading of Scripture portions and singing of hymns are already forms. But if formality encourages pretentiousness or passivity, that is a problem. The other problem is that this is still pastor (worker)-led and dependent. (A Psalter, a proper hymnal and a schedule of readings would help.)
I have not succeeded in establishing anything close to a church in the “round” where the people treat each other in mutuality as equals in Christ and actively exercise gifts of the Holy Spirit for the spiritual building up of the whole. It is going to require ongoing training, as Nee and Lee both recognized. Some training would prepare people for when they come together, but there is also need for training in the personal life (say, to learn to study, meditate, and contemplate) for this sustains the other.
We have a Bible-study on Wednesday night but we badly need a prayer meeting in addition to the Lord’s Day gathering (so that the prayers on the Lord’s Day could be more in response to the Word). So far, for various reasons that I am given and can see, but for a real reason that escapes me, no one has the time or interest. Both of these meetings can be done on the basis of mutuality. So could the praise and singing aspect of the Lord’s Table and the “exhortation” on the Lord’s Day. There ought to be more opportunity for prophecy and the exercise of spiritual gifts when the believers are together in a meeting, perhaps when the believers gather a second time on the Lord’s Day. We could actually do this, if we had a will for it.
The problem in the modern church, at least as seen on American soil, is the influence of Christendom. By Christendom I do not mean the wealth of Christian learning throughout history, but rather the influence of popular Christian culture. If you can establish something independent of its influence, that is amazing, but once something is established it is very hard to keep the character of the church from being taken over by this influence. A real church very quickly can become another Protestant church or chapel, its character not much different than any other. My question is what restraints can control this influence?
Benedict succeeded in maintaining his communities for centuries with his Rule. The various attempts of the Wesleyans were not so successful. These were entirely different than Canon Law and the various constitutions that denominations have. Is it possible to keep a community invigorated by some sort of rule, by the setting up of standards and procedures? Monastic rules concern the entire communal life, and perhaps for this reason they and the Hutterite communities can work, and it is a tempting consideration. But a church that is enmeshed in the life of the secular community—as the apostolic communities were—might find that the regulation of its entire life is altogether too difficult. It needs discipline but with far more flexibility. What it needs are a clear-cut Tradition, a spiritual base, and some spiritual “fathers” and “mothers” to lead it. (Or so I was thinking out in the forest.) The structure of the life of the church (on the apostolic principles I have mentioned, and more) and on-going training within the local church of the younger by the older and by visiting workers will put the Tradition in its place and build up the spiritual base.
Another problem I face is the multiplicity of languages in the local community. As it is we have worship in Mayalayam, English, Spanish and Korean (though only the English and Spanish are under our oversight). Some people want us to worship bilingually, everything in two languages (English and Spanish), since we are one church. But that privileges Spanish over all other languages spoken. English is privileged on the basis of it being the language of the land, the common language of public life. And besides, my observation is that doing something bilingually where everything is repeated does nothing to overcome the language barrier, it merely loses people’s attention. The solution is that the immigrant communities would have to be committed enough to the oneness of the church that they would—at least eventually—join in the common-language worship, and the common ministry would reach out to and include them in the meantime. Having a separate ministry for each language group is provisional at best, but still questionable, for the church can only have one ministry. However, in a gathering in the round, if someone speaks in a [foreign] tongue, let there be an interpretation.
[Subject to further additions and editing … ]